What you need to know:
- In many ways, Mr Oigara’s life story is one that will be familiar to many Kenyans. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth
- The CEO admits to being a perfectionist and the giveaway of an obsessively organised fellow is there to see in the fact there is not a single piece of paper on his black, mahogany desk. Only his laptop and smartphone
Joshua Oigara was a quiet student and his teacher in primary school was quite sure that this trait would end up being a fatal flaw.
Nobody succeeds by being quiet, he said. Young Joshua had other ideas. He wouldn’t change his personality. But he threw himself into his books with a singular zeal that helped propel him to his current position as one of the brightest young stars on the Kenyan corporate scene.
His appointment on November 29 as the chief executive officer of the Kenya Commercial Bank, East Africa’s largest bank by asset base and one of the most recognisable brands in the region, was the capstone of a career that has seen him climb the corporate ladder at dizzying speed.
At 37, Mr Oigara is one of the youngest CEOs of a blue-chip company in East Africa and his appointment caused a major buzz because the job had been expected to go to a much older figure at an institution which for many years was seen as the bank of choice for establishment elites.
At one point before it was privatised, the head of the bank drove around in a limousine with the registration plate KCB 1, an honour only reserved for government officials at the level of the Speaker, Chief Justice and Chief of General Staff.
The questions that dominated the tweets and Facebook postings of young business students in the hours following the appointment were, “How did he do it?” “How can I forge a career like Joshua Oigara’s?” “What prepared him for his achievements in the corporate world such as his appointment to the position of Group Finance Director at Bamburi Cement Group at the age of 32?”
Lifestyle set out to seek answers to these and other questions in an interview at the eighth floor office at Kencom House in downtown Nairobi from which Mr Oigara will run the region’s biggest bank.
It was not easy getting an answer to all these queries because Mr Oigara – as one would expect from a man in a position where one’s words can cause his company’s share price to rise or fall – is a masterfully elusive interview subject, well practised in the art of choosing his words carefully and giving as little away as he can get away with.
In many ways, Mr Oigara’s life story is one that will be familiar to many Kenyans. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents William and Diana Oigara were both schoolteachers and tea farmers at the Gesima Settlement Scheme in Borabu, where he grew up.
His parents had a consuming ambition to offer their children the best education they could get.
“My father stressed time and again that the only inheritance he could give us was a good education,” says Mr Oigara.
Young Joshua was under considerable pressure in primary school because his older siblings were already outstanding students by the time he went to school. (One of his older sisters is a professor as is his elder brother while another sibling is a medical doctor).
“I was never the loudest of kids. But I lived by one motto – doing my best is the only thing I have got. I see life as a marathon. When you are racing in the Olympics, you run knowing it’s the only race you have got and you won’t get second chances in that particular race.”
Joshua excelled to a level where he constantly came top of his class at the Adventist boarding school where he was sent at a tender age beginning in Class Four. At one point, he went to his desk to discover some pupils had burnt his books out of envy at his endless success in the classroom – and the frequent trophies that record yielded.
After high school, he was admitted to the University of Nairobi to study for a Bachelor of Commerce (accounting option) degree.
Mr Oigara describes his time as an undergraduate as one of the most important periods in shaping his eventual career.
“UoN was really my big break. I was the best student and had the privilege of being an official of the Finance Students Association and I also played a role in the (students organisation) AIESEC.”
AIESEC is the International Economic and Commercial Sciences Students Association.
His activities in these organisations helped the young student meet many key players in finance circles, including then Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya (ICPAK) head Martin Oduor-Otieno, who he is replacing at KCB.
By the time Joshua left college in 1997, he was a certified public accountant having taken his exams at the Strathmore University school of accountancy and he had four job offers.
He picked PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), because, he says, they have an excellent training programme.
“Right from a young age,” he says, “my ambition was to be a CEO of a blue-chip company by the time I am 40 although at the time I’m not even sure I knew exactly what a blue-chip company was.”
His rise up the corporate ladder was swift. He was appointed senior associate a year after joining and, in 2002, he decided to move on to Bidco Oil Ltd.
He says he was attracted to Bidco because he wanted to learn more from Vimal Shah, who was an entrepreneur he admired.
“I was struck by Vimal’s move from university to Bidco, which was a family business. He went there with the ambition and plan to turn it into a multinational with a presence across Africa. It was a radical and aggressive move and I wanted to take part in the process.”
