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Steve’s four-car spending spree to become ‘real Luo’

Weekend with the CEO

Steve’s four-car spending spree to become ‘real Luo’

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Steve Okeyo, Group Chief Executive Officer, Hospital Holdings Investment (HHI) during the interview at the AAR Hospital on January 24, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

The late Maya Angelou is famously quoted as saying that people will forget what you say but not how you make them feel.

Now I am not sure Steve Okeyo and Maya Angelou finish each other’s sentences, but what Steve does best is make you feel, leaving you with a wistful hangover, like a romance novel that ends not in a wedding but a death.

The first thing that strikes you about him is his deportment.

Steve must love bees seeing how sweet his tongue is, but this is no romance novel—he was forged in the streets as a probation officer before flying high with Coca-Cola for 10 years.

He later moved on to Lafarge and ran commercial operations in a cluster of five countries before becoming a Commercial Project Director in the Paris office responsible for 60 countries.

He had a short stint as Commercial Director at Safaricom; later Managing Director, Consumer Business at Telkom; and now serves as the Group CEO of Hospital Holdings Investments, a private holding firm that manages integrated healthcare services across East Africa—of which AAR Healthcare group is a part of.

His hardest-worker-in-the-room executive nous aside, I meet him with his boys at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, just off Ngong Road, where he resurrects chivalry and invites me for a plate of kienyeji chicken and ugali which I politely decline, not because I am courteous, but because by the time they are done saying the grace I will be halfway through the pot.

Besides, my appetite is whetted for another type of meal—backstories of his youth, charisma, and whatnot.

He speaks sotto voce—best you lean in to hear it—punctuated with pregnant pauses, a man never in a rush.

Fifty-three years of life, with its highs and heartbreaks, pride and pain, has imbued him with the wisdom he feels compelled to share—and serves it generously on the plate.

He will tell you he is not a charmer but then again, the Constitution provides for the right against self-incrimination.

Are these your boys?

These are some of the guys I play with. They also happen to be my chama guys. In Kenya, you can’t survive if you don’t belong to a chama.

At least then, you can save and pull resources together, and if someone sees an opportunity somewhere, they call you, and you invest jointly.

Most of them are my elders. Two of them are retired: Sammy (Samuel Onyango) was the head of Deloitte East Africa for many years. Abel (Munda) retired last month as the Managing Director of Liberty Life.

Do you guys meet often?

We meet every fortnight. We play a round of golf here or in Karen. We are mulling over building a golf course in Nyanza.

And that’s really what we talk about. We play about and laugh a bit then sit down and discuss some serious stuff.

Would the boy you once were be proud of the boy you now are?

Yes, definitely. You know, I grew up in a small town. I was born in Homa Bay. My father was a nurse and my mom was a school teacher. I always wanted to go to a bigger town.

When I came to Nairobi, I said I wanted to go further, so I went to other places in the world.

I didn’t know what I wanted to become; I just knew I wanted to do better than my dad.

My dad had a car, so I thought maybe I can have two cars or a better car like a Mercedes Benz.

Is your dad still alive?

No, he passed away in 2012. He was a good guy.

What was the last conversation you had?

He was unwell so I told him: “You are going to be okay”. Of course, I lied. He died after that.

Do you have a special childhood memory with him?

I remember him teaching us how to fry eggs in the morning. I must have been six years old. But the best memory was when I broke my leg.

The surgeon’s house was the first house in the compound, followed by my dad’s (who was in charge of the nurses), then the matron’s, and the staff quarters.

The matron’s house had a lemon tree that grew slightly over the roof. So, we would climb the lemon tree, jump onto the roof then run on the ridge of the roof.

It was an L-shaped house, so we’d run up to the end, make a corner then jump into the garden. I didn’t want to jump but the boys started laughing at me.

They were saying, “Don’t fear, even these smaller boys have jumped’’

So, I jumped with my eyes closed. For some reason, I couldn’t move. I thought I heard a sound like something broke.

