Coming from a poor rural background to becoming a regional finance director of a listed entity is no easy feat. However, this is exactly what British American Tobacco's Philemon Kipkemoi has done - and now he wants to pay it forward.
Philemon Kipkemoi is finance director of British American Tobacco (BAT) for East and Southern Africa. He believes that because results are delivered by people, a leader must concern himself with coaching and mentoring to get the best out of them. In doing so, he makes sure that he gives opportunities for growth.
“I have eight heads of departments responsible for various tasks,” Philemon says. “These include corporate finance, financial control, commercial finance, operational finance, tax and strategic planning.”
The people Philemon manages describe him as advocating for excellence over perfection and showing up every day.
“I have a philosophy that done is better than perfect because execution is extremely important,” opines Philemon. “My current read is by David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. One key element of this is ensuring that your reports are empowered to make decisions and that you provide regular coaching. Staying in touch with them enables me to pick up issues early which gives us time to course correct. I am also very accessible, and I have a clear focus on expectations where everyone knows exactly what is expected of them which makes performance reviews very easy.”
The journey to the C-suite began at Moi University where Philemon was enrolled to study textile engineering. As secretary general of the Technical Students Association and president of Students in Free Enterprise, Philemon got to interact with students from other degree programmes.
“I accompanied one of my friends to a PwC recruitment stand where I asked them whether they wanted engineers. They were surprisingly interested in students who were pursuing different degrees, not just accountants and I was fortunate to be taken into their graduate recruitment programme in 2004,” remembers Philemon.
Credit can be good
On arrival at PwC, those who weren’t accountants were taught accounting. The trainer said “debit good, credit bad” and Philemon challenged him because it is a good thing to have a bank account that is in credit. The conversation intrigued him and he ended up pursuing an ACCA qualification.
He was one of the oldest students in the class, but he didn’t mind; he persevered and went on to get an MBA from Oxford Brookes University in the UK.
Philemon left PwC in June 2007 to join BAT as an internal audit manager. He found that in the audit firm, all they did was ask questions about what happened in the past and didn’t do much to influence the present and the future. He wanted to be part of the latter process.
“BAT has met its end of the bargain in developing my career. The culture of the organisation is inclusive and has enabled me to take charge of my career and provided opportunities to achieve my career aspirations. I have served in a new role every two years, enabling me to learn new things. The areas I have served in have been very diverse including internal audit, business partnering, commercial planning and analysis, corporate finance, financial control, strategy and business performance management.”
Among the factors that Philemon says have contributed to his success is being open-minded to new things. Being a good communicator has enabled him to lead teams and be more effective. The third factor is emphasising to his team what the why of what they do is, which then makes them more effective at what they do.
Five countries have been added to Philemon’s portfolio and the transition comes with significant diversity. The added countries are Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Angola and Zimbabwe. Philemon is therefore concerned with change management and ensuring that teams collaborate effectively.
Expectations and boundaries
Because BAT’s business is run on a chain of people, collaboration between them and understanding expectations and boundaries is key to success.
In the markets Philemon is responsible for, they are grappling with a challenging macroeconomic environment, characterised by high inflation and currency devaluation. It is a difficult time to be trading and therefore business resilience is a big focus.
Coming from a poor rural background to becoming a regional finance director of a listed entity is no easy feat. “I want other disadvantaged children to have the same opportunities I had and therefore I believe in sending the elevator back down and paying it forward for those who did the same for me. I engage in coaching outside of work and often I organise trips for children from my village locality to come to the city to visit institutions like Strathmore University. I also team up with other professionals to go and speak to them.”
“My job involves travelling 50 percent of the time and this is a challenge as it takes away from family time. Whereas working remotely is a possibility, I believe that leadership is something that needs to be seen and felt. Only by being on the ground, am I able to build relationships with the team and stakeholders.”
During Covid, Philemon learnt to play golf which is what he does outside of work. He is also an active member of AIC Ngong Road Church where he helps with Sunday school. Having grown up with no access to a pool, Philemon does not know how to swim. He has, however, bet his two pre-teen daughters that he will have learnt to tread water like an expert before the end of 2024.