This man Dande

Cytonn Investments MD Edwin Dande during the interview at the Nairobi Serena on August 4, 2017. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NAIROBI
Cytonn Investments MD Edwin Dande during the interview at the Nairobi Serena on August 4, 2017. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NAIROBI 

In 2014, Edwin Dande and four other colleagues at British American Asset Managers (Britam Holdings #ticker:BRIT) walked out of the door and set up their own shop. They called it Cytonn Investments. The wise men at Britam were livid, so they sued.

Meanwhile, Cytonn grew into some financial juggernaut, focusing on alternative investment solutions to high net worth individuals and local and global institutional investors focusing on real estate, private equity and structured solutions and advisory.

Edwin attended the prestigious Wharton College for his MBA in finance and later made his bones at Lehman Brothers and Bank of America before coming back home.

A prim and proper man, he met JACKSON BIKO for breakfast at the Nairobi Serena.


Is there a path you took in life that you regret?

Uhm…actually, Biko, not many. Where I am today is largely due to pragmatism. I’m not in real estate by choice, I bumped into it. I was not in investment management at Britam by choice, I bumped into it.

The only thing I think I chose was career. When I was in high school— during the advent of multi-party politics — I would see how the lawyers were talking, agitating, being eloquent… and I still remember watching Paul Muite on TV, and I was like, I want to be like that guy.

I kept it in my mind that after high school, I applied to law school. So that is one choice I made. But of course I never ended up going to law school. I chose the person I’m married to but beyond that, it’s reaching a juncture and saying “these are the set of alternatives, this is the objective I want to achieve, this is the best choice to make at this particular point.”

Who are your influences in life right now?

(Pause) Well, I admire many people. I admire people who demonstrate tenacity. So, for example, I admire Equity #ticker:EQTY as a bank, James Mwangi as a person. You might not like him, but the fact that he took a brand that was nothing and turned it into the largest bank by market capitalisation in 10 years...I admire that.

(Pause) Kind of a dangerous one but you know I have to be candid. I admire Raila Odinga. You might not identify with his politics, but you have to admire his tenacity.

I really, really admire what I would call the American systems. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter who you are, your heritage, it’s a question of; what are your thoughts and ideas? If your idea is good you shall succeed and if your idea is bad, you won’t succeed. What you end up becoming as an individual or a team, should largely be influenced by the team or the individual not by the heritage, or the history, or the background.

So yes, I’m more geared towards ideas and philosophies; work hard, be relentless, be determined against all odds.

Of all your qualities, which one do you least admire?

I’m incredibly impatient. I want results and I want them quickly. I once heard somebody saying that Cytonn work environment is like a microwave. We want results and we want them quickly. So I can be impatient, but that’s the value of a team. Once you have a team, you’ll have those who are impatient, those who hit the roof very quickly, those who take time.

What was your tipping point in life? When did you know that now things have taken a turn for the better?

That’s an interesting one because I still view it more as a journey. I think going to Wall Street was definitive, it was a place where you feel challenged, you see really big transactions, and you’re at the centre of it. You see how people sit and put deals together.

You begin to understand that all these assets— whether it’s fielding, company… it doesn’t matter what it is, what is important is what cash flows they are producing, and the timing of those cash flows. They way to measure which one is better is by the protection of cash flows.

Cytonn has been successful and that has translated to change of lifestyle and status for you. What’s your relationship with money?

(Laughs) My lifestyle hasn’t changed. I always have this philosophy; you have to make sure that your lifestyle is such that whatever job, business, career you’re running today, if it stops, your lifestyle doesn’t change. So that means you keep your rent low, you have a fairly ordinary life. I still live in the same apartment I lived in six years ago.

There was no Cytonn then. I still pay the same exact amount of rent I paid seven years ago. So, my lifestyle has not changed, and with or without Cytonn, I can still afford that rent. Personally, I don’t own a car, the car I have belongs to the company. When I worked at Centum #ticker:ICDC, I was staying in Kilimani and I would take a matatu into town.

So you live a minimalist lifestyle…

Yes and it goes back to those things; what matters are your ideas and execution. Of course certain things have changed; as a family we can afford better vacations. You don’t care too much about the price. My wife still looks at life, looks at expenses in the very same manner she has always looked at them.

So even family wise, we’re still exactly where we used to be. Our daughter Zara— six years old—doesn’t necessarily know the background, she thinks we’ve always had laptops, she thinks we’ve always had a driver. She doesn’t have that background of what you call minimalist.

But I think having two parents who are minimalists helps her a little bit. Like for example, she gets excited that she’s going into a matatu, you know, that’s a treat. Yet for us we grew up with it.

So how do you reward yourself?

My biggest reward is knowing that I can make choices. You going about life knowing that, “look, I don’t have to think about rent or cost of education for my daughter. If you want to take a holiday, it’s just a question of picking where and finding time on the schedule.

Where do you get your grounding from?

(Pause) Several…My dad has always been about pushing yourself and being excellent. When he was young, he had to put himself through school and the aspiration was to give himself a better life. He’s always demanded improvement and excellence from us. So that up bringing laid a foundation. Alliance High School was also very important in terms of you having to be excellent. You have to be grounded, simple.
You can’t be arrogant, that confidence, that look, you went to Alliance, you’re good you don’t want anybody to endorse that for you. And then as I said, the US experience. The sense of self determination.

So when can we find Dande with his hair loose?

That’s an easy one, Biko, because for me, it’s either I’m at work, or I’m at home with family. We don’t have any, what I would call routes out of the ordinary. We’d go walk at Karura Forest, we’ll go to a restaurant, and we’ll go to church. Or, I’m with friends. Most of my friends are in the business circle. It’s just a having a drink and shooting the breeze. We debate ideas, think about possibilities and have a good laugh. I would go anywhere; I’ll go to Slim’s, Kiza…