CFO Allan Wainaina reveals the rhythm behind his leadership journey

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Taking a sabbatical and working with an executive coach after spending a number of years working in audit, finance, strategy and general management ranks among the best decisions that Allan Wainaina, the CFO of Telkom Kenya, has made.

Taking a sabbatical and working with an executive coach after spending a number of years working in audit, finance, strategy and general management ranks among the best decisions that Allan Wainaina, the CFO of Telkom Kenya, has made.

“I highly recommend taking a sabbatical at some point in your career if you get the opportunity. I also recommend spending time in executive coaching. I have recently met my coach again to begin to evaluate my journey as a leader over the last few years and to discuss what I should be focusing on doing in the second half of my fifties,” he said.

Allan initially decided to take a three-month sabbatical in 2018, and that turned into nine months.

“At the time I felt burnt out. I had had too many years of working non-stop with only short breaks here and there, which were insufficient to recharge my batteries. I have no regrets about taking that time off,” he said.

“I spent some of that time working with my coach to help me to understand myself better and to get clarity on the kind of roles that were suited for me. Unfortunately, professionals often depend on the Human Resources department to drive initiatives around their personal development and don’t spend enough time getting to understand themselves. Coaching has been beneficial for me both professionally and personally, because it has helped me to understand better what makes me tick,” he added.

The pandemic years

This level of enlightenment was also key to Allan’s resilience during the difficult Covid years, when he was the Group chief financial officer at Nairobi Java House.

“I joined Java in May 2019 and before my first anniversary in the role of CFO, the pandemic struck. The government placed a ban on eating in at restaurants and as a result our cash flows plummeted by over 80 percent virtually overnight. We urgently needed to look critical look at our cost buckets and preserve cash flow,” he said.

“We had over 2,000 permanent staff who we asked to exhaust their leave days. We then had to advance leave to them and only when it became clear that the pandemic would be with us for some time did we very reluctantly lay off staff,” he added.

The leadership team had to take some tough decisions around remuneration, with staff taking pay cuts on a progressive basis based on seniority.

“We also negotiated concessions with our landlords to match rental payments with the revenues being generated by each store and a deferred element to be paid as cash flow improved. We moved very quickly in this regard and it was interesting to see other tenants request similar concessions many months into the pandemic,” he explained.

Non-performing stores and those with little potential to generate cash flow from take-aways and deliveries were temporarily closed.

On a personal level, the restriction on movement brought about by the pandemic provided Allan with an unexpected opportunity to indulge his creative side.

“I have always loved music and during the pandemic I taught myself to DJ. My stage name is DJ Shaky (Chief Funk Officer) and I do a gig every month or two. My recent gigs have included Soul’d Out at The Carnivore in March and I also performed at the Boyz II Men concert at Uhuru Gardens in June,” he revealed.

Developing resilience

Allan considers it crucial to quickly adjust to the rhythm of a new role.

The Kenyan telecommunications market is challenging and there is one dominant player. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that there are steps being taken by government and regulators to level the playing field.

Telkom Kenya has three businesses, being the mobile business, the mobile money offering called T-Cash and the infrastructure/digital business which provides services to corporates, SMEs and the public sector and also sells wholesale capacity. The company also lands five of the six undersea cables that land in Kenya.

Allan added, “The role of CFO of Telkom Kenya is a tough one but with the right investment, the company has potential to grow. We are optimistic that the next investor will have a long-term outlook which will help to unleash its potential.”

Cash flow is a particular challenge. The public sector makes up a notable proportion of Telkom Kenya’s business and the company is therefore adversely impacted by the delay in government settling pending bills.

Tough environments

This is not the first time that Allan has faced challenges in a role. During part of his time at British American Tobacco (BAT), where he spent almost two decades, Allan served as Finance director at BAT Congo for over two years.

“Working in the DRC taught me resilience, which became critical during the pandemic period when I was at Java. These experiences have also helped me to navigate the challenges of my current role. The challenges of doing business in the DRC stemmed from a large informal sector and weak governance institutions resulting in a tough operating environment,” he said.

According to Allan, the tax authorities in DRC were adept at using the shock factor and would raise hefty and/or spurious assessments for minor infringements. “In such an environment, dealings with authorities sometimes become a war of attrition and it is crucial to stick to the law, corporate governance rules and one’s personal values,” he added.

The DRC is a Francophone country and the language barrier was sometimes a challenge in communicating with staff, business partners, tax authorities and government officials. However, he credits the staff with the commendable efforts that they would make to speak to him in English. He did pick up some French but he admits that much of that is now forgotten, due to a lack of practice.

Driving business transformation

Despite these obstacles, Allan is proud of the role he played in transforming the business in the DRC.

“As a manufacturing concern, we had a lot of complexity and the authorities could therefore find loopholes to exploit arising from bureaucratic processes. A simple thing as not having an official stamp on a document could have dire consequences. We took the decision to close the factory and implement a system of importing product from South Africa and Kenya which worked very well,” he said.

Allan was also heavily involved in the transformation of BAT Zambia and he looks forward to being part of a successful turnaround at Telkom Kenya.

Looking ahead

In terms of the future, Allan looks forward to continuing his finance career, perhaps with some changes in emphasis given his years of varied experiences of roles and different operating environments.

In his downtime, Allan reads avidly in addition to spending time on his music and playing golf.

“I subscribe to The Economist and read it cover to cover every week. This keeps me informed of what is happening globally,” he said.

In terms of giving back, he is a trustee and honorary treasurer of SOS Children's Villages Kenya and was the chairperson of the Karen Country Club in 2021 and 2022.

On regrets, he muses over whether he should have done an MBA earlier in his career. “I like to stretch myself and acquire knowledge and I think I would have benefitted from an MBA programme - but maybe it’s not too late!”

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