Meet the Boss: Kevin Ashley, CEO, Nairobi Java House

‘Meet the Boss’ is How we made it in Africa’s new interview series, where we pose the same 10 questions to CEO’s and executives across the continent.

Kevin Ashley

Kevin Ashley

Kevin Ashley, CEO, Nairobi Java House (Kenya)

1. What was your first job?

I used to sneak out of school when I was 12 during recess to a little grocery store to buy candies and baseball cards that I would resell to fellow students at lunch time at a profit. Finally I got caught by one of the nuns and had to give that up. I didn’t know it but this was my early days of being an entrepreneur. After that I become a paper boy.

2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?

My mom and dad by far. They showed me hard work and honesty pays off.

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

How to make sure that all of the 1,200 staff that work for me feel positive about their futures.

4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I think I am fair. I think I care about people and people know that about me. In addition I am passionate about quality and I am a stickler for details. I like to make sure that things are done well, but in the end fairness and belief in people has helped me more than anything.

5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?

I am an American-Irish citizen. My wife is Kenyan and I have been in Africa for over 20 years so this is home. I like the Kenyan people. I just find there is such a drive to improve on themselves, both education and career-wise. There is also warmth about them and they are very inclusive. They are sensitive about not making others feel excluded from an activity or a meal. You don’t realise how wonderful that is until you go to America and show up at someone’s house while they are in the middle of dinner and they tell you “we will be done in a second”, and you find yourself waiting in the other room until they finish. This is a very warm, inclusive society and I think a really wonderful place to live.

6. And the worst?

The worst thing about Kenya is the greed that exits in people. I get very disappointed when I see some members of parliament are making sitting allowances and other perks of even up to Ksh.5m (US$55,600) a month. That really turns my stomach… it really bothers me.

7. Your future career plans?

I don’t know. I am still riding this wave of Java. As an entrepreneur you don’t really know what is next. You like to have the open blank canvas and free space to fill it in. You see an opportunity and go for it. Right now I don’t see any others, and so for the time being think I’ll continue with what I am doing.

8. How do you relax?

I hang out with my kids. I love basketball and I love jazz. It’s mostly about spending time with my family.

9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?

Working in a corporate environment is extremely valuable. Anyone who has an opportunity to work for a blue chip company where they learn systems, structures and procedures should do it. It is super valuable, but that being said if someone has an entrepreneurial bend don’t stay too long. Stay long enough to learn all the nuts and bolts then get back out into the real world where you have to roll up your sleeves, miss a few meals, push things ahead on your own, and learn and see what you are made of.

10. How can Africa realise its full potential?

Africa needs to love itself better by embracing the talent that exists and nurturing it with a little more care. I say this because I see a number of brilliant minds being just wasted right now. I think the key will be how Africa embraces the talent already here. Then they must nurture it instead of maybe destroying it from time to time.

Kevin Ashley is the CEO of East Africa’s leading coffee chain Nairobi Java House. In 1999 the US-born former relief worker teamed up with two former colleagues to start Java which now operates 25 stores in Kenya and Uganda. The company has diversified into the pizza and frozen yoghurt business through its five Planet Yoghurt stores and one 360 Degrees Pizza outlet. In 2012 pan-African private equity company Emerging Capital Partners (ECP) acquired a stake in Java.