The birth and growth of Impala: An insider’s viewpoint!

She is soft-spoken and has an infectious smile, but don’t be fooled by her unassuming demeanor. “I believe in laughing and joking with my team, but when it comes to business it’s about results. Business comes first – there is no compromise, no laughing and no joking. I want results,” she says without mincing her words and without blinking her eyes.
Behind the soft voice and behind the affectionate smile, Ms Viola Chirata, the General Manager at Impala Car Rental oozes deep knowledge and vast experience on how to run a car rental business. Her profound insight into the car rental business is understandable – Ms Chirata was there from day one when Impala Car Rental started operations in 2007. It’s the only job she has known over the past 13 years and she loves it to bits.
They say, being both soft and strong is a combination very few have mastered, but Ms Chirata epitomizes these two rare traits. She is a good example that illustrates that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” as the Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci would say.
Straight from university, Ms Chirata plunged into the trenches and was thrown at the deep end at Impala Car Rental. Some of her colleagues resigned from their posts even before Impala Car Rental started operating, but Ms Chirata rose to the occasion as she was in the thick of things as the company grew from owning four Sedan vehicles to the current fleet of over 200 top of the range vehicles.
She looks back with her usual smile: “I have to tell you this, things were very, very difficult during the first days. When I joined Impala in 2007, I was coming straight from college. We opened Impala in August 2007.
“At that time Mr Thompson Dondo was still in the UK. We came for interviews and we were supposed to start with two other colleagues. I was a car rental consultant and there was supposed to have a senior car rental consultant, a manager and a driver. There was also Mr Alfred Dondo, the big brother to Mr Thompson Dondo.
“When we were about to start operating, the senior car rental consultant and the manager decided to resign before we even started operating. They said they could not take a gamble because Impala Car Rental was a new company and they were not sure that the company would survive. These two were coming from well established companies and so they doubted that Impala Car Rental could survive in the market.
“Mr Thompson Dondo called me from the UK and told me that the two had resigned. He asked me if I could pull the business on my own and I said ‘yes.’ I asked him to look for someone who could just train me on how to go about the business. The gentleman who was supposed to be the senior car rental consultant came and trained me on how to run the business for a month.
“So in the beginning it was me, the driver and Mr Alfred Dondo. We only had four cars – some Nissan Sedan cars. It was so, so difficult during these first days.
“When Mr Dondo came back from the UK, our business went down because he was no longer in the UK to market our company. At the same time, because we were not an established organization we were failing to break into the local market.
“Things got so difficult that at some point we decided to venture into other projects like piggery, we started a bakery company at some point and a car suspension center. We came up with these projects in a bid to supplement the car rental business that was struggling. The car rental business was so, so difficult during these days,” said Ms Chirata.
She quickly added: “We would sometimes go home without our salaries. I remember back then, due to the financial difficulties we were facing, we would get weekly wages. This was the only way out of the situation then.”
Ms Chirata has a degree in Tourism and Hospitality from the University of Zimbabwe. She graduated in 2005 and since then has fallen in love with the car renting business. After joining Impala Car Rental as a car rental consultancy, she was later promoted to be the company’s operations manager.
“I served in this position (operations manager) for a number of years. In 2019 that’s when I was appointed at the general manager. I grew up with this company and so I know the going-ins and the going-outs of this company,” she said.
Ms Chirata explained that although business was tough during the early days and although she was still green from university, she remained loyal to Impala Car Rental because she believed in Mr Dondo’s vision.
“Remember I was coming from college and so I had nothing to lose. I was looking for a job and I couldn’t afford to be too choosy. These two colleagues who resigned were worried about job security – they were coming from well-established companies and they thought Impala Car Rental would not survive. They always asked ‘what if it doesn’t work?’ So they were worried about such things but as for me I had nothing to worry about.
“Mr Dondo explained his vision to me and I bought into it. Even though things were tough, I could see his vision and the determination to achieve that vision. He was very passionate about the business.
“When we started the company we were targeting Zimbabweans who were coming from the UK. Mr Thompson Dondo was still based in the UK and so he is the one who would market the business to Zimbabweans there. We would put adverts about our company on the online edition. So our focus in the beginning was the UK market.
“As for the local market, we couldn’t even compete with the car rental companies that were there at that time. Despite it all, I could see that Mr Dondo was a winner. He has this amazing winning mentality and I think that has also rubbed on to me and most of the team members,” she said.
Indeed, the phenomenal growth of Impala Car Rental over the past few years is clear testimony of a team with a winning mentality. The company has pushed competition to the periphery and is now the leading car rental company in the country.
