When businessman Chris Kirubi died in June 2021, Mary-Ann Musangi took over the helm. It was challenging at first but now she says navigating her father's empire has become easier.
How is she fitting into the shoes of the tycoon who was an influential figure in the local business scene?
Ms Musangi says when her father was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 and travelled out of the country for treatment, she started running the businesses.
“It’s not like he passed away and then I came and took over. I was running them [businesses] already. I sat on the boards of the companies as a director before he fell sick,” she says.
Mr Kirubi who died at the age of 80 had interests in diverse sectors, including media, manufacturing, real estate, and technology.
His holdings in unlisted and listed firms at the Nairobi Securities Exchange are worth a fortune, adding to the expansive estate estimated at Sh40 billion.
At Haco Industries where Musangi –the managing director-, Mr Kirubi had 4.5 million shares worth Sh801 million, while International House and Kiruma International are estimated to be worth at least Sh1 billion.
Asked if she has felt pressure from people, the bold but laid-back Ms Musangi says only on ensuring that the businesses remain successful.
“I will do everything possible to make sure that the businesses continue running well; continue thriving; that we can continue employing the people that we have within the different organisations.”
Billionaires greater concerns
Many family businesses in Africa fail due to improper structures and lack of succession plans despite contributing about 40 percent of the country’s total market value of goods and services produced in a specific time.
Kenyan billionaires, in the latest Knight Frank Wealth Report 2022, reported greater concerns about succession.
“The transfer of wealth to the next generation is a key moment of vulnerability for HNWIs [High-Net-Worth Individuals], as poorly managed successions can lead to rapid wealth depletion. In Kenya, however, with frequent evidence of succession disputes and even protracted court cases, the threat is made greater through the degree of challenge in simplifying or accelerating the outcome of such disputes,” reads the report.
About 31 percent of Kenya’s millionaires cited succession as a threat to their wealth, compared with a global average of 20 percent.
It is not only family businesses that struggle with succession plans but listed corporates too. Analysts cite a failure in developing a succession plan for the sole purpose of finding a successor, being reactive rather than proactive, and the lack of a talent pool.
The succession woes may not be the case for the Kirubi family as Ms Musangi knew she would take over the ventures at some point.
But before she joined her father's she started and built her own and worked in different corporates.
She opened her first business in 2011 after an early retirement from KCB Bank Group where she worked as the marketing director for five years.
She started a restaurant, Secret Garden, on Riverside Drive in Nairobi before adding two more outlets and a catering business.
She has since closed both ventures, first due to the business downturn caused by the DusitD2 complex attack in January 2019, and close to a year later by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before that, she worked for GlaxoSmithKline and Ogilvy & Mather for over 25 years.
Was she inducted into her father's business?
Ms Musangi says the only way Dr Kirubi inducted her into business was through good education.
She never accompanied him to the office to learn how to negotiate and discuss, only until much later, about 10 years ago when she started joining the boards of different companies.
She points out, “I would sit with him in board meetings. However, whenever he had a business colleague come home, I would cleverly be the one to serve drinks, food, and whatever they required so that I could listen to what was being discussed. That is how I picked lots of learning and experience from him.”
She says this was never intentional but just driven by her interest in the business.
“I wanted to learn more about his businesses. With my business acumen from working for multinationals, I wanted to understand his businesses and how they would sit in comparison to the multinationals that I was working with.”
“Ever since I was young, I have always loved business. I always knew that I was going to be a business person and I always knew that I would take over his businesses.”
So what has been her experience since taking over the businesses?
“Taking over businesses that have been managed and run by such an interesting personality as Dr Kirubi is not easy. People will compare the two of you; how he did things and how you are doing things now,” she says adding that she has had to win their trust, especially employees, which turned out to be “a little bit of a challenge”.
“I had been running the business five years before he passed away. I already had a relationship with all the members and I felt that I was at a point where people knew who I was, they trusted me, we developed strategies together, and we knew where businesses were going. But to be honest, the day he passed away, there was so much fear.”
She says it wasn’t easy taking the helm officially, however adding that she was glad to have the support of the teams in every organisation left by Dr Kirubi.
“I thought it would be easy to go back in and say ‘we continue with what we were doing’ but it wasn't. I really had to get them to understand where I am at because I was mourning; it was my father I had just lost. Trying to take care of myself plus other people at the same time was very difficult.”
“I almost had to put myself aside and reassure them. We have been doing this for five years; we just continue with the trajectory that we have now. I would not have been able to do what I have done so far; keeping the businesses, progressing, growing, and moving forward if it was not for the people within each of the organisations.”
However, it was a wait-and-see approach working with business partners as some wanted to change policies that had been in place.
“There were some who felt they could take advantage of the situation. Not many; only in one situation because we were down. But otherwise, everybody else was on board with structures.”
When asked about the lessons she picked from her father on running the businesses. She gazes away.
“There are many. One thing I was taught since a young age is always to treat people with respect,” she pauses.
“Read. Read. Have a very good understanding of what it is you are about to sign. People get lazy sometimes when they get documents from a lawyer or bank.”
During the interview, Ms Musangi constantly referred to her father as Dr Kirubi. When asked whether it feels odd, she laughs.
“Not so much anymore. In fact, I use ‘Chairman’ a lot. ‘Chairman’ is easy to use because the staff use that. I remember in my first board meetings I would call him ‘dad’. It can be strange,” she says.