Ms Irene Wanjiku is an entrepreneur who is out there to hopefully change the lives of people and impact them differently. She is the managing director at Rexe Roofing Products, a construction company that provides quality roofing and waterproofing materials. This is a lifetime commitment that she makes to people as she believes that the roof is the most important aspect of a home. Ms. Wanjiku is a person who likes to make commitments and stick by them irrespective of the challenges. She is also a determined person who believes nothing in life comes easy, you have to work hard! We recently caught up with Ms. Wanjiku at her office at Menelik Court in Kilimani, and we had a chat with her regarding her entrepreneur journey and how she has grown Rexe to what it is today.
How did you get started as an entrepreneur?
After the small jobs that everyone does after school, I joined a construction company, where I rose through the ranks from a receptionist to the assistant to the country director. During my stay, I could encounter many clients who kept on asking on different/unique products. People wanted newness as they didn’t like what was already in the market. This gave me the drive and I saw a gap in the industry, not only in Kenya, but in East Africa at large.
In 2011, I quit my job and went out of my way to do some research to find out what else was different. I’m a strong believer of look in the mirror, and the person you see can bring the required change.
How it started
I was walking around at an exhibition at the KICC, where I met a Canadian manufacturer called IKO. They were looking to set up distribution partnerships for roofing Shingles products in Africa.
I showed my interest in the partnership, but they could not believe in my potential, as they wanted a big player in the industry. The only thing they gave me was a brochure. At this time, I had not registered the business; it was only on my mind.
In November 2011, I registered the business and started sending proposals to architects, contractors and quantity surveys explaining to them about the roofing Shingles, as this was the product I wanted to deal with. I even remember being blocked for spamming.
My major breakthrough was in January 2012 when one of the architects responded to my email requesting for the samples of the roofing Shingles. They were constructing 100 housing units at the Mt. Kenya Wild Life Estate.
I wrote to IKO regarding the project. Interestingly, they hadn’t gotten the distributor they were looking for. The samples were delivered within two days, and I took them to the architect and were approved.
Prior to this, I gave them the terms of the contract as I wanted to be the sole partner in East and Central Africa. I wanted a win-win situation.
However, being a months old company at the time, we faced a lot of challenges, especially from the big players who were also interested in the project. We were branded as swindles, incompetent, unreliable and many defaming names by some of our competitors.
Additionally, the fact that I didn’t have any technical know how was used against me, which instigated a lot of fear.
At this time, I had already received Sh 900,000 deposit from the architect, which I used to order the products.
I contacted our partners in Europe and requested them to come to Kenya and speak directly to the consultants of the project. It helped in boosting the client’s confidence.
The partnership with IKO has played a major role in the growth of Rexe Roofing. The Canadian company is a family owned business that has been in existence for many decades. I recall going there for training and I saw how things are done, how the company is run, and how they treat their staff. It gave me motivation that it is possible to build a brand that outlives you. We borrow a lot from them as our partners. Today, I’ve built Rexe to a family business, since have brought some of my older relatives to run the business.
The most satisfying part of the business is the people – our clients. I get a lot of business referrals from clients we have previously worked with.
Secondly is our staff. We usually hold staff meetings every two months. I believe I’ve been able to empower my staff financially, something that motivates me to keep going.
Thirdly is being called to speak to other young entrepreneurs. Despite the challenges of running a business, there are people out there who recognize there is something I can give back.
Despite being at the helm of the company, I’ve realized I don’t know everything and have made it my duty to develop my leadership skills. For instance, I went through the 10,000 women programme at the United States International University-Africa – fully funded programme. The programme attracted 200 people, and I was among the 43 who were selected.
I’m also a member at Keroche Foundation Mentorship.
There is no doubt that my entrepreneurship journey has been characterized by both interesting and strange moments. I remember one time being asked to tell my boss to attend a meeting!
There is also the issue of competitors undercutting on installation costs, which I think is lack of integrity.
In addition is the problem of copycatting, but this is an indication we are doing an excellent job.
Having started the business with no capital, but solely relying on savings and customer deposits is a major achievement. Today, Rexe Roofing has grown in leaps and bounds to become one of the leading players in the construction industry.
Basics values such as honesty, discipline, networking, starting small, putting structures in place and separating yourself from the business, have played a major role in the growth of the company.
My advice to other women looking to start up – Believe in yourself and your abilities. Identify a need that is therefore for a product or service in the market. Don’t depend on handouts to get something done.Look for a mentor, read about them, their life journey, challenges faced etc.