Why Kenya’s most prolific board chair is slowing down

March 19, 2020

He once chaired 70 boards, but Nizar Juma has cut down his engagements to 39 as he focuses on his other passion, fighting corporate graft. When the life story of Nizar Juma is written, one of the highlights of his eventful corporate journey will probably be having been the chairman of the biggest number of companies in Kenya and perhaps the region.

At one time, the Jubilee Holdings Chairman was sitting on the boards of 70 companies.

That number might have reduced now, but that is no mean feat for the man who has straddled the local corporate scene since 1974 when he became the sole manufacturer of Adidas sports equipment.

Since then, Mr Juma has sat on the boards of companies in various sectors, including those dealing in food processing, textiles, energy, telephony, pharmaceutical and fibre optic cables.

But his most prominent role to date has been at Jubilee Holdings where he has served for the last 15 years.

Since taking over in 2004, the listed underwriter’s topline has grown 16-fold, while its bottom line has risen 20-fold.

Now well into his 70s, Juma said in an interview with Financial Standard he is cutting back on his corporate engagements and currently sits on the boards of 39 firms.

He is also in the process of retiring from several others as he focuses on his next big task -  The Blue Company Project - a campaign that seeks to have companies become corruption-free.

Juma said kickbacks and bribery have become the norm and people are “being patted on the back” for corrupt practices.

He said 520 firms have so far signed up for the initiative.

“What we are trying to do is to sow the seed of what is important and achieve corruption-free businesses. I believe most of it originates from the private sector,” said Juma.

“Corruption in the private sector has got to such a level where projects are happening, billions disappearing, and there are not enough people who are worried they are patting people on the back and saying, well done if they get away with it.”  

He said companies are afraid to talk about it, and whistle-blowers even risk death when they speak out. 

“We’ll find more and more companies that want to be corruption-free but are scared that if they don’t give money and don’t get contracts, how will they survive?” said Juma.

He is targeting to bring over 1,000 companies on board the initiative, including Indian motor company Tata.

The United Nations has also pledged support. Juma said Jubilee Insurance has grown through honest and back-breaking toil.

He said when he took over at Jubilee Holdings, the company only had five subsidiaries, which have now multiplied to 18.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that our performance has been phenomenal. In 2004, the turnover was Sh2 billion and the bottom line was around Sh300 million. Last year, our turnover was Sh34 billion and our bottom line was Sh5.4 billion,” said Juma.

“There is zero corruption here and we pay all our taxes... we have succeeded because we adopted this policy of doing everything right, stopping corruption, making sure that we give value for money and sticking to our promises,” he said.

But how did he find himself chairing over 50 companies and how does he juggle it all?

Juma said it all boils down to commitment and having a plan to bring out the best of each company. “We organise well. It’s not like all the meetings are in different countries. We centralise meetings to where I’m going to be. For example, if it’s Jubilee Uganda I will attend one meeting a year and then the vice-chairman will attend the remaining three or four and keep briefing me,” he said. 

“What happens they multiply. For example, when I got involved with Jubilee in 2004, we had five companies. Today we have 18 companies, including life, insurance, medical, long-term and short-term, property and finance,” he said.

The companies that he has chaired over the last almost four decades also include those under the sprawling Aga Khan Development Network.

Some of the companies he chairs also have sister companies in various countries in the region and beyond, including IPS, which runs the meat processor Farmers Choice.

Juma, who was born in Uganda, explained that he also hopes to use his spare time to give back to society, especially to East Africa where he does business.

“My aim now is to give up more and more of my commercial activities and to get more involved in social welfare or activities which are beneficial to the countries in which we operate,” he said.

With an asset base of $1.2 billion (Sh120 billion), Juma describes Jubilee Insurance as a “strong” company and says that the recent split would make it more efficient as it now allows specialisation of the respective units. 

The company will soon be split into three entities as the listed insurer moves to comply with the regulatory requirement to separate long-term and short-term businesses.

The separation will see medical and general insurance businesses operate independently.

This saw the company send home 52 employees as part of its restructuring process aimed at complying with new regulations.

The 52 make up about 8.2 per cent of the 628 full-time positions being declared redundant.

Juma said consultants helping with the reorganisation had recommended the introduction of more efficiency.

This meant people, especially in the branches, had to be declared redundant.

“In my memory, Jubilee has never done a redundancy, and so this was something very new to us,” he said.

Juma allayed fears that the planned adoption of technology would lead to more job losses. “It’s not a very large redundancy. As we know, it’s over,” he said.

Juma, who wakes up at four O’Clock daily, offers some tips to upcoming business people. 

“There is no substitute for hard work. All my life I have adopted an attitude of no gain without pain, which I have also inculcated in my children who’ve also become workaholics,” he said.

The septuagenarian said working clean makes a “happy life” that allows him to work without needing a paycheck.

“I’m now able to give my time to social welfare and work for companies without charging because I feel that I’m comfortable enough not to just want to make money for the sake of money. Even for listed companies like Jubilee I still give my services free of charge because that is one way of giving back to society,” he said. 

Source: Standard Media