Lessons Ngunze has taken home from turbulent time at Kenya Airways

There is a “man in the arena” described by America’s 26th president Theodore Roosevelt whom former Kenya Airways chief executive officer Mbuvi Ngunze thinks is his mirror image.

That man, Mr Roosevelt said in a famous speech, deserves all the credit because his work is not to criticise others but to take challenges head-on while in the arena. The man’s face is covered in dust, sweat and blood; he errs again and again knowing he will succeed at the end.

“At the worst, if he fails, he at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” said President Roosevelt in his 1910 Citizenship in a Republic speech delivered after he left office.

That Mr Ngunze used that quote as he closed a presentation during an official Kenya Airways (KQ) event a week before the end of his tenure as chief executive officer shows how much he identifies with the “man in the arena”.

On Wednesday, Mr Ngunze left the hot seat of the airline that in recent years has been flying through turbulent times to Sebastian Mikosz, a Polish national, to continue the turnaround plan.

In June and July, Mr Ngunze will serve KQ as a restructuring advisor before calling it a day.

‘WELL-DESERVED BREAK

“After that I will take a well-deserved break. I’ll take three months off. I just want to take time off and then I can decide what the next step is. I don’t want to pre-empt anything at this moment,” he told the Nation.

Mr Ngunze departs at a time when the troubled carrier has reduced its full-year net loss by more than half to Sh10.2 billion for the year to March. The loss reported in the last period was Sh26.2 billion.

He joined KQ in 2011 as the chief operating officer before taking over from Mr Titus Naikuni as CEO on December 1, 2014.

It has been a turbulent tenure but as he leaves, Mr Ngunze, 49, says he would miss the KQ staff the most, and the adrenaline rush that comes with making tough decisions — something he had to do often at the national carrier.

Asked if there is one decision that was hard for him to make, he reckons that there were many, but the laying off of employees was always the toughest.

“When you are making decisions around people, it is never easy — because you are actually impacting lives. But you know it’s not personal, it’s really for the betterment of the company. And we were very objective in making sure the people were handled with a lot of respect,” he says.

CONTROVERSIAL CUTS

The cuts at the airline were often controversial, stirring industrial action and court cases.

As CEO, he would report to the office by 6.15am. He loved to start his day with a “passage or something that’s inspiring”. He would spend the rest of the day in meetings, conference calls and all, sometimes up to 8pm.

When time allowed during weekends, he could be found playing golf at the Karen Country Club. He says his skills are above average, and to prove it points to his July 2013 win at the Citibank Corporate Golf Day where he beat 160 competitors.

“I don’t get as much opportunity to play golf. I hope I’ll be able to enjoy a few more rounds of golf than I’ve had a chance to recently. Golf is therapeutic. Even when I’ve been busy at KQ, I’ve tried to get out and play some golf,” he says.

At other times during weekends, you can find him in front of a television set worrying about Liverpool Football Club, a team that plays in the English Premier League. The wins and losses of his favourite football club, have offered lessons that he has applied in is managerial career, he says.

‘WILL DELIVER’

“You can’t always have your way. But what I tell my teams always is, ‘Hold your head high.’ If you know what your true north is, go in an unrelenting manner, because if you’re clear, you will deliver,” says Mr Ngunze.

At times, he says, he was frustrated by the behaviour of some staff as he tried to steer the airline through troubled times. One low moment, he points out, was when the Kenya Airline Pilots Association demanded the sacking of the entire KQ senior management last year.

“I don’t understand where they were coming from, particularly because we kept them fully informed of all the plans. And to be quite honest, it surprised me that knowing what we were doing internally, they were going against the grain,” says Mr Ngunze.

Looking back, he believes with the benefit of hindsight his critics can now appreciate the efforts to change the fortunes of the airline.

“I think they are probably eating humble pie right now because the reality is, the same things we were doing are the ones that are delivering results,” he says.

In short, Mr Ngunze believes he leaves the airline on a firm path to recovery with the challenge now in the hands of Mr Mikosz and board Chairman Michael Joseph. The new CEO is known as a ruthless turnaround master.

‘MORE AGILE’

“KQ will be a more agile airline because the lessons of the last years really have driven much more around agility and the need to be very responsive in the context,” he says.

Mr Ngunze, who was in the Alliance High School’s class of 1985 and the University of Nairobi’s class of 1990, started his career at PriceWaterhouseCoopers then went to Bamburi Cement in 1998 as finance manager before he moved to Hima Cement in Uganda — a subsidiary of Lafarge, a French construction firm — in March 2002 as a managing director.

In May 2006, he moved to the Lafarge headquarters in Paris. Three years later he was appointed general manager for Mbeya Cement — Lafarge’s branch in Tanzania. He left Mbeya Cement for KQ in 2011.

A father of one, Mr Ngunze says his shift from Lafarge to KQ provided a whole new set of challenges, the biggest of which is the publicity his post brought.

As the KQ chief executive, he was confronted by such issues as exploitative fuel hedging contracts, a weak shilling, poaching of staff by Middle East airlines, flight delays among others.

Among the interventions he championed was to hire contractors to clean up the mess. He also pushed for the sale or leasing of some planes.

REDUCED COSTS

As per the 2016 report, KQ subleased three Boeing 777s and two Boeing 787s and sold two Boeing 777s, bringing fleet costs down by Sh14 billion to Sh15.5 billion.

“The decisions about selling aircraft, assets which you’ve bought, were not easy because there is always the point that you don’t buy aircraft to sell them in our industry. But when you see the excess capacity we were carrying, I had to make that bold decision. And today we’re seeing the benefits of some of those decisions,” he says.

Overall, he adds, he is proud of his achievements, saying the results announced two weeks ago were “a manifestation of the hard work, the heavy lifting that the teams on the ground in KQ have been doing”.

Mr Ngunze says even though some people still think the reduced losses announced recently are not good enough, “I always say this is a marathon and not a relay”.

And like Mr Roosevelt’s “man of the arena”, he feels the KQ experience has not left any dent on his career as a manager.

“Every experience shapes you and grows you. If anything, it makes you stronger,” he says. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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