David Gatende has worked with water and energy solutions company Davis & Shirtliff for the last 31 years, growing through the ranks from a field engineer to Group CEO. He talks about the importance of company culture in retaining staff and value-based leadership.
By KAGENI MUSE
At the reception of Davis & Shirtliff’s Industrial Area office is a conspicuous board with 91 names on it. The first two belong to E.C. Davis and F.R Shirtliff, 1946, the founder members of the water and energy solutions company, followed by other names, each matched with the year each staff member joined the company. The board celebrates employees who have served with the organisation for 25 years.
“Four more are joining the list this year,” says David Gatende, the company’s chief executive, whose name appears at number 86. “Do you know why we do this? Because it’s not common to have employees stay with a company that long and we are proud to have so many who have worked so long for one organisation.”
The CEO says that every year, staff fill in a questionnaire on how many years they expect to work at Davis & Shirtliff (D&S) and many, including the millennials who are said to love job hopping every few years, say they plan to stay with the firm for five to ten years and even more.
“At D&S, we live and work as a family. There is also a great sense of progress and growth,” says Gatende. His career is a testimony to this. Having joined Davis & Shirtliff in 1986 as a field engineer, he grew through the ranks to sales manager, commercial director, managing director, deputy CEO and to his current position at the helm of the organisation that prides itself as the leading supplier of water and energy-related equipment in Eastern and Central Africa.
“I joined the company at 24 years because it was in the segment that I was interested in – water engineering. I never planned to stay this long but I found an organisation that has opportunities. My job has changed over the years, from an engineer to a manager, to overseeing people who do what I once used to do. As a CEO, I know what it means to sell and run a small business,” says Gatende.
Davis & Shirtliff was founded in 1946 by Eddie Davis and Dick Shirtliff, who served in the British army during World War II doing engineering work. “They decided to use their skills for business in peace time,” says Gatende.
The first branch was established in Westlands, Nairobi, followed by Eldoret, Kampala and Dar-es-Salaam. The business has expanded through the years and now boasts of over 50 branches in the region.
“We open six to 10 branches a year. We identify a place with potential, where our products can be used. Because of our branch network, we have more products and more customers than any of our competitors,” says the CEO.
Growth has also been experienced in revenue, staff numbers and remuneration. “We have hired 40 new employees this year and the company’s growth is up nearly 20 per cent from last year,” Gatende says as he reveals that he has just been preparing the 2017 half-year bonuses for all employees.
“We have given employees a bonus twice every year for as long as I have been in this company. We also give pay increases every year,” he adds. It is such management practices that have made the company succeed in staff retention. Other things, he says, are a good working environment and a culture of meritocracy.
“The underlying principle that runs the company is that of merit. You earn your stripes,” says Gatende. “I believe that when people see hard work is rewarded, they really apply themselves heart and soul.”
Belief in company’s mission
Gatende says he has also stayed put because he believes in what the company does – improving people’s lives through providing water and energy solutions. He cites an incident where the firm installed a solar powered borehole pump, together with a Non-Governmental Organisation, at Chepararia Girls Secondary School in West Pokot in the 1990s. The school’s performance improved drastically year after year as the girls could concentrate on studies instead of going to fetch water. “What we do is positive. We genuinely improve people’s lives,” says a beaming Gatende.
Davis & Shirtliff’s business operates in six segments: water pumps, borehole service, swimming pools, solar equipment, generators and water treatment. The latter three are the businesses segments with the greatest potential for growth, the company refers to them as emerging business segments.
“Water pumps represent about a quarter of our business. Boreholes and solar come in second and third respectively. We are unique because no other company has all six segments under one roof which is why there is the misconception that D&S has no competitors. When one segment is down, the other is up. This, like the wide branch network, helps to balance the business,” says the CEO.
Last year, the solar equipment business grew the fastest, Gatende says. The chief executive attributes this to a fall in price of solar modules, a focus on renewable energy sources as well as recent legislation that requires buildings that use more than 100 litres of hot water a day to install solar water heating. New inverter technology has also become cheaper and more sophisticated, making it easier to change direct solar current (DC) to alternate current (AC).
The firm is eyeing irrigation as a key area of focus as it moves to supply of irrigation pumps and sprinklers.
“We are constantly on the lookout for new business opportunities to ensure the business will sustain itself,” Gatende says of what pushes them to new markets and frontiers.
The company has also been able to look at challenges and turn them around for success. As the Chinese adage goes, inside of every problem lies an opportunity.
