THE LIFE & TIMES
OF BOB COLLYMORE

Safaricom CEO's childhood dream was to be a painter but he died an astute business icon

BY OLIVER MATHENGE

If his mother hadn’t threatened him with eviction, Robert William Collymore’s life’s work would probably be hanging on a wall somewhere. Young Collymore had fallen in love with painting. As a teen be believed he would spend the rest of his life with a canvas and paints.

“I used to be very bored in biology and history classes, and during this time, I used to draw a lot. So I  took up painting which I believe I was good at and I would still want to be a painter,”
Collymore said in an interview in 2015

But his mother would have none of it. She pushed him to get “a serious job”, later landing him an interview at British Telecom, where she worked. That is how the man who decades later would become a venerable captain of industry and the CEO of east Africa’s biggest company got into telecommunications. He started as an entry-level clerical officer.

On Monday morning, the news of his death came as a shock to millions who had welcomed his return to work only last July after spending 10 months of treatment in the UK. Last year, on his return, Collymore revealed he had been feeling unwell for some time and was misdiagnosed with Vitamin D deficiency. He told Citizen TV’s Jeff Koinange in an interview that a doctor at Nairobi Hospital suspected a blood problem and referred him to a specialist in the UK.

“I left that very night to London and it was there that a haematologist diagnosed me with acute myeloid leukaemia — a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow and is curable,”
Bob Collymore told Jeff Koinange

Collymore, Vodafone CEO Nick Reed and Safaricom chairman Nicholas Ng’ang’a on Thursday were scheduled to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House. But this was not to be as the country was plunged into mourning after he succumbed to the disease at his Kitisuru home.

Born in 1958, Collymore was a Guyanese-born British businessman and the Chief Executive Officer of giant telco Safaricom. He spent much of his childhood in Guyana where he was raised by his grandmother after his mother left home to find work in the UK. Typical of the public and yet very private family man, little is documented about Collymore’s relatives save for his mother and grandmother.

Collymore started school in Guyana while still living with his grandmother until age 16 when he moved to the UK to join his mother in 1974. He joined Selhurst High School for Boys in London where he completed his formal education. Here he reportedly came face to face with racism, being the only black student at the time. Collymore was offered a place at Warwick University but turned it down because he was not eligible for a scholarship.

“I wanted to go to university and I disliked not having gone and for some years after I wished I’d gone. Now it doesn’t matter, [but] I would always advise a young person to go to the best university you can find,”
Collymore was quoted as saying in one of his many interviews.

The man who made Safaricom the most profitable company in the region was the envy of many and towered above his peers.

His business skills became evident at a young age and even without a university degree, he used whatever he could learn in his job and work-funded training to enhance his knowledge.

“There tends to be a lot of reliance on paper qualification. We stuff ourselves into universities, then we come out and there is very little difference between us and all the other people who also did the same,” he said in an interview with the Standard last year.

In various interviews, Collymore revealed that he started earning money at the age of 12 while living with his grandmother in Guyana. He would make art pieces from plastic moulds sent by his mother from the UK and also little brooches from coconut shells that he would sell. For a man whose childhood dream was painting, Collymore did a lot to become one of the best inspirational business managers Kenya has had.

Bob Collymore and KCB CEO Joshua Oigara during a forum/ FILE

Bob Collymore and KCB CEO Joshua Oigara during a forum/ FILE

Collymore took over at Safaricom in November 2010, replacing Michael Joseph who currently sits in the telco giant’s board. In his first year in office, Collymore was faced with a major challenge — Safaricom shares had shed about 50 per cent of their value from the Initial Public Offer of Sh5 in 2008. But Collymore had a plan and during his tenure, Safaricom’s share price has increased by more than 400 per cent to Sh28 currently.

During that first year, Safaricom post-tax profit also dropped from Sh15.1 billion to Sh13.1 billion. Collymore is credited for the turnaround; net profits for the year ended March 2019 were announced as Sh63.4 billion.

Safaricom Share Price (Sh)

Safaricom Profits (BnSh)

Safaricom Share Breakdown

He oversaw the introduction into the market of various mobile money products that have given the company leverage among its competitors. Collymore has also been at the forefront in leading the charge against regulatory efforts to clip the company’s wings due to its size and dominance.

In 2012, Collymore was awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) by President Mwai Kibaki for his service to the country.

Collymore loved Kenya and was deeply involved in its arts, even getting married to an artist from Kuona Trust, Wambui Kamiru. Despite his love for Kenya, Collymore confessed to not liking Kenyan food and preferred having Chinese or Indian cuisine.

Collymore was married thrice and divorced twice, as he revealed in an interview with the Daily Nation last year. “The first marriage was a mistake for sure. I was too young — in my 20s. The second one was not a mistake, what was a mistake was how we conducted it,” he said during that interview. He leaves behind four children. In previous interviews, Collymore said he liked flying helicopters and reading.

Before his appointment at Safaricom, Collymore was the Chief Officer for Corporate Affairs at Vodacom which he had joined from Vodafone (Africa) where he served as the Governance Director between September 2006 and February 2009. Between April 2003 and April 2006, Collymore worked as the Marketing Director (Asia) for the Vodafone Group, a position he took up after serving in the company as Global Handset Purchasing Director from July 2000.

Prior to this, he had served as the Handset Purchasing Director for Vodafone (UK) from December 1998, having taken up the role after serving as Purchasing Director of Dixons Stores Group for four years. Between 1994 and 1998 Collymore was the Purchasing Director, Dixons Group PLC joining the firm in July 1994 from Cellnet where he was the Handset Strategy Manager.