I am not sure whether it was a real sound. Then another boy announced; “His leg is broken!’’ I started crying, I didn’t know what a broken leg was but I couldn’t move.

One of the bigger boys carried me on his back and took me home, covered me, and then ran off. I just cried until I fell asleep.

When I woke up in the evening, my dad looked at the leg, and said, “Yeah your leg is broken but it is not serious so once the swelling subsides, you’re going to be okay.”

He went back to the hospital and then did some cast for me in the bathroom. You know, we never used to go to the hospital.

If you got sick, my dad would just diagnose and then you’d be okay. I remember the fact that my dad wasn’t mad.

You know, in those days if something like that happened a parent would first of all beat you. He was very caring and I have good memories of that.

Just like a father should take care of a child in their moment of adventure. (Laughs)

Do you have children now?

Two. My daughter is 19 and my son is 14. Actually, I was to take an overseas job in 2021, but I couldn’t because my son then was around 12 years old and I had noticed that during Covid-19, children were studying from home, locked in front of computers.

He couldn’t play with his best friend next door. I realised that I needed to be around him, not to do anything, just be around. I turned down the job and I’m happy I stayed.

What did you take from your father?

My father was not dramatic. Even if you gave him bad news, he would just chill like he didn’t hear anything.

I do that as well, not because I don’t have an opinion, but because I really want to understand the situation.

My dad never went to church but he used to wake us up on Sundays and made sure we did. I go to church now, so we are different in that aspect.

My dad spent a lot of time taking care of his sisters’ and brothers’ children and the extended family. I think in today’s world we don’t do that much; we are just not able to. I must have taken on his gentler traits.

What are you learning from your children?

I have had to accept that they have their own mind. My daughter is in her first year studying law.

She was very good in all the subjects and I think because I did art/humanities, I felt like my children should now pursue Engineering.

I was very happy that my daughter was able to understand all these subjects very well. And then when she was choosing her subjects she said, “No dad, I just want to do languages and history”.

I nearly died. I definitely turned a shade blacker haha! I realised there is this thing in a parent where you want to live through your children.

I asked, “Am I trying to do that?” My wife had to talk to me a lot and said, “Look, this is her life. As long she does what makes her happy and she does it very well, no problem’’.

I have now learned that they are different people. They are not me, they are not their mom, everybody is different.

What’s a special treat you do as a family?

Once in a while, I take them out for lunch. By the way, all our names begin with ‘S.’ Me as Steve, my wife Sally, my daughter Stephanie, and my son Sean haha! Sweet, no?

I believe that the best gifts in life are free. The fact that we are out here, do you see how beautiful it is? When I spend time with my children, I value that. Sometimes we go watch a movie.

But I love it most when we decide to go to the village. I love being in the village and being there with the children makes me very happy.

I was in the village last week; I was to be there for two days but I extended. I was telling my friend Gabriel that it usually rains in the afternoon so I sit on the veranda and observe the rain coming from a place called Asumbi.

I can see it on the other side of the river as it takes that road then turns in right angles then it comes for us. You can hear it beating heavily on people’s roofs until it arrives at yours. Ah, I am so happy just watching the rain!

What is it about you and the rain?

Rain is what brings life. You’ve seen how dry it was and now it is raining. If you go to my village now, people are eating kienyeji mboga (traditional vegetables).

Once you prepare your shamba (farm) and plant your maize and it continues raining, that mboga just sprouts. Like ‘terere’ and so many others.

If you go to my village now you will notice that everybody is happy. Because they have grass, and with grass the cows become fat and the goats and sheep multiply. All because of rain.

That’s the thing that keeps you in the village?

The other thing I love in the village is that when I go to Homa Bay, there is a market where I can buy sukumawiki, pilipili, and fresh fish.

Those that are still wriggling, you know? I go there speaking the language of the people and haggle over the price.

Not because I want to squeeze them but because that is part of the culture. 

