Profiles

Simple things in Choge’s big leadership bag

choge

Unga Group Plc Chief Executive Officer Joseph Choge during the interview at his Nairobi home on December 1, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Summary

  • There’s a spot in his backyard in Runda that Joseph Choge, the new CEO of Unga Group Limited, likes to settle himself in every Saturday, to reflect, meditate and unwind.
  • The genial executive who grew up in Kitale, Trans Nzoia, is now one month into the role that he never imagined in his wildest dreams.

There’s a spot in his backyard in Runda that Joseph Choge, the new CEO of Unga Group Limited, likes to settle himself in every Saturday, to reflect, meditate and unwind.

It’s a tented space under a tree, sparsely furnished with wooden recliner chairs. The large table looks like it could use a fresh coat of varnish.

Beside the tent is a children’s play area; a swing here, a bouncing castle there and toys everywhere. There are also troughs where birds drink and feed on grain. It’s the quintessence of quietness in a neighbourhood known for serenity.

Joseph was seated here one weekend three months ago, as he has for the last five years. His phone rang. The caller, a South African recruiter, informed him that he was in the race for the Unga Group Limited #ticker:UNGA top job. He was taken aback. He was happy at Premier Foods Limited, where he had been CEO for three years.

He recalls: “I hadn’t applied for the job. The caller said someone would call to arrange for an interview and the subsequent processes.”

Someone did call weeks later, after which he faced a panel. A month later, Unga Group chairman called him. “He told me, ‘Joseph, I have bad news for you. You must leave Premier Foods.’ I was confused but pleasantly surprised.”

The genial executive who grew up in Kitale, Trans Nzoia, is now one month into the role that he never imagined in his wildest dreams. He takes me back to where it all began 30 years ago: Turkana.

“I was 12 when I was taken to school in Lokichar. It was tough for me at first, having been raised in the highlands. We relied on relief food in school. There was no road at the time. For transport, we hitchhiked cargo trucks.”

This environment of brutal heat and dire poverty shaped him.

How so? “I appreciate people more. I’ve seen the poorest of the poorest people in the world. All these people want in life is to escape poverty.”

He has also appreciated the power of education to transform lives. “I invest in the education of poor kids both as an individual and with a group of friends.”

Wailing employees

His name may not appear in many discourses featuring top CEOs in the country. Yet hardly do these executives make their teams bawl with loss when they announce their departure.

Days before he left Premier Foods, a group of employees were captured on video mourning his exit. Some women even wailed. The spectacle was nearly as touching as it was unusual. I wonder what the backstory was. How does he lead?

“It’s the simple things in life. Being human. Nothing extraordinary,” he says with enviable ease.

If top executives like to project humility, Joseph has taken it to a lunar level. “I’m a very simple guy. I believe the culture of an organisation is set at the top. If you set the right tone, that’s reflected down the structure.”

From attending high-profile and sometimes unnerving board meetings to putting stickers on ketchup bottles and engaging factory workers in chatter, Joseph has built his legacy around creating a cohesive environment devoid of bureaucracy.

“You must show care to your team; genuine care, not just putting up a show. But also creating an environment where people feel heard and their contribution valued. It isn’t rocket science.”

Stepping into different shoes

He’s a numbers person who likes to use his heart. I’m curious to know how he marries the two. To this executive, leadership is about the ability to inspire willing action. He explains: “If I can inspire my team to do what needs to be done without supervision, then I’ve succeeded in my role.

That takes a lot of heart. As CEO, you’re the chief motivation, hope and love officer.”

There are times, however, when numbers compel drastic action, namely restructuring, to protect the company. “Some decisions have to be made. But even as you do that, you must ask yourself: Are you doing it in the most humane manner? At the end of the day, these are families being affected.”

To navigate this slippery precipice, Joseph has always championed for alternative placement for employees affected by job cuts, within and outside the organisation, and facilitating psychological support for them. “It should never be murky. You should never treat people merely as cogs in a system.”

He notes, though, that he has to be conscious “so that my compassion doesn’t become a weakness”. Or is abused. “Do I suffer anxiety and doubt myself sometimes? Yes. Do I wonder how I got into certain situations? I do. But you have to consult because no one has the monopoly of ideas and knowledge.”

