May 12, 2019

Managing Business in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects

Managing Business in Nigeria:  Challenges and Prospects

Obiora Okonkwo

By Obiora Okonkwo

I do not profess to have superior knowledge of issues involved in the management of business in Nigeria, but as a businessman, I will make effort to share practical insights from my experience of managing a business in our dear country in the past decades. I expect that through that, we shall see some of the challenges of doing business in Nigeria and at the same time, appreciate the prospects that they provide for us. They may come as little issues, but I bet you, they mean a lot. In understanding the challenges, we see the prospects that are there for us. So, I want to talk generally with you and not to make this technical. I know you have had plenty of that in the course of your study here, so as a dinner talk, it is for me an akuko na egwu with you all.

Obiora Okonkwo

I also want to seize this opportunity to once again, applaud the vision of the founders of the Unizik Business School. This school is strategic to the economic interest, and survival, of the south-east. I say this because, when you look back in time, you will find great businesses founded by great Igbo men and women, which sadly died with their deaths. A few of such businesses which outlived their founders failed to make it beyond the first generation of the founder’s successors.

The Case of Ojukwu, Porsche and Tata

I don’t intend to run anyone down here. But for the reason we are here, please permit me to recall the great business exploits of the likes of Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, and use same as a reference point in our discourse tonight. Information gleaned from online sources reference him as “Nigeria’s first recorded millionaire, and was the founder of Ojukwu Transport, Ojukwu Stores and Ojukwu Textiles.” When you read further about him on Wikipedia, you find such sweet references of him as “the first and founding president of The Nigerian Stock Exchange as well as president of The African Continental Bank. He was also either chairman or, on the board of directors of some of Nigeria’s most profitable companies such as Shell Oil Nigeria Limited, Guinness Nig. Ltd, Nigerian National Shipping Lines, Nigerian Cement Factory, Nigerian Coal Corporation, Costain West Africa Ltd, John Holt, Nigerian Marketing Board amongst others.” He was also said to have “diversified his interest, bought some industries invested heavily in the real estate sector and became a director in numerous major corporations including the state-owned Nigerian National Shipping Line.”

But Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, from Umudim, Nnewi, here in Anambra state, died in September of 1966. That’s some 52 years ago. Not many Nigerians born 40 years ago remember anything of business linked to the Ojukwu family. The mention of Ojukwu today resonates only with linkage to Biafra, and to an extent, APGA. In contrast, we read that Ferdinand Porsche, a German automotive engineer, was the founder of the Volkswagen Group. He died in January 1951. The business he founded has grown to create several other subsidiaries including Porsche, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti, Ducati etc. These businesses are in operation until this moment.

You may also have read that Jamsetji Tata died in 1904. Before he died, he had founded Tata Group. References to him say this: “He had four goals in life: setting up an iron and steel company, a world-class learning institution, a unique hotel and a hydro-electric plant. Only the hotel became a reality during his lifetime, with the inauguration of the Taj Mahal Hotel at Colaba waterfront in Mumbai on 3 December 1903. At that time, it was the only hotel in India to have electricity.” Today, Tata Group is managed by one of his great-grandsons, Rajan Tata, who joined the group in 1961. He has successfully led the expansion of the group and made “Tata Tea to acquire Tetley, Tata Motors to acquire Jaguar Land Rover (a British auto manufacturer), and Tata Steel to acquire Corus -a steel company with headquarters in London.”

With a 2018 staff estimate of over 703,000, Tata Group, aged about 151 years, has Tata Steel, Tata Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Tata Consultancy Services, Tata Advanced Systems Limited, Tata Power, Tata Chemicals, Tata Global Beverages, Tata Coffee, Tata Teleservices, Titan, Voltas, Tata Cliq, Tata Communications, and The Indian Hotels Company Limited (Taj Hotels), on its list.