If you just buy without haggling, the community considers you a bad man. You have to talk to them. I buy fish, rush home and get it boiled with some pilipili, very nice. Aahh!

What has refused to leave you from the village?

The sense of wonder. I have this thing of happiness. Happiness is just a habit. I was telling these guys, “Look at the grass. Just live.” That sense of wonder, always expecting better things, that tomorrow will be better.

No. When I broke my leg and I was at home for three months, all I could do was read.

There was nothing else, we didn’t have a TV set. There were only two TVs in that town, and one was at the District Commissioner’s house. People used to listen to the radio, so I had to read.

Every year I try to read at least 20-30 books. Last year I didn’t do too well and I think I only did 13.

This year has started badly as I have only read two books so I feel pretty ignorant. But those are the habits I picked.

I remember when I went back to school and I was the third best-performing boy at the end of the term. Some of the boys in my class couldn’t accept.

They said, “You can’t be at home and then come here and beat us, no, they favoured you’’. So that was my first encounter with politics haha! At that age, you learn that it is possible if you just focus on something.

What is that one book that has stayed with you?

‘Shogun by James Clavell.’ It’s about Japan during those ages when it was ruled by warriors who had a great sense of honour.

And Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This is how it opens: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Are you one of those people who hardly give out books?

I wanted to give them away then I thought, if I give them away I can’t really give them to a primary school because it is a mix of complicated books.

Neither can I give them away to a secondary school, I can’t give them to adults. I ended up just keeping them at home. Now I have drawers and drawers of books. I don’t read a book twice.

Are you a workaholic?

When I was in my 20s, I didn’t work very hard. I left college when I was 22 and I couldn’t find a good job.

I had a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Geography, which the market did not respect because people were looking for guys like accountants who had been prepared for the liberal market.

My first real job was in the civil service as a counsellor. I trained and became a professional probation officer.

One of the cases that really bothered me was some fellow who had stolen some pineapples at a farm in Thika.

Of course, he was going to sell them. He said he wasn’t able to get a job and his family was poor.

In Central Kenya, we have most of the poorest and disposed people. Disposed because they know where their land was and it was taken by somebody and now, they can’t earn a living.

They pick coffee for people. It is called systemic poverty.

I told the judge that he had done a bad thing to steal but we can rehabilitate him if you put him under my care; we can be able to counsel him so he doesn’t go back to crime.

That was the kind of work I used to do. It was very fulfilling, but the money was very little.

I went back to school to study Master of Science in Business at the United States International University Africa (USIU) while still at that job—my friends did a Harambee for me.

I think we only collected Sh50,000 with pledges of up to Sh150,000, which I was not able to collect haha!

I became a commissioned salesman, selling office machines like copiers, and printers. I had to forget about my degrees.

I learned how to sell. When I look back at those experiences, they were valuable because a commissioned salesperson doesn’t have a salary, if you don’t sell, you have no money.

And then, in civil service, you have to do the work. You have to love the work because if you don’t love that job, you will be miserable.

So I loved that job and I learned how to deal with and understand people. I also learned how to make a good decision about someone.

It is crucial to have good judgment if you are going to determine what happens to a person’s life. I had power.

I could tell the judge, “Give him 15 strokes of the cane” and he is given. Judges have a lot of respect for social workers and I have carried those things that I learned during that time.

At 29 I joined a company called Eveready Battery as a sales manager in Mount Kenya. Every day I used to go on a route with the truck that sells the batteries, greeting people in Mwea, Nyeri, Meru, Siakago, and other rural areas.

You have to speak their language, you have to eat their food, you must be respectful and it teaches you something.

In my 30s I joined Coca-Cola, taking care of marketing from distribution, trade marketing, and implementation of brand marketing.

You do it by persuading people that the solution you are giving them is the correct one, so if you advise them wrongly, you lose credibility.

That’s really when my life started. I travelled the world. I had never been on a plane before I joined Coca-Cola, and a few days after that I was told, “You are going to Uganda tomorrow.”

