From World Bank economist to Furniture Designer

Economist discovers passion in furniture design By Margaretta wa Gacheru Posted in Business Daily, Nairobi September 6, 2012 In Summary It was an ambitious venture, and one that Adamali has replicated strategically in various formats in other parts of the world, which is why he cannot be content just running the family business. Describing his life as a ‘balancing act’ between the furniture business and consultancy work, Adamali admits it hasn’t been easy installing new systems and getting his staff to cultivate the same professional work ethic that he has. Aref Adamali never planned to become a furniture designer, and even in his days as a student at the London School of Economics and Columbia University, he never imagined that one day he would apply the lessons he had learned to grow his father’s furniture enterprise. Share This Story All that changed when his father told him that he would either have to return home and help run the business, Woodcharm, or he closes it down. Adamali, a fourth-generation Kenyan, whose great grandfather first came to Kenya as a trader from Gujarat nearly a century ago, had learned to respect his family’s business acumen, so he agreed to return home. It was a major change for the policy strategist who had been living and consulting in numerous cities across the globe, from Kabul, Kigali and Washington DC, to New York, Boston, India and the Caribbean. But leaving the country, Adamali had grown up watching his father building his hand-crafted furniture business from the time he was a child. Born in Limuru on the family’s dairy and tea plantation, Adamali was a boy when his father decided to sell his dairy cows and the tea and make his own major move, first to Tigoni, then to Nairobi where Woodcharm was born on Kijabe Street. “Furniture making was initially just a hobby for me, but gradually it became my full-time preoccupation,” said Adamali’s father, Noor. “It all started with my making a diaper stand for our first born, but it gradually grew. Neighbors began asking me to design furniture for them, and after a while, I realised it was something I could do full time.” From the beginning, Woodcharm has mainly produced replicas of classical furniture designs, be they French, Italian or English. But one part of Adamali’s agenda since joining the family firm in 2008 has been to introduce contemporary designs. And that is how the ‘furniture art’ of Mary Collis came in. It was actually Diana Bird, former CEO of Deacons Ltd., who came into Woodcharm several months ago and showed Adamali a set of new fabrics all based on Collis’ colorful abstract expressionist art. Her idea was to use the fabric as upholstery for a new line of home furnishings. “I’ve always been a fan of Mary’s paintings, so I thought the idea could work,” said Adamali who surrounds himself at his Kijabe Street store with East African art. “So I selected the fabrics I liked best, and then I decided to create a set of trial products to see the market response,” said Aref who upholstered a love seat, Ottoman and set of safari chairs in Collis’ colorful fabrics. The whole set can be found at the new Woodcharm store at The Junction on Ngong Road in Nairobi where Adamali has also hung several of Collis’ colorful paintings to complement the new furniture art. But contemporary designs are just one of the innovations that Adamali has injected into the family business. “My plan was to put in new management and delegation systems that could run themselves. Then I could devote more time to my consultancy work,” said Adamali who runs his own consultancy firm when he’s not absorbed in the family business. Share This Story By day he runs Woodcharm, including the basement factory where 35 furniture makers work with mahogany imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I also do marketing, sales and public relations with the other (white collar) segment of my staff,” he added. But by night, Adamali juggles a variety of other interests, including the consultancy work he used to do with the World Bank and the OTF Group based in Boston. “OTF stands for On the Frontier,” said Adamali who consulted with that Group in Rwanda, India, the Caribbean and Afghanistan where he spent two years devising economic strategies to stimulate private sector development. It was an ambitious venture, and one that Adamali has replicated strategically in various formats in other parts of the world, which is why he cannot be content just running the family business. Describing his life as a ‘balancing act’ between the furniture business and consultancy work, Adamali admits it hasn’t been easy installing new systems and getting his staff to cultivate the same professional work ethic that he has. But he has also been impressed with how quickly his staff has adapted, especially as he admits he is something of a perfectionist. “I not only have the Gujurati work ethic in my blood; I also cultivated a ‘Protestant work ethic’ while working in the States,” said Adamali who appreciates the straight forward style of the Yanks. “They don’t beat around the bush; they just expect you to get the job done. And I like that style of performance. It’s what we are striving to do at Woodcharm.”

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