So, the question comes back to you and me: Why did businesses established by Sir Odumegwu-Ojukwu end with his demise? This should be a matter for deep reflection because you and I stand here as persons of history. We live to make our marks and build legacies the future will remember. Looking at Sir Ojukwu, we can extrapolate and also ask the same question about Nigeria. Which Nigerian businesses have outlived their founders to the second generation? If there are any, how many are they? Why do businesses established by Americans, Europeans and Asians outlive their founders, but those established by Nigerians (Africans) don’t? don’t give me answers here. But think about it in your private time.

Importance of Vision

It is always very easy to blame the lack of infrastructure and regulatory issues for business failure. Those ones have been there and will always be there in different shades. They come as taxation, nepotism, over regulation, poor government policies and policy somersaults etc. But remember, when Tata built the Taj Mahal, it became the first hotel to have electricity. It means, there were hotels existing before Tata moved in with Taj Mahal. Did those ones fail because they had no electricity? No. They must have operated optimally until Tata came with the vision of offering electricity at his hotel, thus challenging the norms and pushing up the competition. He offered what others did not offer and must have used that to entice clients of other hotels to his own. In other words, he set the standard for his competitors. That is Vision.

In setting the standard for your competition, you must research. In researching, you are looking for what your competitors are not doing at all, or not doing right. In doing this, you set your vision at changing the landscape and challenging the norm. In the local road transport sector for instance, two companies, ABC Transport and God Is Good Motors, introduced innovations that got everyone acting. ABC Transport started building modern bus terminals and eliminating touting. It succeeded. Everyone joined the fray. Today, God Is Good motors has created premium buses which offer wifi and tablets so that passengers can be online till the end of their journey. That is vision.

In our clime, business vision is rare. Most of our business people establish businesses without clearly defining their visions. Many just establish a business for the sole reason of having an office address and waffling through with whatever comes. This approach leaves one with one certain end -Failure! Businesses will fail if founders fail to properly define their vision and communicate the same to their teams and also, trust them to drive it. Vision is about the next big picture. When you envision the next big picture for your business, you set strategies to achieve them. The next big picture talks more about where you want your business to be within the time frame you set for yourself.

Setting Out Clear Objectives

Looking at your next big picture, which should ordinarily spur your action, you must take note of what define as ‘The Five Golden Rules’. The rules say: Set goals that motivate you; set smart goals; set goals in writing; make an action plan and, stick with the plan. In making smart goals, it means that your goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Now, those are traditional notations you learn in school. But in practice, the game is different. You must lead with a clear vision.

As I say these, I have a feeling that someone here would be asking himself or herself if I did all these in ensuring my businesses grew. The answer is an obvious yes. When I invest, I look at what the business would yield in the short, medium and long term. By so doing, I hire the best hands to drive my vision. By hiring the best hands, I communicate my vision and lead them to buy into those visions. To get my team to buy into those visions, I let them see the next big picture. In seeing the next big picture with me, they are able to answer one critical question -what’s in it for me? Once your team see what is in the next big picture for them, they take ownership and work hard to actualize your vision. They do so because they realize that as the business grows, they too grow. The more stable the business is, the more stable their jobs are. The more profit the business makes, the more bonus they share. Remember, everyone who shares in your vision and buys into it, also envisions himself or herself as possible CEO or ED. Simply put, everyone desires to get to the top. How they get there depends on what visions they buy into.

As you graduate from this business school, investors will come to hire you. You may also go to set up your own businesses, that is, if you don’t already have one. If you are to be hired, remember that no one will hire you because you are handsome or beautiful. You will be hired because someone believes that having been trained, you have been brushed up by the best of human capacity developers to become an expert in delivering their business vision and achieving goals. So, in my own practical experience, I hire people not to give me excuses on why certain things cannot, and should not be done, but to break through the hurdles and deliver return on investment. That is why my motto in business is: Don’t tell me about the storm. Deliver the cargo. To make sure that the business you are called upon to drive succeeds into the next decade and also outlive the founder, you must challenge whatever the limits are. You must also tell yourself that there are no ceilings. In fact, in the drive for success, the sky is not the limit. For if the sky is the limit, it then means that there is a sky where all of us will drop the anchor. Here, in the drive for business success, only death ends the call. Remember, Friedrich Nietzsche said, “every possibility ends in death”. So, why would anyone die when death hasn’t come?

