Fashion designer Sue Muraya joined her husband’s dream to create homes and as Carol Odero found out, they have built one of Kenya’s most prominent real estate firms
It started ordinarily enough; a conversation was held between a fashion designer with an artistic flair, and her architect husband who visualises homes out of the solid earth. For some reason it happened across the continent in South Africa, where she would show her collection. He would accompany her. Once they were done on the fashion runways of Cape Town and Jo’burg, they would walk around the gated city communities.
It was here that a similar project for Kenya was inspired and houses for the middle and upper middle classes dreamt of. Why, the pair wondered, could this not be done back home? Seduced by this idea, they came home and both went to their respective drawing boards. Although Sue Muraya read fashion magazines while her husband picked up those on building, they knew as much about each other’s world as it had been possible to learn over the years.
“At one point we would always turn to each other and ask the same question, what do you think?’” Her knowledge about site visits could only be rivaled by his on fashion trends. “We developed a habit of always having lunch together. We synchronized our hours and throughout our discussions it was something related to one or the other. Of course we also talked about the kids.”
Moments like these prompted Pete Muraya to see his wife in a different light because he eventually asked her to join ranks with him. “She had done well with her fashion business but she was not making that much money so I asked her to work with me.” It is a measure of how dedicated to her craft Sue was that she took her time to make up her mind.
“I remember him telling me that if I worked with him I would have to move offices. I liked my office!” And with good reason. Her fashion label, New Attitude, has been around for about two decades and she invested a great deal in it. The Kenya Fashion Week was her brainchild,and so she struck upon an even more brilliant idea. She would cross over to real estate so that she could afford to sponsor the fashion event. She dubbed it her corporate social responsibility project.
Suraya Property Group may only be four years old but at the moment they are working on seven sites simultaneously.
Pete has a knack for discovering land and negotiating with landowners. Sue likes to describe herself as a “behind the scenes personality” eager for the deal to get sealed because all she sees is “potential, potential, potential.”
One day Pete woke up with a burning need to see the right side of Kiambu Road after years of gazing at the left, which was only natural as it was peppered with beautifully kept coffee plantations that immediately caught the eye. This day though, for some reason, a dream prompted him to take a fresh look. There, as plain as day was a huge tract of land they had consistently missed. “It looked like someone had been stealing the soil,” recalls Sue. Still, they met with the owner and before you could say ‘fence,’ they had it.
The same thing happened with land in Gachie. This was when it was considered one of those incredibly unsafe areas where nobody walked around after 5pm and for a good reason; there was a robber allegedly living in the area. This
was hardly a deterrent. They took it up and are now in the third phase of their project. “People who did not buy houses because they did not like the area are now kicking themselves. Within three years, the property prices have doubled.”
There is another coming along Mombasa Road and a handful of others.
Selling a lifestyle by allowing people to own homes is their vision, and what they do is fashioned out of nothing but faith. Real estate insiders know they owe a great deal to this couple. They were the first to think of partnering with land owners rather than buying large chunks that are near impossible to afford. The profits share is agreed before construction begins.
They also conceptualized a financing model that makes loans more accessible to ordinary Kenyans. They should, in appreciation of their efforts, have a law named after them.
The measure of their dedication lies in the fact that they put up their house as collateral. It was just about the only thing they owned. That money was used to start up. The payback would come after 18 months when all their newly constructed property would be sold and every debt covered. That year and a half was nothing if not a cliff hanger.
“I never told anyone about that decision. I wondered if I was crazy. Normally it is the woman who wants to keep the house but in this case I agreed with the man!” Their three children, now 16, 14 and 12, noticed their parent’s financial challenges. “Pete had a problem with his car. It would not start in the mornings and the boys wondered why he was building all these new houses and could not afford to buy a new car!” They used Sue’s in the meantime but eventually the nail biting suspense paid off.
“We had confidence in each other,” says Sue. In a very short time, they have accomplished the stuff real estate dreams are made of. Pete puts it very well; “Sue is a very good marketer. We ended up being the perfect team.
I would find the land and create the project but without her we would not have achieved what we have in such a short time. She has a visual eye. She understands what the finished product will look like. If she says she does not like a house, the concept is dropped. By the time we get to the market her input is all over it.”
Fascinatingly, he makes her out to be their secret weapon. “Sometimes it really annoys us as architects. We draw what we think is a really good house and she says she will not sell it. We have now learnt not to go far without her. She is very important. A lot of property companies do not understand how we have managed to do what we have in so short a time. We could not have done it without her touch and rapport despite all my good ideas.” And to think that in the beginning she had turned the idea of this partnership down. “I knew her strengths!” points out Pete.
Working with a spouse can be especially challenging. But when you have children, work in the same office and live in the same house, does it not get to be a bit too much? Does Sue never have a moment when she declares ‘enough already!’ and flounce off for her own space? Apparently not, and she finds the idea so funny that she giggles like a teenager. “We never get tired of each other.
Before the children got used to our style they always wondered if we were arguing and we would always say that no, we were having a discussion. And now, this is how they talk to us and we wonder if we set ourselves up.” She manages to disengage from work and swears she has no formula for it. It simply works out. Both of them are incredibly busy from a staff that included them and a handful of employees to the current full time establishment of 30.
