It’s easy to locate Anthony Ngunga’s office at the massive Crowne Plaza building which hosts Crowne Plaza Nairobi – a franchise of Intercontinental Hotels Group, as it is directly opposite the hotel’s entrance. Anthony is a burly man and so is his confidence. He proudly announces that he turned 50 a few weeks prior to this interview and it is evident that with age comes experience and with experience comes unshakeable confidence. However, as he reveals, he wasn’t this confident when he joined the hotel industry in 1995 as a front office staff at the Serena Hotel and Lodges, Amboseli.
“I completed my A Levels in 1988 at Tala High School after which I kept myself busy doing things here and there. I thereafter proceeded to Utalii College for a diploma in hotel management. I was lucky to join the workforce the same year I graduated. I was posted to Serena Hotels and Lodges in Amboseli and this marked the beginning of my illustrious career in the hospitality industry,” he narrates.
Anthony, who was born and bred in Machakos, describes his childhood as very normal. His father was a military officer and his mother a housewife. Growing up under the wings of a father in the disciplined forces meant that he and his siblings had to tow their father’s line. From the outset, this discipline is clear once you meet Anthony. It is in his well-trimmed hair without a strand out of place, his perfectly ironed two-piece pinstriped suit and well-polished shoes. He is also a man of order. He sits behind a well arranged desk and while you would expect murals lining his office walls, there are white boards with figures written in black, blue, green and red ink.
“What you see on that board are key performance indicators for the hotel since I came in. Whatever is in red indicates danger and needs improvement,” he explains.
I take a quick look at the board and I can’t fail to notice that the reds have reduced significantly as the months go by, a testament of Anthony’s success at the helm of the hotel. As if reading my trail of thought, he leans back on his seat, obviously proud of the work that he has done and if he were to rest, he could do so easily as the hotel is teeming with activity. But the hospitality industry is dynamic and there is no room for slumber – no pun intended – as Anthony attests.
“When I was posted to Amboseli, I had a young family. I was newly married and my first born child was a few months old. My wife was then a police officer and we were staying at the police staff quarters. I was 25 years old with big dreams and thus took the opportunity with gusto as I wanted to gain experience. Being far away from the city and my family, and staying at the police quarters enabled my wife and I to save for our home. I stayed in Amboseli for two years and by the time I was leaving, we had bought half an acre of land in Kasarani. That was a big milestone for us,” he narrates.
Anthony quickly learnt the ropes, often times pushing himself to the limit to ensure his work was done well. His commitment paid off for Anthony was promoted assistant hotel manager and transferred to Nairobi Serena Hotel in 1997. He describes his time at Nairobi Serena Hotel as a steep learning curve.
It was during this period that Kenya was going through tumultuous political times and the hotel’s proximity to the City Centre as well as the iconic Uhuru Park made it a meeting point of sorts for politicians. It was also in the same year that Kenya experienced the infamous El Nino rains, which really affected the running of the hotel.
“There was one time the hotel was flooded and we had to remove all the furniture and carpets for washing. Our staff was also stranded in various parts of the city, making their commute to work almost impossible yet I had a hotel to run. I spent my days and nights at the hotel to ensure everything ran smoothly,” divulges the second-born in a family of six who proved to be a veritable tower of strength.
It was thus baptism by fire for the then 29-year-old and he heaved a sigh of relief as he bade 1997 goodbye and ushered in a New Year. 1998 started on a high note for Anthony and his team at Nairobi Serena Hotel. As is the norm, the country had been thrown into chaos following the 1997 General Elections and was thus on recovery mode. However, this newfound peace would once again be shattered and in the most profound ways with the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy throwing everything into a tailspin.
“Again, the hotel being near the city centre meant that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, otherwise known as the FBI, other investigating agents and media found it a good place to stay while they carried out their investigations. As the assistant manager, I found myself working round the clock to ensure that guests were well taken care of amid all the confusion,” he narrates.
He stayed with the hotel for another four years, making it a total of six years, before moving to the Thika Road based Safari Park Hotel as a Front Office Manager, another senior position. He says that Safari Park hotel was a totally different set up from Serena Hotel as it was purely conferencing. And since the hotel is located next to United States International University, he used the opportunity to further his studies undertaking a Bachelor’s degree in hotel management. By the time he was leaving Safari Park Hotel in 2005, he was not only laden with experience in hotel conferencing but also had a Bachelor’s degree certificate with his name inscribed on it.
“In 2006 I joined Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge in Nakuru as a manager. The hotel targeted the leisure market and we thus dealt a lot with tours and travel agents. There was also a high movement of lodgers as they mostly stayed for a night. So each day we received new clients as we checked out others,” Anthony says of his time at the Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge.
Always on the move, Anthony left Sarova Lion Hill in 2008 for Sarova Panafric Hotel as General Manager. His time at Panafric was marked with immense institutional and structural changes that still stand to date. It was here that he got invaluable lessons on business planning, financial planning as well as human resource management.
And so by the time Pride Inn Hotel came looking for him to run their hotels as the CEO, they found a man brimming with experience and Anthony did not disappoint. Ever a game changer, he was instrumental in the purchase and construction of Pride Inn Shanzu, a first of its kind in Kenya and which boasts of the largest convention centre and the first and only family aqua park resort.
“I worked with Pride Inn for only one year but that was all I needed to leave my imprint at the institution. I left in 2013 to start a consultancy firm consulting for businesses across East Africa. I came back to employment on March 1, 2017, as the general manager of Crowne Plaza Nairobi. One of my tasks was to turn around the fortunes of this hotel, and I am on course,” he says with a tinge of pride, and rightly so.
Anthony, who holds a Master’s degree in hotel management from Kenyatta University, says working with Crowne Plaza Nairobi and in the same breath Intercontinental Hotels Group offered him a whole new experience. Being an international brand, Anthony has gained lots of exposure including training at the prestigious Cornell University where he got to interact with general managers of top hotels from across the world. Since Crowne Plaza Nairobi was crafted to offer bespoke services and amenities to business people, Anthony and his team strive to tap into the local business community.
“In my tenure, business volumes have grown by 25 per cent and local perception has increased three fold,” he says.
Anthony has definitely made his mark in the hotel industry and has sat in a number of boards such as Regulation of Hotels and Restaurant, the Alumni of Utalii College, Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Upper District Association just to mention but a few. He uses these positions to positively influence the hospitality industry. He has also mentored and shaped the careers of hundreds of aspiring hoteliers who have passed through his hands.
As a general manager, he says that the most exciting time is when the hotel capacity is full and everyone, including his staff, is happy. On his leadership style he says, “I am a very focussed leader and a strategist. I delegate a lot and lead my team by guiding them. I also keep them on their toes and we celebrate every milestone we achieve. When all is said and done, we relax and have fun.”
Anthony has been married to Alice Ngunga, who works at the Office of the President , for the last 25 years. “My success is in my family. I have instilled in my five children a culture of responsibility, integrity and humility and it is rewarding to see them practice these virtues in their day-to-day living,” he offers as we conclude.