Last week was dominated by news of the passing on of Bob Collymore, CEO of Safaricom, and his succession at Kenya’s most profitable organisation, which he led since November 2010.
A few things stood out about his tenure as a leader in corporate Kenya that was untypical. He was a pioneer in many senses and overcame some hurdles, the first of which was in successfully replacing a CEO who many thought was irreplaceable. He took over from Michael Joseph who had guided Safaricom from its tough early days to a market leader and an astronomical listing at the Nairobi Stock Exchange and the largest revenue earner in Kenya. One thing Collymore probably learnt from Michael Joseph was to be the face of the company, its chief marketer and spokesperson.
But Collymore did this differently and managed to transform the company’s image from one that was anti-social media to one that was pro-social media, led by the CEO himself. When he passed on, he had over 1.3 million Twitter followers where he posted on the company’s products, his interests, activities, friends, and anything he wanted – and he had more followers more than the Customer Care or main Corporate twitter accounts of Safaricom.
Another part of his legacy was his moves behind the scenes to tackle vested business interests in the telecommunications sector. In an anti-corruption push, he commissioned a forensic report that looked into allegations of corruption within some large contracts at Safaricom. While it found no wrongdoing, parts of the report leaked to the media, which were unflattering to the company.
He later voluntarily declared his wealth on World Anti-Corruption Day in 2016. This was emulated by KCB’s Joshua Oigara, but no one else. Public leaders in Kenya pay lip service to this requirement by making their wealth declarations and proclamations remain as private as possible.
But he got the last word on this when he spoke at the Africa Shared Value Summit in Nairobi, on May 23 this year. He bragged that while he and Oigara had been ridiculed by corporate Kenya for announcing their earnings, this had now become mandatory for all listed company directors and CEOs and that their companies would next aim to disclose corporate pay gap to highlight and reduce inequalities.
This summit was likely the last high profile event he attended, representing Safaricom. There, he urged other businesses to reduce inequalities and improve the communities from which they derive their profits – and they could do these by tackling corruption in their businesses, paying their share of taxes, and being inclusive by doing more business with women-led firms and SMEs.
Bob also tickled everyone there when he announced that his contract as CEO of Safaricom had been extended for one more year because he owed the company for the period he had been ill. But sadly, that was not to be the case.
His decision to go public in November 2017 that he was taking time off from leading Safaricom to seek medical treatment overseas was another rare corporate governance milestone moment. This was an aggressive treatment path he took, one in which he was kept in an isolated hospital ward for several months, does not take away from the announcement being unusual. He could have proceeded for treatment quietly and kept private about his condition as other corporate leaders do.
Behind his smile, was a person who delivered on astronomical corporate targets of revenue and profits. Yet he remained, self-effacing, embarrassed about revenue and profit numbers he reported, delegating credit to different managers and teams at the company, as he instead spoke of social development goals and transforming lives.
As Aly Khan Satchu wrote, Collymore took over a company valued at just over $1 billion (Sh78 billion) and when he departed it was worth $11 billion (Sh1.1 trillion) with a larger global profile and a place in the portfolios of sub-Saharan Africa and frontier market investment funds.
That is the legacy of Bob Collymore who was able to go out of his way and do things few other CEOs would do; whether it is selling airtime to fans at a Safaricom Sevens rugby tournament or getting passengers to board a bus at Kencom stage.