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CEO’s Weakness For Things Vintage

Tony Mulwa managing director at Liaison Group
Tony Mulwa, managing director at Liaison Group. PHOTO | COURTESY 

At 50 years, Tom Mulwa, the managing director and one of the pioneers of Liaison Group — has a spirit like smoke. It refuses to be confined in one place, it seeks new spaces to explore, to fill nooks with curiosity and to live untethered. He’s a holder of an MBA from the University of Leicester in UK, a golfer, an entrepreneur, a lover of all things vintage and a keen aficionado of cognac. He met JACKSON BIKO in his cushy office on Nairobi’s State House Avenue for a powwow.

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That poster on your wall, “A Man Reaps What He Sows” …

I’ve been with that since 1991. It was my first hanging on any wall in any business. I picked that from the streets of Mombasa right at the famous tusks monument. It’s a verse in the Bible and that’s really my life philosophy, you get what you plant.

What have you planted so far to reap what you are reaping now?

My biggest plantation is relationships. In fact right now I’ve planted one with you. Everyday I make sure that I sustain and maintain relationships. That’s the only thing that I have, if you mess up you are done because your legacy will be the people you have interacted with. My relationships since nursery and primary school are still fresh.

You have worked here for 23 years. What has kept you in one job for so long?

Same thing, the relationships I have built over time. It becomes very difficult to disengage because it becomes watertight in the sense that the services we provide are still very personal. They engage your family, businesses and lifestyle, and that’s the only cycle I get involved in. Mulwa is Liaison and Liaison is Mulwa. So, I have never found any other space I can play better than this. We have grown this business from an SME {small medium-sized enterprise} to what in my view, in this current economic terms we would call, mid-level non-banking financial services institution. We interact with owners of capital. And that space is very comfortable to play with especially when you want to make a lot of business impact.

What don’t you know about running this organisation after doing it all these years?

Everyday is very different, especially with the teams we have, we’re getting, these days; the millennial. It was a little bit easier earlier in the years when I’d just give instructions and we would agree as a team how we want to pull. To the millennials, it’s very different. The management style changes. Also the business environment has changed and people now want to harness value. So, we’re always on the edge looking for the value we’ll bring to your table. It’s very dynamic and now financial services have become more global.

Your office theme, this leather and ship steering wheel and the old colonial chest desk… what’s the story?

I like classic things, sophistication. I’m a cognac drinker. Cognac dates back to 1780s and it stands to reflect how you behave. You know most of the connections people have could actually reflect how you behave. So antique to me is the new thing. I like the sea, I’ve told you about my Mombasa beginnings, so I get a lot of thrill in the seawater. I have an old 1977 Jaguar, I tend to go for the classic. But I’m extremes, I’m very comfortable with the old. I was a chairman of Karen Country Club and I’d find myself very comfortable sitting with the old men at the corner who were there during my birth time in 1960s.

You are 50 now, do you find that you like yourself more now than when you were 40?

I liked myself more when I was 30. (Laughs) There was lesser risk to think about. You know when you’re 30 you believe you’re in total control, you’re driving a Subaru, can afford a drink, borrow cash for the next month and you don’t think about social impact. At 30 I had little care, I could go back home at 5 o’clock, sleep and all I was worried about was if I’d make it to work on Monday and perform with a hangover.

Do you miss it?

I don’t think life has been fair to allow me to reflect, until now that you ask. (Laughs) I miss the days of Simba Saloon. We used to go there on Sunday evenings and hang out until late and show up in the office on Monday like nothing happened the previous night.

Are you enjoying your life now?

Yes! I’ve come to appreciate that it’s a privilege to have the life I have today. There are people who were caught up in that 14 Riverside saga and didn’t make it. I think we should have fun everyday and not fret about tomorrow. I have come to appreciate that you live today, tomorrow creates a lot of anxiety and yesterday is an agony for no reason. Just enjoy every moment.

What’s the one thing you wouldn’t sell for all the monies in the world?

My golf swing.

Your golf swing?

Yes! (Laughs) There’s no better feeling than a good swing in the course. It gets you away from all the hell in this world. Also it helps in business. If you really wanted to know someone’s character, take him for a round of golf. Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, would say that if you really wanted to interview a CEO and know their character, take them on three rounds of golf.

What is it about golf and character?

In golf, you’re competing against yourself and how you react towards yourself reflects how you react towards the environment and towards everybody else. You can tell someone’s mentality, attitude, and character by how they play golf.

What’s your favourite smell?

Cognac! (Laughs aloud) I used to keep some fine bottle of cognac in the office but decided to move it away because I realised after 5pm especially on a hard day, I’d need a driver to take me home. (Chuckles) I really do enjoy it, a good cognac is a beautiful bouquet of things.

What’s your extravagance?

That’s a very good one. I think my neck ties. I buy them on impulse. I own very many ties, I have stopped counting. I see a good tie and I can’t resist the urge to buy it. And they’re very expensive. I also think golf balls are another extravagance because I always lose them on the course.

When are you at your most weakest?

When I lose business. Because to me it’s a rejection, it’s a proof that I have failed to maintain a relationship. But at the same time I don’t believe in weakness or being vulnerable, I’m always feeling in charge. Overconfidence. (Laughs) I have lost accounts because I was overconfident on my pitch.

Do you think you are a good person?

(Pause) Because of my overconfidence, I’d rather pass that one, but I am sure I have very many judges out there. (Pause) To be honest, I’m unable to assess myself.

But I do the right things but the right things may not be necessarily good for everybody.

Give your fun 30-year-old self a piece of advice.

Live for now. If you’re in school, just live with the books, if you’re in a church choir, sing like there’s no tomorrow. That way you’ll have a happy life. At the end of the day, it’s really happiness that you’re seeking and happiness is having what you desire.

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