10 Lessons I Learnt from a Billionaire
When I first showed up at Capital FM for work I didn’t know what to expect but I knew what I wanted. I wanted to learn how to be successful. In my mind, there was only one man who I could learn this from, Chris Kirubi. This part of my life story started 5 years before when I was working for Tedd Josiah. He is one of the most iconic Kenyan music producers from whom I had learnt invaluable lessons that I still apply today.
It so happened that one day we were cleaning the studio offices at Blu Zebra Records when a card fell out of a magazine stack. On picking it up, I noticed that it was no ordinary card. It was ivory in color and it had an emblem that was raised on the card’s surface in some sort of waxy print. It looked sophisticated and the texture gave off a rather luxurious feel to it. The name on the card read Chris Kirubi and the details were arranged in a simple and neat manner that was laid-back-confident. The name was familiar, I knew this was one of the top businessmen in the country and I also knew what most people at the time knew about him; that he had a court case going on where he was being accused of having fleeced a state owned supermarket chain and cab company. Regardless, I held on to the card and went about researching all I could about his empire and what kind of man he was. In my quest to know about him I couldn’t differentiate what information about him was true and what was myth. In the end, I decided I would meet him one day and find out why he was successful.
Fast forward 5 years later, I was seated at the Capital FM reception waiting to be interviewed for a graphic designer position by the then marketing manager Angelique Bennaars. She took me in for the interview and later told me I had had been accepted into the company and that I was to start immediately as an apprentice under one Mark Mwera. I was led to my workstation that was tucked away in a corner. It was stuffy and hot but it was where I got my first lesson from ‘Chairman’ as everyone at the station called him.
1. Know your people
You see, CK has a habit of always visiting his businesses without notice and you would be surprised to know that he knows all his employees personally. On my first day as he was passing my corner on his way to the studio, he stopped and looked at me and asked me, “Who the hell are you and why are you using my machine?” I was dumfounded, and for a moment I didn’t know what to say. “I’m the new designer…” I replied in a scared voice.
“Did I interview you?” He asked now with his voice raised.
“No. But I was interviewed by Angelique”, I said trying to assert myself.
He came over and ordered me to leave my machine and get off the premises because he didn’t who I was. Anyway this scene replayed over the next few days until he realized I wasn’t going anywhere and so he let me stay and work. He also warned that he would throw me out the window from the 19th floor if I didn’t work hard and deliver outstanding work. In the end I got to understand the concept behind his actions because this is how he runs his empire. He makes an effort to know his people. From that time, he never forgot my name and made it a point to know what my life goals were. To date he remembers I told him I would accomplish more than he ever did [the challenge is still on]. I also realized that the man knows everyone who works for him, be it in his corporate businesses or even manufacturing plants. It’s hard to find an employee in any Kirubi’s companies who hasn’t interacted with the Chairman. As a result I have learnt that as a leader when you make an effort to personally know the people working for you, what you get in return is a sense of ownership towards your organization by employees. One feels motivated to perform when you know that your boss knows you personally and appreciates the role you play.
2. Only Buy Into What You Would Like to Own
On asking him what I should consider when buying stock his answer was simple. He said, “My approach to choosing the company whose stocks I will buy is based on a simple objective; owning the whole company. That way, my decision will be based on logical thinking and not emotion or speculation. When buying always ask yourself, is this the type of company I want to own? Does it’s business model appeal to me and is it easy to understand?”
Over the few years I worked in his company I studied his investment patterns and I realized the reason why he was successful in the stock market is because his investment style was long term and the motivation was to be the majority owner of the company in question. Later he would say “I don’t invest to make a quick buck because doing so defies the laws of nature. When you plant, it is only natural that you nurture your crop and patiently wait for the crop to mature. Harvesting before the right time will be robbing yourself off the greater potential of what you would have gotten out of your investment. This has always been CK’s approach when purchasing anything not only stocks. This year (2015) he made Kshs. 2.8 billion from the sale of his UAP Holdings stake after waiting for 10 years. Read the story here
3. Be Your Product’s Best Salesman and it’s Most Loyal Consumer
You will always catch CK selling and hawking his products shamelessly regardless of where he is.
