Recently, Think Business Awards, that recognises outstanding banks in product innovation and customer service, had an online fête.
Faulu Bank’s CEO, Apollo Njoroge, was named the CEO of the Year. There were online cheer and ululation, given that the bank was also fêted as the Best Lender for the second successive year.
So, Apollo has a lot to be chuffed about going by his big grin on the Zoom call recently with JACKSON BIKO, where he talked math, physics, mentorship, charity work, and turning 50 years old.
What do you wish you did when you were 30 years old?
Maybe we can go back to when I was 23. I wanted to be an architect but the economy was so depressing then and that industry didn’t look very promising to me. So I became a banker.
Would you still be a banker if you were given a second shot at it?
Yes, I would. My background was always in sciences but I liked finance. But given another shot I would not do programming which I did, I’d go straight into finance. I wasted a lot of time learning about programmes that are no longer in use.
They are so obsolete now, I don’t even hear them anymore.
When I was young, I also thought of becoming a nuclear physicist. (Laughs) When you are young you think foolish things. I did a lot of difficult calculations, very robust mathematics and I never really thought they were crucial until we visited the space centre in the US and then triple integration made sense. (Laughs)
Has studying math and physics helped you in your adult life? Has it been useful?
Maths and physics teach you to think systematically, especially when faced with challenges. Secondly, it teaches how to fortify your mind, you don’t back down from problems. They have given me insight into scientifically looking at things. I’ve been able to apply this in a business setup.
It also teaches you to be intense. I guess they were teaching us to have strong minds, and wrap our heads around something until we get to the heart of it. This conversation is taking me back to campus. (Laughs)
Do you recognise the adult you have become or it’s very far from what you imagined you would turn out to be?
There are parts I recognise. I was very enterprising when I was young so I relate to the business environment I find myself in. It’s a passion. I believe there is no problem without a solution, it’s you who doesn’t know the answer.
Which parts can’t you recognise?
(Chuckles) Ah, I enjoyed programming a lot, things have changed so much because now everything is at a click. We used to write complex programmes to run payrolls, now it's a click. I don’t relate to that part. Those are the bits I lost.
Would you consider yourself successful without being too modest?
(Pause) I have had the privilege of impacting lives. I have had the opportunity to work with distinguished leaders who have impacted great skills in institutions. It makes me happy to meet people who have started businesses and they credit me for being an integral part of their journey.
To that extent, I think I have been successful.
If you were to start a business, what business would that be?
(Laughs) At this point? Agriculture. Largely because you will accept that one of the things that have not stopped when Covid-19 started is people eating. Farming manages to create an ecosystem around communities but also impacts them positively in terms of trade.
There is also a lot of donor funding for those who are willing to provide technical support for farmers to create markets and so forth.
If you are to look at your life in blocks of ten years, when would you say you had the most transformation or change if you will?
I’m now 50 years old, the first block is when I completed my MBA when I was around 24 years old and I had a chance to travel out of the country and work. That was transformational. It gave me a chance to see the world and realise that’s there are big opportunities out there.
The exposure was good when I got back. In my mid-30s, I got a chance to work in Uganda for eight years, it was big and different in that I was dealing with new people and a new set of objectives.
How was turning 50? Did you feel a shift or have the years just blended into each other?
It was a shock. (Laughs) Biko, I don’t know how long you have to get to 50 but I can assure you it’s coming fast. (Laughs) I couldn’t believe I could get to 50 years so fast. I wanted to turn the clock a bit. (Chuckles) Time flies but I’m not disappointed.
I think you look back and you evaluate a lot of things, the 30s fly past in a rush and suddenly you are 40. But when you turn 45, you see the years coming, you are aware of the time.
I think 40 is the best time because you evaluate things very critically. If you have missed the bus at 40, it’s unlikely you will catch up with it. Forty is key because it’s when you consolidate learning and what you want to do.
I think 30 is the pivotal point in your life because you have built the discipline and the framework of what you want to do and the rigour for it. It's the foundation and you create it at 30. At 40, life is on autocruise.
For me, in terms of impact, and looking back at when I was in Nairobi School, one of the best things that happened was not passing exams but getting inspired. We were told we could become anything we could be.
The teachers made us believe we could succeed, and by the time we were joining the university, we were hyped so much there was nothing that was going to take away that energy.
What is going to be very central in your 50s?
Mentorship and impact. That’s my passion. I mentor young people. I look for young people who are lost and have questions and I like to spend time with them on Saturdays, and just try and give them direction. I also like to be involved in the lives of people who are disadvantaged in society. I participate in a lot of mentorship in the church.
Do you partake in alcohol?
No. Just tea. (Laughs)
That kills my follow-up question. Here is one that isn’t related to alcohol, do you have children?
Yes, I have two children. Two girls and I’m married as well, to one wife. (Laughter)
Thanks for clearing that up. Do you think you become a better father as you climb up the corporate ladder or is it inversely proportional?
I think you can be a better father at any age. The most important thing is how much time you spend with your children. The reality is, time is a big challenge for me as a father because it gets so busy, early mornings, and late nights. You have to remember not to be a CEO all the time. You have to be present because you can be there but reading a newspaper.
What traits do you admire the most in others?
I admire knowledgeable people. People who are committed. Soft-strong leaders who haven’t lost their humanity.
What do you like most about your father?
He taught us a lot about discipline, building good personal brands, and the value of integrity.
What do you think your girls are learning from you unconsciously?
The value of hard work, for sure. I’m a very early riser, I wake up at 4.30 am. The other thing is the value of being a good citizen, the charitable work I do, I go with them.
This is so that they can learn the value of sharing at an early age and that life is not just about me and my family. Also, they are learning the value of being part of a family and doing things together.
I come from a very humble background so I make an effort to take them back to those humble beginnings so that they can appreciate that journey.
What do you fear now at 50?
Losing good health. So I try to keep fit. I play squash and I go to the gym. I also try to eat well.
What have you learnt about money all these years?
Money comes and money goes but there is great satisfaction in learning how to do good. Also, learn how to invest, even if it's a small investment, but invest! I want to start a children's home, and give my life to things that are not money-related.
I feel that now my focus is in a different direction, things that are not money-related. I want to hear people say, 'that guy helped me' more than 'that guy built a big company.'