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John Kagema: Former Equity Bank CEO who dreamed big

John Mwangi Kagema
Former Equity Bank boss John Mwangi Kagema. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The death of former Equity Bank #ticker:EQTY boss John Mwangi Kagema has bared a well-guarded private life of a man who wielded a larger-than-life influence in the financial circles.

Survived by widow Beatrice Wanjiku and four grown-up children, Mr Kagema died on Boxing Day at the Aga Khan University Hospital after what family members described as “a long fight with ill-health”. He was aged 73.

Many successful entrepreneurs who started building their empires in the early ‘90s and happened to pass through his hands say he was always ready to help them access credit.

Nairobi Institute of Business and Technical Studies (NIBS) founder and chief executive Lizzie Wanyoike eulogises the late Kagema as “that one man who I will never forget for his readiness to help me when I was struggling to discover the entrepreneurial world”.

She says the deceased was instrumental in linking her up with Equity Building Society in 1985 and advised her to buy a stake in the institution whose value grew by more than 3,000 times.

This base enabled her to get capital to start NIBS in 1997.

“He is the one who introduced me to Equity network of credit and to-date, in his honour, Equity Bank remains my first bank of choice in terms of financing my investments and divestment, the latest being an ongoing loan of Sh450 million, which I have channelled into building a four-star hotel,” she says.

Kagema’s long-time investment partner, Peter Kahara Munga — who is also the former Equity Bank chairman — says the deceased was a “selfless man whose only dream in life was to see Africans empowered to reap full benefits of freedom”.

He says Kagema did not see the need for political or social revolutions but believed what Africa required was real economic freedom.

“He dreamed of a country that was wealthy to support its other pillars…He was resolute that Kenya needed a strong entrepreneurial culture to create jobs. His most favourite topic was on how to fight poverty by creating earning opportunities, inculcating a culture of saving and investment,” he told the Business Daily.

Mr Munga says the journey to actualising Equity Bank was no walk in the park.

He says there were times every other mind in it felt it was time to throw in the towel, but the late Kagema always came out strongly saying quitting was a game of cowards.

Mr Munga says the deceased had an intuitional trait that enabled him to read deep into the financial future of the institution and was able to make the right decisions whose outcome awed his friends and foes alike.

Former career civil servant Joseph Kaguthi says he came to know the late Kagema in 1988 when he was busy crafting a break-even strategy for Equity Building Society.

“He came to me seeking government support in tax rebates since at the time the banking sector was undergoing a crisis.

“Our friendship grew and in him, I slowly identified a ruthless negotiator whose focus to realising Equity goals was unwavering. I helped where I could and I am happy for him even in his departure…He was indeed a role model on how to make investment decisions,” he says.

For his help, Mr Kaguthi says, he was among many beneficiaries of credit from Equity Building Society and later Equity Bank due to Kagema’s direct intervention.

The former long-serving civil servant says he learnt from him “never be afraid to dream big even when the odds appear to be against you. This man showed me how”.

He says how Kagema invested was a classic case of economic brilliance, where he first targeted fields of rapid and high returns and in all cases, touched hundreds of people’s lives, helping them create wealth and earn a living.

Equity chief executive James Mwangi remembers how the late Kagema together with Mr Munga recruited him into Equity Building Society in 1993 at a time it had been adjudged by Central Bank of Kenya as a lost cause, with its books of accounts reading Sh33 million loss.

“It is Mr Kagema who told me that he had faith in me to manage the business to a turnaround…With 27 staff and a customer base of 27,000, he insisted that all that was needed was good financial management and implementation of a trajectory formula,” he says.

Mr Mwangi says the deceased monitored every strategy implementation as well as playing the role of a foot soldier to high offices to seek support.

He says Mr Kagema’s dream came true in founding Equity Building Society, which as Equity Bank, got listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange in 2006.

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