Profiles

A chat with I&M Bank chief Kihara Maina

kihara

I&M Bank Chief Executive Kihara Maina during an interview on September 21, 2021. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Summary

  • Having graduated from Moi University in 1988, he cut his teeth in the banking world, starting off with Stanbic Bank in 1993. He would later join Barclays, where he started climbing the corporate ladder.
  • He joined I&M as CEO five years ago, shifting from his role as the managing director of Barclays Bank Tanzania that he had held for seven years.

Nairobi’s City Park and its majestic trees are clothed in an air of solemnity on a Tuesday morning when we arrive at the new I&M Bank #ticker:I&M. From the 7th floor, which has glass walls, the trees seem to have a dash of makeup on them. It could be the dust or the mist doing the trick.

We are yet to absorb all the refreshing forest views when Kihara Maina, the CEO, walks into the boardroom. He is warm and witty. With measured words and a ready answer to everything asked.

Having graduated from Moi University in 1988, he cut his teeth in the banking world, starting off with Stanbic Bank #ticker:SBIC in 1993. He would later join Barclays, where he started climbing the corporate ladder.

He joined I&M as CEO five years ago, shifting from his role as the managing director of Barclays Bank Tanzania that he had held for seven years. The 52-year-old grabs his cup of tea, asks about the best place to sit and is ready for a chat with Elvis Ondieki.

*****

A really green building...

Yes. It is one of the greenest buildings in the country, if not in Africa. Being environment-conscious is something we have incorporated in our culture, up to the way we manage our waste. We are extending it into the way we engage with our customers. We won’t finance customers who are destroying the environment.

It’s been five years of you leading I&M. How has it been?

I&M is a fantastic place to work in, and I’m privileged to work with 1,100 colleagues here in Kenya and almost 2,000 across the other countries where we are present — Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Mauritius. We are not a young bank. We were established back in 1974.

With Covid-19 came the discussion of working from office versus working from home. Do you think expensive offices matter or are they just to soothe egos?

That is something that we have to be very careful about when crafting the changing ways of working. While we have people working from home, we also take care to ensure that people don’t disappear. There are certain things that are lost when you move away from a physical office environment, and most of our communication is actually visual.

If you’re a new entrant, for instance, we don’t expect that you’re going to work away from the office for at least the first few months. You need to have a routine where you come into the office physically, you can rotate with people and all, so that you maintain that contact with the workplace; people get to know you and interact with you.

As for physical workplaces, I think offices are still important. But they will be reconfigured. A lot of people have had to rethink the way they use office spaces: do you really need an office? In some cases, people have discovered they actually don’t.

What is your leadership style?

I believe in the ability of people to find their way if they are guided and left to thrive.

I don’t believe in micro-managing. You hardly get anything done effectively. You see, if people are allowed to come up with their solutions, come up with their ideas, then that way they grow.

Is there a person you can say influenced your approach to leadership?

Obviously, having a long career with different organisations, you come across different styles. I’ve had many different managers I’ve worked with who brought up different things for me. I’ll single out (EAC Cabinet Secretary) Adan Mohamed. He was my MD when I was at Barclays. And I think he represented one of the most prolific growth periods for Barclays.

And I was privileged to be on his senior management team.

Speaking of careers, you studied mathematics and statistics then found yourself in banking. How did that happen?

During my undergraduate studies, I developed an interest in computer science. After studies at Moi University, I saw an advert for management trainees at a local bank and I applied for it.

As I joined banking, my interest was to apply my learning in computer sciences, because obviously there is great opportunity for innovation in banking. Banking is one of the most progressive industries; very early adopters of technology.

One of I&M’s international subsidiaries is in Mauritius. Why?

Yes, we have a presence in Mauritius as Bank One. Actually, that represents the first acquisition we did outside the country. We have a 50-50 deal with them. Being in Mauritius is not surprising because obviously, offshore banking has been established in Mauritius, hence its attractiveness. A lot of entities tend to incorporate in Mauritius because of their tax status. So, it’s not surprising to see Kenyan entities going into Mauritius.

I&M Bank set up a wealth management and advisory business targeting wealthy clients. How is it doing so far?

What we are setting out to do is to help people preserve their wealth and grow it. So, we are making it simpler for people to access different wealth management solutions. Anybody who has assets has an opportunity to manage assets and generate more wealth or preserve that wealth. And, mind you, wealth is not about riches. Everybody has a degree of wealth.

You’re a family man, I hear.

Yes, I have a lovely wife of 19 years and two children: a boy and a girl. It’s a very nice, well-rounded, well-balanced family.

You’re 52 now. What advice can you give to a 22-year-old?

I would tell them not to feel pressured to have a purpose at the stage they are in. The reality is that, at 22, you are unlikely to have decided upon what your life’s purpose is. So, try out different things, see what excites you, what really ignites your passion, and go with that. And don’t be afraid to change. The fact that you started out in one career doesn’t mean that that’s where you were designed to end up.

Stay focused on doing good and doing things the right way. There is a prayer that has always stuck in my head, attributed to St Francis of Assisi, about asking God to give you the strength to choose the hard right rather than the easy wrong. So, don’t look for the quickest way to get the Mercedes-Benz that is driven by Diamond (Platnumz) or whoever it is. It will come; you don’t have to hurry it along by taking shortcuts.

Legend says you’re also a pretty good golfer.

(Chuckles) I’m not a very good golfer. I just enjoy golf. So, I’ve been playing golf for probably 15 years or so, and it’s testament to the fact that I don’t get as much time to play that my handicap has been what some of my friends call a “commercial” handicap.

Golf is a very interesting game. You get the opportunity to exercise quite a lot of your body.

In a typical golf game, you walk eight to 10 kilometres. If you told most people to go that far on their own free will, they won’t do so.

My home club is Limuru. It has really thrived in the last few years, so it’s wonderful to see such an old club really doing well. My other golf club is Karen.

They say playing golf is like running a business. Any lessons it has taught you?

When you’re playing golf, you’re playing against many different things: the course, and it has been set up with obstacles and levels of difficulty and so on. So, you are trying to beat the course. But then when you’re playing with partners, you’re also trying to play against your partner. So, balancing all these competing interests is something that you see in business.

What do you read?

In terms of favourite reads, I like historical fiction. So, reading about the history of, say, London for example, told with historical events as they happened but through the eyes of some fictional characters.