When the board of Centum Investments, then a small, listed Kenyan investment company, tried in 2008 to recruit James Mworia, then aged 30, for a senior management position, he initially turned them down.
“I said to them, ‘I think you’re too conservative’. And they said, ‘if it was you in charge, what would you do?’ I said give me a month.”
A few weeks later the man who had left the company 18 months before out of frustration, having risen from intern in the filing room to chief investment officer in five years, presented his strategic plan. “Here’s what I would do,” I told them. And they replied: ‘OK, when do you start?’.”
When Mr Mworia took over in October 2008, he found a company with assets of Ks6bn ($60m) — all minority positions in various companies — Ks10m in cash and an overdraft of Ks200m.
Now Centum has assets of more than Ks50bn in seven different sectors — from property and power, to financial services and consumer goods, and ICT to agribusiness. Its annual returns have outperformed the Nairobi stock exchange by more than 20 percentage points for five of the past six years. This year the company paid a dividend for the first time since 2009, after net profits grew by 25 per cent to Ks9.9bn.
Mr Mworia, now 38, is the highest-paid chief executive of a listed company in east Africa’s largest economy, earning Ks201.1m (including bonus) in the latest financial year.
Centum’s international partners include the UK’s Old Mutual, which has invested $63m in a shopping centre being built on the edge of Nairobi; Uber, the ride-hailing app, which has gone into partnership with the Centum-controlled Sidian Bank to provide car financing to drivers; and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, which added the Centum-owned Nabo Capital as one of its asset managers this year.
Convincing foreigners to invest in Africa can be a struggle, Mr Mworia accepts, although he bristles at the double standards and “huge perception gap” that pervade much of the world.
They struck him on July 14 this year, when he was enjoying the Bastille Day celebrations on the seafront in Nice while on holiday with his wife. They were lucky to escape with their lives after witnessing the attack that killed at least 84 people.
“What happened in Nice could have happened in any African capital,” Mr Mworia says. “But if it had happened to an African capital that would then have been branded unsafe. And yet I did not see France branded unsafe.”
Risk is a given everywhere, he says. “So I think the world needs to be, we all need to be, a lot more empathetic towards each other because terror is now a global phenomenon.”
In Dubai more recently, while meeting with a retail group that had declined to invest in a Centum project, Mr Mworia discovered that some foreigners’ hesitancy towards his continent goes beyond terror.
“[Our contact] said the board had two other countries they had decided to concentrate on,” he says. “He said ‘we’re looking at the Kurdistan region of Iraq and we’re looking at Libya.’ And I thought, ‘they preferred those countries to Kenya?’
“Perhaps we as African countries are held to a different standard,” he complains, “or perhaps we need to do a better job in managing our own image.”
When asked which company he compares Centum with, Mr Mworia says Berkshire Hathaway, the US conglomerate run by Warren Buffett, though he adds a significant proviso.
“Berkshire Hathaway invests in companies that have a record with experienced management,” he says. “We’re in an economy where you actually have to build these companies.”
Centum’s flagship project is Two Rivers, an “urban node”, as Mr Mworia calls it, rising out of 440,000 square metres of green fields on the north-east tip of Nairobi. The first building, the largest mall in east Africa, is scheduled to open within months. Offices, flats, a hospital and five-star hotel are all in the pipeline.
The company’s strategy is all about “de-risking and selling at a value uplift”, says the trained accountant (he also holds a law degree), immediately decoding his jargon.
“Investors are prepared to pay a premium, obviously to get a reasonable return, but also to get into an investment in a manageable risk profile,” he says. “For us, we’re prepared to get in much earlier because of the fact we’re local, able to make use of our capabilities and move from nothing to a bankable investment phase.”
Mr Mworia’s business philosophy is focused on personal reinvention — for instance, taking the internship at Centum even when he was overqualified.
“You have a responsibility to develop yourself,” he says, adding that he feels the need to “reinvent myself” every day — particularly at the helm.
“My analogy is of people running a marathon,” he says. Although a Muay Thai kick-boxing fanatic, he is a citizen of a country famed for its long-distance runners. “When you’re running a marathon, the finishing times are determined by the people running at the front of the pack. So you as a leader have to have the capability to be at the front of the pack to see what others do not.”
What Mr Mworia sees from his place out in front is a company expanding its regional footprint — it has just identified 14,000 acres it wants to start farming in Uganda — and going global. His goal is for Centum to double its asset base to $1bn by 2019 with third-party assets under management seven times larger.
“As Africans we’re very good at many things. We have the best athletes in the world in certain categories. I also believe we’re able to produce the best businesses in the world … and that’s our aspiration.”