By NJIRAINI MUCHIRA
Fourteen years is a really long time to warm the seat waiting to ascend to the helm of any organisation, especially when the position is not even guaranteed.
This fact can well be attested by the late Prof George Saitoti. After serving as Kenya’s vice president under President Moi for a total 14 years, Prof Saitoti assumed the tag of the natural heir for the country’s presidency upon Moi’s retirement. But this was never to be, after President Moi snubbed him on the basis that “leadership is different from friendship”.
This could be the same dilemma now facing Julius Kipng’etich, if assertions by Equity Bank chief executive Dr James Mwangi are anything to by.
After resigning as Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) director and joining Equity Bank as the chief operating officer (COO) — a move that left observers dumfounded —Kipng’etich might be rekindling the ‘Saitoti Phenomenon’.
During his unveiling a fortnight ago, together with new Finance Director Samson Oduor, Dr Mwangi alluded to the fact that although Kipng’etich has been his friend for many years, the possibility of succeeding him could only happen in 2026.
Before being appointed to the new COO position, Kipng’etich had been a member of Equity Bank board for eight years, where he chaired the board’s strategy and risk committee.
“This year, I will be celebrating my 50th birthday and I still have a lot to do in the bank together with my colleagues. I can say I still have like 14 years to go to retire,” said Dr Mwangi.
In effect, Dr Mwangi sought to put to rest speculation that Kipng’etich had been transformed from a non-executive board member to an executive top manager in a well-calculated succession game plan.
With Dr Mwangi ruling out the possibility of a change of guard in the bank’s top leadership in the near future, the big question is why Equity Bank felt prudent to establish a new position and managed to lure Kipng’etich from the influential and powerful position of KWS director?
And why did Equity Bank decided to make Kipng’etich the second in command considering the number two person often holds the position of COO in most companies? More specifically, what does the appointment mean for Dr Mwangi — taking into account that the holder of the COO position is the individual responsible for the daily operations of a company?
Could it be that Dr Mwangi —who is synonymous with Equity Bank having rescued it from the jaws of collapse in the 1990’s and transformed it to Kenya’s biggest bank in terms of customer base — is loosening his tight grip on the bank?
Moreover, what does the appointment signify for Hildah Mugo, the long serving operations director — considering the thin line between her position and that of COO in terms of roles?
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Also critical is why Kipng’etich decided to quit as KWS boss — although it was the parastatal that catapulted his profile as a brilliant change manager and earned him the COYA (Company of the Year Awards) Chief Executive of the Year Award in 2009 — to become Dr Mwangi’s subordinate?
“I have worked with Julius Kipng’etich for a very long time and I am pleased that he has joined us. I am aware that four local banks wanted him to join them and we had to fight hard because, if they had seen his strength and credibility, why not take him,” said Dr Mwangi, giving the only possible glimpse of the high profile appointment.
Despite Dr Mwangi’s justification that Equity saw the strength and credibility in him, observers contend Kipng’etich has been brought on board share the platform with Dr Mwangi in projecting a new face of the bank to among other things, as it embarks on the next phase of growth beyond Kenya and East Africa.
For a long time, Dr Mwangi has been the sole face of Equity Bank, something that has worked for and against the bank. While he is mostly celebrated for steering Equity to great heights and solely transforming banking in the country, something that has earned him countless awards and accolades including the most recent, the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012, Dr Mwangi has also played a role in creating perceptions that associate Equity Bank with its formative days business model.
The early tell-tale signs that Kipng’etich will now be the alternative face of the bank came last week, when he presided over the signing of an agreement with the Export Processing Zone Authority (EPZA) to promote small and medium enterprises.
“We believe that the EPZ has great potential to contribute to the economy of our country through innovations, job creation and contributing to the balance of trade through import export business,” said Kipng’etich during the event.
And for the first time, Dr Mwangi was in the backstage.
It is still too early to predict with certainty if the two renowned captains will be able to work together harmoniously, taking into account their larger than life profiles and also considering the high turnover at Equity’s top hierarchy. But what is certain is the bank’s willpower to grow and become a force to reckon with in the continent.
In recent times Equity has witnessed a high turnover of top managers, raising concerns among investors according to a research by Renaissance Capital.
“In our recent discussions with investors, we have identified two key areas of concern with regard to Equity Bank. The first relates to the sustainability of the quality of the credit book and the second to the perceived high turnover at the executive management level,” said the just released research.