Profiles

From trash man to c-suite dealer

molla

BPC Banking Technologies CEO Frank Molla during the interview in Nairobi on June 6, 2022. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Frank Molla grew up in Kariobangi South next to a noisy bar called Mahutini. Two bedrooms, seven children. At 17 years he started a garbage collection gig to make some little pocket money.

“You learn a lot about someone by going through his trash.” As it turns out the actor Lenny Juma [Lara Croft Tomb Raider] was their neighbour. “Rummaging through his trash inspired me to want something more for myself that was beyond Kairobangi South.”

That inspiration has fired up Frank’s journey, from a spanner boy in a motor yard to a domestic driver to a rich Asian man, a matatu tout, and later driver, to a diploma holder in Information Technology from an institution that doesn’t stand now, to starting a business course at Africa Nazarene University that he abandoned before it started, then a fledgling career at Barclaycard, enrolled in leadership programmes at Strathmore Business School, Harvard Business School, to working for American Express based in Spain and the UK, later on as Mastercard Country Director, and now as the Managing Director of BPC Banking Technologies, a provider of digital payment solutions.

He is also a co-owner of Pete’s Cafes. Frank is a master negotiator. During his free time, he is a Rumba dance instructor, a father, and a [new] husband. He met JACKSON BIKO at Pete’s cafe along Chania Avenue on a very cold dreadful morning. He came in a snazzy suit.

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Nice suit.

Thanks, it's Gucci.

How were you as a child?

I grew up in Kariobangi South. I was playful in school. Very average performer. I was invited to Our Lady Fatima for high school, it’s in Kariobangi. I did a term then moved. Dad worked at Nation, then. Mom was a housewife. I didn’t finish my university education because my dad retired and there was no money.

Just after high school, I started a garbage collection company. I was the youth chairman of our estate. We would go through the garbage and I could tell a lot about a family from their garbage. The heavier the trash the poorer the household was.

Now, Lenny Juma was our neighbour and his garbage always had fancy things like Weetabix boxes…things I had never consumed. This guy was living a life we all dreamt of. Lenny was always travelling, making movies and things.

His children were attending such schools as Kianda. One day I asked him about his garbage and he said, “I live here but my life isn’t here.” That’s when the coin dropped for me.

What would you say have been the turning points of your life?

I love my dad and my brother. I learned a lot from them. One of the things I learned is to avoid alcohol after I saw what it did to them. I think that was my first turning point; making a decision not to drink or smoke.

The other is getting my first child - Jeremy - at 27 years of age. The other I guess is leaving Kariobangi South to pursue a different life.

Did trying to figure out how to leave Kariobangi take a big part of your life?

It did. And I did a lot of things to try and get out. I became a spanner boy, a mechanic, a tout, and a matatu driver. I was also a driver to an Indian guy in Westlands. I would get to his house at 5 am, wash his cars, and drop and pick up his children from school.

It was the first time I drove a Mercedes Benz and a Prado. I thought, “whoa, this is life”. I wanted that for myself. I later worked at SmithKline Beecham as a caual labourer while studying for my diploma at the School Of Professional Studies [now defunct].

Then I joined Safaricom, and not long afterward Dr James Mwangi interviewed me for a job in Equity Bank and he became my mentor. The rest is history.

For the longest time, you were motivated by the thought of leaving Kariobangi South and you eventually left. What is your greatest motivator right now?

That’s a good question. I think leaving is a double-edged sword because I still have the fear of going back. It’s always there. But now there is also fatherhood. I’m intentional around that; being a present father. I’m in a blended family of four children.

Do you find that the fact that you don’t have a bachelor's degree makes you insecure?

Not having a degree has been a driving force in everything I have done professionally. If I had the chance I would have gone back to school. In my earlier roles in the bank, I had people I managed who had a problem being led by someone like me without a degree.

Some people still can’t believe that I have gotten where I am without a degree. They are puzzled at how well-spoken I am.

But what I did was enroll in different executive courses- Strathmore Master negotiator, I’m an alumnus of Nanyang Business School in Singapore, and Harvard Business School course in Executive Business Education.

What does a master negotiator do?

I negotiate deals and contracts. It’s like selling, but high profile selling that is driven by deep industry knowledge and an understanding of competitive analysis. Negotiations take time, sometimes over a year.

What are you currently negotiating in life?

Wow, that’s heavy. [Long pause] I think my negotiations now have moved away from me to my kids. I want them to adjust well in life. I don’t want to leave them [physical] stuff but rather give them the tools to manage their lives better.

You don’t drink or smoke. What are your sins, Frank?

[Laughs] Yes, I know what this means, that I must like women, right? This narrative never holds. I used to gamble though. I was addicted to it for two intense years. Lost a lot of money in that process. But I went through therapy.

I now fill my time with teaching rhumba dances which I enjoy thoroughly. I’m home at 7:30 pm every day. I also converted to Islam. A personal decision. I pray five times a day.

You have a thriving career. You even have a nice suit. But do you think ultimately, you are still that boy from Kariobangi South?

[Laughs] That’s true. I am. When people talk of authentic leadership I always say, we don’t have to learn to be authentic, we just have to remember who we were as a child. That child is who we are. All the things we acquire don’t matter in the end.

A good deal of decisions I make is informed by how I grew up and so you can’t run away from that person. I can’t change where I’m from but I can change where I’m going. But I’m not defined by my title. I’m defined by the things that I love: rhumba, being a father, and being a husband.