Asked about her leadership style, she said: “I adopted my leadership style from our chief executive officer, Mr Thompson Dondo. He doesn’t macro manage his subordinates. He gives everyone the room to be innovative, to dream big as long as you get the results. So basically that’s also my leadership style. I just tell my managers what we want to achieve and I let them do their work. I let them to think outside the box to achieve the set targets.
“I have a team of 10 managers – we have 10 departments – Finance, Brand Management, Digital Marketing, Fleet Management, Vehicle Procurement, Customer Service, Human Resources, Sales, Security and we have our regional offices in Bulawayo and Victoria Falls – we have a manager there.
“We have over 70 employees in Zimbabwe. We opened another branch in Zambia in September last year, but our operations were disturbed by the corona virus lockdown.”
While the company has witnessed such growth, Ms Chirata says Mr Dondo has remained the hands-on leader she has known from the first day the company started operations.
“Mr Dondo hasn’t changed that much. He is still the Thompson Dondo that I knew back them. It’s only that now the business has grown and he is the CEO. When he came back from the UK, it was only me and him in the office. During those days, whenever the driver was busy I would put on my dust coast and wash the cars. Sometimes I would take my annual leave and leave Mr Dondo in the office and he would do everything on his own – all the office work.
“He was a hands-on person from that time and he is still hands-on up to this day. He knows everything that happens here and he can do anything that needs to be done. He grew up with this business and so he is well-versed with all the operations,” said Ms Chirata.
She added: “I have learnt a lot about determination and hard work. If anyone had told me during the early years that Impala Car Rental was going to be a big company, I would laugh at that person. Things didn’t look that way, but through determination and hard work, we are now the leading car rental company in the country. I have also learnt that growth does not come overnight and it doesn’t come cheap. You have to work and sweat for it.
“We are in the business of renting out cars to individuals, private and public companies. We rent out cars to NGOs, tourists, diplomats and so on – literally everyone who wants to hire a car. And without bragging, I don’t think there is any company that can match our standards out there.”
But how has it been for Ms Chirata as a female general manger running such a big company?
“Yes, we have more male employees, but that doesn’t affect me in any way. Maybe it’s because I was here from the first day and most of the employees here came after me. So I know all the systems, the operations and the culture at Impala.
“I am also grateful of the support that I get from the CEO and the board that is led by Mr Philip Ncube. They don’t make me feel like a woman. They make me feel like a team leader. Even the employees, they respect me a lot, not as a woman but as their leader.
“If you see me in the canteen laughing with the team, you won’t even think I am the general manager. However, when it comes to work, everyone knows its serious business,” said Ms Chirata.
She attributed the company’s growth over the past few years to the “deliberate decision” that the company took in 2013.
“For us to be where we are today, it’s because of the deliberate decision we took in 2013. In 2013, we held our first strategy session for Impala Car Rental. In that session we were asking ourselves tough questions. We asked ourselves – where are we as a company? Why are we where we are? What exactly do we want to do and how are we going to do what we want to do?
“During that strategy session that’s when we decided that we should focus only on the car rental business. We decided to stop all the other business ventures we had started. We focused on the car rental business only. I vividly remember we came up with a vision that we wanted to be the leading car rental company in the country by 2017. We were using 2017 as our benchmark because that was to be our 10th anniversary.
“So we focused on the car rental business and starting from 2015, we started winning awards in the car rental business. From 2016, the graph kept going up and up to now the graph keeps going up. We are getting so many awards from different organizations. This is a clear testimony and a vindication of the deliberate decision we took in 2013,” said Ms Chirata.
With so much growth and so many awards, came the negative publicity, but Ms Chirata wasn’t fazed at all.
“As we were struggling in the trenches, as we were still a small company and as we tried to find our feet, no one cared and noticed us. Now that we are the leaders in the business, all eyes are on us.
“But I have to be honest, the recent negative publicity took me by surprise. We had never experienced that kind of negative publicity and so it came to us as a surprise. What surprised us even more was that there were so many lies that were being peddled on social media about Impala Car Rental. Like I told you, I was with this company from day one and I know everything that goes on here.
“When the negative publicity started, myself and the majority of team members were taken aback. We wondered what exactly was going on. I am sure others actually pictured the company collapsing. This was quite understandable because this was totally new to the team.
“However, after a while, we started seeing the negative publicity as a learning curve. We understood that such things come with the territory. If you are a big brand, people are bound to do such things. This has happened to other big brands like Econet and I fully understood that as the leaders in the car rental business, we were supposed to expect the negativity at some point.
“But I don’t want to lie, zvakandibata to read people writing complete lies about the company. At first we were accused of refusing to give information to police to facilitate investigations. We never refused to do this. From day one, we accepted that yes it was our car that was used in the alleged abduction of Tawanda Muchehiwa. We never denied that and when police came we cooperated. We issued a press statement accepting that it was our car and we went on to handover all the required documents to police.
