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Electrical Engineering was one of the ‘hot’ professions in Alliance during John Gachora’s time. That was Gachora’s idea. He wanted to be an Engineer. He wanted to drive the big machines because that was one of the coolest jobs at that time, and he would look fabulous doing it also because trains were, to young John’s eyes, a marvel of innovative machinery, and that came with a sense of novelty.

Well, that’s not what we know Mr. Gachora for these days – at least, for those who know him. John Gachora likes to keep his profile low. However, John is one of those people who have no choice in such matters. His story has to be told.

John Gachora was born in Gatamaiyu Village in Kenya’s Central Province in 1968. He is the eighth child in a family of thirteen children. His parents were tea farmers with a few goats and cows that Gachora would graze in the afternoons. Gachora attended Kamahindu Primary School before going on to Alliance High School.

The making of a leader

In John’s time, this was high school in a nutshell:

Form 1: You’re confused, monolized (Get bullied by the older boys) to Kingdom come

Form 2: The turning point, no bullying, just you and how far your creativity expanded in terms of breaking school rules

Form 3: It’s like a four-year-old slowly becoming aware of their surrounding. This was where you began making serious decisions about life.

Form 4: You’re crazy not to be thinking about books.

So, in Form 3, young John got an extra spark of ambition. This was where various leaders from areas such as student societies were elected. Young John wanted to be one of the leaders.

After rigorous campaigns, a few building bridges initiatives, and a handshake somewhere in between, John was successful in the school elections.

He was elected as the Chairman of the Young Farmer’s Club.

That was no easy feat, considering the amount of talking and influence one had to clutch to gain the attention of fellow boys against other relentless opponents. Boy, John had a story for his father.

After school, John went home and caught his father right before he went out to the market for his afternoon routine, which involved getting news and updates from other fellow parents. Young John passionately explained the struggles he went through, the obstacles he had to overcome, and how he emerged as Chairman of the Young Farmer’s Club.

Young John finished his narration, expecting his father to wash him with a shower of praises and bragging about how successful his son was to his parent-friends at the market. However, John only saw a menacing cloud of disappointment on his father’s face.

We take you to school so that we have a chance at escaping this village, and you go there to work hard so that you can end up like me?” his father had said. “Well, if you want this life, then you can quit school, and I will teach you myself.”

Dumbstruck and heartbroken, young John parted with his father and went to talk to his mother about how “her husband”, as John referred to him, was heartless and did not care about him. His mother listened intently and told him otherwise.

His mother told him that his father loved him, only that he did not know how to voice the love to John. As the red cleared out on John’s furious mind, he began to see and understand. He remembered one of the things his father had just mentioned;

“Leaders do not fight over a Jembe. Leaders fight over ideas. I never went to school, but isn’t there a debate club where you could share ideas?”

And it was at that moment that ‘I won’t settle for less’ got engraved into John’s heart. His father loved him, but it took his mother to translate his father’s love to young John. His father saw a Leader in him. Notice the ‘L’ is in uppercase.

John carried this with him as a major driving factor in his life.

“One day, you might be a banker.” His mother had said.

Young John never had it in his mind, he still wanted to be an Engineer and pilot the big machines.

It was at Alliance High School where John showcased his academic prowess, earning a spot at Brooks School in Andover, Massachusetts, through a high school exchange program.

That, however, did not happen as easily as you read that sentence. 

To secure the golden ticket of Alliance High School’s three-month exchange program in the United States, a student had to outshine their peers in a dazzling display of academic prowess and all-round excellence. Only the chosen few, who stood head and shoulders above the rest in every score, were granted the glorious opportunity to spread their wings and soar across the Atlantic for a taste of American education. It was a fierce competition, where the brightest stars would twinkle amidst the galaxy of ambitious students. Gachora was the star that stole the show. Gachora was one of those village boys who found themselves in the territory of the fairly rich, who were smarter and much more exposed. However, young Gachora was something else. For five years straight, Gachora topped his class and earned a spot at Brooks School in the U.S of A. 

Eagle-eyed Gachora and his Opportunity-Grabbing-Talons.

What’s that saying again? Curiosity killed the cat? One tiny problem, though, humans aren’t cats, and Gachora knew it. In the span of three months that Gachora was in Massachusetts, he made time to visit and learn the ins and outs of the grand Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard. He got to understand what it took to be admitted into the most sought-after institutions.

“You aren’t doing it right if you’re not a bit nervous.” Gachora once said. 

After the three-month exchange program, Gachora returned to Kenya. He didn’t stay for long, however. With the help of his Math teacher, Mr. Khaemba, John applied to and was accepted by MIT, where he earned both a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. 

John’s Motivating Factor.

Poverty. The thought of going back to living as he grew up gave John Gachora sleepless nights. Literally. 

