Honesty is all. CEO of Kenya Airways Titus Naikuni has built his business reputation on straight talk and fair play. Just don’t expect a second chance if you’re late, says John Sibi-Okumu
“I am not interested in any elective political position in Kenya now or in the future, whatsoever.”
This summary declaration of non-intent was made in July 2006 by Titus Naikuni, Group Managing Director and CEO of Kenya Airways. In order to delete politics from the list of potential topics for our conversation on the day that I went to interview him, a printed copy of this clarification was given to me beforehand. Apparently, Naikuni has been offered a kingly crown of political leadership more than once and, on each occasion, he has refused it. “The electorate thrives on lies and I can’t lie to people,” he said. “There will be other things to do.”
I had met Naikuni several times previously, but never inquisitorially, one-on-one fashion. Research had revealed that he doesn’t suffer latecomers gladly so I was at pains to get to his office at Kenya Airways’ headquarters at Embakasi, Nairobi, at 1pm – an hour earlier than scheduled. Winrose Mungai, his personal assistant of many years, went into Naikuni’s office to inform him that I had arrived; she soon emerged to say that he was ready to start there and then, thus forgoing lunch.
As I walked in, Naikuni, a very tall, fine-featured man wearing dark-rimmed glasses, stood up to greet me. “You never change,” he said, as he shook my hand with a smile. I accepted the compliment, and glanced around his office, looking for signs of ostentation. There aren’t any. It is large, sure enough. There are chairs – albeit elegant leather ones – as well as two tables and the essential computer. However, there are no paintings worth millions of shillings hanging on the walls.
Winrose Mungai offered us something to drink. I asked for tea with milk and sugar, thus, according to the wisdom of these health-conscious times, laying myself open to all sorts of ills. Naikuni settled for a glass of cold water, a choice that went some way toward accounting for his lean appearance.
I settled down and we began to talk. The honest man I invited Naikuni to respond to several nuggets that I had unearthed with “true” or “false”, and then to expand, if possible. I started with the suggestion that, with Naikuni, if you’re late, you’re out, so to speak. “True. I learned about the benefits of timekeeping from my first British bosses and that lesson has stuck with me.”
Is it true that he is a great lover of music? “Who told you that? True. I like all sorts of music, from all over the world… Sierra Leonian, Mozambican, Ethiopian and South African, in particular.”
And the idea that Naikuni doesn’t do tribalism? “True. I relate to people as people and on merit. Ask my PA if she has ever had village delegations waiting for an audience at the reception. Never.”
And he doesn’t do corruption, either? “True. Absolutely not.”
I insisted a bit more, looking him in the eye and trying to make sure that his answer wouldn’t be of the ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ variety: “Titus, would you put your hand on your heart and swear that you have never been party to a corrupt transaction? A bit holier-than-thou, don’t you think?”
“Maybe – but my answer is still: never.”
What, then, is his managerial advice for presiding over a corruption-free zone?
“Lead by example. The culture of honesty must come from the top down. If my driver sees me taking company goods, what’s to stop him doing the same thing, only on a larger scale? And so on throughout the company. My own behaviour must be beyond reproach. Honesty is all. Always speak the truth and you don’t have to remember anything.”
Indeed, I had been told several anecdotes about how Naikuni had put the politically powerful in their place when they had had the temerity to encourage him toward what he considered shady deals.
Is it true that he has the memory of an elephant, especially for names and faces? “True. It’s all about getting to know people as individuals.”
Word has it that Naikuni can identify more than 40% of his 4,600 staff members, worldwide. Winrose Mungai gave me an example of that phenomenon: “When we were walking out of the office one day, we came across a man in a wheel-chair at the entrance – I, for one, did not know him. ‘How are you, Njoroge?’ Titus asked him. ‘Sorry to hear about your ailment. How is the treatment going?’ On getting a positive response he bid him to ‘Get well soon’. Amazing!”
The no-nonsense man
They say that it serves to see oneself as others see one, and the following assessments, given quite independently and at different moments, were tellingly similar.
“What would you be prepared to say on the record about Titus Naikuni?” I asked Dennis Awori, former Ambassador to Japan and Korea, and a member of Kenya Airways’ board of directors. “Titus is a strong, hardworking professional who brooks no nonsense and, in the process, sometimes rubs people up the wrong way. But he always delivers. That’s why companies, even outside Kenya, have him on their boards.”
Martin Oduor-Otieno, CEO of Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), a high-school classmate of Naikuni’s and a fellow member of the ‘Dream Team’ of ace technocrats tasked with sorting out Kenya’s economic woes at the end of the millennium, had this to say: “He doesn’t take any kind of nonsense and doesn’t really care whether you like him or not. But that’s why he’s been able to turn the airline around and, in so doing, managed to open up Africa to the world.”
There’s nothing like the approbation of one’s peers and, in Naikuni’s case, it seemed to be supremely merited. In the nine years, since 2003, that he has been at the helm Kenya Airways has grown to become one of the largest African airlines, with the declared goal of flying in and out of all of the continent’s capital cities by 2013.
In that time its turnover has more than quadrupled, from Ksh 25 billion to almost Ksh 108 billion, making it one of the few in the world not to have made a loss for a very long while.
