Meet the Boss is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
1. What was your first job?
My first job was as a trainee manager in the gas utility company in the UK. I was earning about US$10 a week which was a lot of money back then. I was 17 at the time.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
There are a few people in Unilever who mentored me… people who perhaps saw that I had some potential and were prepared to help me on that. I had a boss in the UK when I was based in Africa who was very supportive of what I was doing. I think working within a multinational I had a lot of opportunity for training and development.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
It’s managing the supply chain [and] managing cash flows and [other] operational details. Any business is based on cash to be honest and anybody can make a profit. It’s not difficult, but generating cash is a major concern. I wouldn’t say they keep me awake, but those are some of the things I think about.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I do have the ability to interact with people, to motivate people and to share and communicate my vision with them effectively. Because if people know where they are going, they are in a much more comfortable place than if they don’t know where they are going.
5. What are the best things about your country, Britain?
The green hills of England.
6. And the worst?
Some of the cities aren’t very pleasant and there is an obsession with health and safety and a sort of protectiveness of society which is quite sort of chocking in some ways. So, there is a risk assessment on everything which is unnecessary.
7. Your future career plans?
I am going to retire. What motivates me really is my ability to develop and help younger people in our business. As opposed to what keeps me awake at night, what helps me get up in the morning is the fact that I work with a team of brilliant young people who want to achieve things and if I can help them to achieve things then I feel very gratified.
8. How do you relax?
I do various things: I keep fit, I got to the gym regularly, I play golf and I do a little bit of cycling. Last year I got to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and back on foot. It took me a week.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
Work hard, communicate openly, don’t be afraid to tell the truth and stand up for what you believe in. If you see something that you believe is wrong, then say it.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
First of all, it is in trying to make sure that the infrastructure works. I think that is very important and that is being sorted out. If you have an efficient infrastructure system then you can compete with anywhere else in the world. Secondly, Africa needs to invest in education, training and development. If you have got an efficient infrastructure and you have got a well-educated work force then success is guaranteed.
Robert Clarke is the managing director of Promasidor Kenya, a leading pan-African food and beverage manufacturer food started in 1979 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The company has built a multi-million dollar business in 30 countries in Africa selling powdered milk, food enhancement products and beverages in small sachets. Originally from England, Clarke has worked in Africa with multinational firms for more than 20 years.