Why Jonathan Kinisu dims his light for his C-suite wife

Jonathan Kinisu, the Tetra Pak East Africa managing director. FILE PHOTO | COURTESY

With a voice warm as a glass of brandy, Jonathan Kinisu ushers me into the coffee area of Tetra Pak offices, where he rolls up his sleeves to make me—what else?—a cup of coffee.

He moves dexterously, a man who knows his way around the kitchen. “I make a mean apple pie; my wife is a big fan.” His wife, is also a big shot, the CEO of Prudential Life Assurance. They are a dream team, what you might call a power couple—literally, and figuratively.

Of the two, he is the shy one. “This is among the first interviews I am doing. I was told, to do the job, interviews later. But I’m ready now.” Suddenly, the coffee tastes much better.

But if he is shy, you won’t tell from how effusive he is. He throws a few zingers about his dad, his [dad’s] sense of style, about how their relationship has thawed. He doesn’t speak in right angles, takes no prisoners, and says the quiet parts out loud—and I am laughing (albeit on the inside). Not even Gwen is spared: “I got the job; she got the man.” If she brings the poise, he certainly brings the noise.

An hour later it feels like he has only just defrosted. But he has to get back to work. There is a job to do, and what are journalists but sharks circling for a hint of blood in the water?

What’s it like being you?

Yesterday [Monday, 25 March] was my birthday. I turned 46. In the grand scheme of things, that marks certain milestones, but it’s affirmation and appreciation. I am not very spiritual or religious but I acknowledge that somebody is holding and guiding my hand. I thank God.

I am married to Gwen Kinisu, the CEO, of Prudential. We have two children, my son Eli (12) and daughter Eliana who is 8. I am trying to do right by my family, especially due to the nature of our jobs, which can draw us away from family.

I play basketball, now to trim the belly fat, but I once played competitively. I am transferring those skills to my son.

How are the knees?

Those are fine, but the ankles though, haha!

How does life look at 46?

It is very introspective. You are aware this is the midpoint [of life expectancy] and therefore wonder about your legacy. It was a big milestone to be Managing Director at 41. Now, I ask what next? I have questions about my children. Is the family okay?  How do I define success?  Is it by the Kenyan dream, one wife…

 …an SUV, picket fence, two children in a private school, the likes?

I am not defined by that, haha! But usually, you start taking stock. What’s important is what am I doing for the community.

What did you do for yourself at 46?

Urm, nothing [chuckles]. Funny story, on Saturday I was with the children and we spotted an old Land Rover and they convinced me to rebuild the one I have, a 1983 series III Land Rover. It is an expensive venture, but maybe that will be the gift to myself. Maybe.

Did you grow up around cars?

Not really, but our generation was always fascinated by the East Africa Safari Rally. I remember Rally Gum, the chewing gum, which had inner wrappings with car stickers as collectibles of all the fancy rally drivers and flags of different countries. But I am a hardcore “when cars used to be cars” guy, so the spirit of adventure is alive in me.

What do you miss about your childhood?

Ooohhh. Not much really but it was an interesting childhood. My father was a successful career accountant. During my early years, I lived with my grandparents and could speak Bukusu before I was shipped off to Liverpool, UK, where I learned English.

It’s probably the first time children in kindergarten saw a black person. They thought I was made of chocolate so they would come to lick me to find out [chuckles]. It wasn’t racist, but just fascination, haha!

Then I went to State House Primary where they used to wonder 'Who is this child with a British accent?'. Later, my father moved to London in ’87 where I developed another thick British accent, came back to State House, and then went to Riara before finishing at Friends’ School Kamusinga. I was domiciled in different areas, which lends to my spirit of adventure.

How did having footloose parents affect how you raise your children?

I see a lot of parallelism. In many respects, I am walking in my father’s footsteps. Growing up, there was no sense of longing that he wasn’t there. It was admirable, and my children are also fascinated, only that I am trying to expose them a bit more, to experience different countries, in this global village.

Did you grow up to become your dad?

Haha! Everybody around me thinks so. People who know my father think he is my brother, haha!

How are you different from him?

My sense of style [chuckles]. He is very formal, a proper man. I am more of a Hip Hop honcho, still wear my sneakers, you know the basketball culture. I listen to everything, he doesn’t. He prefers his rhumba and Bukusu music.

What remains unchanged about you since childhood?

Humility. My mom taught me that and I want to pass it on to my children. People do not need to know your title.

What was your nickname growing up?

In high school it was Jay. My middle name is Sindani which was truncated by my parents to “Sindi”. I hated it [chuckles] because people thought it was a girl’s name (Cindy). In the office, they call me JK.

What value has JK brought from basketball into management?

Teamwork. You have to work with intensity and purpose. Expressions like 'you can’t drop the ball' are literal. We need to be a cohesive team—not just management, but the entire company.

Which position did you play in basketball?

Power forward. On the sides and baselines. We support the centre, the big guy, the tall guy who grabs the rebounds and takes the shots.

What personal experience significantly shaped who you are today?

I am proactive corporate-wise. A lot of the time people expect that their results will speak for themselves—but it doesn’t always work that way. I was very deliberate about what I wanted. I was part of the Shell Management Training Programme which had another programme where you were able to be positioned in different markets. I had applied for three years, but never got it.

In the fourth year, I went to the regional vice president and pitched myself. Then, I booked a flight to South Africa—at my own cost—went to the head of talent and made the pitch again. I got it and went to the US for two years, which changed my perspective. I thought, 'What’s the worst that could happen?' You miss 100 percent of the chances you don’t take. Personally, when you have children, it changes your perspective entirely. In that too, I am deliberate.

They say, a faint heart never won fair lady. How did you meet your wife?

