It’s been a good run for Ann Eriksson after 40 years at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 30 years of which she was a senior partner and the first African female head. But the fat lady has sung and by June she will exit that stage. Nonetheless, the children are all grown now and out of the nest, an illustrious career is behind her, casting a long shadow of success, notches have been punched in her belt and so here she stands at the rubicon of her professional career, attention cast yonder.
The alumnus of the University of Warwick, UK and Alliance Girls High School faces a life of passions that had sort of taken a back seat; dancing, trekking, family, travel, tending to her beloved orchids (yes orchids! More on that later). Once in a while, she admits that she might be lured back to the fray for some consultancy work. Who knows? You never really walk away completely after all those years, do you?
She met JACKSON BIKO at the PwC offices in Westlands.
I had expected someone elderly, but you look so young, you have no business retiring. What are you going to do with yourself?
(Laughs) I will take that as a compliment. I think it’s time. It’s been a great experience and journey here but all things come to an end and thankfully this is coming to an end at a good moment. What am I going to do? Oh, lots. I will go dancing and trekking, I will travel with my husband, I will look after orchids.
I don’t think retirement means sitting at home. I don’t want to be prescriptive at this stage, but obviously I will not be idle. I hope to spend more time with family. My mother lives in Kisii. I don’t visit often enough. I’m hesitating talking about work in various boards and whatever because that’s what everybody expects me to do. Perhaps there will be a bit of that.
What is your absolute truth?
Integrity. (Pause) Yes, that features up there.
I don’t suppose getting to be the first female partner of this firm was not a walk in the farm, what character trait does one need to sit at the high table?
(Long pause) It’s not one thing. But one very important one is to have purpose; ‘‘what am I aiming to achieve?’’ That and not having a very long time horizon. When I joined the firm, I never even dreamt of being a partner. But in work, you’ve got to give as much as you are hoping to receive. Perhaps even give more than you probably receive. If I can then be very specific about being a female, I honestly never, I hope, carry myself as a woman. That, in my view, is important. You’ve got to equate yourself mentally and psychologically in the workplace with your male folk. Not be round a table and talking woman, gender.
But it’s about what the business issue is. Not to say that the characteristics of a woman don’t play out, because they do and, I would say, to a great advantage like multi-tasking, sensitivity, and empathy are things that are more natural to a woman than anyone else.
So I think to make it through the rank in an organisation whether you are a man or woman, you’ve got to be prepared and work knowing that what will get you there is merit. And it is not people opening doors for you and making concessions for you because you are a woman. To the contrary, you probably need to demonstrate double hard than a male.
Is there a point in this journey where you sort of became genderless? Where you get into this zone and you are just Ann, not Ann the woman on top?
I don’t know. (Laughs) There may be what I think and then what other people think. And I don’t necessarily think the two will be the same. I may believe that I’ve conducted myself genderless, but maybe some people may not think so.
Having dealt with money and finances all your life, what has money revealed to you?
Money is a means to an end. I don’t think you’ll ever have enough money. But you need to plan. And you need to be reasonable about your expectations. This may come across as very selfish, but it’s something I disagree with many of my women friends. That I don’t believe in working and saving for my children.
It is important to give them a good education, bring them up as best as you can, but I think it’s very important for kids to be independent. And so as I face retirement, I don’t think it is about saving money for my children. Hopefully my husband and I will soon feel we are done, we got them off their feet, gave them good education that accorded them good jobs, now they can fend for themselves.
My hope is that our lives after retirement will not be about ‘‘oh we need to save that money for our children.’’ But equally I hope it will not be about, ‘‘oh we need to make more money because we need more money to live.’’
Passion or talent?
Passion. Passion. Passion. You know you can be the best accountant there is out there, but if you don’t have the passion to actually be in a field such as ours, you won’t succeed. Passion makes you apply yourself in so many different ways because you are living a passion.
What do you think frustrates Mr. Eriksson most about you?
I am a person of detail. I .(Pause) I am almost a perfectionist. And that’s sort of hard to live with. (Laughs).
When were you most unmoored in life?
(Long pause) I can’t think of any. (Pause). It could be when I made a personal decision against all advice and against all expectations, to pursue accountancy instead of medicine. That was tough. It was probably tough because I was trying to live what I believed in that was very different from what everybody around expected of me.
Thereafter, you know I cannot claim that it has been easy going through a professional service firm such as ours, but maybe I’m very simplistic but to achieve something just move on to the next level, and not doing it alone, you rely on others.
Any dreams left in your IN-box that you plan to pursue?
I have a commitment to mentorship, and not mentorship just for the sake of it, but in a meaningful sort of way. So I will commit time to mentoring upcoming entrepreneurs, there’s a space for that.
There’s that element of unfinished business there. There is also my obsession with orchids, something I picked up perhaps ages back, but more so in the last five years or so. My husband and I collect orchids. We are part of the Kenya Orchids Society. (Chuckles). Why are you looking at me like I’m mad?
There is a society like that, Kenya Orchids Society where people meet to talk about plants?
(Laughs) Yes, and it’s exciting! We have a show once a year, normally in October. We meet at the Sarit Centre. The week of Mashujaa Day. It’s normally the Orchid Show Week. (Laughs) You are looking at me like I have horns. And I have even participated. I have exhibited the last two times. I was even the show champion the last time.
You give these plants names?
Orchids have names and that is my unfinished business, to learn about orchids. There is so much to learn. It is the largest species of flowers in the world. There are different orchids depending on what part of the world you are in, there are orchids everywhere. It’s the most beautiful plant I think that exists.
So there are names, there are hybrids, there of course there are now people who hybridise orchids. So like what you buy in supermarkets will be hybrids. But then there are species, indigenous species, and learning their names, learning how to cultivate them, how to look after them is an art.
My mentor in the field has been growing orchids for 40 years. She has a collection of over 4,000 plants. If I’m lucky I’d probably have like 200 plants.
How are you and orchid similar?
I think that the orchids like to be nurtured. You can’t ignore them. If you do, you do so at your own peril. And there is something perfect about orchids. There’s something in some ways predictable, because if you invest, look after them well, they will reward you. I am a believer in planning, in being purposeful about what I want to achieve.
When did you last cry?
(Long pause) Wow! It goes way back. Hang on, that was actually two weeks ago. I received a text from a business associate, somebody who is a client, and this is somebody going through a very difficult time, is actually very unwell, but they took the trouble to send me a text in response to congratulate me on my retirement. It brought tears to my eyes that in the position that that person is in, they still found it in them to send me that note.
Are they going to be okay?
I hope so. I don’t know. (Pause) I don’t know. But when my brother died, four years ago, I really cried. He’s the one that follows me. After a very long illness. It was painful.
If you are to pick a mentor after July, what would they mentor you on? What would you like to be mentored on?
Remaining whole and remaining balanced. How to remain sane, relevant. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be older people, I actually look forward to being mentored by a younger person, a concept called reverse mentoring, one that we haven’t perfected here.
What space does spirituality, religion, take in your life?
I believe in God. I was born into the Catholic faith. I was baptised, grew up as Catholic. We were even married in the Catholic church. Today is my wedding anniversary, 32 years married.
Thirty two years of marriage, what’s your advice on marriage?
Invest. Invest in that relationship. The kids will come. The kids will go. You will be left the two of you. So there has to be meaning in the relationship between the two of you.