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Serial board chair Nizar Juma: I lost all interest in chasing after money

Jubilee Holdings Chairman Nizar Juma [Couretsy]

Nizar Juma has been a towering figure on the boards of over 70 companies, all for free. His motivation, he says, is because he lost interest in chasing after money.

In an exclusive interview with Financial Standard, Mr Juma lifts the lid on his past, overcoming his temper, cigarettes, alcohol, obsession with money and losing his marriage.

He reveals his closeness with The Aga Khan IV and the unthinkable decision to shut down all his companies and start working for free — all because he found a purpose beyond money.

It is said in corporate circles that when The Aga Khan, the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network and spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims wants things fixed in any of his companies, Mr Juma is his go-to guy.

“It is true that he has put me in lots of places where there have been problems,” says Mr Juma, who will be turning 78 on Saturday.

For instance, he was for seven years the chairman of Aga Khan Health Services, turning the facilities from what he calls “mediocre kind of institutions” into the now-famous Aga Khan Hospitals, including the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi.

“Since 1990, I have never taken a salary or sitting allowance. That way, I am free. That also gives me soft power. And the people I work with know that my only reason is for the benefit of shareholders,” says Mr Juma.

But that is not where the rich story of Mr Juma’s 54 years in the boardrooms starts.

And it doesn’t end at Jubilee Insurance where he has spent 17 years as the chairman. He once ran successful businesses spanning sectors such as sports and manufacturing, only to wake up one day and inform his employees that he had lost the desire to chase after money.

Despite the close attachment he had with his sports company, the Adidas franchise that had supplied balls to the 1978 World Cup and even earned him accolades from the then President Daniel arap Moi, he walked away from it all.

So, could it be that Mr Juma had by 1990 made all the money he would ever need for life? If so, why then has he spent over two decades of his life waking up at 4am and braving Nairobi’s traffic snarl-ups to and from work without pay?

“I am not like those businessmen who have a lot of money until they don’t know what to do with it. I am not so rich that I don’t have to worry. All my children are settled, self-sufficient and doing their own business,” says Mr Juma.

“That is a blessing. I am happy. I sleep at night. There are no contracts. There is nobody holding me here at Jubilee or anywhere else I serve. I can walk away tomorrow. I am free.”

He has three children — one living in Australia, another in the US and the other in the UK. He is a proud grandfather too.

Once a year, they book a villa somewhere for at least a week and gather to celebrate love and life.

Mr Juma at one point sat on the boards of 68 companies, working for free. His motivation? To give back because he had taken.

Now he chairs 12 boards as he gets more into other projects that are closest to his heart. He has been in over 72 cities around the world, talking about the need for soft power — shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.

He is also the founder of the Blue Company Project, a campaign that seeks to compel companies to be corruption-free. Over 500 firms have signed up so far.

Mr Juma started business in 1968 when he was 24.  He calls it the take-off time. The first business was the manufacture of sports equipment, including balls. It was first under the banner of Orbit Sports.

Then in 1974, he signed a franchise with Adidas to supply balls and kits to 49 countries in Africa.

He is nostalgic about the glory days when he supplied balls to the 1978 World Cup, thanks to the Adidas franchise. He exited when the applause was still loudest even though he admits he later felt sad for years, especially for letting go of 1,100 employees.

“If I could go back, I might say I should have continued and employed people to continue. The Adidas franchise was a novel project to me and my family,” he says. 

Hit the bottle

“When I asked my kids if they were interested in the Adidas business, my youngest son said ‘Yes, but in five years.’ But I said ‘it’s now or never.’ I shut it.”

In total, he shut down eight businesses spread in multiple sectors, including manufacturing, sports, furniture and property, sending his children into a spin. So how and why did he lose interest in chasing after money?

He says he was a bad manager — one that could stop at nothing to make money. Everything else was a lower priority for him. He hit the bottle, partied hard and smoked up to three packets of cigarettes daily. In his words, the more money he made, the more stressed and worried he became.

Mr Juma says he spent most of his days yelling at employees and could see everybody running away anytime his car approached the office premises.

Then at 35, he got ulcers.

“I was constantly stressed. I was a bad owner and a bad manager. I made my life, that of my employees and my family difficult. I ran my family with a gun. Everybody around me was unhappy.

“My companies were doing well, but I had anger and stress and was working much harder. I personally suffered.”

Then Mr Juma realised he needed to pursue peace of mind after hitting rock bottom. He calls it a moment of turning spiritual—discovering there are better things in life “than becoming a slave to money.”

But it came at a steep price; he lost his marriage at 48, even though he does not directly link it to the obsession with chasing money.

“I think the ending of any marriage is always traumatic. But I decided marriage was not something I would pursue anymore. I decided my life was okay without a partner,” he says .