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‘Life can only be understood backwards’

David Gatende joined Davis and Shirtliff as a fresh graduate engineer. He rose up the ranks to become the company’s first non-family CEO in 70 years in 2016. [David Njaaga, Standard]

I’m not sure why I am so fixated on the plush, blue carpet in David Gatende’s blue-themed office as my feet sink into it. It is pristine. 

I get my answer without asking about the carpet – quality is huge to him.  He comes across as proper. It’s how he does everything.

You have to be ready to expand your vocabulary if you’re going to have a one-hour conversation with him. He reads a lot – at least two books a month, and quotes from many of them.

He quotes the book he is currently reading, Ikigai, when I ask him what the secret is behind being the youngest-looking 60-year-old I have ever seen. His ancestors evidently drank from the fountain of youth, as he tells me that his mother, at 87, is still ‘completely compos mentis’.

According to Ikigai, a Japanese concept that means “your reason for being or living”, there are basically no secrets. Find your Ikigai, keep your mind and body active, like his mother does and eat healthy. Barring accidents and with God’s favour, you will live long. And keep a solid support system around you.

He and his friends have given each other what they call PMR. “Personal Meddling Rights,” he says. “They can ask me anything about my finances, my work, my relationship with my wife, everything.”

It sounds like a great idea I should introduce to my friends. “Yes, but you have to be serious about it because you have to answer honestly. And they need to be friends who can keep confidences so that what you tell each other does not get out there,” he says.

They came through for him when life got difficult – when his brother Chris was murdered at only 33, just 18 months after his father had died, they helped him retrieve his body and were there for him during that time which still brings him to tears when he thinks about it. They were also there when he divorced from his first wife.

“Life is difficult,” he says, quoting the first sentence from the book, The Road Less Travelled. But, Gatende says, “It goes on.” His life has been immensely fulfilling in other ways.

He is retiring in a month from being CEO of Davis and Shirtliff, the only place he has ever worked. He joined the company at 24 as a fresh graduate engineer. He rose up the ranks to become the company’s first non-family CEO in 70 years in 2016.

Of forks in the road and choosing one instead of the other, he has made life-altering decisions that significantly altered the trajectory of his life several times, the first one when he was only five or six.

He had been badgering father, Isaac Gatumbi, to let him watch him doing surgery. His father was Kenya’s first surgeon, and David Gatende was probably going to follow in his footsteps. The job sounded important, fun and exciting.

Gatende just had to see it. His father, then the Coast General Provincial Surgeon, finally relented, and an excited Gatende found himself in the theatre.

He stands up from his seat and walks up to a table to demonstrate, and in that moment, we are back in that operating room, in 1967 or ’68.

“There was this person who was lying on an operating table with doctors and nurses around him. He had told me to sit on a bench over here (goes back and sits like he had done back then as a boy) and wait,” he says.

“I was in scrubs, gloves, mask, the thing for the hair, the green gown and then at a certain point he said, ‘Okay, come David.’ And he lifted me up, I looked inside the person’s stomach and, I don’t remember all the details, but I was absolutely grossed out. And I said, ‘Not for me.’”

In that instant, his life’s trajectory changed. He settled on becoming an engineer like his father’s brother, Kim Gatende, who was one of the first African Safari Rally drivers and a civil engineer.

When he looks back, it is clear that key decisions that seemed insignificant at the time took his life on a whole different path, like that moment in the operating room.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” he says, quoting Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian.

Squash and his professional life will be forever intertwined because it was while playing that the job at Davis & Shirtliff materialised.

In his 20s, he played squash for Kenya’s national team, representing Kenya in several countries, and even ended up becoming captain of the team.

“It was two years after I had come from Canada, after university. I went to McGill University. One of my friends who was playing squash with me asked, ‘So what are you doing David? You’re back!’”

Another change in his life’s trajectory was about to happen.

“I said yes, he introduced me to our current chairman, Alec Davis, and I got this job. And then later on there was a change of ownership of the company. I happened to be here and Davis asked me to take a more senior responsibility to become the sales manager,” he says.

He never left, and has been at the company for 36 years now, in various ascending roles, until he became CEO. Did he ever wonder what it would have been like to work elsewhere?

“I was once offered the chance to work in a bank and I said, ‘No thank you. I’ll stay where I am. Love the one you’re with. Remember that song? With that title? I love that idea. That the grass seems greener on the other side but you would just move to another company and find new problems, new issues. You might find that there is a higher salary – usually that’s why people move – but they forget that there are those other aspects,” he says.

“I haven’t worked anywhere else, so yeah, I do think about it. But it’s like once you get married or once you’ve had a child and you wonder, ‘What would it have been like if I had had boys? I’ll never know, because I never had any boys.’”

He has three daughters, one aged 30 and 27-year-old twins, and is now a grandfather. That is another life aspect he would never have seen turning out the way it did. Much to the vocal chagrin of many who read it, he once declared that he was ready to die, because he had done pretty much everything he had set out to do in life.

Two years ago, he married again. His wife, Laimani, is a life coach who runs Alabastron, a ministry for women and girls. They met in 2017, and got married in 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. She comes up very often in our conversation and his expression softens whenever he talks about her.

“Laimani is a beautiful person. Not just outside but inside as well,” he says. Getting married to her was one of the happiest moments of his life. “That kind of a romance during that season (Covid) was beautiful,” he says.

She’s even gotten him to read romantic novels and he suggests Nicholas Sparks’ novels as a favourite when I ask him for suggestions. From his description, his marriage is better than fiction, and I ask him for tips.

“I would say that in finding a spouse, friendship is very important. Somebody you can be totally one with. For Laimani and I, this has been a bit different. Not like the relationship in your 20s. Here we’re both mature and so we come at life looking at it a bit differently. We want to make sure that that relationship is good, it’s clean, it’s honest and it’s open and it works,” he says.

Now that he is retiring, some of what he will be doing will be together with her. “She has the ministry for women and girls. Maybe we can do something with the guys. Boy child has been left behind. We have all these fine ladies and nobody for them to marry!” he says.

“But first of all, we’re going to go off and have a lovely holiday. We’ll be in Europe. If possible, we would like to go on a cruise. Around the Mediterranean, start in Spain, go to France, go to Italy, Switzerland and Germany. So that should be fun. Of course, not all of it by boat, but a number of those days will be on a cruise ship,” he says.

He will also continue with Davis & Shirtliff as a non-executive director, probably take a couple of board positions elsewhere and do executive coaching, which he is also trained for. As a people person, he is also looking to talk to young people and do things that he is passionate about along some projects in memory of his father.

“I love that sense of purpose. I want to serve God’s purpose in my generation like David did. You make your contribution and then you say, ‘Time to drop the mic. I’m out of here. Thank you very much, everybody. It has been wonderful’.”

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