Between January 1978 when he joined as a clerical officer to July 1994, Collymore undertook various management roles at British Telecom. Collymore also served on the Board of Acumen, the United Nations Global Compact Board and was a member of the B TEAM, a not-for-profit initiative formed by a global group of business leaders to catalyse a better way of doing business, for the well-being of people and the planet.

He also served on the Kenya Vision 2030 board, was a Founding Trustee in the National Road Safety Trust and chairman of the TEAMS Board.He had recently served on a UN Commission on Life Saving Commodities for Women and Children.

Collymore cellebrates his birthday, 2019 /FAVIER PRODUCTIONS

Collymore cellebrates his birthday, 2019 /FAVIER PRODUCTIONS

Collymore is installed as a masaai elder during the opening of Safaricom shop, Narok, 2016 / FILE

Collymore is installed as a masaai elder during the opening of Safaricom shop, Narok, 2016 / FILE

Collymore loved Kenya and was deeply involved in its arts, even getting married to an artist from Kuona Trust, Wambui Kamiru. Despite his love for Kenya, Collymore confessed to not liking Kenyan food and preferred having Chinese or Indian cuisine.

Collymore cellebrates his birthday, 2019 /FAVIER PRODUCTIONS

Collymore cellebrates his birthday, 2019 /FAVIER PRODUCTIONS

Collymore was married thrice and divorced twice, as he revealed in an interview with the Daily Nation last year. “The first marriage was a mistake for sure. I was too young — in my 20s. The second one was not a mistake, what was a mistake was how we conducted it,” he said during that interview.Add a quote source (optional) He leaves behind four children. In previous interviews, Collymore said he liked flying helicopters and reading.

Before his appointment at Safaricom, Collymore was the Chief Officer for Corporate Affairs at Vodacom which he had joined from Vodafone (Africa) where he served as the Governance Director between September 2006 and February 2009. Between April 2003 and April 2006, Collymore worked as the Marketing Director (Asia) for the Vodafone Group, a position he took up after serving in the company as Global Handset Purchasing Director from July 2000.

Prior to this, he had served as the Handset Purchasing Director for Vodafone (UK) from December 1998, having taken up the role after serving as Purchasing Director of Dixons Stores Group for four years. Between 1994 and 1998 Collymore was the Purchasing Director, Dixons Group PLC joining the firm in July 1994 from Cellnet where he was the Handset Strategy Manager.

Collymore is installed as a masaai elder during the opening of Safaricom shop, Narok, 2016 / FILE

Collymore is installed as a masaai elder during the opening of Safaricom shop, Narok, 2016 / FILE

Between January 1978 when he joined as a clerical officer to July 1994, Collymore undertook various management roles at British Telecom. Collymore also served on the Board of Acumen, the United Nations Global Compact Board and was a member of the B TEAM, a not-for-profit initiative formed by a global group of business leaders to catalyse a better way of doing business, for the well-being of people and the planet.

He also served on the Kenya Vision 2030 board, was a Founding Trustee in the National Road Safety Trust and chairman of the TEAMS Board.He had recently served on a UN Commission on Life Saving Commodities for Women and Children.

HOW BOB
FOUGHT CANCER

BY HENRY MAKORI

Bob Collymore was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a rare form of blood cancer in 2017, at a London hospital where he had been referred from Nairobi Hospital.Collymore told Citizen TV last August that he had been unwell for a while, mostly feeling tired and having fever on and off.By the time he was diagnosed, doctors told him he had had the disease for probably six months.

He experienced the first symptoms while on a visit to Morocco and thought he had flu. He had pain on the bones of his shins.“I finally went to a doctor here in Nairobi who said I think you are Vitamin D deficient. I will give you supplements,” Collymore said.

Next, he visited Nairobi Hospital where he underwent 30 blood tests. A bone marrow test showed something was wrong with his blood and he was admitted. The doctors recommended a hospital in London for further treatment. That is where he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.The condition meant his body wasn’t producing white blood cells, which meant his immune system had broken down and couldn’t fight infections. He was told he would undergo treatment for six to nine months.“That was the biggest shock,” Collymore said.

“Being diagnosed with cancer for me wasn’t such a big deal. A lot of people seem to think that’s a bit strange. But for me it was, you know, if you got cancer you got cancer. You can’t undo it.”
Bob Collymore

What upset him was he would spend so much time away while he had a company to run and family to take care of. In the end, Collymore spent nine months and two weeks in the hospital. He was placed in isolation for seven weeks and spent most of the time reading and staying in touch with the Safaricom office in Nairobi.

He said cancer is a terrible word and anyone who is told they have the disease responds in a different way. His former wife and one of his sisters are cancer survivors. Acute Myeloid Leukemia usually occurs late in life – from around the age of 65 – although Collymore got it slightly earlier at 60 years. It is not hereditary and no one is quite sure why it occurs.

One of the many things Collymore said he reflected upon a lot while undergoing treatment was what happens to poor Kenyans who suffer from such illnesses considering the prohibitive cost of treatment.

“Number one, they are not going to be diagnosed because you will just think it is a bit of fever. There are many people who will be dying here in Kenya and around the world because of lack of diagnosis,”
Collymore said during the interview.

At the time of the interview, he said there were six of his colleagues at Safaricom or their spouses undergoing cancer treatment. The disease, he said, required him to make certain lifestyle changes like staying away from social gatherings such as parties to avoid any infection. The disease meant his immune system was completely destroyed and it had to be rebuilt, making him susceptible to all types of illnesses. If he caught flu, for example, it would last even two months.

Collymore said he was grateful for the overwhelming support he received from Kenyans while ill. He received goodwill messages from ordinary citizens, Muslim and Christian clerics, politicians and business leaders.“How the heck can I afford to die and let all these people down?” he asked. Cancer, he said, is not a death sentence and once one is diagnosed they should remain hopeful and believe in the treatment.