1. What was your first job?
In the Israeli army. I started when I was 22 and I got paid about $700 to $800. It was good money for a 22-year-old, but I was deep in places you don’t want to be in, such as Lebanon, the West Bank [and] Gaza. I exited the army and went to study economics. Because of my background in the army, I was put in charge of 60 security people guarding an oil facility run by the Israel Pipeline Company (IPC). I did something which saved money for the company so the MD pulled me out of security and gave me the position of economist in their head office. I stayed with the IPC for four years until I saw a small advertisement in a newspaper in Israel for the position of general manager for KenolKobil Tanzania. I applied and I was hired. I came to Kenya for training, but something happened and eventually I didn’t go to Tanzania.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
The main issue is how to keep my staff motivated. I also think of how to continue creating income streams that will boost our profitability. We are a public company and if we don’t perform people will not buy our shares. You must be creative and innovative to develop new revenue streams and increase profitability year in, year out. So we need to come up with ideas on which avenues to grow, and how to get new markets. For example, in exports there is a big market in DR Congo, we need to do more there.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
My dad. He was an immigrant from Morocco. Even when I was succeeding he would downplay it. He would urge me to do more and he was always raising the bar. It is only when I matured that I realised what he was doing. He was stretching my passion to succeed, and pushing me to have the drive to make an impact. He taught me strong values – never cheat your staff, don’t say something and then fail to deliver. In business I will never cheat someone, I trust people [and] I avoid court cases.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Manage your inventory. I had a great boss in Israel. She was an expert in reading the future market of oil prices. Our recovery [from significant losses in 2012] has a lot to do with inventory management. She always told me – whatever you do as long as you are in the oil industry, manage your stock. Don’t be long when the market goes down; don’t be short when it climbs. It is actually complex and you need to read a lot about it to be able to view the market accurately. If you take the wrong view you pile up too much stock, and when the market comes down, you lose money.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I am fanatic on my values. I do business in an honest, clean way. I respect people and I love my customers. Your values trickle down the organisation. I have great staff here. They are our greatest asset – each one of them is a star.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
On the job. Class gives you tools but it doesn’t give you expertise. On the job you make mistakes and you learn. I did well in the army and became a major, but I made a lot of mistakes too. I was young and I had eight platoons that I was leading. The lessons did not come free – I lost some soldiers. If you are able to learn from your mistakes and correct them, you get better.
7. How do you relax?
I am a runner. I have done a few marathons. In June I did the half marathon in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. On the weekends I spend time in the gym.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I am usually in the office at 8:30am. But I travel a lot – every week I’m in a different place. It is important to be in the office, but so is going into the field. We have a very youthful team – our country manager in Zambia is 28, the country manager in Rwanda is 31. I want to give them all the support they need to succeed. So I am constantly travelling.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I don’t have a favourite question, I look at the person and their body language. With my experience in the army I can read people well. I don’t even read the CV because I know the CVs have been read and filtered by the HR manager. I look for character, the person’s story. I’m looking to find out who sits behind the table and what motives them. I came from a poor place – a small village in Israel, from a small family. I started from nothing. So I look for stories. When I see something, either from a well-educated person or a motivated person with the drive to succeed, I hire them. And they always deliver.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
You must do it right. Don’t think you will just make money. So forget about the hype surrounding Africa. You have to be ready to work hard. If you come to our office at 9pm you will still find our staff in the office. You will see our twentysomethings working hard. The values of hard work, and doing things right have been entrenched. When it’s time to party, we have a proper party, when it’s time for work, we work. It is a competitive market, so don’t expect to take short-cuts and have it easy.
David Ohana is managing director of Kenyan oil marketing company KenolKobil Group. It has operations across east, southern and central Africa.