How a homegrown consultancy firm is taking on giants and outsmarting them in their game
By George Gichuki
One of the of the most outstanding traits of successful entrepreneurs is their ability to spot business opportunities before they have been exploited by others. Those who enter a certain market first reap the benefits of their foresight, before hordes of copycats can come on board. Mr. Joseph Waruingi, lived up to that expectation fourteen years ago by establishing Advantech Consulting. Advantech is a Kenyan owned and operated management consultancy firm with fourteen years experience in providing leading edge managerial consulting services.
“I honed my skills in management consulting at PwC – a global audit, tax and consulting services firm – where I worked for six years before leaving to start Advantech,” he says. While working at PwC, Mr. Waruingi travelled extensively and in the process, he established a lot of invaluable networks and experience that placed him well in the formation of Advantech. “ At that time, PwC was selling its consulting business , an opportunity that I readily seized to start Advantech,” he emphasizes. Consequently, from the word go, he was able to acquire business from blue chip organizations ( previously being served by PwC) like the Nation Media Group, Safaricom and a host of public sector organizations in African countries like Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia.
Initially, the firm was predominantly doing strategic information communication technology (ICT) consultancy, before it started offering other services like monitoring and evaluation as well as supply chain management of donor funded projects. Over time, Advantech has registered growth in respect to clientele, members of staff and service delivery.
At the time of leaving PwC, Mr. Waruingi had risen through the ranks to become the firm’s Associate Director. His brief at the firm involved offering strategic advice to clients both locally and internationally who were keen on transforming their businesses, by putting in place innovative ICT systems and processes. To that end, he attended many training sessions in USA, UK, Germany , Middle East and Singapore and consequently, he gathered a wealth of experience and skills . Mr. Waruingi and his team mainly focused on providing services tothe public sector (in the early years of this millennium), which was attracting a lot of funding from bilateral and multilateral agencies. He for instance headed the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) projects in Africa that was funded by the World Bank. These included Ethiopia, Zambia, Eritrea, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana.
“I am a senior business leader with demonstrable ability and experience of working with boards and senior management in various leading organizations,” Mr. Waruingi avers. “I spend eighty per cent of my time building relationships and partnerships, which is the lifeblood of our business,” he adds. The seasoned consultant holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Statistics (major) and Computer Science (minor) from Moi University. In addition, he holds a Masters degree in Strategic Management and Finance from the University of Nairobi. Currently, he is finalizing his doctorate degree in International Business from the University of Liverpool.
After spending six years in formal employment, Mr. Waruingi felt that time was ripe for him to start his own business. “I had gained enough experience and when an opportunity presented itself by way of my employer selling the consulting business, I was confident enough to take calculated risks in my new life as an entrepreneur,” he says.
The opportunity was good because the business was registered and his vision was to build a homegrown management consultancy firm. Before the establishment of Advantech, that line of business was dominated by the ‘big four’ consultancy firms namely: PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY. Nevertheless, there are certain classes of business these firms would not take, based on the threshold of revenue.
Advantech would then sign a moratorium with PwC after they ceased their consulting business,to handle the clients directly, which the clients consented to. “My advantage was that I already had a very cordial working relationship with these clients as well as the partners at PwC,” he reminiscences. To that end, Mr. Waruingi hired a team of junior consultants and a former colleague at PwC and in a record period of nine months, they cleared all the work that PwC had already been contracted to do by the clients.
There were numerous business opportunities for the newly established firm because the development partners were pushing governments in Africa to be more accountable and transparent while utilizing the funds donated to them. A good example was the development of financial management strategies. Another opportunity was the management of these projects on their completion which was long term in nature.
In order to seize these opportunities, Mr. Waruingi hired a team of consultantswhich he personally trained using some materials in his possession. As the team leader, he serviced his clients for long hours and he was readily available whenever they required his services. “Eventually, this paid off because we were able to build very strong relationships with these clients; which helped us secure more business from them,” he affirms. “Most importantly, since our work was standing out, we established further relationships with other networks,” he adds.
Advantech has a project footprint in twenty three countries in Sub Saharan Africa.“Over the years, we have worked with international partners and consultants on regional projects and we have continuously expanded our footprint,” says Mr. Waruingi. “Our services include ICT consulting, monitoring and evaluation, procurement and supply chain management, governance and oversight, financial and grant management as well as thought management,” he adds.
