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Benjamin Katubiya: I had a big dream

BENJAMIN Katubiya is sitting behind a large mahogany table full of trappings that go with a man in his position – he is CEO of BUK Holdings Limited, a company he has grown from US$300 into a multi-million dollar business.
The glass cubical – that is his office – in the corner of a plush double storey building on Kafue Road, mirrors the success that Mr Katubiya has attained in his business over the past two decades.
But contrast that glamorous picture with the image of a small boy growing in an impoverished environment in Ndola’s Twapya township, and you have a typical rugs-to-riches story.
For Benjamin was not born into a privileged family. His father, Benjamin Katubiya, was a tailor who did not earn much and struggled to raise his 10 children.
“Below average” is how the 48-year-old businessman describes his family.
He recalls how he had to sell stuff in order to supplement the family’s income. And when he was in Grade 12, he had to pay for his own exam fees at school.
Right from a young age, Mr Katubiya delighted in selling things. Sometimes he made toy cars out of wire which he sold to his friends.
But the young Benjamin also had a deep-seated passion for real cars. And in his teens, he had mastered how car engines worked and was able to repair them. He also worked as a bus conductor.
Despite the hardships he grew up in, the young Benjamin dreamt of becoming a doctor or engineer.
“I just admired people who had made it in life – doctors, engineers or pilots,” he says.
But in the end, it was his passion to sell stuff that would bring him fortune.
“Life directed me in a different path and today I am a businessman,” he says.
And, no, he has not lost his passion for cars. He is a self-confessed petrolhead with a love for big engines and speed.
“I love cars and I love the topmost cars. Whether you call that greediness on my part, I don’t know. But I think I’m in the comfort zone where I can afford to buy a good car,” he says.
And he does own some beautiful and expensive cars, including a Lexus and Range Rover Sport. But it is the Mercedes Benz E-Class that he likes the most. And his dream is to have a driveway that will only park Mercedes Benz.
“I have always being owning Mercedes Benz,” he says.
But despite his success, Mr Katubiya is still a self-effacing man.
“I know where I’m coming from. I don’t want to be puffed up with pride,” he says. “The biggest problem I have seen in this world is that when people become successful, they become arrogant. It’s like money can do anything for them. Money can’t buy happiness,” he says.
He, however, confesses it’s very tempting to be proud once you become successful.
Mr Katubiya believes his life has been shaped by the misfortunes and hardships he faced earlier in life. And he describes those circumstances as stepping stones to his destiny.
In fact, it was his failure to find formal employment that opened the door to his business career.
After completing his diploma in marketing at Copperbelt University in 1991, Mr Katubiya applied for a job in various companies without success. After a string of disappointments, he packed his diploma and he has never used it to get a job. Throughout his life, Mr Katubiya has worked only for himself.
Even at university, Mr Katubiya traded. His former classmate, Sunday Sikanyika, remembers a jovial and straight-talking Benjamin, who imported imitation jewels, handbags and nail polish from South Africa which he sold to female students at the Copperbelt University on pay-slow basis.
But he says Benjamin was also a hothead.
That, however, is a quality Mr Katubiya now talks about in past tenses.
“I don’t raise my voice or call people names here. You can ask my staff, they will tell you that when I’m not happy about something, I will just be quiet and stroke my moustache,” he says.
So how did the hothead get his cool?
Mr Katubiya is a devout born-again Christian, whose life revolves around family, church and his business.
How BUK was born
To get the initial capital for his business, Mr Katubiya sold a music system for US$300. He had bought the cassette player from an Indian diplomat who was leaving the country.
He used the money to buy door hinges from Tanzania to supply a furniture company in Ndola, although he decided thereafter he would not trade in hardware, but car spares.
Trading under a company called Market Links Agencies, Mr Katubiya used his aunt’s salon at Lusaka town centre market as a sales point to meet his customers and to get orders. He usually delivered orders for Peugeot and Leyland parts by public buses. He could not afford a taxi fare back then.
He recalls that when he was trading at Town Centre, some of his colleagues from university would laugh at him.
“But I had an ambition to become big. I had a big dream,” Mr Katubiya says.
And that big dream begun to unfold when in 1997, Mr Katubiya and his wife, Upendo, formed BUK Truck Parts Limited, with the first outlet at Simoson building in Lusaka. BUK stands for Benjamin Upendo Katubiya.
Since then, the company, which only trades in European and American truck parts, has grown into six outlets in the Copperbelt, Eastern and Southern provinces, with two outlets in Lusaka. An international outlet in the Democratic Republic of Congo was shut down due to corruption that made business unprofitable.
However, the company still has a number of Congolese on its customer list and now plans to open an outlet at Kasumbalesa Border to cater for that market.
BUK Holdings Limited, which currently employs over 80 people, has also penetrated the market in Malawi and Tanzania.
And recently, the company added two divisions – BUK Mining and BUK Transport and Logistics – to its business.
Last year, the company invested about US$5 million into a quarry in Southern Province and there are plans to develop that business into a secondary industry by manufacturing agriculture lime and granite tiles.
He is still modest about that achievement.
“Sometimes my achievement surprises me,” he says.
Although he could not give a figure of how much the company is worth currently, Mr Katubiya says business is good.
“We make money, we can’t hide it,” he says.
But he emphasises that his business is built on honesty.
“We don’t want to make short-cuts in our business,” says Mr Katubiya, who boasts of happily paying his taxes to the Zambia Revenue Authority. The company has also won some awards in marketing.
And in 2011, BUK Truck Parts was nominated for the prestigious Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship.
God-centred business
Mr Katubiya attributes the success of his business to God.
“To tell you the truth, God is at the centre of this business,” he says.
“The word of God has taught me to be disciplined financially and in other spheres, and has given me direction.”
Among the important books on his large table is a John Maxwell Leadership Bible. It is his manual for running his business.
“I get leadership thoughts from the bible,” he says. “I’m a leader not a boss.”
He also speaks highly of his wife, who is one of the directors in the company.
“I am still a husband of one wife,” he says jokingly.
Mr Katubiya and his wife have three children – Gladys, Gerson and Joy.
And despite now living a comfortable life, he admits having some sleepless nights.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Lusaka

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