Suresh Kanotra is a well-known name in Kenya’s hospitality industry; he is the man who provides the bulk of commercial kitchen equipment to hotels and restaurants in the country and the region.
The 64-year-old has however not always been in this business.
He is a trained mechanical engineer who has gained experience working in different sectors, including at steel rolling mills as well as with firms dealing with electrical cables and crane equipment.
Thirteen years ago, however, he relocated to Kenya from India and started working as a kitchen products engineer, relying on the fact that Kenya’s economy is heavily dependent on the tourism and hospitality industry.
According to Mr Kanotra, despite the industry being such a significant foreign exchange earner for the country, there was a huge gap in the kitchen and energy services sector.
“There were some people importing kitchen and beverage equipment but many were not fitting the customers’ requirements,” Mr Kanotra told Enterprise in an interview.
“I realised there was a market for reselling imported items which I could also service. I started to outsource fabrication works for stainless steel servicing units and kitchen tops.”
The year was 2003 and the business, Sheffield Africa, had five employees working out of a 1,000 square feet space in Nairobi’s Industrial area.
Today, the company has grown to have 150 employees who handle food and beverages equipment contracts across the region, earning the company Sh630 million in revenues last year.
Sheffield, which has a 70,000 square feet factory, now does its own fabrication. It has subsidiaries in Uganda and Rwanda as well as offers sales and maintenance services for equipment sold in Malawi, Zanzibar, Tanzania and Ethiopia.
The company’s list of products is extensive and include stainless kitchens, bar, coffee, deli and service counters which can be spotted at most high end hotels, restaurants and shopping malls across the region.
Sheffield also supplies hospitality equipment to canteens at institutions like universities as well as outdoor mobile kitchen units for catering firms and tourism institutes.
Some of the company’s well-known clients are Java coffee shops, KFC outlets and Nakumatt, among tens others across the region.
Mr Kanotra says the company’s selling point has been to allow customers to dictate the concept they want delivered especially mall owners and restaurant operators who have limited space.
To grow his business, he entered into franchise deals with globally-renowned manufacturers of food, beverage, cheese and refrigeration equipment. This saw him expand his business line to include machines such as ice cream makers, complete with an academy of sorts at the company’s Mombasa Road head office to train buyers.
While it is cheap to import finished products from Europe, Mr Kanotra says some business people may find it costly in the long run since some products may come with hard-to-understand manuals and are therefore tougher to maintain.
“We train our technicians locally and abroad before allowing them to install any machine and service them. This allows us to provide warranties for up to two years for imported products which we resell,” he said.
For big events at local stadiums as well as wedding ceremonies, Sheffield has prepared mobile kitchens that contain electrical, LPG-fired cookers as well as refrigerated equipment to complement the stainless shelves in storing foodstuff.
Sheffield, through franchise deals with international firms, is also selling coffee roasters and grinding machines as well as commercial dishwashers, laundry machines and air conditioners. They have recently also started selling smart solutions, with modern ovens that can cook anything in less than 15 minutes.
Mr Kanotra believes that Kenya’s potential for growth is enormous but says it is currently held back by “unforgiving” traffic across main cities which takes a toll on productivity.
The company, he says, has the capacity to service up to five customers a day but currently handles just one mainly because spare parts supplies rarely get to them on time. “We are however optimistic that infrastructure investment like the upcoming Standard Gauge Railway will help ease such challenges that adversely affects our output,” he said.
In the latest Top 100 mid-sized companies survey, Sheffield was ranked 19th, signalling a consistency in their operations in governance, audit practices as well as revenue growth.
The competition is run by the Business Daily and KPMG and focuses on SMEs that have audited results for the last three years, are not listed and have an annual turnover of between Sh701 million and Sh1 billion. Sheffield has participated in the competition for six consecutive years.
Mr Kanotra does not regret his decision to relocate to Kenya over a decade ago.
“Kenya is the place to be since foreign direct investments continue to attract expatriate while growing wealth has steadily developed a middle class that has now demands new standards of living, shopping, transport and leisure,” he said.