“We had nothing to hide and we did everything that we were supposed to do, but some people expected us to give the name of our client to the social media. We are a corporate organization that is run professionally. That was and is not possible to do ethically. We had and we still have a mandate to protect the confidentiality of our clients.
“The negative publicity has taught me that the social media pushes certain agendas and they don’t care about the truth. They don’t want to give the whole picture. They give a picture that they want their readers to read and believe. And so we decided that we were not going to play to the social media gallery.
“The other hurtful lie was to read some media organisations saying Impala Car Rental is owned by the CIO and so on. I was like yooo! Which company are they talking about? (laughs). But I was not very surprised because over the years I have heard people saying this company is owned by Mujuru, Mai Mujuru, Grace Mugabe and so on. Sometimes I would tell Mr Dondo that people are saying this company is owned by so and so and he would say let them think whatever they want.
“You see, Mr Dondo is not someone who is excited to let people know that he is the owner of the business. Some of our clients when they see him here they think he is just one of the employees. He really doesn’t mind.
“To be honest the owner of this business is Mr Dondo. This is a family business. The family has 100 percent shareholding. If you look at our CR14, the directors are Francisca Dondo who is Mr Dondo’s wife and Clara Dondo, his sister. I was here from day one and I know what I am talking about.
“Sometimes when we want to make decisions here, Mr Dondo always jokingly say “ita zvandataura ndini mudhara wacho hakuna umwe to consult.”
“It was so hurtful to read all those lies, especially for me because I was here from day one when Impala Car Rental started operations. But I was confident that all this would come to pass because of our solid foundation, our working culture and the fact that the truth will always prevail over lies. Mr Dondo gave us assurance that these were toothless dogs barking at a moving train. We that assurance, we were good to go,” said Ms Chirata.
But what is the trick that has made Impala Car Rental brand such a household name in the car rental business?
“The most effective strategy we have used to market our brand is our corporate social responsibility. By nature Mr Dondo is a giver. He is someone who is into giving. We started by assisting artistes, I remember we assisted Suluman Chimbetu, DJs Zobha and Bridget Gavanga, we assisted Jah Prayzah, Selmor Mtukudzi and many others. We would assist these people in their projects and we would advertise our company in the process.
“We even went beyond our borders and invited Casper Nyovest from South Africa and Nasty C. We know people love music and we use music as a vehicle to market our company. We also use the traditional marketing strategies – advertising on television, radio and newspapers. We have also benefited a lot from the ‘word of mouth’ advertising. Our service speaks for itself and clients refer their friends and relatives to come and experience our excellent service.
“We also have a foundation – the Alfred Dondo Foundation – we invite artists to come and perform to fund-raise for this foundation. The foundation has more than 60 children that we cater for in terms of paying school fees and buying uniforms. Most of these children are from Chivhu (Mr Dondo rural home) but now the foundation is looking after children from all over the country. Last year we worked with Nasty C on this project.
“We also help other needy people we see in the community. Like I told you Mr Dondo is a giver. He believes in giving back to the community. Sometimes he helps people and he doesn’t even want publicity around it. That’s his nature.
“Also, I have an amazing team. Very motivated and very hard working. When someone gets employed here, they don’t want to leave. There is a family culture. I know for sure when the negative publicity started, some among my team cried. That’s how attached they are to this company.
“We cry together, we laugh together, we work together. We have a policy that we win as a team and we lose as a team,” said Ms Chirata.
Asked what advice she would give to young girls who, like her in 2007, are looking for jobs straight from university, Ms Chirata said: “They should know that the growth of a company doesn’t happen overnight. They should focus on what they are passionate about and they should not expect everything to be rosy in the beginning. Hardships are part of the deal.
“Know what you want in life and pursue that. Mr Dondo always tells me that ‘if you don’t like your job, it’s pointless to keep hanging on to it.’ Do what you are passionate about. The passion should come first and everything else will fall into place.
“I am happy that the girl child is making strides in terms of recognition in society. The old-fashioned perception where a woman was seen as someone who should stay at home only to raise kids has changed. The girl child is slowly taking her rightful place in society.
“For example here at Impala Car Rental, I told you we have 10 managers. It gives me lots of pride that the majority of them are women. They know it’s all about delivery and results. My advice to other young girls out there is – down look down upon yourself. Dream big and you will achieve anything that you want. Identify what you are passionate about and pursue that.”
And so after dominating the local market, what’s next for Impala Car Rental?
“In Zimbabwe, our footprints are everywhere. We are almost saturating the market. Our plans are now to go regional. In five years we want to conquer Southern Africa that’s why we are now in Zambia,” said Ms Chirata.