Profiles

A CEO at Copia’s quiet revolution

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Tim Steel, Copia CEO. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • He was a footballer with a Nairobi-based Railway Wanderers back in the day, he climbs mountains for leisure, and he hits the gym for an hour every morning.
  • He first came to Kenya in 1990 as an accountant volunteer. While working in the UK, he got this pressing urge to volunteer overseas.
  • The Salvation Army accepted his request, and he joined the church for two years, before branching out to business leadership.

I badly want to find something to make me describe Tim Steel, the Copia chief executive officer, as steely. But it does not seem forthcoming even after the 48 minutes of a Zoom interview. Steely people are strong, hard, and unfriendly. At no moment in our chat does Tim exhibit those.

But he is strong in many ways. He was a footballer with a Nairobi-based Railway Wanderers back in the day, he climbs mountains for leisure, and he hits the gym for an hour every morning.

He first came to Kenya in 1990 as an accountant volunteer. While working in the UK, he got this pressing urge to volunteer overseas. He sent 150 requests. “I said to them, ‘Give me a job; I’ll work anywhere in the world,’” he says.

The Salvation Army accepted his request, and he joined the church for two years, before branching out to business leadership. He joined courier firm TNT where he worked in its Kenya office, Cyprus, Dubai, and South Africa. In 2017, he joined Copia as CEO, a company that delivers goods to far-flung areas like Samburu.

On a typical day, someone in the city buys a product through the Copia website, pays for it, and it is delivered to a loved one upcountry free of charge.

Tim talks to Elvis Ondieki about family, football, and his religious views.

So you deliver items for free? That sounds too altruistic for a business entity.

(Laughs) We have great relationships with suppliers who understand how we help them to reach a much broader network of consumers than they would be able to do with their normal routes to market.

So, we get great buying prices from suppliers, which we are then able to pass on to the consumers but leave enough for Copia to cover its costs and more, and then that’s how we make a profit.

Does your early work with the Salvation Army dovetail into this in any way?

It was an amazing experience to come to Kenya. I got to understand that people’s needs and behaviours are very similar, wherever you are and whoever you are.

Did you fall in love with Kenya somehow that you decided to come back?

I was with the Salvation Army for around two years. I had fallen in love with Kenya, both as a work environment and the other opportunities that it presented. I have many outdoor hobbies like hiking, camping, and walking. I played football for a team that toured the country, therefore I got to experience the great variety that Kenya offers.

Kenya is home. My wife is Kenyan, and therefore the chance to come back and live in Kenya and still have a job while I was visiting multiple countries was almost like a gift.

Does the love for football run in the family?

I have two children. My daughter is 21 and in university. My son is 16, at a school in the UK, and in a football academy, aspiring to be a professional footballer. My wife’s cousins both played football professionally in the UK and internationally. So, it’s a sporting family.

Which team did you play for in Kenya?

Railway Wanderers, which is still going. It’s probably the oldest football team in Kenya, set up by people who worked on the railway back in the 1920s or something.

Which was your favourite position in the team?

(Laughs) I always tell my son, who wants to be a professional player: ‘Your favourite position should be on the pitch.’ Honestly, it doesn’t matter where you play. You should just be thankful you’re on the team sheet then make the best of that role. So, variously, I played at both full-backs, center-forward, and wider midfield.

Which is your favourite national team and club?

My favourite national team is England. This is a great time to be following England; reaching the semi-finals, finals, and hopefully winning in Qatar (World Cup). When I was last in the UK a month ago, I went to watch England at Wembley. I support the Ipswich Town league team. My father came from a place very close to Ipswich. He supported Ipswich, he took me there as a young boy and that was it.

Have you had the money talk with your son? What have you ever told him about money?

Maybe not a direct discussion about money, but about what path to follow in life. I have urged him to follow his path: don’t just go to university because everybody else goes to university. Follow what you want to do. Always have a second string to your bow and a fallback plan and trust your skills and abilities.

On money, to me, happiness is more important than money. Money doesn’t always bring happiness, and I think if you can focus on what gives you satisfaction, and so long as part of that equation is enough money for whatever you determine is going to make you happy, then I think that’s the path you should follow.

What have your years in business leadership taught you about the right traits for leading a company?

Leaders come in all shapes, forms, and sizes. And whatever your strengths are, operate in that area and compensate for areas where you are less strong in the people that you bring into your team. And that can be in skill, experience or indeed characteristic.

The great thing about building teams — and this is one of the areas where I consider myself to be strong in — is that you need a team that is diverse in its skills and experience and in the way that it does business.

If you have too many people who are one-character types, you miss many of the subtleties and nuances of being successful.

Kenya is known for M-Pesa and the revolution it brought. Do you foresee Copia’s story being as remarkable?

Yeah, I would hope so. The M-Pesa story is quite remarkable in the way that it’s enabled business and life happen in a much easier and smoother way than was possible before.

I love to think that we could be standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a few years’ time as a sort of similarly disruptive business that means that much to the consumer, remains relevant and be an example of how business can serve underserved consumers.

On our board of directors, we have Betty Mwangi; who was one of the great drivers of the M-Pesa growth and success story in the early years of that product.

What do you do to get away from it all?

I run every morning. I’m part of the 5 am club: wake up at 5 am, be in the gym by 5.30 am; do my hour in the gym. That allows me to have some form of meditation while on the move.

I hike quite a lot; so you will find me getting my two-man tent and sticking it in my backpack and climbing up Mount Kinangop. This is great because once you reach that sort of 4,000-metre height in the middle of the Aberdare Range, your phone has no signal to ring, so it’s a way of decompressing and getting away from it all.

Would you call yourself religious or Christian or pious?

I’m not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person, and I believe that there are forces greater than those that are our physical being. If I’m to follow any kind of -ism or whatever, I’d say I’m a humanist. I try to think about the actions that we all take and the impact that we have on others and society and so on. And many of those values I think are the values that are wrapped up in the large religions of the world. But I wouldn’t say I’m an adherent to any one of them.