A philanthropist, financial broker and investor, the Londoner is the chief executive of NEX. In Kenya, he owns Sirai House, a lodge for the well-heeled in Borana conservancy, Laikipia. Spencer is estimated to be worth £800 million (Sh108 billion).
Michael Spencer, one of the world’s wealthiest men. PHOTO | COURTESY
It’s the morning of the Kenya Derby. The main sponsor, Michael Spencer, holds court at the lobby of a snazzy hotel in Karen to talk about horse racing. Together with his wife, Sarah, they are embarking on an investment journey to raise the standards of horse racing in Kenya. A philanthropist, financial broker and investor, the Londoner is the chief executive of NEX, a UK-based company focused on electronic markets and post trade business. He also served as a treasurer of the Conservative Party from 2006 to 2010. In Kenya, he owns Sirai House, a lodge for the well-heeled in Borana conservancy, Laikipia. Spencer is estimated to be worth £800 million (Sh108 billion) and has been described in certain quarters in the UK media as one of the richest self-made men in the city of London. Later, his horse called Freewheeler—a South African bred filly— would go on to win the 2018 Kenya Derby at the Ngong Racecourse.
But first, he sat down with JACKSON BIKO for a cup of tea that Sunday morning. You have all these charities that you support, what do you think is the biggest driver of giving?Firms are, of course, in the business of making profit, of being successful but I think simultaneously more wiser, more mature people will realise that we have a broader responsibility towards community, beyond shareholders and customers. Nobody lives in isolation of their community, therefore we need to help them where we can. As a 62-year-old, how do you find your early 60s different from your 50s?I try not to categorise my life too much, otherwise I’ll feel like I’m getting really old. It wasn’t very long ago that I thought 62 was very, very old, but I don’t feel very old. But there is no question that my life is going to another phase change because you may well have read that I’m the biggest shareholder when a big American financial group called Chicago Monetary Exchange buys us for around $5.5 billion. So I will be joining the board of Chicago Monetary Exchange when this deal completes and in effect, in about six months. For the first time in 32 years my daughter will be very pleased, I will have a boss. So that is a big change in my life. I have an emerging market investment bank that has a small office in Nairobi called Exotics which is very successful and I have a horse breeding programme that is important. We will expand to build a proper stable in Laikipia. So I see this next phase of my life still working but doing things that I enjoy, a bit of variety, spooning, travelling a bit more, seeing new stuff. But I certainly see spending more time in Kenya for sure. This, certainly, is a good time in my life to do all these. You have been described as the richest self-made person in the city of London. I’m curious, though, is there a point in the life of a person like you where no matter how much more money you make it doesn’t make any difference in your life?Absolutely! To be honest with you, money…I don’t know how to say this in a nice way, I cannot spend the money I’ve got. It’s not possible. But believe me, there are thousands of people richer in the world than me, people better looking than me, faster than me, cleverer than me. But I’ve made more money than I ever thought I’d make. And you’re absolutely right, making money for the sake of making money doesn’t interest me at all. Doing things that I enjoy doing that I think of value and exciting gives me pleasure now. Like breeding horses, building a business in Nairobi. You know building small things that can give you as much pleasure as big things. If you were to get into a boat that takes you into the future, what’s the one thing you’ll carry with you?(Chuckles) A boat. Hmm. (Pause) I’d probably take my wife. What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt for the 42 years that you have worked?
I’ve made lots of mistakes in my career, but fortunately I learnt from them. One lesson; if you want to be successful, don’t go out just to try and make money. If you’re just trying to make money, you probably really won’t succeed because you’re looking at the world the wrong way. Whereas if you find a business idea or a project that you really feel passionately about, you are likely to make money. If you focus on doing something that creates value for the world, then you can be successful. Most people who set off to make money as the first motivation are pretty miserable people.Does your definition of success keep morphing at different stages of your life?What is it now?Success now to me is much more about being proud about things that I’m involved with. For example, I know the majority of the Islamic finance business based in London is run by a woman who is a Christian. And she goes to Riyadh and Qatar and obviously she dresses appropriately and all the clients know that she is a woman obviously and that she is a Christian, and she has totally believed in it. That impresses me and gives me a lot of satisfaction to show that your instincts can be completely wrong. I mean she’s very courteous, very respectful, but the customers respect her because they know that she is an absolutely straight honest professional and knows what she’s talking about. That is success. Who’s the one person you’ve met socially or in your line of business that really impressed you or made an impact in your life?Michael Bloomberg. He’s a brilliant man, a brilliant thinker and in my opinion could have been an outstanding president.Do you believe in God?Yes. I don’t go to church every week, but I do go to church. I believe in ethicality, that there is right and wrong.Is there a dream that you’ve not realised?(Pause) I think there are a lot of things that I would want to do. Sarah, my wife, is in her 50s and I’m in my 60s and she likes to say that we should be doing things that fulfil our soul more. For example, go to northern India, to Nepal, to feel different places. Travel more in Africa. I’ve never been to Victoria Falls, I’ve never been to Rwanda. Do things like take our car and drive down somewhere different. Go to Ethiopia, Aberdare mountains. For a long time ago, I used to want to go into politics.How does one make sure that they don’t get changed by money and wealth? I guess it’s difficult for me to answer that question because I don’t think money has changed me very much. But some people might say ‘oh, rubbish, your life has changed; you’ve got two houses in Kenya, you don’t need two houses in Kenya, who has two houses in Kenya?’ Money has changed my limits but it has not changed me as a person. My wife keeps me very grounded which is very key. My children as well are pretty grounded. My father always had a lovely phrase which I really enjoyed, ‘money cannot make you happy but it allows you to be miserable in comfort.’ (Laughs)You mention the wife a lot, you sound like you are in love…Yes. I was married for 10 years before her and it was a bad sad story at the end. But now Sarah and I have a beautiful relationship, doing things together like building houses together; in Kilifi and Laikipia. What do you fear now?(Sigh) The creeping of age and what it does to constrain someone. That’s the only thing that I fear; age. I still ride a horse but I don’t know when I’ll stop because of age. Still, I mean, we will all grow old one day. You know who they are from? R.M Williams. He was an Australian bushman and entrepreneur who became a millionaire from making boots. His boots, masterfully made by hand, last forever. I have boots that are 20 years old and are still in good shape. But these are relatively new. I clean them myself. You should buy them, they are very comfortable.