During his childhood, Unga CFO James Nyutu spent most of his weekends and school holidays working in his mother's general store, and this sparked a keen interest in money matters that led him to develop a liking for mathematics.
James Nyutu’s mother ran a general shop selling groceries and distributing Coca-Cola products. He spent most of his weekends and school holidays working in the shop and this sparked a keen interest in money matters that led him to develop a liking for mathematics.
He was often left alone to run the shop exposing him to various responsibilities, including making purchases, distributing sodas, cashiering and logistics. He even learned to drive at the age of 14 to facilitate distribution to distant customers.
This background inspired James to pursue CPA and IT studies at Strathmore University and a BCom at the University of Nairobi. He later obtained an MBA from the prestigious Edinburgh Business School.
"After graduating, I ventured into business," James recalls. "I started a furniture business that specialised in making pool tables. The business initially thrived, but with increased competition, I transitioned to formal employment in the insurance sector. Working as an accountant trainee, I gained valuable experience in a manual, volume-intensive environment."
Seeking a more automated setting, James moved to another insurance company before seizing an opportunity at NAS Airport Services as a management trainee. At NAS, he underwent training in various departments, including procurement, production, sales and distribution, catering, operations, maintenance and IT. He eventually became a production accountant and his role evolved to include implementing IT systems like Microsoft Navision, demonstrating the application of his IT training.
Subsequent promotions led him to the position of head of finance at NAS, where he stayed for 11 years until 2012. In 2013, he joined Unga, during a transitional phase, to pursue a career in real estate.
"Initially, I was supposed to work at Unga for only a short engagement, but I ended up extending my contract. Eventually, it became permanent and I was appointed group finance director in February 2013. The reason I stayed was the challenging nature of the business and the numerous learning opportunities it presented," James explains.
The organisation has transformed during his tenure, especially in terms of information systems and processes. A key highlight was system integration, to make transactions more efficient for customers and ensure effective risk management.
Cash flow challenge
"The biggest challenge over the years has been managing cash flow in a capital-intensive and highly competitive business. The dynamics require prompt payments to farmers and key material vendors, resulting in a misalignment between the procure-to-pay and order-to-cash cycles, where we have to wait longer for grain processing and cash collection. Recently, external factors like the global economic downturn, currency depreciation and the Ukraine-Russia war have impacted global food prices, leading to various challenges for many businesses especially those that rely on imports," adds James.
Across the industry, increased competition, especially in the last five years, has affected revenues and margins for key players in a low-entry barrier industry. All the same, Unga continues to take a leading position in governance and risk management practices.
Given the close connection between technology and finance, IT has always been part of James’s role. In 2022, it was formally added as one of the areas under his supervision.
With a number of people reporting to him, James managerial approach involves facilitation and coaching, empowering his team to address challenges and find solutions independently.
He also adheres to Kaizen and lean principles, honing his skills in eliminating wasteful processes.
"Handling IT as a CFO is not uncommon, and I work closely with the IT team. While I didn't study IT as a degree, I studied management systems, and it has been an interesting aspect of my role. I see it fitting well with risk management in the business. Thought processes are sometimes more important than what you studied in school and this mindset has proven valuable in my job, especially when working with IT," James says.
Understanding how systems work, or don't work, allows James to relate to IT practitioners and contribute to crafting solutions, as seen in the implementation of the Unga ERP system.
Beyond finance and systems, James is a man of many talents; his versatility extends to serving as a non-executive director in a family-owned property management business - Lavender Properties Limited. It also offers letting and moving services.
James enjoys engaging in long walks and morning runs, and he occasionally plays golf with friends. He has a passion for trees and gardening, often incorporating these activities into his free time.