Business Profiles

Simba Corp – Growth Evolved

Stretching back nearly seven decades, the story of Simba Corp is a truly fascinating tale of success which predates even the modern Kenyan nation as we know it. After beginning life as a modest used car dealership, setup by Abdulkarim Popat, the company’s founder in 1948, Simba Corp, like Kenya itself, has since embarked upon a journey, during which it has grown beyond all recognition into the regional giant it is today.

A conglomerate with more than 1,200 staff and interests across a range of industries, Simba Corp is universally recognised as one of East Africa’s most influential home-grown companies. Certainly, in terms of its trans-national footprint, reach, and outlook, Simba is all but unrecognisable to its former self. And yet, in spite of the company’s transformation over the span of many years, the family business essence remains. Simba Corp hasn’t forgotten its humble roots – the company is a proudly Kenyan one, and remains as committed to Kenya, and investing in its communities and people as it is to achieving continued commercial success.

Adil Popat, CEO of Simba Corp, explained: “Simba Corporation Ltd is a leading regional corporation with diversified interests in automotive and power generation, services and solutions, as well as real estate and hospitality. The company is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya and has grown to a large integrated multi-sector business group representing international brands and franchises such as Mitsubishi, FUSO, BMW, Mahindra, Renault, AVIS, SAME Tractors, and AKSA Generators.”

Simba’s automotive roots have grown deep over the years, to the extent that its vehicle distribution division, Simba Colt Motor Division is the country’s go-to name for leading international brands who are looking to introduce their latest models to discerning consumers. Certainly, Simba Colt Motors is, and has long been the company’s flagship business division. Over the course of 45-years, Simba’s motor division has grown to become the sole representative in Kenya for the distribution and service of passenger and commercial vehicles to individual, corporate, and government clients.

Among this group of key international partners are Mitsubishi Motors, one of Japan’s leading automotive manufacturers, and a multiple world rally and endurance race champion. Simba has represented Mitsubishi in the Kenyan market since 1968.

German-owned and Japan-based, Fuso – one of the world’s largest truck and bus manufacturers, is another. Since it acquired the franchise to sell a full range of Fuso trucks in 2001 Simba has distributed these vehicles to those who seek fuel economy, exceptional reliability, durability, and low running costs.

Then there’s Bavaria Auto Ltd, a BMW importer for Kenya and Uganda which provides full sales, service, and parts for BMW cars and Motorrad (Motorcycle), acquired by Simba in mid-2008.

Xylon Motors, a fully owned subsidiary of Simba Corp, is the Mahindra franchise holder for a wide range of Mahindra pick-up models and sports utility vehicles (SUVs). Xylon also has a countrywide presence through our showrooms and dealer network and offers custom applications for the utility vehicle segment with various body designs, such as the bread body, tea body, fire truck, and ambulance.

Simba Caetano Formula Ltd, a JV with Caetano Formula East Africa (EA), is the Renault importer for Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, will supply a range of cars beginning with the Duster, Fluence, and Koleos.

Panda Auto Ltd is the exclusive Zhejiang Geely Holding Group importer for Kenya, providing full sales, service, and genuine parts. Acquired in 2014, Panda Auto will supply a range of saloon cars, beginning with the LC Cross and EMGRAND EC7 models.

However, whilst its reputation as a leading distributor of marquee motoring brands is the line of business with which the Simba brand is still synonymous, the company’s entry into the lucrative hospitality market could one day prove to be no less fruitful. In the view of Simba Corp’s executive leadership, hospitality is the future, and its multi-million dollar investments in this industry will be the instrument through which it intends to realise its ambitions of taking Simba Corp to the next level, and expanding beyond the borders of East Africa to become a truly pan-African brand.

The cold, hard numbers speak for themselves. A report compiled by the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) revealed how the 56 million tourists who travelled to the African continent in 2014 contributed a total of US$36 billion to the coffers of the country’s they visited – a considerable sum indeed, and yet a sum which in the grand of scheme of things represents but a fraction of the potential revenue a mature, well-developed tourism sector could, and no doubt will, command in time.

Already, tourism is one of Kenya’s leading drivers for economic growth, and unquestionably the country’s chief foreign exchange earner, followed only by the export of agricultural exports such as flowers, tea, and coffee. It’s truly magnificent landscapes and diverse topography, made up of lush forest, snow-tipped mountains, and idyllic beaches the equal of more high-profile tourism hotspots. And then there’s its renowned savannah plains and grasslands for which the country is world-famous – a land that teems with an extraordinary array of wildlife, including the big-five game animals, the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhino. Quite the draw for safari-seeking tourists and adventurers, if ever there was one.

Kenya’s as-of-yet unrealised tourism potential is great indeed, and that’s without taking into account the country’s growing reputation as the region’s de facto capital status, with regards to the hosting of world-level business conferences and political summits in the region.

The rewards for the companies capable of successfully capitalising on Kenya’s hospitality sector boom are potentially huge indeed, as Simba Corp knows all too well.

