Susan Mudhune – You can bank on her

Susan Mudhune’s appointment as the first woman group chairperson of Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), Kenya’s largest commercial bank, in 2003 was historic. The career banker has been recognised as a fellow of the Kenya Institute of Bankers for her outstanding professional contribution to the banking sector. In 2004, she was conferred the Order of the Burning Spear (MBS) in recognition of her distinguished service to the country. And in 2008, she was honoured as a fellow of the Institute of Management for exemplary leadership in the corporate world.

The banking industry paused in shock in 2003, when the announcement came through that Susan Mudhune was taking over as the first female chairperson of Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), one of the country’s largest banks. Even though she had served as a director of KCB for two years, this was huge and, understandably, she got cold feet. But further reflection and some consultation with family and colleagues cleared her head and she responded to the challenge with gusto. From then on, there was no looking back. She was unperturbed by stock market chatter that voiced doubts about whether she would make it. Indeed, quite a bit of anxiety greeted her elevation to the bank’s helm, accompanied by rumours in certain places that the share price would crash in response to this historic move. “On the contrary, the market responded positively and KCB’s share price in the market moved from Ksh20 to Ksh40,” recalls Mudhune.

Brushing aside the doubts, she rolled up her sleeves and optimistically attacked her tasks, which included directing and guiding the executive management and the board in planning strategy, formulating policies and implementing business building programmes. “I spearheaded the expansion of KCB in eastern Africa and led several delegations to
lobby for the banking business with diverse stakeholders,” she recalls. “I am also a believer of strong corporate governance principles and business ethics, which I instilled right from board level.” Mudhune was also instrumental in launching the KCB Foundation to manage community and social development initiatives in the East African region. Under her watch, aggressive rebranding and restructuring saw KCB come back from a Ksh4.1 billion loss when she took over to a Ksh4.2 billion profit before tax four years later. Not that there is a right or wrong way to be a wife and/or mother. It is just about taking whatever challenges that come your way in the most convenient fashion
possible How was she able to make an impact? “I had a great team. I was also lucky to have competent CEOs at the helm – Terry Davidson and Martin Oduor-Otieno thereafter.

There is nothing extra-terrestrial about doing a great job,” says the soft-spoken banking guru. “Being effective is simply about understanding the task at hand and executing it accordingly. I took some time to understand my tasks and crafted a realistic strategy to accomplish my goals.” A few glaring areas that needed sorting out included myriad human resource issues, the not-so-appealing image of KCB and the bad loan book that affected profitability. Tackling the HR situation came with sleepless nights and headaches. “There was resistance to change,” she says. “Everyone was meant to sign a performance management agreement. Union members resisted because they thought their negotiation powers were being eroded. Those who were quick to understand the concept were considered traitors,” she says. Thankfully, through tactful reasoning, the stand-off was eventually resolved.

Another challenge was experienced during the transition of the CEOs. There were several conflicting interests and opinions among the various stakeholders on who should take over from Davidson. “Channelling all those brilliant opinions into one name – Martin Oduor-Otieno – was a herculean endeavour to say the least.” No doubt prior training and experience prepared her adequately for such a challenging role. This included two decades in various senior management positions at National Bank of Kenya before she retired in 2000 as well as Bachelor of Arts and Master of Business Administration degrees from the University of Nairobi. Among her pillars of support is her engineer husband Joel Mudhune. She recalls preparing for her first KCB annual general meeting.

“It was a nightmare. I was going to meet more than 2,000 demanding shareholders who were obviously disappointed about the overall performance of their investments they were not getting their dividends.” On the eve of the AGM, she remembers reading and reworking her speech. “My husband was the ‘audience’. This was going to be my first time to chair an AGM. On D-day, he came and sat through the meeting. That made a major difference in my performance,” she laughs. This women-empowerment die-hard describes working with men as “perfect” and “exciting”: “They gave me a lot of support, respect and protection, especially at KCB.” She does however remember an interesting incident while leading a team consisting of men to a neighbouring country to negotiate for KCB’s market space. The party they were meeting included the head of government who was at first hesitant to accept her as the leader of the delegation. “I made it clear to him that I was leading the team and thereafter we forged a very positive interaction.”

She counts entering into new markets as one of her proudest accomplishments. When she and her team noted that a significant number of South Sudan nationals living in Kenya were moving back home after the peace accord, they saw a potential market in the new nation. To explore this opportunity, the team set off for South Sudan. “Our first meeting with the Bank of South Sudan in Juba was under a tree. We slept in tents – there were no hotels then,” she narrates, adding that it was a risky venture considering South Sudan had been politically unstable for a long time. “But it was a risk we were bold enough to take because we were convinced the market had immense potential.” She is proud that KCB pioneered the South Sudan market; other Kenyan banks followed suit not long after. Uganda, Kenya’s traditional trading partner, was their next market. “This was because there was growing business along the Kenya-South Sudan-Uganda circuit.”

Mudhune finished her term in 2008, as the team was spreading to Rwanda. How has she juggled career with family responsibilities? She laughs at the question and explains that she is 100 per cent wife and mother when she gets home. She admits it was harder back in the day, having had her first two children while still in university. “Now things are a little easier. Young assertive mothers out there need not worry,” she says. “There are many mother-friendly gadgets – microwave ovens, baby monitors, mobile phones, takeaway food for tight evenings…” She adds, more earnestly: “Not that there is a right or wrong way to be a wife and/or mother. It is just about taking whatever challenges that come your way in the most convenient fashion possible – and positively. There can be so much to do out there, but plan your day well enough so your family is not short-changed.” Mudhune was raised in a humble setting in Nyanza among 10 siblings. Her father, an Anglican Church of Kenya pastor, was the first African canon in his diocese. Her mother was a farmer. Hard work and discipline were the principles instilled in their home.

“Anything far from that would warrant the dance of the cane,” she recalls, appreciating that all four boys and seven girls were accorded the same opportunities. Phoebe Asiyo, the former Karachuonyo MP and a champion for women’s rights, is someone she looks up to. “She is a woman with rare leadership qualities. She has very high standing in society, has many responsibilities, and yet makes time for people. She is amazingly well-groomed and is also a keen listener,” says Mudhune. Her other role model is her mother, Dorca Nyong’o. “She is in her late nineties yet she has never stopped making herself relevant. She is strong, mentally alert and passionate about girl-child education.” Mudhune is equally passionate about the inclusion of more women in corporate leadership and spends some of her time mentoring and coaching women executives. This is what led her to becoming a founding partner of Pink Progress, which champions the inclusion of more women on corporate boards.

She firmly believes in taking the community forward with her, which explains her involvement in a number of social and charity engagements. She is the patron of Nyamninia Primary School, a board member of St Mary’s High School Yala and the National Trustee of the Kenya Girl Guides Association. She is also on the advisory board of Palmhouse Foundation and a founder member of Starehe Girls’ Centre, and was involved in the initiative that established Ratta Girls’ Hostel for vulnerable secondary school girls in her village, a project begun by her mother.

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