Military man's fearful march to family business empire

Joseph Boke Kitangita, founder of Jeff Hamilton, an integrated outsourcing company in Kenya. PHOTO | POOL

Everybody still calls him Major Boke even though he was last in the military 16 years ago. His real name is Joseph Boke Kitangita, ex-military, founder of Jeff Hamilton, an integrated outsourcing company focusing on manpower, security, and facility management.

This is how he landed in business, a calling that he stumbled on. After Kenyatta University, where he studied physics and mathematics [he also has an MBA in Strategic Management], he joined the military. He then got a certificate in Military Science and worked as a lieutenant in the engineering division of the Air Force.

He then did a certificate in aeronautical engineering from The Defence Technical College at Nairobi's Embakasi, got posted to Laikipia Air Base in charge of A5 engineering, taught at the Military Technical College, and in 2004 was posted at the bullet factory in Eldoret as a production manager before opting to retire from the military in 2006 when his tenure ended and he was supposed to go back to the mainstream military.

“I don’t come from a region where people start and run successful businesses,” he said. “We are expected to get an education to get office jobs. Nobody thought this would work” Jeff Hamilton has worked. The company is currently in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zambia.


When did you decide that you'll join the military?

It was not by design. After my Bachelor's degree in 1997, I desired to work in the city because I grew up in Kisumu. When I was posted by Teachers Service Commission in Kuria where I come from, I was disillusioned. There was no electricity, running water, or tarmac road.

I started looking for anything that would take me out of the village and so when I heard the military was recruiting, I immediately signed up. So I joined the military to get out of the village. I would have taken up anything to leave the village. [Laughter].

What did the military teach you that you find useful now?

Two things. One is self-worth. The military is very good at training people to believe in themselves. I struggled with self-esteem before joining the military. And considering my very humble background, I struggled most in the university, because in the university you meet people from all walks of life.

I felt unworthy. The military taught me to believe in myself. Military officers come across as being arrogant or having bloated egos, but they are not. They're trained to believe in themselves so that they can manage war.

The second thing is discipline. That has helped me run this business. The military teaches you never to give up. They teach this thing called the worst case scenario where you start planning from the worst case. I apply that in business.

 Where did your lack of self-esteem stem from?

I was brought up in a very humble family. I refuse to call it poor[Laughs]. I came to this realisation when I went to university, I had classmates who were very well off. This social or status divide blindsided me. It completely shattered my self-confidence.

 What do you find that rattles your confidence now?

Not much. I'm happy in the space I am in. One of the things I did a while back was to ask myself 'what is enough?' I have gotten to a point where now I am clear on that question. What is enough for me is good health and being able to provide the basics.

I am not worried that I'll fall sick at 80 and not afford my treatment. I've also realised that it's not what I have that will shape my sons because just like me, they can create wealth if they want, and build their own lives. As long as they have a good base, which for me is education, they should be fine. Based on that, I am very comfortable in my space.

 Does wealth build confidence?

Yes and no. The lack of it takes away confidence. Our society has increasingly defined men by how much they are worth. But does wealth in itself build confidence? I don't think so.

I think wealth reveals the person we are. I've met a lot of wealthy men who are not confident. The right thing to say is that wealth increases the probability of you being confident.

 So, what are you struggling with now as a man who's affirmed and self-aware?

I'm struggling with the definition of a successful man from my sons' point of view because sometimes you live through your sons. Society demands too much of them. It takes their very essence. Boys are raised to provide for families and girls to be independent women.

There is bound to be a conflict there eventually. For me, the challenge is not knowing who is genuine and who is not around me, even in my family circles. That’s what success brings you.

 Knowing that success attracts disingenuous people, does this change who you are?

It does. It has changed me a lot. I have increasingly become introverted. I go out less to protect myself from either being hurt or exploited. I'm more discerning about relationships that I get into.

The more you succeed the more people question your success. They blame it on something; government contracts, devil worshipping, or drug dealing. [Chuckles]

What's the most fearful thing you've ever done in your life?

