Keeping it in the family: Manu Chandaria on the value of family ties in business

After the expansion, Vasey again pointed out that Africa was unstable and many countries were experiencing coups, noting that it would be safe to expand further and also set up operations outside the continent. Once again, the family business expanded to reach a total of 16 countries in Africa.

“Some people went to London, some were sent to Geneva, some were sent to Singapore, some were sent to Toronto and again a new setup of expansion started. Again, it gave us a new dimension of management. So, by 1985 we were already in 30 countries and now we are in 50 countries,” Chandaria said.

The family

Today the Chandaria family of about 65 people operates businesses across the globe. In East Africa, the family’s flagship companies include Mabati Rolling Mills and Kaluworks in Kenya, Alaf in Tanzania and Uganda Baati in Uganda.

“Right from day one, we kept together as a family. We propagated the values: it’s not ‘I’, it’s ‘we’; it’s not mine, it’s ours and everything belongs to the family,” said Chandaria. “Everybody got the best of education. We were the first lot in our family to graduate, but then after that, there is not a single child who has not graduated. We believe that single-handed you can do something, but if you are a fist (five fingers) you can do much more.”

The family’s unity, he noted, is one of the reasons why they have been successful in business. He criticised a common practice in Kenya where parents divide family property among their children, who then divide among their children, eventually eroding the family’s wealth.

“They even fight over it [family wealth]. To us, everything belongs to the family. Everyone lives well. They are all looked after. There are many more companies to work at and the family is very much involved in social work.”

Business practice

The Comcraft Group is known in the region for its work in manufacturing. But before finding its niche, the company made losses.

“We lost quite a bit of money [in the early days] in speculation,” Chandaria said. “Until 1963 we were operating under the colonial system and it was very difficult but because we started since 1915, we found our ways.”

With Tanzania’s declaration of independence, the Chandarias decided to stay on the “friendship side” of the government in power.

“We have always managed to be on the right side of the government… whichever government comes in because we are not politicians; we are serving the people of this country. We have interest in our products being used by as many people in Kenya and anywhere else that we sell,” he said. “We have focused on hard work and commitment and always kept the population of Kenya and the people that work for us at the centre of everything.

“We have always managed to be and operate within the law. We are very honest about our payments to tax. We are not of those fly-by-night cowboys.”

Moving forward, Chandaria said Comcraft will continue to grow and expand.

“We want to be market leaders in this part of the world in whatever we do. In aluminum we want to be market leaders. In roofing we want to be market leaders. In pipes we want to be market leaders and so, for that we have to keep on growing. In all our companies, the plan is to double the sizes [and] create new products.”