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Davis and Shirtliff Chairman Alec Davis

Davis & Shirtliff is the leading name in water and energy solutions in Kenya. We spoke to Executive Chairman Alec Davis about the company’s work and values, and the importance of being a family business.

It’s easy to assume that large corporations that have gained reputations as leaders in their field are in danger of becoming money making machines. But family company Davis  & Shirtliff still holds true to the values it was built on more than 70 years ago, and is still going from strength to strength. Now the company’s Executive Chairman Alec Davis, has been named in the 2020 Business Worldwide CEO Awards for his exceptional leadership and vision.

The story so far

Eddie Davis and business partner Dick Shirtliff established the eponymous company in Kenya in 1946, with a focus on water pumping and supply schemes.  It prospered through the sixties, diversifying into swimming pools and water treatment. By the mid 1960’s  Davis & Shirtliff had become the sole distributor for Grundfos, the leading Danish pump manufacturer, as well as several other pump companies shifting focus from projects to distribution.  

When Eddie’s son, Alec, who joined the company in 1976, took the helm in 1990, an aggressive expansion strategy began which focused on the distribution business. The company partnered with a number of high-profile agencies including Italy’s Pedrollo pumps and established subsidiaries in Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Rwanda. The company also started its Kenya branch expansion, initially in the major regional towns and also through a takeover of the longstanding Coast distributor Butech.

Following the restructure of the executive team in 1998, the company has seen huge growth since the dawn of the new Millenium, and now has subsidiaries in nine countries operating from a total of 80 branches and a staff complement of over 1000 people.  Today, Davis & Shirtliff is widely recognized as the leader in water and energy solutions, delivering a range of products and services including water pumps, water treatment, generators, solar, swimming pools and irrigation systems.

We spoke to Alec Davis about his life and career, and the management principles that have made the company such a huge success.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you came to lead Davis and Shirtliff?

“I was born in Kenya in 1950 and am now 70 years old. After primary education in Kenya I schooled in the UK followed by attending Loughborough University, where I studied Engineering, and then Manchester Business School where I graduated in 1976 with an MBA. I then returned to Kenya to join Davis & Shirtliff, a company started by my father. On his passing in 1982 I inherited  50% of the company equity, with the other half being held by his then partner who I bought out in 1990. I also have been a trustee of Gertrude Childrens’ Hospital, the leading paediatric hospital in Kenya, for 20 years, the last 10 as chairman. I am married with two sons who now both work in the business.”

How has the business grown since you took over?

“I set out on a journey to develop the business both in terms of products and markets and it has grown many times since then. I retired from executive management in 2016 though continue to be closely involved in the role of Executive Chairman.  

The product range has also grown hugely, the most important initiatives being establishment of the Dayliff own brand of pumps and other related products sourced mainly from premium Far East suppliers. This has been particularly successful and Dayliff is now the leader in several markets. Other product initiatives have been a focus on solar equipment, principally pumps, power generation and water heaters, the introduction of a full range of diesel generators, various water treatment initiatives including locally manufactured reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration products, entry into the irrigation market and the most recent initiative a focus on a wide range of water related and associated chemicals. Marketing is another priority, particularly Internet based including an informative and interactive website and several unique Apps for product specification and application of Dayliff products and solar equipment selection. These various initiatives have resulted in enormous growth, particular since 2002 with an organic compound rate of 15% being achieved resulting in a 15 times revenue increase to about $100 million today.”

What are the core management principles at the heart of your business?

“There is no question that Davis & Shirtliff today is a successful organisation in spite of operating in what generally are considered to be competitive product segments and is overwhelmingly the leader in many of its markets. The driving philosophy has been teamwork, and the group has a strong culture of commitment that has been fostered through a management style of consensus, fairness and delegation.

Offering market leading employment conditions and being a strong advocate of making and keeping realistic promises has created an environment that in turn has created confidence in management and support for corporate principles. An important success factor has been the frequently communicated values of quality, integrity and ‘Altiora Peto’, a Latin motto that means ‘I seek higher things’ or a focus on progress and change.

Another important principle has been a focus on simultaneously developing the business in all its activity areas identified as resources, product, sales and marketing, systems and, vitally, people as any area of weakness will diminish organisational capacity. Operationally the focus has been on the support functions of supply chain and systems both of which are so essential in a widely dispersed distribution business and are areas of considerable competitive advantage as they are difficult for competitors to replicate.

Of course, customer relationships have also been very important and the quality focus has built great confidence in the brand which has created an excellent market reputation.”

How has being a closed family business helped Davis and Shirtliff thrive?

“Being a closed family business is a great advantage, as growth and not distribution is the priority, and our driving philosophy is ‘Purpose Before Profit’. The key, of course, is having the right people in terms of intellectual capacity, skillsets and commitment and this has been the area where the management philosophy has been particularly successful through a combination of careful recruitment, culture, remuneration, training and openness.

What challenges have you overcome?

Certainly keeping an organisation continuously growing is a challenge that can only be achieved through constant change, and that certainly is the key reason for the success achieved.

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