James Mworia is one of Kenya’s most respected business leaders. At 37, he is CEO of Centum, an East African investment company with interests in a variety of sectors, including energy, real estate, financial services and fast-moving consumer goods.

Mworia is credited with transforming the company, set up in 1967, by championing investments in new sectors and expanding its geographical
reach. Earlier this month, Mworia spoke at an Entrepreneurship Boot Camp in Nairobi organised by talent management company, Africa Talent Bank.

He shared his journey in corporate Kenya, and offered tips on business management and entrepreneurship. He explained that many people fail
because they don’t give themselves permission to succeed. “We think success is for other people. We think we were put on this world to be strugglers,” said Mworia.

“It is very easy to make excuses and say the reason I am not succeeding is because I am poor, or I do not have this or that. In theory the most successful people should never have succeeded if you look at everything they did not have. You have to say, given what I have today, what am I willing to do with it?”

Mworia urged young entrepreneurs to recognise and go after opportunities around them, however small. He recounted how he joined Centum in 2001 as a 23-year-old intern whose role was to file documents. Seven years later, he was appointed CEO.

“When opportunity comes knocking on your door it does not come written ‘my big break’. It might come as a small job or a small introduction,” said Mworia.

Don’t Do Average
Although securing financing for start-ups is often challenging, Mworia noted “there is no shortage of capital for credible, bankable ideas” that are well put together.

However, to attract customers and investors, entrepreneurs ought to deliver excellent results, and aim to be among the best in their industry. Citing the case of football, Mworia explained there are thousands of teams but just a handful are known worldwide, and it is only the top players in the elite teams that earn fortunes.

“How many people play football for a living and they can’t make ends meet? The person at the top is not there by luck or accident. If you hear there is an opportunity in it doesn’t mean everyone in design is making money. It is just the people at the top. You have to aspire to be the very best in your industry.

In any business, if you are in the top crust, you will do well.” “People ask me why is Centum doing well. It is succeeding because I am
uncompromising when it comes to results and to excellence. I don’t accept average. I would rather we repeat 30 times until we get it right because I have set certain standards for myself.”

He observed many companies struggle collecting payments because they offer sub-standard services and eventually lose relevance to the client.
“How many of you have problems with debtors? The reason why the client is not paying you is because you are not important to them. Clients pay their most important service providers first.

“If you ask how many people have paid their power or water bills [you will find] everyone has. But if your service is not valuable, as a business person I can afford not to pay you. I will put you last on my list because it doesn’t make a difference whether or not you offer that service.”

Define Your Own Reality
Even when they lack adequate finances and experience, Mworia urged young entrepreneurs not to settle for ‘safe’ ideas. “It is easy to settle for simple dreams and tell yourself, ‘let me be realistic’. But dreaming is free. The effort you put in to dream that you will grow your firm to employ five people is the same as the person dreaming of growing a pan-African company employing thousands of people.

“So give yourself permission to succeed,” said Mworia. “Today, there might be a mismatch between your capabilities and your dreams… but don’t let that hold you back. A tree will always be a tree. [But] what makes us humans is the ability to transform ourselves and be something better than we were yesterday.”

“Don’t look for validation in other people. Somebody might tell you it cannot be done and you believe them, then it becomes reality. I have decided that I will not let other people’s opinion become my reality. I will define my reality with the gifts God has given me,” said Mworia. “Infact, I get motivation from those who say it cannot be done.”

How I Moved From Intern to CEO in 7 Years–Mworia
When 1 joined Nairobi-based investment company, Centum in 2001 as a 23-year-old intern, my ambition was to “become CEO someday.” His job then was to file documents, but seven years later he was indeed appointed CEO, becoming one of the youngest senior executives in a Kenyan listed firm.

Mworia has now led Centum for seven years, and is credited with transforming the business, which was established in 1967. Centum has investments in a variety of sectors, including energy, real estate, financial services and fast-moving consumer goods.

Speaking to a group of young professionals and entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Mworia (now 37), credited his rise in corporate Kenya to humility and a hunger for personal development. “In my experience the highest return on capital and time is investment in yourself,” says Mworia.

His curiosity and a “desire to be better” is what made him take up the internship position despite being overqualified. He already had a law degree, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) title and was working towards a Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) qualification.

