Passion-driven Sheila Mwarangu;Building a Family Business Empire for Posterity

Sheila at a construction site

A consultant civil and structural engineer,Sheila Mwarangu took charge, in August 2017, of a company that was started three decades ago by her father Engineer James Gathara. Currently a partner and Managing Director at Gathara Consulting Engineers-specialists in the design of building structures, Sheila is a trailblazer in engineering with remarkable academic and professional track record.

She holds a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Manchester, Master of Science (MSc) degree in Steel Structural Engineering from Imperial College London, an MBA from Strathmore Business School among others. She has successfully worked on various engineering projects both in the United Kingdom and Kenya. In 2017, she was named among the achieving “Top 40 Under 40 Women” in Kenya by the Business Daily Africa.

In the following interview with StartUp Magazine, she reveals her overriding passion for engineering and how she hopes to grow the family business to outlive generations to come.

Q1.  Let us talk about your view on running a successful family business. Gathara& Partners Consulting Civil and Structural Engineers was started by your father three decades ago and is now a force to reckon with within the construction industry. What are the secret ingredients of this success?

Our passion for the industry is amazing and beyond just the service we offer.

Passion makes the difference.

Q2.     You took over your father’s reign to head the firm. Have you struggled fitting his shoe?

Not at all. This is because I have been fully present in the company for the last 5 years; and slowly grown in to the current role of MD. In addition my father has given me alot of control over the years and hence have played the current role without having the official title to it. Of course I still continue to learn a great deal from him on a daily basis though.

Sheila Mwarangu, Managing Director at Gathara Consulting Engineers

Q3.     Are there important business lessons you have learned from him?

Yes, alot of lessons. I have learnt how to manage client’s needs and to ensure we go above and beyond to meet their expectations. I have learned important tenets of cash flow management and dispute resolution. I have also learnt that employees are core to the success of any business, as such treating them in the best possible way is the way to go, because without them there is no ‘us’. Learning is a continuous aspect and today, Iam still fetching important nuggets of business development such as marketing among others from him.

Q4.    What do you envision for the firm?

I am hoping to make Gathara Consulting Engineers a brand name that will resonate with the engineering industry. I also hope that we can outgrow our market share in Kenya and go beyond the East Africa region. Over the years, our main focus has been civil and structural engineering in the buildings market-residential, retail, commercial, industrial etc. However, going further, we want to broaden our areas of expertise. We have the capacity to serve other areas under civil engineering like roads and dams, just to mention a few.

I recently rebranded the company name from Gathara and Partners Civil and Structural Engineers to Gathara Consulting Engineers Ltd in readiness for further growth.

Q5.    What are the important things to consider in succession plan?

I think the success of succession has a lot to do with the founders. It requires communication from the founders of the goals and vision they have for the company. It also requires full transparency so that everyone is aware of what ownership shares they are acquiring. It is not a one-day affair but requires years of planning ahead and communication with all parties. In my case though, my father has handed the running of the company and ownership of the company to me. However, he still maintains a share in the company and is still involved in some of the aspects of running of the company. A case in point is that I see him every day as he still comes to the office.

Q6.    What advise can you give to someone looking to establish a family business whose legacy outlives them?

I think the first thing is passion. If you have that, then it will most likely succeed. Start small and grow the business. Involve your family in the business right from the onset… the passion is bound to trickle down to the family. The earliest memories I have are actually on a construction site. I grew up in construction sites and in my father’s office. Most of the holidays were spent in his office. So I think passion is very important.

Similarly, communicate your vision for the company to the family at an early stage. This will ensure that everyone is working towards that vision.