“We believe the African hospitality sector is ripe for growth and we look forward to delivering the Acacia chain of hotels to the market to capitalise on growing tourist numbers and increased regional/intra-Africa travel. We believe there is a strong demand for hotel accommodation and conference facilities amongst travelers and local businessmen.

Simba Hospitality was founded five years ago, and currently has a portfolio of three properties. The hospitality division was established to drive the group’s diversification strategy and has quickly grown to be a key revenue contributor and foreign exchange earner for the group. In addition, both the Villa Rosa Kempinski and Olare Mara Kempinski hotels have been recognized as outstanding properties in both local and international hospitality publications.

In 2015, Simba opened up Acacia Premier Hotel in Kisumu which was our first self-managed property under our flagship Acacia brand. Our goal is to grow the Acacia brand throughout the region through our in-house two and three star brands Acacia Express and Acacia Premier respectively.”

Of course, that isn’t to say Simba Corp will have things all its own way. The hospitality sector, being the fast growing, lucrative industry that it is in Kenya, is attracting the attention of many of the world’s leading international hotel brands across the luxury and mid-tier markets, all of whom are of a mind to enter the East African market. In an already competitive market place, the inevitable entrance of further brands into the sector means that the battle for market share will become fiercer still over the years to come, particularly for new entrants like Acacia who are entering the market as the new kids on the block.

Entering into a partnership with a global brand of the caliber of Kempinski was a smart bit of business on the part of Simba, as there is little room for error in such a competitive and unforgiving market. To ensure that its multi-million dollar investments in building up its Simba Hospitality arm is money well spent, Acacia will have to hit the ground running.

“There is an immense amount of competition for already established brands, especially home-grown brands. Therefore, home-grown brands, such as our Acacia Brand, need to remain competitive by keeping up with industry standards, offering world-class service and quality facilities.”

And that’s without mentioning other obstacles which are outside of Simba Corps control, including the risk of political instability and the threats posed by international terrorism, both of which can cause havoc, and have already wrought great damage to visitor numbers in recent years. Corruption is another threat to business, particularly at a time when such huge flows of investment, in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, are pouring into the country.

These are forces which are beyond Simba’s influence, but such problems are all part and parcel of doing business. The key is to focus on what you can affect, namely to provide a world-class service and a positive customer experience, which in turn will create a reputation for excellence over time. The key to achieving this is to have a motivated and well-trained workforce that recognises how their individual actions contribute to the greater success of the business. Creating such a corporate culture, and an inspired, passionate staff base which is genuinely invested in this way, requires effective leadership, and the provision of training and generous employee benefits – this is not lost on Simba Corp.

“Simba Corporation is home to about 1200 staff across the group. Our approach to training and benefits is as an investment approach, made by both the company and the employee, with mutual benefits.

We employ a targeted and strategic method of identifying training needs which takes into consideration both performance and competency gaps as well as succession plans. We train not only for current jobs but also for future jobs, where an employee is identified for the same. We are very keen on developing/promoting our internal talent and our training plans also take this into consideration. Internal recruitment is always given preference and only when a clear skill gap exists, do we seek talent externally. Our benefits are structured in a manner that supports brand loyalty, seeing employees as our topmost brand ambassadors.”

Simba Corp’s form for nurturing its staff and facilitating their growth and development is borne of a wider commitment to the communities in which it does business.

The ongoing work of its corporate social investment arm, the Simba Foundation, might best be considered the physical embodiment of this commitment. For all Kenya’s rapid economic growth and development in recent decades, pockets of its people remain excluded from the rise in prosperity and living standards. To counteract such opportunity inequality, the mission of the Simba Foundation is simple: to provide a platform to underprivileged youth by equipping them with technical and business skills, and to build on Simba’s heritage in providing healthcare interventions through partnerships.

As one of Kenya’s foremost home-grown private sector operators, Simba Corp is capable of harnessing its formidable resources and expertise to engage with isolated, impoverished communities, and through structured processes invest in the three key pillars of societal development; Education, Health, and Disaster Management. Marginalised youths from troubled communities are provided with the technical and hospitality skills, including entrepreneurship and ethics skills, to help inspire positive life change and escape from a potential life of destitution or criminality, while the communities themselves benefit from the provision of healthcare services and road safety programs and disaster management support.

The term CSR has become something of a buzzword over the past decade but, as a 100% Kenyan company, Simba Corp is, in-line with the foundation’s tagline, striving to truly ‘put African communities first.’

Over the years to come, Simba Corp will continue to develop its automotive and hospitality divisions, but also seek other ways to support its expansion strategy as it seeks to realise its vision of creating a truly pan-African business. In addition to its commitment to opening new showrooms, service, and parts facilities in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, and its plans to open Acacia hotels in Meru, Nakuru, and Eldoret, the company has plans in place to enter into the food and beverage industry by opening restaurants in Nairobi.

Alyana concluded: “The concept will be very similar to what New York and London are doing in terms of food halls by having several concepts housed under one rooftop. The aim of the Food Space is to provide the Kenyan market with a diverse range of dining options at all times during the day and during all days of the week.

The objective with this concept is to drive the F&B industry in Kenya with a unique and innovative idea. We are working with designers who are based out of Dubai to help us with the concepts and branding.”