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Businessman Dr. Chris Kirubi succumbed to cancer on June 14, 2021.

Fifth Estate

James Mworia: The Kirubi I knew

When you met Christopher John Kirubi, there was no mistaking the fact that he was a great man- he looked like one, talked like one, was treated like one and proclaimed he was one. I have had the blessing and privilege of working with him for 20 years. In that period, our relationship transitioned from him being my boss to a mentor, a dear friend and a leader.

Chris had outgrown the title of a businessman, ascending to the hallowed levels of an elder African statesman. He was consulted by the great and humble alike, ranging from Presidents, businesses owners, moguls, CEOs, managers and even the youth. I recall a visit to Ghana, where he got a reception equivalent to that of a visiting head of state. The same treatment was accorded on his business trips to Mauritius, where he served as their Honorary Counsel.

The story of Chris is one of resilience, hope, positivity, hard work, big dreams, possibilities and impact. This is a man who rose from a very underprivileged background to achieve the highest pinnacle of success.

His impact will be felt for many, many generations.

Early years with Centum

Dr Kirubi, fondly known to many as ‘Chairman’ or ‘CK’, began investing in Centum between 1997 and 1998. At that time, Centum was known as Industrial & Commercial Development Corporation Investment Company Limited (ICDCI) and was practically run as a department of the Industrial & Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC), a State agency. Chairman often pointed to us that the company’s share price at the time was so low, even below the par value.

When he began building up a sizeable stake through purchasing ICDCI shares in the stock market, many of his friends did not grasp the rationality of the decision, given that ICDCI was at the time not doing much. He, however, had analysed the company and could see a lot of hidden value in it.

CK became a director of the Company in 1998 and soon took over leadership of the Board, when he was appointed Chairman in the same year.

He progressively bought shares in Centum and currently holds 31 percent of the Company’s issued stock. He had a great belief in the Company’s value and often said it was his single-largest investment.

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Growing Centum

At the time CK was buying his shares between 1997 and 1998, the value of shareholder funds was Sh1.83 billion, while the market capitalisation was Sh1.1 billion. The total assets of the company were Sh2 Billion. Today, the company has assets worth Sh50 Billion spread over a large portfolio of investments in key sectors of the economy.

Impact on Centum

CK’s stature as a prominent businessman helped Centum greatly in those early years. He lobbied the Government through ICDC to transition the Company’s management from a department of ICDC to a private independent management team. The first management team of Centum was appointed in 1998 and moved the Company’s offices to International House. From there, CK drove the strategic direction of the firm, building value in the portfolio companies that Centum had been invested in and eventually realising this value though profitable exits to other investors.

CK served as the Chairman of the Board of Centum for five years, retiring in 2003. He continued to serve as a board member and Chairman of the Finance and Investment Committee until the time of his death. He brought to Centum the benefit of his experience, knowledge and extensive networks across the continent.

He was a visionary and a great leader who had no limitations in his mind, and who believed that Centum was capable of achieving anything. He was a leader who played at a global level, a man of exceptionally high standards, a strong work ethic and an extremely positive attitude. These attributes are embedded in the culture of the organisation.

Chairman was a bold creator, who was not afraid to take risks on big and bold bets. This characteristic influenced Centum’s strategy of creating investment grade opportunities of scale.  Under his leadership, Centum has invested in almost every sector of the region’s economy including manufacturing, financial services, real estate and infrastructure, education, agriculture and technology.

The Enterprise builder

Beyond Centum, Chairman was involved in the building of several enterprises and was seen as a partner of choice by many multinationals looking to set up in Kenya. This is how he got to be involved in Haco Industries Limited, which manufactured and distributed Bic products for many years in Kenya. He was the local partner to many other multinationals, including DHL Worldwide Express, the global logistics firm, and Bayer Chemicals, the multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company.

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He was approached by many others to partner with him, some of which opportunities he passed on to Centum. These include Centum’s current partnerships with SABIS, a global K-12 education operator with over 60 schools globally, and Carlsberg Group, for whom Centum’s subsidiary, King Beverage Limited, distributed Carlsberg products.

Dr Kirubi and a few other local partners came together to merge the operations of then AXA Insurance and Provincial Assurance to UAP Insurance, a leading insurance company in the East African region. The company grew steadily and institutional investors beginning with Centum were invited as shareholders into the company in year 2002.

