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Centum CEO James Mworia: What it takes to steer a Sh47bn asset-rich firm

Centum CEO James Mworia. [File, Standard]

Last weekend, East Africa’s largest cinema complex was unveiled at the Sh25.2 billion Two Rivers Mall courtesy of Century Cinemax.

Just before the luxury facility was opened with the premiere of the worldwide blockbuster Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, this writer caught up with James Mworia, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Centum Investments Plc.

The Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) listed firm is the majority owner of Two Rivers Development.

Mr Mworia was quick to point out that the current launch had been slated for last year, but the pandemic had seen it pushed to a later date.

This was amongst the many disruptions that Two Rivers Mall has faced since its launch in 2017. “After we launched Two Rivers in 2017, we have only had two years of seamless operation. This was because, in 2017, we had two elections leaving us with 2018 and 2019 for operation before Covid-19 hit in 2020,” he said.

“So it has been managing one crisis after another. Our mall occupancy is at 85 per cent at the moment, however, per cent have already received interest for the other 15 per cent.”

For the last 14 years, Mworia has been steering what is Kenya’s largest publicly traded investment group - a significant feat considering the volatility of the position.

Only seven CEOs have served in NSE-listed firms for over 15 years and it is expected that he will be the eighth executive come next year to join this coveted list.

Mr Mworia, one of the highest-paid executives in corporate Kenya taking home Sh43 million in 2021, joined Centum aged 23 as an intern back in 2001.

In seven years, he rose to become CEO and is credited for growing Centum from a Sh6 billion asset firm to over Sh40 billion, managing over Sh140 billion in third-party funds.

His reflection on the journey is that the experience keeps evolving and no year is the same. This is because of the nature of Centum being an investment company and at every given opportunity they snap up different investment opportunities to add to their portfolio.

He was keen to explain the thinking behind any of their investment decisions.

Sober analysis

A clear analysis is always carried out and even before making the investment, a clear exit strategy is always in the picture.

“Before we invest any investment, we always have to ask how transformative we can be in the industry. Are we able to move a company from X to three or 4 X within a certain period of time, and do we have what it takes to achieve that?”

“If we do not see scope for that scalability, then it is not a business we are going to get into. A lot more goes into it but that is the basic question we have to address,” Mworia told Enterprise.

He notes that things change fast in the business space, calling for forward thinking.

“When we are implementing the value creation plan, ever so often the reality of the business we found ourselves in is not the same as that we had projected when doing the investment case.”

“Things always change because we have a plan on paper though it is being implemented by human beings and human beings are unpredictable.”

“Then we get to a point we have to ask ourselves how more can we scale up the business? When do we get to the point where we can no longer scale the business up and we have limited scope then we start thinking who can I sell it to? Though we always think about it much earlier,” he added.

Key moments

Over the years, Centum has snapped up numerous investment opportunities though among the businesses they have invested in that most impressed him was their minority investment in Carbacid (CO2) Ltd.

“One of the earliest investments was a significant minority investment in Carbacid. We ended up exiting within slightly more than a year with three to 4x our investment.”

“We did a sizeable investment in Tanzania with Tanzania Breweries and that did very well. I have had the fortune of being in every sector; banking, insurance, asset management, manufacturing, and agriculture but the challenges are similar. Either market-related, people-related, execution-related, or regulatory-related.”

How to keep track

With Centum’s big portfolio base, how does he keep up?

The group is structured in a manner that every portfolio is managed with a manager who is in charge of that portfolio with a management team and a board to oversee their execution.

The value creation plan within every portfolio adds up to the group’s strategy.

Every month, he meets up with the various portfolio managers to be updated and add value to the various portfolios.

His daily work primarily involves business development and identifying ways how the business can be more productive. Besides that, he is involved in senior-level recruitment, stakeholder engagements and board meetings.

Just before our interview, Mr Mworia had just come from one of their residential construction sites where they are constructing 850 units that will be a part of the Two Rivers Development Urban node.

He, however, notes in line with their strategy that they are reducing their investment in Real Estate to balance and diversify their investment portfolio.

When it comes to their exit from an investment, market security has been their plan. Money from market security is what the firm uses to pay dividends and expenses in order not to eat up its capital.

Challenges

Mr Mworia shares that 2020-2021 was his most challenging period at the helm of Centum. This was because of the unseen disruption of Covid-19. Add to this to the death of the chairman of the group Chris Kirubi.

Despite having seen the period though, he admits that it was during this time that he grew the most as he was able to deal with multiple challenges at the time.

He is still to date, able to hold fond memories of the late Chris who has been instrumental in his journey.

“Chris was a very confident person who believed in himself and was very ambitious. He had big dreams and nothing was impossible for him. I miss having a partner like that. He lived in a world of solutions and was globally networked. He had a lot of contacts and was very sociable. He was simply a very jolly person and was larger than life.

In 2016, Mworia was appointed the Chancellor of Machakos University, a position he had held to date.

Amongst his achievements is setting up the Chancellor’s scholarship fund that has assisted 150 students, and initiating strategic partnerships for the university. Besides his various leadership roles and mandates, Mworia finally picked up golfing in 2020.

When you google Mworia, most of the stories are around his salary and bonus hence I had to take some financial advice from him as we ended our interview.

“Salary and bonuses are never a guarantee hence spend less than you earn and invest in something that can give you recurrent income. Deferred gratification is key as many usually purchase liabilities instead of assets. However, at the end of the day money should never define you.”

He also enjoys cycling, a run and besides spending time with family he enjoys his time at the farm. His days start at 5 am.

The first thing he does when he wakes up is maintaining his gratitude journal after which he engages in bible study before spending time at the gym.

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