CFO George Odenyo chats about dropping out and disruption

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From dropping out of university to take on an internship to inspiring the formation of a debt collection unit to chief accountant, George Odenyo, CFO of American Tower (ATC Kenya), has definitely not followed a stereotypical career path.

From dropping out of university to take on an internship to inspiring the formation of a debt collection unit to chief accountant, George Odenyo, CFO of American Tower (ATC Kenya), has definitely not followed a stereotypical career path.

“The first time I left Ugunja village where I grew up was after completing the final year of school, and it was to interview for a place as a CPA at Strathmore College in Nairobi,” he recalls.

The interview was successful and George moved to the capital city.

“I didn’t have a place to stay when I was going to college. So, somebody from my village offered to house me in his hospital, and I used to live in that hospital as a student and eat meals meant for patients,” he says.

George also decided to study economics at the University of Nairobi - but then dropped out to pursue an internship with UUNET Kenya Limited.

“My dad was quite upset. Life was difficult and I made the decision to defer my studies at the University of Nairobi, not only for me, but to survive and take care of my parents as well, who are ageing and struggling financially,” he says.

“One of the major lessons I tell people is that, for sure, nothing comes easy, you have to work hard - and be a little bit patient as well,” he adds.

Although George did not return to the University of Nairobi, he did finish a BCom through the Catholic University of East Africa and would also later return to Strathmore to complete a master’s.

“Anything is possible, but you have to go an extra mile. For anybody who wants to be successful in their career, I think there has to be some sacrifices as well. You cannot sit comfortably and just do your piece. You have to keep on and do more to create an impact,” he says.

Three months into the internship role, George was promoted to accountant.

“Then Africa Online decided to sell their B2B to UUNET and I was not yet ready to be a chief accountant so, I opted to do credit management because they were struggling with the debt collection and I suggested that we form a debt collection department and I was given a chance to run with the idea,” George says.

Even though he was focusing on debt collection, George continued with other core accounting responsibilities, like doing financial statements.

“I just made sure that I created a time so that I didn’t lose the opportunity to grow and become a chief accountant because I did not want to be a credit manager for life,” he says.

That opportunity was soon realised.

“I became chief accountant in 2008 and subsequently rose to the role of a head of finance in the same business, reporting to the CEO, for another five years,” he says.

Opportunity then came knocking again, as George was headhunted by a recruiter in the UK, for a finance leadership role in the telco space.

“The company that I joined was called Eaton Towers, and they were new to Kenya. They wanted a CFO and FD to help them set up. They were acquiring towers from Airtel and needed somebody to help with the financial aspect of the acquisition, hire a new team and get the business running,” he says.

George took on the challenge and after four years in that role, moved to take on the role of CFO at ATC.

One of my career highlights is taking the lead when I joined ATC, to integrate two businesses and fully integrate the finance teams,” he says.

As a major tower operator in the country, ATC employes about 95 people, 22 of which are directly managed by George.

“I take a lot of pride in developing and coaching people and I get a sense of satisfaction from seeing the people I work with grow in their roles,” he adds.

George is also a firm believer in being agile. “We need to be agile. With big organisations, you can sometimes get swept away when things go well and become slow to respond because you think you are untouchable. But that is not the case, as disruption happens in industries all the time,” he explains.

ATC owns about 3,700 towers across Kenya and lease these to the likes of Safaricom. Airtel and Telkom.

“Being a CFO in the telecom space means you have to learn the language of the industry. One day we’re talking about 4G and the next 5G so you have to keep up with the trends, stay informed and be able to respond to what is happening and what customers want,” he explains.

George is definitely au fait with the telecoms industry and provides the analogy of the old Mombasa Road and expressway in Nairobi.

“The expressway is a better platform, and new technology is like that. It will enhance speed and allow wider interconnectivity,” he explains.

Despite this love for new generation technology, George admits that he can be found outdoors, in nature, outside working hours.

“I love nature. So, when I’m not at work, you will find me somewhere in some forest, taking a walk or taking a drive in the Nairobi National Park or playing seven-a-side football on Rhapta Road,” he reveals.

George is also a dedicated family man.

“I met my wife when I was just 25 years and we got married about a year later. Now we have three children, two girls and a boy,” he concludes.

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