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Teeing off and dealing: There's more to golf than clubs and balls

Kenya’s golf clubs are made up of the country’s movers and shakers controlling key economic sectors. [iStockphoto]

To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.

That’s how one writer summed up the sport that has since become distinct to the world of business.

Beyond competitive sport, golf for long was considered a recreational game for the wealthy. The golf clubs are exclusive to members and come with extremely expensive joining fees. 

However, more business leaders and entrepreneurs are embracing the sport as a means of networking, impressing prospective clients and clinching deals.

Kenya’s golf clubs are made up of the country’s movers and shakers controlling key economic sectors. Many companies and business deals have been struck here. 

The Transcentury story

For example, the story of Trans-Century - a listed regional infrastructure firm - began on a sunny afternoon at the Muthaiga Golf Club where four entrepreneurs usually met for a routine round of golf.

As they teed off, they would exchange business ideas and occasionally bailed each other out with loans.

The four entrepreneurs led by Jimnah Mbaru mulled over a plan to pool Sh51 million and form an investment firm.

They became known as Trans-Century with members such as Jimnah Mbaru, former KenGen chief executive Eddy Njoroge, former Solicitor General Wanjuki Muchemi and former Kenya Revenue Authority commissioner-general Michael Waweru.

Over the years, especially during the Mwai Kibaki regime, they would invest and make huge profits.

Trans-Century had started as a chama and went on to list at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE). The firm owns companies such as East African Cables and Civicon Engineering.

However, it went on a downward spiral blamed on a debt-fuelled expansion, and allowing the early success of its subsidiaries such as EA Cables to cloud their long-term strategy. 

Gentleman’s game

Since their inception hundreds of years ago, golf clubs are seen as places for ladies and gentlemen hence the strict etiquette levels.

“We call it a home away from home ... members network and exchange ideas,” Muthaiga Golf Club chair Ronald Meru told this writer in a private interview. 

Fondly referred to as a gentleman’s game, golf has been embraced by the wealthy, especially as an unwinding sport where one can mix it with business. Elite businessmen have investment ideas pitched to them at the course.

“If you want to know someone’s character play with them golf with the first two holes you’ll know their character. It requires patience and you fast learn how someone deals with things. It’s the most humbling game,” says Meru.

Boniface Kosgei, a golf professional and trainer based at Nairobi’s Golf Park, tells Enterprise that the game has a set of values that resonate well with business.

Golf clubs are seen as places for ladies and gentlemen hence the strict etiquette levels. [iStockphoto]

These include patience, honesty, strategy, teamwork and time management.

“The sport measures your patience … it can also even expose and help deal with anger management issues,” says Kosgei.

Golf also offers a less formal environment away from the office where individuals can easily connect. Golf courses are expansive, lush-rolling grounds with cool air. Phones are also disallowed, offering maximum attention and long bonding hours. 

“One has up to four hours in the course and this offers an opportunity for a wide-ranging conversation,” notes Kosgei.

Golf clubs also have entertainment spots such as a bar and restaurants where patrons can later unwind and catch up and discuss further ideas. Members are further entitled to a gym, spa and can jog or walk through the course, some other golf courses have luxury homes inside.

Kosgei adds that there are various types of golfers including friends playing because of peer pressure and others playing with a business angle. 

Networking

However, he notes that there’s a trend where most companies are paying for golf club membership and lessons for their top executives as a means of networking. 

“This offers executives a chance to meet their peers and deepen networks,” says the golf trainer.

Liaison Group managing director Tom Mulwa, who steered the firm from an SME into a pan-African business, knows all too well the power of golf.

For all the money in the world, he’d never trade his golf swing. The ardent golfer has brought prospective clients for a round of golf before inking a deal. It’s also where he gets to touch base with his business peers. 

Mulwa says that golf generates trust – which is what any business is all about. 

“If I play golf with you, I’ll either make a decision to trust you or not to. It brings out your best in mannerisms,” says Mulwa. “If you’re a cheat or have a temper, it eventually comes out in the golf course. If you’re calm and collected it also shows.”

He notes that individuals with the same interests tend to play together which later translates into business. 

“Out of overall club members, some play together as they’ve since bonded and created a camaraderie. That’s how that relationship may move from a social one to a business one since the trust and common interest have already been generated.” 

This is how bonds with clients are deepened on the golf course, adds Mulwa. 

“Even for your customer when you take them to the golf course you’ll be able to understand them better.”  

Presidential sport

Mulwa cites inspiration from Jack Welch, one of the 20th century’s great corporate leaders who was an avid golfer.  

As the CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001, Welch transformed it from a company known for appliances and lightbulbs to a multinational corporation that stretched into financial services and media as well as industrial products.

Welch is also renowned for golfing with most US presidents of his time. 

Individuals with the same interests tend to play together which later translates into business. [iStockphoto]

In the US, golf is a popular sport among presidents, business moguls and company executives. A US study found out that a CEO’s golf handicap correlates with their company’s performance. 

Golf handicaps are numbers that represent a player’s ability based on their previous golf round’s scores with the handicap for men being between zero and 28.

At some point, Mulwa was the chair of the Karen Country Club and has played with most of the big names in the country.

On the course, he’s interacted with outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta and former President Mwai Kibaki.

“It’s a very good sport to do business and also to unwind,” he says. 

Mulwa notes that golf is no longer considered elitist and says one can play anywhere in the world.

“You just pitch on the golf course, you know the rules you find guys you play, whether they are presidents, international businesspeople, in golf we are all the same,” said Mulwa. 

Dealmaker

Sarah Mbwaya,  a solar energy entrepreneur, recalls how she’s landed business deals on the golf course.

Ms Mbwaya, the managing director of Aspectus Ltd, once found a missed call after a lengthy golf round.

The other person on the line had wanted a solar water heater and acted agitated when she returned the call. “However, when I informed him that the reason for missing his call was because I had been on the golf course, he warmed up towards me,” she recalls.

The client was a golf enthusiast and they would later link up to tee off.

“He told me that he’d also made calls to other solar dealers but upon hearing that I was a golfer, he told me he didn’t speak to anyone else. That’s how he gave me the business,” says Mbwaya.

She says that the sport has a power to connect people and also a positive perception is formed when one hears that you play golf.

“You have four or five hours with a person by the time ends spending it in an easy way, you feel like you know the person so it becomes easy to continue that relationship.”

She adds that there are people he can’t access at the office and open up in an outdoor environment such as the golf course.  “I had a client and things went south … later met on the golf course the rest is history,” she adds.

Seen as a game of the elite, Mulwa argues the contrary saying that it’s becoming mainstream.

“It used to be like a class thing but not anymore … the golf society remains small because it’s a very mind-driven game if you don’t have that won’t stay.”

However, joining a club or taking golf lessons still remains expensive.

For example, Muthaiga Golf Club, has a membership fee of Sh1 million.