Profiles

Britam’s Wairegi on 40 years in the corner office

BDLWAIREGI

Britam Group managing director Benson Wairegi during the interview at his Britam Tower office on November 2. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA

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Summary

  • You haven’t been to the proverbial “corner office” until you set foot in Benson Wairegi’s at the sky-scratching Britam Tower. 
  • It’s been 40 years getting here for Wairegi, the longest serving CEO of a listed firm, a career that kicked off in 1977 as an auditor at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, soon after his university, right up to this point as the Group Managing Director for Britam Holdings. 
  • A career that has seen him preside over the transformation of the company from a small home service insurance company into a major financial services group. Controlling 4.01 percent stake in the company, he is retiring in December. 

You haven’t been to the proverbial “corner office” until you set foot in Benson Wairegi’s at the sky-scratching Britam Tower.

Perched on the 29th floor of the third tallest building in Africa, his office opens into an astonishing, mind-bending 180 degree all-glass vista of Nairobi’s skyline, dwarfing every building around it, turning Nyayo Stadium into an unimpressive patch of field and surrounding buildings into a ham-fisted cluster of hamlets, a sweeping aerial view that — if you squint hard enough — takes your eyes to the very edge of Nairobi.

His office furnished in a threadbare minimalist taste is as illustrative as it is metaphorical of his life, he admits.

It’s been 40 years getting here for Wairegi, the longest serving CEO of a listed firm, a career that kicked off in 1977 as an auditor at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, soon after his university, right up to this point as the Group Managing Director for Britam Holdings.

A career that has seen him preside over the transformation of the company from a small home service insurance company into a major financial services group. Controlling 4.01 percent stake in the company, he is retiring in December.

He’s also the Chancellor at Kenyatta University and a non-executive director at Housing Finance Group among other titles and positions.

Studiously groomed, distinguished and with a stoic default facial expression that houses a well concealed chuckle (if you engage it), Wairegi speaks with the wise measured tone of a man at home at the pinnacle of his career.

JACKSON BIKO recently sat next to a yellow potted cactus plant in Wairegi’s generous office for a chat about his time and life.

***

I’ve been to quite a few impressive offices but this one takes the biscuit. Can one really get used to this view?

It’s sad to say that I don’t notice it anymore until someone like you walks in here and says, wow what a view! I take it for granted. It’s hard to appreciate it because of the demands of the office, I get so engrossed in the business.

Which is a paradox because we break our backs to get to the corner office but once here we don’t have time to really take it all in.

Quite true. The aspiration drives every young person, the ambition. For me it’s taken 40 years but when you walk in here you will not know the journey, the challenges, nobody wants to hear about the struggle, we all want to see the final product.

To have gotten here, I started somewhere on Kenyatta Avenue in a building called Uganda House, now we are here; a long journey. The message for younger people, for me, would be to be more curious about the journey, not the destination. There is more to learn that nothing happens overnight, good things come out of challenges.

You have reached the zenith of your career and have achieved a lot. Now that you are departing in a couple of months, do you wonder what is out there to achieve?

It's a very interesting question because business, at some point, is not just about making money. It’s about impact on society. And we have done that here, creating jobs, impacting lives. Beyond Britam, I will do other things that are focused on impact, mentorships, coaching. I suspect I will be busier but in a different context.

You're 67. I honestly expected to find an ageing, portly gentleman, breathlessly staggering around the office. But you make that age look quite good. What validates a man like you at this stage of your life?

[Chuckling] Why? Thanks for that compliment. What validates me now is how I have conducted myself as an executive, a leader and as a Kenyan. You described my office as minimalist because it represents what I believe in; I'm not taken up by possessions. I don’t like pomp. You wouldn’t recognise me in the streets. I won’t shout about whatever I have. I admire simplicity as a trait the most.

I assume that some of these values you picked along the way, refined them, based on experiences or age…

Yeah. Because, like wine, we become better with age, don't we? I’m different from the man I was when I was young. First, I had a full crop of hair. [Chuckle]. I wanted to be a very successful business executive, a chief accountant of a big business then, like East African Breweries, Unilever or BAT.

So, my values then were geared towards that ambition. Now, I’m here and I have realised that some of those values don’t matter that much. It’s back to the basics now. What is your life about? Can society emulate you?

I tell young people to appreciate the value of hard honest work, not working for the sake of making money but having a more rounded work ethic because that kind of work gives you dignity, to be able to say I am adding value to myself. I'm worth what I'm doing. Integrity. Very important as well.

What bad values perhaps have you found that you had to shed off over time?

[Chuckles) It's a tough question. Probably not a value, but a characteristic. My inability to say No. You must be able to say No because it communicates to the other person the boundary that either of you can’t cross. I struggled a lot saying No before.

Have you ever been seduced by politics?

Yeah. Many years ago, I aspired to be a politician. But as I've watched politicians, I have realised that the competencies, the skills that make a successful politician are not the same competencies and skills that make a successful business executive.

So I reflected on that and decided I want to be a leader in business instead.

