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Thursday, April 24, 2008

For Gunilla, the sky is the limit


"I'm going to talk to Sir Alex Ferguson and say, 'get us some strikers, we need to start feeling the game,'" chuckles Gunilla Ouko. She clearly loves Manchester United though she also admits that Arsenal is playing great football.

We are seated on green comfortable sofas of her home in Ntinda. It happens to be her birthday though she won't say how old she is. Says you do not ask a woman her age.

Ouko stands at a towering 6ft.

Her rich humour soon propels us out of anxiety and we chat freely with a lady who loves warriors and brand names and hopes to become president.

Gunilla Atieno Ouko is a social scientist, a researcher, a single mom and currently the head of Marketing at Nile Bank Limited. The name Gunilla is Swedish and it was given her by her mother.

"It means a warrior or something with inner strength; one who works hard and is not put down by life's twists and turns," she explains.

Her late mother, Joyce Ouko, was a teacher while her father, John Ouko, is a retired accountant. They are three children in the family.

A normal day for Gunilla starts at 6 a.m., when she prepares her two kids for school at Kabojja Junior.

By 7:45 a.m., she sits behind her office desk, reads the day's devotions on her online Bible and prays. Then she lists things to do, moves around to make sure everything is well.

By 6 p.m., she's already home with her kids: Joyce is eight and Anthony is six. Joyce is very sensitive while Tony is happy-go-lucky.

"I call them my hand luggage because everywhere I go they go," she says of the kids she got while in college.

Born and raised in Kisumu, Gunilla went to Aga Khan in Kisumu, spent eight years on her primary education before joining Ahero Girls Boarding School for secondary.

"By the way, I'm the first lot of the 8-4-4 system of education in Kenya," she adds.

After form four, she was admitted to the University of Nairobi in 1991 and graduated in 1995 with a bachelors of arts degree in Anthropology, a course she says helped her to understand people better.

"It's a holistic study of man and his environment. I was able to understand people's values, how they live…it opened my way to better policy making and marketing because I was able to understand people holistically," she says.

As the best student, Ouko scooped a scholarship, started her Masters in 1996 and couldn'’t work "because I wanted to be a professor early and was really driven to do everything that would take me there as quickly as possible. I wanted to be called Dr. Ouko!"

But because I do not see a trace of marketing, I ask her how she started in that line.

"My first job changed the current of my career tremendously," she says. "I landed a job in Research International in 1998. It was great in terms of understanding consumers and brands. It gave me the foundation of my current marketing excellence."

At Research International, she managed research for East African Breweries and particularly the Pilsner Brand.

"I fell in love with this brand right from the time I was handling it as a market researcher. When the position for brand manager fell vacant, I applied for it. It was quite competitive; actually it was between myself and one lady who is currently a marketing manager in the banking industry as well. However, I landed the job and became Pilsner Brand Manager in 2001. Then Pilsner made me and I made it. I had so much passion for what I did which earned me a prestigious award from Diageo. I was voted Brand Hero East Africa in 2003," she says.

By the time she left Uganda Breweries, she was marketing manager Pilsner, Guinness and Citizen. But Gunilla's overwhelming ambition tickled her to apply for a job at Nile Bank following an advert in the papers.

"I liked it because I was going to head the marketing team," she says.

She applied by e-mail, missed interviews twice, [she was very busy] but Nile Bank still followed her. When she finally did the interviews, she was given the job.

Is it very challenging?

"No body will say life is straight. It's very tough but the success of managing people is to be able to understand their emotions, nurture them and drive the team to deliver. Once people realize you have new ideas, they will follow you," she says solemnly adding, "I want to be an MD when I’m still young."

One of the people she looks to is her good friend Peter Sematimba. She says, "I like Sematimba because of the amount of energy, the passion, drive and the mind he puts in his work."

Bill Clinton is another person who inspires her because "He's still admired and despite the marriage trials he was still able to come through unscathed."

She idolizes Nelson Mandela because "He had led a full life. His name is a respected brand, when he dies his plaque should read, 'Quality Life; He's a Warrior.'"

"When you move up the ladder, few people understand you. But that's the beauty of life," sums the lady who also cherishes the advice given to her by her Managing Director, Mr. Richard Byarugaba.

Speaking from personal experience, the born-again marketer advises people to take their first degrees seriously regardless of whether it was the one they wanted or not.

"It's an entry level into one's career; don't enter university and whine. I remember I wanted to be a lawyer, anthropology was my last choice and look at the great heights of career I have gone through with anthropology," she says.

She has a word of advice to employees too. She says they should love their jobs: "Work puts food on the table, why not do it well?"

Gunilla is also a health freak who looks critically at what she eats and tries to ensure it's balanced, is less oily and drinks lots of water and juice however she cannot get over groundnut sauce. She also goes to the gym too "to keep trim."

Ouko loves playing with her kids and taking toys and other goodies to SOS Children's Village in Entebbe: "I love kids, understand their language and watch cartoons with them," she says.

She also enjoys classical music, loves gospel and enjoys a lot of R n B: "I love music because it's about emotions that speak to the heart."

Interestingly, Gunilla easily cries: "It's very easy for me to cry when I'm hurt or frustrated and after my tears have dried, I forget and move on."

And does she intend to stay here for the rest of her life?

"Uganda is a great country, but like they say, home is the best."

She's been involved in many charity organizations at home and hopes to marry the right person, retire and head to Kenya to see about becoming president.

"I want to be a president or a Kofi Annan and be in a position to make wise decisions and influence many people's lives positively. I would love people to live full lives," she optimizes.

--Daily Monitor, Thursday September 9, 2004, Page 19