Samantha Zaaruka: Chip off the old block

By By Confidence Musariri
April 2011
IT is hard not to be inspired by the widely recognised economic growth story of Northern Namibia.

The region that has become a credible business destination has had close to a decade of robust growth and investment.

It has also rebounded from the effects of the liberation struggle, the floods and the recent global financial crisis faster than other regions in Namibia.

But amidst this development, there exists a missed opportunity - tackling gender-related obstacles - that have kept the majority of Namibian women out of the most vibrant economic sectors in the country.

Although feminisation of poverty still remains acute, one of the region’s top businessmen, Ben Zaaruka who has recently risen to the summit of black-owned conglomerates in that part of Namibia, has strategically placed his daughter at the top of his multibillion dollar empire, Benz Building Supplies.

Samantha Zaaruka is the Chief Executive Officer of Benz Building Supplies, the name Benz, derived from the owner’s first name and family name.

The company is a construction materials supplier and has grown to be the largest black owned supplier of construction materials in Namibia with a huge following in southern Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Laughter comes easily to Samantha and she quickly gives the impression of a woman who is secure in herself and is driven by her inner conviction.

“Working for my father is nothing to do with my blood. We are all a huge family here at Benz,” she begins, explaining that her job is through not by chance but merit.

One expects people who are directly involved with company business, especially by blood, to relax and view everything with little meaning but for Samantha it is a different case.

An example of how the relationship between Samantha and her father is based on professionalism, she was suspended without pay in 2007 for insubordination and negligence of duty.

“That is when I realised that this is not a food-and-drink type of job. I had to work and my supervisor keeps strict work ethics and such is how I have become over the years. Everyone is treated the same in this organisation,” says the only female chief executive in northern Namibia’s private sector.

Samantha is a refreshing surprise in the northern business circles.

Born in Windhoek some a little more than 30 years ago, she lauds her parents Ben and Sonya nee Krems for not treating her with kid gloves during her upbringing.

“I grew up in a reserve in Okakarara. I schooled in the deepest of rural areas in Okondjatu (Otjozondjupa region) from Grade One up to Grade Seven where we would walk up to 80 kilometres on foot to go back to the homesteads during weekends.

“There is nothing new to me about the harsh world out there that I did not experience. Today’s kids get everything, hence they are not flexible,” she says explaining how her two daughters sometimes refuse to go to school if the bread is not sandwiched.

Samantha wishes that every woman should reflect the conundrum that is her personality: “I would like every woman to have confidence, believe in themselves and climb the same ladder as men.”

With her strong Otjiherero dialect and background, she describes how she used to find it hard networking with age mates every time she visited her parent’s business in the North.

“I did not want to learn Oshiwambo or to speak it, so I was forced to stay indoors either at home or come with my father to work where I would spend the whole day following him and checking how he was doing his business.”

She frequented Oshakati where Benz Building Supplies was situated, every school break during her secondary school days at El Dorado in Windhoek.

Upon matriculating in 1998, Samantha used that long post-matric holiday while waiting for her results to help out as a receptionist at her father’s growing business. When the results finally came, Samantha had passed with flying colours but by then the chemistry of building materials and that adrenalin rush of everyday business challenges and fruition had gotten the better of her.

“I asked my dad if I could continue helping him before going for further studies and he reluctantly agreed. At the same time when I was supposed to leave for further studies, I was moved to the Receiving Department, which is the heart of any business supplier,” she recounts.

The Receiving Department is no ordinary man’s job. It requires a lot of oomph as it is where trucks are offloaded. This is where boxes are opened and consignment can easily ‘creep out’ of the company unnoticed.

“It is where I learnt about all the products and would challenge the guys on how to do things the easier way. Men always do it the hard way,” she laughs.

Out of sheer determination, she soon began helping out on posting material onto the computers as her product knowledge grew.

Only two of Benz’s children are involved with the company. Ashley, works in the construction and HR departments, while other siblings are either self-employed or professionals in economics, engineering among others.

No sooner had Samantha Zaaruka increased her keenness on the job than clients and other staff members began to consult her on the products.
“It needed a lot of research and I never wanted to give a wrong answer or to say ‘I don’t know.”

She confesses about how she has taught herself into the job with the help of seasoned employees in the organisation

“My father has been my motivation. I often refer to days when I used to see him stay awake the whole night working and planning this company while we as kids were in bed. So the burden to emulate and achieve greater things has inspired me,” says Samantha, now fluent in Oshiwambo.

Benz Building Supplies employs 300 people and most of the senior managers have worked at the company for the last 16 years.

“My immediate target is to make sure we open a branch in Angola and we are this close,” she says, narrowly sizing her thumb and index fingers.

The billion dollar state-of-the art Benz Building along Ongwediva’s main road has become every passer-by’s envy. It was constructed over the last five years and opened its doors in 2009.

“We are planning to officially open it soon and the opening this building will be accompanied by something bigger,” she says.

Samantha became CEO through ‘grace’.

The sudden death of the then CEO, Andrew Ndjendja in March 2010 created a vacancy which the whole company unanimously agreed to offer her, as she was by then the Head of the Receiving Department.

“I was fine where I was; now I have to oversee the business. I ensure our stock levels remain high and customer satisfaction is a priority. True, on occasions we differ with the MD on certain decisions, but the best part is that we have an MD who has an ear to listen to reason. He does not see tribe, race, colour or even blood. He is work oriented, so don’t count me as favoured.”

A host of other senior managers have been promoted not because of educational qualification but work experience and loyalty within the organisation.

Secilia Gabriel who has worked for 16 years is now the Head of Sales, and so is her husband, Lazarus who is Head of the construction department. Tulimeke Hatutale (Floor Supervisor), Tobias Handjaba (Sales Manager), Michael Markus (Manager: Timber Department) and Eveline Michael have all worked for 16 years in the company.

“That’s how a huge family we are. I only started around 12 years ago. We employ generations at this company, in some instances, the father, the son, the mother and the daughter. You will be surprised that it’s not only the Zaarukas with the same surname and bloodline here,” she says.

Unlike other women of her stage who regards time as their greatest enemy because of the dreaded crows’ feet and grey hair, time is an enemy to Samantha because it is never enough.

“I stay awake at night thinking about the things I would not have finished in 24 hours that have to be finished on the next day. Time is the reason why I have lost a social life.”

She doesn’t worry about the competition from other established entities like Cash Build, Pupkewitz and Penny Pinchers but thinks more of regional development.

“I was last in Windhoek in 2007 when I went for a check up at the dentist. I have never been to Windhoek since then. I do not own a house in Windhoek. Why would one travel to Windhoek when everything one wants is now in the North? Windhoek is fine but development in the North is on a fast wheel.”

Rather she sees her challenges being the uncontrolled mushrooming of Chinese businesses in the North.

“Chinese businesses must come and provide factories for us to do things on our own. They must teach us what we do not know not to become competitors because they are our friends and comrades from far back. Let them teach not compete,” she says.

Business is thriving for Benz. The company is one of the few that has strategically positioned itself to benefit from the rail and road link to the main port of Walvis Bay, and the Trans Cunene Corridor that extends deeper into Angola, to as far as Lubango.

“It is my duty to maintain the required supply, distribution and logistical capacity for our customers to be served efficiently. I am guided by the principle that one’s achievement is determined by the size of difficulty they overcome,” sums up not only the woman behind the successful Ben Zaaruka, but the chip off that old block. PF