The Big Interview – A man of his words

| December 14, 2012 - 11.40UTC

Kenya’s foremost investment guru, Aly-Khan Satchu, began his career in finance in a bank postroom, mailing letters; two decades on he is a man of letters, renowned as a speaker and author. So why is he sharing his secrets with the rest of us? Interview by Dinfin Mulupi.

Aly-Khan Satchu is a man who has built his reputation by putting his mouth where his money is.

The world is awash with get-rich-quick books. A few have the ring of authority, written by those with sizeable personal wealth, but contain little real insight. Others are lightweight potboilers peddled by snake-oil salesmen, created to make nobody rich except the author and publisher.

Aly-Khan’s book is different – and not just because of his credentials. This, after all, is a man who has handled the kind of money most Kenyans can’t even dream about. In 1995, as a managing director at Sumitomo Bank, he controlled funds of some $17 billion, or about Ksh 1.4 trillion – roughly equivalent to Kenya’s entire 2012/2013 budget. His knowhow is in high demand: national governments – DR Congo, Mozambique, South Sudan – and corporations such as East African Breweries and KCB Bank have his number on speed-dial. He has even been compared to the US business magnate and billionaire Warren Buffet. So why is he so free with his insights, on his financial portal as well as in his book?

That his publishing debut is called Anyone Can Be Rich tells a lot about the author’s attitude to investment and his homeland. He’s a sharer: he believes that when everyone does well – individuals, organisations, countries – he stands to share in the benefits. And he really believes that the possibilities in Africa – and, in particular, Kenya – are huge.

“In Kenya you can paint on a massive canvas. The opportunities are limitless” It’s a belief on which his current business is based and named. Aly-Khan is founder and chief executive of Rich Management Limited, a Nairobi Securities Exchange-authorised data vendor offering investment advisory services. He chose the name after a conversation with an acquaintance who opined that Africa was an impoverished continent.

“He was convinced Africa is poor – but I corrected him: Africa is going to be rich,” Aly-Khan affirms. “What he missed is that, for the first time, there is a very speedy convergence with the world. Africa is a place of maximum opportunity. It’s a once-in-a-century moment.”

Aly-Khan has long played advisor-turned-ambassador, working to convince investors to plough funds into Kenya and other countries on the continent. One often-raised concern was that live trading boards aren’t accessible, as they are in London, Japan or New York. To address that problem, he incorporated live trading feeds
into his website, as well as financial advice.

But the direction Rich Management has gone in has taken even its creator aback. “It is like an interception point between investor relations, messages dispatched by companies, digital media, and advice for and about stock markets and governments,” he muses.

It’s a novel model – so it’s no surprise that it took a long time to break even. “I had an opportunity other people might not have,” Aly-Khan says. “I wasn’t desperate for money. I held this business lower for longer because I could see where the opportunity would come. I did not want to misprice my business.”

And today Aly-Khan is, perhaps understandably, optimistic about the company’s future.

“I want to go pan-African. In five years’ time I want to have a $5 billion turnover.”

“I knew the continent was going to take off, and I didn’t want to be watching it from afar – I wanted to be in it”

Today, Aly-Khan isn’t so much a rising star as one comfortably shining high in the firmament. And looking back at himself as a boy, born in Mombasa but raised in Nairobi, then London, his destiny seems obvious.

“I have lived and breathed the financial markets since I was nine years old. The moment I was most excited each week was when my dad brought home The Economist,” he recalls.

Yet his route to the trading floor wasn’t exactly direct. Despite his youthful obsession with finance, he studied Law at the University of Durham in the UK, and was earmarked to become a barrister.

“My father and grandfather were both lawyers – but law wasn’t my passion. It was a good exercise in learning, though, and in discipline – in conducting my business and my life.”

But when financial support from his father was cut in the early 1990s, Aly-Khan took a temporary job at a bank. For six months he acted as a postboy, printing contracts, stuffing them in envelopes and distributing the letters. He compares his job in the back office to that of the guy who polishes the football players’ boots.
“I wanted to get on the team,” he recalls. He just needed the chance to get to the top players.

“One day I was tasked with getting the vice- chairman’s signature on a document. While I had his attention, I pleaded my case for a chance in the front office,” he explains.

It was a moment that was to revolutionise his career. The vice-chairman wrote on Aly-Khan’s behalf to half a dozen key people, one of whom – Bob Diamond, former CEO of British bank Barclays, at this time with Credit Suisse First Boston – called him in to ask why he deserved to be hired.

“I pointed at one of his team and asked: how much does this guy cost you?” Aly-Khan recalls. “Diamond replied: more than a million dollars. So I said: I am going to cost you four English pounds an hour – and if I fail, you can sack me. What have you got to lose?”

Impressed by the 27-year-old Aly-Khan’s confidence, Diamond hired him, kicking off his career on the trading floor. Six months later, in 1992, he was given a $1 million budget. In just one year, he made $15 million.

Over the following years Aly-Khan moved between banks, learning to trade a range of instruments. However, his return to his homeland was inevitable, and in 2006, aged 40, he quit his blossoming London career. In the UK he had made a lot of money for himself, and plenty more for his employers and investors, yet he was convinced that Africa – and especially Kenya – would offer the next crop of low-hanging fruit.

