Dr. Michael Adeniyi Adenuga
By Yemi Ajayi
His life is steeped in ironies. He is famous, but little is known about him. He is a gold fish with a hiding place – an impenetrable wall of privacy that he has built around him over the years. He plays in sectors where others court publicity to advance their investments, yet he has tried to remain unfathomable. Dr. Michael Adeniyi Adenuga, an acclaimed entrepreneur who is a major player in critical sectors of Nigeria’s economy and that of Africa, has elevated inscrutability to an art form.
Like some of the companies that make up his vast business empire, Adenuga is a brand; albeit a different brand which only he alone can effectively manage. And he has successfully done that over the years, even in the face of adversity that could bury many a businessman.
Unravelling the Adenuga persona is not an easy task and it is a befitting testimony to his determination to live a life driven by an inner conviction. That single determination is perhaps the greatest driving force of his enterprise. He is a fighter for a cause he passionately believes in and his never-say-die spirit has seen him triumph over many challenges in life and business.
His resilience has seen this son of a teacher and sawmill factory owner father, the late Pa Michael Agbolade Adenuga, and a fashion designer mother turned businesswoman, the late Madam Oyindamola Adenuga, conquer many battles. The two were to play significant roles in moulding him into the successful businessman he has become. From the outset of his life, Adenuga was primed for success. With the entrepreneurial genes inherited from his parents, which he honed with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration obtained from Pace University, New York in 1975, little wonder that he has turned out to be one of the greatest businessmen Africa has ever produced.
Adenuga set out early in life for the path he has taken. It has been a long and tortuous road to success for a man who has dabbled into almost everything— from cab driving in the United States to trading in merchandise and being an arms contractor to the Nigeria military— to make a honest living.
Although he comes from a well-heeled background, he never allowed that to get into his head. From his youth, he set out his vision of how he would live his life. The urge to be self-employed was a credo that he nurtured with passion. In his days in the US, he had seen how individuals with visions evolved from being small time entrepreneurs to owners of global iconic brands. This fuelled his passion and drove the urge to taken a path not well beaten in his days when paid jobs, especially for a well-educated person like him, were taken for granted.
He believed in his vision and he knew where he could achieve it: Nigeria, his beloved country. In the days when it was fashionable for his foreign-trained peers to make home abroad, he chose to come home, despite the temptations of living abroad. Even years later in the days of adversity, when the government of the day, out of misplaced vendetta, deployed state resources against him, he did not lose faith in his country.
Adenuga knew his destination, but his idea of how to get there was different. To be a businessman, he needed capital which he did not have and was not willing to ask his parents to provide for him even though he knew they could do so. While trying to look for jobs so he could work and save enough to establish himself in business, his mother came to his rescue. With the seed capital, a flat and a car, she set her son on the path to success.
That launched him into the world of imports where he kicked off by importing Afro hairdo that was the reigning fashion of the time. After years of as an importer and as a manufacturer of aluminium ceiling tiles, Adenuga broke new grounds in 1989 when he veered into banking, just at the age of 36. The story of how he founded Devcom Merchant Bank, shows his determination to aggressively pursue his dreams, despite the odds. Within nine months of setting up Devcom Bank, Adenuga followed up with Equatorial Trust Bank (ETB), which was to play in the retail segment of the banking industry.
His foray into banking made him a major player in the nation’s economy and was to quicken his subsequent investments in other sectors of the economy. If banking brought him into the public consciousness, his entrance into the oil and gas industry accentuated that. With the liberalisation of the oil industry during the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, a man who had become his friend, Adenuga, with his Consolidated Oil (Conoil), became one of the local players in the upstream sector of a highly technical industry dominated by foreign firms. The oil-prospecting licence given him transformed him from a licensed lifter of crude oil that he had been since 1984 to a prospector.
On December 25, 1991, Adenuga got a prized Christmas present for his doggedness and business acumen when his firm struck gold to become the first indigenous company to strike crude oil in commercial quantity in the country. In 2000, with his acquisition of a 60 per cent stake in the beleaguered National Oil and Chemical Company (NOCHEM), which he later renamed Conoil, Adenuga joined the downstream sector of the oil industry.
But nowhere did Adenuga’s doggedness and single-minded determination play out more than in his quest to be part of the telecommunication revolution heralded by the liberalisation of the sector with the introduction of the GSM technology in Nigeria. He fought hard, despite efforts to edge him out and took risks that could have ruined many a faint-hearted businessman. Undaunted by the bitter setback he experienced in being among the winners of the first three GSM licences that were eventually auctioned for $285 million apiece, Adenuga re-strategised and soldiered on.
Once again, his perseverance paid off when the time came to auction the licence for a second national carrier. On August 26, 2002, Globacom Nigeria Limited emerged winner of the only licence, which paved the way for the company to play in the telecommunitation sector.
Adenuga’s entry into the sector changed the game in a business where the two foreign-owned companies – Econent (now Airtel) and MTN – were exploiting subscribers through their per minute billing system. Despite the widespread outcry against the billing system, the operators said Nigeria was not ripe for it. However, going with his gut instincts, Adenuga dismissed experts’ advice not to introduce a different billing system. He had seen a yearning gap in the market, which he felt a new company like Globacom could tap into to carve a niche for itself. In his marketing shrewdness, he knew he was right and the experts were wrong. He hedged his bets against losing to stronger competitors in the then fledgling industry by doing what they were not doing: per second billing system.
Glo took off with per second billing, which resonated well with Nigerian subscribers weary of exploitation. Adenuga dared where his stronger competitors feared to tread and became a pacesetter in the telecoms sector. Like his foray into banking, he became synonymous with Glo and the more successful the telecoms company became, the more his fame grew. This was and is still particularly so as Glo’s green national colour and its rallying call to Nigerians to Glo with pride imbued Nigerians with a sense of pride at their home grown success of international dimensions.
Glo has over a relatively short period gone on to achieve extraordinary feats with over 34 million active subscribers in its networks across its areas of operations and acquired licences in Senegal and Ivory Coast. Its high capacity Glo 1 sub-marine cable with connection from the US and UK and branches in Ghana, as well as through 16 African and European countries, has and continues to be a huge commercial success.
For his vision, business acumen and patriotic zeal that has made him use Nigeria as his launch pad to extend his vast business empire across the world, an appreciative country is rewarding him with its second highest honour – Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON).
The man whom Forbes magazine listed as the second richest man in Nigeria, with a net worth of $4.3 billion as of March 2012, has used his entrepreneurial skills to create thousands of jobs in diversified sectors of the economy. It is as a demonstration of gratitude that the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, which has made jobs creation a cardinal plank of its transformation agenda, considered him worthy of the honour.
Given his legendary self-effacement, Adenuga, if he had his way, would gladly miss his investiture tomorrow as a recipient of the GCON award. But tomorrow is his day. The big masquerade must dance in public to the melody from an appreciative nation.