Michael Wanjala: This is what it takes to bring a dying firm back to life

What you need to know:

  • I am like the captain of a football team whose job is to make sure that everyone is playing their role.
  • As the CEO, you have to arrange things and then rearrange them, and to find out who and what to include or toss out.

How did you get here, aged just 39?

I am a Certified Public Accountant, and I previously worked at ICPAK (Institute of Certified Public Accounts of Kenya) as a senior manager. In April last year, I saw a job advertisement in one of the daily newspapers and I applied for it.

The company was looking for a transformative leader, and I made the shortlist together with two other men – one engineer and an accountant like me. After the interview, the board thought it best to have that position held by an accountant, and that is how I got the job.

 

I believe I was successful because during the interview, I demonstrated clearly that I was a courageous outlier who could turn things around. At that time, Nzoia Sugar Company was knee deep in debt and was in the process of laying off so many people.    I knew what kind of employee they were looking for.

 

What kind of a leader are you?

I am like a buffalo. I push and keep pushing until things get done. I try to persuade others to join in my mission, but when looking for results, I get very aggressive. I think that is what the company was looking for.

Fortunately, I have been able to turn thing around in just a few months. Some activities, such as cane crushing, are now back up and running, which was not the case a few months ago.

What does your job entail?

I am the head of all departments. I am like the captain of a football team whose job is to make sure that everyone is playing their role. As the CEO, you have to arrange things and then rearrange them, and to find out who and what to include or toss out. Sometimes you shout across the hall and sometimes you observe things quietly, but the main job is to ensure that your team wins.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I don’t get too much free time but I like staying home with my family and reading books. I am also a farmer, so I spend most of my weekends in my dairy farm in Bungoma. I am also the patron of Nzoia Sugar Company Football Club, and I frequently attend our team’s matches.

 

What drives you?

Nothing gives me as much joy as giving back to the society. I am so grateful to the society because in my formative years, I used to walk barefoot to school every morning. The community came to my rescue by offering me the basic needs I needed to get to where I am today.

When I see my neighbours, colleagues, village mates or friends succeed, I feel so proud. Also, I love the thrill of success. I don’t take failure very well and that motivates me to work hard.

What are your achievements so far?

Right now, I feel proud because the company is doing much better since I took over. I came in when millers had long stopped crushing canes, and farmers and workers had gone for many months without pay.

We used our own resources and a Sh154 million boost from the government to pay farmers. We then resumed cane crushing and closed the year with 44,000 tonnes of crushed cane, which is 78 per cent of the machine’s capacity.

 

It gives me great joy to know that I have transformed a sleeping giant into a steadily growing company in under one year. I feel good because I have not only helped the company, but the staff, farmers and the community at large.

What are you currently reading?

A Team of Rivals by Abraham Lincoln. It is about the self-taught lawyer and 16th president of the US who shocked everyone by putting his political rivals in cabinet. I have learnt that to achieve success, you must assemble a team of competent individuals who support your vision.

 

Does you use your academic knowledge at all at your place of work?

I inherited a company that had been weighed down by serious challenges, chief among them being a poor organisational culture. Any other CEO would have come in and proceeded to restructure everything, bringing in new people and letting others go. I chose to do things differently.

I retained the staff and together we discussed ways in which we could restore dynamism at the workplace for everyone’s benefit. They don’t teach that in school.

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