Monday 26 August 2019

'I was naive thinking I could fix extreme poverty'

All the trappings of success made Kenneth King miserable, so he designed a project to take people out of poverty

Kenneth King's book, The Endeavourist, traces the contrasting phases of his life. Photo: David Conachy
Kenneth King's book, The Endeavourist, traces the contrasting phases of his life. Photo: David Conachy

Andrea Smith

How I Became a Bastard is the rather startling title of the first chapter of Kenneth King's book, The Endeavourist. When you meet the man himself, with his warm, gentle manner, big smile and open face, it's hard to reconcile him with the picture he paints of a spoiled London City banker who turned into a "demanding, intolerant monster".

A guy who learned to swim with the sharks in the world of investment banking, becoming a shark himself who was "as nasty and manipulative as anyone else". A guy so wealthy that he once went to a car dealership to collect his brand-new convertible blue Porsche 911 and spotted a one-off black 911 Turbo that was the coolest car he had ever seen. He decided to take them both, although he had a BMW 7 Series at home.

Such extravagance was a far cry from Kenneth's early life growing up on the Navan Road in Dublin as the eldest of Jack and the late Noeleen's four children. His dad was a garda superintendent who was musical director of the Garda Band, and worked hard to provide for his family. His mum sadly died 20 years ago from cancer.

Kenneth (54) describes himself as a skinny, sensitive, unsporting kid, shy and lacking in confidence, and as the children of a garda, he and his siblings, Norman, Olive and Alan, were kept under a tight rein. "Most north Dublin homes in the cold, grim 1970s weren't exactly bastions of cuddly-feely emotions, but we were well provided for," he says, over afternoon tea at the Merrion Hotel. "Our home was everything it should have been - solid, consistent, warm and caring. I have nothing but admiration for my parents."

A lack of confidence and sporting ability meant the genial and funny Kenneth struggled at school, and was picked last for teams. He barely passed his Leaving and got a job in a big insurance firm as a clerk. "I kind of assumed that when I left school, my lot would be that I'd get a menial job," he says. "I remember hearing Tony O'Reilly giving a brilliant after-dinner speech on radio and it had a profound impact on me. He weaved in the names of the celebrities in attendance and I wondered if I'd ever become someone important enough to be invited to be in an audience like that? I concluded that no, I probably wouldn't."

The thought niggled away at him for years, chipping at his confidence. Kenneth says the catalyst for change in his life always came around the thought, "Enough already", where he realised that going on in the same manner was more painful than changing the situation.

He was miserable working in the insurance company although he had lovely colleagues, feeling that he'd be stuck there doing the same thing for life unless he altered something. "I'd say I was driven by a sense of what I didn't want to be," he says, "rather than having positive ambitions towards something worthwhile".

One day, after spotting a cousin in town who had just graduated as a pharmacist, he decided that he needed to go to university to have the future he wanted. He repeated the Leaving at night in Plunket College, and felt he was edging closer to Sir Anthony O'Reilly's world simply because the college was located near to the mogul's childhood home.

"The thought of that man inspired me for years," he admits. He got the points to do a night degree in computer science at Trinity College, which impressed his bosses, who transferred him to the computer department, where he became a programmer. The hunger to gain a passport to a better life propelled him and his confidence grew.

When it came to the romantic side of life, Kenneth was terribly shy around women and didn't know what to say to them. He only had his first girlfriend in his mid-20s, and the relationship ended when he decided to move to London aged 27, as he felt it had more opportunities.

He got a job that doubled his Irish salary and gave him a car, but while in London, he became a workaholic, rising up the ranks within a few years and becoming noticed. "I started earning good money and was able to buy a house and help the family back home," he says. "I set myself up as a freelance consultant in the city running complex projects, including one for an investment bank."

Kenneth found himself flying around the world handling the challenging task of integrating the bank's global back-office operations, and he loved it. He was then hired as the firm's global re-engineering director on a fabulous salary. After a few months, his bosses were so keen for him to stick around, they called him in and handed him a letter that promised him an annual bonus of 100pc of his salary, guaranteed for the next three years.

It was a work hard/party hard lifestyle, shuttling every week between the New York and London offices, and popping home to Dublin at weekends to see his mum, who was ill and then sadly passed away. "I was on hundreds and hundreds of thousands, but I had no time to spend it, because I was always on planes and living on expenses," he recalls.

Looking back, it was relentless, Kenneth admits, but he thrived on it for a few years as it fulfilled his desperate need to prove that he could be someone. He felt his personality changed, though, and he became dour and didn't laugh as easily. Instead he bought a five-storey townhouse near Buckingham Palace, took luxury trips, bought works of art, and, tellingly, drank too often and too much. He also got married.

He ultimately became a managing director in a world where those who FTKP-ed - which stands for failure to keep pace - were ruthlessly culled and escorted out of the building with their belongings in a black bin bag.

After operating at such a stressful, frantic pace, Ken found himself beginning to fade in his 40s. "All I did was work and I burned out," he says. "I didn't create the culture, but I had become part of it, and the only value in what I was doing was in the money it paid me. I took my eye off the ball at work and had less hunger for it and lost interest in the politics and the rules for survival."

Kenneth's results dipped and one day he realised that the sharks were circling and, this time, the blood in the water was his own. After 10 years with the firm, he was told that his services were no longer required, and was given an hour to collect his belongings and say goodbye. He was, naturally, distraught, and the stress took its toll on his marriage. "It ended six months after I lost my job and had lasted less than two years, which was devastating," he says. "I was angry, lethargic and was drinking too much and spending too much time on my own."

