Taking the Reigns.

I grew up in the friendly confines of rural Kenya, and all the while, my young self got to largely be exposed to both the profession and entrepreneurial worlds. My mother is a career woman. She dedicated her life to government service first as an admin secretary in the ministry of health and later on, for the better part of childhood and all my adult life, as a career teacher and later Principal. On the other hand, my father was a hardworking accountant who in his early years of employment could not fit in a conventional work space. Working as a hotel manager, because those days there was a direct correlation between gender, accounting, and management (this statement would make my statistics professor very happy); he was one of those managers who take pride in the job and are borderline annoying for being too enthusiastic.

He is retired now and spends his time in ministry doing the good work for the lord. You know how parents at this age acquire a rare skill of vividly narrating stories of how the old good days were. I’ve always wondered why they call them the old good days! Anyway, he tells a tales of success, and from the look on his face I can tell it’s been a while since he recounted his conquest. He takes a long dramatic pause, the kind you see in a high school set book play, with his face has a distant gaze into the void, while his voice drowned in resigned nostalgia as he recounts how he dramatically resigned from what he calls a very well paying job to become an entrepreneur. He has a heightened love for making money, a fact I witnessed in his trajectory of establishing and closing businesses throughout my life. I think one of my professors would be happy using this as a classic example of lifestyle-businesses and maybe erroneously define him as a ‘causal guy’! Far from it though, my father is a very innovative and forward-thinking individual. He tells me that he gets this from my grandmother who was an activist, a Mau Mau, and a prominent community leader during the Kenyatta government.

My grandfather was an industrial worker who spent all his youthful years, after being released from detention after the Mau- Mau war, making sweets in the industrial area of Thika. She tells us his pay was too meager that it only allowed him to sustain a small one-roomed house in Thika, while the rest would go to pay for my dad’s and his siblings’ near-free education. With so much to cater to, my grandfather did not have a surplus disposable income to invest in real estate and other common inheritable financial instruments. Instead, the little he earned was invested in education so my father would pull the coming generations from the unforgiving grip of poverty.

I am sitting with my father over a cup of coffee as we await mother, she’s on a call with some Chama members (they last for an eternity), and I am curious to know what kind of life he sees for himself at retirement and the lessons he has picked over time as a businessman. For some reason, I’m expecting a classic rant of how every effort he has made was to benefit my siblings and me. I haven’t been more wrong! Instead, the conversation steers toward how his father did not have the time and resources to parent him and his siblings, and how there was always an underlying anticipation for when children would grow so that they could parent their parents, which in perspective is quite convoluted. I hope you get the picture.

His point? He is working hard to create a legacy for himself and hopes it would be passed down generations.

Before I can ask how this legacy will be passed on, my mother walks in and takes a seat right next to me. By now I’m awkwardly sitting in between them. I think if third-wheeling was a person this is how he would look. A lady attendant with well-manicured nails, perfectly tweezed brows and Rosy complexion approaches our table and offers to take our order. This is no mean feat since none of us is making sense of what she was saying(You know how these Art Caffe waiters speak English of nose). Unfortunately, trapped between the influence of a heavy local dialect and an American weng, the language is too controversial for the queen to accept it as her’s. Anyway, she falls back to her national language and before long the ordeal is over. I, though longing to complete my conversation with my father, know I shall hear no more of it so long as the three of us are sitting together. My mother doesn’t approve of my Father giving us poverty stories and my dad knows better, lest he gets grief for what she calls being stuck up.

As the conversation changes to how I am doing and the usual during-our-days city stories, I ruminate over my father’s reply. I’m convinced that to most entrepreneurs, building a legacy is such an unsaid motivation but is however unconsciously downplayed. Again, I can’t help but wonder whether these entrepreneurs have the skill required to ultimately pass it down to the generations that follow. These thoughts rock my mind as I passively listen to my folks fondly relieve their campus days. My mind wanders like an unmanned kite and I recall reading a recent report of the ultimate failure and near-auction of Jacaranda Hotel only ten years after the death of Hon. Njenga Karume.

Media reports and papers filed in court give a narrative of an entity that has struggled with cashflow management. Not in the sense that it didn’t make sales, but sheer laxity in corporate governance, poor director accountability as well as an imbalanced and uncalculated affinity for risk. I’ve read Njenga Karume’s memoir From charcoal to Gold and I’d have to admit I am a big fan. It tells a thrilling story of a man who rose from the ashes of poverty In Kiambaa by powering through suspicion by the colonial government, illiteracy and economic bias, to dining with kings.

