By Prudence Minayo
Kenya Commercial Bank chief executive officer Paul Russo was born in Laisamis, in Marsabit County, in northern Kenya. Growing up in such a harsh environment, Russo knew that he his dreams were pegged on hardwork. His father would point out the benefits of education by using the most educated men in the village, as examples. Today, the corporate magnate has come a long way having worked in the banking sector for more than 18 years.
He has had successful stints at Barclays Bank (now ABSA), National Bank of Kenya, K-rep and KCB. He has also had a stint with Unga Limited and Kenya Breweries.
The KCB CEO is 46 years (2022).
Paul Russo attended primary school in Laisamis. Upon completing primary school, he was admitted at Mang’u High School. Having no money, his father resorted to selling all his animals and his late older brother had to give up his education.
Even after joining the national school, raising his school fees became a huge problem. But the young man with lofty dreams was not going to give up on school. His one dream then was to work for KCB Marsabit. They owned a Land Rover 110, and the men working at the branch wore suits and ties and carried newspapers in the dusty Marsabit roads. That was how he found himself seeking help at Food for the Hungry International in Westlands. After explaining his struggles, they offered financial aid. He successfully graduated from High School and joined Moi University to do a Bachelor of Arts program. He would later graduate with a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management from Strathmore Business School.
The Moi University alumni is married and a father of three girls and one boy. He ensures that his children know and appreciate the culture of his Rendile people which he maintains by keeping camels and goats. According to him, from camels, he has learnt to be Persistent, hardy and go the extra mile. Camels also promote sharing and community since the milk is shared evenly among strangers.
“They can fail to get water and go for another four or seven days without it. Resilience is critical in the corporate world. You can miss your target for the month but you don’t give up. “
One of his regrets is not having to spend enough time with his family. His wife is a Marsabit native who was educated by Catholic sisters. Despite coming from a patriarchal community, he believes in gender equality. This is why he even walked away from an arranged photo shoot in South Africa after the photographer told his daughters to stop behaving like boys.
Mr. Russo has been serving as the Regional Director at KCB and the Managing director of National Bank of Kenya (NBK), a KCB Plc subsidiary. Prior to these roles, he worked for different banks over the years as:
- Head of HR at Barclays Bank, Tanzania.
- Regional HR Head and HR Change head at Barclays, Tanzania
- Head of HR at Barclays Standard Services- Barclays Africa.
- Regional HR Head and Change Head at Barclays, Africa.
- HR Director at KCB Group Plc
- Receiver Manager at Chase bank
- Chief HR Officer at K-rep
- HR Manager at Unga Limited
- Head of Human Capital at PwC
- Acting Compensation and Benefits Manager at Kenya Breweries.
On May24, 2022, KCB appointed him as the Group Chief Executive Officer of KCB. He takes over from Joshua Oigara who is credited with turning around the fortunes of the lender. It is said that under his stewardship, KCB more than doubled its profits.
“Russo replaces Mr Joshua Oigara who has been the GCEO for the last nine and a half years. Joshua will be available for a period of time to support a smooth transition. The appointment follows a competitively run selection process that kicked off in March 2022,” KCB said in a statement released on Tuesday, May 24.
Bringing Chase Bank To Life
The banking sector was hit hard following the decision on April 7, 2016 by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) to shut down Chase Bank after it became apparent the lender did not have enough cash to meet demand for withdrawals. This decision affected over 50,000 depositors who had over Ksh100 billion at the bank.
To bring back to life the bank that had been named the best company to work for in Kenya a year earlier by Deloitte, Paul Russo-who was the then KCB Human Resource Director-was appointed receiver manager on April 22, 2016.
Before then, no bank in Kenya had come out of receivership in Kenya. They had to start from the basics as the Kenya Deposit Insurance Corporation (KDIC) shut down everything.
Ruso told the Standard that they expected the worst case scenario when the bank opened its doors to depositors.
“……when we in KCB were made receiver managers on April 22, the first phase was to open the doors and allow depositors to withdraw up to Sh1 million. This happened on the morning of April 27. If your account had less than one million, you could access everything”, Russo told the publication.
Paul Russo went on to state that the lender would have gone down if the depositors withdrew all the Ksh1 million at once.
It took KCB receiver managers four months to put the bank on track. The new KCB CEO told the Standard:
I think KCB as receiver managers exceeded expectations, and KDIC is happy with that.
Normally, receiver managers last for 12 months. We as KCB have done what we set out to do within four months.
The acquisition part is different. Our management contract was clear: open the bank, transact, operationalise, facilitate due diligence, and hand over.
Had he predicted that he would be the next CEO
Paul Russo stated in the same interview that he believed the next cadre of CEOs would be HR directors and he just became one.
He said at the time:
Personally, I believe the next cadre of CEOs will be HR directors. The future of leadership is about people. When you think of Chase’s reopening, it was mainly a behavioural science thing. It’s about customers and staff; it’s about leading in turbulent times.
I had to decode the behaviour of people and lead staff during tough times. I asked myself, what would a typical Kenyan want to see on April 27? They wanted to see their balances and how much they could withdraw.