The banking crisis was starting, so Ken found it hard to find a new job or sell his house, and he had a financial divorce battle on his hands. One day in 2008, he found himself sobbing uncontrollably in a doorway on Oxford Street when all of the loss hit him like a tsunami. At this point, he realised that once again, it was "enough already." He decided to go to Florida to attend life-coach Tony Robbins' week-long seminar, Date with Destiny, and while he baulked at the American razzmatazz of it all initially, he soon got right into it.

As the week progressed, he began to wonder what the good and bad experiences he had gone through in life uniquely qualified him to do? He thought about the UN's Millennium Development Goals, the ambitious eight-point plan that aimed to eradicate poverty and improve health and education opportunities across the developing world by 2015. Having read Bob Geldof's critique that these noble plans were "already receding into the distance'', he wondered why the world was so behind schedule on a project that was so crucial to a billion of the world's poorest people. He had read about it extensively and had also completed a Master's related to the subject, and the seminar inspired him to decide to get involved in the world of poverty alleviation.

He thought he could do it as he still had a few quid if he could sell the house, and had freedom as he didn't have children to raise or a relationship to nurture. He had extensive experience in taking on complex global challenges and organising and leading hundreds of people. In truth, he didn't want to go back and walk the same path he had been on for the past decade, which to him, lacked meaning. He was also inspired by a biography of Henry Ford, who set up his automobile company in his 50s and revolutionised transport, and wondered if he could become the Henry Ford of poverty alleviation?

Galvanised by Robbins's advice to 'think big', he approached the UN to offer his services, to no avail, and decided to set up his own project after visiting Kenya to see first-hand what was happening. "It seemed blindingly obvious that for any African individual to rise from extreme poverty, credit, and definitely microfinance would have to be available," he says. "Families in our north Dublin parish depended on the local credit union, and small loans had helped my little world to stay afloat when I tried to build myself up in my 20s. I felt that giving tiny loans of $50 to $100 would allow would-be entrepreneurs in Africa to buy the equipment needed to open a new food stall, a barber's shop, a bicycle taxi service or a small hut with a start-up tailoring business, and set themselves on a road to a better life."

Deciding to go for it, Kenneth moved to Siboti, Kenya, where he wrote a customised project methodology for his idea and called it the 'Elevation Method'. He took it to the United States Agency for International Development and they loved it and agreed to give him $300k to get projects off the ground if he put in the same amount. Infused with enthusiasm and a desire to make things better for the people there, he threw his heart and soul into the project, and gave it almost half a million dollars of his own money and three years of his time.

His experiences in Kenya are colourfully described in his book, The Endeavourist, which principally focuses on the three years he spent in Kenya rather than his life before it, although there are some flashbacks in it. It's a fascinating account of someone who was motivated by a heartfelt desire to help and bring about positive change, educating orphans and creating an innovative scheme to help families out of poverty. We are introduced to a whole array of engaging local characters in the book, many of whom support his efforts and are thrilled with the changes he tries to effect.

Then there are the baddies, the corrupt ones, who extort and steal from him, and those who are short-sighted and squander the opportunities that they have been given. An intriguing love story is also woven through the story, although Kenneth is, alas, currently single.

While Kenneth's project achieved some notable successes, including a schoolroom, 10 working boreholes for water, and a core group of high-achieving farmers with improved horticultural skills, he was disappointed that all he had planned didn't happen. Having fought doggedly for a long time to make things work, he left under an armed guard when corruption, increased violence and threats on his life made staying untenable. Kenneth was deeply disappointed in himself and felt he had betrayed the people of Siboti - plus, he had loved his time there.

"Without knowing anyone in international aid and barely a soul in Africa, I'd rushed headlong into a crazy scheme in a place I'd never been," he says. "I was determined to create my very own millennium village, with insufficient research but bags of misguided optimism that I could achieve results. I was foolhardy and ignored all the signals, and fundamentally ignored the complexity of the place. I was naive to think that leading a community through a structured, integrated method to beat extreme poverty was enough. Naive to think that an outsider could influence a community to adopt his way of thinking, or that I could fix extreme poverty where others could not."

Kenneth remains very close to his dad and siblings, and says that his proudest achievement was being able to support family members who needed it when the recession struck.

Now back five years from Africa, he has returned to the world of banking. He actually received a call from a former boss as he was in the hotel waiting to leave Kenya, and he went to work with him and then set up a consultancy. He became CEO of a European banking services company in Luxembourg in February, and is enjoying the new beginning. He says that his approach is different to the Kenneth of London days and, as a manager, he is much more statesmanlike and less aggressive these days, and is enjoying operating more altruistically.

"I'm more inclined to view employees as somebody's dad or sister, rather than merely someone who hasn't delivered exactly what I want and needs to shape up or ship out," he smiles. "The bank manages some very wealthy clients' monies and is very keen on the idea of 'impact investing', where clients are encouraged to invest a small amount in things that have a social impact.

"I'm thinking of doing a PhD in the area, because the idea of nudging a small percentage of hundreds of billions towards humanitarian causes and having the technical know-how to make it all happen really appeals to me going forward."

Kenneth King's book, The Endeavourist, is out now. (RedDoor, €18.99)


These days, being good earns you average rewards and being excellent can get you good rewards. But it is only by being totally outstanding that you can hope and expect to earn excellent rewards. Being outstanding is within reach for all of us. Just reawaken your childish optimism, your true vitality, your madcap ideas and your old determination. Decide today to be an outstanding worker, an outstanding partner, an outstanding family member and an outstanding friend. Do some small action now.

For at least two hours a week, sit down and read a book that interests you. Every morning and every afternoon, pause to enjoy a moment.

Being grateful for something good in life can help bring an inner peace and lower stress that helps throughout the day.

Remember, it's only work!

And the usual and obvious steps - cut back on the booze and the biscuits, take some regular exercise, drink water during the day, and try to get a decent long sleep at least twice a week.

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