Why Kenya’s telco giant, Safaricom, is finding it so hard to ‘let go’ its CEO who is set to leave the firm and spend his time flying helicopters, cycling and listening to jazz

Bob Collymore
  • Mr Bob Collymore, who joined the firm in September 2010, was set to leave later this year but will now leave the telco in 2020.
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Kenya’s telecommunication giant, Safaricom has extended its CEO’s contract by a year.

Mr Bob Collymore, who joined the firm in September 2010, was set to leave later this year but will now leave the telco in 2020.

"I am not going anywhere. I will be here for another one year till 2020," Mr Collymore said on the sidelines of the shared value event in Nairobi.

Safaricom says the extra one year is to compensate for the time Mr Collymore was away on medical leave.

The clean-shaven executive went on medical leave last year in October to seek treatment for Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML).

He was away from work for nine months undergoing cancer treatment at a London hospital leaving Sateesh Kamath, Safaricom’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to cover for him.

However, despite his illness, Mr Collymore was active on Twitter and occasionally posted tweets about random things such as books he was reading to sharing his music playlist. He even took to Twitter to celebrate his son who graduated with a first class honours degree in Music.

It is easy to see why Safaricom is reluctant to let him go. Since joining the telco, Mr.Collymore has steered the company to become the most profitable Kenyan company today.

The firm's net profit for the year ended March 2018 grew to Sh55.3 billion ($553 million), compared to Sh48.4 billion ($484 million) the year before on the back of M-Pesa and data revenues.

During his tenure, Safaricom’s share price has increased by more than 400 per cent to Sh28. Similarly, under his watch, Safaricom subscribers skyrocketed too and the latest data from Communications Authority of Kenya shows Safaricom has a market share of 71.9 per cent in mobile subscriptions.

Mr Collymore also saw to it that the telco stays ahead of the pack and at the moment Safaricom is the only operator that has paid for and commercially launched 4G services while Airtel and Telkom are still lost in the testing phase.

With him, at the helm, Safaricom’s hold on the Kenyan economy has but grown stronger and stronger. According to the company’s latest annual sustainability report, Safaricom grew its value chain by Sh57 billion ($570 million) to Sh543 billion ($5.43 billion) in the year ended March 2018.

At Sh543 billion, Safaricom’s contribution to the Kenyan economy is equivalent to 6.5 per cent of GDP and sustained nearly 897,372 jobs.

“When monetised, the net value of the most material social, environmental and economic impacts of the company, both positive and negative, gives an indication of the total value that Safaricom creates for the people of Kenya,” the company says in the report prepared by consultancy firm KPMG.

It’s not hard to see therefore why the government wants a slice of the company. After Safaricom announced that Bob would be stepping down in August for health reasons the government jumped at the opportunity to influence his successor.

The government insists he should be succeeded by a Kenyan. The board interviewed candidates, including a senior Kenyan banking executive, before settling on an unidentified foreign national from within the Vodafone group to succeed Collymore, according to sources familiar with the recruitment process.

But the government objected, citing an agreement supporting the appointment of a Kenyan as CEO, adopted at a shareholder meeting in 2017.

“I would be very surprised if they can’t find a Kenyan. It will be hard for them to justify, what is so special about telecoms?” ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru told Reuters.

Collymore, who said he had acquired Kenyan citizenship in recent years, is of the opinion that skills should transcend nationality.

“You have to get the right person for the job. It might be a Kenyan, it might not be a Kenyan,” he said.

As the debate over his successor continues to rage on, Collymore who in his free time loves to fly helicopters, cycling and listening to Jazz, looks like he is going to be even busier after he leaves the telco firm.

He was appointed as a board member of the National Cancer Institute by Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki in May. President Kenyatta also appointed him alongside CEO of Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) Joshua Oigara as members of the Kenya Vision 2030 delivery board.

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