Starting Jeff Hamilton. I was brought up believing I had to go to school, be number one, and get a big job. Yes, I got those jobs and my father and mother were very happy. But then I got into the business because I got to a point where I had become very good at my work and I had become very opinionated about matters of security.

I was permanently fighting with my bosses. So I started the business in 2013. It was a scary time, my wife wasn't working. My family told me this thing won't work because, in our community, no one starts a business and succeeds.

Who is Hamilton?

Jeff is my son, my last born. Hamilton is branding, to make it “acceptable” in the market. The security market was very white-dominated when I started, so we gave the market what it wanted.

 So if you called Jeff Kitangita Ltd it would not work?

It would work but take too much energy. It would take your life and by the time it succeeds you'd be a dead man. [Laughter]

You have many sons...

Four, aged 27, 23, 21, and 19. They have all, at some point, had some work experience at the company but of all my sons, Jeff, the last born, has had the most experience in the business. He's the one who has had a lot of interest in the business.

 Why is it important for your boys to be interested in your business?

It is important because many family businesses in this country die in the second generation. When we started this business with my wife Lucy, we had two choices; make money, sell and exit and then enjoy our retirement.

It was either that or we start a legacy business for posterity. That means obviously, it needs to be passed to the sons. But if they have no interest in the business, then the firm will face the same fate.

 Do you feel that you're thrusting your ambitions and dreams to people who are also individuals with their dreams and inspirations?

 I think I am. And that is why we have given them leeway. It is a father's wish that his children take over the business that he has spent so much time building. But also, you're alive to the fact that it might not be their dream and that they might not be interested.

But that hope never ceases. You can't force them, but you encourage them. And why can’t we? Indians are doing very well. The Somalis have just started to do very well in building legacy businesses.

 What's the most important thing you're on right now?

I would say my health. It's the only thing that is yours, when you lose it, then you will never have any other. I pray that God gives me good health. I exercise four times a week with a personal trainer. I walk unsupervised once a week.

My wife is what we call a quack. [Chuckles]. So she has all these theories on what foods work and which don’t. My diet is under her supervision.

Where did you meet Lucy?

We met at a nightclub. [Laughs]. This was Christmas eve of 1999 or 2000. I was a second lieutenant at Moi Airbase, in my skinny jeans and my leather jacket on a night in Florida 2000, having a Tusker. I saw her dancing on the dance floor; dark, tall, and beautiful. I joined her.

Then I called the waiter and said, ‘give that lady whatever she is drinking. Pea yeye kitu'. [Laughs]. The waiter came and told me, ‘wako wawili’ . I said, “nothing wrong, give them.’

When we danced again it was deliberate because I had bought drinks. [Laughs]. Three days later, I went to visit her where she worked. She wore micro-mini dresses and high heels, and she was already tall, like six feet. A month later we moved in [together].

Lieutenant Boke!

[Laughter] Looking back, it's been the best decision I have ever made. We have a good marriage regardless of the normal ups and downs. We are more friends than husband and wife. If we were to divorce today no one would take our friendship away. She's loyal to a fault. And I'm a dreamer. [Laughs]

What are you dreaming of now?

A quiet retirement. [Pause] I think retirement is overrated. I am looking forward to peace away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I'm making a home in Kuria; six acres, riverfront. A flat-roofed one-story home. But my dream is to get a small house on the Coast.

I'm torn between Vipingo Ridge and Diani. I intend to move out of Nairobi because I can run the business online. One of the things that I've learned is that a lot of my friends and older men like our fathers die because of loneliness.

When children are gone and the wife is always gone visiting the children wherever they are, men find themselves sitting waiting for death. Women always have something to engage themselves with, a support system.

My retirement is going to be surrounded by other men. I still want to go to a disco at 60 and drink and stagger without being judged. 

Last question, since you came from a humble background, and now you are financially independent and doing well, what have you learned about money?

Money is a mindset. Take the late businessman Chris Kirubi. If you had taken everything from him and visited him 10 years later do you think he would be wealthy? I think he would.

This might be an insensitive thing to say, but sometimes people are poor because of their mindset. If you see it, you will achieve it.

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