By Ebele Orakpo
Mr. Ola Akanbi is the chief executive officerÂ of De_Koolar Nigeria Limited, a refrigeration and air_conditioning company with offices in Abuja and Lagos. Recently, the National Diploma holder in Mechanical Engineering from Owo Polytechnic spoke to Financial Vanguard.
Speaking on how he got into his line of business, the native of Isanlu, Kogi State, said: â€œAfter my secondary education in 1990, I went to visit one of my brothers in Ilorin who was then working with Coca Cola plant.
On seeing their cooling appliances – chiller where the concentrate was being kept – I was fascinated because nobody could stay in there for 5, 10 minutes and come out alive unless the plant is switched off. So there and then I picked interest in cooling systems.
I then joined their cooling department. I was not really an apprentice neither was I a staff of the company. But with the influence of my brother, I was able to work with those in the Cooling unit. After a while, I left Ilorin for Abuja where I met a man from my home town who is into cooling services, he maintains air conditioners, freezers and refrigerators. While working as an apprentice there, I got the basic knowledgeÂ about cooling systems, though not industrial. I didnâ€™t limit myself to his workshop alone because I was hungry for knowledge and that led me to the workshops of some guys from Lagos and one Igbo man from Enugu who had their workshops in Area 2 where we were then. So I would go to them to learn things my master didnâ€™t even know because he dealt purely on domestic air-conditioning so I acquired some knowledge from those who practised industrial air-conditioning.
Akanbi stated that after he graduated from his apprenticeship, he was issued a certificate by his boss who openly acknowledged that the young apprentice indeed knew the job better than his boss, encouraged him to continue the way he was going and that the sky would be his limit.
Said Akanbi: â€œThe truth is that when I do things, I always go the extra mile to achieve good results. Thereafter, I established my own workshop and almost immediately, NITEL picked me to maintain all their package and central air conditioners in Abuja in their switch stations though I was not a staff. They have many big switch stations so I began to maintain all their cooling systems. Subsequently, when MTN came on board, I never knew how they got to know about me but I learnt that when they were trying to make enquiry on who maintained NITELâ€™s cooling systems, they got someone who then pointed me out. From there, I was invited for an interview. That was in 2002 and they brought a 2001 model Uniflair air conditioner.
It was an uncommon air conditioner. It brings out cooling from beneath. You wouldnâ€™t know where the cooling system comes from, all you would notice is that the environment is very cold. Not even NITEL with their big name back then had such model as it was the latest model in town then. So during the MTN interview, I was asked to service the air conditioner there and then. They asked me where the air filter was.
I gazed at the air conditioner and immediately, I jumped up and pointed in the direction I felt the filter should be located. I then removed the filter and serviced the air conditioner successfully. They were all amazed and that gave me the job because they were satisfiedâ€
Continuing, Akanbi who has 13 people in his employ and makes about N5m turnover annually, said he serviced air conditioners for MTN for three and a half years. â€œThey were using us as vendors. We would service the air conditioners and after a month, we would tender our invoice and they pay us.â€
Then came the straw that broke the camelâ€™s back. â€œWhen they were to give us the contract to be covering the whole north (I was covering eight states then), Abuja engineers even Lagos had endorsed our company, but when we were expecting approval from Lagos, we heard that one of the directors who had floated a company opposed it. He said:
â€˜who is that man in Abuja that wants to take the contracts in the entire north and he is not well known in the headquarters?â€™ At the end of the day, they snatched the contract. Some of the engineers in Abuja were complaining. They took all my boys, but they couldnâ€™t do it the way we were doing it because I was going from state to state supervising my boys, training and retraining them.
At the end of the day, I learnt the director was sacked. That was how I left MTN. I did not quit MTN because of non-performance. The record is still there up till tomorrow that for the whole time we were servicing their air conditioners, we were one of the best. None of the sites under me (about 1,000) went down as a result of air conditioner failure.â€
According to Akanbi, at this point, he asked himself: â€œWhat do I have knowledge about cooling systems for?â€ That was the turning point. â€œ I then switched over to fabrication of cold rooms, ice block machines etc. And God has been faithful. Quitting MTN was blessing in disguise because prior to this time, I was so preoccupied that I did not have time for myself not to talk of manufacturing anything.
The De Koolar boss pointed out that though the company has been doing relatively well given the operating environment vis-a-vis power supply which he described as a the number one challenge, they have, however, learnt to overcome that by providing their own electricity via generators in order to meet demands of their customers who cut across every stratum of society.
Said he: â€œEverybody is our customer – individuals, corporate organisations, hospitals etc. One of our customers was given the contract of supplying the ice block used in massaging the players when they sustained injury at the U-20 Junior World Cup match that took place in Nigeria last year. Our services are needed in hospitals, restaurants, hotels, cold rooms, sporting grounds etc.
There was a woman that called us about two months ago requesting for 2000 pieces of ice blocks. I told her I donâ€™t produce blocks, I only manufacture the machines. I then asked her what on earth she needed 2000 blocks for and she said she has a machine, a chiller that is capable of carrying a large auditorium but it is not powered with compressor so they would throw the blocks inside a chamber which is then converted to vapour to cool an auditorium. So in that sense, we are needed everywhere.â€
Akanbi who said the machines are affordable ranging from N550,000Â to N1.8m depending on size, said the company hopes to go into mortuary production towards the end of the year and sell to hospitals â€œbecause we have discovered that no company, not even Thermocool with their big name is into mortuary and mortuary is not a difficult thing to build. Mortuary is just like a cold room but it is designed to have racks where you can put the corpse.â€
He stated that the company would welcome individuals and organisations willing to go into partnership to make the company great.
Regretting the problem of raw materials, most of which are imported, the cooling systems expert said some companies in Europe and Asia have indicated interest in partnering with De Koolar â€œbut I want to be fully established here before I explore that opportunity. If I see somebody who can bring in about N10 – N20m, I will just inform those other ones so that they would not be principal partners. I would ask each of them to supply us the needed materials.
For instance, one can supply the condensing units, another pallets, another the body while another supplies the engines. I have discovered that there is no company in the world that does it alone.
I looked at my old car the other day and saw that the horn was made by France, some components were made in Italy, you know, companies that were not German companies. So nobody does it alone so if I have enough funds, weâ€™ll achieve greater results and there is no way you will drop your money and not be a partaker of the day-to-day running of the company,â€ he said.