MEET FORMER DIASPORAN JOHN GACHORA: A VILLAGE BOY’S METEORIC RISE TO THE TOP


John Gachora, Group MD, NIC Bank

Age: 50s.

Professional background:

CEO, Absa Africa
Managing Principal- Head of Africa, Absa Capital
Managing Director – Group Head, Bank of America Investment Banking (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Vice President- Structuring Head, Credit Suisse First Boston

Academic

Master’s in Business Administration, Wharton School, University of Pennyslvania
Masters in Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT.

After more than 20 years overseas, John Gachora is finally back home. The Alliance High School alumnus, who left the country “a village boy” with an accent even “I couldn’t understand” is back to run NIC Bank as its top man after a successful career that spanned from the US and ended up in South Africa.

You might not know this but John – an MIT trained engineer – was the first indigenous Kenyan to hold the position of MD in Wall Street, America’s financial powerhouse where he started off his banking career.

He grew up poor, in the humble rural village of Gatamaiyu, in Central Province. The 8th born in a family of 13 calls himself “the one the mother forgot” given the size of the family and his position in it and admits to being driven by the long-limbed silhouettes of poverty.

We met in his office an NIC House. He is trim and fit for his age and speaks in a very thoughtful and cautious tenor as he sips his tea from a hip silver cup-flask.

You are relatively unknown in Kenya. What’s your story?

I like the anonymity, to be honest. (Smiles). But where do I start? Grew up a village boy, with a rural accent to boot. Attended Alliance High, the last group of the old system, which meant I was a “mono” for two years, and you can imagine how that was. (Chuckles).

Went to the States to study engineering at MIT for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After my master’s, I decided that I would proceed with my PhD if I didn’t get a job that was going to pay me $50,000 a year. I got three offers, two of which paid more but I picked the last offer which paid less at Wall Street.

Why?

Well, because it was in line with the career trajectory I had in mind. I think people shouldn’t pick jobs because of the money, but because of career satisfaction.

Anyway, after Wall Street, I worked for Credit Suisse then Bank of America then I was offered a CEO position in SA in one of their affiliates – Absa Bank. And now here I am. (Smiles).

On the home front?

I’m an occasional golfer and I’m married with three kids. My last-born, a girl is a month old, my first, also a daughter is four years old. The middle child, our boy, is three.

You are in your 50s; you clearly have had them late in life. Does that bother you?

I married late, in 2007. Before that I wasn’t able to focus on family because while working in the Wall Street, I would not get off work until 1a.m. I didn’t think I’d make a good father then, not to say I’m such a good father now! (Smiles).

I just think I wasn’t in the position to give them a decent lifestyle. My fear, however, is that when they grow up, will they have a father they can relate to, because I will be an old man. My dad passed on five years ago and it disturbs me that he didn’t see me get married and have kids. Do I want that for my children?

Do you think you are a better father at this age than you would have been at a younger age?

Well, I certainly enjoy and appreciate them more now. Plus I think now I have more time to offer them much more attention now that my career isn’t as hectic as it was.

What then, is your weakness as a father?

Time. The modern domestic infrastructure of nannies bothers me, it means that we don’t engage enough with our kids. (Pause) Time has to be my biggest weakness.

What’s your greatest fear as a man?

Hmm…(Thinks). My driving force is poverty. I grew up poor and the decisions I’ve made have been with that in mind – not to go back there. I also fear not being able to use my abilities.

The words “I can’t” don’t feature in my vocabulary, what features is “I can, but…” Lastly, I fear growing so big in my career that I end up losing my modesty.

For your age, you are in great shape. Is the answer in what’s in that flask or is it the genes?

(Smiles) Thanks. This is tea. I’m known for my love for tea in this special cup. But I try to jog three to four times a week. I also eat decently. And yes, I suspect some genes are responsible for it.

Who are your influences?

A lot of people, actually. Family first, both positive and negatively. My parents taught me modesty, respect of elders. I’ve also learnt lessons from other family members who made bad decisions in their lives.

In high school, there is Mr Christopher Situma Khaemba, who is now at the Ministry of Education and who remains a good friend. He taught me maths at Alliance and was my house master and really supported me in applying for my university in the US and also explaining to the university why I couldn’t pay the application fees. My wife is also one of my greatest influences.

How do you unwind?

I hang out with my family. I like to play with them and basically spend time together.

What is your greatest extravagance?

I’m not extravagant at all. I don’t think I spend lots of money on anything, really. (Thinks). I spend on my kids though, and that’s pretty much it. In fact, the only extravagant thing I own is a Mercedes. I’m a Mercedes guy. That’s about it.

You are quite contained. Together. No loose frills hanging. What really unwinds you?

(Laughs) Comedy, I guess. I watch a lot of comedy. I also enjoy political and financial debates, that’s when I get really animated.

Wine, whisky or beer?

Wine. Red, to be specific.

What kind of guy were you before you got married?

(Laughs) Look, (pause), I’m a good guy. I mean good guy in the true definition of the word. But gosh…I was having a good time, I mean I was a young and successful guy living in the best apartment in North Carolina, an apartment that featured in noted property magazines…having a good time. What I wasn’t though was pompous.

What don’t people know about you?

A lot. Which is good. (Laughs).

– article written by JACKSON BIKO
– adapted from BUSINESS DAILY AFRICA
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