Why Polycarp Igathe thinks he’ll lose before he wins

Polycarp Igathe, Vivo Energy Kenya CEO. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
Polycarp Igathe, Vivo Energy Kenya CEO. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA  

Polycarp’s resume: Graduates from University of Nairobi in 1995. While in university, he was the president of AIESEC. He gets his first job in Australia working for Queensland Health as finance officer.

After a year-and-a-half, he comes back home, gets hired by Coca- Cola where he works until 2000 when he joins AfricaOnline as a sales and marketing manager before joining Kenya Breweries Limited as sales operations manager and then as marketing manager. His last job before Vivo was with Haco, where he did 10 years.

We meet for breakfast at Serena Hotel at a very cold and ungodly hour of 6am because he’s a morning person.


Which part of your career journey have you enjoyed the most?


Listen, I have enjoyed my career, learnt every step of the way. I started off in the more simple roles and moved up. I have been promoted every six months in every role I have been. It’s been fantastic but I have also been extremely lucky, thanks to God.

I interviewed one chap who kept saying, “have you interviewed Polycarp? You have to interview Polycarp. Polycarp is a genius. Please interview Polycarp!” Jesus! What makes you stand out?

(Laughs) I wonder who that was. I think simplicity and courage make me stand out. I’m very clear who I am and what I’m about, I speak plainly and that, at times, wins me enemies at the beginning and plenty of friends at the end.

What have you learnt in your career so far?

That honesty pays, and that time is your friend not your enemy and that you just have to keep at it with diligence. If you wake up every day playing at the top of your game, you will grow. If you think you are hot because of what you achieved yesterday, you will die. While at it, don’t forget to give thanks every day.

What’s your weakness as a leader?

I think I need to be more sensitive to the fact that the Kenyan culture is to embellish things. When there is a big problem, Kenyans will always say there is a bit of a problem. When I see the scale of things, I try to describe them how I see them. My weakness is that I need to become more aware of my impact on other people. Sometimes, I’m known for being blunt which I want to think of as plain-speaking.

Does that hurt your business relationships?

No, I find that in the long run, it serves me well, but in the short-term, it sometimes gets me into situations where people don’t get it. I’m not rude, there is a difference. I’m also lucky I’m married to a woman like that. My wife Catherine, she is also very plain spoken. We are Dutch! (Laughs).

What’s been the most challenging period for you professionally?

When I was working at Breweries, standing in role as marketing director. I was working for people who were too political. I felt like I was reporting to Parliament and I’m very weak in politics.

Another challenging period was managing Haco during the post-election violence. Imagine running a whole factory of 800 livelihoods and for two months, you haven’t shipped a single product! Managing a business at that time was trying. That’s when I really understood what political risk means for enterprise. Any businessman who pretends that politics is irrelevant is lost; stay close to it so that you are warm and stay far from it so that you don’t get burnt.

What’s your biggest fear?

To be a failure as a husband and a father. I don’t care if I fail as a businessman. I have three kids, two girls and one boy, the oldest is 14 and the youngest is four.

Look, I’m very clear on the roles I have served in as a CEO. When I read my letter, it says I have been appointed to the role, so it’s a role I’m playing. The reality is that I’m a father who must provide and care and protect and nurture, and I’m a husband who swore in public to love and hold till death does us part. I will not fail in that.

What do you struggle with as a father?

I think it’s time. As a father, you have to provide but also I don’t want to end up with my children calling me a banker – that’s my biggest fear by the way! (Laughs). So far so good.

And your struggles as a husband?

Making quality time in the rush of life, making sure I keep dating Cathy every day. She remains the love of my life. I introduce her as “my life” and so making sure that I spend time with her is paramount, which means no late evening meetings. I say no to those. The word ‘no’ is my friend.

What special thing have you done for her?

Bought her a brand new car, and taken her along to dream trips and hey, I have given her three fantastic babies! Come on. (Laughs). I think giving her babies is the most fantastic thing I have done for her.

Last time I met you, a few years back, you were quite heavy. Now you’ve lost some weight, haven’t you?

It’s funny you should say that because I have lost 20kgs. As I was approaching my 40s, I said I had enjoyed my steaks too much and had to lose weight. This transformation started at the age of 38. I stopped eating carbohydrates as much, but I’m battling with it. I still can’t seem to avoid chapatis.

Hell, who can?

Oh yes, I can’t also seem to avoid ugali, matumbo and sukuma wiki. (Laughs) Sometimes I say in this life I’m not going to be the last one out. I will go for one reason or the other. I went through a period of one year without carbs, I just [whistles] whittled down. But I enjoy exercise.

I hate the gym though, so I don’t do gym. I run in a forest. I love running in Windsor Country Club. Every evening or weekends you will see me at the golf course running. They always say that’s the guy who pays to run on the golf course instead of playing golf, which I’m hopeless at.


I love my Tusker. I told you I used to work for Breweries. I like to socialise. People think I’m a golfer because I hang around lots of golfers. My golf club is Ruiru Golf Club.

What’s the greatest misconception people have of you?

That I’m rich. (Laughs). And that I’m Chris Kirubi’s son. (Laughs). Kenyans think that if you work in a company diligently for long, a company owned by someone else, you can only be their son. But you know, I love it. I get bought a lot of drinks as a result.

When I run into people who want to associate with me because of that myth, oh I take advantage of it and just order a very expensive whisky. You know how Kenyans like to hang out with the who-is-who. I’m born and raised in Ruiru 145. Those are my matatus. That’s home. And there, simplicity is key.

Greatest regret in life?

I don’t have any regrets. I get a punch, I dust my pants and move on. I’m lucky that way.

Passions away from all these corporates?

I love road trips, I love to travel. That and books. I immerse myself into plenty of books.

What has been the one place that made the biggest impression on you. That and the one book that you can’t forget in a hurry.

I think the place I love going back to is Nanyuki, just sitting at the foot of Mount Kenya... it’s fabulous. I love the whole Timau area. The book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s an amazing book about a fictional character called John whose sign is a dollar... you should read it.

How do you relate with this main character?

I mean this guy just manages to navigate his life in a tactful way that I find impressive in a world where bad actors win and good actors lose.

Are you a good or a bad actor?

I think I’m a good actor.

So you are going to lose?

I think so. That’s the thing with this country. When you are a good actor, it takes you very long to win and you are dismissed as a fool. But eventually you win because at the end of the day, how many beds do I need? How many houses do I need? I’m not greedy. I don’t believe in acquiring things for the sake of it.

What’s your greatest extravagance?

I think my vanity is a car.

What are you driving now?

A Range Rover, a Classic Vogue. That’s my vanity. I love it because I love road trips and travel a lot. I said, let me reward myself after working so hard for all these years.

What does the car say about you?

I don’t know what it says about me, but I hope it says that I spend a lot of time in traffic and I like to enjoy the comfort.

What are you struggling with at your age?

I think I’m struggling with the kind of legacy I will leave for my kids... societal values. Our national manners have eroded so much over time. Question is, how do I make them survive in a society like this? I need them to be streetwise.

How do you want to grow old?

With Cathy.

Cathy seems to be quite something, eh?

Yes, she is. It’s because she is such a smart girl. Not only is she beautiful but she is also smart. You know there are many beautiful girls who aren’t smart? I mean I just can’t understand how someone can be beautiful and not smart. She has been at the heart of my success. She’s the core. The engine.