To start with, strategic ICT consulting entails reviewing business processes for clients (both in the private and public sectors) so that they can optimize on their usage. It also helps clients to identify the systems that can work for them effectively and efficiently. Besides the business systems, the firm offers other back support office operations like: finance, human resource, procurement, legal as well as health and environment. “While undertaking strategic ICT consulting for clients, we evaluate their entire value chains, before offering them the appropriate advice,” emphasizes Mr. Waruingi. Examples of clients that the firm has successfully serviced in this regard include: the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), Kenya Airport Authority and Kengen.
Secondly, Advantech monitors and evaluates the impact of social projects that are funded by development partners. These projects are mainly in the field of health (especially HIV/AIDS), agribusiness (for example enhancing market access to smallholder farmers) as well as education (for example, availing learning opportunities to marginalized girls). This is a labour intensive exercise and the firm has therefore trained a large pool of people (enumerators) whom it engages whenever their services are required. “We have spent a lot of time in building technology to enable us collect data on a real time basis as well as build new plans or indicators,” observes Mr. Waruingi. According to him, data monitoring and evaluation is a long-term process which can take as long as five years. This can be done at the baseline or the beginning of a project, middle (midline) or at the end (endline).
The third product is supply chain management which is specifically for health projects. In this vein, Advantech has partnered with the Global Fund – an international organization that provides funds to help in fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Supply chain management involves data collection, quantification and advice on how the particular disease will be managed.
African countries are faced by challenges like civil strife and unpredictable election cycles that adversely affect the businesses operating in them. Consequently, Advantech has spread its wings in many countries so as to minimize on the losses occasioned by such challenges. The firm has only one office in Nairobi and when involved in assignments outside the country, it makes elaborate travel and accommodation arrangements for its consultants. In order to reach these countries, it has partnered with European and US firms.
Nurturing and developing talent
Advantech uses a rigorous recruitment process to ensure that only those who demonstrate the potential to fit in its working environment and culture are hired. To motivate the employees, they are rewarded through a bonus scheme based on their contribution to the business. “ All the members of staff are conversant with the strategic objectives of the business whose achievement is aligned with their personal and career growth, as well as financial rewards,” emphasizes Mr. Waruingi.
Such alignment is achieved through an annual performance appraisal where employees demonstrate how their work has contributed to the achievement of objectives including: new business, improvement of internal business processes, new business partners and entering new markets among others. An employee share ownership scheme is also on the cards.
As the team leader, Mr. Waruingi reads a lot of books on leadership and motivation. He also follows leadership and management gurus like Tom Peters on Twitter. In addition, he attends many local and international leadership and management conferences so as to learn new ideas and deepen his network. “ In my view, people can become leaders through a process of teaching, learning and observation,” he says. “ Leadership is a set of skills that can be learnt by training, practice and experience over time,” he adds.
However according to him, there are some inborn characteristics that predispose people to become good leaders. “Extraversion is consistently associated with effective leadership as well as being bold, assertive, taking risks, analyzing situations in a smart way and figuring out courses of action, “he emphasizes.
As a business leader, Mr. Waruingi is faced with the challenge of staff retention, especially after spending a lot of time and money to train them. Business opportunities have also been shrinking especially because of global challenges such as US budget cuts on international development work and Brexit. “ I have led our team to address these challenges by focusing on other markets such as the European Union, Canada and the Scandinavian countries and this is showing a lot of promise,” he avers.
“Some of the other challenges we face are shrinking business opportunities and governance issues especially when we target government projects. We also spend a lot of time and effort to train staff since we are a knowledge and learning company, “he points out. “Moreover, some clients’ expectations are always involving so when our staff members leave, we have to hire and train all over again which is very expensive, “he adds.
The road ahead
The firm has a well-defined plan to ensure that it grows beyond its founder and ultimately becomes sustainable in the long run, in order to give value to its shareholders and provide quality employment. “ By 2020, we want to triple our annual revenue and have projects in thirty five African countries,” Mr. Waruingi confidently says.
In addition, the firm wants to balance its client portfolio in such a way that sixty percent of its work will come from governments as well as bilateral and multilateral organizations. The remaining forty per cent on the other hand will be sourced from private sector players in the East African region.