Be the best and train successors, advises CFO Stephen Karumbi

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It took one newspaper ad to set Stephen Karumbi, the CFO of Family Bank, on his remarkable journey from dedicated accounting student in high school to respected financial executive.

It took one newspaper ad to set Stephen Karumbi, the CFO of Family Bank, on his remarkable journey from dedicated accounting student in high school to respected financial executive.

"It goes way back," Stephen says, as he reflects on his career, "I was actually in primary school, and my dad came in with a newspaper, and there was a job advert for accountants. The salary was 40,000 Kenyan shillings, in 1993, and I thought okay, this looks like a lot of money."

That resulted in Stephen choosing accounting as an elective subject during his high school years at Muranga High School – emerging as the top student in the subject for two consecutive years. The path to becoming an accountant led him to Strathmore College of Accountancy. "My ultimate ambition was becoming an accountant," he notes, which became the stepping stone for him to attain the coveted title of Certified Public Accountant (Kenya) in 2003.

Stephen’s academic journey was marked by a dual commitment as he simultaneously pursued a degree in economics at Kenyatta University and a CPA course. His expertise led him to a teaching role at Strathmore University's School of Accountancy, where he handled various subjects, from financial accounting, auditing and tax.

“When I graduated, I was obviously looking for a job and one of the opportunities that came along was to lecture. Besides financial accounting, I was also teaching auditing and tax," he says of his early teaching days. This foundation would prove to be instrumental in the career years to come.

Eager to put his knowledge into practice, Stephen thereafter transitioned to EY, embarking on a career in transaction advisory services and tax, bridging the gap between theory and practical application.

“I initially joined within the tax division but over time I was able to volunteer for quite a number of projects, especially on the transaction advisory services,” he says.

As Stephen’s professional journey continued, he found himself drawn to financial services, and after three years with EY, he accepted a position at Equity Bank, which had completed an acquisition in Uganda and was looking at expanding to Rwanda and South Sudan.

"I initially joined the bank's internal audit function," he recalls, marking the beginning of his venture into the financial industry.

Wearing multiple hats

Stephen’s role at Equity Bank evolved, as he moved from internal audit to finance. And, with his background in tax, he was well-positioned to address tax-related challenges, eventually becoming the group tax manager.

Stephen’s leadership and problem-solving skills didn't go unnoticed. He soon found himself wearing multiple hats, supporting the group CFO in various capacities.

While at Equity Bank, the unexpected happened. Paul Njaga, the Group CFO, transitioned to Chase Bank, a moment that would mark a pivotal turn in Stephen’s career. "So, when he landed there, he got an opportunity and invited me in," Stephen says.

Chase Bank's history is marked by significant growth, followed by a tumultuous period that saw the institution placed under curatorship in 2016. Stephen's role as the head of finance and strategy during this trying period was no small feat.

“The shareholders and directors left, and senior managers like myself had to keep the bank running. The mandate I was given was to focus on liquidity for the bank and make sure that the bank continued running. Our own source of liquidity was collections from customers. Besides that, we renegotiated everything that could be renegotiated and deferred payments where we could,” he explains.

Stephen, along with a dedicated team, worked tirelessly to stabilise the bank and ensure its operations continued.

The challenges were immense, but the rewards were equally significant. "So it was a stressful but challenging and rewarding period," he says. With the Central Bank's support and rigorous efforts to manage liquidity and engage with customers and suppliers, Chase Bank survived and stabilised.

Ultimately, Chase Bank went through a transition and Stephen played a vital role in preparing the bank for its acquisition by SBM Holdings. "I think we went through at least 7 due diligence reviews," he notes. After two years of extensive work, the transition from Chase Bank to SBM was successfully completed in August 2018.

Relevant and available

Stephen’s career path has been anything but conventional as he has not actively sought new opportunities; they often found him, driven by his reputation and expertise. This saw him move to Tugende Limited in Uganda as the CFO before settling in the same role at Family Bank. He has held this position for the last three years.

As Stephen reflects on his journey, he emphasises the importance of adaptability and resilience. "My advice would be to be the best in what you are currently doing," he says.

He stresses the importance of immersing oneself in additional assignments and empowering others. “Make yourself relevant and available for new tasks, so you can grow. So, for instance, if you manage reporting and don’t train other people who can take over from you, then it's likely that you shall forever be sitting at that same desk,” he adds.

Stephen also believes that equilibrium is key, ensuring that both personal and professional spheres coexist harmoniously.

Beyond the world of finance, Stephen has a passion for reggae music. "I'm an avid reggae fan," he admits with a smile. Influenced by his brother during his formative years, he was drawn to the genre's melodies and messages.

On a personal note, Stephen also enjoys spending his free time on the golf course, maintaining a work-life balance that includes family and friends. His three children and close-knit family provide him with the support and balance needed to excel in his demanding role.

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