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A keen pioneer oil CEO who adored logic and reason

Nikodem Mugwandia Muriuki
Nikodem Mugwandia Muriuki. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Nicodem Mugwandia Muriuki was just two days short of marking his 89th birthday when he passed away on Sunday July 28. He was a man of many virtues; principled, humble and a keen listener. He spoke little and disliked controversy.

I first met Mr Muriuki in December 1970 at Shell Centre London where he was a senior executive just transferred from Shell Ghana and in transit to become the first African CEO for Shell Kenya in 1971.

The London occasion was the Shell overseas students Christmas dinner where he was allocated to sit at our table that included the late James Gachui who was studying Chemical Engineering with me at Surrey University on Shell scholarships.

Nick and former President Mwai Kibaki are said to have both been hired at the same time by Shell from Makerere University; Nick posted to Nairobi and Kibaki to Kampala from where he left to pursue further studies at the London School of Economics.

In the early 1970s, Nick was among the few African CEOs of multinationals in Kenya with the likes of Joe Wanjui at Unilever (East Africa Industries). At Shell, Nick was a polished, dignified, respected, and respectful CEO of the largest oil company of the time, and an acknowledged spokesman of the entire group of the seven multinational oil companies of the time.

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When he talked people listened for he was a person of few but carefully selected words.

When I linked up with him again, I was at Esso Oil where, in the early 1980s, I was assigned to co-ordinate oil industry price adjustments with the Treasury. All joint industry communication to the government had to be signed by all the seven CEOs, which means I had to walk from one office to the next.

Nick was particular about each and every word and comma in any communication. He used to tell me that a word or even a comma can change the whole essence of a letter. That is why I made sure that he was the first CEO to review drafts but the last to sign communiqués to the government. And the other CEOs understood and accepted this protocol.

It was during these interactions that I developed a good personal understanding of Nick.

One day in 1980 at a CEOs meeting at Intercontinental Hotel (Le-Chateau), he called me aside and pointed out at the late President Kenyatta’ mausoleum (across the road) where two large LPG fuelled flames were perpetually burning. He remarked that even if it was Shell supplying the gas, Kenya cannot afford to eternally burn expensive LPG imported with scarce forex. The government extinguished the flames soon after. Yes, Nick was a principled man with humble logic supporting nearly everything he said.

I also remember attending a crisis CEOs meeting in 1981 to deliberate after the Treasury had unexplainably delayed increasing oil prices after hefty crude oil cost increases.

This is when Mr Kibaki was the Minister for Finance. The CEOs recommended that each company consider delaying crude oil imports until price increases were granted.

The Shell cargo was next in the queue and this put a lot of strain on Nick.

He suggested that before taking the first daring action to delay the import each CEO meet and lobby a key government personality on oil prices. Nick was to meet the late Jeremiah Kiereini, who was the head of Civil Service. My CEO and I were to lobby Charles Njonjo, and another CEO was to meet Nick Nganga, the Treasury PS.

It was Mr Njonjo who got it through the Cabinet that week as he had promised, and Nick called me and my CEO to thank us for having saved the day.

Nick must have retired from Shell about 1985 to join the banking and insurance firms under the Ndegwa group.

At Muthaiga Golf Club where I am a member, he was a resourceful conversationalist and hardly ever engaged in controversy. Nick was from my Kirimukuyu backyard in Mathira, Nyeri County.

He was a truly pioneer CEO who inspired many in the corporate world.

May the Almighty Lord rest his soul in eternal peace.

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