Before coming here I had scrambled eggs with basil and mushroom in a cafe. Best I’ve had in a while. Told the waitress to tell the chef that he had the Midas touch. The chef - young, maybe late 20s, comes out to say thanks and we get chatting, you know, life etc.

I tell him I'm coming to interview the big kahuna at Britam, if you had a chance to ask him just one question what would that be? He said, ask him why him? What did he do differently to be so successful?

I don't think there's anything I did for me to be here. But allow me to be a bit philosophical; we are what we are because of other people. I am here because of other people. People who saw something in me and gave me that opportunity.

I was probably not the best but I happened to be there at the right time when this was happening. You can say it’s luck but then the question is; what do you do with luck? Some squander it, others grab it and run like I did.

What kind of insecurities would a man like you be grappling with?

Many. At this stage in my life, I'm thinking of what it is going to be like out there when I finally get out of here. You don't know. You plan for it. I am planning for it. But after being here for 40 years, the question must be what next?

I also think about the friends I have, are they my friends or are they friends with my office, my title? Are they fair weather friends? I worry about that.

When, in recent times, did you feel really naked?

When we ran into a problem with some of my employees here and we had to go to court because it was a matter of values and integrity. I’m an introvert, publicity-shy and going to court, before cameras, newspapers writing about you.... That made me feel really really naked.

How much do you have in your wallet?

Right now? [Laughs] Uhm…[Fetches wallet]. I have Sh2,000.

My daughter is 12. She has five years to go to university and increasingly I worry a lot about money for that. When did you stop worrying about money in that way?

[Laughs] I have not stopped. But I have not stopped because I want to accumulate more, no, I have enough to keep me going. My children finished school, the last born finished university in 2010. My first born is 37.

My children have all gone to school. So I stopped worrying about money when the media started talking about Benson Wairegi the billionaire. I started asking myself, so what? What's this? Money is just another commodity.

[Pause] I can't put a time when I started worrying about money. You’d ask, then why do I still work? Because, again, work gives you dignity.

Did you have to sacrifice spending a lot of time at home, with family, to scale the corporate ladder as is common with most business leaders in your position? Was that your experience?

Yes. Particularly when I was younger. I became a CEO very early, in 1982; I was 31. Soon after I got married and the next year my first born came and on top of that I was running a side hustle, an audit firm. So, it was a day job then go to my side hustle then home at about 10pm to a new wife. So, I am a very good witness to being away from the family.

My wife bore the weight of keeping a home going. I remember having a conversation with my son, my first-born son, who became a squash player from Parklands at a very young age. I was chairman there. I asked him if he would want to be a member of the club one day when he was older and he said, No. “Because I don’t want to be like you.

The club took you from us.” That knocks you back. You make amends and adjustments. It's a balancing art. I was lucky because after that my children after finishing school here went overseas. That distance then ensured that I was able to do the job without that feeling of guilt that I'm not with my children.

Are you happy how they turned out?

Yes. They're well educated. My first born is a Yale University graduate. My second born — Oxford MBA — is an investment banker. My daughter got married in December, she’s a lawyer.

Are you happy with your participation as a father? Would you do things differently?

No. I'm very happy. But what I wouldn't do is send these kids outside the country when they're very young for their A-levels. It comes with its complications.

What do you regret most in life in your private moments of introspection?

That I became an insurer. If I were to choose a career today, I wouldn't join insurance. It's been a success story for me, but I would have been a banker. Or better still, a teacher. I would choose my career based on its ability of fulfilment; I think teaching would have brought me more fulfilment.

Is it lonely at the top or it's just some myth perpetuated by successful people like you?

[Chuckles] Very lonely because you have to make the decisions that other people would not make. You are always travelling in uncharted waters. Also, you have a very small circle of friends because at this stage people do not want to engage with you too closely.

At the end of the day we're human beings we crave to engage, to network, to socialise, you want to feel your natural self.

What's your biggest extravagance?

(Chuckles) I have a lot of suits which I don't wear. And ties.

What car do you drive?

Toyota Land Cruiser, V8 and a Mercedes. [Dramatic pause] Not mine, company-owned. [Laughter]. But if you are asking about my personal car, it’s a Pajero, an old KBE number plate, it's 15 years old. I drive it to my small shamba in Limuru Redhill every Saturday.

If you were given an opportunity to apologise to one person in life, dead or alive, who'd that be?

My father. When I was getting married, my father insisted that the person who would speak on his behalf as my father was an elder from his clan. But he didn't look to me as modern, successful, as another neighbour in the village who I respected a lot, a businessman. I said to my father, this is the person who is going to speak as my father.

And that's what happened. My daughter got married the other day in December, a moment of pride for a father. I realised that I robbed my father of his crowning moment many years ago by insisting on having my choice to speak at my wedding. I didn't give him that opportunity to shine. He's still alive — at 90 — fortunately and I will ask for forgiveness.

Ask him for forgiveness today, not tomorrow, he’s 90.

Yeah. You're right.