Once we were having dinner in a posh restaurant and the waiter brought us a certain brand of bottled water which visibly offended CK. You see, CK is a shareholder of Nairobi Bottlers, a bottling franchise of the Coca Cola Company which produces it’s own drinking water known as Dasani™. The water the waiter had served us was another brand that was a competitor and CK’s loyalty to his brand is the reason why he was offended. Anyway he went on to ensure that the restaurant changed their brand of drinking water by selling the Dasani™ brand to the restaurant owner. The condition he gave was simple; if he was to dine in that restaurant again they had to be his customers first. It was the ultimate statement of loyalty in business.
On normal days, you will always catch CK stopping women on the streets of Nairobi to ask them if they have used his Haco hair products and what he can change or add in his offering. One of the most memorable quotes I got from him is ‘A good salesman will be rich. A good salesman who sells a product he can stake his life on will own the world’. As for his lifestyle brands, one would expect CK to use imported sophisticated expensive brands but you’d be surprised to know he uses the very products that he manufactures as proof of their quality. Check any Haco products and you will see his signature. It’s that serious.
4. Loyalty is Not a Word You Throw Around
After almost a decade working for this great man, I decided to move on and put into practice what I had learned. It was the hardest thing to do and I ended up leaving a big part of my heart at Capital FM. These are the people I spent most of my time with and eventually they had become my family. Nevertheless it was time. I had tried quitting many times before but would always change my mind the last minute because of one thing – loyalty. I had been treated well and the company had made huge sacrifices for me even when I didn’t feel I was worth it. What I learned from Dr. Kirubi is a lesson that every leader should take very seriously. Loyalty is proactive. You offer loyalty first before demanding for it. I remember one day out of the blue CK interrupted a Digital Media Department meeting and said “It would make me sad if even one of you turned out to be a failure in future. I will do everything in my power to empower you, be it in your work here at the company or even in your personal business” He then paused and added “Anyone who works for me is my friend and family and I am loyal to them regardless of what role they play in the company.” In the years I have worked for him, CK has always shown loyalty to his employees especially in their time of need. Even now after leaving Capital FM he is still loyal to me and it is the one reason why I will always answer his call and be ready to show my goodwill.
5. Every Member is Important
Every year in his companies, CK always gives what has come to be known as the chairman’s speech. It’s a special event for everyone who works for him because it is the occasion where he declares his stand. It has become a tradition that I strongly believe has played a vital role in his success. One that would recommend for every company. During this speech he reminds all his employees [whom he prefers to call team mates] of the vision of the company and the state of the business. He always assures his people that regardless of the state of the economy or business, he will do everything in his power to protect everyone’s job. In one of his speeches which I came to regard as my best he said “I feel rich and wealthy not because of the money we have made but by the fact that through you I have played a major role in bringing up all these families. That is the reason why I look forward to every new day”. He will always finish his speeches by mentioning every person by name (regardless of their position in the company) and telling the rest why this person is important to the business. This however is just a small part of what he really does on a daily basis. CK will always make impromptu visits to his companies and randomly pick on any employee with an aim to motivate them. He is one of the most powerful motivators I know and it is because of one small detail. Every member of the team regardless of their role is just as important as the next. His actions speak louder than his words.
6. First Get the Numbers Right. The Money Will Come.
CK says the difference between the current crop of young people and the young people of yesterday is attitude towards patience. We want to invest very little but have big returns and in a shorter than normal timeframe. When we first started developing the digital arm of Capital FM his first directive was for us to build numbers before we started selling our product. At the time we thought it was a risky move to spend three years just building and testing the platform while we looked for a strong audience base. It just didn’t make sense at the time because it meant putting money in and not expecting any returns for a long time. A four years later, we were probably the only digital media outfit making money from the internet locally. You see, many digital media companies don’t get to break even and it is very hard for them to admit. The reason is hidden in the numbers. When you have a big audience to talk to, your return on investment grows automatically. When you have a steady supply of quality content your profitability is extended by virtue of repeat usage and referral. We learnt this hands on. I later came to realize that this is how he approaches all his business ventures -Take time to prepare, test and fine tune your product as you increase your customer base and in the end money will be a by-product of your offering.
