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CEO whose journey to fly KQ out of turbulence was cut short by pilots

By Patrick Alushula | June 6th 2017

The outgoing Kenya Airways Chief Executive Officer Mbuvi Ngunze, 49, had perhaps rehearsed this moment and replayed it many times in his mind.

On Thursday May 25, he woke up, put on a navy blue shirt, a red tie with black and white stripes, added on a black suit.

He also put on with glasses, looked himself in the mirror and then drove to Nairobi’s Crowne Plaza Hotel.

It was not that new after all. When he was hired in 2014, the first major public assignment he did was to announce the half year loss of Sh11.9 billion on November 12, 2014.

He knew it well in advance that after breakfast had been served, cameras set and everyone settled, he would have to face restive investors, analysts and the press, for the last time as CEO, and announce that the airline was still in losses.

While at all these, his senior brother, Jeremy Ngunze, was probably looking at his quarter one results at Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) with a smile. For him, it would be easy to announce that while his peers saw profits dip, CBA posted 27.1 per cent rise in profits.

To capture how difficult it has been to captain a company headquartered at the Pride Centre within Jomo Kenyatta Airport and boldly doing 106 landings and takings everyday under the slogan “Pride of Africa” yet soak in debts and losses, Ngunze needed to select his words carefully.

He must have spent a few days before this investor briefing online or in home library in search of proper words to address the well-packed investor conference at the 10th floor of one of the busiest hotels in the city.

The 107-year old speech of Theodore Roosevelt, an American statesman, author, explorer, soldier, naturalist, and reformer who served as the 26th US President from 1901 to 1909, gave Ngunze the much needed solace.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly,” Ngunze cited the 1910 speech.

Acknowledging that one may come short again and again but remain enthusiastic about his task, Ngunze said he had given the airline all his energy in the two-year stint.

“The credit belongs to the man.... who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” said Ngunze in the words of Roosevelt.

He told investors that KQ, as known by its airline code, had been through tough times, buried severally by a lot of people but “we are stronger than we were two years ago.”

Operating profit

In the year ended March 31, 2017, the airline had served 4.5 million passengers up by 5.4 per cent from previous financial year. Cabin factor, had gone up by four per cent to 72.3 per cent, and blocked hours travelled increased by 5.4 per cent.

This has translated to an operating profit of Sh897 million from previous financial year’s loss of Sh4.1 billion. Loss after tax had narrowed by more than half (61 per cent) to Sh10.2 billion.

Mr Ngunze, a soft spoken accountant with generous smile, remained composed during the investor briefing, even giving extra audience to the press and analysts. “We faced a perfect storm.

The turnaround strategy is well embedded. What will continue to be the focus even as I leave KQ is to reduce debt and improve the liquidity position,” he told investors.

He exits the arena, having come in with a promise and tried bigger things under ‘Operation Pride’ to fix the mess that was ‘Operation Mawingu.’

Some of the employees had to go home, pilots had to stage strikes, passengers had to rant over cancelled flights and even National Assembly had to discuss him.

For Ngunze, flying through mountains and valleys in quest for a sound business, has required putting on ear muffs as the noise and criticism built up each day.

“This is my last day on the podium as KQ boss, standing to announce results. Thank you all for the support as well as to the over 3,500 staff that have taken in all the hate speech smiling and continued to serve you every day,” he said.

A Bachelor of Commerce (accounting option) graduate from the University of Nairobi, a Chartered Accountant (England and Wales) and also a graduate of the Harvard Business School, his assignment at KQ has proved tough than at Price WaterhouseCoopers, Bamburi Cement or at Lafarge where he served before.

“I feel confident to be leaving the airline in a much stronger position than before,” Ngunze gave his own score card as he declined to announce his next move, after a few his few months he will be at the airline advising the management are over.

Despite KQ Chairman Michael Joseph saying “we are seeing positives at the end of the tunnel,” he was quick to point that as Ngunze exits, there are no low hanging fruits to pluck and hard work will be needed.

The pilots, under the Kenya Airline Pilots Association, had for several months pushed for the resignation of Mr Ngunze and then chairman Dennis Awori, whom they accused of mismanaging the airline.

In October, Mr Awori resigned as KQ’s board chairman after 11 months after the airline’s major shareholders made boardroom changes.

Ngunze came, saw the mess, marred his face with dust, sweat and bruises to fix the mess and now exits the arena to give his successor, Sebastian Mikosz, a Polish national, the chance to complete the turnaround strategy in a tough job.

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