Raj Bains, the CEO of Kim Fay East Africa, wears jeans and loafers to work. He wears these on top of his excitable and lively demeanour.
I start off by asking the athletic, squash-playing executive to sum up his life.
“An amazing story. One big learning curve,” he says.
If the reel of his life rolled back and he was magically 20 again, Bains, 45, would not take back anything from his past.
“I had a very eventful and exciting youth. I partied for six days in a week,” he recounts wistfully. “Sometimes I feel I should have been more sensible, but then there were important lessons from these experiences.”
So, has he shed his revelry genes? Not entirely, he says.
“I still meet my friends once or twice every week. My wife and I go out too,” he says.
Bains’ life and squash are perfectly intertwined. He took up the sport at 12 while at St Mary’s in Nairobi. One of only a handful people in the country to have played squash competitively, Bains has represented Kenya on multiple occasions on the international stage.
“I participated in five World Junior Championships and two editions of the Commonwealth Games. I later became the national junior champion then the senior champion, reigning for seven years between 1996 and 2003,” he says.
His father, an Olympian, played hockey for Kenya in the 1970s. He giggles when I ask him to describe squash to a layman.
“You play a small hollow black ball in a four-walled court using a racket. The idea is to hit the ball while confining it within certain spaces of the wall. You must hit it after it has bounced off once.”
Few laymen would crack these rules, I challenge him.
“That’s why it isn’t a spectator sport, which is also a big drawback,” he says adding, “Squash is a very vigorous sport. It looks a lot easier when you watch people play it on TV, until you get into the court.”
I’m curious about how much time he dedicates to squash, who he plays and where. I also wonder how 30 years in a squash court has impacted his life.
“At the height of my playing career, I’d practice for five to six days every week. Nowadays, I play mostly for socialisation at Nairobi’s Parklands Sports and Wadi Degla clubs where I’m a member.” His last competitive game was at the World Team Championship in 2013 in France “before my knees started to creak.”
At only 13, Bains flew on his own to attend a competition abroad.
“Squash has taught me the values of independence, toughness, confidence, resilience and the nerve to compete. All these have been critical in running the business.”
When I ask him who his dream opponent in a squash match would be, his face lights up, but the animation soon ebbs away.
“Bob Collymore,” he says crestfallen. “I’d have loved to play the late Safaricom CEO. Not as a competition, but as an opportunity to pick his brain and to learn how he was able to do such amazing things at the company.”
While it is recognised by the International Olympic Committee, several attempts to incorporate it into the sporting showpiece have flopped. His thoughts?
“Squash pushes the limits of the human body which is the spirit of the Olympics. From stamina, skills, coordination and psychology, squash meets all these qualities,” he argues. Remove money, its comforts and privileges and the fulfilment of a successful career, I ask him what else sparks his momentum? Bains says that life is an irony. “When certain privileges stop to motivate you, they seem to come in abundance” he remarks. “Uplifting lives, which is also the ethos of our company, is what makes me to wake up every day. I’ve been able to merge my goals with the company’s, making this job my ideal place to be.”
So, is he self-actualised, I prod, to which he giggles, gesturing at his denim pants. “I think I am, and very happy.”
Bains says he is not materialistic, even though he believes in self-reward. So, what’s his biggest luxury?
“A chauffeur,” he responds. “I leverage on Nairobi traffic to be more productive. I make business calls, send e-mails and finish my work in traffic which is possible only when being driven. It’s a luxury and a necessity.’’
Nothing quite rivets the Warwick University-trained entrepreneur like the future, which he talks about with near obsession. The period between 2020 and 2030 particularly buoys him, and calls it “the most transformative decade in human existence.”
“From solutions in healthcare to energy, food security and artificial intelligence, technological convergence will make these a reality,” he forecasts, adding that businesses had better adjust quickly or be swept away by the tide.
Uncertainty of technology and its impact keeps him awake, he says.
“Technology will obviously not change the traditional use of tissue paper or diapers, for instance. But it will revolutionise how these products can be made more efficiently, how they’re delivered to the end user and how consumers pay for them,” he says.
On sustainability, Bains says modern businesses have no choice but to adopt renewable energy. Kim Fay has attained a 30 per reliability on solar energy, with plans to power its operations entirely from green energy by year 2022.
“We’re able to cater for all our daytime energy needs from the sun, which is free,” he says, arguing that “lack of knowledge and sometimes the inhibitive initial cost” are the main reasons most companies are hesitant to go green. Bains is not on any social media platform. “What’s the point?” he asks. “I love my energy. Most of these platforms steal your energy. There’s also a lot of deceit and negativity on social media.”
What is success to him? And in midlife, are there dreams around which he has loosened his grip?
“I’ve subdivided my life into 16 parts. My job, role as husband, father, my social and intellectual life and impact are some of the areas, with a deliberate action and monitoring plan for every part,” he says.
He observes that when one flourishes in one area of life while neglecting the other, everything starts to fall apart eventually. At 3pm every working day, Bains leaves the office to be with his nine-month-old son “who we got after trying to conceive for many years.”
“Being a father late has helped because I’m in a position to dedicate more time to him. I’m home by 4pm every day to spend time with him, feed him and change his diapers. I also bath him every night,” Bains says, noting that the business’s structure allows his team to make key decisions in his absence.
“See, I’m a hands-on dad. I love changing diapers, but I’m also researching on my products,” he jokes. Kim Fay makes hygiene products such as diapers, tissues and sanitary towels. It was a loss-making company when Bains became CEO in 2000. Twenty years on, the company’s tough business past is now a blur. Steering the brand into a profitable venture is a personal career highlight for him.
To younger men who are unsettled in their jobs, Bains prescribes a rather simple dose: chase whatever excites you.
“Sweat it off on things that you dislike and you’ll always be frustrated. Motivation comes with doing what you love to do.”