Man about town

How camels drive new KCB boss's resilience

paul russo

New KCB Group chief executive Paul Russo. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Sure, you might tell a lot about a man’s character by how he plays golf. However, in Paul Russo’s case, you can also tell the man he is by how he loves his camels.

A week before the end of 2020, he took this writer for a three-day tour of his hometown Marsabit where he grew up. On the first day, they drove through the patched and dry landscape, finally stumbling upon his long-necked flock.

He walked through a short brush, past tens of camels feeding, looking for his favourite camel. Finally, he stumbled upon her feeding and the animal, recognising him, lowered her head and kissed him on the cheek. Literally.

Later, Russo squatted with herdsmen from his village, around a small crackling fire and drank warm milk freshly squeezed from the udder of a camel as a massive orange sun fell behind his back.

“Camels are our companions. They go the distance, they can fail to get water for another four or seven days but they keep going,” he said. “These animals teach you resilience, which is very critical in the corporate world.”

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For most of his life, Russo’s journey has been about getting into rooms that people who grew up in the circumstances he did in Laisamis, northern Kenya only dreamt of.

From Mangu High School, a business management degree from Moi University, a higher diploma in human resource (HR) management from the Institute of Human Resources Kenya and an MBA from Strathmore Business School, he is slowly built an education resume throughout his career that started in HR at Kenya Breweries, Barclay Card, PwC, Barclays Bank PLC before getting into KCB Group as business director, National Bank managing director and now CEO of KCB Group.

He’s now slipping into the boots of Joshua Oigara, the outgoing CEO who has steered the bank since 2012 when the bank seemed to have edged into a cul-de-sac of growth. The bank has just opened a branch in Burundi and has footprints in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

“Paul brings a wealth of experience in banking, operational management, people management, strategy, and a sharp business acumen,” KCB said when it announced that he was taking over as the group CEO.

Mr Oigara has left a brilliant scorecard. He built the bank that was making revenues of Sh8.8 billion in 2000 to a balance sheet of Sh1.1 trillion. Over the years, the bank has outperformed the NSE 20 Index by nearly 4,000 percent.

It remains to be seen what rabbit Mr Oigara’s successor pulls from his corporate hat. A capable hat that has been tested continually in the corporate circus, his last move being turning around NBK, which KCB acquired in 2019.

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“During his tenure at NBK, he has executed a significant turnaround, moving the previously lossmaking business into profitability and on a trajectory for stronger growth into the future,” KCB said in a statement.

KCB Group chairman Andrew Wambari Kairu said Mr Russo is the right person for the job and will take the lender to the next level in its growth ambitions as it seeks to become the regional leader in the industry.

Failure is not in his deck of cards. Never has been because failure for him would not just be limited to his career but even more adversely to people from his village. His village is called Songa and as of 2020, it had only produced 20 university graduates. One failure is a failure for all Songans.

“Where I come from everybody wakes up and they just fight for survival. You fight bandits for your livestock, water and pasture,” he said. Survival, grit, determination and consistency are buzzwords that might jump out of a self-help book, but for Russo are a way of life.