“Once it got so crazy my husband called me to make an appointment to see me!” She is clear on one thing though; “when we are at work there is no such thing as ‘sweetie’. In the evening when I go home, I am completely ‘wife.’ It might have been a hard day but I have to remember to cook and iron his shirts. It also helps that I am God fearing. I don’t want to step on toes. You have to know how to be submissive. I don’t forget that.”
That might be true but they have known each other for two decades, long before any of their careers took off. “We have been married 18 years. What is healthy, especially as a woman, is when he is confident and he respects you. Then it is easier to work together. I really give him the credit because he is the one who gets asked why he ended up working with his wife.” She jokes that the only person in the world who understands how she truly feels is Tabitha Karanja, the Keroche Industries managing director.
“People think I am mad, especially men, to work with my wife, but I am quite happy with it. It is about the choices that you make. When I met her I knew she was the one. I have no regrets. It has been a good four years that have exceeded our wildest dreams. This is just the beginning,” says Pete. It is not all idyllic though. They do have fights but they do not take these to the bedroom but square it out in the boardroom. No work gets carried home although it used to be the case.
Sue has the most amazing energy. It is positive and glows, and she has a natural sweetness about her that makes it almost impossible not to like her. She radiates an inner beauty on the surface that makes her younger than her 45 years. Laughter spills easily out of her but then again, she says, so does honesty. “I speak my mind and it does
not mean that I do not get upset. What you see is what you get.” Her husband once found her having a no-holds barred conversation with her mother and nearly fled at the candid nature of their dialogue. After this, he told others that he had learnt the value of ironing out issues and confronting them head on.
At work she is particular about her femininity. “Maintaining that is very important for me. I am around my husband all day. My nails have to be done and I think about what I am wearing. There is an office look, weekend look and home or going out look. I am very particular about how I dress up. I don’t take him for granted. I really work on it. He notices my hair and I am a proper lady. It also gives me that confidence. I am modern but I have to be obedient. The things he likes and I know he likes, I do.”
Lest you flinch at her unreserved opinion, she says, “as a woman do not worry that other people say you spend too much time with your husband and that this is not the thing to do. If you are happy, you are happy.” She should know.
She started her fashion label after her mother made a deal with her. he would finish her ‘A’ levels, and if she still felt the need to pursue it, she would. They both kept their word.
She traveled to the US and spent 3 years working from 9am to 5pm, attending classes from 6.30pm till 11pm, and getting home at midnight. She was exhausted half the time but lived on a dream. “I was a size six. There was no gym needed. My only free time was on Sunday which I spent doing laundry and cooking enough food to last me through the week. When I got a break I would simply sleep.”
She returned to Kenya and her business grew enough to accommodate 15 tailors. The area her studio stands in now was bought by her mother, a woman Sue praises as having possessed extraordinary foresight and vision, she was a single mother who raised her six children and was incredibly close to her daughter. “I never thought that I would grow up normal not having a dad the way we did. When she died in 1993 I wondered how I would go on. When good things happen I miss her, having someone to share them with.” It was her mother who unwittingly taught her to invest in property. When she could not buy land by herself, she enrolled her own father and several male relatives.
It might seem Suraya was born a full fledged adult, but the couple bought their first home for Ksh1.8 million over 20 years ago. They upgraded to another at Ksh3million, before getting their present one. “People always made fun of us, asking why we did not design our own house yet my husband is an architect. The truth is we got what we could afford.”
Their partnership, merging two creatives each with their own strengths, extends home where Sue trades the suits for an apron. Three times a week, they leave the office together and take an hour and a half long walks. “I call them our boardroom meetings,” says Pete. The other two days of the week, she picks up her children from school.
When school is out, the children are taken to the office where they get to see their parents at work. They attend meetings, negotiations, go to sites and can discuss and recite details about the sites. “They are better off learning than going to the Village Market. I tell them they need to see where their school fees comes from and how hard we have worked so they better not blow this money. It is a succession plan.” They do get reprieves on Sundays. If they ask kindly enough they go for pizza or movies.
This as their mother potters around the house, tending her small collection of flowers in a corner, while their father withdraws to sketch to loud music in his study. “We don’t go out dancing enough. I love my gardening, clean my house and my husband leaves so that he is not asked to move things around! I hang out with my girlfriends, I like to travel and we go for dinner and spend time away from home when we can as a couple. I love to entertain and when we have guests I don’t cater, I cook. Sometimes I just draw on my notebook.”
If there ever was the quintessential superwoman, Sue is clearly it! She however adds that “I don’t think there is one home that is the same as the other. And I got lucky with my man. He understands me.” The pair concedes what they do is pretty much steeped in faith and Sue is certainly proof that good things do happen to good people.
SUE’S REAL ESTATE TIPS:
- Start where you are and pace yourself. The first house you buy is not necessarily the one you will live in so do not worry about location.
- You do not have to do it alone. Ask your chama members or family to help you get started and make it a group investment. Do not think that just because you are a woman you are already handicapped or limited in any way. Always ask for help.
- Investigate who the architect of a property is and only buy if they are registered. If there is no architect, run the other way. Get an engineer to give your potential buy a once over to be safe.
- It is smarter to buy a home in the beginning before construction rather than upon completion when the price will have possibly doubled.