Life & Work

Joe Mutugu on his big corporate comeback and staying on the wagon


Joe Mutugu, CFO at UAP Old Mutual. PHOTO | COURTESY

Joe Mutugu, CFO, UAP Old Mutual, is a sharp tool. He graduated with honours from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Commerce (finance). He holds a Master’s degree in Financial Economics from University of Oxford and an MBA from Harvard Business School and has worked at NIC and Barclays Bank as chief of staff. He also worked for Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers as a consultant.

Joe was one of our Top 40 Under 40 Men last year. He is a recovering alcoholic, a fact that he is not shy to include in his professional resume. He is a phoenix and is rising from those ashes.

We met at his office in Upper Hill.


I don’t want to undermine all your achievements by condensing them into the issue of alcoholism. You will forgive me if you feel that I’m centralising it, giving it life, but I think we need to talk about it and render it powerless because I’m sure you are not defined by it...

Yeah, true, true, true… I fully agree. In fact that’s one of the concerns I would have if it overshadows everything. But having said that, you see, human beings are wired differently. There are many people who are capable of handling things like drinking and smoking and what have you but there are some people who are wired in such a way that, once they start drinking, they totally lose control of their senses.

I fall into that category, I’m an alcoholic because once you are an alcoholic, you are an alcoholic for life. It’s not something you recover from, it’s a progressive disease. It becomes worse the more you drink. And the only cure for it, the only cure, is to stop drinking. So I stopped drinking about two and a half years ago.

Is there an element of fear, that you might relapse?

The fear is always there, and as an alcoholic it is something which I have to be cognizant of. What guides me is knowing that my life depends on my ability to stay away from alcohol. The only thing which would prevent me from achieving any goal which I set myself to achieve is alcohol. Nothing else. That’s one.

Second, it’s also important for me to keep in mind the effect that it has on my family members; it devastates the ones you love. So it was a difficult experience, especially for my mother. Very difficult.

When did you tell yourself that look, I think I have a problem with alcohol?

I started feeling that when I started being conscious about how my breath smelt on Monday mornings.

You did two months in rehab, did you meet people like you; corporate chaps?

One guy, successful entrepreneur. Yes. Basically a point had reached in his life where he was just staying at home and drinking continuously and he had started to ignore his responsibilities at work.

He would start drinking over the weekend and extend into Monday. He had a big lavish house, he would just go to the gazebo, sit down by himself, wearing his pajamas and a gown, and just drink.

Like in a movie…

Yeah, exactly. (Laughs)

You are back in employment again, these guys here gave you a chance. What’s your frame of mind now, how are you feeling?

It’s much better than before because by nature I’m a very risk averse person. I have gone through experience, having failed, lost a job, tried to look for a job under very difficult circumstances even though in the market word was that Joe is a drunk.

And trying to look for a job under those circumstances, and being able to get very good jobs, despite that, that gives you a lot of self confidence to succeed in the future. It really frees your mind, puts you in a very good place to be very self conscious, to be very confident about your abilities, about what you’re capable to achieve.

It also helps you to put into perspective what people think about you; if I were very stuck up about what people thought about me, and the negative forces about my experiences, that would certainly not have helped.

Was your problem with alcohol linked to say, how you were socialised as a child, family background, genetics and such?

It is. It is linked to genetics. Research has shown that people who have alcoholics in their families, have a higher propensity to be alcoholics themselves.

Is the problem prevalent in your family?

I wouldn’t say it’s prevalent but it’s present. A few uncles have had that issue.

Now that you are back on the saddle, I’m sure people in the industry are surprised. How do you relate to them now, is there a level of embarrassment on your part?

(Brief pause) I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed about my past but on the other hand of course, you now, it’s a topic which one is not too keen to discuss. If someone brings it up I would be open to discuss it.

I know that with time, if not immediately, I will prove myself and people will see what I’m capable of. That’s one of the factors which really drives me because I know some people will want to use that against me, which is okay but how do you make up for that? You just make sure that you’re very successful in what you do and you’re very good in what you do.

Have you stepped into a bar since you came from rehab?

Yes, severally.

Describe for me that feeling...

(Pause) You see whenever I go to a bar or any social setting, I’m with my wife and my wife was with me throughout my problems. I started dating her around the time I was starting to drink. She was with me after I lost my job and through the recovery process so she knows what it requires for one not to be an alcoholic.

So whenever I go to places like bars I know the rules; there are some things which other people can touch, which you cannot touch. Then also you make sure you limit the amount of time you are there.

Does your wife drink?

Well she used to like Amarula. Right now I don’t think she drinks, because she saw how the whole thing affected me, and how the whole thing affected us.

I remember when were on our honeymoon, we went to a very plush hotel, and that hotel gave us free champagne and when I saw the free champagne come into the room, I reacted with a bit of excitement, I was happy. (chuckles). This was after rehab.

My wife’s reaction was the complete opposite. She was very worried. She was like; “oh my God, Joe, what are you doing?” The long and short of it is that she was very afraid of me being tempted.

Do you have kids?

First born was born last week. (Big smile)

Oh look at you, a new father! Congratulations, man!

Thank you, it’s a boy!

How does that feel?

It feels fantastic. It feels great being a parent. It feels great starting a family. One of the regrets I have is not doing it sooner. Not doing it when I was younger.

What have you learnt through all this time, 39 years on earth?

That you have to absolutely, and unconditionally, and stubbornly believe in yourself regardless of what people say, regardless of the challenges, regardless of the failures you go through – because failure is inevitable if you aim high.

Looking back, do you think corporates generally are ill-equipped to identify, manage or support employees who are battling or sliding into alcoholism?

The assumption that many people make when they see people going through that problem is that the guy is irresponsible. That he’s not mature enough; he’s not handling his personal challenges well.

You know, they tend to make those conclusions rather than realising that this is a disease like any other which is treatable. It’s a disease like a cold, or a flu, or stomach ache and there’s treatment for it.

Who has been your greatest influence in life?

(Pause) Richard Nixon — the former US president. He was extremely paranoid, but he was also very driven. In the 1960 elections, he ran and lost against Kennedy. Then in 1962, he ran for governor and lost that too. He was then written off in politics, there was a big headline in one of the papers saying, “This is the political obituary of Richard Nixon,” and even he himself said, you won’t have Nixon to kick around any more. I’m done with politics.”

But then, he transformed. Six years later, he was elected the US president and then re-elected four years later. I read that story and it really inspired me because it showed me that there’s nothing that a person cannot overcome. Nothing.

What do you do for fun?

I read a lot and listen to classical music.

I just never understand people who listen to classical music!

(Laughs) It requires a lot of patience to appreciate it in the beginning because, you know, one piece can be like 10 minutes minimum.

So what’s the big plan now?

Becoming the CEO of a large company in the not too distant future. That’s what I’m preparing myself for.

You’re going to stay on the wagon, Joe, right?

Yeah, of course. (Laughter) That’s a given, without that everything just comes down.

What’s the one book — this is an unfair question - that has had a profound effect on your life? If you can think of a book that you’d recommend to someone. What would that be?

“The Name of God is Mercy” by Pope Francis.