As part of an ambitious ten-year expansion plan, KQ announced a share rights issue earlier this year, seeking to raise at least US$250 million to expand its fleet to more than 100 planes by 2020. In layman’s terms, the share rights issue means that once the major shareholders – namely the Kenya Government and KLM – have been accounted for, the general populace will be a part and significant owner of its own, marvellous airline.
Is it fair to say that Naikuni considers this expansion a great achievement? “Yes.” Safety is another key theme. “Everybody here lives and breathes safety. I’m proud of that, too.”
How does Naikuni respond to the criticism that expansion has led to interminable delays? “You have to factor in some unpredictable circumstances – things like poor infrastructure influence performance. A plane can’t take off with the pilot still trying to get to the airport or half the passengers still missing, because of some enormous traffic jam. There are knock-on effects.”
Would he say that Kenya Airways was culturally sensitive? “We try our best. For example, we have made an effort to employ flight attendants from the regions we serve in Asia and from other African countries.”
So why aren’t there highly visible South-Asian and European Kenyans among its service crews? “There are a few South Asians but I suppose that people in these minorities are well enough off not to be interested.”
I ask Naikuni whether he considers himself an optimist intent on seeing the African renaissance in his own lifetime?
“Yes, definitely. I think that the founding fathers, the Big Men, let us down in many ways. But they have all but disappeared from the scene and there is more and more awareness and accountability. So, things are bound to improve. And there is bound to be increasing continental integration – obviously a good thing for all concerned.”
Doesn’t he find an inherent contradiction in expressing support for African unity and yet championing a national airline? “No. Nationalist sentiment is not about to end soon. I am a Kenyan first and an African second.” “Really?” I countered. “Would you go on record as having said that? Surely, there’s no better way to lose international friends and fail to influence people?”
“Go ahead and quote me,” he said. “Didn’t you hear the anthems being played at the London Olympic Games? Would people have them replaced with one global anthem? I don’t think so. And the truth is that healthy competition is guaranteed on the African continent: no one airline can satisfy the demand from one billion potential customers.”
The promising future will not be without its challenges – and Kenya Airways will certainly not be spared them. Recent headlines have focused on downsizing and outsourcing, as well as unfolding intrigues surrounding the location for, and construction of, a huge new terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Is Naikuni the man to continue to lead Kenya Airways through the coming period of political and economic turbulence? “No. I don’t think that someone should stay in a job like mine for more than ten years or so,” he replied. “So I am consciously planning my exit, to include helping to choose my successor.”
The private man
Titus Tukero Naikuni was born in November 1953; next year he will be celebrate the Big Six-Zero. He attended Cardinal Maurice Otunga High School in Kisii, where he first encountered KCB’s Martin Oduor-Otieno. “All I remember is that he was an A student,” Oduor-Otieno confided. “One of the top three in our year. And I wasn’t.”
Naikuni studied mechanical engineering at the University of Nairobi and began his career in 1979 as a trainee engineer at the Magadi Soda Company, rising to become Managing Director in two stints separated by ‘Dream Team’ duties.
He is married to Josephine and they have four children. “The pattern was for our children to go to primary school from home, before heading to board at secondary school and then going off to various universities,” he said. “I think that relationships within our family have been largely harmonious.”
Is it right that Naikuni doesn’t do cocktail parties and doesn’t play golf? “True on both counts. I like to leave the office at 5pm and then go straight home. I try to avoid taking work home with me. On Fridays my wife meets me at my office and we drive to Kajiado, 80km away, to weekend at the farm.”
Does Naikuni have friends? “Yes, but not that many. I am not what you would call a party animal and I love the simple life.”
A little flippancy was, perhaps, acceptable at the end of our interview: “So, just how tall are you?” I asked. “Six feet, four inches,” he informed me.
“And, as a proud Maasai, did you, as custom demands, slay a lion singlehandedly in your youth?”
“No. I did not. For one thing, I’m too much of a coward,” he qualified, deadpan. “And, for another, I was too busy at school.”
Titus’s top 5 tips for managing in tough times
1 Never panic in front of your team
2 Encourage your team at all times
3 Once you have agreed a way forward with your team, implement it without getting deterred halfway, especially by consultants – some of whom have ‘vulturistic’ appetites during hard times
4 Deter your immediate team from pointing the finger at their colleagues when they’re talking privately to you
5 Encourage honest assistance between all your team members
“My mentor: I got some advice from Mr Bob Collicutt, former non-executive director of Magadi Soda Company in the ’80s when I was a young manager in the same company. He said: listen to the shop-floor people – they have useful ideas. This is one tenet a lot of so-called managers ignore.”
“My nationality I am a Kenyan first and an African second. Didn’t you hear the anthems being played at the Olympic Games? Would people have them replaced with one global anthem? I don’t think so. And the truth is that healthy competition is guaranteed on the African continent.”
“Responding to challenges is not enough – we have to anticipate them. we need to inculcate a sense of ceaseless change, re-designing our business processes to be more adaptable and customer-driven. ”
Dr Titus Naikuni from Kenya Airways annual report, 2011-2012