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Coffee Break with Java CEO

Java House Group CEO Paul Smith
Java House Group CEO Paul Smith at Java ABC Place on June 27, 2018. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

This is completely irrelevant to this interview, but the suited profile picture of Paul Smith is acutely reminiscent of a MI5 agent in the Cold War era. In reality, Paul Smith sells coffee.

He has sold coffee in 20 countries in the last 18-years: Kuwait, Dubai, Russia, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi, China and now Africa. As managing director of Costa Coffee Asia, he opened 200 stores in five years across 30 cities in China, building a workforce of 2,200 people while at it.

As head of food and beverage for M. H Alshaya Gulf Region based in Kuwait he managed Starbucks franchise across the Gulf and into Turkey. Under his belt (on top of his 36-years experience) is a MSc in Change Leadership and a BSc in Food Marketing.

Now he’s the big kahuna at Java House Africa with it’s 65 branches in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Paul Smith doesn’t play golf. He spoke to JACKSON BIKO.

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When were you most terrified in your life?

When a missile hit a shopping centre down the road from my flat in Kuwait and rubbled the whole place up. That was pretty scary. That and when our plane’s engine went down during a flight to Egypt.

Also, some years ago I was diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys. The day after the diagnosis I woke up early and wrote on my computer: Paul vs Tumour. Fortunately, Paul won.

It was a time of attitude change. The Chinese have a lovely saying that translates to, “Build bridge when reach river.” We have to learn to live now, not in the future or the past.

What was your greatest anxiety, coming to an African market - was failure always at the back of your mind?

I think I've gone past the failure thing in my life because I don't consider anything that happens a failure anymore. You‘ve got to just figure it out or learn from it. Sometimes the question could also be; how do you move on from it? What I've learnt early in my life is that if you look after people, develop people, and grow people they will grow businesses. People are the business. What was my biggest anxiety coming here? I'll be very honest; a white guy running an African business. How do you justify that? Why should I be allowed to do this? Shouldn't there be somebody else that could do that? But what I hope I bring is sort world class understanding.

The human resource here is better than what I have encountered around the world and in most cultures. Kenyans - and I have interacted with many abroad - have a better working attitude and service than most nationalities. So I’m not anxious, my aim is to have this business peak in leading edge in the world, not just Africa.

Who's the African in you? Has coming here ignited anything in you?

I was joking that I'm gonna do this world DNA test which determines your heritage, funny enough I think mine is African. I have read all Wilbur Smith's books and Wilbur Smith always wrote beautifully about his earlier days in Africa. I can remember that on my first weekend here we went out somewhere into the country and I heard the rumbling of thunder. And you would think the rumbling of thunder here is like anywhere in the world? It's not. It sounds different. Wilbur Smith used to describe it in his books and it's exactly as he described it. I can remember getting goosebumps and thinking ‘wow I'm actually here.’

Do you consider yourself successful?

[Pause] It depends on what you mean by success. If success is contentment then I haven’t gotten there yet because I still think there's more to learn. But I'm at a place where I am comfortable with myself. Maybe that’s success. But if you measure success by money, some people would say I am, others would say I’m not.

When did you get to this place where you were comfortable with yourself?

I’m 58-years now, so maybe four years ago. You just get to this point where you can predict things or you know things or you understand things or you can see things in front of you that you don't need to think about them anymore. It's more like driving a car, you get familiar with it. It’s what I call unconscious incompetence. The car drives itself now.

What gets you the most excited when you get off bed now?

Apart from seeing Amelia? No two days are the same in this business, that’s exciting. Because I never know what I will be dealing with. I could be sitting in here working with a guy we call for safety and where the future is and how we can get ourselves to ISO 22000 or it could be an issue at one of the branches that need sorting out.

Amelia is the wife, I suppose?

My partner for 18-years, yes, I have travelled with her to all the countries I have been posted to in the world. We are not married, I’m still in training. [Smiles]. I’m training to be a good husband. I have been married twice before, I have two boys and a daughter back at home in the UK.

Because she has accompanied you in all your jobs abroad, how do you make sure that she remains fulfilled herself and doesn’t feel like she is tagging along on your dreams?

That is a great question. She has choices too. She worked a lot as well, she's done a huge amount of retailing in fashion - she used to run a food section in the UK, that is bigger than this business. Her choice at the moment is study. But she also looks after our lives because you can't do a job like this unless you got some serious support, at home and at work. But you know when Amelia decides she wants to do something she's got my 100 per cent support because she's done the same for me.

How does one get married twice or even three times, what is it; love, bravery? What is it that keeps you going back?

[Laughs) People change, okay? And one of the things I probably been not so good at is changing with that person I was with particularly in my younger days. And this is about learning about yourself.

The most important thing in relationship is to know yourself before you understand the other person. And the journey I've been on to understand myself has been disrupted by those other people's lives. And that's some of the bits I regret. Not because it changed it, because I'm very happy where I am now with what's happened with myself.

Which city or which country or which town most speaks to your spirit?

Probably where I live back in the UK. I come from a town called Dartmouth, connected to water. Everywhere I live I try and live where I can still see the sea, or I'm in touch with water. I like to be near water. Most of my sports side have been water related. I feel most centred there.

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