Although optimistic about the continent’s renaissance, Aly-Khan did not envisage coming back to work fulltime. All he wanted to do was to lie on the beach somewhere on the coast and trade his money, so he settled in Mombasa, the city of his birth.

“I put some money in the NSE – in Kenya Airways, actually – and it went up four times in six weeks,” he recalls. “So I told my wife: this is interesting – lets go to Nairobi.”

It was en route to Nairobi, while pondering how he could convince everyone that mattered to meet him, that he decided to write a book.

“I called a range of big names in finance and told them I was writing a book. That’s how I met so many people so quickly,” he laughs. “ They had to meet me because of course they didn’t know what I wanted to write about.”

“I reach out. If I read an article I like I will write to that person. Two years on, it may lead to an opportunity.” It’s a theme that recurs in our conversation: Aly-Khan’s success is based around people – those who influence him, and whom he can lead. A keen eye for talent, he affirms, has been key in his success.

“I suck in good talent. I like to build teams. I look for people who are not scared to work 18 hours a day. I pay my people well, but I demand loyalty as well,” he adds.

In this respect he learned important lessons from Dr Paul Ekman, author of What the Face Reveals, who gave him a toolkit to read faces – a powerful skill when choosing candidates for his team, winnowing out those whose intentions might be less positive.

Asked about the proudest moments in his career, Aly-Khan demurs: “I am not proud. I am grateful for everything my life has given me. I am most happy when I can carry a team to a place they never imagined possible,” he says. “I have done it before, and I am seeking to do it again here, now.”

Tenacity, as well as entrepreneurial spirit, is one of the things he loves most about his country. Businesses can succeed in Kenya by turning challenges into opportunities. Those that fail, he claims, do so because they don’t get ‘glocalised’.

“Think global and local. You need to empower your own people – you can’t implant an alien culture,” he declares. “I see lots of businesses that are paranoid about people and employee power. Give them a chance, I say: our people are very smart.”

And he knows some very smart people, being friends with businessmen such as Safaricom chief exec Bob Collymore and KCB’s Martin Oduor-Otieno, from whom he says he learns a lot.

“When I am bouncing an idea off one of them, I am getting the thoughts of somebody who has a very valuable opinion,” says Aly-Khan.

“This is a world of 7 billion people. More important than writing them a cheque is to enhance their ability to compete.” As he seeks to grow his business across Africa, Aly-Khan is also looking to inspire other Kenyans to become entrepreneurs. Through Mindspeak, a Nairobi-based business club hosting free monthly forums, he has caught their attention.

Mindspeak has built a near-religious following among university students, aspiring entrepreneurs and even top business executives, drawing hundreds of participants. Speakers have included nearly every leading CEO in Kenya – including Bob Collymore, Keroche Industries founder Tabitha Karanja and PR guru Gina Din Kariuki – as well as executives of foreign companies investing in the region, such as Karim Sadek, MD of Citadel Capital, and Tim Carstens of Australia’s Base Resources.

Mindspeak has opened doors for Aly-Khan, giving him the opportunity to get to know some of East Africa’s leading business personalities and politicians, as well as providing content for his company’s internet portal from local and foreign investors.

It’s not all facts and figures – again, Aly-Khan emphasises the importance of personality. “Here in Africa we want stories of how people made it to the top – both a business and a personal story. It’s what you won’t learn at Harvard Business School, but it’s just as valuable – you are learning about someone’s personality, and what the difference between success and failure was for them.”

The forum’s game-changing moment came when Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni honoured an invitation to speak. “Sometimes you have to be lucky: I simply wrote a letter, and he came,” Aly-Khan recalls. “Then I  tweeted Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who readily accepted.”

Today big names ask to speak at the forum. Mindspeak’s popularity has been enhanced by Aly-Khan’s use of Twitter, offering wannabes the chance to rub shoulders with business leaders.

“Social media has been a phenomenal tool in the success of Mindspeak,” he claims. “Our people are very aspirational. They’ll set aside their Saturday off if they know they are going to learn something.”

And it’s that inclusive attitude that is reflected in Aly-Khan’s business. He recalls a moment that made a big impression on him, at the mausoleum of the Sufi mystic Rumi in Konya, Turkey, where he read the lines: ‘Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times. Come, yet again – come, come.’

Aly-Khan Satchu has opened the gates for those who want to learn about investment in Kenya. And there’s no doubt that they will come.

Aly-Khan Satchu’s top tips for business success

Be focused – Keep your eyes on what you really want to achieve. The world is like a cafe with loads of tables: one table is yours – find it and sit there. If you try to eat from every table, you will waste your time.
Know your business – If you know what you do and can out-compete others, you will succeed.
Be optimistic – Have a ‘can do’ spirit and keep trying until you succeed.
Think long-term – Forge partnerships and invest in ideas that will benefit you tomorrow.
Be a collaborator – 1+1 = 5 – that’s the new way. Monopolist thinking is an ancient concept.
Be determined – The more determined you are, the more serendipitous things become.
Start small – Start with what you have – don’t expect to be a millionaire overnight.
Work hard – There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you have not done your homework, don’t even try.
Just do it – The opportunity we have in front of us today is a multiple of what our parents had, and a multiple of what their parents had.

Leave a Comment