During the 1992 market liberalisation, many companies that had monopolies in their respective markets struggled. For Davis & Shirtliff, the opportunity lay right there, as the company could now import directly from its suppliers without going through the Central Bank of Kenya to request for foreign exchange.
“D&S started expanding geographically, increased its product range and customer base. Before 1990, the company structure was very flat. But when Alec Davis bought out his partner, he decided to professionalise it,” Gatende says. Alec Davis is now the company chairman and former CEO of the family-owned business.
“I became a sales manager under Alec and he hired, from outside, a Finance manager and an Operations manager. The four of us put in professional management structures that put D&S on a new footing and set it in a new direction,” Gatende says of the firm that today has over 600 highly trained professional staff.
As we sit in the company’s cafeteria, Gatende proudly points out to some of the star employees. “That one has four degrees,” he says. He points to another recent hire and adds, “We have very high hopes of her.” The most recent bi-monthly company newsletter lists nine names of employees who recently received commendations for exceptional performance, above and beyond the call of duty in executing their jobs.
Gatende strikes me as a confident, hands-on yet down-to-earth leader who knows exactly what is happening in his organisation. He takes us round the entire company complex, a maze of corridors, offices, training rooms, warehouses, a garage and workshops where we encounter technicians busy at work assembling Dayliff pumps, the company’s flagship product. The company also sells an extensive range of pumps from leading world manufacturers, with over 400 models available.
“In February alone we sold 16,000 pumps, mainly due to the nation-wide drought,” Gatende says as he greets everyone we meet with a generous smile. He seems to know almost everyone by name.
But how has it been like leading a family business? “We have a healthy working relationship,” he says of D&S chairman and his two sons Edward and Henry Davis, who have been in the firm for the last seven years. “Alec has been very influential in my life. He is a man I respect hugely. We have formed a strong relationship over the many years working together.”
The place of technology
Gatende’s other source of influence, he says, are his close friends as well as books.
“I listen to audio books since I spend a lot of time in traffic. I am currently listening to Philip Yancey`s books. I have read “What`s so Amazing About Grace”, “Where is God When it Hurts?” and “Disappointment with God”. I also love Malcolm Gladwell’s books – “Blink”, “David and Goliath” and “Outliers”. Books challenge your thinking and open your mind,” says the CEO.
The tech-savvy leader is quick to show us some of his favourite apps that include Audio Bible, business card scanning app CamCard, XE currency app, Uber, Google Maps and Audible – the app that gives him access to audio books. “We are very big on tech at D&S and we are working hard on being more active on social media,” Gatende says. The firm, for example, has a system for dispatching technicians to the field and tracking progress on jobs on company-provided tablets without having field staff report to the office.
ERP software has allowed the chief executive to manage a successful branch network because he gets daily updates and reports from the branches.
“Devolution decentralised project funding, and this allowed us access to opportunities in the newly created counties,” he says.
The firm has subsidiaries in Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda, South Sudan, DRC and a partnership in Ethiopia. Gatende aspires, through effective leadership, to take the company to the next level in the number of people they impact and new countries they get into.
“We have made a difference in people’s lives,” says the leader who adds that he has no regrets having spent the best years of his life at Davis & Shirtliff. “You make your bed and lie on it. Mine have been years of building both a corporate and a personal brand. At the end of my life, I want to hear God say, `Well done good and faithful servant,” he says. And these are not just empty words from a man who prides in his faith.
“I am a man of faith. The principles of faith are good for life and for business. I want to honour God. Like David in the Bible, I want it to be said of me that I am a man after God’s own heart. I want to emulate my Biblical namesake,” he says.
His other source of motivation, he says, is his family. “Family is very important to me. I have three daughters in their 20s. They have been my motivation for a very long time. I wanted to give them a good education and a decent life,” says Gatende.
The 55-year-old says he works out three or four times a week in the gym and plays squash once a week on Sunday mornings before church.
“Staying balanced is a juggling act. Setting the correct priorities is key in life and for me it is God, family, work and personal development,” he says, noting that it wasn’t always easy. The loss of his father in 1998 and his brother’s murder the year after in particular knocked the stuffing out of him to an extent that it took him 18 years to complete his Master of Business Administration. Challenges in marriage, work-life balance and bringing up daughters also saw him undertake a Master’s degree in Counselling and Psychology in 2007.
What has kept him grounded and effective? Sound Biblical values, good time management and implementing things he learnt from Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
“Being rich and powerful are short term goals that will not get you very far. If you are faithful with little, you will be entrusted with much. Young people should learn about faithfulness in their private and public worlds and that holistic view combined with hard work will result in success in all their endeavours in life,” he concludes.