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Kempinski GM on His Love For Cigars, Food, Shoes

Roberto Simone Villa Rosa Kempinski General Manager. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Beneath the professional in a pinstripe suit matched with an elegant tie and serious demeanour, Roberto Simone is a totally different man. The Italian hotelier is punny, if a little boisterous, an easy-going fellow with a soft spot for fun, food, fashion and anything in-between.

At 53, his charm and humour have only got better. One moment he will be tickling you with a witty remark, and the next he will be unpacking deep economics and the world of commerce, his forte.

The cluster general manager of Villa Rosa Kempinski and Olare Mara Kempinski describes food and cigars as his ‘‘main weaknesses.’’A refined foodie, he likes to eat everything everywhere.

From Coya to Nobu and Hakkasan and other such high places, Simone has tried out them all. Appealing to his taste buds, therefore, takes unquestionably great food, he notes. The only thing he can’t give up is espresso, and wherever he travels, he takes his coffee making machine with him.

In Kenya, Simone indulges in quality, classic fine dining, saying that he’s awed by the country’s expansively rich cuisine landscape. He notes that Kenya’s diversity make it complete ‘‘from a gastronomical point of view.’’

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Lunch at Fat Duck in Berkshire, London and Arzak at St Sebastian in Basque, Spain, are his most memorable dining experiences, both which he describes as sublime.

The subject of cigars, particularly, lights up his countenance.

‘‘Putting me in a cigar shop is like putting kids in a candy shop,’’ he says with amusement, joking that he used to smokes ‘‘like hell’’ before.

His passion for cigars began in the 1990s when he worked as a bartender in Milan. Soon, he became a cigar sommelier. Famous Milano tycoons would hire him to do private cigar collections for them — he does so to date.

Simone stills loves to indulge a cigar, which he buys from limited editions of top brands.

‘‘Cigar is like wine. The type of tobacco used, how it’s rolled and the maturation period vary from cigar to cigar. By smoking different brands, you get the full experience.’’

I engage him in fashion talk, which is the right thing to do because, well, Signor Simone is a dandy.

‘‘Fashion runs in our DNA,’’ he says in reference to Italians. ‘‘I like fabrics, colour and bespoke tailored outfits.’’

His suits are made by a private tailor in Shanghai, using Italian fabrics. He buys all his shoes from St Jermyn Street in central London, an iconic thoroughfare near Piccadilly famed for designer footwear.

‘‘I buy about four pairs from different brands on every occasion. No one touches my shoes. I brush them myself using a special and fascinating English way,’’ he says.

So, what is this fascination with shoes?

‘‘Good shoes make you feel better about yourself,’’ he explains. ‘‘A good pair would last six or seven years. I work for 14 hours a day, which requires me to be in elegant, comfy and durable shoes,’’ he adds

Simone is a disciple of Hermès Paris brand of ties ‘‘which I buy in shops in the airport.’’ Every trip for him is an opportunity to add a new tie to his large and pricey collection, to which he is sentimentally attached.

It’s no wonder then that 20 per cent of his earnings go to his looks. ‘‘I believe in self-reward,’’ he says. ‘‘I love to look good.’’ And elegance is signor’s signature.

Simone is as adventurous as they come, and describes himself as ‘‘a typical Italian boy from a typical Italian background’’.

‘‘A mama’s boy, if you like,’’ he adds, giggling wryly. I’m jolted slightly when he says he is single. Questions flood my mind. Has he had someone before? What has taken him so long?

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‘‘I had someone before, but things didn’t quite work out,’’ he reveals. So, is he dating now?

“I have somebody I like,” he responds with a chuckle, adding that ‘‘things aren’t defined yet’’.

For someone without a family, so where is home then?

‘‘When I meet my friends and homies in Bangkok, Dubai and Shanghai, I feel at home. When I’m in California for my studies, I feel at home. I also occasionally visit my mother in south of Italy.’’

He swears by travel, and in 2018 alone, Simone flew to 20 countries, both for work and recreation. A few days ago, he was in Abu Dhabi for the Formula One grand finale race.

Simone’s best illustrates global citizenry. The Italian was born in Switzerland, went to school in the UK and has worked in 12 different countries, visiting more than 50 others in the process.

He speaks Italian and English and fluent Portuguese. He regrets having not ‘‘bothered to learn French when he had the time’’. Learning ‘‘this beautiful language’’ is one of the items in his bucket list.

‘‘By travelling, I meet key people in the professional world from whom I draw inspiration for our business,’’ he says.

Driving to Naivasha and Maasai Mara are his favourite pastimes. Lamu though tops his list of local destinations ‘‘because of its authenticity’’. Here, he swims and savours a quiet time.

Only three months into the job, which he says he loves to bits, Simone appears to have gelled perfectly. After all, he has worked ‘‘in four different continents and one ocean’’.

