Mathew Gathua is the Founder, Valentine Cake House. He spoke to Lilys Njeru.
When starting out, did you envision that your business would grow to have 18 outlets?
Not really, but I was determined to make it the top cake house in the country. As for how big it would grow, that I was unsure of. It has taken time, a long time to get here. I started the business in Mombasa in 1997, where I was working in the hotel industry. I quit my job to earn a living as a baker, but it didn’t work out, so I came to Nairobi to look for a job. I got one, but after some time, I decided to focus on baking. Things were not easy, and it got to a point where I began to harbour doubts about the resolve I had made. This time though, I promised myself to persist unwaveringly. It is now 21 years since I established Valentine Cake House.
How would you describe this journey?
Interesting. Although there have been many challenges along the way, at one point I was the baker, marketer and delivery guy, I have enjoyed it. I have also learnt a lot, I probably would never have known I had the capacity to achieve what I have had I not dared to follow my dream.
Did you have a mentor when starting out? Is having one important?
I didn’t have one, but if I had, I would have managed to do better than I have done and it probably wouldn’t have taken me this long to get here. A mentor shows you the tricks of the game and pushes you to greater heights. Because I now know the importance of mentorship, I have, over the years, mentored many young people in different career paths. I primarily started Valentine Baking School in 2007 as one way to mentor - we have trained over 3,000 bakers since.
Are there lessons you learnt later in business that you wish you knew when starting out?
Every day is a learning opportunity, however, one of the important lessons that I learnt much later is that it is way cheaper to import tools rather than relying on third party suppliers. Also, if I were to go back in time, I would not borrow money to set up my business. I plead with young entrepreneurs out of experience - don’t take a loan to set up a business. I took a Sh100, 000 loan to open an outlet which did not do well - it was quite a challenge paying back the money. Only borrow to expand a business that shows potential to grow, a business that can pay its own debts.
What qualities do you look for in a potential employee?
One ought to have, at least, completed secondary school two years before. My feeling is that by then, one really knows what he wants to do with his life. Most of the young people I employ come here without a clue of what baking entails. They learn on the job. The only thing I demand is that one be willing to exercise their creativity because the job is skill-based. If one is disciplined and hardworking, there is no reason why he or she shouldn’t succeed. One of my employees joined the company as a janitor, now he is one of our top designers.
What are some of the important attributes that young people need to possess to succeed in business?
Hard work pays. They also need to be financially disciplined and be prudent about how they spend their money. To achieve impeccable results in the long run, having patience is necessary. If you have a job that you think is small, give it your all because that small job will be the breakthrough to a bigger job since success doesn’t come overnight.
What advice would you give young people about money and business?
Young people have the notion that the most important thing they need to start a business is capital. If you ask me, the most important factor is the idea, but you need to fine-tune it by carrying out extensive research. Don’t go into business blindly. On money, youth need to have financial discipline. You can lead a basic life and still be comfortable.
So far, you have sponsored about 100 children through school. What motivates you to give?
I value education, and I feel satisfied when I see young people, thanks to education, breaking away from the cycle of poverty. I did not complete secondary school because my mother was unable to raise the fees. I was, however, determined to prosper and make her proud because I had witnessed her struggle to bring me up. I intend to go back to school and learn some entrepreneurial courses. Currently, I sit in three education foundations and I train my own staff. Nobody comes to Valentine Cake House trained.
Do you have a mantra or a quote that you live by?
God shines His love on us not so we can catch and keep it for ourselves, but so, like mirrors in the sun, we can reflect His love on others.
It is said that success changes people. Do you feel yours has changed you?
It is only about two years ago that I realised we have become a household name in the industry. Success has not changed me, if anything, it has humbled me more and made me a better giver.
Do you have any regrets?
No. I believe that God is intentional and that everything happens in accordance with His plans. I have things I muse on though - sometimes I wonder where I would be had I managed to complete school seeing that I sit in meetings with people with master’s degrees and still command respect. I also ask myself how I would have turned out had I had a father figure. My father died when I was still very young.
Unlike that time, long ago, when you were a poor young man, now you have money with which to fulfil long-held desires – what one thing did you buy yourself when you became financially \independent?
Ten years ago, I desired to own BMW convertible. I had a picture of it on my desk and on my fridge at home. My staff even designed a BMW cake for me on my fortieth birthday, eight years ago. In 2015, I brought the machine home. That’s an achieved dream! One thing though, I don’t have success hang-ups. I still drive my beetle and take a matatu when it is convenient.