Prince Olayewola Shittu is a well known name and a respected freight forwarder in the maritime industry. His company Skelas Group Limited, is a foremost indigenous freight forwarding outfit in the country. In this interview with Vanguardâ€™s Godfrey Bivbere and Ebere Orakpo, he told the story of the struggling days with his wife to build Skelas and the obstacles that they had to face before getting to where the company is today.
Sir, we meet can you?
I am Alhaji (Prince) Olayewola Shittu (JP), I am the Chief Executive Officer of Skelas Group Limited.
When did you start Skelas Group, what is the group comprised of?
Our company is made up of several companies. Skelas Limited is a freight forwarding and marine consultant. Skelas Construction Ltd, is involved in construction of housing and roads, we have Skelas Marine Ltd. that is devoted wholly to importation and lease of boats and cargo (barges) and we have Skelas Petroleum Corporation that deals with petroleum products and then work in oil services. So that is why we are a group.
How did Skelas Group start?
I have been in the maritime sector. I worked with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), until I left in 1984. Thereafter, I felt that being in government service has its own drawback. I didnâ€™t want to be a retired old cargo, without any other value because of what Nigeria was then.
So I decided to go on my own and I initially established Skelas Enterprise Limited which was supposed to be an import company. At that time, textiles were not contraband. You could get handy money, you could go to London and spend the weekend, when you are back with your loads of textiles, you make money and that was how we started until government simposed a ban on textile.
But by then, we were to diversify. When I say we, that is a business usually run by me and my wife then in order for us to have an income and thereafter, I had a friend who was in service, he is still my friend and history has a way of smiling on people one way or the other at the end of whatever they started.
He was a man I knew in Customs Service when I was in NPA and we became friends. We became friends when there was the establishment of Port Decongestion Committee under the leadership of Chief Oyegun, who later became Edo State governor and there were issues on how to handle the proceeds from sales of overtime cargo and the submission I made endeared me to him. From then on, we became friends and he was serving in Port Harcourt and I had left NPA Warri.
Then he urged me to come to Port Harcourt. He said to me: â€œWhat are you doing in Warri? Come over here.â€ Initially, I was thinking of going back to Lagos but he persuaded me to come around that whatever business I wanted to do in Lagos, I could also do it in Port Harcourt. I went to meet him in Port Harcourt and the small scale import business could not sustain us because as I told you, government was coming down hard on it. We then decided that having had experience because I remember when we were in NPA, I used to handle some of these documentation for clearance, especially when Koko Port hosted its first commercial importation, I was there.
The first set of cars was imported from there. So we did not end up doing just tally work in NPA, I learnt to drive fork lift to deliver cargoes because there was shortage of staff and everything and I got used to how people cleared goods with personal effects and how Customs officers were always having money at every given time. So I was fascinated but I did not want to wear uniform as a Customs officer, I just felt that enough of government work, having left NPA, let me just go on my own.
That gave us the idea of applying for a licence. So we had to convert Skelas Enterprises to Skelas Limited with which we applied for Customs licence and it was granted. We knew that all we had to do was go into clearing and forwarding and from there, expand to total logistics, I mean freight forwarding company. So that was the beginning of Skelas.
What is the staff strength?
As at today, Skelas has grown from just being a two-man or husband-wife company. There are a lot of people having shares now to bring it at par to what is obtainable in the corporate world. We have been able to set up a standard for ourselves, we have been able to create general managers in all those affiliated companies who are given the free hand to run.
All we do is to oversee them and I can tell you I donâ€™t really know the staff strength now, except the clearing and forwarding side which I personally supervise along with general managers but I know for now we should have not less than 75 under clearing and forwarding but the other areas, the system they operate is as we get contracts, so we employ, it is ad hoc, it is when they finish the contract, they leave.
We try to do it in clearing and forwarding but you need a lot of experienced people so we would not lay them off. What we have now is that whether you have jobs or not, you have to pay them but they are scattered all over, they are in Calabar, Warri, Port Harcourt and also Lagos.
At the initial stage when you started, and when the business started growing with the staff strength increasing, how did you handle the management aspect?
The first thing we did was to let the people know the guiding principle behind Skelas – honesty and integrity. We did that to a couple of clients, then I was involved in the politics of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) and I became the chairman of the association in Port Harcourt chapter and that endeared me to our customers because of my approach, the way I handled our customers and the personal relationship and then we started having clients who were always patronising us and as we got more jobs, we needed more hands. The first thing we drum into their ears is that they have to be honest and transparent.
When you are honest and transparent, you are not very rich because the money will be coming in trickles but it would be steady but when you try to play the fast one, yes, you could be rich suddenly but nobody knows what could happen to you.
We also made them partners in the system, when I say partners; it is very unusual in a Nigeria business. A situation whereby if we have a job we are going to do, we divide our staff into different groups, we learnt that from Customs because when they are outdoors, they put officers in different groups so as SGDs (smuggled goods) are coming, one group hands over to the next group maybe from A to E under the supervision of the deputy controller.
So we now say â€˜okay, letâ€™s classify our people, we have five experienced people so the five must have one or two people working under them, so what we do is to make sure that every job that comes, we give each group the responsibility to handle a particular job according to the airway bill. Sometimes, a group will have two, another will have two, the next will have one or two as the case may be.
Another thing we do is to motivate them. We give them stipends in the beginning to keep body and soul together but as soon as you complete the job, whatever the profit, the company takes 50% a\nd leave the remaining 50% for that group to share.
That motivates them to work harder and work on time because once you clear the one you have, you are ready to get another one and eventually, it becomes the system we are using and everybody feels committed. I can tell you now in that office we have workers who have been with us for 20 years, I can tell you honestly if you ask them why they are not leaving, they will tell you they have nowhere to go, they have been able to build their houses, marry, be whatever because they are part of the company.
Some of the general managers are even directors of the company because we made that possible for them. We did not want a company that when the man dies, which is very usual with Nigerian companies, everything collapses, no. It even gives security to your family members who are directors in these companies because there are outsiders who without sentiments will want to guide them. So that was what we did and that is what is keeping us.
As a company that started little, Skelas Enterprise, to what it is today, what will be your advice for other small companies in Nigeria desiring to be like Skelas Group?
There are two types of businesses that are contending for attention in the Nigerian economic sector. The productive sector and the services sector. We are in the services sector and it depends on the well-being and survival of another group of companies. I mean if your importers do not import, there is nothing for you to clear.
So his welfare and state of affairs must be of concern to you. When you discover that the sector that is productive is not being helped by infrastructure decay and nothing in sight to show that in the next 10 years, things would be better, if what is happening in Nigeria is that these infrastructure that are decaying, how were they last year, how were they three years ago, then you can imagine how they will be in two years time.
But if there is a deliberate effort to make sure that these things are repaired, then Nigerians would stick by it. So what you now see is that there are more service providers than the productive sector and that is what gives room for fraud and that is why even in our own sector of the economy today, it has become every man for himself and God fir us all because there is no way you can regulate poverty, there is no way you can regulate survival. People must go to a place where they know that they can one way or the other get it.
I have a dictum in my office that I copied from somewhere and it says: â€œTry honestly if you can to make money, otherwise, just make money.â€
Somebody is telling you that you need to make money to survive because you have to eat, you have responsibility. We have more people going into the unemployment market which automatically will affect the quality of services being rendered because people must survive.
It is a very difficult thing for everybody but I know that those in the services sector are better off than the productive sector. The productive sector more or less is like they cannot help it but for the services sector, if you can honestly keep your clients, the competition is stiff but if you can keep them, I know that you will also survive.
Just like some of my clients today, some of them are 12 years, some 15 years. There are those who say they cannot go anywhere. There are those who our competitors have gone to meet and they say â€˜Oh, you want to work with us but you know Skelas is with us,â€™ they say yes, we know and then they say tell Skelas to give you letter of recommendation and we will give you work. That is the measure of confidence they have in us and we are moving on.
Where do you see Skelas getting to in the next 15-20 years?
Yes, it is very difficult for one to expand in Nigeria. You know I told you that we have diversified into other groups and then with the construction company itâ€™s not like we are Julius Berger or we are competing at any level because in Nigeria today, before you can get a job that would make a construction company become that signature company, you need political strength or might.
Some people somewhere will give you the job whether you are qualified or not, which is the norm. So we intend to maintain the services we are providing in the sector and we are among the first set of people that all our own offices are built for a purpose. We shy away from hiring offices, rather we build and we build it for that purpose, our head office today is built to handle clearing and forwarding.
I can tell you that documents that we used as far back as 1989/90, we still have them in a purposely built document room.
Many people donâ€™t think that way because you record for reference etc.
I am looking at Skelas to be able to float if we cannot swim completely out of the water, we should not sink. So we go along with government regulations, e-payment system, e-services to which we are already being introduced. We have been doing that one along tracking goods for our customers but the bottom line is we must be amenable to change and that is one good thing about Skelas and it gives me a lot of time on my hands to do other curricula activities including serving in our association and being able to do one job or the other because our set up is one that self-operates.
Which association are you talking about?
Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), that is the one Iâ€™m talking about. That is why I can have time to serve them in that association because if you are the type that you have to supervise it by yourself, I have colleagues who in their office today, are the secretary, the financial man, and the accountant, everything is in their purse. They are not setting up a company. If you want to set up a company, you should be able to give responsibility to people. If you do not allow people to cheat you a little, then death will cheat you one day.
What should government do to give small Nigerian companies the leverage to grow?
Yes, it is just this infrastructure thing, energy, roads etc because if you are able to diversify into other businesses, you will make it. Rule out the fact that small scale businesses can get money from the banks, no; there is no bank that will give you money. For instance, you want a loan from the bank and they are asking you for collateral, if you are not strong, where will you get the collateral from but if government does put in place the enabling environment and it is the politics in us that is killing what we should do, we are discussing business.
There is always a way out for Nigeria. Nigeria could achieve that greatness within ten years if the political consideration and sentiments are not put into everything we do. Like me and you know that the county in America will collect your tax and they will repair your road but here, it is not like that. Everything is centralised but leave politic out of it.