Elegance, refinement and rectitude

BY KEVIN MOTAROKI If Mohamed Raffi Rajput could be a car, it would be a Range Rover. Or a Mercedes Benz. Why? Because he loves power. And the big engines in those cars translate to lots of power. “I love the urgency and the surge… Those cars, well specced, just nudge you to go. I love torque – raw, unpretentious torque. In my world, Benzes and Rovers are beautiful machines that stand for brute refinement; that is what I stand for… refined power,” Umar, as Raffi is popularly known, says with a wistful chuckle. In a popular weekly newspaper column, readers have complained of being ripped off by established franchise holders for reputable car companies. Two lines are especially popular: One, the dealership says it had had the car serviced, only for the client to later realise – at the cost of tears of frustration – it wasn’t. Two, the dealer said it replaced worn/broken engine and/suspension components when it, in fact, did not. Such experiences have rendered the sales pitch “dealer-maintained” useless, and added to the mistrust and resentment that Kenyans have for garages and mechanics. It is an anecdote along these lines that I choose to employ to make acquaintance with when I meet Umar. He takes a long drag at the Dunhill Premium stick he has just lit up and casts a knowing “it is this kind of vibe that spoils it for honest businesses” side-eye at me, and archs his head backwards to let out jet fountain-like blue smoke towards the ceiling in a steady stream that lasts as long as he exhales. Just then, one of his mechanics pops in to ask for something or the other. He gets up to fetch the item from the store then returns to continue our conversation. “Let me tell you something…” he begins. When he does not find the cluster of phrases he is looking for, he takes a thoughtful drag at it and finally says, “It is just stupid. Why do they do that? What kind of greed drives them to act like that?” He is genuinely agitated, and, I suspect, it is not just because of the idea that they (dealers) do that to trusting clients, but also because it paints all garages, his included, as unscrupulous premises, run by unscrupulous businessmen, out to swindle vehicle owners. So I move things along and ask him about his garage. Raffi is an heir to a family business started by his dad in the 1970s. His father, Mohamed Rajput Umar, worked for Leyland Kenya (now Cooper Motors Corporation – CMC) for 36 years, where he acquired a wealth of experience in automotive matters. Retiring in 1976, he set up Umar Auto Garage in Pangani, where he built a name for himself for the quality of his work. The idea to relocate to Karen came much later when Raffi decided to expand operations. At his premises along Karen Road, UAG stands out, and not just because it is opposite the Vice President’s residence. Rather it is because his outer yard is dotted with shells of old Range Rovers, Land Rovers, Toyota Supras, Datsun 160Js and Mercedes Benz 115s. But it is not just the shells one notices. There are also gleaming versions of these vintage vehicles, which give testament of what goes on in the garage area. Raffi was a man after his father’s heart, joining the DT Dobie Training School after high school to learn the trade. But he had to quit after a year to come help his ailing father. When the elder Umar passed on in 1992, he inherited operations. From his father, Umar had developed passion, learnt how to manage clients and become a seasoned mechanic. So, in a way, it wasn’t just about filling his old man’s shoes; more importantly, it was about guarding a reputation built through a great deal of sweat and sacrifice. Watching his father tinker with vehicles all his life, Raffi had developed a passion for cars. The sight of a decrepit vehicle bothers him, which is what gives him his drive for automotive repairs. Since then, it is what he has done. It is a family business then… He thinks for a moment and then responds, “Listen, my son is a car freak… Yes, this is very much a family business. It is a matter of great pride to me that my son has exhibited as much interest as I did with my dad. I hope he can keep the legacy going. “But, I have also given him an option, which is why I insisted that he attend and finish university. I made an off-road vehicle for him, which he uses in competitions. Like me, he loves Range Rovers. He is doing International Business Administration at USIU. He wants to do piloting as well. To what extent he wants to pursue that is up to him. Should he choose to pursue his chosen path, he has my blessing. But if he decides he wants to apply his acquired skills here, why not?” But it is not just his son who is an aficionado for the greasy and mechanical. Umar’s daughter too is ardent off-roading fan, and regularly competes in the Ladies’ Charge as well as the Hog Charge. Studying psychology at the university, she does not own an off-roader, but her brother is happy to lend her his Range Rover whenever she participates. He micromanages; it is the nature of the business Raffi is a perfectionist. He pays attention to detail. This also means he is a micromanager. He understands the negative connotation that comes with the phrase, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. It comes with the territory. “I talk to my people and tell them what I expect; what I expect is what my client expects. But that doesn’t mean I breathe down their necks poring through every detail. Rather, I order my projects such that I can supervise and approve one step before we go to the next one. Later on, I pull two of his employees – a mechanic and an