Profiles

John Ngumi: Career banker who lives large and rough, calls it a day at Safaricom

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Former Safaricom Board Chairman, John Ngumi. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

One evening in July last year, John Ngumi showed up at a high-profile dinner party at a city hotel to the surprise and delight of everyone. Jaws dropped and attention shifted to him.

This was the same month he had been appointed to chair the board of Safaricom PLC.

Wearing a maroon sweater, a light blue shirt and an air of poise, Mr Ngumi seemed to gel among the guests.

He made a toast, had a brief chat with the hostess and left almost stealthily.

For most of his life, the man has been a member of high society and a citadel of power, influence and wealth.

His father was a senior officer in President Jomo Kenyatta’s government. ‘‘My father had immense wealth. We did not know what work he did,’’ he says.

Describing him as a ‘‘demigod’’, he says his father grounded him and his siblings ‘‘and taught us to be confident.’’ They were all chauffeured to school.

Estimated to be worth between about $6 million (Sh720 million), according to multiple sources, Mr Ngumi, 66, made his fortune from a long career in investment banking, shares and allowances as a board member of some of the largest institutions in the country.

He attended Jamhuri High School ‘‘even as my friends went to St Mary’s and Nairobi School.’’

In the 1970s, he moved to St Peter’s College at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. He graduated in 1979.

Considered by many as the blue-eyed boy of Corporate Kenya, his run, though, has not always been a pleasure cruise. Mr Ngumi has lived both large and rough, through good fortune and misadventures.

READ: Safaricom drops Uhuru ally in board shake-up

On the table of corporate titans who have been in the trenches as much as they have been in hallowed corridors, his place is undisputed.

‘‘I do not feel like I do not belong anywhere,’’ he says.

He left the UK in 1983 where he had worked in London’s financial markets and returned to the country to work as an investment banker because he felt more connected to ‘‘this small environment’’ than he ever was working abroad.

Mr Ngumi threw his hat in the ring of merchant banking at a time most asset managers in Kenya, notably Standard Chartered Investments and Barclays Trust, were owned by foreign entities.

Soon, he became a grandmaster of investment banking, culminating in the founding of Loita Capital Partners Group by he and his friends in the early 1990s.

The entity had Loita Asset Management and Loita Capital Partners Limited as its subsidiaries.

The group’s ultimate desire was to develop Kenya’s first indigenous investment bank.

Today, Loita Group is a continental corporation with headquarters in Mauritius and bankers across the world.

It was a big gamble to make, but then Mr Ngumi had gone through and survived the school of hard knocks in London’s ruthless financial market.

He says he was inspired to venture into high finance by German-born English banker Sir Siegmund Warburg, known for helping to develop merchant banking in the world.

His other inspiration is Michael von Clemm, an American restaurateur, anthropologist, businessman, and former high-flying banker.

In keeping with the lifestyle of investment bankers in London, Mr Ngumi and his colleagues lived in extravagance, popping champagne and indulging in fine whiskies, cigars and art collectables.

The reverse of this life on the fast lane was one of near insolvency. Sometimes he would strike mega deals worth millions of shillings and go back to misery at home.

At one point he had to mortgage his home three times to stay afloat. ‘‘We ate what we killed,’’ he has said before.

He retired from formal banking employment to take over as the chairman of the board of government-owned Kenya Pipeline Company Limited, serving for five years.

‘‘I led the turnaround that has seen KPC emerge as the star State-owned enterprise in Kenya, responsible for supporting other State enterprises and lending a hand to the government’s wider social mandate,’’ he says.

During his tenure, KPC and other government entities in the energy sector were rocked by grand corruption scandals and the loss of billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money.

READ: Why veteran Michael Joseph stepped down as Safaricom chair

He is a family man, although he has only referred to them passively, preferring to keep the details away from the limelight.

While Safaricom says he resigned to focus on green energy on the continent, the Business Daily understands the ascension of William Ruto to the presidency may have put Mr Ngumi in an awkward position, owing to his close relationship with the former regime.

An ally of former President Uhuru Kenyatta, Mr Ngumi’s appointment to head the Safaricom board is said to have been sanctioned at the highest level of government.

The State owns a 35 percent stake in the telco, the same ownership as parent company Vodacom, giving the government huge muscle to negotiate the choice of directors.

Before leaving the role, former board chair Michael Joseph had revealed to the shareholders that Mr Ngumi would be taking over from him as one of the directors representing the government.

Mr Ngumi has served on multiple boards in the country, including at Konza Technopolis Development, Kenya Airways and the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC).

He was the first board chair of the Communication Authority of Kenya (CA).

During a talk at Engage in 2016, Mr Ngumi told the audience: ‘‘Glory is fleeting.’’

He was alluding to the grandeur that Roman generals returning from ‘‘conquering savages in Europe and elsewhere’’ would be treated to, by inspecting a guard of honour while riding a chariot.

One of his glories may have ended with his exit from Safaricom, but Mr Ngumi will certainly continue to bask in the limelight in the days to come. After all, he has revelled in glory nearly all his life.

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