Profiles

You’ve got to be super confident

mark

Knight Frank chief executive officer Mark Dunford during the interview at Artcaffé Riverside Drive on June 14, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

He doesn’t particularly accept his Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) but Mark Dunford’s immediate environment speaks otherwise. At the table he sat at Art Cafe, 14 Riverside, his tools were arranged around him in great fastidious order, like a passing lineup: leather-bound notepad, two phones, a slick pen case, a laptop bearing the flag of Kenya, car keys, and a wallet.

He wore two watches on each wrist because he’s Mark Dunford. His hair was coiffed, not a strand out of place. Dress shoes, spit-shined. His suit was something you appear in for your wedding. Or a very important date in court. He’s deliberate, you can tell, and supremely confident not to mention charming.

He carries all these qualities to a new job as the CEO of Knight Frank Kenya. Prior he worked in the strategic advisory and commercial real estate sectors and was a partner- head of investment and commercial, Cavendish Maxwell.

He also, at some point, was the head of East Africa at Jones Lang LaSelle [JLL] and also worked as their VP, Hotels and Hospitality Group, Sub-Saharan Africa.

“I’m a Kenyan born in Seychelles,” he told JACKSON BIKO recently. “When I travel abroad and say that people say, ‘no way.’ But I am. My dad was born here. I lived here for a bit, then I didn’t.”

He talks about patriotism and the competence of Kenyans in corporate. His cufflinks, it was interesting to note, were of a Kenyan flag, which says absolutely nothing because his socks had little frogs while turtles featured on his tie.

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What does a good suit say about a man?

[Chuckles] That's a very good question, assuming you are insinuating I'm wearing a good suit. [Laughter]. Well, the environment is a complex place. There are elements you can control and others that you can't. So I urge anybody to control the controllable. So your appearance is one, your level of knowledge is another, then your mindset.

When it comes to my professional environment, I tend to like to dress well. I think there's an element of discipline involved in it as well. Making your bed when you wake up, keeping your things in good order. Maybe I have some OCD. I think the discipline that comes with that can be transferred into other aspects of your life.

I've learnt a lot from going to boarding school, playing rugby, and being forced to do things I didn't want to do. And then realising the value of, I won't call it hardship, but the stress of that. And then the ability to turn around and say, yeah I can get up at 6 o'clock in the morning every day, and dress well and shave properly and stuff.

Obviously, all these things stem from somewhere, this order…

I don't know. Everybody is unique in complexity. I think I'm very fortunate to have been exposed to a variety of learnings throughout my life. A very diverse array of learning opportunities. I certainly haven't fully appreciated them, but looking back I've gained the ability to identify my weaknesses and work on them.

So naturally, I'm a pretty laid back disorganised human being. If you go down to the fundamental core of who I am, I'm in a kikoi in a bush somewhere, but I appreciate that I have to fulfill the roles I occupy and that means I have to be more disciplined and structured.

As a result, I put in the nine yards. And I think going through boarding school, rugby, etcetera etcetera, has given me the self-discipline to be able to put in those hard yards.

Is there any personal trait that you least admire?

Yes. There are probably too many to list. I think that I sometimes bite off more than I can chew so I don't necessarily give the required attention to people. I feel like I don't give everybody who deserves my time the time they deserve. I know that sounds mega arrogant, but that's not what I meant.

I'm not saying I'm this massive important human being who needs to give everybody their appropriate time but I mean there are a lot of friends out there that I haven't spent quality time with in a long time. I think the ability to break away from work and go do something is important to my relationships with some people.

Is there a certain virtue that has not served you in your life? A completely useless virtue?

[Chuckling] That's a very good and complex question. [Long pause]. I should probably just say I'm not a very virtuous person so I don't have any. [Laughter]. But no, I don’t think so. I think that there's an evolution that happens with everybody and certain virtues become more valuable at different times and vice versa and sometimes you need to take a step back.

If I think about my character traits overtime, I have always been blessed with a certain amount of self-confidence, some may have called it arrogance in my youth. And at the time in certain ways, it served me well. It certainly helped me attain certain leadership positions because if you are pushy and confident, you climb the ladder quite quickly.

But I also realised that I needed more humility and empathy. Now I think empathy is probably my greatest leadership skill, or virtue, attribute.

Talking of confidence, how did you build your confidence, where do you get your confidence from? Is it genetics, experiences or your environment?

