On propelling a family’s legacy


Benjamin Kimani, managing director Muthokinju Paints and Cement company. PHOTO | POOL


  • When Kimani took over in 2011, he initially toyed with the idea of having his imprint on the brand.
  • Of the lessons from his parents, humility and the need for delayed gratification have been his beacon.

The first thing you notice when you walk into the office of Benjamin Kimani, the managing director of Muthokinju Paints & Cement, is his large, neat but virtually empty desk. A nondescript penholder and his two phones are the only visible items.

Soon, you’re consumed by his striking presence of mind and positivity.

Kimani took over the reins of this family business from his parents 10 years ago. He was 24. For the last decade, he has steered Muthokinju through a glorious period marked by intense market penetration, digitisation, and expansion, with 17 branches in Kenya today.

As an only child, he is his parents’ only heir. But also the pivot of the empire as his parents prepare to exit the stage. If Kimani is anxious about the responsibility on his shoulders, he does not betray it.

He does admit, though, that maintaining the reputation that his parents built for more than two decades keeps him awake.

“I took over a business that already had a good name. I give credit to my parents for building goodwill. I’ve been able to amplify their values by playing in a bigger space than they did,” he says, noting that he has taken after his father.

When Kimani took over in 2011, he initially toyed with the idea of having his imprint on the brand. “I’d even considered changing the name Muthokinju for a ‘cooler’ name or an English one.” But “after a conversation with myself,’’ he abandoned the idea. After all, his parents had successfully built the brand using the name.

Of the lessons from his parents, humility and the need for delayed gratification have been his beacon. “You don’t have to get everything at once. It’s important to use your baby steps and to let things come to you at the right time.”

Any business lessons he has had to discover on his own?

“I’m very agile. We’re leaving in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) business world that requires us to have strong values. If you threw me anywhere, I’d find a way to adapt.’’

When I ask him what he remembers most about his childhood, Kimani shifts in his chair and exhales. “We lived on top of our shop,” he says with sentimentality, adding that he went to boarding school early.

“During holidays, I’d spend most of my time at the shop. My dad and I were very close; I went with him wherever he went.”

This experience, he notes, shaped his work ethic and identity. “The core values of this business are an extension of [my personality]. But I learn a lot from the organisation as well and from the people, I work with.”

Kimani has worked for Muthokinju all his professional life, with the only other stint being at a hospital “to complement my school fees and pocket money” as a student at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia.

“My time in Australia, where I studied business finance, allowed me to see possibilities and to believe in my abilities,” he recalls.

The privilege of working parents and a good education —he attended Alliance High School —set him on the path of his future career. Does he imagine that his life would have turned out differently had his parents not been businesspeople?

Kimani hesitates and considers for a few moments. “Yes, but only slightly,” he admits before going on quickly: “I’m very keen on the local and global stock market and how it works. My dream was to become an investment banker.”

This man, whose network spans friends from university, business colleagues and mentors, believes that at 34, he still has the time to pursue a career in stocks.

Successful family businesses

His day starts at 4 am with prayer and reading. By 6 am, he is dropping his children at school. Thereafter he heads to the office where the operations, logistics and finance directors brief him on the company’s performance in the market. As the face of the business, it is his job to engage stakeholders, including suppliers.

The member of Young President’s Organisation (YPO) tells me he is reading ‘The Toyota Way’ by Jeffrey Liker, a book on principles/behaviours that define the Toyota Motor Corporation’s managerial approach and production system. He says he is reading for inspiration as he looks to revamp the company’s strategy.

“My biggest challenge is to ensure that our systems and processes are lean. Most of my meetings these days are about strategy and minimising.”

About his empty desk, Kimani says the company has digitised most of its operations and hopes to go paperless at the turn of the year.

“I get my reports on my phone, which allows me to go through them when I wake up.” Opposite his desk is his wife’s. Sarafina Njatha is the company operations director. She, like him, comes from a business background. I’m curious about what is it like for a couple to work in the same office. He says their conversations, he says, oscillate between business, personal, and family.

“When we’re here, I’m her boss. She has KPIs (key performance indicators) that she must meet and report to me,” he says hysterically.

Though minimally, his parents still retain some control over the company which ‘‘creates good synergy in the way we work.’’ His mother is the marketing director while his father chairs the business. “We live close to each other and see each other almost daily. I always seek their wisdom rather than lead the organisation blindly. They’re very proud of me.”

The subject of the family business in Kenya is one that often elicits misery. Many family empires have collapsed as a consequence of the mismanaged transition from parents to their children, greed, and sibling rivalry. It’s a pitfall Kimani is conscious about and determined to avoid. He tells me the company has already set out measures to safeguard the business –through a family constitution.

“This document will guide how the family engages with the business. We’re intentional in ensuring that we (family members) engage professionally with it,’’ he explains. Moreover, the document spells out how his parents will exit the business and how they will be taken care of upon retirement.

In the absence of a family constitution, most Kenyan family businesses topple over, he argues and notes: ‘‘Successful family businesses in the world such as Disney that has had smooth transitions have a document that guides them, especially in resolving disputes.’’

He and Sarafina have three children, two sons aged seven and five and a daughter, two.

Having been introduced to business at nine by his parents, he desires to have his children join the company early.

“They come over every weekend and spend a few hours here or go to one of our branches. This drives something into their subconscious, and it gives me pride.”

“The family constitution stipulates how they will come on board. We’ve handed the document over to our human resource manager to formalise it,’’ he adds.

“Professionalism is what will save African family businesses.”

Before he retires to bed every night, one thought is constantly buzzing in his head: driving his parents’ and his legacy.

“I want to continue building a brand that is known for providing affordable building materials.” Kimani says he feels duty-bound to facilitate “Kenyans’ dream of owning a home.”

Every weekend, he cycles for up to 70 km with a group of neighbours. He also played squash before Covid-19 struck.

‘‘As I am growing older, I want to be more toned and less muscular,’’ is his response to whether he works out, although ‘‘I lift dumbbells at home .’’

How his children will turn out is his biggest anxiety, he says with a long sigh. “My parents set the benchmark way too high in the way they raised me. I always wonder: am I raising my children the right way? Will they take over the business from me? Am I preparing them for this the right way? Will they be humble and responsible citizens?’”