Profiles

Robert Kibaara: What polygamy has taught me

KIBAARAL

Housing finance Group CEO Robert Kibaara during an interview at his office on May 3, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

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Summary

  • Robert Kibaara was sure that all he wanted to do was work in a bank.
  • His dream was not borne from the admiration of the humdrum officiousness of the banking hall.
  • It was how, as a young man from the village, he would see a bank teller count wads of cash; swiftly, efficiently, and without moving his lips.

Robert Kibaara was sure that all he wanted to do was work in a bank. His dream was not borne from the admiration of the humdrum officiousness of the banking hall. It was how, as a young man from the village, he would see a bank teller count wads of cash; swiftly, efficiently, and without moving his lips.

A career banker spanning 24 years, he has worked at NIC Bank, National Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, and Barclays Bank.

Now the CEO of Housing Finance, he likens steering the mortgage financier through an unstable pandemic period to “driving in a fog.”

JACKSON BIKO met him in his office recently.

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Did you have a happy childhood?

I had a very happy childhood, grazing cows, picking wild fruits from a big forest near our home. My father had three wives, 30 sons and daughters. He brought us up as friends. It was one big, amazing family.

My mother died early, so we got integrated into the wider family such that there was no difference between siblings from my mother and siblings from the other mothers. My father died in 1988 and since then, we run the businesses he left us together. And the businesses have survived.

You’ve experienced the positive aspect of polygamy; do you think that you are more inclined to be polygamous?

I wouldn’t judge anybody who is polygamous. If polygamy works, if there are no fights, it’s useful. My stepbrothers paid my school fees under the command of my father. But would I choose polygamy personally? Maybe not.

What kind of a man can easily run a massive home of 30 children and three wives, having watched your father?

A very tough man, very fair to all his children and wives. What my father did to my mom, he did to the next wife. There was never a child from this mother and another from the other. He told us ‘you are siblings, period.’ Sometimes he made us eat together, away from our mothers.

He was firm, fair and consistent. But then again, our mothers also came from a different generation; my stepmothers went to each other’s dowry-paying ceremonies.

Does running a company like Housing Finance feel like you are running a polygamous home?

(Laughter) Yes, it’s about providing powerful leadership. I have drawn some of my leadership styles from the day-to-day life of my father. Like being fair to people and treating everyone with respect.

My father never wrote a will, but he was open as to who would get what. I learnt that it’s easier to put things on the table. Here at the bank, everybody knows our journey; what we’re going through, the bad and ugly - there are no cards under the table.

What do you find yourself struggling with as a leader?

Striking for a balance. On one hand, you want to make people happy, reward them, but there is a competing interest of ensuring a company survives and thrives. Do you increase salaries or give promotions if they may offset the internal balance?

I think if you make people understand that they are part of a bigger initiative, as my father made us believe, they will set aside their interests.

Sounds like you were going through a leadership course when you were young?

(Chuckles) I was. Our childhoods are courses in themselves, aren’t they?

What are you struggling with now as a 46-year-old man?

Steering this company through this period. It’s like driving through fog. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Will there be another lockdown? Will customers be able to repay their mortgages? It is uncertain.

How do you make sure that you don’t carry all this baggage of anxiety home?

A while ago, I learnt a skill that helped me a lot. It’s called neuro-linguistic programming. It’s the conscious use of language to bring about changes in someone’s thoughts and behaviour. You can choose how external factors affect your life and moods.

Once I reach home, I don’t think about work. People ask, ‘what keeps you awake at night?’ I’m never awake at night if I was to be very honest. (Laughs) I don’t lose sleep. There is little I can solve when I’m at home, at night. Unless something is burning. Tomorrow is always another day. I also have my favourite pastime, farming. I have farms in Nyahururu and Naivasha. We give away beans and maize. It’s nice to give somebody a whole bag of beans.

What’s your biggest motivation to give?

There is nothing I have that I have not received. Therefore, I have a duty to support the less privileged. There is a lot that I have received that I did not deserve. I have been mentored by many people, strangers who didn’t have a reason to support me. For example, the CEO of Standard Chartered, Kariuki Ngari, John Gachora of NCBA, and James Mwangi of Equity Bank.

When I quit Kenyatta University in my second year to get into banking, something I had long dreamt of, my first boss at Barclays Bank, Narok branch, a guy called Lunalo, taught me how to dress, talk, and see life as a banker. {He later got a Bachelor’s Degree in Banking and Finance from the University of Sunderland in England and a postgraduate diploma in marketing.}

Do you have other dreams?

Yes. To learn how to fly an aeroplane. I don’t want to be employed as a pilot, but one day I want to buy a small plane.

You have different identities, a CEO, a father, a husband, a brother...Of all these identities, which one do you find yourself identifying the most with?

A father. A parent plays a big part in what his children eventually become. I take my role as a father seriously because I know I was profoundly impacted by my father. There are many times I face difficult situations even at work, and I ask myself how my father would deal with it. I would want my children to say the same.

They say we somehow either marry our mothers or somebody who is exactly the opposite of our mother. Who did you marry?

(Sigh) I think I married my mother. (Laughs). My mother died when I was 21. She was quiet, tough, and very hardworking. She was very prayerful. I think my Christian values stem from her. There are things I would not do even if for money.

What’s the best thing money has ever bought you?

(Laughs) That’s an interesting question. A shaver. I bought it in the US. It lasted three years without losing battery. It doesn’t leave me with pimples. In the past 10 years, it has fallen many times and it doesn’t break.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you now?

Nine. I’m a happy soul. I choose to be happy. Happiness isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision.