Joe Ritchie: American Business leader, Rwandan public servant

Joe Ritchie, an American businessman, is the first Chairman and CEO of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), an institution that has been tasked with spearheading Rwanda’s development and tackling the most urgent problems and opportunities affecting the country’s economic growth.

Joe Ritchie, an American businessman, is the first Chairman and CEO of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), an institution that has been tasked with spearheading Rwanda’s development and tackling the most urgent problems and opportunities affecting the country’s economic growth.

Its mandate ranges from ICT infrastructure, tourism, and workforce development to attracting private investment and building a better business climate. 

RDB brought together 8 public agencies and more than 600 employees to form a dynamic Institution with an ambitious agenda.

The New Times’ Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah spoke to Ritchie about his mission to Rwanda.

TNT: You are generally known as an American business icon - which means that the profit motive drives you. Is this the case with Rwanda?

JR: There are far more pleasurable things to do in life than make money. As anybody knows who has a friend. Or a kid. Or a spouse. Or an adventure with great teammates (which is what this job is). Do you think I would trade those for profit?
TNT: Why Rwanda and more so the public service 

JR: By the measures I believe in, this tiny, landlocked country has, in the last 15 years, proven itself to be the greatest country in the world. That’s not flattery. It’s the simple truth.

Because the important measures of a country, like the measures of a person, aren’t financial; they’re moral.  And what country, recently or ever, has gone from corrupt to honest government, or from hatred to reconciliation, like Rwanda has?

Public service because the leadership that has made this country great has come from the public side—something that happens very rarely.

TNT: You have been associated with promoting Rwandan products within the USA. How successful has this been?

JR: This is actually a misconception.  I never sold Rwandan products.  I just told the story of what this little country has done since 1994.  I’ve been telling this story to personal friends, top CEOs and anybody who I thought might be able to help Rwanda achieve its goals.

When people see what Rwanda has done, they want to buy its coffee and tea. Both for their high quality and also because they want to be a part of the story, a part of the solution which could be a beacon to all of Africa.

They want to do business here; they want to visit this country. And most importantly, they want to play on this team. Rwanda’s main selling point is what the people of Rwanda and its leadership have achieved.

TNT: If there have been successes registered why the shift from private to public service?

JR: Normally, when you’re working in public service, you often find yourself working for self-centered leaders.

Rwanda is a stunning exception. I’m always going to think and operate like a business guy, even if I’m wearing a public sector hat. And I see it as an important part of my role now to help inject more of that private sector mentality into the system. That thinking will ruffle some feathers sometimes, but hopefully it will be a good thing in the long run.

TNT: As the CEO of RDB, what is your game plan? Give us an overview of targets and programs.

JR: Well, I’ve been given some pretty clear marching orders: increase foreign and local investment in Rwanda, try to inject a little private sector savvy into the system, and make Rwanda a better place to do business. Looking at the barriers to doing business has been a huge focus of ours.

Over the past nine months, thanks to outstanding cooperation from the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament, and many others across government and the private sector, we were able to implement five really big business reforms, to improve Rwanda’s standing in the World Bank’s global “Doing Business” rankings. 

Now we have to make sure those reforms lead not only to a big jump in the rankings, but also to an easier, day to day working environment for businesses.

In addition to going after new investment partners, we’re also trying to do a better job of taking care of the investors that are already here.  I spend a lot of my time troubleshooting for some of these valued partners. 

Vocational and technical training is critically important.   We’re working on a plan that could dramatically increase the country’s capacity to deliver these skills.

There’s also more to do in making RDB a more efficient and effective agency.  Bringing together more than 600 people from 8 different agencies is no small task. 

We have some superb leaders in key positions at RDB, but we’re trying to attract even more talent—mainly Rwandans, but also from around the world.   

TNT: Any prospects?

JR: There are so many potential good things out there that I sometimes have trouble sleeping at night just thinking about them! Two of the prospects that we’re working on right now are broader relationships with Singapore and Korea.

These two partners have so much to offer Rwanda that we could spend years exploiting these relationships and never exhaust their usefulness to developing this country.

TNT: RDB is the first, one-of-a-kind institution within the East Africa Community. Is it right to commend that Rwanda will in due course offer leadership in how future public service will be crafted?

JR: Rwanda has already offered a great deal of leadership to the East African Community in how public service should be done. The RDB is a symptom of good governance, not a cause! I think this point gets overlooked.

Pastor Rick Warren is right when he says that the big problem in many developing countries is self-centered leadership. When authority and power are being pulled in tight, you don’t see a lot of innovations in the way governments organize themselves. 

On the other hand, when the leadership wants progress rather than just power consolidation, then there’s a willingness to distribute power outwards in order to get the job done. 

That’s when institutions like RDB get formed. So yes, Rwanda is definitely showing leadership by being the first in the community to take this step.

TNT: Tell us about some of your pet projects. The media is aware about the customer service re-orientation. What else is on the works?

JR: As I mentioned, one of my favorite projects is a developing partnership with Singapore.  While there are many bright stars on Rwanda’s horizon, I see this as one of the brightest.

We’re working with several other Ministries to close a deal with a $300 million bio-fuel investor that will create thousands of jobs in the East and reduce our dependence on imported petro-diesel.

We’re trying to diversify our tourism sector—this is currently a $250 million industry, but it could easily be 10 times that much if we can expand products such as birding and conventions. 

We’ve also convinced one of the foremost global leaders in eco-tourism to bring a high-end lodge and conservation project to Rwanda. We’re helping an Indian investor who is building a steel factory that will dramatically reduce construction costs around the country. 

In ICT, we’re targeting companies that can be mega-partners and help us build on the fiber backbone that will be in place by the end of this year.  I already mentioned Korea—Korea Telecom is a huge player in this effort.

And we’re helping build better linkages between Government and the Rwandan private sector.  There are some very capable business men and women here—we want to harness this talent and make them a vital part of the overall solution.

TNT: What other attributes drives Joe Ritchie as CEO of RDB

JR: I think that I’m lucky to get to play on Team Rwanda.  I have the privilege of working with people that I respect enormously and that I like enormously—people that are extremely competent. There is no doubt that I will gain far more from the people here than I will ever contribute.

TNT: Where do you see Rwanda in 5 year’s time?

JR: I believe that Rwanda will continue to amaze the world.  The source of this country’s energy and abilities is still not understood by the press and the outside world and may not even be all too well understood by many of our own people.

As Rwanda emerged from the tragedies of 1994, it has laid some crucially important moral foundations. The pace of the rebuilding has shocked everybody; but it is the moral foundation that has made the building possible.

Once you commit to telling the truth, not stealing, forgiving, and working for the common good, then things that would otherwise be difficult become quite easy. If we keep our feet firmly planted on the moral foundation we have built over the past 15 years, then I believe that the best is yet to come. 

TNT: Is it true that part of your brief as CEO is to introduce private sector style of management and approaches into public service

JR: This would be giving me far too much credit.  President Kagame introduced the private sector style long ago.  My humble task is to help support and encourage that style that long predated me.

TNT: Tell us something about the Joe Ritchie that we don’t know

JR: I’m probably most proud of my “supporting actor” role in raising ten kids. If we are to be judged by the results of our work, I would like to use them as my Exhibit A.

And let me not forget to say that I have used Rwanda as a tool to assist me in that job. Long before I had ever met a Rwandan, most of my kids went to an Anglican church in the US that reports to a Bishop in Rwanda. 

And one of my daughters had come to work in his orphanage.  So Rwandans were responsible for helping me with my most important job long before my job was to help Rwanda.

Who is Joe Ritchie?

He is a global business leader who has been called a “maverick manager,” a “math genius,” “someone who can capitalize on chaos,” and “one of the sharpest minds in the options business.” 

But, Joseph J. Ritchie, the new Chairman and Chief Executive of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) would probably just prefer to be called Joe.

Joe Ritchie has had an enormously successful business career by always thinking and operating “outside the box.” 

Joe, 62, was born in America, but he spent part of his childhood in Afghanistan and earned degrees from universities in the U.S. and South Korea. 

He worked as a bus driver and security guard before he began trading commodities and started Chicago Research and Trading (CRT), a company that became the world’s largest proprietary trader of options. 

After “singlehandedly revolutionizing the options markets,” according to Trader Monthly, Joe sold CRT for more than $225 million USD. 

Before the end of the Cold War, Ritchie started what is now the oldest U.S.-Russian joint business venture, which spawned more than 80 companies.

Joe’s businesses have always been recognized for their unconventional, people-focused management styles that emphasize a culture of teamwork, trust, and informality.

Joe’s non-business pursuits read like those of an action movie hero. He and his brother privately funded an attempt to unite Afghanistan and overthrow the repressive Taliban regime. 

As a pilot and aviator, Joe broke several of Chuck Yeager’s world speed records, and he served as the Director of Mission Control for Steve Fossett’s successful balloon flight around the globe. 

Joe also helped raise and educate 10 kids with Sharon, his wife of 38 years.

Before assuming his current role as Chairman and CEO of RDB in September 2008, Joe spent the past six years as a volunteer business ambassador for Rwanda, introducing the country to CEOs from global companies like Starbucks and Costco. 

He continues to serve as Co-Chair of President Kagame’s Advisory Council and as a leader of the “Friends of Rwanda” network.

In all these things, Joe Ritchie marches to the beat of his own drummer.  A man of faith with an adventurer’s heart, Joe doesn’t measure success in dollars or francs, but in the joy and progress of the many lives he touches.

Compiled by Daniel Vogel RDB

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