William Shakespeare once said that some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. The second part of the quote aptly describes Benson Wairegi, the Chief Executive Officer of British American Investment Company.
While much has been written about the soft spoken CEO especially in the light of the forthcoming IPO, few have had the chance to talk to him one on one like I did in Sierra lounge last week. It was a candid discussion that steered away from the usual corporate speak. Of course, the soothing jazzy music and the drinks doing the rounds helped relax the atmosphere.
How did this man rise from a humble background to become one of the most enduring entrepreneurs and Chief Executive?
Mr Wairegi’s story starts in Muranga county where he was born to a poor family. He remembers walking barefoot everyday to school and the cold morning dew that is characteristic of Kangema became a constant feature in his life.
“I remember sometimes eating Githeri without beans. It was a tough upbringing,” he says nostalgically. However, he loved business studies, a passion that was further cemented when he was admitted to Ichagaki High School. Later he enrolled for CPA’s and joined auditing firm PricewaterHouse Coopers.
However, it was the move he made in 1977 that has set the path for a new course. That year, he joined British American as the Chief Accountant. In 1984, the govt enacted the Insurance Act that made it mandatory for all foreign insurance companies to have a third of shareholders being indigenous Kenyans. Mr Wairegi took a KSh600,000 loan on his house and bought a 3.3% stake in the company. He also mobilised other Kenyans to take up the 30% shareholding that was offered by the company to comply with the law.
“I was there at the right place at the right time,” he recalled as he sipped the drink that he was holding. He also ascended to the position of Chief Executive the same year. Since then, the company has grown to a major force in the country’s financial sector. The group’s gross profits were KSh2.87 billion in 2010. Total assets are now KSh43.0 billion as at 31 December 2010. The company also has stakes in Equity Bank and Housing Finance.
Before he was skirted away to address other bloggers, I posed these quick questions to him:
Since you took over as CEO, which have been the most defining moments for the company?
There are many but two come to mind. The first in the 90’s when we diversified our services and introduced products for many groups. The other was in 2004 when we established our investment subsidiary, the British-American Asset Managers Limited. Now it manages more than KSh17 billion.
When you were young, what motivated you?
The desire to escape poverty and the fact that I loved business and the potential it has to make a difference.
What do you look for when investing in a business?
Can I trust you with my money? That is the first key thing I seek to know. That means I have to research your business, the sector it operates in, ability to generate profit and make a difference and potential for growth.
What can investors in British American expect from the company?
A track record of profitability, a company they can trust to deliver services and to grow not only in Kenya but also regionally.
Some have equated the rise of some shareholders, including you, to President Mwai Kibaki regime. Pls comment
I don’t think that is the case. We have been there even before independence. However, it was during the reign of the current president that economic growth has accelerated. As one of the major players in our sector, we have benefitted from this economic growth.
What do you do for fun?
I swim, read and play golf.