Why Barclays boss wants the freedom to dive with sharks


Barclays Bank Kenya CEO Jeremy Awori. PHOTO | COURTESY


CEO, Barclays Bank Kenya
Age: 44

Barclays Bank Kenya CEO Jeremy Awori wants to see golf embedded across the country as a discipline of camaraderie, to promote Kenya as a key golf tourism destination and also to eventually groom fellows who will win the United States Masters tournament. “And why not?” he posed.

We met in his office along Waiyaki Way. A most engaging interviewee he like a champion boxer frequently danced around my questions with such an arresting prose, depth and eloquence that I was simply left in awe.

Here's a man who knows the value of time and freedom and exactly what he wants to do with both before he is too old.


There is a large poster in the next meeting room that says, “to be rich, to be happy”, is there a truism to that?

For sure.

So wealth brings happiness?

You have a high chance of being happy, yes. If you are at the bottom of the spectrum, it’s not very easy to be happy when you can’t feed your family, but there comes a point also when excess money won’t make much of a difference. So one earning 100 million dollars and a billion dollars is not big difference but one earning 10,000 dollars and a million dollars is a big difference.

Paradoxically, that same money can create unhappiness, it can create conflict and other challenges but on a balance would I rather have money than not have money?

Are you happy?


So you have money?

I have money, yes. (Laughs) But relatively, everything is relative here. I don’t think you need 20 cars or two helicopters.

What’s your greatest possession, intangible or tangible?

Freedom to choose what I do, when I do it and how to do it.

When did you attain this freedom?

I think probably in the last five years? Various things instigated it; obviously career-wise you aspire for bigger jobs…(Pause). I think it’s important to have a degree of introspection, so I spend a lot time doing that. You know we aren’t prisoners of our destinies, we control our choices and not having a choice can very well be a function of making the wrong choices.

What’s the one thing you have pursued that has always been elusive and why? It could be an idea, a state…

(Laughs) You are like a psychologist; I wasn’t debriefed on this line of questioning. Well, I don’t think that there is something I’m missing because that will mean there is a vacuum and that I’m searching for something. (Pause) I think the on-going drive and quest is to be in a position where you can make a big difference in business or in a personal context: Change a place, a country, a person.

What or who has been your greatest influence in life?

I think a number of things, sports being one of them, I’ve done sports since I was like 9, swimming for Kenya until my 20s so I think that built a very competitive aspect in my life. I fight to win, and I don’t want to lose, that becomes an inherent driver in whatever I do.

Then family; the way my family has lived a life of higher aspiration but also one that hinges on humility and respect. This is very important.

Just how big has the family name – Awori - loomed over your life and with what impact?

Yes, it has been very impactful. There are a lot of people who might want to justify their lives - that you got what you have by virtue of your family name; that has always been a feature in my life and career. It was more of an issue when I was young, not now.

Before 30, I was already running a huge business in East Africa, people thought the position deserved an older person. There are high expectations from the name, we are fortunate to have had many successful Aworis in the past, and I would never want to let the name - or family - down. I wouldn’t want to bring disrepute to the family, it’s critical.

At 44, what are you struggling with right now?

The challenge is to balance all this. There are expectations all around. I think when you are CEO, everything comes back to you ultimately and that comes with responsibility. You are on the job round the clock. There is never enough time; how do I become more efficient with time? Money you can get back, time you can’t and I need to use it effectively to balance everything out. I tend to work too hard and it affects relationships with my close relations.

What part of this job do you least enjoy?

I think the very long hours. I have many competing demands that make it tough because you have to make a trade-off. There are people who knock off at 5 and go to the bar and forget work until the next day. You can’t knock off at 5 when you sit at my desk.

Is it really that cold at the top?

(Pause) I think it definitely can be. (Pause) It is. It definitely is challenging at the top, every decision you make comes back to you. When you get to the top, you will need people to get you honest and true to your values.

Shall we talk about kids and fatherhood?

Sure. I have two boys and one girl, youngest is 8 years old and two teenagers, the eldest, a girl, is 17.

What is your weakness as a father?

Time. I need to get better at spending quality time, be fully present and available without distractions. I have brought them up to be very independent in their thinking and free to express themselves, so I frequently get raw feedback from them.

Do they like you?

(Laughs) I would hope so! Maybe not all the time, maybe they like me when they like what I’m doing.

This is an unfair question, but I’m curious to see how you will handle it; are you better at being a CEO or a husband?

(Chuckles) You would have to ask the wife. (Pause). I will answer you this way; I give more time to the bank. Probably I shouldn’t.

When are you most vulnerable, when you are not Jeremy the CEO, or a husband or a father?

(Long pause and sigh) I don’t know, there is no amount of time available for me to be vulnerable. (Laughs hard). You don’t think about it, but every time you have to do a big delivery, of course, you get a bit vulnerable. I think I’m wired different.

Have you thought about midlife crisis, will you get a chopper or take off to Asia and live in a shack, or maybe run off with a new wife?

(Laughs) I think it hits people in different ways. What I know is that this decade will be the best I have ever had and the next will be even better - God willing. I think as one progresses, you realise you need to do what you need to do and tick them off. Am I going to try to dress like a teenager? My kids won’t even allow it. But in your 40s you ask yourself; what am I here for?

What is on your Bucket List?

I would want to do shark-cage diving. I tried it once but the weather was against me. I tried to skydive in Dubai last weekend but they were fully booked. I would like to visit South America and experience the Rio Carnival when I’m not a pensioner.

(Laughs) I also want to go to Cuba. Most of these things I want to do with the kids, to give them special and lasting memories.

What’s the riskiest thing you have ever done?

The decision to work in the Middle East back in 2003 was a massive decision. I had achieved success in Kenya and there I was going into a completely different market; I wasn’t Muslim, it was a new market, a new product, new culture, new environment and I would have failed.

There were no examples of Africans who had been there before me and I was the youngest business leader in Standard Chartered Bank, and they were giving me a responsibility to run this business that was bigger than the whole of Africa at 32 years of age. Big risk!

What’s your greatest extravagance?

Cars and watches. I don’t often spend; don’t see the need but when I buy stuff, it will be expensive stuff.

What watch is that?

It’s a Tag Heuer. I own several watches, what I wear depends on my mood. I have watches about 40-years-old, very simple but which I spend good money servicing.

What’s the price tag on that Tag?

Oh no, I can’t tell you. (Laughs).

Come on tell me, what, half a million?

(Laughs) You sound like my son, always pressing me to tell him how much it costs. But a good watch will last you forever, you can pass it to your kids and it becomes special.

What car are you?

(Thinks) I would say probably a DB9 Aston Martin. Or maybe a Bentley.

Here is an Obama question: have you ever smoked weed - and inhaled?

(Laughs loud) That for sure, I will never answer. Never!