“I was a qualified person, but you have to have that humility to… learn something. You must have that hunger to improve yourself,” says Mworia. As a junior staffer, he would finish his own duties early in the day and offer to help his colleagues finish their tasks.

“It is because in doing, you learn,” Mworia explains. “I see many young people who have an opportunity but think because they are being paid Ksh.5,000 (US$48) they should give work worth Ksh.5,000. They come to work at 9am and leave at 4pm. They don’t wear a tie, they are never smart.

What you are paid is immaterial. You should offer a [high level of] service not because of what you are paid – but because you stand for excellence.”

Becoming CEO
Mworia’s willingness to dream big has also served him well in his career. When the company CEO left and the position was advertised, Mworia studied the job requirements and mapped out what he needed to do to qualify.

“What I was aiming for was to get ready – so that next time an opportunity presented itself I’d be ready to take it.” In the meantime, he climbed the ladder to become investment manager but after two years in the post, he quit because he felt Centum was “very conservative”, and joined infrastructure-focused investment company, TransCentury.

“I could have stayed and earned a good salary not doing much. But as a philosophy, I am more interested in the value I add.” About 18 months later, the Centum management asked Mworia to come back but he was not keen, again because he felt the company was “not doing much.”

So the Board asked him what he would do different? He put together a strategic plan and presented it to them two weeks later. His goal was to grow Centum several times larger than it had progressed in 40 years. They saw his vision and hired him as CEO to execute the ambitious plan that has seen Centum expand its sector-focus, geographical reach and financial value.

Mworia adds he is never afraid to dream big, after all “dreaming is free”, but warns “if you set yourself only small goals, do not be surprised if you actually achieve them”. But success takes more than just grand dreams, and he notes many youth see the “glory” of big positions and wealth, but don’t acknowledge the amount of effort that goes into creating that success.

Creating Value
According to Mworia, many people fail to recognise their true worth. When negotiating his pay package, Mworia says he looked at the value he would create at Centum. “This is where people usually tell how they have gone to school and so forth. I told [the board] what I am interested in is to create value – and get a share of the value.

If at the end of the year I have not added value, please invoice me what you have paid me for the year,” says Mworia. Today, he is the fourth largest individual shareholder in Centum with 0.61% of the multi-billion shilling empire. “Success is not what you have taken from others. It is a function of the value that you have added and the greater that value-add, the bigger the slice you get.

 

He shared his journey in corporate Kenya, and offered tips on business management and entrepreneurship. He explained that many people fail
because they don’t give themselves permission to succeed. “We think success is for other people. We think we were put on this world to be strugglers,” said Mworia.

“It is very easy to make excuses and say the reason I am not succeeding is because I am poor, or I do not have this or that. In theory the most successful people should never have succeeded if you look at everything they did not have. You have to say, given what I have today, what am I willing to do with it?”

Mworia urged young entrepreneurs to recognise and go after opportunities around them, however small. He recounted how he joined Centum in 2001 as a 23-year-old intern whose role was to file documents. Seven years later, he was appointed CEO.

“When opportunity comes knocking on your door it does not come written ‘my big break’. It might come as a small job or a small introduction,” said Mworia.

Don’t Do Average
Although securing financing for start-ups is often challenging, Mworia noted “there is no shortage of capital for credible, bankable ideas” that are well put together.

However, to attract customers and investors, entrepreneurs ought to deliver excellent results, and aim to be among the best in their industry. Citing the case of football, Mworia explained there are thousands of teams but just a handful are known worldwide, and it is only the top players in the elite teams that earn fortunes.

“How many people play football for a living and they can’t make ends meet? The person at the top is not there by luck or accident. If you hear there is an opportunity in it doesn’t mean everyone in design is making money. It is just the people at the top. You have to aspire to be the very best in your industry.

In any business, if you are in the top crust, you will do well.” “People ask me why is Centum doing well. It is succeeding because I am
uncompromising when it comes to results and to excellence. I don’t accept average. I would rather we repeat 30 times until we get it right because I have set certain standards for myself.”

He observed many companies struggle collecting payments because they offer sub-standard services and eventually lose relevance to the client.
“How many of you have problems with debtors? The reason why the client is not paying you is because you are not important to them. Clients pay their most important service providers first.