So, how unique is his Kenyan challenge?

‘‘Delivering experience as an hotelier in Kenya is exciting and quite easy,’’ he says. How so, I ask him.

‘‘Fifty per cent of the skills required in this and any other job are people skills,’’ he explains. ‘‘Kenya has plenty of human capital in terms of talent, skills and motivation. When I walk around the hotel in the morning, I meet enthusiastic staff who are constantly striving to meet their personal career goals.’’

Before his appointment in August, Simone had first visited Kenya in 2011. Having grown up partly in south of Italy, he admits that his perception of the world was limited. Did that affect how he viewed Kenya?

‘‘I came to Africa from India where I had been exposed to multiple cultures,’’ he recounts. ‘‘Over the years, I’ve leant to avoid any preconceptions about a country I haven’t travelled to. This makes it easier for me to adapt.’’

Wherever he works, Simone says he builds human relations for a seamless stay.

‘‘My experience in one country prepares me for the subsequent duty,’’ he adds.

The hardest part of his job? To motivate every member of the team to deliver to the expected standards, he says.

‘‘The drive to deliver the hotel’s objectives differs among the staff. It’s my job to motivate them,’’ he adds.

At his age, does he think his life has changed? If so, in what ways?

‘‘In my 20s, I was a bit conservative. I didn’t take risks then. In my 30s, I became bolder and took risks. In my 40s, I became a heavy risk-taker. I am almost crazy in my 50s,’’ he adds, exploding into hilarity.

He goes on: ‘‘I like to plan like an 18-year-old professional. This helps me to set new goals and to take on challenges from a different standpoint.’’

Who does he look up to? Three people buoy him.

In hospitality, Ali Kasicki former general manager of Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles, and Michelle Obama ‘‘for her fearlessness and oratory’’.

Indian tycoon and former chairman of Tata Group Ratan Tata too is a huge influence on him ‘‘for his contribution to make India an industrial country it is today’’.

He believes Kenya’s trajectory as a preferred hotel business destination is rising, enhanced by relative stability, good weather and the convergence of global brands ‘‘which has given Kenya a lot of visibility globally’’.

A lot of marketing still needs to be done to cement Kenya’s position, he observes.

‘‘Ten years ago, many hotels in Dubai and UAE had more Filipino and Asian staff. Today, the best hotels in these countries are managed by Kenyans,’’ he notes.

Does he fear that his contribution to the Kempinski brand may not stand out owing to its sheer size? Not at all, he says.

‘‘Kempinski as a hotel brand is run by a collection of individuals. Their individual efforts contribute to the overall success of the business,’’ he argues.

His legacy? To invest in the right talent for continuity of the business, he says.

He may come from a football-mad country, but the sport doesn’t have any effect on his adrenalin.

‘‘If I had an hour and a half to spare, I’d rather read my favourite books, swim or watch a tennis match,’’ he notes.

His favourite tennis player?

‘‘Roger Federer. Period.’’

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BCCI: The bank ‘that would bribe God’

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Bank of Credit and Commerce International. August 1991. [File, Standard]

“This bank would bribe God.” These words of a former employee of the disgraced Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) sum up one of the most rotten global financial institutions.

BCCI pitched itself as a top bank for the Third World, but its spectacular collapse would reveal a web of transnational corruption and a playground for dictators, drug lords and terrorists.

It was one of the largest banks cutting across 69 countries and its aftermath would cause despair to innocent depositors, including Kenyans.

BCCI, which had $20 billion (Sh2.1 trillion in today’s exchange rate) assets globally, was revealed to have lost more than its entire capital.

The bank was founded in 1972 by the crafty Pakistani banker Agha Hasan Abedi.

He was loved in his homeland for his charitable acts but would go on to break every rule known to God and man.

In 1991, the Bank of England (BoE) froze its assets, citing large-scale fraud running for several years. This would see the bank cease operations in multiple countries. The Luxembourg-based BCCI was 77 per cent owned by the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi.  

BoE investigations had unearthed laundering of drugs money, terrorism financing and the bank boasted of having high-profile customers such as Panama’s former strongman Manual Noriega as customers.

The Standard, quoting “highly placed” sources reported that Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed Sultan would act as guarantor to protect the savings of Kenyan depositors.

The bank had five branches countrywide and panic had gripped depositors on the state of their money.

Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) would then move to appoint a manager to oversee the operations of the BCCI operations in Kenya.

It sent statements assuring depositors that their money was safe.

The Standard reported that the Sheikh would be approaching the Kenyan and other regional subsidiaries of the bank to urge them to maintain operations and assure them of his personal support.

It was said that contact between CBK and Abu Dhabi was “likely.”

