Meet the Boss: Paul Kavuma, CEO, Catalyst Principal Partners

Paul Kavuma

1. What was your first job?

I was an intern in a veterinary business in southern Germany, where I was on a manufacturing line. I was packing veterinary products and physically loading vehicles and trucks with product.

2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?

We aspire to be an established, sustainably-run, preeminent East African multi fund manager. And to do that requires consistent outperformance, consistent team and partnership development, and reputationally we need to maintain the highest levels of credibility in the market. So there are many facets of that that worry me [and] that I have to consider and think about as a manager.

3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career?

It has to be my father. He was also entrepreneurial. Maybe at the time I didn’t realise it, but he was taking quite a lot of risks in developing his career initially, and then a business subsequently. He sacrificed quite a lot to give us the platform that allowed us to get the educational and global exposure that I have got. I always felt that I had full support to aspire to my own vision.

4. The best professional advice you’ve ever received?

I guess it was to listen. Because everyone is very smart and everyone has conviction, but it is quite difficult in leadership to listen and to really hear what other people are saying. And that was something that I was advised to do many years ago.

5. The top reasons why you’ve been successful in business?

On one level my background was quite conventional, but I always took a slightly different path to my peers. I was always keen to get back to East Africa. I always wanted to be in finance. I always wanted to be impactful and to be entrepreneurial. Private equity really encapsulates pretty much all of those things. And to do it in my home turf – is not really work for me, it is something I enjoy doing.

6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?

I don’t see them as being mutually exclusive. Certainly in our business here, if we’ve got young guys coming through, I encourage them to go and do a business school degree. I think it broadens perspective and deepens your skill sets when you are in a purely learning environment – and not just always sort of learning and hustling and worrying all at the same time.

But I also think there is no substitute to actually being at the coalface of practical experience – particularly in the private equity industry. Most of the lessons you learn is through your mistakes – and successes – but more often from your mistakes, or the judgement calls that went the wrong way, or the unexpected event. And you can’t substitute that in a business school environment. So I think they are mutually reinforcing as opposed to one is better than the other.

7. How do you relax?

I don’t. I still haven’t quite got that balance where I feel like I am living a good wholesome equally-measured lifestyle. At the moment we are still very busy in the development of the business and the development of the franchise. And so in these years it does take quite some focus. Of course I have my family, I have my children, and I get pleasure from spending time with them – and that I guess is my relax mode. But I do travel a fair amount and we’re very busy as a business. So I would not say I’ve got that balance right yet.

8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?

I don’t have a time because I often have breakfast meetings or I’m often travelling. My schedule is not really very fixed at all, neither in the morning nor in the evening. So I don’t really have a very structured day to be honest, it is very dynamic.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

The primary theme that I am exploring in an interview is the resonance of what we are doing to that person’s personal passion and aspiration. I’ve worked for much larger organisations than the one that is Catalyst today. There’s been a point in my career where it was really cool to be doing big transactions, or being in big cities, or getting the largest tombstone for a deal. And those that are interested to join a firm like Catalyst can’t be doing it for any of those reasons. So for me the question is: what is it that resonates about what we are doing that is consistent with where you are going as an individual.

10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?

I think this is a really interesting time to be on the continent and – certainly speaking from the East African perspective – I see plenty of upside and room for people to find roles or positions or opportunities that are meaningful, but also can be highly impactful. So that’s the challenge – is to put all that energy into a direction that will take us forward.

Catalyst Principal Partners is a Nairobi-based private equity firm focusing on investing in high-growth mid-sized companies across eastern Africa.