“If you ask how many people have paid their power or water bills [you will find] everyone has. But if your service is not valuable, as a business person I can afford not to pay you. I will put you last on my list because it doesn’t make a difference whether or not you offer that service.”

Define Your Own Reality
Even when they lack adequate finances and experience, Mworia urged young entrepreneurs not to settle for ‘safe’ ideas. “It is easy to settle for simple dreams and tell yourself, ‘let me be realistic’. But dreaming is free. The effort you put in to dream that you will grow your firm to employ five people is the same as the person dreaming of growing a pan-African company employing thousands of people.

“So give yourself permission to succeed,” said Mworia. “Today, there might be a mismatch between your capabilities and your dreams… but don’t let that hold you back. A tree will always be a tree. [But] what makes us humans is the ability to transform ourselves and be something better than we were yesterday.”

“Don’t look for validation in other people. Somebody might tell you it cannot be done and you believe them, then it becomes reality. I have decided that I will not let other people’s opinion become my reality. I will define my reality with the gifts God has given me,” said Mworia. “Infact, I get motivation from those who say it cannot be done.”

How I Moved From Intern to CEO in 7 Years–Mworia
When 1 joined Nairobi-based investment company, Centum in 2001 as a 23-year-old intern, my ambition was to “become CEO someday.” His job then was to file documents, but seven years later he was indeed appointed CEO, becoming one of the youngest senior executives in a Kenyan
listed firm.

Mworia has now led Centum for seven years, and is credited with transforming the business, which was established in 1967. Centum has investments in a variety of sectors, including energy, real estate, financial services and fast-moving consumer goods.

Speaking to a group of young professionals and entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Mworia (now 37), credited his rise in corporate Kenya to humility and a hunger for personal development. “In my experience the highest return on capital and time is investment in yourself,” says Mworia.

His curiosity and a “desire to be better” is what made him take up the internship position despite being overqualified. He already had a law degree, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) title and was working towards a Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) qualification.

“I was a qualified person, but you have to have that humility to… learn something. You must have that hunger to improve yourself,” says Mworia. As a junior staffer, he would finish his own duties early in the day and offer to help his colleagues finish their tasks.

“It is because in doing, you learn,” Mworia explains. “I see many young people who have an opportunity but think because they are being paid Ksh.5,000 (US$48) they should give work worth Ksh.5,000. They come to work at 9am and leave at 4pm. They don’t wear a tie, they are never smart.

What you are paid is immaterial. You should offer a [high level of] service not because of what you are paid – but because you stand for excellence.”

Becoming CEO
Mworia’s willingness to dream big has also served him well in his career. When the company CEO left and the position was advertised, Mworia studied the job requirements and mapped out what he needed to do to qualify.

“What I was aiming for was to get ready – so that next time an opportunity presented itself I’d be ready to take it.” In the meantime, he climbed the ladder to become investment manager but after two years in the post, he quit because he felt Centum was “very conservative”, and joined infrastructure-focused investment company, TransCentury.

“I could have stayed and earned a good salary not doing much. But as a philosophy, I am more interested in the value I add.” About 18 months later, the Centum management asked Mworia to come back but he was not keen, again because he felt the company was “not doing much.”

So the Board asked him what he would do different? He put together a strategic plan and presented it to them two weeks later. His goal was to grow Centum several times larger than it had progressed in 40 years. They saw his vision and hired him as CEO to execute the ambitious plan that has seen Centum expand its sector-focus, geographical reach and financial value.

Mworia adds he is never afraid to dream big, after all “dreaming is free”, but warns “if you set yourself only small goals, do not be surprised if you actually achieve them”. But success takes more than just grand dreams, and he notes many youth see the “glory” of big positions and wealth, but don’t acknowledge the amount of effort that goes into creating that success.

Creating Value
According to Mworia, many people fail to recognise their true worth. When negotiating his pay package, Mworia says he looked at the value he would create at Centum. “This is where people usually tell how they have gone to school and so forth. I told [the board] what I am interested in is to create value – and get a share of the value.

If at the end of the year I have not added value, please invoice me what you have paid me for the year,” says Mworia. Today, he is the fourth largest individual shareholder in Centum with 0.61% of the multi-billion shilling empire. “Success is not what you have taken from others. It is a function of the value that you have added and the greater that value-add, the bigger the slice you get.