NAIROBI, Kenya, Sept 10 – Ashok Shah greets me with a firm handshake before switching off his iPhone which he says rings persistently especially on weekday mornings.
“I work with millennials. They always need something,” he says in good measure.
Shah, the Group CEO of Apollo Investments Limited, APA Insurance, says it took long before he understood how millennials work. He now enjoys working with them immensely.
We are seated in the Capital Group Limited Board room to talk about several issues; for one, I am interested in knowing how an Applied Chemistry major ended up heading one of the country’s most visible insurance companies.
Shah says he left Nyeri County, his hometown, after High school and headed to London, UK, to study applied chemistry but could not find a good paying job in the field upon graduating.
His close friend would then introduce him to selling life insurance, a job that would pave way to his overall success.
“I remember knocking on people’s doors at evenings during winter seasons hoping to get customers. Despite the numerous challenges, I found myself enjoying the job. The pay was also much better than what I was getting in chemistry. The challenges taught me a lot. I learnt how to approach people, it taught me discipline, it also taught me how to do marketing,” Shah says.
A few years into the insurance job, Shah took a three-week trip to Kenya to bury his father. Unknowingly, the trip changed the course of his career.
“That was in 1977, we came together as a family and used my experience from working in insurance in the UK to APA Insurance,” Shah says.
After the formation of the company, Shah took time to familiarized himself with all aspects of insurance in the Kenyan market. The company appointed an insurance expert to lead the company for about two years before Shah formally took over as CEO in the 1980’s.
Today, the company is worth millions.
Despite a difficult operating business environment in 2018, which was characterized by a decline in real estate evaluations, the company posted Sh510 million in net profit.
“What advise do you have for people who are working in fields they did not study for in school?” I ask.
“In the grand scheme of things, we should all be working in the fields we studied. But that is not always possible, and sometimes, that is a good thing. Sometimes your success will be in other fields. If it pays and puts food on the table, give it a go.”
“Be interested in the job, develop a passion for the field you are in and have patience in whatever you do,” he adds.
Our conversation delves deeper into employment where Shah says he is keener on a person’s belief system and attitude than he is on professional qualifications.
According to the Chief Executive, it is more important for an entrant to have the right attitude and be a team player above all else.
As part of fostering new talents, Shah says the company offers paid internship programs that include free lunches. “We keep looking for new ways of supporting employment in the country, for instance, we have about 450 employees in the company but more than 1,000 people working for us directly and indirectly,” he adds.
He urges the government to strive to create a conducive environment that encourage generation of new jobs to reduce unemployment rates in Kenya.
Asked on what line of work he would have probably taken were he not in the current field of work, Shah says he would probably have become a restaurateur. “I love travel and food. I am social animal, I love hiking,” he says.