Benson Wairegi: The gamble that built a Sh130b empire
By Dominic Omondi | December 22nd 2020
If it is lonely at the top, then Benson Wairegi has endured a long streak of loneliness.
And now, after 38 years of occupying the corner office at Britam, Wairegi will be climbing down from the ‘cold room’ currently domiciled on the 29th floor of Britam Tower in Upper Hill, Nairobi.
His contract comes to an end on December 31, 2020.
“This is the year,” he says in an interview with the Financial Standard.
As he transitions from a CEO to a pensioner, his hope is that, as they say, the lower you go the warmer it becomes.
Wairegi has already requested – and received – his pension statement from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
He was a little surprised by the statement’s reminder that he started working on September 1, 1977.
“When you have a busy job and it takes so much of your time, it is a bit of a challenge to enjoy what you call the little things in life,” says Wairegi.
That he has not been a relaxed chief executive is not only revealed by the smile that occasionally settles on his lips, but it is also a story well known to his closest associates.
So when a friend who has known him for as long as he has been at Britam asked him to make more time for himself in retirement, Wairegi responded: “I’m looking forward to it.”
While he has made billions of shillings as a CEO and investor, the money did not buy him the time to enjoy the little things in life, such as taking in the panoramic view of Nairobi’s skyline from the third-highest building in Africa.
After joining Britam as chief accountant in 1980 – and rising to CEO two years later – Wairegi has helped the company grow from an insolvent micro-insurance firm that had a big name but just Sh5 million in its accounts, to a financial giant controlling Sh130 billion in assets.
The company’s offices have moved from a small, ageing building along Kenyatta Avenue to an imposing office in Upper Hill – testament to its monumental growth.
Britam is in seven countries, and has interests in insurance, retirement planning, asset management, property and banking.
Has this growth come at the expense of spending more time with his family, friends and himself?
Yes, says Wairegi. Not that he regrets it. He accepts it as just another paradox of life; that while intensive work such as that of a CEO tends to sap the juice out of life, it also offers a rare opportunity to infuse happiness into other people’s lives – customers, family and staff.
“After 40 years, I am happy about my life. I’m happy about my family, not just my nuclear family,” he says.
“I am happy that I live in a country where, never mind its problems, I am able to do my things, to conduct my affairs without worrying too much.”
After speaking to Wairegi for close to 90 minutes, one wonders if the prelude to his retirement will be him standing by the window of his office, having one last view of Nairobi’s skyline before he exits the C-suite.
The corporate titan could be seeing, perhaps for the last time, skyscrapers that appear to kiss the skies, as though finally God allowed man to finish constructing the Tower of Babel, with so many of them competing against each other.
But just as the skyscrapers give the impression of touching the firmament of the heavens, money, too – which Wairegi says makes society tick – can also easily give the impression of finding nirvana.
“You can be happy if you have money, you can be happy if you don’t have money. But the two are not opposites,” he says.
And with the years he has spent in the corner office, his words are measured and precise. His voice is gentle, but the words are powerful and clear. He is also honest about his successes and shortcomings.
“As a general statement, I would say we all can be what we want to be.”
While in the last four decades, Wairegi’s life has been markedly different from that of most ordinary city dwellers, his younger years were not any different from those of many young boys growing up in Karega village in Kigumo, Murang’a County.
Born 67 years ago, Wairegi went to Marungu Primary School. Like his peers, he went to school without shoes.
His father, a carpenter, was a man of modest means. He sent his firstborn son to a day school, then known as Ichagaki Secondary School – the same institution Equity Bank Chief Executive James Mwangi attended.
Although there was a boarding facility, Wairegi’s father could not afford it. So he rented a room for Wairegi at the shopping centre next to the school.
Every day, the young Wairegi would carry a bucket of water from school and cook for himself in his room. He made tea in the morning, but sometimes went without it.
This continued until Form Two.
“At that point, I protested to my dad and said: ‘Surely, you can afford to pay my boarding fees’.”
His cousin, who worked in Narok, came to his aid and offered to pay for his boarding. He then went on to Nyeri High School. After two years, he was admitted to the University of Nairobi where he graduated with a degree in commerce. He later got a master’s in business administration.
A week after he finished his final exam in June 1977, he got a letter of appointment from what was then Pricewaterhouse.
“I don’t want to sit here and say: ‘Oh, I planned for it.’ No, I did not.”
The virtue of planning, he says, does not come to us naturally; it is normal not to plan when you are young until you get into your 40s and are jolted by the so-called mid-life crisis.
“When you are young, the world is your oyster. You are a free spirit that lives by the dictum, you only live once,” Wairegi says.
Nonetheless, planning might make all the difference between retiring happy like Wairegi, or full of regrets.
From a pension point of view, for example, when you start saving early for retirement, you require less money, explains Wairegi.
“You are going to save over a longer period of time and the power of compounding interest is such that you accumulate a lot of money when you start saving when you are young.”