Another 3 international private equity firms were later invited as shareholders. Together, they continued to grow the UAP Holdings Group and eventually sold the business to Old Mutual Group, the pan-African investment, savings, banking and insurance group.

For over 20 years, Dr Kirubi has been the Chairman of Nairobi Bottlers Limited, the largest bottler and distributor of Coca-Cola products in Kenya. Through Centum Group, he also was instrumental in the merger of what is today the second largest Coca-Cola bottler, Almasi Beverages Limited. The history and success of Coca-Cola in Kenya as the dominant non-alcoholic beverage producer would not be possible without the drive and leadership of Dr Kirubi.

Still in the world of beverages, Chairman was instrumental in the privatisation of Kenya Wine Agencies Limited (KWAL), and its place as the second-largest alcoholic beverage producer in the country. Again, through the strength of the institution that was built, it attracted the investment by Distell Group from South Africa as the current controlling shareholder.

Other companies that Dr Kirubi has been involved in, through Centum Group, where he played the important role of local partner include General Motors East Africa (now Isuzu East Africa), the largest vehicle assembler and distributor in the country, and NAS Servair, the local airline catering business in partnership with Servair Group.

Through all the enterprises that he built, Chris Kirubi employed thousands of people directly and provided a means of livelihood for the employees and their families. Indirectly, he impacted thousands more as suppliers, customers, advisers, distributors to the companies that he was involved in.

In addition to companies that he invested in, Chris brought in many other companies to open shop in Kenya. One such example is Carrefour Supermarkets, who did not have any operations anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Chris was a man whose faith in his ability to triumph over any odds was exceptional, in one of my many lunch meetings with him, I mentioned to him that we were having challenges securing an anchor tenant for Two Rivers but that there was a possibility that we could persuade Carrefour to come and establish themselves as anchor tenants at Two Rivers Mall. Rather than panic, he calmly asked me to set up a meeting with Carrefour in Dubai.

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A man of refined taste, Chris flew first class, while I flew business. Chairman always flew first class; he was not a man prepared to compromise his high standards. At the meeting with the Carrefour leadership, he persuaded them that they should come and do business in Kenya and that they should set up at Two Rivers.  After a three-hour meeting, Chris and James left with a commitment from Carrefour and the problem was resolved.

The Visionary

Chairman dared to dream, and he dreamt big. Centum’s real estate projects are a testament to his big dreams. In the land that today is Two Rivers, where others may have seen a napier grass farm as it was at the time, he saw a city. Chris had supreme self-confidence and belief in his ability and capacity. This self-confidence would have been a weakness if it was not for the fact that he actually was a man of supreme ability and capacity.  Which private citizen envisions the construction of a new city, and he proceeds to do just that? This is the reserve of government and institutional investors. This was the vision behind the development of urban nodes in Two Rivers in Nairobi.

Today, Two Rivers is home to the largest retail mall in East and Central Africa. It is also home to commercial office blocks, City Lodge Hotel and will, soon, be home to many residential apartments that are under construction. Set on 100 acres, it is the largest master-planned urban development in the region.

It is a similar big dream that led to the acquisition of development land for the 384-acre Pearl Marina Estates in Entebbe, Uganda, and the 10,500-acre Vipingo Development in Kilifi. These urban developments have and will continue to attract massive amounts of investment, both local and foreign, as the dream evolves.

Two Rivers Development, alone, has attracted over $200 million of foreign direct investment into the country.

Governance 

Throughout his journey of enterprise building, Dr Kirubi has been focused on ensuring that the enterprises were well-governed and strong, stand-alone institutions. He focused on having strong management teams in all his businesses and with strong boards of directors that provided oversight. He saw his role as providing strategic direction and allowing the respective boards and management teams to run the show.

A good testament to the strength of the institutions is that even while he was away on medical treatment, the companies continued to run effectively and have impact.

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At Centum, he was also keen to ensure that the leadership of the board of directors, in particular, and the Group in general, was vested in capable hands. When he retired as Chairman of the Board in year 2003, he identified James Muguiyi as the successor, who went on to oversee the affairs of the Group for another 13 years to 2016.

When Mr Muguiyi indicated his desire to retire as Chairman, Dr Kirubi traveled to Harvard University, in Boston USA, to convince Dr Donald Kaberuka, immediate former President of the African Development Bank, to join Centum as a director and Chairman. His mission was successful, and Dr Kaberuka has been Chairman of Centum since 2016.

