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Tributes galore as friends mourn Safaricom boss

Fred Aminga @faminga

The death of revered and long-serving Safaricom chief executive officer Robert (Bob) William Collymore leaves the business community and country stunned. 

Considered one of the region’s brightest corporate figures and the crown of the Safaricom’s jewel, Bob who has either directly or indirectly touched the lives of each of Kenya’s 50 million people succumbed to cancer at 2am on Monday morning.

The shrewd Guyanese-born British business leader took less than 10 years to leave a huge mark on the Kenyan economy, having helped steer Safaricom into East Africa’s most profitable company valued at $11 billion (Sh1.2 trillion).

Analysis of the firm’s profitability since 2013 reveals that the fortunes of the company, which is among the most successful businesses in Africa, have been growing at an average of Sh7.3 billion per year.

Bob, aged 61, will be interred today. 

Corporate titan

He has fought cancer, taking medication for nearly two-years while serving the company, but leaves the company one of the most admired and most profitable companies in East Africa.

“I owe the company about one year. I am here until the year 2020,” he said last month on the sidelines of Shared Value Summit at Nairobi’s Radisson Blu hotel. He was set to stay on at the helm until August.

During one of the increasingly rare public appearances, Collymore had joked that some people were trying to wish him away before his time.

“Some of you have taken the delight of burying me before my time,” he had joked.

“I owe the company about one year. I am here until the year 2020,” he said, adding that he was set to stay on at the helm of the firm until August.

Safaricom board chair Nicholas Ng’ang’a said yesterday that Bob who had been undergoing treatment for cancer in different hospitals and most recently at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi was at peace.

His treatment of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow, saw him travel to Britain for nine months in 2017 to fight the scourge.

“In recent weeks, his condition worsened and he succumbed to the cancer at his home in the early hours of Monday,” Ng’ang’a said.

“He was at peace, he was ready and was aware of his health challenges,” are some of the words he used to capture Collymore’s last moments. 

Among the first to eulogise the fallen executive was President Uhuru Kenyatta who said Kenya has lost a distinguished corporate leader.

“It is with deep sadness that I have this morning received news of the death of Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore after years of battling cancer. As a country, we’ve lost a distinguished corporate leader whose contribution to our national wellbeing will be missed,” President Kenyatta, said.

Besides his role at Safaricom, Collymore served on our Vision 2030 Board where he offered his managerial expertise in pursuit of national development agenda.

“Bob Collymore was a distinguished corporate titan, whose shrewd leadership at the helm of Safaricom was commendable,” said Deputy President William Ruto.

“Condolences to Wambui and the children as well as the Safaricom family. Bob Collymore was a friend and an inspirational leader. Seen here when he gave #kenyansforkenya such great support. His thoughtfulness and kindness will be missed. May he rest in peace,” said tweeted Gina Din Kariuki.

Overdraft facility

Renowned lawyer Donald Kipkorir said Collymore was an example of integrity, fortitude and leadership excellence.

“Inspire of heading the biggest company in Eastern Africa and having cancer, he had time for his friends. He always saw me when I asked. Always called or texted back. Few Kenyans in top leadership compare,” said Kipkorir.

To Collymore’s credit, the Telco has grown faster than the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which stands at 6.3 per cent. He leveraged on uptake of M-Pesa and usage of data with customers increasingly migrating to the Internet.

Amid pressure from regulators and politicians to split the award-winning M-Pesa, the product remains his greatest growth areas, leading to the introduction of Fuliza, which now becomes the world’s first overdraft facility on mobile phone. The facility has since garnered over 8.8 million users who have borrowed over Sh45 billion.

  His demise comes a few weeks after his term at the telco had been extended for one year shocking many given his sprightly gait during his public appearances since hospitalisation.

Born in 1958 in Guyana where he was brought up by grandparents, he moved to the United Kingdom to join his mother at the age of 16 and to attend Selhurst High School. He was later offered a place at Warwick University, an offer that was revoked since he was ineligible for funding.

Bob is said to have started earning money at a young age by selling art pieces from plasticine moulds when he was just 12 years old while living with his grandmother in Guyana.

Without a degree to his name, his has been a successful career in the corporate sector beginning 1993, scaling the ranks holding various positions in the telecommunications industry in the UK including at Cellnet, Dixons Retail and Vodafone UK.

In 2003, he moved to Japan to spearhead the integration of J-Phone into the Vodafone Group. He then became the governance director for Africa at Vodafone in 2006 before he was appointed as Safaricom boss in 2010.

During his tenure, the price of the firm’s stock at the Nairobi Securities Exchange has been rising steadily to the current Sh29.25 from the Sh3.50 offer during the company’s initial public offering (IPO).

Won awards

A recent survey ranked Safaricom among the most admired brands in the country. The report dubbed Brand Africa 2019 released by Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) came as Safaricom released Sh50.8 billion to shareholders as dividend from last year’s proceeds.

Bob also bagged several awards while serving at the corner office, most recently being the CEO of the Year Award conferred by the African Investor.

While on sick leave last year in the UK, chief finance officer Sateesh Kamath and Joseph Ogutu, director for strategy and innovation steered the day-to-day operations of the leading communications company.

Collymore is survived by his wife, Wambui, and four children.

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