Have the guts to be innovative is Melvins Teas CEO Flora Mutahi’s advice to young entrepreneurs. From leading the first flavored tea company to being the first woman elected as KAM chairlady, Flora talks on her success lessons.
O n a sunny Monday morning I walk into the Lavington Mall searching for Melvins Tea House. I am here to interview Melvin Marsh International ltd. CEO, Flora Mutahi, and I am happy to be on time.
The Tea House is on the ground floor. The ambiance is inviting. Great, actually. It’s the kind of place you’ll love turning into an office space for the morning. I pick out a spot and prepare my tools for the interview.
A few minutes later, a tall, beautiful woman walks in. I am mesmerized by her beauty; so much that I fumble over words, “You look exactly as in the pictures.” This is true but she is even prettier in person. The glow on her skin prompted me to ask the “what’s your skin care routine” question!
In between the clinking of teaspoons and the footfalls of people walking by, I sat opposite former Kenya Association of Manufacturers’ first chair-lady ready to soak in all the wisdom she had for me.
“I had sent some of the questions on email; I hope you had a chance to look at them?” I ask after making small talk on Melvins Cardamon tea. I had mine black and Flora had hers with a hint of milk.
“Yes, I did,” She says.
Melvins is a household name. With tea offerings in different flavors, you’re bound to find something that excites your palate. Leading such a successful tea brand is not an easy job and I’m here to learn how she hacks it.
Passion and Purpose
“I believe in pursuing your passion. When you do something, you are passionate about, it’s never about the money. It’s about whether you enjoy doing it and that way your horizons will expand. This however also presupposes that you know what your purpose is.
I didn’t know what my purpose was when I started neither did I ask myself that question. Now understanding that concept, I can say my purpose is entrepreneurship. I enjoy it. I believe passion will drive you to achieve and succeed.”
Flora didn’t start out as an entrepreneur, though. Her first job was in accounting, at a small auditing firm. The job entailed visiting their clients who were mainly located in industrial area. It was a “safe job” and the potential to climb the ladder was there, as she was pursuing accounting at Strathmore University.
Nine months later, she decided the job wasn’t her thing.
“It took me cutting classes and Mr. James McPhee calling me into his office about it. He asked me to be true to myself and that was my awakening. A piece of advice he gave me that I carry till today was that I was creating a habit that would follow me for the rest of my life. A habit of committing to something and not really being committed. That’s how I got out.
I quit my job after a week and luckily, I was staying with my parents so I was okay. For about three weeks, however, I wasn’t spared from the long lecture of how I would be a failure. My boss had given me great advice as I left when I mentioned I was leaving to go do business. She asked me to make sure I was going to do something that would create a legacy.
I hope your generation understands that the importance of building something with continuity.
Pursue what is going to hold you down so many years. I can proudly say 23 years later I am doing that.’’
Lessons From Employment and School
“A business degree is instrumental in my business today. My first job involved dealing with clients in manufacturing, so it all led me here, in manufacturing. I applied my accounting knowledge when I started my company. I did my own accounts for the first three years.”
Building Capital for Business
“Try building capital when still in employment. It’s also important to look at your credit lines and ensure you are paying your loans. Join a sacco or chama and start saving so you can borrow against that. For the unemployed, you can become creative. Borrow from families and friends; take up part time jobs — anything to give you some money.
Learn about entrepreneurship online. I had to complete a business planning program as a condition to get funding. This is something you can easily Google.”
On Identifying When Your business Is a Success
I believe Melvins is a success, but Flora she still feels there is a lot to do. However, she is also of the idea that as a business if you can pay your expenses and put some money on the side, it’s a success. You define your own success and for her it’s having benchmarks — understanding what you want to achieve every year.
“I look at my profit/loss account every month. Cash is king. You can’t do a business where they say ‘I will pay you soon.’ It’s, however, inevitable for those selling products in retail to depend on someone else. In such instances, it’s important to find a way to create relationships so you can ask for prepayments. Share your vision with those companies. They will identify something different with you by standing out.
We are trying to work with the government to create a safe space for SMEs; a space where there is a specified term for when payments should be made.”
There were days when Flora felt like giving it all up. She at one time contemplated selling the company but finding a buyer was exactly why she didn’t sell it. She was convinced that if someone else wanted it, it had to be good.
“I would get cold feet because building a brand is not easy. I, however, knew that I had to make it. I didn’t have a career so I had nowhere to go.”
Flora realizes that she didn’t know it all when she started. There were things she would have done better. One of them was being too open. She opened up on an idea to a company that beat her to the market with a similar product.
Flora was also oblivious of the amount of capital she needed. She didn’t have a plan; a situation she considers both good and bad. Having a plan would have scared her but also lacking a plan had her spending more time looking for funds. Another shortcoming was poor bookkeeping. She wasn’t collecting her debts.
She was lucky to find a gentleman who gave her tools and tactics on how to collect her debts. He also encouraged her to form a board so as to sort her management issues.
Her other challenge was to change people’s minds on flavored tea without spending on marketing and advertising. She was introducing something new and needed to invest a lot in marketing in an era where social media wasn’t a thing. She also had a challenge in hiring and firing, as she lacked experience in both.
On What She Would Have Done Better
In hindsight, she would have started a board earlier and hired people who were good at what she wasn’t good at. “I would have been more professional. Your generation has the advantage of the internet, they can learn all these things online.”
Flora advises people going into business to stay guarded, keep reading and have a mentor. Her mother is her mentor. It’s also imperative to have a business plan.
On Becoming the First Chairlady of KAM
“They asked me to join the board in 2009. One gentleman pointed out that I was going to be the chairperson. I felt that would take me away from my business. I didn’t want the position then but once voting was done I was made the chairperson. I appreciate the gentleman for seeing that in me.
A friend of mine, Mercy Acholla, really brought it out by encouraging me to do it for the women if not for anyone else. I was worried about my business and yet being here has helped my business to grow. I have been stretched by seeing how board members are able to sit at the board and run huge business. I realized they have a lot of structure in place and invest in their business-both moneywise and building a great team.”
Flora decided to start a chapter “Women in Manufacturing’’ after realizing there were only a handful of women in manufacturing. This is a platform designed to encourage more women to invest in manufacturing.
On Women Holding Back
Women are inherently nurturers and with that they feel inadequate. “Men are good at sink or swim but women want to be ready first, they are very detailed.” Flora says.
She has developed the attitude of saying yes when asked to do something even when she has no clue how to do it.
What She Attributes Her Success to
“I’m driven and give my very best. I also don’t take no for an answer. I can be pessimistic but I try to work around it.’’
Advice to her 27 year old
Think big and have the guts to jump
Advice to the Youth on Entrepreneurship
Start a business because you see an opportunity in it. Try to stand out. Carve out a niche and look for a problem you can solve. Create your space so you can become the person they can recognize in that niche.
Have the guts to be innovative and believe in yourself. Find a support system to grow with. Belong to an association that is credible and that will help you to grow. Understand you can learn from anybody. Meet people and read. Ask people to challenge you.
If I want to be in a specific place in business, I network with people in that area.
“I have a husband with three lovely kids. We met when I was doing my business.
Don’t fall into pressure to get married. When you search in pressure you will compromise. Take your time and have faith. You will meet the right person.”
You will know when you know. It will feel right.