At the Shell Management Trainee interview. I got the job; she got the man [chuckles]. She is a smart woman, haha! It’s our inside joke. She didn’t have to do all the work; I did all the work, haha!

I should leave that from the interview, but I won’t.

Haha! Incidentally, that was 2003, so 21 years ago.

What do you think she loves most about you?

It changes a lot. But she says I am very smart. I don’t know, haha! I respect our friendship.

At the risk of prying, you are a CEO, she is a CEO, what kind of pillow talk do you have?

We desperately try to keep work off limits, especially given there could be a lot of tension in the work environment. We support each other. You don’t always get that. It is perfect, I have my confidant. And it goes both ways.

In Swahili, they say fahali wawili hawakai zizi moja (Two bulls cannot reside in the same shed). What’s your experience?

My position has always been to anchor her. Humility. That’s why I tend not to do so many interviews. I want her to shine and glow in the corporate space.

How has this played out for your children—them seeing not just dad and mom, but also two CEOs?

They would see mom on TV and read about me in print media. It gives them a sense of pride, and hopefully direction and aspiration.

This is a question female CEOs have asked me whether I ask male CEOs the same, so here goes: can one have it all?

It would be vanity to want to have it all. It is important in life to want to have contentment. You will not get all the results all the time, sometimes growth spurts, sometimes blips. Marriage can be hard if you don't put in the work. Family and children are even harder. You need to define what success looks like for you and be content. I don’t need 20 acres in Runda with a 15-bedroom house and six 4x4s.

What does success look like for you?


What makes you happy?

[Chuckles] Family, achieving a purpose and leaving a lasting legacy.

You are a father, a leader and a husband. Which one is easier?

Oof! Right now, being a father seems easy, but it shifts from time to time. It depends on the season.

How do you show yourself love?

I am an introvert, and I am very internally focused. I love my books, hobbies, and private space. I read all kinds of books, at the moment I am reading The Lunatic Express [by Charles Miller] looking into what Africa used to be, and our character as Africans. I just finished reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. I love horrors, I am a Stephen King fan, and I recently finished The Fairy Tale. I am also into collectibles, like Kenyan banknotes.

What is the last book you read that shifted your perspective?

Shoe Dog. Following his [Phil Knight] journey from how he created an idea, he knew what he wanted to do, but not how—but he did it anyway. It is also about failure, and losing his son along the way.

Piggybacking on that one, as men approach certain ages, they get crises, have you had any moments that feel like a loss, or midlife crisis?

It is hard to say, maybe others would see it. But I question a lot, maybe part of the reason I love my hobbies is to stay grounded. Maybe that is where the passion to rebuild my Land Rover is coming from, a feeling that I need to rebuild my younger self.

What will people mourn about you when you are gone?

I want them to celebrate that this is someone who lived a fun life, to the fullest. That he was generous and cared about people.

What have you long believed to be true but realised isn’t?

That other people can make you happy. Happiness is self-driven and self-defined. You are who you are. Nobody knows you better than you and people will try to pigeonhole you—don’t allow it.

What are you thanking yourself for?


What have you been putting off that you should do?

Something about the Kenyan coast. I have been longing to have a house right at the ocean. Endless water to the horizon, sun setting and the question of what’s beyond there. I am in love with Lamu. I need to consecrate it with a house. Plus, build a restaurant since I love cooking.

What’s your signature meal?

Give me desserts. I will make you a mean apple pie; bread and butter pudding. The children love that. The wife is my biggest fan.

That’s your secret to marriage?

Haha! When things are hot just make a nice kickass apple pie.

What have you finally come to terms with?

Man is fallible. No one is a superhero, learn to calibrate your expectations. Decision-making in management has taught me when you are faced with a difficult decision, don’t delay the pain. Rip the band-aid off.

What’s your superpower?

Invisibility [chuckles]

Not anymore…

Haha! As a child all I wanted to be was being invisible [chuckles]. But it has its downsides because as a leader people expect you to be visible and vocal. You have to learn that. When things are not going well, you cannot be invisible.

You may no longer be invisible, but you can still be invincible, right?

Haha! I’ll take that.

What are you apologising to yourself for?

I have been self-focused. To succeed, there is a bit of selfishness required. Deep down, I know I could have done better with my extended family. There are members who will read this and think they have not seen me in a while, and I know I could do better in relating with my extended family.

Self-awareness is key. Which hack can make my weekends better?

My father has been pushing me to join golf but I have been hesitant. People will tell you social things like golf can help you open doors, but I choose to use that time for friends and family. That way I feel better, and internal contentment, and I am happier doing things for others.

I have this routine where every Saturday my daughter will be in gymnastics and piano, while my son is being coached in basketball and I am working out. Afterwards, we go and have a fun time together—if their mom is around, she can join—and that makes them very happy. I'm happier such that when I go home, I simply black out. If I have extra time, I have a ka-farm (small farm) 30 km from Nairobi that I usually visit. In other words, do things for yourself and others.

Who do you know that I should know?

My father. He is retired but he is an interesting man. He woke up one day and said he was going to play golf in Vietnam, and Cambodia. He took three weeks to make the visit and that has given him context to put his memoir together.

How old is he?

We argue all the time. He is 66. Wait, 65? 64. Let’s just say he is in his 60s.

What do you think your father is most proud of about you?

That I turned out okay. At his age, what matters most is not the successes that he achieved, but the legacy he is leaving behind. We have thawed through our relationship and now we have a fantastic connection. We are happy.

What kind of conversations do you have now?

Oof! We talk about everything. As we age, we have sort of found our rhythm. We are thinking about going to the Democratic Republic of Congo together, to explore new opportunities, see the culture and whatnot. Last year the two of us spent a couple of days together in Malindi.

Do you call him Dad now or Mzee?

Haha! I should call him Chairman [chuckles]. But no, I call him dad, haha!

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