Taking a shared vision to the top

Saturday October 19 2019

Jackee Ombajo, the chief executive of Trueblaq Ltd.

Jackee Ombajo, the chief executive of Trueblaq Ltd. The firm plans to open offices in the region and expand to the rest of Africa. PHOTO | NMG 

SUSAN MUUMBI
By SUSAN MUUMBI
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Jackee Ombajo is the chief executive of Trueblaq Ltd, a company founded by her late brother Kevin Ombajo in 2001.

Jackee has been part of the journey right from the start, taking her brother’s vision to greater heights.
In the beginning, the company grappled with cash flow. While it was easy to get a loan when Jackee was employed at a ‘normal’ firm, it was next to impossible for Trueblaq to get credit as banks did not seem to understand what the company was doing.

In 2015, the experiential marketing landscape changed and more players, who were well-funded, joined in. Jackee and her brother had been growing the business together, organically, and ploughing the money back into the business.

As directors, they had to figure out how to survive. They needed capital to invest in equipment so that they could compete with the best in the field.

They sold some shares, and found a company to carry out a valuation of the business. Once they got the investors on board, they thought they would be fine.

However, when the investors took a look at Trueblaq’s audited accounts, the discovered gaps. They also found poor business structures and potential risks. The value of the company started to go down.

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This process helped Trueblaq understand what investors would be looking for. They went back to the drawing board, formed a board, and decided to clean house. It worked.

This year, Trueblaq won the best Activations Solution African MICE Award. The Africa MICE Awards recognises industry players that are innovative in organising business events and whose expertise and service meet global standards.

Last year, the company beat 295 others to be ranked fifth in the Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies ranking done by KPMG and Nation Media Group’s Business Daily.

To qualify, a company must have a turnover of Ksh50 million ($500,000) to Ksh1 billion ($10,000,000), audited accounts for the past three financial years, and it should not be listed on a stock exchange.

After their success in Kenya, Trueblaq plans to open offices in the region and expand to the rest of Africa.

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How did Trueblaq start?

It was the brainchild of my brother. The first offices were in the back of a bureau that my mother ran in Nairobi’s central business district. Initially there were two other partners, but they opted out.

Before starting the company, my brother worked at Capital FM as the events manager. At the time, there was a gap in the market for experiential marketing as most corporates managed their events in-house through committees.

How did you get into Trueblaq?

When Big Kev, as he was known, started the company, I was working at Rosewood, selling furniture. I was the front office manager.

I then moved to Alpha Fine Foods, where I worked in telesales. In 2000, I started work at Crown Distributors in a sales position, and found that I had a knack for collecting money. So I moved to the finance department and rose to the position of credit controller.

At this time, my brother asked me to help build his business. He offered me about the same salary as I was earning. But there were some doubts as my parents didn’t want me to move from an established company to something unknown, and my employer doubled my salary. I was confused.

I had a conversation with one of my brother’s friends, and I was convinced that working with him would be worthwhile. When I went back to my employer, they offered to triple my salary, but my mind was set.

What was it like to work with your brother?

My first stint at Trueblaq was from 2002 to 2005, where I worked as the project co-ordinator. It was a totally new industry to me.

In the beginning, there were high expectations, as my brother wanted me to take on much of the work. Sometimes I felt that I wasn’t meeting his expectations.

Big Kev was well known, and it seemed like I was just his younger sister tagging along. We would knock on doors all day looking for business, and when the client was ready, they would call my brother because he was the face of the company.

Along the way, an opportunity opened up at Capital FM for an events and marketing manager job. I wanted to find myself, and get some personal experience and exposure. My brother agreed that it was a good move. I was the events and marketing manager there for four years, until 2010.

How was your return to Trueblaq?

I believe it was God’s timing. In 2010, I started to feel restless, now that I had gained experience and made a name for myself.

It was also when my brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. I got deeper into the business because I had to hold fort. My brother was in and out of hospital for many years, with several surgeries, but the business had to keep running.

My brother had been the CEO and managing director of the business, and I was the general manager. At some point, he had to step away because of his health, and I was left holding the reins. We decided we needed a board. It has been in place for about three years now.

When the board came in, they made it clear that I couldn’t continue working in the way I had been, because I was the biggest asset as well as the biggest liability.

The business could only grow as much as I could. I was handling sales, the commercial side, finance, approvals, hiring and disciplinary action, basically everything.

So we created pillars for the business, and hired competent people. It wasn’t easy to hand over my responsibilities, but everyone knew what they were doing.

In July 2017, my brother passed away. Having a competent team in place gave me the opportunity to be with him towards the end, and to grieve when he passed on without worrying about the business.

Last year we installed an ERP system to streamline operations. That was when we decided to enter the Top 100 competition as a dipstick of where we were. The competition was important because we were audited by top tier KPMG auditors, and we could tell whether the business was on the right track.

What are your future plans?

Coming fifth in the competition was testament that we were ready as a business to do bigger things. We had been comfortable within our borders.

Now we could replicate the business in other countries.

We plan to set up shop in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, and we are forging partnerships in South Africa and Nigeria. We hope to set up next year, in either Rwanda or Uganda.

What are you concentrating on now?

As CEO, I focus on oversight and strategy. We have a five-year plan, and we’re in our second year. I look at the risks in the business, and what’s happening in the industry globally, and how that will affect us.

Will you enter the Top 100 competition this year?

Most likely.