Kenyan tycoon, Kiuna Ngugi, who won Sh1.8bn after eight-year battle with Heineken

BD Warsteiner Chief Guest L

Kenyan tycoon, Kiuna Ngugi. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Two weeks ago, Kiuna Ngugi Kiuna became Sh1.8 billion richer after the Court of Appeal upheld the award by the lower court as compensation for the cancellation of a distributorship contract by the Dutch beer maker Heineken.

Even before the latest windfall, Mr Kiuna had billions to his name having had interests in various businesses, including shares in once blue-chip firms.

He was among the 29 founder members of TransCentury and was previously the CEO at industrial hygiene firm Johnson Diversey for 16 years.

He is also the former chairperson of BOC Kenya where he has a stake of 8.5 percent. He has since moved to the Capital Markets Authority tribunal seeking the termination of the Carbacid Investments’ buyout of BOC Kenya citing undervaluation.

Mr Kiuna, the reclusive tycoon who runs Maxam Limited with his children, also sat on the board of Proctor & Allan.

But it is with Maxam that Kiuna sought to carve his business empire, so much so that he convinced his son, also known as Gachao Kiuna, to leave a lucrative banking job overseas to help him run the alcohol business.

He founded the company in 2007 to exclusively distribute Heineken beer in the region. He said in a past interview that he got in touch with the Dutch beer maker in his earlier job which involved supporting beverage companies in East, West and Central Africa.

On 21st May 2013, Heineken East Africa Import Company Limited wrote a letter to Maxam Ltd, appointing it as its exclusive distributor of Heineken products in Kenya with effect from 1st May 2013.

Maxam Limited is also a distributor of other products including Marlboro; Aqula Vodka and Pernod Ricard.
The distributorship contract was however terminated by Heineken in 2016, with the Dutch maker preferring to distribute its beers in the region on its own.

The court of appeal judges ruled that the letter addressed to Maxam Limited was not legally binding and that the contract between Heineken and Mr Kiuna’s firm was not terminated lawfully by the time the Dutch company engaged other distributors.

The distributor sought damages for loss of business, amounting to Sh1.799 billion, among other damages. The term “without prejudice” means without loss of any rights in a way that does not harm or cancel the legal rights or privileges.

The letter created ambiguity because the two words, the judges found, cannot therefore be taken to mean a lawful termination under the agreement signed by the parties.

He was asked in a past interview whether Maxam was his favourite business.

“Not that I have too many other businesses. In fact, this is the only business I come to every morning,” said Kiuna.

Even after the cancellation of the contract in 2016, Maxam continued with the business of distributing wines and spirits, turning into a connoisseur of alcoholic beverages, especially wines. He described the fragmentation of the wines to be second only to music.

Despite having raked in all these billions, Kiuna, like many other first-generation Kenyan billionaires remains frugal. His tastes for wine, for example, are modest for a billionaire.

When he was asked to name his favourite wine in a past interview, the British-educated Kiuna said he takes the “cheap man’s champagne” which includes some sparkling wines that the French describe as brute.

The frothy French-made Champagne is expensive for the billionaire. “With the changes in the wine industry in the world, there is good sparkling wine that is available, because I can’t afford to drink champagne,” said Kiuna in the interview.

Mr Kiuna, 75, started Maxam after 32 years of employment. He is among the trailblazers of Kenya’s capitalism.

The former BOC Kenya chairman last year raised his stake in the company to a new high of 8.5 percent, entrenching him as the second-largest investor in the industrial gas manufacturer.

He was the first African captain of the Nakuru Golf Club in 1979, an indication that Kiuna joined the ‘gentlemanly culture’ earlier enough giving him access to power and prestige that by then was wielded by the white colonists.

He is the former Kenya Golf Union and Kenya Open Golf Limited chairman.

Before he went into business he was employed for 32 years, starting in Britain where he went for studies.

In a past interview, Kiuna also waded into the debate of taxation and how it has affected his business. “I tell people that actually we are in the business now…We started the business of selling wines, spirits…alcoholic beverages and we have ended up in the business of selling taxes.”

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