It is befitting indeed that the passing of former Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore has been a huge talking point this week. The outpouring of grief, the public mourning and the spontaneous rush to twitter upon the announcement of his death on Monday were truly remarkable.
His life and times, his tenure as chief executive of the most profitable company in the region, is an engaging lesson on how the personality of a CEO can impact on the fortunes of a large and successful corporation. Collymore has left the scene after making made a huge imprint on the telecommunications sector at a critical time in the evolution of what has emerged as the foremost growth sector in the economy.
He had taken over the mantle from founding star CEO Michael Joseph. As happens frequently, CEOs who take over from founding star CEOs and founding leaders tend to stumble. Indeed, the corporate world is replete with examples of CEOs who came tumbling after taking over from founders of large corporations.
Mr Joseph was a corporate titan with a larger than life reputation and standing in society.
Yet Mr Collymore did not disappoint. He has left behind a better company than he inherited.
In quantitative terms – subscriber numbers, turnover, profit, dividends ,Safaricom’s growth have indeed been phenomenal under Mr Collymore’s watch.
There will be lessons there for corporate Kenya to learn. Within Safaricom itself, there are staff who describe him as a control freak who was inclined to reject hundreds of proposals and ideas in the quest for his idea of perfection.
But what exactly did Mr Collymore do to achieve such phenomenal success? First, by making well-timed capex project and investment- by staying ahead and outspending the competition at every stage- and through constant innovation and superior customer service.
Secondly, by transforming the telco into a purpose-led digital company. It is Mr Collymore who is credited for changing the focus of the company from voice to provision of data services.
Thirdly, he was strong at forging partnerships and alliances.
In his nine years as the steward of Safaricom, he excelled in conceiving profitable partnerships and alliances with other service providers, including public utilities, commercial banks and mobile money players.
M-Pesa-perhaps the greatest mobile money application in the world, has evolved into one of the most formidable players in the economy’s national payments system. M-Pesa may not be a commercial bank, but it has graduated into what wonks call, systemically important financial institution. That is why when the M-Pesa system goes down today the impact is felt throughout the land.
Fourthly, technically an employee of UK’s Vodafone Group seconded to Safaricom, it was remarkable how he astutely navigated a relationship with domestic shareholders of the company- especially the government.
With the two main competitors- Airtel and Telkom Kenya both facing financial doldrums, having been outspent in terms of capex, Safaricom’s grip of the market and its power and strength was bound to soar. Then there was the fact that the regulator, the Communications Authority of Kenya, was also beginning to start talking about regulation of dominant market power.
Indeed, a competition study sponsored by the regulator and conducted by consultant Analyss Mason of the UK had come up with a raft of recommendations suggesting new models of dealing with dominant market power. There was even talk about a recommendation to break the company into separate parts.
It was clear that Mr Collymore would be called upon to navigate an uncertain regulatory risk environment. He managed the situation by maintaining a solid relationship with the government.
During a church service in his honour at the All Saints Cathedral yesterday, President Uhuru Kenyatta disclosed just how much of close friends he and Mr Collymore had been. He was eulogised as having helped the government to successfully implement an extensive camera surveillance project for Nairobi and Mombasa. He was also praised for helping the government put out a modern policy communications project.
Clearly, there will be major lessons to learn for CEOs of multinationals on how to relate to the host state.