Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, who died at the beginning of July, took his company to places no one thought possible. David Thomas looks at how the firm can replace his visionary leadership and deal with the threats that are emerging in response to its great success.
In May, Bob Collymore, the chief executive of Safaricom, East Africa’s largest telecoms firm and most profitable company, sat down with African Business at the firm’s Nairobi headquarters for what turned out to be his last major magazine interview.
In jovial spirits and clearly excited by the future of the firm, Collymore’s conversation ranged widely, taking in Safaricom’s Kenyan dominance, its track record of innovation and reinvention, the firm’s reticence to pursue aggressive acquisitions, and even Collymore’s love of jazz and orchestra.
After a lengthy period of serious illness and convalescence, Collymore appeared ready to take the bull by the horns and lead the firm into his second decade in charge since taking over in 2010. Playful but firm, he brushed aside questions over his future and a possible succession battle.
“No, I’m not stepping down,” he laughed. “I never said I’m stepping down. People say, ‘Well, your contact runs out in August’, yes, but my contract ran out in August two years ago and two years before that.”
But on 1 July, the tragic news filtered through that Collymore, aged 61, had succumbed, after a long battle, to acute myeloid leukemia, sparking an outpouring of tributes led by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“Bob Collymore was an accomplished corporate leader who steered Safaricom to a position of great admiration as East Africa’s most profitable company,” said the president. “As a country, we’ve therefore lost a distinguished corporate leader whose contribution to our national wellbeing will be greatly missed.”
His death bought to an end to one of the most remarkable and successful tenures in East African business, which saw Safaricom consolidate its position as the largest firm in Kenya and expand into every corner of its customers’ lives. Collymore’s career coincided with an explosion in the ownership of mobile telephones and smartphones on the continent, and he positioned Safaricom as a platform in a booming market for new services.
Starting out as a traditional telecoms provider of voice and text services, the firm aggressively expanded into data, broadband, infrastructure and financial services, the latter under M-Pesa, the fast-growing subsidiary that Collymore inherited.
“Over the period he’s been in charge he really took […]