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A chat with Peptang boss

Joseph Choge is in the business of sweet things; sauces, jams, children and love. (The last two are personal). As the CEO of Premier Food Industries—Peptang, he oversees the production of over 50 products. But he is ideally a numbers person.

His undergraduate degree was in mathematics and later a Master’s degree in International Management. (Also, CPA (K)). He has worked in Gabon as general manager finance for Airtel and at Unilever as country finance manager.

He might have a heavy bias in finance, but at his very core, he is a befitting subject on this Valentine’s Day as JACKSON BIKO discovered recently.

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I never imagined I’d meet someone who works for Peptang!

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(Laughs) No? We have been around for about 85 years. It was bound to happen sooner rather than later.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Kitale, in a small farm. We grew maize and sold milk. I’d carry 100 litres of milk on my motorbike and take it to town daily. In fact, after high school I didn’t want to go to university. I didn’t see the need to because I was making so much money.

I asked my dad, “I’m rich, why do I need to go to university?”

I was making about Sh200,000 per month.

Today I look back and realise that my dad was right. It’s good to have a degree as a fallback plan. I went to the University of Nairobi, I normally say I graduated with two degrees; a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, and my wife. (Chuckles)

I met my wife in the maths class and we’ve been married for 11 years and with four children — two boys and two girls, all under eight years. So I run a nursery school at home in essence.

You must have been in your early 20s when you got married?

We met when we were in second year in university. We finished campus in 2006 and ‘tarmacked’ together. It was so much fun. We would go and sit in Uhuru Park after sending CVs all over.

She got a job a month before me. In 2008, we got married and we were on a serious honeymoon for about four years before we started having a nursery. (Chuckles) For me, that period cemented our relationship. We became best friends.

What do you think are the pros and cons of marrying early?

It’s good to marry early. You get grounded early in life. By the time I was getting my first job, we had a joint account already and we’ve been having one ever since.

We have always asked ourselves; ‘how do we grow, how do we plan, even for our retirement?’ And that for me is very important for the long term, because you’re her and she’s you.

I don't want to make this a marriage conversation so this is the last marriage question. What happens when you get bored after marrying so early? How do you make sure that you’re maintaining the rhythm?

It boils down to friendship. Friends have common interests. We like movies, for example. So we don’t forget that this is one of the glues that kept us together when we were dating.

We walk around the estate…it’s the little things that people take for granted, but for women, it’s how you engage them, they need to know that they’re loved. Once in a while, you buy flowers to keep the spark in the marriage alive.

I realise that I’m asking this tongue in cheek, but how do you balance being a father, a husband and a CEO?

Wow! That’s a tough one. I’ve read biographies of people who made it in life and their biggest regret was not giving much to their children or their family. I don’t want to be that person. My priority is my family, and I tell my prospective employers that.

Is it easy juggling especially given that we’re in the FMCG world where competition is crazy and you need to always think of strategies to grow and travel outside town often? It’s not easy. But I always make time for my family.

There was a time that I was in Gabon for three and a half years. From a career perspective, it was good.

But my family was here because my wife runs our business. It was hard, I actually vowed that I would never do that again. I don’t ever want my biggest regret to be not spending enough time with my family.

So what would be your biggest regret should the curtains fall now?

Wow! That’s a tricky one. (Chuckles) I think I’m living my life to the fullest. I don’t have regrets. (Pause) My dad is almost 78 and lives in the village — I wish I could see my parents more often as opposed to monthly or quarterly. I wish there was a way where everyone lives within the same compound — like Indians do — so that I can enjoy my parents in their old age. My dad was in the military, so we were raised in the military style. The guy would kick us with boots. There was no naughty corner. He would come into the house through one door and I would leave through the other. (Chuckles)

How important is fear in raising children?

I wouldn’t want fear to be the driver, but I want my children to be responsible, to know what’s wrong and what’s right. But sometimes, a little fear doesn’t hurt. (Chuckles)

You are a heart guy ?

How did you know?

I can tell. How do you make decisions at work; from your heart or from your head?

Oh man! I’ve done those tests, what do you call them? The ones that show whether you make decisions from your heart or head..

Anyway, I try to balance the two. I know I’m a heart guy and I think it’s very important for every leader to lead both by heart and by head. There has to be an emotional connection between yourself and employees, yourself and the brand and yourself and the consumer.

But then there are decisions that are driven by the analytical aspect of the business and sometimes you have to put the heart aside because numbers dictate otherwise. But even as you do that, are you doing it in the most humane manner? If you’re going through a restructuring process, for example, you’ll have to impact people.

How do you make sure that your brand of leadership at work doesn’t spill into your home? Because at home you are not the boss, you are an equal partner.

When you go home, there’s a way your wife, your children, mellow you. Your son wants to be like you, so something always tells you to be in your best behaviour for him. My wife is also a strong character and good disciplinarian, that really helps in the house and makes me take a back seat. Unless otherwise, most of the things in my home are actually run by Brendah.

And what does Brendah fight you most about when it comes to your personality?

(Chuckles) It’s been a crazy day at work, I need my quiet but she likes to talk. She’s that type. She wants to tell stories about her day, she wants details...

You own a big beastly motorcycle —1,000cc BMW. What in you does a fast bike speak to?

There’s an element of risk to it. The speed sort of says how things should be done. There are risks on the way but you mitigate the risks by wearing the right gear and observing the speed limit. Then there is the thrill, my dad would go to work on a bike and I rode one to sell milk. And the BMW 1000 CC is a beautiful machine.

What has been your lowest moment in life, and what lessons did you learn from it?

In my second year in Gabon, my wife would send videos of my two children growing up without me. I missed Kimberly starting to walk, her first words... My lowest moment was when my third born was born. I have always been in the delivery room holding my wife’s hand. I missed when Karen was born. I was coming from Gabon, through Rwanda. While in Rwanda, my wife tells me ‘I think the baby is coming.’ I was like, ‘Oh! you have to wait for me.’ I landed at JKIA at 7pm and was told Karen was already born. (Pause) I missed it.

(Long Pause) Please cut. (Tears)

Do you think we all eventually turn into our fathers?

(Laughs) Yes and no. I didn’t get into the military. I don’t discipline my children like he did, but I love bikes, cameras and photography. So in essence yes, I think there’s an admiration that we have for our dads. And that’s why today, it’s very important for me to do right because I know my son is emulating.

What part of leadership do you least enjoy?

I wish everyone did their job so that they don’t make you have to make very hard decisions, especially letting people go. Like I told you, I think with my heart, it’s the hardest thing to do.

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