office assistant – aside and ask them if they mind it that their boss is so hands-on. “But how else would you run a garage?” poses the mechanic, matter-of-factly. It is all right, he can confide in me, I assure him. I won’t reveal his name, I say; I do it all the time – protect my sources. He laughs and says, “ I would do it as well. We need direction, and it is important that he gives us that.” The office assistant is more cautious, but the answer is no different. “We have seen him take heat from clients without scolding us afterwards. So, if he is exacting, it is because he has to, not because he wants to. We understand that.” What this job does, Umar goes on, is that it also teaches patience. Understanding it as he does, he is not the type to get pissed off easily, because he understands what working in a garage entails. “For example, right now we are working on an antique car – a Datsun 160J. My workers broke the windscreen while fitting it. What am I supposed to do? I just ordered another one and asked them to continue with the job. Mistakes happen, we are human.” He is unassuming and knows it might irritate some that he is a micromanager, but Raffi says that is because they don’t have the exacting task of guarding the reputation he has built, which might include facing a dissatisfied client to explain why a black mudguard has a spray of silver on it. “Attention to detail requires concerted effort, and everyone here puts theirs. Mistakes on antique cars are especially unacceptable. We work step by step; that is how it has to be,” he explains with the air of someone who has long accepted that fact about his life.
Mr Rajput with his team.
A cut above the rest UAG has clients that have stayed on for more than 25 years. One old one – literally and figuratively, walked in while we were doing the interview. He wanted to know the progress on his car. “We have a lot of repeat clients, who also give us referrals,” he continues to explain after concluding business with Graham. “They come to us because we do what most other garages don’t… there must be something we do right to retain their loyalty like that,” he says, not without some pride. His smile disappears as quickly as it comes. He doesn’t like to get comfortable with his achievements, he says, because that breeds laxity. “We have done a lot of work for Concours d’elegance, and rebuilt vehicles for the Rhino Charge. We do a lot of modifications, especially on 4X4s. We specialise in rebuilds and restorations. Our clients come and return because we meet their needs, every time.” The location is nice. Surely, Karen must work for him… He disagrees. It is all about the name, he says. “Listen (he loves to use this word, and so I listen)…you might think this is a rich suburb, but people here count their penny. They often do comparisons and go for the cheapest, almost always. If we were in the same league with the rest, there would be nothing to distinguish what we do.” Difficult clients, but the customer is always right Sometimes, his clients are motoring connoisseurs, people who understand exactly what they want, who are not looking for opinions. During those times, Raffi has to contend with listening and executing his instructions as he gets them. To such people, money is no object, and so he complies. “Sometimes it works, and we learn something new; sometimes it doesn’t and then we go back to where we begun, at which point they will then listen to what we have to say. We do what the client says we do. We are here because they come to us.” Sometimes, as often happens, clients end up being buddies. But if there is one thing Raffi has learnt the hard way is to never let friendships seep into business. He also knows if two agree on business, they will definitely agree on friendship, and so he lets business take precedence. He does not play around with price because that means compromising on the quality of the work he does, and he cannot have that.
Rajput’s personal ride.
Is it easy to run a successful garage? “If one has a passion for motoring, yes. But if one wants to do it as purely a business just because one happens to have the skills, it is oftentimes not. Even for enthusiasts, there are factors that can make it a pain – environmental regulations, for example. Dealing with and disposing off of waste is a challenge, and one has to invest properly or else mess up the environment, and risk clashing with the law.” He does not take short cuts, he offers, because they become long cuts in the end. He also does not make assumptions regarding mechanical issues. He does not ignore regulations, such as those touching on the environment. When it comes to the particulars of his projects, he diligently does a thorough inspection and let his clients know if there are additional expenses they need to undertake. Of course, whether or not they decide to undertake those repairs is up to them. What sets him apart? He does everything in-house, from interior customisation, body restoration, exhaust systems, fibreglass modifications, spoilers, scoops, and so on. This way, he gets to set and maintain quality. He doesn’t let the cars he is working on out of the premises for subcontracted repairs… He invites experts in where he can personally supervise them. It is all in the detail, he says. “I have to make sure I am happy with vehicles I repair, as I would with my own – of course to the extent that we fulfil everything the client needs us to do. If it is rebuilds, then that is on me. I will make each car, bearing in mind the client’s specifications, as if it were my own.”

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