Michael Joseph: I’m just a man who dared to dream

Michael Joseph during the interview in Nairobi [Beverlyne Musili, Standard]
Michael Joseph is not short, per se, but given his larger-than-life personality and reputation, he is certainly not the towering figure I expected to meet. We meet in his office at the Safaricom headquarters – another surprise. Since he stepped down as Safaricom CEO, I was expecting him to be at Kenya Airways where he is now chairman.

“I like this office,” he says, with a sweeping glance around it.  “I created it when I stepped down from Safaricom. I’m still on the board of Safaricom. I am still an advisor to Vodafone part time. I spend most of my time at Kenya Airways but it is a long way to go and traffic is horrendous. For this kind of meeting, I prefer here.”

Diplomatic person

He has a reputation for not mincing words and being as demanding of others as he is of himself, something he readily admits. “I’m not a very subtle or diplomatic person,” he says. “I am known for calling a spade a spade and getting things done and I don’t fear anything except failure.”

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He’s in good spirits during the interview and the conversation is pleasant. He admits he loves opera, reads three comics every morning. He does not read much, though. “I’m not a great business book reader. You don’t see me quoting books, even if I read this one on Moody Awori for instance just because I was involved in his life,” he says, walking over to the few books on an adjacent desk. 

He has two daughters from his first marriage, and is in his fourth one but balks at the idea of giving advice on marriage. “I am probably the world’s worst person to do that because I’m not an easy person.” he says, but gives a passing comment on it anyway. “Marriage is not easy. Young people sometimes get married far too young before they have figured themselves out, and then get married to somebody else who also hasn’t figured themselves out. That will not make for a happy marriage. I was too young when I first got married at 23.”

A little known fact is that he is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with colon cancer back in 2003. “It was a long drawn out affair and for some time, I ran Safaricom from a hospital bed. People would bring me advertisements to approve and all that and then they would be worried because I had tubes running all over my body.”

He is now cancer-free, although he can’t say if it is 100 per cent gone. “My doctor says the only way you can know if you are totally cancer-free is if you are dead,” he says nonchalantly. It is not something he worries about, and it never affected Safaricom’s meteoric rise to the top.

From scratch

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Does he miss that old job as Safaricom CEO?  “Sometimes. Not always. You know, I started the company from scratch. I was there from 2010. It was like my child and stepping down was like seeing my child go off to university,” he says.

At Safaricom, he would be at work by 5.30am and not leave till 8pm. He recruited and hired everyone who worked closely with him and set up the processes and procedures at the company, building it up to being Kenya’s most profitable company. Kenya Airways, which once claimed that recognition, was a different story.  

“Going to Kenya Airways was very different because I was inheriting a 40-year-old organisation. It had a whole way of working. You don’t know the people, you did not recruit them. It is much more difficult. It is the most difficult job I have ever had, although it is not a job per se because I’m not the CEO, I’m the chairman,” he says.

“However, because of who I am in Kenya and because the new CEO is not Kenyan, because of my experience and because I want it to work, I essentially work as an executive chairman even if that is not what I really am,” he says. “It’s more of a full-time job than I expected.”

Nothing about his personality as a child would have landed him the prestigious role he plays in society today. “If I look back at my childhood, that was not the person who was going to be successful. That was the person who was going to always be a follower. I really wanted to be a veterinarian or a game ranger,” he says. “I even did a psychometric test and it said I should work in a laboratory and not talk to people. That was my personality.”

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Circumstances have forced him to appear different, but he is still very much the same person. “Inside me, I’m a shy person. I much more prefer being by myself, without media exposure, but in order to do what I do, which is change people’s lives, you need to have another exterior personality. You have to be seen to be leading.”

Born and raised in South Africa, he lived there for the first 40 years of his life where he worked as a government engineer. One of the biggest hard knocks in his life was when he lost all his money in an investment in the United States. He left South Africa in 1986 during the dark days of apartheid and went to America and in the same year got involved with the mobile phone industry for the first time.

“I invested money in a telecoms business in America but it did not work out. I fell down hard. I had taken all my pension and everything and invested it into the business. It was the usual mistakes: not enough capital, not knowing the market well enough, not knowing the partners well enough.”

A friend of his later pointed out an ad in the newspaper that said: International Project Manager Wanted for a Mobile Phone Company.

“People did not know anything about mobile phone companies in 1987. It was in its infancy” he says. “I went to the library and researched about mobile phones and then went for an interview. The person who interviewed me knew even less than me and I just got the job.”

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He spent the next 10 years in South America building mobile phone networks in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela. He moved to Europe and became an independent consultant and eventually Vodafone offered him the opportunity to build a mobile phone network in Hungary.

Coming to Kenya was quite by accident. “I was on a corporate bus headed to a function and a guy seated next to me said they had just made a deal with Telkom Kenya to start a mobile phone company. I said I’d always wanted to go to Kenya and the next day I was called for an interview,” he says.

He got the job and landed in Kenya in 2,000 which is when his career really took off.  “I knew I would do my best, but I did not know if I would succeed. I just took the opportunity. I have this philosophy in life. In life you are given opportunities to grow yourself, to do something good with your life, but many times we do not see them as opportunities, we see them as dead ends.”

Tough days

“The early days were very tough. We did not expect it to be such a huge success but it succeeded because we did it for the right reasons. We did our best and fortunately, now when you look back, we made some very smart decisions, even if we did not know they were smart decisions then. One of them was that I just thought that the target market should not be the rich people like my competitor, which was the Yes network at the time, was doing. Our target would be the people who go to work in a matatu.”

That decision turned out to be a multi-billion-shilling move that catapulted Safaricom to heights even he never saw coming. It cemented his legacy as one of the most successful business leaders.

 That legacy led to his appointment at Kenya Airways, and people have wondered if he will replicate the same success there.  “I will do my best. I have a legacy in Kenya. I don’t want my name to be known for the failure of Kenya Airways, so I have to do everything I can to make it successful. I hope it happens. All the ingredients to be successful are in Kenya Airways. We just have to do things differently.”

Changing lives, however, remains his focus. “I’m not rich. I have always been a salaried person. I have shares. People think I’m rich. I have rented a house here and have a home in London and one car. That’s it. But my measure of success is whether I am changing people’s lives.

He is a Kenyan citizen, and one of the things he hopes to achieve is to have participated in eliminating corruption.

“Kenya is a country that is on the brink of greatness, but we will never get there because of corruption. Everyone knows this. I want to change it.

We started the M-PESA academy because we want to have new leaders of Kenya who understand what it should be to be a true leader. That is my contribution to eliminating corruption in this country.

michael josephsafaricomkenya airways