Rosemary Mugambi rose through the ranks to achieve career success. As the regional sales and marketing director for Serena Hotels East Africa, she handles the portfolio of one of East Africa’s signature brands in the hotel industry. She joined the company 33 years ago.
Born in Meru on the slopes of Mount Kenya, Mugambi’s father was a cook in Rumuruti, and her mother worked at home.
When Mugambi’s eldest sister got a job in Machakos as a secretary, "it was like being posted to Timbuktu", she says.
That was in the early 1960s.
"My sister did not want to be alone so far, so she asked mum if I could live with her."
Mugambi went to Machakos, then to Kampala, and back to Nairobi.
Fresh out of high school from Loreto Convent Msongari in 1982, her first choice was to be a journalist. But on a visit to the newly-opened Utalii College, which taught courses in the hospitality industry, she was fascinated listening to the head of the college talk about tourism, so she joined.
Her first internship at Utalii was at the Jacaranda Hotel in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb.
"I went dressed smartly" she recalls with a laugh. And the manager sent her to the kitchen.
"I was shown a sack of potatoes and asked to get to work with a knife — not even a potato peeler. That was my first day as an intern and I returned to college with calloused hands while the rest of the class had more interesting work experiences to relate."
Things did not get any easier. The manager assigned rooms to be cleaned and beds to be made.
"I learnt a big lesson here — that if you want to be a great manager, start at the bottom."
"You cannot manage the kitchen if you don’t know how the supply chain works. That’s when I also began to understand staff and value what they do."
Success takes teamwork — from the room steward to the cook to engaging with communities living around the national parks and reserves.
"It’s as simple as the bed. If the bed is not made properly, the guest is not happy. If the room is not made up properly, the property reflects that. So what am I selling if not that?
"Treat the staff right to get the best out of them. You can have the best facilities and products, the latest technology — but your most valuable asset is the staff. "
It was at Mombasa Serena where she got her first big promotion, in the early 1990s.
"I was asked to move from Samburu Serena where I was the assistant manager to Mombasa Serena as the human resources manager. I seriously thought management wanted to fire me and told the Group human resources director as much. At the time, industrial relations at Serena Beach were difficult, with the staff union in confrontational stand-offs. But it turned out that the bosses had noticed I had a skill with people that I didn’t even know I had."
"Covid brought home the fact that the local market is important," Mugambi says. While many establishments closed or downsized, Serena survived.
"Our local clients, who know us and have been our clients even before Covid, remained loyal."
"My dream is for Africans to travel Africa," continues the hotelier. "And tell our own stories."
"Serena has a presence in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. We should be able to travel to these countries easily."
Mugambi's job demands long hours in the office, meetings, marketing East Africa across the globe, and hitting sales targets.
"When the stress builds up, I walk away, breathe deep and pray. I say to myself ‘I’m not alone'. I have a strong team. And it’s important to learn to trust God," she says.
Mugambi is deeply involved with her church and family, and walks to stay fit.
She plans to write about her journey in the tourism sector.