Weekend with the CEO
Mark Dunford's 'house of pain' and Roxy's affectionThursday March 16 2023
There is something that Mark Dunford, the CEO of Knight Frank, does not want anyone to know. He harbours some skeletons in the closet, a secret path to a hidden compartment in his soul: he loves Roxy, his six-year-old cat maybe just a tiny winy bity more than Maya—also his cat.
Not that he loves Maya less, but he loves Roxy more. He draws his phone and shows me pictures of Roxy.
I’ll let you in on another secret, what makes his heart purr is rugby. When he talks about rugby his eyes light up, he mentions his ‘boys’ and how 5pm Mondays are reserved for his ‘house of pain’, —a euphemism for the gym—which he invites me over but on second thought (and on account of my scaring easily) he says it’s not a ‘great place for talking as it is mainly pain and crying.’
I’m not a big fan of tears which leads us to the less hurtful and more macho tête-à-ˈtête at Wasp & Sprout in Nairobi's Loresho, where he knows all the waiters by name, and they respond in kind.
Unwilling to sacrifice urgency for propriety, he confesses that his only routine is spontaneity. Nothing about him feels like an affectation, which is why, during our interview, he is regularly stretching on the seats of Wasp & Sprout.
It is also here that while guggling water, he tells me one of the finest pieces of wisdom that we both agree should be inscribed on a tee-shirt if not a billboard, and hang in the Louvre: “Tequila si maji.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
As a leader, you always set the tone. People look up to you. Always try to be the bigger person.
Conversely, what’s the worst?
Always think of yourself first. I understand the underlying meaning, but people tend to take it out of context to be about ‘being more selfish’. You don’t need to always focus on yourself.
Does it get lonely up there?
Yes, it’s a cliché but I like sitting in open-plan offices. I noticed in the past that when I sat with my colleagues, they’d panic and it’d put them off their game.
But now that they know me, they are a little bit more relaxed. I love people, and being around them. I have always been more of a macro-strategic than a micro-strategic guy.
I manage the managers who manage everyone else.
Let’s talk about your house of pain. Why lifting?
I am not a lifter per se. I have always played rugby but stopped for a while. When I moved back to Kenya, a good friend asked me to join him, and I said, ‘But I’m out of shape!’.
Luckily, he was kind enough to reel me in. And part of that involved introducing me to our strength and conditioning coaches, Kevin, and Jeff—who owns a gym.
Several workouts later, got me feeling fit again. However, I think I am a little skinny. I am only 91 kgs.
How often do you lift?
I tend to work out Mondays at the gym; Wednesdays and Saturdays are for team training with the Nondies (Nondescript Rugby Club) vets.
Sundays you’ll catch me on some sort of run/swim/ride. I save one other day, usually Thursdays for a recovery run. So, five or six days a week I am physically active.
How has your exercise regimen changed you?
I have always been a very active person, playing lots of sports, squash, and rugby. Up until 2019 I was healthy and fit, 2019 to 2022 I grew fat, and from 2022, I started getting back in shape.
It’s been calming and I find it helps me deal with the stresses of everyday life. But rugby is where it’s at.
You surely must have a special memory with your rugby guys?
Hahah! I have been playing rugby my whole life so there are many memories. What I found unique to rugby is the camaraderie and the understanding.
You could walk into any rugby club and you would be welcome. It’s a brotherhood, and that leads to a tonne of memories.
What have you taken from rugby?
Discipline and appreciation for hard work. It pays off.
What has rugby taken from you?
Rugby players lay their bodies on the line for their peers. You may end up expecting that from people who don’t have the same values as you—I can do anything for my mates—and if you start using that same barometer on other people, it can lead to unfulfilled expectations. You risk disappointment.
What’s that thing they say about rugby?
Rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen. Football is a game for gentlemen played by thugs.
They also say the smaller the ball, the higher the social status.
Haha! Do they? But it doesn’t take anything to play rugby, it’s like football. There is so much talent in Kenya, the only problem is that we don’t have the infrastructure to develop youth talent.
When you think of the weekend what food comes to mind?
Eggs and bacon. Any eggs would do. Throw in some nyama too. I am a big steak eater. I love steak. And I eat a lot. I eat all day. Tonnes of nuts too.
Tell me about your weekends.
Saturday mornings you will find me training at Ngong Racecourse where we have a boot camp. What’s cool about this camp is that you scale—whether losing weight or buffing up.
Later I’d go swim a bit or chill for an hour or so. Sometimes I’d come here, at Wasp & Sprout and do the adulting of management—emails and messages—while meeting with clients occasionally.
I live with my uncle and aunt, so I try and squeeze friends and family in there too. And since I am not a big sleeper, I tend to be very spontaneous. I am a yes-kind-of-guy.
I have no qualms about anything— most things. Tell me you want us to go paragliding off the Rift Valley and I’ll be like, 'cool, let’s do it'—despite my phobia of heights! Which is exactly what happened some months back haha!
What’s your most spontaneous moment?
Once, I left work, went to the airport, and flew far away for a weekend. I was fortunate enough to have the money. Oh, but the best has to be this time that I drove from Switzerland to Barcelona for breakfast.
You must have been really hungry...
It was late at night and my buddy and I were like, 'you know, let’s just go to Barcelona since Barcelona cannot come to us'.
Where do you find all this time as a CEO…how do you do it?
If you are a busy person, you need to make peace with the idea that you can’t do everything. It’s all about priorities.
I scale back on the weekends and holidays, but I am always available for work, family, and friends. There is a select group of people who when my phone rings, I will pick.
If you call me on a busy day, no offence, I’ll just have to call you back. But if my mom calls, I’m answering that phone. If my CFO calls me on a holiday, something must be burning. I am picking up that call.
Flexibility is key in this business and knowing what’s important vis-à-vis what’s urgent.
You mentioned you read a lot. What are you reading now?
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by Paul Reid and William Manchester.
What’s one thing you’ve taken from the book?
I have understood that depending on your character, personality, and skillset you might be the right person for a certain scenario but you may be the completely wrong person for something else.
Have you ever been the right person for the wrong thing or the wrong person at the right time?
I like to think I am quite adept at sensing danger, but at the end of my time at one job in Dubai, I wasn’t comfortable.
I have left three jobs without figuring out what’s next because I didn’t believe in it anymore. My principles were such that I could feel the toll taking on me.
I have employees who have applied for jobs in a competitor’s company and they asked me to be their referee—I always agree. Why?
They will only say good things about you. I am a big believer in karma, if you are positive energy, the world has a way of reflecting that back on you.
If you are superman, what’s your kryptonite?
Chocolate mousse is my kryptonite but I never have it. If I go down that slippery slope, it’s over for me. I think my answer should actually just have been no comment! Wait, I just remembered.
I have had a cat, Roxy, for the last six years, since she was a kitten. Okay they are two—Roxy and Maya—but Roxy just gets me, you know?
We understand each other, and despite cats being known for their aloofness, Roxy is very affectionate.
What do you think Roxy says about you?
That I don’t feed her enough!
On Sundays, pews or PJs?
And when you are not in suits?
T-shirt and jeans.
What is the last thing you do before the lights go out?
Stretch. I am a big stretcher.
What's your hack to make weekends better?
Get up early.
What are the three things you know to be true and dear to you?
One, hard work pays off. Two, no one thing defines you. But more importantly, and crucially, tequila si maji (isn't water).