Zarak Khan this week announced he would be standing down as executive chairman of automotive dealer DT Dobie in March next year after nearly 40 years of service.
For a man known as a firm spiritual believer and go-getter, his next move will definitely be on the radar of the business community and car enthusiasts affiliated to the prestigious motor vehicle dealership. The company is the authorised dealer of Mercedes Benz cars and trucks, Volkswagen, Hyundai and GMW pick-ups.
People who know Khan well paint a picture of a humble yet straight-talking executive who does not shy from speaking his mind even if it hurts you.
In the day-to-day activities at DT Dobie, he has developed a style of jovial banters with staff but gets quite firm with senior managers during planning and strategy meetings.
Insiders say this approach has helped to entrench DT Dobie as a respected brand in the corporate scene, with managers always striving to meet their goals to avoid tough questions from the boss.
But he has a soft side. He dedicates time for important family meetings and vacations.
“One needs to plan, especially when you have young children. I personally have set a target of being with each of my kids for five to 10 minutes every day, with three weeks of holiday with the family,” he says.
Mr Khan is credited with growing the car dealer’s presence in Kenya’s automobile industry, as well as steering the firm’s shift to heavy commercial vehicles.
His life at DT Dobie has been an interesting one—rising from a cleaner- cum- tea boy, then mechanic to the C-Suite.
Although his extended family had interest in motor-vehicle repairs, all was not smooth for Mr Khan who was born and brought up in a poor neighbourhood in the coastal town of Mombasa.
“When my father passed away when I was 11 years, my uncles paid my school fee through their small businesses,” he says.
After sitting his A-levels examination in 1978, he got Sh7,500 from his mother— a housewife— bought a small car, sold it at a small profit then bought a plane ticket to the United Kingdom (UK) where he studied automobile engineering at the College of the North West London. He came back and got a job at DT Dobie.
“Upon my return to Kenya in the 1980s, I first began as the company’s cleaner, moved on to mechanic, supervisor, assistant field service manager, sales director, managing director and then to my current position of executive chairman,” Mr Khan says while swinging around in his chair.
He attributes DT Dobie’s success to remaining focused on customer demands and preferences.
“We have been able to achieve through the assembly of reliable vans, pickups, small SUVs and trucks, which allow people to move around the country,” he says.
But he now feels time has come to leave DT Dobie.
“After close to four decades with the company, I believe it is time to focus on other adventures,” Mr Khan said in an exclusive interview with Business Daily.
“I have steered the company’s growth and takeovers and I believe I have transformed it into a household name in Kenya,” he added.
In 2012, Mr Khan grappled with the fallout from the takeover of DT Dobie’s parent company, CFAO Group, by Japanese conglomerate Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC). The deal spooked carmakers whose brands were sold by DT Dobie and who saw TTC as a competitor. The latter, which owns Toyota Kenya, is also an affiliate of Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC).
Toyota Tsusho acquired a 97.81 per cent stake in CFAO for Sh243.7 billion and later bought the remaining shares for Sh5.4 billion, squeezing out minority shareholders in the trading company.
As part of the global deal, TTC also took control of DT Dobie and CICA Motors in Kenya, along with CFAO subsidiaries in other markets.
Carmakers Renault and Nissan subsequently terminated their exclusive franchise agreements with DT Dobie on fears that Toyota would give priority to the sale and marketing of TMC’s vehicles over theirs.
Mr Khan later described the Nissan franchise loss, which DT Dobie held for 50 years, as his lowest moment.
“It was our second baby as a dealership and a brand that we had walked with and was performing exceptionally well. It was part of our DNA…Its exit wiped out 50 percent of our business,” he said in a past interview with The East African.
Apart from losing the Renault and Nissan deals, owners of the Jeep car franchise are looking for a new dealer to sell the vehicles in Kenya after disagreeing with its long-time partner DT Dobie over strategy.
Italian-American multinational Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) had approached DT Dobie to also start selling its other brands, including Fiat trucks and vans.
DT Dobie declined the offer, arguing that Fiat vehicles are not popular in the local market. The dealer was also afraid that taking on Fiat vehicles would have cost it the Volkswagen franchise which it had just acquired from rival, CMC Holdings.