Wairegi has since resigned himself to the popular narrative that he is from Rwathia, a small village in Kangema, Muranga’a County that has produced some of Kenya’s billionaires, including Equity Bank founder Peter Munga, CEO Mwangi and veteran businessman Jimnah Mbaru.
“I am not from Rwathia,” he says. “The reason I am linked with the place is that all those ‘Rwathia boys’ are my friends.”
But more than being friends, they are also business associates. At the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) there is something akin to the Rwathia axis, comprising Equity Bank, Britam and Housing Finance Group.
They share these companies as directors and shareholders.
Wairegi has shares at Equity and Britam. He is a director at Britam and Housing Finance, but also sat at the board of Equity Building Society, having been one of its founders in 1984.
Munga, who has since stepped down as the Equity chairman, has stakes in Equity and Britam and is also a director at Housing Finance.
Mbaru has shares in Britam and Equity, and is a director at Britam and Housing Finance.
“Maybe this is what you call a stroke of luck, that I got to know all these people,” he says.
“When you talk about coaching and mentorship, it is the company you keep. I met those individuals by chance and we have grown together.”
He has picked up some lessons from these Rwathia group, and says, “We are what we are because of other people.”
That is why for him, money – the oil that keeps the wheels of the market economy rolling, but which has been described as the root cause of all evil – can be a vehicle for improving your life and others.
If money were evil, says Wairegi, “you and I would not be sitting in this beautiful building.”
“If you look out the window … just look at the investment; look at the vehicles. This is wealth,” he says, preferring to replace the term ‘money’ with ‘wealth.’
“But don’t be a prisoner of wealth. Don’t go splashing it so that everybody knows you are different. At the end of the day, we are all equal.”
At the moment, things might appear bad for Britam. The company made a loss of Sh1.6 billion in the six months to June, but Wairegi is not losing sleep over this.
After decades in the investment industry, he knows that what goes around always comes around; after a burst in an asset class like real estate (the source of the losses), there is always a boom.
He also knows the importance of being patient, of taking a long-term view.
“If you are motivated by short-term benefits, if you are thinking short term, then you have a problem,” he says, adding that what is currently happening in the property market is a price correction, like in any other asset.
He admits that he is not getting the return he expected, that Britam Tower is not fully let, but insists that experiencing pain in the short term is normal.
No story exemplifies this better than that of Britam Centre, the pioneer commercial building in what was initially a residential area that sits on 1.8 acres in Upper Hill.
When the firm bought the land in 1986 at a price of Sh6 million, many “naysayers” thought they were wasting money. Today, Upper Hill is the best example of how real estate transforms a society as the area is increasingly turning into Nairobi’s financial district.
Looking at things from a broader perspective can be seen in many of Wairegi’s other investments.
For example, when he put in Sh30,000 in Equity Building Society, the precursor of Equity Bank, back in 1984. That investment has since grown to Sh323.5 million. If you include his four per cent stake at Britam, Wairegi’s shares are worth more than Sh1 billion.
Even the initial Sh200 million that Britam put into Equity Bank in 2002 has since grown to Sh10 billion, even after the company reduced its stake from 30 per cent to the current seven per cent.
Wairegi sees no blunders, but only lessons. Mistakes, he says, are incentives for innovation.
One such mistake was the launch of the low-cost medical cover Linda Jamii, a partnership with Safaricom that folded less than two years after it hit the market.
Wairegi says they had not done enough research on the controls that they needed to have for the product to become commercially viable.
But from the ruins of Linda Jamii rose Britam Micro-Insurance Office, which has been churning out insurance products for small and medium enterprises.
The walk-out by some employees from Britam with key investments, and the Rawat family saga – in which the Mauritius government took over all assets owned by the family, which owned a stake in Britam, over allegations of running a Ponzi scheme – are some of the “existential threats” the company has survived.
“What is important is that Britam survived those two events,” says Wairegi, adding that he does not like controversies.
He says he would not change anything about his life even if given the opportunity to tinker with the hands of time.
“I feel fulfilled.”
As the interview comes to a close, Wairegi opens up about his love for books and how he buys them in between flights.
One such book that he bought at an airport is by Richard Denny, Succeed for Yourself. He says he read a chapter or two of the book before putting it in his shelves.
But recently when he was perusing his library, he saw the book and decided to finish reading it.
The book has the prototype of what he considers to be success.
First, when you wake up every morning and have something to look forward to, you are successful.
“It can be taking your kid to school, a new car you have bought and is arriving next week, or going to see a new customer,” he says.
“If you are happy doing that, that is the first success.”
Second, success is about helping someone.
“If you have all this money, it should not just sit in the bank. You should be able to make somebody else happy.”
It could be through mentorship and coaching, which Wairegi plans to do more of in retirement. He is also the chairman of Endeavor Kenya, a New York-based organisation pioneering the concept of high-impact entrepreneurship in developing countries.
So, we come back full cycle. Success, he insists, is not about money.
“How many people out there are rich but their lives have gone to the dogs? But you only get to know this after they die. It is not about money.”
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