Ezekiel Owuor, CIC Life Assurance managing director, strides into the Mandhari Restaurant at Nairobi Serena sporting a blinding white shirt, a ballsy purple floral tie and strapped across his torso is a trendy black suspender as if he just parachuted in from a faraway galaxy where dandy men speak the language of garb.
Fortunately, his predatory charisma is beyond his clothes, it’s how he says things; with this unsettling conviction of a man who believes he is hardly ever wrong. He walks like a man used to having his way and because of this air, seems to part as he approaches.
Ezekiel is an insurance man, he’s always been an insurance man, holding senior management positions at Old Mutual, Pan Africa Life Assurance #ticker:PAFR, CFC Life Assurance, ICEA and his last job at Chase Bank.
That essentially translates to 16 years experience on the grind. (Not counting the swagger, of course).
He’s a former rugby player and holds a Masters of Business Administration from Strathmore Business School and a smattering of other professional certifications. He met with JACKSON BIKO.
Why are you wearing two watches? Wait, is that a Fitbit?
Yes. I’m a health freak. I used to play rugby back in the day but then I stopped. You start eating life with a big spoon, spending most of your time in bars, eating nyama choma and before you know it you have become huge. At some point I was 105kgs, getting persistent headaches until the doctor checked my blood pressure and it was through the roof.
I had to change my lifestyle. I have done more than 10 kilometres already today according to my Fitbit. I wake up at 4.30 a.m., go to the gym. Fitness helps to keep me sane.
I asked around about you and someone said that part of the reason why you are where you are in your profession is because, apart from being bullish and committed to what you want, you’re good with public relations. How big is people skills in climbing up and is that even a characterisation you agree with?
It plays a big role. However, it’s not just about talk, it’s about doing and being able to deliver. Networking is also important. It helps you to know people, grow and learn from others. But at some level it goes beyond talk and networking because we have talkers in this town but sooner or later they get discovered. As employers, one of the areas we’ve failed in is to identify these talkers earlier enough. Image and talk I think only covers 30 per cent.
Tell me about this flamboyance…
Is it because I’m wearing suspenders? (Chuckles)
And your big gold watch, your suit and you are eating a salad...
(Laughs) I intentionally did not wear cufflinks and a silk pocket hanky, because I was trying to tone it down. (Laughs). I think image is very important because you don’t want to be on top of an organisation and going to meet clients or peers in the industry and you look shabby. We’re in the business of sales, so we have to look the part. A bad image doesn’t help anyone especially if you are representing a brand.
What kind of a man wears suspenders?
A man who has cut a lot of weight. (Loud laughter)
Good one. Tell me about ego and leadership. What is too much or too less ego? What’s your relationship with ego as a leader?
I believe in humility. A lot of times it’s what someone says and how he behaves. It’s the kind of impact that they leave in other people’s lives. I also think to an extent, a small amount of ego is necessary otherwise people will walk all over you, including your employees. Ego should be managed, it shouldn’t get to one’s head. The same way there’s some good level of pride.
At 38 years of age, I suppose you manage people who are much older than you, what’s your rule of management when it comes to that?
I can’t treat a 56-year-old man the same way I treat a 24-year-old. Older employees want to see that you respect them but that doesn’t mean that they can mess around. Once in a while you must also come out with a rod, and ‘smack’ them, because it’s business.
How long do you spend to prepare for work in the morning?
Oh God! (Raucous laughter) Let me just say this; when we are going to church, I shower before my wife.
What are the fears of a 38-year-old top executive?
(Pause) We should have had this interview on Friday then I would have had whisky. (Long pause) It’s failure. You might conquer work and fail at home. I see a lot of divorces and separation cases. That failure includes your children not being the kind of people you’d want them to be.
This is an unfair question and you are free to pass it ; do you think you are a good husband?
(Laughs) I’m a perfect husband. (Pause) What’s perfect?
You tick all those boxes women want; provider, romantic, attentive, considerate, God-fearing, kind to animals...in fact, the only thing you are not is you forget to leave the toilet seat up…
I think I’m close to perfect then. (Laughs) I’ve been with my wife for 14 years now and we have three children together. We met at a wedding in Kajiado and she didn’t want anything to do with me...
Why would she, you didn’t wear suspenders then…
(Laughs loudly) But I had a Toyota A100.
If you were not doing what you are doing now professionally, what would you be doing?
(Pause) I come from Kit Mikai area in Nyanza and if I didn’t go to school I’d probably be a tour guide showing tourists that stone in my ancestral land. I think either that or I would be a doctor or a lawyer or a professor. Where I come from, you have to be a professor. (Grins)
What’s your limitation as an MD?
Leadership is a constant learning curve. You must make sure that you manage your emotions, which sometimes can get displayed in a form of being impatient or brash. I struggled with impatience in my 20s but now I’m aware.
What’s been the greatest revelation of your 30’s?
I’ve known that there’s a God because I’ve experienced what I would call miracles and God coming through for me when my health was bad. There is also the gift of family, a lot of people take that for granted. I was in accident sometime back and my wife who was expectant at that time would come to the hospital daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Another revelation is friendship, you’ll get to realise that whoever it is who claims to be your friend is not your friend. The guys you drink with, play golf with and have a laugh with are not all your friends. Your friends are actually very few.
Do you think you’re confident or arrogant?
I’m very confident. Most people confuse that for arrogance. I was born a fighter. I will face anyone out there. I don’t believe in losing.