Paul Russo: NBK boss who keeps camels

Paul Russo, the National Bank of Kenya managing director. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • A camel guy at heart, he’s deeply proud of and rooted to his community, revealing qualities of togetherness and pride as a people. Of course, you wouldn’t tell that about him by looking at his resume: an 18-year career at KCB, Chase Bank, Barclays Bank, PwC, K-Rep Bank and Unga Ltd.

In Paul Russo’s office, there are three framed pictures propped behind his desk. One, of his four gorgeous ladies (daughters and wife); the second, of him carrying his young son, and the last, a peculiar selfie of Paul and a camel.

The camel is pecking Paul on his left cheek. It’s his favourite camel, his kids love the animal and the feeling is mutual. When he isn’t running National Bank (NBK) as the Managing Director, he’s rearing camels and goats and chickens.

A camel guy at heart, he’s deeply proud of and rooted to his community, revealing qualities of togetherness and pride as a people. Of course, you wouldn’t tell that about him by looking at his resume: an 18-year career at KCB, Chase Bank, Barclays Bank, PwC, K-Rep Bank and Unga Ltd.

His interview is like an exciting express train without proper brakes, as Jackson Biko discovered recently; brutally honest to a point of peril, raw and refreshingly unapologetic.

I can’t say I have met many Samburus; you guys must be very few in the city.

Actually, I’m Rendile and yes, we are very few in this town. We all know each other. The last census put us at 101,000. But we tend to be like Samburus, actually. I went to primary school in Laisamis, which borders Samburu. I speak fluent Samburu, so we are kind of assimilated.

What part of your culture have you retained?

Probably all. I keep camels and goats. I found out that the more you're involved in that life the more you understand how your people operate and can learn about yourself. I can pick out some photos of my children handling animals back in the village. It’s important to me that they know who they are but they can't until I appreciate who I am.

How did you end up here, in the city? Laisamis is a long way off.

By the grace of God. [Chuckles]. After Class Eight, I got admitted to Mang'u High School. That was the breakthrough for me. My father sold all his animals for that to happen and my late older brother forwent his education so that I could pursue mine.

We had a senior chief, the most educated in the village. He had close to 50 herds of cows and from our place you could see his cows. My dad told me, one day, pointing at the cows, “that’s what educated boys do.” That would never leave my mind. Mang’u was hard because we had no money for fees, and when the going got tough I knocked on the doors of Food For The Hungry International in Westlands. I explained my problems to the lady who was in charge of education sponsorship. The rest is history. That's the miracle of my life. I got admitted to Moi University later and struggled through it financially.

How do you think your background informed who you are now as a professional and, generally as a human?

One is the fight for survival. In Northern Kenya, everybody wakes up and they just fight for survival. Talk of fighting bandits for your livestock, water, pasture. Amidst that, everybody dreams of a better tomorrow. Then there is also always the aspect of authenticity; you come as you are, no pretences. It also teaches you bravery and courage.

When in the recent past has your courage been tested?

Taking up this job. If I show you the notes I got from people unsolicited before I came here, you will be shocked. People asked me to make sure I am the one who gets myself tea because I could be poisoned. People asked me to make sure there's nobody in the leadership team that remains because they're all bad. Or to move offices to a floor where nobody knows me. To have armed guards in my home or change my children’s school.

We've seen guys with bad loans come here and put guns on this table and I remember jokingly saying to one of them, “By the way, in Marsabit, we carry them kwa gunia (in gunny bags). So, a gun is nothing to me.” This tests you but it also gives you an opportunity to transform.

You've mentioned that your greatest fear is failing people who look up to you, but what about failing yourself; don’t you fear that, is that easier to live with than failing your people?

It is. My wife comes from Marsabit, educated by Catholic sisters. One thing I told her earlier on in our marriage was that these jobs we do will be for a period. They will end one day, that’s a fact, and faster than we think. But I need to do things — enterprise — that my community sees value in, and failure in both enterprise and career will be devastating for them. My ecosystem is my community, if I failed them I don't know if I’d be able to face them.

So, what I'm getting is failure for you is the inability to secure finances well?

Failure for me is what it would do to the rest of the people. That village called Songa has not only produced more than 20 university graduates, but has produced a guy from Songa primary that went to Mang'u. Yeah? And he ended up studying veterinary medicine, he's now leading one of the community conservancies in Marsabit. It's called Songa Conservancy. That for us is what is important. That for me is what is important. If we can get more of those guys lifted up, at the end of the day.

You mentioned earlier how one time in South Africa a photographer told your little girls to stop behaving like boys and you walked away from the planned photoshoot. Where you grew up is informed by great patriarchy, where did your quality of genders rise from?

There's a myth in Rendile that this is the order. There's God, there's man, there's camel then there's woman. If one were to come to a Manyatta and find the woman of the house they’d ask, watu wako wapi? (is anyone present?) To mean they are not like human beings. It's heavily patriarchal to date.

What changed my mindset? Few things. Remember the lady at Food for the Hungry NGO who gave me a chance? Also, at Breweries I worked with Jean Njeri Muhoho who was the HR director who looked at me and said, ‘My friend you are brilliant, you have potential but you have to reassess the way you deal with gatekeepers’. That's because I never used to entertain secretaries. Then I worked for Barclays which had policies that stressed on equality for everybody. Then I ended up having three daughters, which makes you ask yourself, ‘What do I want for my girls?’ I have to create space for them and for all girls and that means changing your attitude.

Your community has only 100,000 people left, what sort of responsibility do you approach this with knowing that perhaps, a few generations down you'll not have any Rendiles?

It's a very tough question. There are people that say let's try and support the education literacy for the language and so forth. But I actually tell people one of the best ways to help is to make sure that people are involved in meaningful things that they don't have to look for identity elsewhere.

When people ask me, Paul, why are you keeping camels? Because a camel is at the heart of who we are. I send my children down often, and they go into the bomas interacting with animals. I've also been trying to rally leaders, particularly those in elected positions, to think about how do we can make sure that people are involved in meaningful activities so that they don't have to ever get their identities elsewhere? Conversations about culture and tradition are important.

What have you learnt from camels?

To be hardy, go the distance, be resilient. They can fail to get water and go for another four or seven days without it. Resilience is critical in the corporate world. You can miss your target for the month but you don’t give up. We share camel milk with strangers, camels foster sharing, and community. How do we bring generosity into the corporate world? Maybe that’s what we should ask ourselves.

What’s been your biggest revelation now at 44 years of age?

Everybody needs a chance. I am where I am because I was given a chance. Biko, my career aspiration was, even as I was in Mang'u, to work for KCB Marsabit. They had a Land Rover 110, the men carried newspapers and wore suits and ties, in dusty Marsabit! Then someone gave me a chance, people did.

What are you struggling with as a man now?

Spending more time with family. I hardly do. I leave here late, Saturdays I play a bit of golf. My daughter is getting to 15, I need to give her more of my time. I’m taking lightly my wife’s involvement and availability. Sometimes you ask yourself, how much is this job worth that you have to work 14 hours? I don't want to fully acknowledge it but it's only the mother that is available. But in the end the only person you run to is your wife and kids. When we were getting hammered on social media not long ago, the only point of comfort was family for me even though Joshua Oigara, [the KCB chief executive] would also offer encouraging words.

Isn’t it a paradox then, that you spend all the time away from the family and yet when things get really rough, it’s the same family you run to for comfort?

It is. You are right. When we have bad quarter results I never go to play golf, I go home and feel low and I share this with my wife. But when we have a great quarter, and there is a bonus in the offing, I don’t even bring it up…[Laughing].

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.