Is this the legacy he had hoped to leave behind when he joined Premier Foods in 2018? Joseph couldn’t be prouder of his tenure. He says: “From juices to tomato sauce, we took some brands from unknown to become market leaders. My team did well.” His vision, though, was to grow it five times more.

Now he’s stepping into a different pair of shoes, practically, bigger shoes. Could anything have prepared him for this stretch of his career? His easy laugh betrays the anxiety that came with the three-month transition that, in his words, was a rollercoaster ride.

Track record

“My track record has been built on a turnaround. I just want to awaken the nostalgia that Kenyans have of Unga Group Limited products.”

Days before he made the move, Joseph tells me he would put a bottle of Peptang against a packet of Jogoo maizemeal, and study the two for hours. “Both are fast-moving consumer goods that feature every day in most Kenyan households.” It was a difficult decision, but one he had to make. “I thought: I’ll just go to Unga and be good to the people. The business will be done.” That was it.

An enthusiastic hiker, Joseph has climbed virtually all mountains in the country, except Mount Kenya “which I hope to summit next year” as soon as his raptured ligament in his foot heals.

He has ridden for 20 years, he tells me. Packed beside his Jeep Cherokee in his front yard are a Raleigh 400cc bike and several smaller bikes. He has previously had a 1000cc speed bike “with which I did crazy speeds.”

Biggest fear

These days he prefers off-road rides or road trips with friends. “I’m getting older, so I’m not excited about speed anymore. I don’t do past 100kph. Life isn’t just about me anymore.”

It’s about his family as well. Joseph is married with four children; two boys and two girls, aged between three and nine. His wife is a creative and the founder of Picks & Deals, a digital agency in the city. “Most of my digital and marketing strategies come from the bedroom,” he jokes with a chuckle.

There’s a playroom in one section of his seven-bedroom house, complete with a dartboard and a pool table where the family passes their time.

“Family makes me wonder what’s more important in life. It crushes me whenever I’m unable to attend my children’s activity in school due to work commitments. Failing as a parent is my biggest fear.”

His home sits on a three-acre piece of land in the neighbourhood. Here, he farms an assortment of vegetables, poultry and dairy cattle. His is the life of a typical boy raised in Kenya’s highlands.

Tens of plant species grow here too, from flowers to trees, creepers and spices. “I love plants,” he replies with a pep in his voice when I ask him about the greenery. “I collect them randomly and plant them.”

Biggest support system

Besides family, he considers the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO, a support group for young business leaders where he’s a member, as his biggest support system.

“We have forums made up of six to eight executives. We meet every month. It’s a platform that allows members to share whatever tumult they may be going through, such as depression. We say ‘nothing, nobody never’ which means it’s a safe space, especially for men who don’t like to talk, to share freely.”

He admits that anxiety and depression are the commonest challenges faced by top executives, most of who have flourished in their careers but failed at home. “Some don’t see their children such that relationships at home are badly strained. It’s important to balance all relationships to win outside and at home.”

So, how is life for him in both worlds at the moment, I ask. “Good,” he says with glee. “Life has to be good. You have to be deliberate to make things work. Winning at home is how I define success.”

Competition has grown stiffer in the food market, and household millers such as Unga are now having to contend for a market share with new players coming into the fray every day. “We have a huge heritage as a brand and that should count for something. We’ll leverage on our rich history to stand out from the competition.”

To do that, Joseph, a firm believer in diversity and inclusion, says building a strong team is vital. “Most of the time we recruit people who look and think like us. I want somebody who tells me to my face that my suggestions are weak or impractical.”

Diversity and inclusion

On inclusion, he says youngsters successfully running multimillion-dollar companies elsewhere in the world is a strong petition for Kenyan companies to incorporate youth in their leadership teams.

“If today I wanted to do a TikTok video on Unga, for instance, a member of my board may not be able to execute this. Only millennials can. Why not bring them on board while they speak to the largest (60 percent) segment of our consumers?”

His order of business in the initial months of his term? “To learn the business,” he says excitedly. “I’ve never sold animal feeds. Having learned how to make jam, I must now learn to cook feeds. I want to be an empty sponge and to soak up as much as I can.”

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