Kenya: Collymore Stayed True to Safaricom Vision Till the End

Bob Collymore.

"I am not going in August, that is unless I die, of course," Bob Collymore said in his last interview with me on May 3 when Safaricom announced its annual results.

He was reacting to an article earlier that week, which had indicated that Safaricom and the government were locked in a battle over whether or not to pick a Kenyan to succeed him as the chief executive officer in August.

My reading was that Bob was angry at the particular reference to the month more than with the fact that he would be leaving the company.

I came to this conclusion because just days before the interview, people close to him had indicated that he would be leaving the company -- only not in August.

BOB WAS RIGHT

Bob was right in more ways than one.

He went on the morning of July 1, although Safaricom had given him a one-year extension that would have seen him serve until 2020 to make up for the period he had taken for medical leave in 2017.

Sadly, he did not live to serve out his contract, succumbing to cancer in his Nairobi residence.

Shortly thereafter, TV journalist Jeff Koinange revealed that doctors had actually told Bob that he was unlikely to live beyond July.

It is possible that Bob knew this even on the day he announced the Safaricom results.

It is also possible that this was the reason he was miffed by news of his impending exit in August.

TAKEOVER TALKS

Incidentally, Vodacom bosses were scheduled to fly to Nairobi this Thursday for talks at State House over who was to take over the leadership of Kenya's most profitable company.

Yesterday, the company's chairman, Mr Nicholas Nganga said the Safaricom board was aware of the need to put a succession plan in place.

"We shall be giving the way forward within the next 24 hours," he said.

At the end of our May 3 interview, I presented Bob with a gift in the form of a book containing all the news reports that the Nation Media Group newspapers had published about him from the day he arrived in Kenya in October 2010.

"It sounds like I am dying," he said though he acknowledged that it was the most personalised gift he had ever received.

NO HANDSHAKES

In the last few months of his life, Bob would not shake hands because his condition had severely compromised his immunity, a matter he apologised about when he told his last investor briefing that there were so many hands he was not in a position to shake.

Instead, every time someone stretched out his hand to offer a greeting, Bob would hold his right hand over his heart in acknowledgment of all the attention he was receiving.

Despite the health challenges he was going through, Bob still maintained an uncanny clarity of vision of where he wanted Safaricom to go; a vision he anchored in three basic principles; purpose, people and profit.

This is the one thing that he remained consistent about throughout his tenure at Safaricom.

ADD VALUE

When he took over from Michael Joseph on November 1, 2010, Bob said he was interested in adding value to the company's shareholders.

"We shall continue to invest and roll out more innovations that add value," he said in his first interview with Kenyan journalists.

At that time, both Safaricom and Airtel were involved in a dramatic price war and phone users were constantly being asked to choose whether they wanted to pay for their calls using a flat rate per minute billing or they wanted to be charged per second.

This price war led Kenyans to nickname Bob "Call me more".

Despite the price wars, Bob stayed true to the course through which he wanted to steer Safaricom.

MOBILE PHONES

"You have more mobile phones than you have got toilets," he said in response to a question on what Safaricom was learning from the way Kenyans consumed data bundles.

There are 10 million smart phones in use in Kenya, which is more than the 9.03 million people who have access to flush toilets.

There are also 31.07 million people with access to toilets of one kind or another against 48 million mobile phones.

So, again, Bob was right. That is why he believed that, given the widespread use of mobile phones, they could be used to provide healthcare, agricultural and education solutions by designing apps that met these needs.

LEGACY BUILDER

Bob was a legacy builder, not just another chief executive officer.

When he took over from Michael Joseph, a Safaricom share at the then Nairobi Stock Exchange was trading at about Sh2.80.

By the time of his death, it had grown to about Sh28 a piece. Yet, Bob did not consider this a major milestone.

"Safaricom is not a really big company," he said.

"We are only doing about $11 billion. That is not big by international standards."

Asked whether Safaricom, which controlled 49 per cent of the value of the Nairobi Securities Exchange, had become too big for the market, he said: "Your question should be framed in a slightly different way to say, do you think the market is too small? Not that we are too big."

STOCK EXCHANGE

In his considered opinion, the stock exchange needed 10 companies like Safaricom. It still does.

When, on a light note, I asked him what method Safaricom was using to pick the Kochokocho promotion winners, he said that he kept waiting for the day he too would win.

"I hope I do not win by accident," he said and laughed.

That was then. A happy time.

Today, Kenya mourns him.

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