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Charles on being at the right side of pandemic

Samsung East Africa head of Mobile Division Charles Kimari during the interview on August
Samsung East Africa head of Mobile Division Charles Kimari during the interview on August 27, 2020. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU 

Charles Kimari, the regional head of Samsung’s mobile division, is currently on a perch that every business boss desires. Technology has been among the biggest winners during this pandemic. While the company bosses have been racking their brains for ideas to keep their businesses afloat, Charles’ apparent glee has remained in its permanent place.

When Covid-19 struck, it found him in the right industry. He has worked for Digital World Electronics, LG Electronics, and now Samsung, powering through the ranks to become its regional boss, and clocking 20 years in the industry.

“It’s been a good run for us this year. There was distress and there was an opportunity in the market. No business had anticipated this,” he says.

In the last five months, smartphones, tablets, and other consumer electronics have flown off the shelves in response to the demand for e-learning and telecommuting. So have chest freezers, and other home appliances, as the need to store food grows.

Consumers have upgraded to devices with larger screens while tablets are expected to be on a steep demand until November, he says.

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There have been shocks too. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a near-total collapse of the supply chain. Expecting a disruption, Samsung created a buffer, hoping to capitalise on the looming deficit.

“Businesses that had invested heavily in logistics and supply chain management are better off because they didn’t have to change their sourcing of goods,” Charles explains.

When some businesses were scaling down, Samsung was gearing toward the launch of five new products. The unveiling had been in the cards before Covid-19, he says. But coming at a time of minimal mobility and social gatherings, this was a catch for Charles and his team.

“Touch and physicality are the biggest factors in any product launch,” he says. “We had to make the experience as interactive as possible by actual demonstrations as opposed to showing pre-recorded demos.”

A huge outlay was required for the launch, but in his evaluation, the dividends have been obvious. “The reach was wider compared to conventional launches,” he says, adding that “pre-orders for the Samsung Note 20 have exceeded our expectations.”

Even so, Charles is apprehensive about virtual product launches, arguing that personal touch with consumers is indispensable “lest we end up creating isolated brands in the long run.”

He, however, admits that the next phase of the challenge for businesses is “to create affinity for products through virtual interactions.”

Had the pandemic found him working for a start-up, how different would his viewpoint be? Charles shifts in his seat.

“I’d definitely be in technology” he says. “I’d have a futuristic outlook and invest in in-depth research to understand consumer trends. I’d make sure to create enough room for myself to manoeuvre.”

Technology, he notes, is meant to be expandable, and not perfect. “Any product that’s backed by good research and development can easily transition to the next product.”

As regional manager, Charles’ job entails coordinating Samsumg’s activities in 12 countries in East and Central Africa. So, what has steering the business at a time of unprecedented chaos been like for him?

“There have been ups and downs in different markets. Some markets have had more stringent Covid-19 rules than others,” Charles explains, noting that conflict zones have remained problematic to manage.

His biggest angst though has been his staff’s safety for business continuity. “I have to ensure they have the required protective gear in their work. For me, consumer health and the health of my staff comes first.”

As a net importer, the possible collapse of the supply chain has been another bee in his bonnet.

I am interested to know what features he considers whenever he is out to shop for a smartphone. Charles blinks with exuberance.

“Functionality is critical, so the size of the screen is important. Battery life is also important to me because I like to visit multiple websites and to perform different functions. I also store a lot of information on the device, so memory is key.” From his battery dying suddenly before making payments to borrowing a smartphone from a stranger to capture a moment while out with his family, Charles is not new to embarrassing smartphone moments.

“During a tour, we wanted to take a photo. I was confident that my phone camera was good, but after taking a picture, my family was unimpressed,” he says with a coy laugh.

His near-obsessive fascination with electronics is evident in the manner he talks about the future of tech. Charles says he lives for when it will be possible to operate and set up the TV, refrigerator, home theatre, washing machine, and air conditioner from a smartphone.

“This integration will come to life in a couple of years from now. The ecosystem won’t be expensive, but it will be a wonder,” he says with enchantment, adding that 5G network will soon be a reality.

Charles is always flying between Nairobi and regional cities and the company’s headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. But for five months now, he has remained burrowed away in his study at home working. It is the longest stretch that he has not travelled in a decade.

On the flip side, he says that his family is more cohesive now and happier to have him around. “I no longer have an exit avenue because of the night curfew,” he jokes. “I never imagined that I'd be a home person. Family is our main support structure, something we forget when we drown ourselves in work.”

Biggest lesson

Perhaps his biggest lesson of the year has been that while leading a team of professionals across the region is nerve-racking, managing a child is a different ball game.

“I’m married with a teenage son and two daughters aged nine and three. I’ve learnt to assert my authority on my three-year-old daughter, which is more difficult. I’ve had to become more stealth.”

There have also been new crafts to learn.

“I made a swing and a slide for my youngest daughter. We even painted it together.”

On disruptions, Charles says he had hoped to start farming and to rescue animals, projects that failed to take off owing to time constraints.

If he had the foresight, Charles says he would not have shelved activities to this year. “Don't push what you can do today to tomorrow. It’s better to fail and restart,” he says.

His biggest safety net in life? Education and family, he says, observing that these two “will propel you anywhere in life.”

“No one can take your education away from you. It’s your empowerment. You don’t get to choose family, but when you treat family right, there’s a reward.”

As we conclude, I wonder how he visualises life post-pandemic.

“I see businesses that are stronger and more resilient. People will adopt a more robust saving culture and families will be more close-knit.”

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