This came as the British Ambassador to the UAE Graham Burton implored the gulf state to help compensate Britons, and the Indian government also took similar steps.

The collapse of BCCI was, however, not expect to badly hit the Kenyan banking system. This was during the sleazy 1990s when Kenya’s banking system was badly tested. It was the era of high graft and “political banks,” where the institutions fraudulently lent to firms belonging or connected to politicians, who were sometimes also shareholders.

And even though the impact was expected to be minimal, it was projected that a significant number of depositors would transfer funds from Asian and Arab banks to other local institutions.

“Confidence in Arab banking has taken a serious knock,” the “highly placed” source told The Standard.

BCCI didn’t go down without a fight. It accused the British government of a conspiracy to bring down the Pakistani-run bank.  The Sheikh was said to be furious and would later engage in a protracted legal battle with the British.

“It looks to us like a Western plot to eliminate a successful Muslim-run Third World Bank. We know that it often acted unethically. But that is no excuse for putting it out of business, especially as the Sultan of Abu Dhabi had agreed to a restructuring plan,” said a spokesperson for British Asians.

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A CBK statement signed by then-Deputy Governor Wanjohi Murithi said it was keenly monitoring affairs of the mother bank and would go to lengths to protect Kenyan depositors.

“In this respect, the CBK has sought and obtained the assurance of the branch’s management that the interests of depositors are not put at risk by the difficulties facing the parent company and that the bank will meet any withdrawal instructions by depositors in the normal course of business,” said Mr Murithi.

CBK added that it had maintained surveillance of the local branch and was satisfied with its solvency and liquidity.

This was meant to stop Kenyans from making panic withdrawals.

For instance, armed policemen would be deployed at the bank’s Nairobi branch on Koinange Street after the bank had announced it would shut its Kenyan operations.

In Britain, thousands of businesses owned by British Asians were on the verge of financial ruin following the closure of BCCI.

Their firms held almost half of the 120,000 bank accounts registered with BCCI in Britain. 

The African Development Bank was also not spared from this mess, with the bulk of its funds deposited and BCCI and stood to lose every coin.

Criminal culture

In Britain, local authorities from Scotland to the Channel Islands are said to have lost over £100 million (Sh15.2 billion in today’s exchange rate).

The biggest puzzle remained how BCCI was allowed by BoE and other monetary regulation authorities globally to reach such levels of fraudulence.

This was despite the bank being under tight watch owing to the conviction of some of its executives on narcotics laundering charges in the US.

Coast politician, the late Shariff Nassir, would claim that five primary schools in Mombasa lost nearly Sh1 million and appealed to then Education Minister George Saitoti to help recover the savings. Then BoE Governor Robin Leigh-Pemberton condemned it as so deeply immersed in fraud that rescue or recovery – at least in Britain – was out of the question.

“The culture of the bank is criminal,” he said. The bank was revealed to have targeted the Third World and had created several “institutional devices” to promote its operations in developing countries.

These included the Third World Foundation for Social and Economic Studies, a British-registered charity.

“It allowed it to cultivate high-level contacts among international statesmen,” reported The Observer, a British newspaper.

BCCI also arranged an annual Third World lecture and a Third World prize endowment fund of about $10 million (Sh1 billion in today’s exchange rate).

Winners of the annual prize had included Nelson Mandela (1985), sir Bob Geldof (1986) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1989).

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East Africa celebrates top women in banking and finance

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The Angaza Awards for Women to watch in Banking and Finance in East Africa took place Online via Zoom on 8th June 2021.

The event was set to celebrate the top 10 women shaping banking and finance across East Africa. The 2021 Angaza Awards, which will be a Pan-African Awards program, was also announced at the event.

Key speakers at this webinar were Dr Nancy Onyango, Director of Internal Audit and Inspection at the IMF; and Gail Evans, New York Times Best Selling Author of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman and former White House Aide and CNN Executive Vice President.

Dr Nancy Onyango advised women to deep expertise in their fields, spend time in forums and link with key players in that sector.
“Gain exposure with other cultures by seeking for employment overseas and use customized CV for each job application,” said Dr Onyango.

According to Gail Evans, women should show up and be fully present in meetings and not be preoccupied with other issues.
“Be simple and avoid jargon. Multi-tasking only means that you are mediocre Smart people ask good questions in a business meeting. Most women face drawbacks due to perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure, said Evans.

She advised women to play like a man and win like a woman, be strategic, and intentionally make their moves to get to the top.

“For us to pull up businesses that have been affected by effects of COVID-19 pandemic, we need to re-invent business models, change the product offering and make more use of digital platforms,” said Mary Wamae Equity Group Executive Director.

Mary Wamae emerged top at the inaugural Angaza awards( East Africa) ahead of other finalists.

While women continue to excel in banking and finance, the number of that occupies top executive positions is still less.