7. Your Presence Should Be Felt
When I was working for him I saw how CK carried himself in the presence of individuals who may be wealthier and more successful than he is and I learnt one big lesson. You are as important as you feel and people will treat you as importantly as how you present yourself. Most likely you will never be able to tell if the person CK is talking to is more successful than he (CK) is. Why? Kirubi walks with his own atmosphere and always owns any gathering he attends. He dresses fashionably and his scent always seems to denote power and influence. He makes sure he is the centre of attention and is eloquent so that his every word is solid and full of confidence. When visiting his businesses he will always put on one of two masks; rebuke or praise – employees usually cannot predict which mask he will walk in with. What this does is it creates this undeniable presence of a man whose every decision will have a heavy impact on everyone’s life. He can call anyone and ask about the progress of a particular project just to show you he never forgets. This keeps employees constantly focused on their deliverables without putting unnecessary pressure on themselves.
Asserting his presence ensures CK always has the upper hand in any deal and negotiation.
8. Your Life is Your First Business
Chris Kirubi will never involve himself in something where he does not stand to gain. Secondly he will never live beyond his means. One day he took a workmate and I for a drink at the bar downstairs. He started by clearly stating that we were only going to drink for an hour since he had guests who he was supposed to meet later. As we ordered our drinks I noticed him frown as I made my order and I instantly knew I’d done something that he didn’t approve. You see while he and my workmate had ordered a beer, I had gone ahead and ordered two doubles of a single scotch whisky.
“How can you engage in the same nonsense that the young man seated behind us is doing?” He barked while pointing to a guy in his thirties who was busy entertaining two digger looking type girls with a bottle of rum on the table. “You should never order a drink you can’t afford. I’m not saying you won’t be able to pay for this but I am telling you ask yourself what percentage of your salary you will have used to buy this drink.” I got him loud and clear because I knew he lived by this principle. In every aspect of your life you need to live within your means and this will be your best motivator to work hard to move to the next step. Likewise every action one involves themselves in should lead to an outcome of positive gain failure to which it will be time wasted.
9. A Leader Does not Delegate
Yes you heard me right. In the years that I worked for the man, I never saw DJ CK delegate work even once. Instead he used his skills as a salesman to sell ideas to his employees. He would come up with an idea or a challenge and start breaking it down himself in excitement. It was always fun to witness how his mind works. The surprising result of his proactive nature was proaction by his employees. Everyone wanted in on his project because he had sold it to them first and not ordered them to do it. Soon every team member would assign themselves duties and the job would be completed half the time it would have taken if we had followed a conventional format. It somehow always reminded me of the show ‘Pimp my Ride’ where the garage owner sells his idea to his team members who in turn share what their contribution will be towards restoring the featured car. I acknowledge that every company is different but I believe for any person in management, this principle will get you great results that are good on time and quality. When you delegate you are forced into an uncomfortable zone where you have to rely on mediocre business systems to drive your machines (workers) to produce.
10. The Eagle in the Sky Holds the Sharpest Vision
I have always been interested to hear people talking about the companies in which they work. One of the things that strike me is how frustrated many people are with their jobs. One would expect that these frustrations are caused by poor pay but surprisingly they arise from lack of a clear understanding of one’s duties and roles in the company. This is caused in turn by a leadership that lacks a clear vision that is easy to understand and explain. Many people often find themselves in roles they are not supposed to be playing and are not passionate about – this has become the source of their misery. CK has always had a clear vision of what he wants and how he will get it. He is always reminding his employees why they are in his business and the roles they have to play to achieve his vision. In addition to that, he is always asking employees to have a clear vision for their own lives. If you were to walk into Capital FM offices today, all you will find are happy faces of people who know what role they have to play towards the vision of the company which is clear and simple to understand.
There are many lessons that I have learnt from this man that would constitute volumes if I were to write them down, so this is just but a start. What have you learnt from your mentor lately?