After completing his Master’s degree in Electrical engineering, John would not settle for less. He decided that he would proceed to acquire a Ph.D. if he did not get a job that paid him $50,000 a year. Gachora got three offers. Two of the offers were unknown, courtesy of John’s anonymous Lifestyle, but they paid more. However, John picked the one that paid less on Wall Street. 

Yes, John was after not getting entangled with poverty, but he had forged a career trajectory, which he settled on. 

Gachora’s Financial Journey 

John found employment on Wall Street with Credit Suisse in New York as Vice President of the Asset Finance Division. This was his first engagement after school.

“It was primarily advisory work. “My job was creating some of those famous bond products that some blame for the (global crisis) in 2008.” Mr. Gachora told Lifestyle with a chuckle. 

John was Vice President of Credit Suisse from 1994 to 2004. In this timeline, he also squeezed into school, where he studied Finance and Management from 2000 to 2002 at Wharton School and earned an Executive MBA. Gachora later worked at Bank of America’s corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, rising to the rank of Managing Director – Group Head, Investment Banking. This was when he became the first Kenyan Managing Director on Wall Street. John took this role up until 2008. 

ABSA’s Weapon of Mass Success

The Israelites had Samson as their ultimate chance of success in their battles. 

Absa had John. 

In January 2009, Gachora took on the role of Head of Africa at Absa Capital, which was the investment banking division of Absa Bank Ltd. He was introduced to the investment banking division through a recruitment roadshow. His responsibilities included formulating the strategy for Absa Capital’s business operations across Africa and redefining the presence of both Absa Capital and Barclays Capital on the continent.

In other words, John Gachora was the mastermind behind Absa Bank’s expansion into the rest of the African continent. Gachora’s mission was clear: expand Absa’s footprint and achieve strategic goals that would make revenue, assets, and financial services accessible to all. He wasn’t shy about it. Armed with this vision, he took charge of the physical banks, a battalion of approximately 2,500 staff, and an army of 700,000 customers.

Then, Absa Africa had a cunning three-pronged strategy to conquer new territories.

“The first prong is to deepen our offerings and returns where we own banks like in Tanzania and Mozambique,” said Gachora.

The second prong was to collaborate with countries where Barclays had already set foot. The third prong was all about venturing into new markets such as Nigeria, Namibia, and Angola. Gachora knew the importance of these markets, especially Nigeria, which was predicted to surpass South Africa’s economy by 2020. 

When it came to the expansion, Absa explored both partnerships and acquisitions. In Namibia, they made a strategic acquisition, but they also didn’t shy away from the audacity of organic growth in certain regions. However, Gachora knew that building an empire from scratch could be quite costly. After all, acquiring customers and hiring the right skills required more gold coins than anticipated.

Gachora had an investment banking background from Bank of America and Credit Suisse. Topped with his engineering and computer science knowledge from MIT, and his Master’s in Business Administration from the Wharton School, the expansion challenges might as well have stood aside and let John carry on with Absa’s vision. Mayherps they did give way, as the current standings of the financial institution can testify.

“The banking industry has a preference for engineers due to the skills we have and the systematic way of thinking that we embrace. Finance is very systematic, it’s about ‘inputs and outputs’ when you are structuring. My skill is in creatively finding the in-between that will move the process from being an input to an output.” Gachora once said.

Home Sweet Home.

In September 2013, John Gachora settled back home when he was appointed the Group Managing Director and Group CEO of NIC Bank Group. His appointment came at a significant time, as it coincided with the merger of NIC Group PLC and Commercial Bank of Africa Limited, which led to the formation of NCBA Group.

The merger between NIC Group PLC and Commercial Bank of Africa Limited was approved by the Central Bank of Kenya and the National Treasury, and it created Kenya’s third-largest bank by assets. The newly merged group was named NCBA Group PLC, and the Kenya operating bank is known as NCBA Bank Kenya PLC. The merger took effect on September 30, 2019. 

John Gachora was appointed as the Group Managing Director and Group CEO of NCBA Group in 2019 following the merger. Under Gachora’s guidance, NCBA Group has made remarkable strides in the financial sector. The group has solidified its position as one of the leading financial services groups in the East African region.

John has three children; two girls and a boy. He spends his free time hanging out with his family. John likes trees, particularly Avocadoes, Casuarinas, and Eucalyptus. 

Oh, and John is a Mercedes guy. 

And so, as John Gachora’s story goes, we see a man who defied expectations and embraced the unexpected. From a village boy in Kenya through a mastermind behind Absa Bank’s expansion into Africa to being the Group CEO of Kenya’s third-largest bank by assets, Gachora’s journey is one for the books. May his journey inspire us to embrace the unexpected, defy expectations, and always strive for success with a touch of audacity. Cheers to you, Mr. Gachora!

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