I said, “What! I don’t even have a passport’’. They told me about that one-page thing that you can get from Nyayo House with your picture on it.

They put me in First class. I thought it was a mistake, and so I kept quiet. When I came back, I asked my boss’ assistant if they made a mistake by booking me in first class.

They said they only travelled First class. Haha! I became an expert. If you had a problem, you just had to call me.

I would go to Angola, work with them for one week, and fix the issue. It was really exciting. My 30s were my most significant years.

Is that where you developed your Malandro charm?

[Laughs.] No, those guys are just telling you stories. For us, we’ve had to survive. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I went to live in a small town called Olkalau.

Nowadays, it is a bit overpopulated. In those days, it was just miles of open fields. My dad enrolled me in the local school.

You had to run to school in the morning, you had to run back home at lunchtime, run back to school in the afternoon and then finally run back home in the evening.

You became fit, not by choice. That gave me some skills in life.

I learned Kikuyu and gained an appreciation that other people are different from me. We lived in a cold place,  unlike Homa Bay which is very hot.

Whatever happens on the road between Homa Bay and Olkalou is like watching a movie. It was different lives, languages, and behaviours.

It just makes life very exciting. Up to today, I am different from my friends and my family members because I had a different experience.

Later, I went to live in Kiambu in a village called Kanunga. When I hear people say these ethnic things [stereotypes], I think it is unfortunate they only see their ethnicity.

I feel people are not living a whole life and get it wrong. I have had a good life.

Are you happy?

I am very happy.

What makes you happy on weekends?

I do a two-hour walk on Saturdays. I take a direction from my house and walk. Later I go to the kinyozi or laundry or stuff like that.

Sometimes I have a fundi coming over to the house to do some repairs. In the evening, I relax and watch a documentary.

My daughter says now I am very boring as I don’t watch movies anymore. If one of my friends calls, I join them for a drink.

On Sundays, I go to church in the morning. I can also come for a round of golf, and after that, I chill with my friends or go home, take a nap or read a book.

But if I go to the village during the weekend that is different. When I wake up in the village, I want to get involved.

I want to help the guy [farmboy] untie the goats, and clean the chicken coop. In the village, there are many chores to do. If you carry a hammer, you will find a nail to hit.

In the afternoon, I can sit on the veranda and wait for the rain to come or walk to my neighbour’s, or my mum’s.

She is always doing something. Sometimes she is shelling beans or plucking mbogas. We usually chat as she tells me so and so died, and I ask her, “What killed him?’’.

She always says, ‘Death. Death kills people. It comes in different forms, but I know it is death.’ Haha! She thinks she is funny. I then take a walk in the Shamba, and the day is over.

Has that offered you a sense of memento mori (Latin for remember you must die)?

It is more about contemplation. This is the same as waiting, and it is all about prayer. If you go fishing, you are waiting for the fish to bite.

You will not control them, but you are also praying that it bites. In between, you are noticing things.

I have become more observant by staying in the moment, life is now, and there is no life tomorrow. More so the anxiety you have is mostly because you are worried about tomorrow.

Tomorrow is far; I choose to be happy now. I played a round of golf very badly but we had good conversations.

Just be present where you are because it can end at any time, and you will miss it altogether.

The only thing you have is memories. I have learned to be very calm. I had some fundis working for me. I should have paid them, but I remembered I am always paying people. I have decided to relax and play my golf first. I will pay them later.

I am very measured in how I make decisions now. When I was younger, I didn’t have patience, I’d just fire you, Nowadays I wait a bit.

What is the dumbest thing you’ve spent money on?

There was a time I bought four cars. Yes, four cars. I woke up and told my wife: ‘’You know I am Luo?’’’.

She said ‘Yes.’’

I continued, “But do you see a coffee table in this house?’’

She said, “No.’

I asked, “Do you see a briefcase? A Luo man has to have a briefcase.”

She said, “You don’t have a briefcase.”

