From Tea Boy to C-Suite

DT Dobie executive chairman Zarak Khan at his Nairobi office. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
DT Dobie executive chairman Zarak Khan at his Nairobi office. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Zarak J. Khan’s father died when he was 11 years, so he was schooled by his uncles who were running a small business in Mombasa. After A-levels 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 UK where he studied automobile engineering. He came back, got a job at DT Dobie as a cleaner cum tea-boy, then a mechanic, then supervisor, then assistant field service sales manager and then in 1992 became the sales director and then the managing director in 1997. He is now the chairman of DT Dobie and the rest is history. He met JACKSON BIKO in his office in Industrial Area. He’s fastidious and calm.

Your desk is the most organised I have seen; everything seems arranged with such an intense purpose and your office is so minimalist. Is this is a manifestation of an OCD man? (He’s also in an amazingly snow-white shirt)
OCD? Oh no. I’m an engineer so things have to be placed properly. My business is a combination of art and science and there’s the engineering element which is the products which we have. There’s also some discipline required...And then of course managing people is a combination of art and science.

And your cufflinks are quite eccentric as well, they are shaped like a car.

Yes, a birthday present from my son. He’s 26- years- old now. I have four children.

What would you advise somebody who is just starting out on this fatherhood journey?
First, they will grow faster than you think. You will not notice because you will be working. My advice, as soon as they are born start putting away some money in insurance, even if it’s a small piggy bank.


Financial burdens should not be underestimated. Even though you can’t attend every swimming gala, and every hockey or tennis match make sure you attend the important ones. Love them. Give them quality rather than quantity time. Be more than a father, be a friend.

Talking of money, now that you’re at the top of the food chain, are you enjoying the value of money more than when you were in middle of the rung?

Money to me is just adding another zero. So if have a $100 million and $1 billion, it’s just another zero. Money is very important to a certain level but what is more important is your relationships within the family.

Other than that, there are four healths which need to be in check; spiritual, physical, financial and mental. You need to balance them. There’s no point in having all the money and not having good health, or being a crazy guy, and not knowing what to do with all the money…

When was the last time you were very fearful?

(Chuckles) Very interesting question. When I was in standard two, I used to come top 10 in my class, this one time I didn’t and I was so fearful going home to show my father the report form. So I went to my uncle’s. Later my dad told me not to fear any man, but to respect all men. I’m a great believer and I believe that if you’re spiritually strong there’s nothing to fear.

You look like the kind who is driven everywhere, do you miss the joy of driving and what Mercedes car do you have currently?

I get driven like most people in my level because there is no use sitting in traffic for so long when you can be constructive in traffic with e-mails and calls. I will show you the Mercedes later, you’ll love it. It’s a G-63. The other day I drove my driver around, asked him to sit while I drive. It was fun because it really is a great car.

You have that small black spot on your forehead that shows you are a Muslim. What did you pray for this morning?

I pray five times a day. But prayer is also a very misunderstood concept. We have a standard prayer which means you don’t necessarily ask for something. That’s basically glorifying the Almighty and staying humble. If you’ve seen in Muslim prayers, people go right back and touch the ground while kneeling. You are telling your maker, “I’m nothing.” It’s a humbling and peaceful experience to admit that all glory is his and not yours.

Do you believe that humility in inbred or someone has to intentionally build it? And are there certain positions like yours that test your humility?

Definitely. That’s a brilliant question. I believe when you look at it biblically, or from the Islamic point of view, beliefs are very similar and the existence of Satan is there— the secret whisper. When you are veering off the path of humility you will know and you should make amends, you should say, “this is not what I want to be. This is not what my parents have brought me up for. This are not the values I want to give my children.”

So did you build your humility or it was always there?

You have to build it. And I believe there are five major points which one needs to look at in building one’s character: respect for self and family, and for fellow creatures. Two is humility and modesty. Three is honesty which is not only speaking the truth but also being sincere with people.

Again this is a borderline which when you’re managing people at a senior level, sometimes you have to explain to them, ‘‘Look, I might hurt you, but I can only help you if I’m honest with you, and sincere with you.’’ Then there is integrity which can be destabilised by two things; money and sex. Lastly, there is generosity which does not really mean you throw your money away but support people who need it.

Which of your character traits do you least admire?

(Pause) I have a rage. I have controlled it over the last 10 years better than before. Otherwise, that’s the least I admire.

At 58 years, having risen here from a cleaner to this position, raised children, you must have had a fulfilling life with lessons.

Oh, I have enjoyed the journey. My friends and I were talking and saying if you were to live again and you had every choice, what experience would you have now and how would you learn from it? And I said, “I’d live the same way.” It’s been a roller-coaster, exhilarating experience in life.

One needs to really use the difficult times, scars, hard shocks, fun, glory, as an experience, and put them together, shake it up and say, “wow, what a cocktail.”