Human Resource As A Critical Tool

Like I said at the beginning, I promised to talk more from my experiences as a businessman and an investor. An investor is also a manager of human resources. Once you set up your business, your next big worry is where to get the best of humans to manage it. I am deliberate in saying “the best of humans”. But beyond the best of humans, you need people of competence and capacity. When I talk of competence and capacity, I make reference to both natural and academic competencies and the right skills set. You will need people with the right skill set. You’ll be richly blessed if you get them. Often, you get to sit at interview sessions to hire the best of hands. You find humans with the best of CVs. They have the best designed CVs. They have all sorts of qualifications and certificates to boost, but they lack the competence and capacity for the task of delivering on the expectations of the investor. Sometimes, you farm out your hire process to a recruitment expert. He returns to you with some of the best CVs and certificates. But on the job, you begin to imagine how they made it through school.

This may sound funny, but it is the source of heartache for businessmen and businesswomen. In many university certificates, you find such phrases as “found worthy in character and learning”. It means that the university, haven found you worthy in character and in learning, awards you a degree. In reality, you have human capital that is either deficient in character or in learning. Many of those you will work with will exhibit one of these deficiencies. But you still have to manage them. How you do that may not necessarily be taught at the business school. It may be learned from the school of reality. It means that you have to find the best of tricks to bring out the best in your team without destroying it. I say this because you will find a character mix in your business or in your office. The best approach for me has always been to focus on what is important in achieving results and leave out personality flaws. If you can change people, fine. If you can’t, focus on what is most important for achieving results and move on.

Needed Ethics

I am sure all of you here watch football. Have you ever wondered why many football coaches enter the stadium for a football match wearing a suit and a necktie instead of sporting wears? Ever wondered? The football team coach is a business manager. And the business he does is taking his team to battle and coming out with results. That is why while the match is on, he sits back working on strategies for victory. That is what a business manager does. So, for him, the suit and tie are his work tools. So, what is your business dress? Often times business managers fail to connect their outfits with the business they do. If your business demands that you wear jeans and tee-shirt to work every day, don’t go wearing a designer suit. If your business demands that you wear a business suit to work every day, wear it. In wearing it, please get well-tailored suits and matching neckties, and when you get them, please also, get a good dry cleaner close-by. You will need him. Most business leaders go for black suits. Black is a power colour. Avoid flowery colours.

When you have done this, please also, take a proper look at your shoes. Good shoes don’t cost a life. You may    have  heard it  said, “you are addressed the way you dress”. That’s a truth that will confront you as you grow in business. It simply says that good dresses, for the business person, are not fashion statement s . They are rather meant to help you drive your business. You may not be thinking of it but you will also realize that human beings are like monkeys. They like to copy. If you dress well to work, wearing good clothes, nice shoes and sweet perfumes, chances are that you will inspire your team and without even discussing it, you will soon find some copying you. They begin to dress fine to work. What that does to your business is that it elevates your personality and your business. Not many people are likely to want to meet you a second time if you come to talk business with them poorly dressed and with an awful odour. Sadly, what I have, however, seen in our environment is that people wear their best clothes to church and dress mindlessly to work. Good dresses and perfumes open doors. When you have done this, then, mind the car you drive out to work and business meetings.

Lagos and the growing vision for education

As a business manager or leader, you will meet and interact with a lot of people. These will include clients and possible partners. If you are not convincing in your first meeting, which may also be chanced meetings, you may have bungled a great opportunity. So, in driving out for business, please, keep your car the cleanest and make sure the air conditioning system is ok. You don’t inspire confidence if you appear at a meeting in a rickety taxi or keke. You don’t exert influence if you come to a meeting sweating. That says a lot about how you came to the business meeting.    Always remember that your dress, your car, your shoes, your wristwatch, your perfume, your cufflinks are work tools, not fashion statements. They define you and tell others the sort of person you are. Always be mindful of them.

