Kagema Mwangi: US-trained engineer runs Enashipai Resort without a blink


James Kagema Mwangi who runs Enashipai Resort. FILE PHOTO | POOL

First, the father dies. But father isn't just any father, he happens to be one of the founding fathers of Equity Bank.

This means he leaves behind - apart from four offspring - substantial wealth, and a plethora of businesses that include Enashipai Resort and Spa.

James Kagema Mwangi is the eldest and runs the resort while the rest run other family businesses in various industries but remain a part of the larger mothership that binds them by a constitution on paper, but most importantly, a friendship of birth.

His mom, a board member, oversees the business and ensures the pursuit of numbers doesn't triumph over humanity.

All this makes James Kagema Mwangi, an engineer who runs a hotel because fate threw the gauntlet at his feet, and he refused to blink.

Tell me something about your late dad

The funny thing is that my dad wasn't actually a businessman until he was 60 and retired. Before that, he was in the private sector, in banking.

He was one of the founding members of Equity Bank, which was Equity Building Society then, which was around the mid-80s.

So he spent all his life there and then when he retired he was like what am I going to do with myself? So he started a business at 60. So his life is actually quite interesting.

When somebody starts building something like that they have to put in a lot of time, did you see him a lot as a child?

It took a lot of time to build the bank and they worked a lot. However, I think their working a lot those days was not like the way we work a lot nowadays.

Because he always dropped us to school but somebody else would pick us up in the evening or whatever.

So even though they were working a lot for them they were 8am to 6pm guys. He came home around 7pm so I don't remember thinking, "This guy isn't around".

So at 60, retired, he says, how about I start a hotel? Why a hotel?

Of course, other things were going on but I think he felt like he suddenly had a lot of time on his hands and he needed to engage his mind and time. Now, he owned the land where Enashipai Resort is today.

All around mzungus were doing their flower farming but he didn't know a thing about growing flowers so what to do? I think we had about two houses and some buildings on that land, so we renovated them and we started what was then called Lake Naivasha Holiday Inn, which we ran from 2006 to the end of 2010, which then became Enashipai Resort and Spa.

Where were you in life when all this was happening?

I had just come back to Kenya from studying in the US and had joined Equity Bank in business development and procurement.

I was expanding the branch network having had an engineering background. The bank was at that time constructing quite a number of branches, and ATMs. So that was keeping me busy.

Did you ever see yourself as a corporate guy or as a business guy?

When my dad retired and started Lake Naivasha Holiday Inn, he said, "Look I'm old, I don't have the energy to run around, come help me get this thing started."

I don't think we saw ourselves as going into hospitality. It just happened that there was a need to utilise the land economically and when we started I just found myself in Naivasha four times a week.

So since 2005, I've been going to Naivasha every week for two to three days. Sometimes even more.

So it grew on you?

It kind of does. And as the business grew so did the commitment because the staff was also growing and it was getting complex and interesting.

To be honest, we never imagined we'd get to even 10 years, now we are 12 going to 13. And who knows maybe we'll see 20 and 30 as things move on.


Enashipai fountain and executive rooms. FILE PHOTO | COURTESY

What have you learnt from running a hotel?

First, a hotel never sleeps. Second, what you did yesterday has got nothing to do with tomorrow. Third, it's intense because you're dealing with many people — staff, guests, suppliers.

So it's one of those industries where you can't run away from people in whichever shape or form whether it's stakeholders or customers.

Lastly, you work long hours. Would I say I am a hotelier? I don't know. I just work in a hotel. (Laughter)

There's a distinction there, eh?

There's a distinction. There's a distinction because like what I do is I manage a team. So I'm the team leader. There is stakeholder management whether it's the banks, the county government, the national government, churches and the schools in your local area.

Those are some of the things that I do. And of course getting feedback, whether it's getting feedback from our customers, from our staff.

How did you like that tea? How was the lunch? How was your stay? And of course sales and marketing. It's a big part of it, selling.

Only about 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation. Are you wary of that?

I don't think I'm more aware than wary. After my dad passed on in 2018 we started the succession plan process.

One of the things we decided to do was to get on a journey of corporate governance and improve it. I stumbled upon Strathmore Business School, they have a family business section.

I got my mom and my siblings to register for this course. Those three days were actually quite interesting. Strathmore was also good because it gave us the foundation.

It set us on a path of setting up credible boards. It's also helped us look at the business holistically, including building on a granite mining business that my dad was passionate about.

So it's been a new lease of life in a different capacity.

For you and all your siblings to even agree to attend the course and do things properly means that your dad must have done something right because siblings rarely agree on the small things, let alone the big ones. Was this your parents' efforts, to see the bigger picture or are you guys just good kids?

