Paul Russo on using his HR skills to lead KCB into the next growth frontiers

Paul Russo is the KCB Group chief executive. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

Paul Russo took over the reins at KCB Group from Joshua Oigara in late May, with his immediate task being implementing the group’s 2020 -2022 Beyond Banking Strategy which is aimed at leveraging on digital transformation to deliver “exceptional customer experience”. He spoke to the Business Daily about his idea of 'execution with urgency'.


You have said that “execution” is what will make you different from your predecessor. What exactly do you intend to do differently?

We have got the Beyond Banking strategy of which I have been part of the team building it. There is no question that it is a good strategy. But a strategy is as good as how it is executed. And my take is that we are behind in terms of execution on a number of key pillars.

Whether they are digital channels deployment from an IT point of view, optimisation on shared services delivery, on-boarding new-to-bank customers and leveraging on that or most importantly, bringing down the NPLs [non-performing loans].

There has to be a sense of urgency and execution behind it. When you are a new CEO, you take certain actions and set the tone from a leadership perspective.

What keeps you on your toes?

I am writing a new chapter with the team. It’s like a book. Joshua [Oigara] has written his chapter, Martin Oduor wrote his chapter before. I have got to think about how exciting my chapter will be when people will be reading it.

Genuinely, Joshua with the team has written a very good chapter. So I cannot afford to walk around and lazy around. It’s about thinking how that chapter will be and rally people to help me write it.

I tell my team: you can give that chapter a title, create a sentence, put a full-stop, create a paragraph or at minimum you can press ‘enter’ so that we write the next paragraph. That is my invitation to my team.

You are one of the few managers with a human resource background that have risen to the helm of the region’s largest bank. How does that make you feel?

Not everybody will clap for you when you are at the podium. That is the reality about careers and it’s a very important question. But many people ignore that I have been in the banking industry for the last 17 or so years.

If you look at my CV, most of the transformation projects in Barclays [now Absa] over 13 countries have my fingerprints in a number of those initiatives. I re-opened Chase Bank. Nobody at that point asked why a HR guy is re-opening Chase Bank on behalf of KCB and CBK [Central Bank of Kenya]. Look what we did at NBK.

What sets you apart?

For me, if you have got an opportunity, you do your best. Remember at the end of the day, it is your track record that will get you there. You have got to make a difference in that opportunity. I have always had this: I’ll go to where the best go. That has been my mantra. Bring any challenge and I’ll take it on.

And I have been in KCB Group for nine years on the executive committee. Over and above that I have a personal drive to deliver. There are two things that drive organisations: people and technology. It is people who drive technology.

It’s tasking to manage the business with regional operations in six countries with diverse cultures and sometimes regulations. How do you do this?

One of the things that they were looking for when they wanted to fill this role is cultural sensitivities. You must first be aware and appreciate that there are different cultures.

You must know how to navigate to get to the end of what you want. I don’t want to blow my trumpet, but people don’t know that I am the one who on-boarded and integrated BPR [Banque Populaire du Rwanda Plc]. So you have to get out there and build relationships and you must be deliberate about that.

What skills are important in managing subsidiaries in different countries?

You can’t sit in your corner office and think that things will move. At the end of the day, you have people on the ground. You just need to ask them ‘what do you require, how can I help’? It’s not going there with ‘I know’ attitude.

Your first entry into the country is your [subsidiary] MD and the board chair, and then you collectively move together whether you are talking to the regulator or customers.

It should not be a ‘big bull’ that has come from Nairobi because, after two or three days, you catch your flight and come back. Who have you left with the assignment? It’s the guys on the ground. So I believe in building very strong, empowered teams. And then I will just come to elevate their performance and their spirit.

Why are you not keen to introduce KCB brand in DRC when you complete acquisition of Trust Merchant Bank (TMB)?

There’s specifically no reason that we will say don’t introduce [the KCB brand in DRC]. But imagine a brand that has 110 branches and 1,500 staff. Think first about the logic of changing the brand and winning customers to that brand. They have connected to TMB.

They chose not to bank with other brands in that market. It becomes just difficult to transfer the psyche of the people and the brand affinity to yourselves. But I think we also need to be sensitive to people because I come from human capital side of the world.

Our values, cultural sensitivities are very different. You can’t be this dominant brand that acquires and pushes a way a certain brand. This is because that brand has a history. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never replace, but at the right time when people get to know your track record as KCB and you want to push that, then you can do it.

KCB is yet to get approval for risk-based pricing of loans. What do you think is the reason behind this?

Models are very different and you have to work with the regulator to get a shared understanding of how the model work and so forth. I can confidently say we have crossed paths. I am not a modelling expert but a leader, and we have engaged and closed that. If I was going to be fair to you, those who have gotten approval, why have they not implemented? That’s what I am asking myself.

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