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Building Great Businesses In Nigeria: Lessons From Jimoh Ibrahim

Nigeria is blessed with many outstanding capitalists and wealthy industrialists who own multi-billion dollar conglomerates with assets in excess of trillions of naira and who collectively employ thousands of Nigerians across their various business operations thereby contributing remarkably to the size, scope and direction of our nation’s economy.

Notable among these lot are Aliko Dangote, founder and chairman of the Dangote Group, which holds large-scale interests in the commodities, agriculture, real estate and petroleum sub-sectors of our economy, and is now ranked by Forbes magazine as Africa’s richest man with a net-worth of US$20.8 Billion, as at November 2013, Otunba Mike Adenuga, the telecommunications magnate whose operations now span across the West African hub and who is worth US$4.3 Billion, as of March 2013, as well as the youthful Femi Otedola, founder and CEO of Forte Oil Plc, who was ranked by Forbes in 2009 with a net-worth of US$1.2Billion.

However, among these enviable lot, none is as inspiring, for me, as Jimoh Ibrahim, the 46 year old lawyer turned oil baron from Ondo State, South-West, Nigeria, who himself is now said to be worth some hundreds of millions of dollars, and is the founder of a large conglomerate in Nigeria, which has interests in the insurance, hospitality, oil and gas and media sectors of the Nigerian economy.

Unlike Dangote or Otedola, Ibrahim is a man who had a humble beginning as he was born without a silver spoon and came from a very rough background with a lot of deprivation in his growing up days. Reportedly from a polygamous family, Ibrahim managed to, against all odds, obtain admission into the University and eventually graduated as a barrister at law from the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University in 1991.

So while the Dangotes and Otedolas of this world had the privileges of being born with silver spoons (Dangote, being from a wealthy Northern industrial family and Otedola, the son of a former civilian governor of Lagos state), Ibrahim had no such luxuries but had an intense desire and a strong conviction to become successful in life, concluding in his mind that obtaining a University degree held the only promise to a better life and a rewarding future.

The story of this great entrepreneur is one that I think that every young Nigerian and aspiring entrepreneur must pay close attention to as it could serve as the much needed inspiration to giant strides in business as well as great accomplishments in life. After obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in law from OAU, Ibrahim saw that waiting to acquire working experience as an attorney by interning at an established law firm, as is common practice amongst many young lawyers in Nigeria today, could take many years so he decided to specialize on taxation, which was an area of interest to him during his undergraduate days and even the subject of some of his dissertation papers.

With this wealth of information on the practice of taxation in Nigeria, Ibrahim, unlike many fresh University graduates in Nigeria some of whom believe securing a paid employment first after graduating from school could be the only way to charting a successful future, set out by conducting trainings and workshops on taxation for local and state governments and later the federal government of Nigeria, becoming in the process a nationally acclaimed tax consultant.

Honing his expertise in the areas of tax administration, reform and financial management and later obtaining his Masters degrees in Public Administration and international taxation from OAU and Harvard University in America respectively, Ibrahim was at one time chief executive consultant to the federal government of Nigeria on petroleum tax payment, collection and monitoring, member, Federation Accounts Allocation Committee, consultant to the IMF on tax reform in Croatia and Lithuania and also a key member of the team that designed tax reform for the state of Bangladesh.

Needles to say that by the time he turned 30, while some of his peers may still have been searching for jobs, Jimoh Ibrahim was already a multi-millionaire! So when he decided to set up his conglomerate in 2003, after failing woefully in an attempt to become Executive Governor of Ondo State on the platform of the old All People’s Party (APP), he was well armed with a rich experience of how business works in Nigeria, how government policy is formulated and implemented and how to raise sufficient capital to start a business.

For many budding entrepreneurs, what are the lessons to learn on building great businesses from the journey and strategy of Barrister Ibrahim? For me, one of such is that when planning to start a business, going out to raise all of the capital required may not be the most paramount thing and may even amount to putting the cart before the horse, sometimes.

This is because, in a country like Nigeria, dreaming of raising capital to start a business using bank loans or debt equity, without having grown the business to a substantial state where sound financial management and ambitious growth plans can be adequately demonstrated to the financial institutions or angel investors, may seem like a mirage!

Looking at the phenomenal growth of some of Mr. Ibrahim’s business ventures, one is keen to note some of the principles which he has imbibed, which have contributed in no small measure to the growth of those businesses today. Some of these include sound financial management, persistence, short, medium and long-term planning, effective utilization of credit as well as prompt repayment of such credit when taken.

However, while Barrister Ibrahim’s passion for building and growing large business organizations that would provide gainful employment for thousands of teeming Nigerian youths while positively impacting our economy must be commended, it remains to be seen what is the clear corporate social responsibility (CSR) thrust of some of these businesses and how they seek to better lives and impact people and communities, other than by just creating employment.

It is interesting to note that while many large corporations and giant-sized businesses in Nigeria like those of Ibrahim, Dangote or Otedola, make lots of profits through the patronage of the generality of Nigerians and even repatriate such profits home at little or no cost, in the case of multi-nationals, only few of them do very little to give back to society through scholarships, schemes and life-changing programmes that can benefit the whole of the populace. Very few Nigerian wealthy capitalists or industrialists own notable foundations like the ones set up by Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and founder of Microsoft and his wife, as well as those established by remarkable American businessmen like Henry Ford or John D Rockefeller.

Another important point worthy of note amongst Nigeria’s most successful businessmen is a lack of a system or structure where adequate mentoring can be provided to build an ecosystem of great entrepreneurs and remarkable young businessmen in Nigeria. To this end, many budding entrepreneurs are often left confused about how to go about setting their businesses, what tools to use and what to discard and how to tap into the brains of many of these great entrepreneurs that have gone ahead. It is through efforts like this that great Nigerian entrepreneurs like Ibrahim, Dangote, Otedola or Adenuga can leave a worthy legacy because as far as many Nigerians are concerned, the legacies of some these men still remain largely unclear if not outrightly unknown or undefined!

Email: [email protected], Twitter: @ ayomidepraiseng