The Trust Question

Finally, and for me, this is the most critical aspect of our discourse tonight. The issue of trust. This is one major factor that has made businesses, and even business prospects, to fail. It has also made many investors walk away. Some businesses have also grown and succeeded because of it. Trust is a vital issue in human relationships. It builds marriages. It creates fantastic love stories. In business, it builds bridges, connect minds and money. It builds business empires. On the other side, mistrust ruins like nothing else. Politically, Nigeria is where it is today because of mutual suspicion which is built around mistrust. I have seen many businesses fail because the founders did not trust their team enough and the basic reason here is that team members failed to give their leaders reason to trust them.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines trust as “to believe that someone is good and honest and will not harm you, or that something is safe and reliable”. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something”. It goes further to see it as “acceptance of the truth of a statement without evidence or investigation”, “the state of being responsible for someone or something”. In law, trust is seen as “an arrangement whereby a person (a trustee) holds property as its nominal owner for the good of one or more beneficiaries.”

In ordinary terms, trust would mean giving someone something to keep and being sure that you will find it intact when you return. It is about integrity. Going forward, you will come to terms with how to deal with trust issues in business. However, do not let questions of trust be asked about you. Once you let that happen, you would have ruined yourself and perhaps, your business too. Again, I reference Friedrich Nietzsche when he said: “I am not upset that you lied to me, I am upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” Sadly, this is what a lot of business people seem to overlook in their quest to achieve success. Ladies and gentlemen, there is no shortcut to success. You must walk the ladder up. While doing this, you must trust in yourself and also give others a reason to trust you. Your word must be your bond. Don’t ever betray that.

A note on says: “You develop faith in a friend or business partner who is consistently reliable and honest, not just occasionally on the spur of the moment, or at time. Trust is built and maintained over a long period of time. It is a matter of character; we are trusted because of our way of being. And remember, trust is not built but rather destroyed, if you take advantage of someone, even in the slightest”.

Albert Einstein said, “whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” That is reason George MacDonald, a Scottish author said: “to be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved”. Always remember that as a business leader, people won’t do business with you because they love you. Rather, they will do business with you because they trust you.

Our goal is to solve problems – Juwon Lawal

How Important is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Ladies and gentlemen, when your business grows, as they sure will if you imbibe all the lessons learnt from your time at UBS, do not forget to give back to the society that made you. Sometimes, we forget that we belong to a particular society; and in forgetting same, we inadvertently argue that society’s problems belong to the society while my problems stay with me. But the truth is, we are our society and therefore, the society should mirror us. Remember the popular saying, ‘givers ever lack’. As you grow in business, always keep those three words handy in your mind. Try as much as possible, also, to work with them. Giving to the society through donations to the security agencies, hospitals, schools, youth groups, religious organisations etc., makes your business a corporately responsible one which also looks beyond just making profits and expanding, but also, is concerned about problems that confront the immediate society where you operate. The secret of CSR is that the rewards are immeasurable. The little you give today, can be the transformative input that would change the business landscape for you.

So, it is important, as a business leader, to associate yourself and your business, with one social cause or more. Such gestures open doors to more business prospects. According to, benefits derivable from being a corporately responsible citizen include better brand recognition, positive business reputation, increased sales and customer loyalty, operational cost savings, better financial performance, greater ability to attract and retain good hands, organizational growth and easier access to capital.

It also stated that by engaging in CSR, investors are more likely to back your business haven established a reputation as a corporately responsible citizen; your business will attract positive media attention and somehow, it will reduce regulatory burden as good relationship with local authorities can make doing business easier. So, don’t forget to spare some thoughts for the place of CSR in your business. Identify a social cause, and push on with it.

I have almost forgotten that this is a dinner. Sorry about that. But thank you for listening.