In the book, Karume speaks little of his children and his journey with them in business. The story as told by Mutu Wa Gethoi epitomizes the traditional African man who bore the burden of provision with high secrecy of his money and business dealings. I think in my exposure to Kenyan biographies, Karume’s story resonates with many other prominent business people in Kenya. From those who built their fortune from political wit, to those who thrived through sheer entrepreneurial effort, a theme of secrecy and covertness rings. When Karume passed on in 2012, he was commended for being among the few African men of his generation to die testate( with a will in place). He left a considerable portion of his estate under an equitable trust attempting, in my view, to mitigate against the lack of competence or trust with his beneficiaries. Classically, he bequeathed his estate to his children but appointed adult supervision for them.

When children grow up they rebel against adult supervision and do not stop until they get the remote feeling that they are adults. For Karume’s kids, the trust was viewed as a curtailing establishment whose existence was, to say the least, an attempt by their father to micromanage his estate from the grave. This explains the many lawsuits that followed in 2012, some blocking the execution of the will and others discrediting the executors and the trust altogether. This tale of a great son of Kenya, whose journey I see so much in my own father’s journey, leaves a bittersweet taste of hard work that is now going to waste at the hands of disgruntled beneficiaries.

Njenga Karume, just like my father, intended to leave a legacy. A strong family name that would survive many generations, and a hope that this legacy would live within the confines of the Karume Trust. For a man of this generation, I am amazed by his ingenuity. The structure was precise and well done as most of the attempts to undo the process have proven futile. Unfortunately, he forgot to do the one thing that would bring life to the Trust. Succession planning!

Succession Planning is defined as the process of identifying and developing new leaders who can replace the old leaders when they leave, retire or die.
The process of succession planning takes three critical strategic steps. Defining the succession objective, determining the available competencies through diagnosis, and finally developing tools and structures to support the process. I need not say more, it is clear why Karume’s succession plan attempt is struggling. The two first steps were skipped and structures were developed without talent and skill. When I frequently hold board training sessions, I like to challenge the board members to paint a picture of the company from their graves. This analogy, as brutal as it sounds, is a reality that every corporate leader must come to terms with. Companies have perpetual succession. They live on when their founders are long dead and gone.

Our responsibility is to, therefore, make sure that our actions today enable them to remain viable tomorrow. Many family businesses are thriving now and the reality is that they will be inherited one day by future generations.

So long as you are running a family enterprise and ignoring the need for succession planning, you can be equated to a well-trained relay athlete who is headed to hand over the button to a blindfolded teammate. He keeps running at him but knows that all this effort will not count for anything. Yet he keeps at it. What a waste!
Whether we like it or not our children will come of age and will lay claim to our enterprises!

We finish our drinks and as I shuffle with my wallet to pay the bill, my father, being a true numbers guy, is giving me grief about the cost of coffee and the sustainability of life in the city. My mother is seated quietly listening in disbelief. She has always been high spirited. She is the daughter of a clinical officer. Having grown up in the leafy suburbs in Murang’a, she has a refined taste. My father’s rant is clearly not her portion! Anyway, not wanting to leave the conversation hanging, I explain to my father the concept of succession planning and the delicate steps one must follow for it to come to fruition. He is a true visionary. He sees it and even, to my surprise, has contributions to it. I am lucky,….no am relieved. These conversations ordinarily don’t go well with African parents. We bid each other goodbye but I stay behind to answer the strong urge to pen down my thoughts.

I’m sitting alone at the now near-empty cafe two hours later. As I try coming up with a conclusion, there’s constant interruption from a sweet kid from the table adjacent. I am one of those awkward people who close their eyes when inspiration is hard to come by. I bet he takes my closed eyes as an invitation to play peek-a-boo with him. From his innocent smile, I see how my grandfather’s decisions have impacted me and how linear the chain is. I realize I am lucky. I can count five generations back from my father. In retrospect, my generation is the most educated and most exposed of the five generations. However, this has been a journey of more than a hundred years of decisions made by those before me. My forefathers did not have the wisdom of corporate succession planning but somehow did what their time called for. What does our time call for? I think it calls for the acknowledgment that we are finite beings living on borrowed time and soon enough the kids will take the reigns!


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