Profiles

Karanja Ndegwa prefers baby steps when taking risks

karanja

Jambojet CEO Karanja Ndegwa. PHOTO | NMG

There is a small wooden door wedge that keeps Karanja Ndegwa’s door constantly open.

“This open door policy is not for people to come in,” the CEO of Jambojet explains, “it’s for you to go out, go to the people, and be of service.”

CEO is a shoe that he is just learning to fit well having been appointed two years ago. The shoe he has worn all his career has been in finance.

A numbers guy, he started as the revenue accounting manager at Kenya Airways in 2000 before taking over as head of finance at Jambojet in 2014, then chief financial officer before his current role.

At 48, he talks about David in the Bible, raising teenagers, and a quiet retirement away from the city.

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Do you struggle to answer that old question; who are you?

Not quite. I'm a family man with two children; an 18-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. I value and enjoy being with my family. I've always been a numbers person. My background has been in accounting for about 20 years. Now I have to deal with people. That is a major shift, but I have come to enjoy it. I have come to realise I'm more of a people person. Of course, it was a struggle given that I don't talk much.

Being a numbers guy, what did numbers teach you about life?

The value of being real, seeing as it is. It doesn’t matter what you say, numbers will always catch up with you. People will talk about how something looks good, paint it, but if the numbers are not matching, tell them as it is. Numbers never lie, and it’s taught me to speak out.

As a numbers person, you will be the first person to tell somebody this is not sustainable. Numbers will always guide you and the clearer they are, the more accurate the situation is. It saves you a lot of time.

And how have numbers impacted your personal life?

I'm very prudent. One thing I've learned is that making money is not easy. You tell me there's a place where people are making 20 percent [interest], I'll not follow you, (chuckles) because I've learned that making a profit is not easy. I am not a very big risk-taker. I will take what is comfortable. I would rather take baby steps or miss out on the big jump. I don't push it and I'm happy that way. 

Do you find yourself to be more comfortable with words or with numbers?

I'm very comfortable with numbers. Because numbers speak. Words have different interpretations but numbers, I mean, if it’s a one, it’s a one. Numbers will always be precise.

How has your experience raising teenagers been?

I'm fortunate my children are my friends. So we have discussions when we disagree. I invest my time in them. Also, as a Christian I know I'm being watched, so I can’t say one thing and do another. So far I have been fortunate not to have a big [parenting] issue. They are still teenagers, so it's something to watch. But I purpose to be there for them. We normally say (with my wife), in the next seven years we'll most likely be just the two of us so for now, let's be there, let's enjoy them.

When you work your way up to the top of the food chain, I imagine that you have to sacrifice something. Mostly it’s family time, at least based on the good number of people I've interviewed. Has that been your experience?

Yes and no. One of the things that we agreed on very early in our marriage is that both of us are not going to get into careers that will be very demanding. So for her, she went to the United States for her Master's degree (we met at the university) and when she came back, I had already started moving up in my career. She did a bit of lecturing and when I went to work abroad she joined me. Now she does counselling and farming which allows her to be always there for the family. She has made the most sacrifice for our family.

How old are you now?

I'm 48.

What do you find that you're investing a lot in right now in this season of your life?

I'm investing a lot in the company. I come here at 6.30 am and leave at 7 pm. Business and family commitments take up to 90 percent of my time. The business - especially after Covid - has had quite many moving parts. I'm called upon to make sure that at least things are stable. So in this season, especially with the leadership team here, we find ourselves putting in a lot [of time] because it is a fluid market.

When do you give yourself time after the 90 percent has been taken?

I play golf. Every Saturday morning I will do my 18 holes and when I have an easy week, on a Friday, I will also do an 18 and get back to the office by around 10 am. Saturday afternoons are for catching up with friends. Sunday afternoon after church, I normally don't have plans. I will be at home.

When you put in so much here, at work, do you think one day you will look up and find that time has ended and you lost yourself working?

Yeah. There's always that aspect. My goal is to have this company in a good space by the time I'm exiting. I'm 48, but I don't see myself working until 60. With these number of hours, you can only stretch yourself so much. When you start getting into your 50s, you start slowing down, you can't push yourself to perform as you did in your 30s. I don't need much after this, I want a quiet life. I am not a town person, so ideally I'll retire in the outskirts of Nairobi and enjoy myself quietly. I’m a keen investor but I won't go and build wealth.

How was your childhood?

I grew up in Kikuyu- a place known as Gikambura. My folks live about 25km from here so every other weekend I always pop in. I have two sisters and two brothers. The most interesting part is that the region lies on a flight path. Growing up, we'd always see them (aircraft) turning over Ngong Hills in readiness for the final descent. We used to go to the shamba and there was this aircraft that would pass by at around 1pm, and only when we saw it did we know it was time to go home for lunch. So for me being on time is not just for our passengers. You never know, there could be somebody else waiting for that flight to pass so that they can move to the next activity.

You mentioned church a few times; when have you struggled with your faith?

There have been ups and downs, obviously, especially in the workplace where I'm often called upon to be different. But I chose to be different and some people say, 'oh, he has opportunities, look at him he isn’t taking advantage of them.' For instance, I don't live on the other (leafy) side of town, I live in Syokimau, and I'm okay with that. I am happy there. At the right moment, I will move to the other side, but I'm not under pressure. I'm not competing with anyone. This is who I am. Is my family happy? Yes. It's all about the value system.

Who is your favourite character in the Bible and why?

It's David. Because, just like me, David had many failures, but he did quite many things well, so much so that God said "he's a man after my own heart". You may ask 'after David had done all these [abhorrent] things?' But David had a character of recognising and going back [to the right path] when he had failed. So for me, my best character is David.

What do you fear now as a 48-year-old gentleman?

(Pause) Failing this organisation. (Pause) It's not fear as much, but it's something that will keep me awake every now and then. How will I take the keys back to the owner and say tumefunga duka? (We've shut down).

Would you have failed yourself?

Some circumstances can push you to, like Covid or something major. But operationally, it's not something that I would look forward to because today when I look around the world, airlines are shutting down. I would not want this one to move anywhere close to that. So I have to be hungry [for growth]. And I have to be determined to take this organisation to the next level.

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