Impact and purpose are recurring themes in George Mubipe’s career, culminating in his current role. For the past six years, he has been an Executive Director with Focus Financial Services, a lender to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Zambia.
The company began with the goal of providing finance to early-stage small businesses that might not otherwise have had access to capital. Since 2011, the company has arranged more than $200 million in funding. “I feel that, of all the jobs I have had in the past, this one is the most fulfilling. It speaks to my purpose in life of being impactful,” he says.
“Our focus is about promoting entrepreneurship in a commercially sustainable way. To have over 5,000 SMEs on our books in the last six years is so satisfying. I see people who walked into our offices with just an order or a contract and they had no clue to find money to deliver on that. Today, some of these guys are turning over $5 million or $10 million a year. To me, that is impact. Most of the SMEs employ an average of 20 to 30 people, so you can imagine how much we’re contributing to job creation in the economy. To me, that is creating a social impact.”
Focus Financial Services and the rest of the Focus Group has more than 120 full-time employees. In addition, it has more than 60 insurance agents on retainer. “That in a small way, is impactful,” Mubipe remarks. Job creation is a key public policy issue for Zambia’s current government as it seeks to reduce poverty. “By supporting small businesses, we are making a significant contribution to the economy.”
His route to Focus began more than 20 years ago. On graduating from university, he joined PricewaterhouseCoopers and while there, he trained for CA certification at the Zambia Centre for Accountancy Studies. “PWC gave me the opportunity to be trained as a Chartered Accountant while working for a world-class professional services firm. For me, it wasn’t difficult to go through the training because I was able to learn much of the technical accounting work within the practice.” Mubipe says his perspective on his life and career was strongly shaped by his earlier accountancy training.
“Being a Chartered Accountant firstly teaches you to be strategic in your approach. As accountants, we are trained on how to craft and deliver strategy. I try to apply that in my own life: how to navigate through my career to achieve my purpose. Secondly, as a CA, I’ve been taught how to think in a rational way. We all try to do things that are logical and make sense. Thirdly, I try to evaluate options. As a Chartered Accountant, you’re always thinking of the best way of deploying scarce resources.”
Another part of his education came at home, where both parents were involved in business. This gave Mubipe the understanding that entrepreneurialism is about believing in an idea that can work, and the acceptance that some of those ideas may not prove to be profitable. Nevertheless, he believes accountancy provides the balance between the faith an entrepreneur needs and the rational realism for which the profession is known.
“Maybe this is part of my training as an accountant; you’re never sure what the future will be. That’s why you have scenario planning. You have to make a judgement based on what you can see,” he says.
After more than three years at PwC, he moved to Energy Regulation Board. It was in start-up mode and Mubipe was part of the initial professional team that was mandated by the Zambian Government to set up the authority for an energy industry that hadn’t been regulated before. He saw the ERB role as the opportunity to layer management skills on top of the technical accounting skills he had acquired in his first post.
“I moved to the ERB initially as a financial analyst. I could not have been hired for that role if I had not been a CA, so most of what informed our conversations with officials came from a strong understanding of the numbers in order to demonstrate that the fuel price or electricity tariffs should be at one level rather than another.”
The job also gave him a grounding in interacting with politicians and high-ranking public officials. “I loved the challenge of starting something, growing it and positioning it for success,” he recalls.
After a seven-year spell at ERB, he moved to Barclays in order to learn about the workings of a global blue-chip multinational financial institution. “Even though I only spent two years in Barclays, I joined as finance manager/deputy finance director and I was able to apply my training as a CA, to be at the centre of driving the performance of the business,” he comments.
The relatively short stay was deliberate. Mubipe had already been thinking about whether it was possible to fulfil his aim of making an impact in the lives of others within the structure of a large corporate like Barclays. A chance call from a friend in Johannesburg, to discuss setting up an SME-focused financing business, set him on his path. “I thought, ‘this must be a rare chance’. I was thinking of leaving [Barclays] and I assessed the opportunity in the context of whether it would give me the opportunity to pursue my purpose in life, and I quickly saw it was exactly what I needed. I teamed up with this friend of mine to set up Focus Financial Services.”
Having started off providing short-term working capital, Focus is now a diversified group with businesses in short-term insurance, investment banking and life assurance. Mubipe’s current role is Deputy Group Chief Executive and Managing Director, responsible for Focus Financial Services and driving group strategy.
The philosophy of making an impact in people’s lives has been a guiding light through all points in his career. “I believe that in life, one must have a purpose, then create the strategy of how to achieve that, and then, pursue it relentlessly. Jobs, in my opinion, should be evaluated in the context of a bigger idea: what does the person stand for? That is the only way, in my opinion, that you can remain energised as an employee. If a job helps you achieve your bigger ambition in life – which has to do with how you can contribute to society and the community from which you come – I’m happy. I was educated in public schools. The Government spent money on me in the form of university education and, frankly, I feel this is my way of paying back to society.”