The Crowne Plaza Nairobi has its first black (Kenyan) general manager. Anthony Ngunga is the man steering the ship now. He has been around the hospitality circle for many harvests, having worked for Sarova Group, Serena Hotels, Safari Park, Superior Hotels and Pride Inn Hotels. He’s an alumnus of Utalii College and holder of a Master of Science in Hospitality and Tourism from Kenyatta University. He also sits in various hospitality boards. An effervescent man, with a robust personality and great tonic, he met JACKSON BIKO in his office for a hearty conversation filled with gems and cackles.
You are the first black GM, do you feel that you have to prove yourself more, that you are a guinea pig of sorts and does that put pressure on you to set a favourable precedence?
Actually, it’s totally the opposite. When I did my interview, I told these guys that I didn’t need 100 days to prove that I can do it, I only needed 30 days. True to my word by the end of 30 days, we had done the best occupancy, the best revenues in the last two years. I told them this is not a coincidence, this is planned and calculated.
What’s your magic?
I know the market and I know what needs to be done.
You exude so much confidence, but what’s your weakness then?
I’m a human being. These guys can tell you. (Laughter) I’m a strong man and sometimes strong men just want things done their way even though their way might not be the best way. I can be very rigid, I can step on a few people’s toes because I have to get what I want to get done. That is a weakness.
Is there anything in your childhood that informed your career?
Yes. We were born six of us; five boys, one girl. We’re all doing well. My father was in the Army, very focused guy, big on discipline as you would expect. There was not much democracy as we have with our kids now. (Laughs). I remember one of the guys who used to work at the Intercontinental Hotel — always very neat, very composed, drove a nice car. I said, “where does this guy work?” I was told Intercon. “Intercon is a hotel?” I asked. The seed was sown.
Because you were socialised in that military environment, do you think that has informed the kind of leader you are here?
Definitely. A son has got so much to learn from the father, and the people around him. I never stole sugar as a child, which means I don’t cut deals with suppliers now. My dad kept time. I keep time. You want to transfer those values down to your children—I have four. My son who is in college now keeps my ATM cards because he runs my errands. I’ve never had even one shilling missing...
Well, not yet...
(Raucous laughter) I will be surprised if it happened.
In the Army, there’s a chain of command, there is no vacuum or democracy. Do you apply that as a leader?
In this kind of setup, there has to be some consensus. Sometimes you want to do it that way, but you can’t get good results. The truth is there is lot of vital information in the lower cadres of the hotel. So you have to listen to people. You have to give into their ideas.
When you look back in your career life, which hotel do you think you had the best time working for?
With all due respect I had a lot of fun at Sarova. But the fun I had was not really fun, it was about the transformation that I and my team did there.
(The lights go off and his windowless office is plunged in complete darkness), but the hotel that made me ready for managerial roles was Nairobi Serena.
I have never done an interview in complete darkness. This is actually romantic…
(Laughs loudly) Open the door, Daniel (PR guy)..anyway, so at Serena I started as a receptionist and ended up as manager eight years later. My managerial career was shaped when the El Nino of 1997 happened and all the water from up Valley Road ended up in the hotel, flooding it waist-high. In crisis, exists opportunity and that event shaped many managers then and people like us who were aspiring to be managers. (Lights come back on) Then the following year, the US Embassy bomb blast happened. Those tough times transformed me into a manager and offered many good lessons.
How old are you now?
Is your hair dyed or you just have beautiful hair genes?
Oh! These are all genes.
Of course. How do you project your 50s to be like?
I can’t wait. The trouble of getting into the 50s is when you’re full of fear but when you get into the 50s confidently, you enjoy it. And the confidence is from knowing you’re doing the right thing and that you can stand on your own, you don’t necessarily have to be employed. If you go into the 50s with fear, then you won’t make it.
If I asked your wife what your limitations are, what will she say?
I think she’ll tell you ‘‘this guy is too busy, he doesn’t have a lot of time for me.’’ But which wife doesn’t say that? (Laughs). By the way, my wife is a CID officer.
Whoa! So you really can’t piss her off.
(Laughs) I try not to. But she’s only a cop at work, when she comes home she is my wife and I can tell you that you can’t get a better wife than her. I’ve never seen a gun in my house, but I know she has a gun.
But surely 25 years down the line, what’s gonna happen now? (Laughs)
You’re out of the woods. That means that her being in CID, her intelligence is much higher than yours; you walk in the house and say you were somewhere and she can look at you and see you are lying. She can even track you down if she wanted.
(Laughs loudly) You know, sometimes I don’t even bother lying to her. I’d rather tell her the truth.
So clearly you’ve tried to be a very good boy...
I’ve been a good boy. (Laughs) She’s very religious. She’s very down to earth, not as flamboyant like me. My children would have turned out so spoilt if not for her. They are not those kids who will come here and say or show that their father is a GM. She prays for me and for the children and because of her solid base at home I have managed to get here because if you have a wife who stresses you, you can’t thrive professionally.
So far, what have you learnt about money ?
(Pause) We just chase money, but it shall never be enough. Money is a driver, but sometimes we chase it until we lose everything; we lose our own lives, the people we like, we miss things that we cherish. We’ll chase money till we die, but do we take time to enjoy it?