Philip Odera: My 30 years of experience as a banker prepared me for this job

 Philip Odera. He sits as the chairman of Arise, an investment company. [File, Standard]

After 30 years at the helm of banking in Kenya and abroad, Philip Odera took early retirement.

He now sits as the chairman of Arise, an investment company.

Mr Odera says he wanted to focus on things he could play a more direct role in terms of contributing and giving back to the African community.

As a way of creating impact for the good of the community, some people, after retirement venture into politics, others choose to go through rotary, and for others, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) sound more like a fit approach.

None of these appealed to Odera. “Mine, I thought would be more impactful if I could do something from a strategic and policy level and that is why I chose to do it from sitting at a board level,” said Mr Odera, who insists that sitting on the board is not his retirement plan but just a post-retirement activity.

“I have been quite selective about which board I choose to participate in and all depend on my understanding and perception of what the companies are trying to do in terms of the African continent. How impactful is their agenda and that has been a key driver for my wanting to sit on boards,” Odera said.

Mr Odera says he runs a small financial advisory company with a few partners, “that allows us to keep lagged into the issues on the ground. This is what led me to understand what people like Arise are doing.”

“In this company, there are many clients that you run into that tell you about which companies or entities are driving and shaping the agenda from a strategic and policy point of view,” explained Odera 

 “For anything you do to be sustainable, both the strategic and policy elements must be sound and sustainable over time. If they are, it’s possible for those actions to take good and continue, so it is not a one-off thing and that appeals to me”.

Arise is owned by three principal shareholders; Rabobank, a global Dutch bank with an emphasis on agriculture, FMO, also a Dutch development financial institution and Norfund. The three are the principal shareholders of Arise, with a focus on Africa.

The investment company, according to Mr Odera, has huge capital base. “If you look at the Arise balance sheet, in total we have invested about $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion (Sh149.6 billion to Sh187 billion) on the Africa continent.”

“What Arise does is it invests in financial institutions that are impacting the African communities in a positive way, and specifically those that believe they have a very strong focus on the SME sector,” Mr Odera said adding that, unlike private equities, Arise does not have many of the constraints.

He noted that the impact side is critically important for Arise, “some of the other things we are looking at when investing in these institutions are integrity. We look at integrity in the sense of whether or not you are dealing with the right people”.

Another criteria Arise looks at before investing is to see that the institutions are run professionally - not only the skill set but also the right calibre of people who are experienced, and have proper standards of professional dealings with all parties.

Arise also looks at the model that the financial institutions use, and whether it is sustainable for the long term. “If it is not sustainable, it doesn’t speak to our ability to see this impact taking place over time,” Mr Odera spoke about how the agenda of Arise appeals to his agenda.

Mr Odera, who comes into the board at a time when the economy is struggling to recover from the pandemic says: “Once you get into something like what we are doing, by definition, you must be long-term, and if you are going to be long-term, you must accept that both the entity and the economies in which you have invested are going to go through peaks and troughs,” he says.

“There are going to be sometimes when the economies are not faring well. For instance, economies are at different stages of recovery from the global pandemic, it will be unwise to look in the context that this investment has not performed well, because you have not given enough time to see if it has performed according to expectations.”

He adds: “I would encourage most people who come, to take a longer-term view. If you say we are going to be invested and look at this over 10-15 years, I think that is a fairer timeframe to look at something and say if it has been successful, so you look at everything holistically,” noted Odera.

“You can’t look at things holistically in a very short time frame. If you are going to look at the short time frame, then I say, “get out of things that are impact-oriented and straight into trading, recognise and call yourself a trader, there is nothing wrong with that”.

Financial return

Arise, which is in different African countries has also invested in Equity Bank here in Kenya.

Despite the impact approach, Arise is also for profit, “the money must come back, in order to invest more. The financial return is absolutely critical, however, it is not the only one”. For 15 years, Odera worked for Citibank, and for another 15, he worked for Stanbic Bank, both of whom he was placed in many different countries in the world.

One would believe that 30 years across the world in the banking industry translates to a vast knowledge in the field, but in all humility, Odera notes that “time itself, does not necessarily translate to expertise, it should, but it doesn’t always.”

“The person who has 20 years experience and one with 30 years experience; the one with 30 years may not necessarily be the one that is going to contribute more simply by the passage of time,” he said as he giggled.

In this 30 years of experience, Mr Odera says he was fortunate to work in different environments that “allowed him to learn a lot, to learn about things that were less to do with balance sheets. “The real differentiator is the things I call off balance sheets.”

Mr Odera says he has picked some meaningful lessons that allow him to play a more meaningful contribution at the board where he sits.

The Standard
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