The African statesman 

Aside from his personal work, Dr. Kirubi has been involved extensively with several African Governments. Amongst his early memorable areas of service was just before the turn of the century, when there was uncertainty around the country’s information technology preparedness to handle the change over from year 1999 to year 2000. Former President Daniel Arap Moi appointed Dr Kirubi as a member of the “National Year 2000 steering committee on Kenya’s Management of the Y2K challenge”. The country overcame the transition smoothly, with much assurance provided by this steering committee.

Importantly, Chris served on the National Economic and Social Council, which was responsible for crafting Kenya’s current blueprint for growth, Vision 2030, under retired President Mwai Kibaki’s regime.

He was a passionate Ambassador for the Kenya Country Brand and served as Chairperson of Brand Kenya Board from March 2016 – December 2017.

He also worked with the Government of Ghana as a Board Member of the Investors’ Advisory Council and as Ghanaian Honorary Consul General in Kenya (2000 to 2008).

At the time of his passing, Dr Kirubi was the honorary counsel to the Republic of Mauritius in Kenya. He forged closer business and governmental ties between Mauritius and Kenya.

He also served on the Cambridge Global Advisory Council (Massachusetts, USA) with a view to advising the institution on education matters in Africa.  He also served on the Institution’s Africa Advisory Council, honing in on specific needs of the continent.

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He was a founder Council Member of the AU Foundation, which was formally launched in January 2015 to help Africa provide an economic platform of her own without relying on Donor funds.
He was also a Founder Trustee of the August 7th memorial park.

The philanthropist 

Dr Kirubi was passionate about making a difference in the lives of disenfranchised groups and has been involved in a number of social causes. Perhaps his greatest attribute is his passion for mentoring young leaders. CK had a great belief in the youth and mentored a generation of young leaders including virtually the entire executive suite of Centum and many portfolio companies. He was the sponsor of the Centum Graduate Trainee Program, which has provided the East African investment industry with a large pool of investment professionals.

This passion for enabling the youth manifested itself in Centum Foundation’s activities and partnerships. The partnership between Centum and the National Youth Service is a prime example of this passion. Under the auspices of this partnership Tribus TSG Limited, a Centum subsidiary company, has provided opportunities for employment to over 10,000 youths.

Another example is the Vipingo scholarship program, where Vipingo Development Limited has provided education scholarships to over 200 high school students for the four years of their study. Through this program, Vipingo development has also upgraded many classrooms in Kilifi County.

Chairman also led Centum and its partners in the development of a completely new building complex for students of Mathare Primary School. The complex includes classrooms for over 1,200 students, a library, computer room, science labs, and other facilities.

CK’s legacy and awards

CK leaves behind strong institutions with capable teams. The portfolio companies in his stable, which include Centum, are led by capable boards and management teams. CK was a believer in strategic planning and working collaboratively with other professionals to have a shared vision to guide all his organisations. All the companies he was involved in have solid strategic plans and effective teams to lead in the execution of the strategy. CK set extremely high standards for himself, those he worked with and the institutions that he was involved in. Those standards are part and parcel of the DNA of those organisations and are embedded in their cultures.

Dr Kirubi has been featured in several local and international publications, most notably in Forbes Africa Magazine (Tallying Africa’s Wealthiest: Forbes Inaugural List of 40 Richest People In Africa), Forbes Africa Blog (20 Most Powerful People in African Business), News African Magazine (100 Most Influential Africans – Business and Finance Category), and in Life Journeys: Scaling Heights, High Achieving Men in Kenya (Footprints Press).

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He was also awarded 2015 Africa CEO of the Year by the Africa CEO Forum based in Geneva.
He has been honoured by several governments and is a recipient of the Chief of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2020), the Honour of the Grand Medal (Republic of Ghana, December 2015) and the Insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (French Government, 2015).

What we will miss

Centum has lost a great visionary and passionate leader who strived to make a difference and have an impact. A leader who worked hard to mentor young people and develop a new generation of leaders. CK was brutally candid, ambitious and go-getting.  He has imprinted these attributes in the culture of the organisation.

CK had a close and personal relationship with the staff of his portfolio companies from the most senior to the most junior. That warmth and personal relationship is irreplaceable.

Fare thee well Christopher John Kirubi, fare thee well Chairman.  A leader, a friend, a mentor to many.

James Mworia is the CEO, Centum Investment Company PLC.

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