Who knows? [Laughs]. I think an element of it is genetic and another it is your environment. There is also some bit of luck. If you put on something that you think is fantastic in terms of an outfit or a single piece of clothing, whatever it is, and you walk into the office, and somebody who you respect turns around and tells you that you look ridiculous. Your confidence will go from very high to very low, right? So confidence is a very fluid thing.

I was fortunate that my environment as a young guy growing up instilled a certain base level of confidence in me. But at the same time, I went to a boarding school in Nairobi and then another in Scotland, and later to a university in Switzerland. So already by the age of 19, I was used to living with very diverse groups of people. Fending for myself. And I think the knowledge you can get through that sort of stuff, gives you that sort of baseline confidence.

How was your childhood?

Eh, yeah, fine. [Laughter] I grew up in Nairobi until I was 13, and then my parents banished me to Scotland. Scotland wasn't an easy thing for a 13-year-old to do given that I had only known sunshine.

Yes, in terms of rigor, the school wasn't necessarily as rigid as the one that I had been here. Certainly, the food was better in Scotland. But the weather was worse and I was a long way from home.

But, I look back on that and I really, again, to your point, I was part of a very good group of people in my year, and that helps build your confidence, right? You make good friends, you have a functional time, and you did well at sports, and before you know it you're a confident young man.

Are you related to the Dunford of Carnivore?

Remember the shack I mentioned I’m living in Gigiri before we started the interview? That’s his place. [Laughs] He's my uncle, my father's younger brother. We're actually a small family.

So if you go back to the original Dunfords in Kenya, there was my grandfather and my mother, on my father's side obviously being the Dunfords. And then there was my father and Martin, the two brothers. And then now there's five of us in my generation, my sister, myself and my three cousins.

When did you experience less personal growth in your life? [He’s 41]

Another good question, Mr Biko. [Chuckles] To be honest, I think, I make a concerted effort to try and learn all the time. Now whether or not that's translating into growth, is a different story altogether.

I think certainly as an uber curious human being, from a professional perspective it slows down, I mean you have a lot to learn in the first 10 to 15 years of your career. And then once you move into a kind of general management, there's a bit of a plateau.

You do need to, as the number of people you manage gets bigger or the diversity of your business lines widens or broadens, there is continuous learning that needs to happen there.

Why do you need three phones?

One of them is yours. [Laughter] I have two but with three SIMS, so you're correct in a way. One of them is my Kenyan work phone. I'm in transition between Dubai and Kenya at the moment. So I still have my Dubai number.

And the third SIM card is a Swiss number that I keep on taking over just to have. It's my Whatsapp number, my wife is Swiss. She works in learning and development. We got married in 2018 January in Sheria House, February at the beach in Mombasa, at Fort Jesus actually.

She loves people which is something we share. That's something that actually motivates me. I was asked by a priest in the UK a month ago what motivates me and all. And I had to think pretty hard about that.

Because I think if I'm looking at it I really enjoy watching people who don't believe in themselves achieve things they didn't believe they could achieve.

How do you let your nice hair down?

[Ha-ha] I love reading. As demonstrated earlier in our conversation. I enjoy the movies. I also love any kind of sporting activity. I'm a massive foodie. So if a new restaurant opens I need to go and check it out. I'm spotted all the time eating with friends, as you can probably tell from looking at me. [Chuckles]

You're fit enough. Kids?

Fit? It's not what my doctor says. No kids yet. I'm fortunate to have a wife who is almost ten years younger than me. So the decision is firmly in her court regarding that. I think there are merits to having kids younger as some of my friends did even though at that time it felt like a nightmare.

If I could go back I'd probably do it that way round, don't know if I would have ended up where I am today if I had. You're more energetic. You don't have that many responsibilities in the workplace. But I am looking forward to having kids.

What have you learnt from marriage so far?

I don't know if I've learned a huge amount from marriage itself but I think it's a lesson in empathy and patience. You need to be able to understand the other person's perspective. You need to be big enough to say yeah I strongly disagree with this perspective but it's more important to them so I need to let this go.

Sustaining a lasting relationship whether it's marriage or if you're in a civil relationship with somebody, that ability to draw a line and say, yeah, okay, this is important to me but it's more important to them.

Has it taught you anything about yourself?

That I like to win. [Laughter]

But nobody really wins in marriage.

Certainly not if you're the man; happy wife, happy life kind of thing. I think my wife has taught me how important somebody else can be in your life, and how through the majority of my life I was a young single guy who would whimsically move countries and change jobs and kind of climb the ladder at whatever cost and not really think about the relationship piece.

But now I realize in this relationship that I want to compromise. To show that her happiness is more important than my happiness.