He was soon head-hunted by representatives of Bamburi East Africa, a subsidiary of Lafarge, the world leader in the building materials industry. Bamburi has forged a reputation as a production line of top business leaders in the country.
Mr Oigara is now one of the most distinguished products of the company. He was swiftly promoted from Manager Business Performance at the firm’s Uganda subsidiary, Hima Cement Ltd, to Group Controller, Finance and, in 2008, the board decided to make him Group Finance Director.
It was a tricky job for a youth to take up, given the natural scepticism one would attract at that level.
“It was not easy going before a large board with the task of outlining and selling the company’s strategy at first. But when they found I meant well and the strategy made sense, they fully supported me.”
Mr Oigara said he counted on the support of several senior colleagues who gave him a sounding board for his ideas but also were frank enough to criticise him. Among others, he singles out Mr Mbuvi Ngunze, who was his boss at Bamburi and is now Chief Operating Officer at Kenya Airways, and Ms Sheila M’Mbijiwe, another board member at Bamburi.
He says one of his most critical support pillars was the chairman of the Bamburi board at the time Richard Kemoli, who showed unstinting faith in his abilities despite the vast gulf in age between the two.
“He believed in youth and he believed in my abilities. As long as he could see you were capable of doing the job he would place his trust in you. He told me he wanted to leave a mark by handing over to a younger generation. I was like a son to him. He was also my proposer at the Karen Country Club, which helped open up a whole new world of social networks.”
Bamburi and Lafarge helped contribute to Mr Oigara’s professional development as he obtained his Masters in Business Administration in international business management and also took part in several business development programmes while working there including the prestigious INSEAD business school.
Eventually, the head-hunters came calling again and offered him a job as Group Finance Director at KCB. Mr Oigara denies press reports that his move caused bad blood between KCB and Bamburi.
He says he has “excellent” working relations with all his former employers.
“Lafarge is very broad minded about these things. It’s a big business. They know I can go back there to do another job like, say, head their operation in Brazil.”
So what tips would he give to those who aspire to achieve similar levels of success?
Mr Oigara says it is important not to think there is one formula for success and says everyone must forge their own path.
But he offers some general advice. He says aspiring CEOs must be willing to put in the work to expand their knowledge base.
“To run a business you don’t have to be a specialist. It is more of a job for a generalist. The bank can hire the best accountant or marketer it needs. The CEO is a captain. The key task for the captain is to inspire the team. It is not enough simply to get the degree in marketing or finance. One should be able to broaden their knowledge base considerably.”
Mr Oigara says those who do not put in the hard graft to get ahead are unlikely to succeed: “There’s no short-cut to success. You can’t just hope and pray. Hope is not a strategy. You must be willing to put in more time than everyone else to be better.”
The CEO admits to being a perfectionist and the giveaway of an obsessively organised fellow is there to see in the fact there is not a single piece of paper on his black, mahogany desk. Only his laptop and smartphone.
There are tomes
But there are books all over. And not just books on finance. There are tomes on governance (Why Nations Fail), development (The Fastest Billion), politics (The Price of Politics, an Examination of Efforts by Barack Obama to Steady the US Economy in his First Term) motivation (Great by Choice).
Where does he find the time to read all these books amid his cramped schedule at such a senior level?
“People typically work for eight hours a day. I work more. They sleep for eight hours. I sleep less. Eight hours are typically wasted. I try to reduce that. I create an hour to read. People can write a thesis on why they can’t succeed. But it’s better to look for solutions.
“Here at KCB we have several staff members with Ph.Ds. There’s no reason why one can’t juggle their responsibilities. I still want to do another masters and eventually my Ph.D. My aspiration is to go to teach after a few years on the job. I don’t want to be a CEO until I die.”
Where does family fit in all this? At this point, Mr Oigara’s studious approach fades away and he loosens up.
He is the father of three children aged 11, 8 and 1, and he clearly sees making time for them as one of his more important responsibilities.
“I take my children to school every day and that’s the main chance we have to socialise. On weekends I take them out to play tennis and swim and on Sunday we go to church. Typically, my eight-year-old daughter won’t sleep until I read her a story and I used to have a lot of problems with that because I would tell her a story and she would stop me saying I had already told that one. Luckily, someone introduced me to the book series ‘A story a day’ and that really helped.”