“There is a gap for women occupying C suite level and it continues to widen in the finance sector. At entry level, there is still an experience gap for women,” said Nkirote Mworia, Group Secretary for UAP-Old Mutual Group.

She said that at the Middle Management level, women do not express their ambition. For this reason, UAP-Old Mutual has developed an executive sponsorship program to help women get to the next level.

Mworia added that most women hold the notion that top positions in management have politics and pressure.
“One needs leadership skills and not technical expertise to get to the top,” said Mworia.

According to Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer and Principal Officer of APA Life Assurance Company, women need to focus on the strengths and natural abilities that they already have.

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“Take risks and raise your hand to get to the high table. Find mentors along the way and develop your own brand and not compare yourself with others Focus on your strengths because it will make you move faster in the career ladder,” said Karimi.

Lina Mukashyaka Higiro, a Rwandan businesswoman and chief executive officer of the NCBA Bank Rwanda since July 2018, has three lessons for women who want to excel in banking and finance.
“Always spend at least 20 minutes each day reading, seeking genuine feedback from other staff members and widen your network,” Higiro told the webinar.

Women picked for Angaza awards

Mary Wamae, Executive Director, led this year’s Top 10 Women in Angaza Awards, Equity Group (Kenya)(2)Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer, APA Life Insurance Company (Kenya)(3)Lina Higiro, Chief Executive Officer, NCBA Bank (Rwanda)(4)Elizabeth Wasunna Ochwa, Business Banking Director, Absa Bank (Kenya)(5)Joanita Jaggwe, Country Head of Risk and Compliance, KCB Group (South Sudan)(6) Millicent Omukaga, Technical Assistance Expert on Inclusive Finance, African Development Bank (Kenya)(7)Emmanuella Nzahabonimana, Head of Information Technology, KCB Group (Rwanda)(8)Judith Sidi Odhiambo, Group Head of Corporate Affairs, KCB Group (Kenya)(9)Rosemary Ngure, ESG & Impact Manager, Catalyst Principal Partners (Kenya) and(10)Pooja Bhatt, Co-Founder, QuantaRisk and QuantaInsure (Kenya).

The Kenyan Wallstreet, a financial media firm, partnered with Kaleidoscope Consultants to raise awareness of seasoned women shaping and influencing the sector through their organizations.

The Angaza Award criteria included assessing the applicants’ area of responsibility and contribution to firm performance. Professionals in Banking, Capital Markets, Insurance, Investment Banking, Fintech, Fund Management, Microfinance, and SACCOs were invited to submit their applications or nominations via the Kenyan Wallstreet Award Web page.

ALSO READ: Angaza Awards Top Finalist; Mary Wangari Wamae

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IFC in New Partnership to Develop Affordable Housing in Mombasa County

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NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 14 – International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, has signed a new deal in support of affordable housing in Kenya.

The corporation has partnered with Belco Realty LLP, to develop a mixed use affordable living complex that will consist of 1,379 residential units and over 4,500 square meters of retail and commercial spaces in Kongowea, Mombasa County.

Together with the Kenyan firm, IFC says the partnership will help meet surging demand for housing in Kenya.

Under the agreement, IFC will help identify suitable international strategic partners to invest equity of up to $12 million, or Sh1.3 billion in Belco and to provide the company with the necessary technical support to develop the project.

The development, known as Kongowea Village, will be developed to foster inclusive and affordable community living within the city.

Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa says the project, which will be located on eight acres within the heart of Mombasa city, will aim to be a catalyst for wider city regeneration.

The project will be developed to meet IFC EDGE certification requirements and will incorporate the latest technologies in passive cooling, energy efficiency and water conservation to support sustainable urbanization.

 Kongowea Village is expected to create 1,160 jobs and business opportunities during the three-year construction period and many more after completion of the project within the themed retail arcade.

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 “Access to quality housing is a growing problem in Kenya and across Africa,” said Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa.

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“Developers often target the high end of the market, but this project is aimed squarely at the lower-income bracket. Helping Belco identify the right partners for this project is expected to attract more developers to Kenya and other parts of Africa to help meet rising demand for housing.”

 IFC‘s engagement with Belco will help Kenya support its rapidly growing and urbanizing population by increasing access to affordable housing. The problem is similar across most of Africa, where population growth and demand for quality housing are combining to outstrip supply.  We are pleased to partner with a company such as Belco that is committed to contributing to solving this challenge,” said Emmanuel Nyirinkindi, IFC‘s Director for Transaction Advisory Services.

 IFC’s partnership with Belco is part of its broader strategy to support better access to affordable housing in Kenya.

In 2020, IFC invested $2 million in equity in the Kenya Mortgage Refinance Company (KMRC) to help increase access to affordable mortgages and support home ownership in the country.

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