BAT boss winds down with a cigar, game of football

Beverley Spencer-Obatoyinbo is BAT Kenya's general manager and area director, BAT East and Central Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY
Beverley Spencer-Obatoyinbo is BAT Kenya's managing director and area director, BAT East and Central Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Her name is Beverley Spencer-Obatoyinbo. She’s managing director of British American Tobacco Kenya #ticker:BAT and area director, BAT East and Central Africa.

Although only 10-months-old in her new role, she’s an old hand at BAT having served for 22 years. She has had footprints in DR Congo, Mauritius, Réunion Island, Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda.

When not jet-setting, she plays golf, is passionate about interior design and collects African art.

When JACKSON BIKO went to her office in Industrial Area, a candle was burning on her desk.


What’s with the candle, did I catch you in your Zen moment?

No, that’s for mosquitoes. (Laughter) But it’s a Jo Malone candle and it reminds me a bit of home.

What’s been the most difficult thing you’ve had to do in your life?

Raising children! (Laughs). Just feeling comfortable that you have spent the right amount of time with them. I have been quite ambitious and committed to work but I also wanted to have a great relationship with my children. They are 16 and 19 years old, very well adjusted boys, who’ve had a fantastic experience in life because of us moving around. I’d like to know what they think about the time we spent.

You have had experiences in West, North, South and Eastern Africa, how different are we as a people, socially and in terms of business?

I have never felt unwelcomed working in any part in Africa. Indeed there are cultural differences. Nigeria is a very lively, high-pressure kind of environment, specifically working in Lagos with over 20 million people.

East Africa is a little calmer and gentler. Egypt, (chuckles) Egypt is also mad. Cairo is a huge city, but then again, I loved Egyptians, they were so much fun, because of their culture, music, dancing...

We have good dancers here as well. You’ve only been here 10 months, but you will see…

(Laughs) Greatness is relative, yeah? South Africa was an interesting place, I enjoyed my time there in the late 90s after the breakdown of apartheid. For me, somebody that is married to an African, and we had our first child, it was quite interesting to see how many people still asked us about our interracial marriage and how it worked.

Tell me about Mr, Obatoyinbo. What a name!

He’s Nigerian, a Yoruba. We met in London 30 years ago, he was just finishing university while I had just finished.

Valentine’s was on Wednesday, is there a romantic story on how you two met? Did you see him across the bar and thought, hmmm...”

He’s probably going to kill me for telling you this. (Chuckles) He tells people that we met in the library, and that’s not true. We met in a trendy nightclub in London. He was wearing a black tie and I thought this is a strange dressing to wear to this club. His dressing was one of the reasons we got chatting that night and we haven’t stopped talking years later.

How does one keep a marriage for 30 years?

Love of many of the same things I guess. Love of life, love of travel, cause we both travel together to all of the countries I have worked in. Humour, is a very powerful thing. Being very involved in our children’s lives both of us. Sport is a huge thing in our lives. We play golf together as a family, all of us. We all love football and support Liverpool.

(Smiles) My husband was a big rugby player in the UK, now both of my children are actually very good at rugby. My eldest son plays for England under 20s in one of the biggest clubs. And his little brother is in the same academy.

What have you struggled with the most in your life?

I think people having expectations that I would struggle with some things, particularly being a female and working in some places. People told me that working in Egypt was going to be very difficult because of male dominance but I never had any problems at all.

Often people will sort of instill a bit of fear in you before you do something. I think if you approach things in a positive and open minded way, understand the culture a little bit then you will always fit in well, like I did.

Give a piece of advice to a starting career woman who has just had her first baby?

I have what I call my magic formula. (Chuckles). Number one, it helps if you have an extremely supportive husband. Mine has always supported me and my postings, moving around with me and both of us making compromises along the way.

Number two, I’ve had the same nanny with my children for 15 years, so wherever we’ve worked, she’s moved with us and now she’s part of the family. Consistency for your children is a huge thing.

Did the Yoruba accept you immediately?

(Laughs) Well. (Pause) The challenges of tribe and marriage are everywhere. He comes from a big family of nine and they have all married out of tribe except one, I think. A Yoruba marrying outside can create many family challenges, wrongly in my opinion.

Obviously, my children are benefiting from the mixed race. I like to think I have produced two boys who are very balanced, exposed culturally, and transition easily between different places.

You collect African art, is there a piece you’ve collected that you hold very dear?

How do you know I love African art? Oh, yes, my profile.

I actually read them.

(Laughs aloud) If my house was on fire, I will tell my husband, “you better run because I’m going to save that picture.’’ (Laughs) There is an artist in Nigeria, this is another name you’re going to struggle with, he’s called Bruce Onobrakpeya. Look him up, he’s amazing.

Do you smoke?

I smoke cigars. My husband and I love cigars, especially in the gardens in this beautiful Kenyan weather. That and a nice bottle of red wine.

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Very odd that you should ask that because I had a very interesting discussion with a chap on a flight from London recently. I don’t know the answer to that question. I would like to think that there is something after we all become fertiliser. But I don’t know.

Given that you have been a career woman all your life, would you consider coming back as a housewife for a change?

Why not? You know one of the things that gives me a lot of fulfilment with my children when we do have holidays is I love just doing what I call the things of home. I actually find it quite relaxing. Ladies who are housewives and are reading this are probably thinking “yeah, just cause you don’t do it every day.” But I like cooking, cleaning and gardening, I find it quite therapeutic.

When was your “aha moment” in life?

(Pause) In my late 20s. There was a lot of time spent listening to people’s opinions and trying to find your way in life. A lot of people don’t know what they want to do until they’re older than 18, and yet we are forced to make a lot of life’s decisions at 18. In my late 20s I stopped giving attention to what other people thought about me. I was more interested with me being comfortable in my decisions, and how I moved forward with my life. So that was a pretty good moment I would say.

This is a bit of a dark question. Since you love interior decorating, if you were to spend the last day of your life where would you like to spend it in?

(Long pause) That’s a very deep question. (Pause) I haven’t really thought about. (Pause). I’m not a hugely religious person but it’s been in churches or buildings that have religious history that I have been drawn in. So Taj Mahal. I had a wow moment walking into the Vatican. I would probably go to Italy. There are so many beautiful places there I’d go, even just simply lying down in a field looking up at trees and flowers and the sky. That would probably be my ideal, to be in a very beautiful place with rolling countryside, which Kenya has a lot of.

You are welcome to stay here...not to die, of course.

(Laughs) Alright, seem to be a lot of people who decide to stay here.