Successful CEOs are associated with many traits, but humility hardly makes the list. as PD Wikendi’s Seth Onyango found out, 38-year-old SportPesa boss, Captain Ronald Karauri, exudes simplicity and easy charm
From a high-flying career horned in the cockpit of the aeronautical masterpiece Boeing 777, to occupying the corner office of a mega business empire, Captain Ronald Karauri is no ordinary CEO.
His leap to the apex of sport gaming giant, SportPesa, is a narrative plucked from a Wall Street novel. The father of two presides over the company that puts smiles on the faces of thousands of Kenyans who strike it lucky on SportPesa week by week.
And it also seems to put a frequent smile on the face of this tall, dark, handsome and young-rich who has an insatiable appetite for sleek automobiles.
His background was not rolled out of mega-millions, probably why he still identified with the Nairobi, Eastlands hustlers. He grew up in Buruburu estate at the advent of the digital revolution that had begun to sweep across the world.
Three decades later, he joined a company that tapped into technology, leveraged on high penetration of smartphones to become Africa’s betting giant, where he is the chief executive officer.
Born to former Tigania Member of Parliament Mathew Adams Karauri, whom he credits for his entrepreneurial prowess and integrity, Karauri Jnr says he had a normal, typical Kenyan childhood.
He went to Harambee Primary School in Buruburu, then a middle-income neighbourhood in Eastlands and later joined Mangu High School, where he became a basketball whiz.
“My life in Mangu was difficult at first. This was my first boarding school experience and that transition was not smooth sailing. I remember scrubbing toilets…joining the school’s basketball team (Panthers) was what made those four years nice and easy,” he recounts.
He finished O level in 1996, scoring an A- in KCSE, which earned him a slot at the University of Nairobi to pursue mechanical engineering, albeit with no passion for it. He dropped out.
“This was a time where grades dictated your choice of career, not passion. An ‘A’ got you into medicine, architecture, engineering, the likes,” he recalls.
Miffed by an engineering course he detested — he quit BSC Mechanical Engineering in 2002 and applied for the Kenya Airways Ab Initio Pilot Trainee programme as a pioneer cohort.
He got his inaugural piloting drill in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He never went back to UoN.
Luck did his bidding and Karauri would later morph into a Boeing cockpit — becoming a co-pilot for six years and captain extraordinaire for five, summing up a decade-long career at Kenya Airways, from 2004 to 2015.
He left the “Pride of Africa” with a sterling record, having pioneered the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) and becoming the lobby’s Secretary General. He still remains one of Kenya’s most qualified pilots.
Karauri made his entry into SportPesa in February of 2015 where he was appointed CEO. Before his KQ exit, he had developed a desire to join corporate ranks and that was what propelled him to quit his job and join the betting firm in what was itself a gamble that took place at a casino.
“I’m a poker player who loves the Texas Hold’em (game). One day at a casino, a friend in the gaming industry came up with the idea and I said I was interested and would like to partner with him,” he recalls that night that would be the game-changer of his fortunes.
To ignite the business into motion, Karauri placed a bet of Sh25 million, proceeds from a parcel of land he had purchased for Sh2 million — it appears he won his jackpot before he ever handed a check to a SportPesa jackpot winner.
“I own six per cent of SportPesa. We have a number of local and foreign shareholders,” he confides. At the helm of SportPesa, he has turned the company’s fortunes around.
The firm is now mulling over being listed at the Nairobi bourse — the company having remitted to the taxman over Sh1.6 billion in taxes last year alone compared to Sh800million in the corresponding year.
SportPesa has over two million registered users, and has employed 250 staff, most of them youth. “My passion is sports development, to achieve the goals we have set,” shares a confident Karauri.
Karauri is married and is a proud father of two, a boy, seven, and a girl, four. “Despite a busy schedule, my time with the family is precious and even while at KQ, I would decline hefty allowances to work so that I could spend time with my family,” he says.
He is also a petrolhead and has impressive car collection includes a Mercedes-Maybach S600 Sedan, similar to one of the Kenyan presidential rides — a Range Rover Overfinch, high-power motorbike and a few other expensive toys.
His Merc and Range are nicknamed Ace 777 and 888, respectively. “My first car, an Evolution (Mitsubishi) is what brought about my love for the 777 number plates.
From there, I’ve had the tradition of having the same plates on all my cars. The plates represent Boeing 777 and 888 aircraft,” he intimates.
Besides his 7am to 5pm day job at the betting company, Karauri is also a co–owner of an East African Breweries Limited beer and spirits distribution company located in Nairobi and the owner of entertainment joint Skylux Bar and Lounge. He says a lion better personifies him since he is daring but calm.
“Even though I’ve been on a break for a while, I wake up at 6am, hit the gym till 8am then head to the office.
I normally grab lunch in the office, then leave by 5pm, unless I need to leave earlier to pick up the kids from school. I have learned to organise myself in ‘checklist’ format.
I don’t like random things appearing. I rarely do things during the day that I haven’t planned for. Being a pilot, everything is a checklist to ensure nothing is missed. I’m used to doing that.
“I believe falling in love with a city is just as exciting as falling in love with a person. Your senses become engaged and you simply feel more alive. That’s London fo me. I travel there often because of business, and every single time, I am blown away.” He laughs heartily.