I posed, “Then what kind of a Luo man am I?”

I continued, “Do I own a Mercedes Benz?”

She replied, “No.”

I said matter-of-fact, “I am going to be a real Jaluo.”

So, I looked for a Mercedes Benz and bought it. I also bought a Land Rover Discovery; an Isuzu, and I already had a Subaru. It is not because I had a lot of money. I just bought them.

If I die today, people must say he had it! The guy I bought the Mercedes Benz from was an Indian who was going to the UK.

His family had already left, and he had another Astra. He said if I add another Sh200,000, he’d give me the Astra.

Guess what? I made it rain, haha! I never even drove it home. They just sold it there. That month I was so broke.

I had to borrow Sh5,000 to fuel the cars. I stayed with them and enjoyed them. For many years after that, I didn’t have a car. That was absurd.

Lately, what you’ve become good at saying No to?

In the past, I used to say yes a lot. But now I either say no outright, or I wait. There is no hurry. The world is not coming to an end. I am not afraid to say no.

Rumour has it that you just turned 53?

I never remember my birthday, haha! It is my wife who does. When I was a child, we didn’t have cakes for birthdays, my mom would say, “Just remember your day, reflect on it and be a better person.” I would not have known if my wife had not reminded me of my birth date.

What is the soundtrack of 53?

The 20th Century Fox fanfare cinema soundtrack by Alfred Newman.

If you were to boil down your life down to a single experience, what would it be?

It can’t be one experience. I have been very fortunate in this life. I am one of the few people not considered a traditional ‘expert.’

This doesn’t come from work; this comes from me as a person. I have had many good experiences and many challenging ones.

So many things have impacted my life from the time I nearly drowned. I saw boys swimming, and I thought you dive in and swim. I almost died, I saw everybody was floating, but I was not.

To live in Olkalou, join the University of Nairobi, join the Coca-Cola Company, and travel the world. I travelled to many interesting countries and became very comfortable in any part of the world.

I was very fortunate that my children were able to join me in some of those expatriate jobs. I have been an expatriate three times: in Mauritius, France, and Uganda.

My most eventful times were when I worked in African countries. Going to live in France was quite interesting because I am the only man I know from my village who went to France and became a senior manager.

I would travel to China, and guys would be waiting for me there, laying down the red carpet. Being a black man in Europe during Obama’s tenure was really good.

I didn’t suffer a lot of discrimination because where I worked and lived was not far apart. I was able to live that experience to suit my children, who went to great schools and their minds opened up so they don’t have a lot of fear.

The fact that I was able to seize experiences is good. It is not one thing but many things put together.

What is one question you wish people asked you more?

Nobody ever asks my opinion on the economy. I think we are using old concepts to try and manage ourselves in a new world.

Somebody is talking about a new finance bill where they want to add PAYE in a certain bracket of people. The people in Kenya who earn more than Sh100,000 are only 80,000.

The people in formal employment are only 16 percent.

The concept of raising taxes to fund government expenditure is one that we need to rethink. Our problem is expenditure.

Where does this money go? The truth is everybody pays taxes. When you are born, you buy a birth certificate, and when you die, you buy a death certificate. There are so many forms of taxes.

If you use the taxes efficiently, you don’t need to tax people’s salaries. I think that our thinking is rigid, and it is because we study one thing.

We need to read more and imagine things differently. My view on the economy is that this is not the way. The old-school methods were created to benefit the superpowers. They were not created to benefit us.

What is your superpower?

Am I great at anything? I don’t think I have any, haha!

What is the most boring thing about your life now?

My children are now in boarding school. I find that I have a lot of time. You can fill this time by reading, doing all these things but the fact we don’t have children running around, making noise and breaking things, it gets a bit boring.

When you have small children, have fun. Even if they break things, they can be replaced. The things, not the children. Haha!

Who do you know that I should know?

Michael Okwiri and Achieng’ Butler.

What’s so good about them?

They are well-spoken and have style. But you need to speak with them.

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