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MJ steps back into shoes he left for Collymore, nine years later

Fred Aminga @faminga

On the day the body of Bob Collymore was cremated, the Safaricom board announced the appointment of Michael Joseph as interim chief executive officer.

Joseph, who served as chief executive between July 2000 and November 2010, will serve as interim CEO until the board makes a permanent appointment.

The board is banking on Joseph, the current chairman of the Kenya Airways board, to steer the company through a smooth transition. “Joseph will provide the necessary guidance and leadership to the company and its employees,” Safaricom said in a statement yesterday.

Steady ship

Sterling Investment director John Kirimi said East Africa’s most profitable company required someone “safe” to steady the ship, and Joseph — or MJ as he’s also referred to — who has been lurking in the corridors of the company’s hierarchy as board member, fits the company’s profile and DNA.

“They had probably not prepared for succession at a time when part of the shareholders wanted a Kenyan to lead the company,” he said. Kirimi noted that the board favours continuity, pointing out that Joseph never left the firm after his term expired.

Having served as first chief executive, Joseph serves as Vodafone’s director of Mobile Money and a strategic adviser on the boards of Vodacom South Africa, Vodacom Tanzania and Vodacom Mozambique.

Joseph’s appointment highlights the power play in the company’s ownership structure which comprises the Government of Kenya (35 per cent), Vodacom (35 per cent), Vodafone (5 per cent) and individuals including institutional investors (25 per cent).

Analyst, Aly Khan Satchu, says at this moment of transition, Joseph offers a “safe pair of hands”. “He understands the business and I think this is an optimal short-term solution,” he said.

Joseph’s presence is expected to come in handy in the process of making consensus with government technocrats pushing for a Kenyan to fill the corner office. This, even as Vodafone and various foreign shareholders fear the politicisation of such a move.

Yesterday’s appointment was a low hanging fruit for Safaricom since Joseph, who has Kenyan and American citizenship, has gained immense trust from both sides.

His comeback can be seen as a compromise as he is expected to steer a delicate succession path with powerful forces from either side pushing for their own.

Eulogising Collymore, Joseph said the departed CEO understood what Safaricom was all about, adding that he (Collymore) understood the “DNA of Safaricom and took it to another level”.

It is this DNA which the board would reflect on as it looks for the person who will fit Collymore’s big shoes. However, those who have worked closely with Collymore and Joseph say apart from his business acumen, the interim chief executive is a different shade of persona when compared to the late CEO.

While Collymore epitomised the easy going approach which made him a household name at East Africa’s most profitable company, Joseph’s abrasive approach is miles away from the man the Safaricom fraternity loved for close to a decade.

As shareholders await a substantive replacement, Kirimi says it is a game of wits between Vodacom which has the patents originated in Kenya and registered abroad on the one hand, and the government which has been pushing for a Kenyan to occupy the corner office, on the other.

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