Chris Ndala, Kenya country managing director for DT Dobie, wields his power with a smile that is as indecipherable as it is consistent.
For 22 years, the South African has been immersed in the automotive world, managing Nissan and Renault and their franchises in South Africa, Uganda and Cote d'Ivoire.
Before his tour of duty to Kenya, he was the CEO of CICA Motors, Liberia, which operates under the CFAO Group, since 2018.
In March, DT Dobie, also a member of CFAO, tapped into his vast experience to steer the company’s market in Kenya. Has he settled in his new role?
“I’ve known Kenya since 2002. My first student in training and development was Kenyan. He’s our service manager today. I’m happy to be here.”
While Chris is not a conversational flashflood, it is how he leaves things unsaid that is intriguing about his persona.
The 46-year-old’s work has taken him to almost all African countries.
“I’ve lived my dream life,” he says and adds: “The golden rule in international business is to understand the local culture. In West Africa, for instance, socialisation precedes business talk. You must interact with people informally before attempting to sell to them.”
Chris says the Kenyan and Liberian automotive markets feature different realities: one is fairly well established and the other on a recovery path postwar, but “both are anchored on the spirit of Ubuntu.”
He explains: “In the Liberian scenario, the model is such that you market first before you order and stock vehicles. In West Africa, most of the sales are B2B (business to business). Kenya is a more mature market. Here, you stock and then market and sell to both B2B and B2C (business to consumer) clients.”
Chris is scarcely impressed by anything, much less by cars. “I look at a vehicle in terms of mobility. Can it take me from point A to point B? It’s never about how impressive it is.”
Yet the range of personal vehicles sold by DT Dobie is more than merely about mobility. “Some people are fascinated by gadgets and toys.”
Is he? “Yes, I love toys. But mobility is the future of cars. It’s not a luxury to own a car anymore.”
Preference and type of use are the other factors to consider when buying a car, he observes. “Ask yourself: are you getting a good deal? How much will the vehicle cost you in maintenance in, say, five years?’’
The perception is that DT Dobie serves the high-end buyer.
“People fear showrooms. Don’t fear showrooms. We have solutions for everyone,” he says.
So, what type of solutions are Kenyans buying? “Everything. From small Hyundai trucks to prime movers (Mercedes Benz trucks) and passenger vehicles. We’re also selling large volumes of Volkswagen Polo and Tiguan in this market, partly because we assemble them here and because of their affordability.”
There are self-actualised Kenyans buying luxury vehicles such as the GLS-class, GLE-class Mercedes SUVs.
“Once you’re done with paying school fees for your children and rent, you obviously want to make yourself happy,” says the father-of-four.
“By the time a customer walks into your showroom, they’ve visited multiple others. Sometimes they’ll know about the car they want to buy more than you do.”
I am curious to know if there is any vehicle in the company’s repertoire that mirrors his personality. Chris says that mood determines his choice of car.
“If I want to go on safari, there’s a car for that. There’s one to take my son to school too. If I’m lucky to meet the president one day, I’ll drive a different car to State House,” he says.
After more than 70 years in the motor vehicle business, DT Dobie’s is a rich history that began in pre-independent Kenya.
As its new CEO, Chris says he is not looking to be superman.
“In modern business, unlike in the past, it’s never about individual successes. It’s about creating systems that work. When you think individually, you’ll think small and fail. Success is about the team.”
On what he is doing differently from past MDs, Chris says: ‘‘I appreciate the work of my predecessors. There’s no success without succession. When I take up a new role, I always ask three questions. Where are we as a business? Where do want to be? How do we get there? As the coach, I follow through with what we say we’ll do.”
DT Dobie is a market leader in its category, and Chris says he envisions growth.
When I ask him about the type of board animal he is, the MD stares into space momentarily. “I speak my mind. What you see is what you get. Sometimes my view isn’t the most popular one. But I’m a team player.”
A relentless negotiator, Chris says he does not stop until a deal has been sealed. In the luxury automotive business, convincing a potential buyer to make a purchase takes refined persuasiveness. “A No [to buy] today may not be a No tomorrow. I’ll push until you say you don’t want to see in your yard.”
It is difficult to skirt the subject of the automotive market amid the turbulence of Covid-19. But it turns out it has been a good year for business, a trajectory that remains steady to date.
“Essential and emergency services such as ambulances and police needed additional vehicles. Demand for motorbikes used for contact tracing went up. At one point we sold out everything in our stock. It was one of the best years in West Africa,” he says.
In Kenya, though, DT Dobie’s market share decreased, although it has picked up steadily as the economy rebounds.
“This year we’re doing better than last year. In our bus and truck segment, we hope to sell 12,000 units, 2,000 more than we did last year. Kenya has been very resilient throughout the crisis.”
His fear? “To not live for God. Imagining life without Him scares me. You want to be protected by God when you feel alone.”
Chris has felt alone on multiple occasions in the past year, losing people close to him to the pandemic. More than anything, he appreciates life.
“I’m a Christian. I always ask myself: if I die tomorrow, where will I be? This helps me to be a better person.”
A people-builder he says he wants to be remembered for coming with a full bag and leaving empty.
“People are my priority. I want to give my all to them.”