[Chuckle] Oh, I don't know. I think maybe upbringing had a lot to do with it. My parents were good role models.

He was very big on family, even his extended family. And I guess we just got lucky that we are friends, we get along. Obviously, we can't take that for granted, it doesn't happen everywhere or all the time.

So I think a key ingredient has also been that there's been no acrimony, and we trust each other generally. So with that, that sets you up for at least moving in a good direction.


Enashipai Resort. FILE PHOTO | COURTESY

But as to whether he was deliberate about it or it just happened, I don't know, I think it's just, those are the standards that he set, he didn't see any reason why there should be discord.

And he tried to treat everybody the same, so there were no favourites or this is my heir apparent or anything like that.

Do you have kids?

Yes, I have two kids. My son is 19, he's a freshman in college. My daughter just turned 13 even though she thinks she's 25. (Laughter)

Are they interested in what you're doing at the hotel?

I think what we do is we would want to expose that part of it to them and for them to decide whether this interests them or not, as opposed to dictating that they must be involved.

One of the things that we've done as a family is once you turn 16 you can then sit in our annual general meeting.

So that's a good entry point, you can spend the day with us, go through the financials, ask questions, and pique your curiosity.

The good thing is we also have companies in various sectors, so if you don't like the hotel, maybe you like farming or something else.

If your dad were to come back now for an hour and you guys took him down to look at what he started, what do you think will surprise him the most about Enashipai now? And two, what do you think he will dislike? Something he'll be like yeah this is not something I would have done.

I think one thing he would like is that for the most part, except for a few during Covid, we have retained a good part of our staff. That will definitely please him.

He will also be pleased that the business is still standing, and that we didn't burn it into flames. He would also like the fact that we've professionalised the business to a good extent.

What won't he like? [Pause] He liked to have social gatherings at the hotel with the wazees, that just died with him. The wazees are no longer coming. That would make him sad.

What have you learned from your mom?

My mum is a staunch Christian and she believes that religion has a strong place to play in one's life. So I think that constant reminder has helped ground me and our family as a whole in that we have some sense of religion in it.

And with that comes responsibility and also being good to people. And she's very generous. So one of the things we strive to do is to make a difference in our community, like there's a school, one of the biggest schools in Kenya is actually less than two kilometres from the hotel, it's called Mirera Primary School.

It has almost 4,000 students. So when my dad, who was a big believer in education died, we started a fund to see kids through school on full scholarships.

My mum is always asking how we can share, what we can give, what we can do. For her it's not always about numbers, it's about people. Those are some of the things that I've learned from her.

Does being the firstborn give you an advantage in decision-making in the family business?

No. I think the only one who would get that carte blanche is my mom.

For the rest of us, I think you would have to put up a good case as to why this should happen so it's not necessarily an age thing, it's more of a consensus, but really at the end of it all, this is the right thing to do as opposed to age.

How old are you now?

I'm 50, I'll be 51 in July.

I hate to ask this cliché question but was there clarity when you hit 50 or was it just another age?

You're not the first person to ask me that, I don't think anything fundamentally changed because I turned 50. But I do remember thinking, crap, I'm 50, man, I'm becoming old. But again I'm young.

I still feel like I'm 30. So even though guys are telling me you're an old guy, I'm feeling like I'm a young guy, so there's a bit of confusion there but it's all internal.

But generally, I didn't feel anything. I got a good opportunity to celebrate 50 with some of my friends. We went to South America, so that was nice.

What insecurities come with being 50?

I don't know whether they are insecurities or just realisations that you don't have that much time. So whether it's your retirement, whether it's what you want to do for your businesses.

It's important that you don't hesitate and you procrastinate less. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about mortality but I definitely think about it and I think about it seriously to the extent that you have to have a will and I'm a big advocate of people having wills because you never know when you will die.

I have some friends who have died young at 40 or whatever. So I think it's a reality.

Cremation or burial?

I think I could go either way, even though whenever I try to bring that subject up and say I can donate my body and I can also be cremated, my family has very strong views around those. But for me, I could go either way.

What's the one quality you want your children to pick from you but also in the same breath the one you don't want them to pick from you?

(Chuckles) I think between just discipline and consistency. And the two are kind of interrelated, if you're consistent, you will be disciplined.

And it could also be because they are young, they tend to touch this then get bored and move on to something else. But if they could I would hope that they can be consistent and disciplined.

I grew up with old school parents so I'm not the kind of guy who every morning will hug the kids and tell them I love them. (Chuckles) So I would hope that they become more emotionally expressive than I am. (Laughter)

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