Corporate executive turned entrepreneur, Seni Adetu, was the poster boy for multinational corporations after Diageo Plc announced his appointment as the Chief Executive of Guinness Nigeria. In his first major interview after exiting the beverage company, he spoke to Raheem Akingbolu about his top-flight career, his role models, new venture in the marketing communications industry and the economy. Excerpts:
What has kept you busy since you completed your term as CEO of Guinness Nigeria Plc?
God has been absolutely superb. He has kept me so busy that I believe I am chewing so much more now than when I was running Guinness Nigeria. The truth is, I have established a footprint in marketing communications with my new company, and this is now my day job. I will say a little more about that shortly in the course of this interview. Besides that, however, I sit on the boards of some notable companies including Fidelity Bank Plc, Graceco Industries and Tower Aluminium Plc. In parallel, I have had to facilitate the Chief Executive Programme at the Lagos Business School (LBS) and offer business and leadership support to various organisations including Honeywell, GE, Leadway Pensure, Standard Chartered RSA, to mention but a few. Furthermore, I write for a popular newspaper every Sunday on leadership. All these in addition to my role as National Vice President of the University of Lagos Alumni, get me spending quality time at the office and in my study.
Did you not consider picking up another multinational CEO role after Guinness Nigeria?
First and foremost, while I may look young by God’s grace, the fact is, I am over 50 years and have spent close to 30 years running the length and breadth of Africa in some “crazy” roles; the last 15 years as CEO of various multinationals in Ghana, East Africa and Nigeria in that regard, I felt l had paid my dues. So when Diageo made the announcement, I was to report to my former boss in the UK after my GN term from Jan 2015, it was clear to me that it was time to move on. Coming out of that role, I had a couple of CEO offers but I concluded that even if I did another then, at my age, after a few years, it would have been back to needing to start my own legacy business. I thought with my energy, drive and thankfully the network, there could never be a better time to venture out. Fortunately God has always been a pillar of financial stability for me – so that was never an issue. That’s why I opted for what I do now. Permit me to thank some business leaders with whom I had a series of discussions post-Guinness to co-create the options I was considering – most of whom hosted me in either their residences or offices or indeed both. In this light, I would thank Mr. Atedo Peterside, Oba Otudeko, Aig-Aigboje Imoukhuede and Aliko Dangote. Oh, and let me not forget the many Saturday meetings at the residence of Sir Dr. Michael Omolayole. I am sure I have left out a few other ones – to whom I apologise. Importantly, though, I want to say again to these business captains – thank you. I practically missed nothing. So you see though the decision about my next move was entirely mine, under God’s guidance, I had the benefit of the aggregate experience of seasoned business men – such that money could never have bought and I am delighted about the outcome of these sessions.
So do you regret anything about Guinness?
Not at all; I feel so fulfilled. I see that the results coming out of the company at the moment are quite challenging, but I believe they’ll get over it. Many times, I am asked – what’s going on at Guinness, why have the results taken a turn for the worse since your exit, etc; but all I say is, I genuinely wish them well. I still have just good relationship with Diageo internationally, and besides, I spent nearly 10 years of my career with them, working my way to being perhaps the most senior African in the organisation worldwide. That’s how good the company was to me and so there is so much at stake for me in seeing that the company does well. That said; I am so proud of my achievements during my time there. In fact, when I recollect what I met on ground at the time I took over the leadership of the company, and where I took the company to with the fiscal year 2014/2015 being by far its best year in a very long time, and taking the company to being the 9th biggest on the NSE at some point, I truly have no regrets. I did it my way.
Many people dream of getting to the top of their careers and never do. You on the other hand, have achieved this ambition in what seems to be a seamless manner. What key factors can you attribute your career success to?
For me, it all starts and ends with God. I believe in destiny and I believe that God calls the shots and I also believe that people should bear their own destinies in their hands. In other words, people need to be very clear about their purpose and vision. Purpose is something that gives meaning to life; it gives deep-down fulfilment. This has to be accompanied by a set of values that are consistent with this purpose.
Two other things have helped me. With humility, I’d like to say that I am a very focused person. I’m clear on what I want out of life and I do take actions that are consistent with that almost always. The second thing is that I take every opportunity to invest in my growth. I was trained as an engineer at the best university in Nigeria (UNILAG). Then I veered into marketing; I was the first African Marketing Director for Coca-Cola in Nigeria way back in 1998. Yet, by the time I was appointed into my first CEO role about 16 years ago, I was able to read profit and loss statements and balance sheets like I was a chartered accountant. I would say this has all been due to my passion for growing myself and the grace of God for ability to learn fast.
What is it like being an employer at Algorithm Media?
It’s God, nothing but God. In venturing into entrepreneurship, there were three words on my mind: Legacy, Focus and Discipline. First, I had to create something that has the possibility of an enduring legacy; and to achieve that, it had to be something I had a passion for. Prior to my CEO roles, I was a marketer, the marketing services industry was therefore easily the most comfortable space for me to log onto.
Secondly, I had to be focused, not spread myself thinly; and thirdly, I realised I needed discipline- in hiring, in governance, in financial management. I hold these words in my chest always to ensure I deliver against the vision I created by the setting up of this new company.
How will Algorithm Media be positioned in the media independent industry?
We simply want to be the “go to” media agency for creative media planning and buying. When the client needs reassurances of commercial benefits from their media spend and 110% governance assurance, we would ask they speak to us.
Does Algorithm Media have a sister company in Advertising?
Our commitment is to provide an integrated marketing solution to all our clients – media and advertising. In the next few days, we will be unveiling our media agency. In the near future, we will disclose our position in relation to our advertising outfit.
We understand you are in the process of formally unveiling Algorithm Media- Please tell us about this.
Oh yes! As I said at the beginning, my day job is now creating marketing communications support for our esteemed clients. On Thursday 9th February, we intend to have several top notch CEO’s and the marketing community to join us at Four Points Hotel by Sheraton Hotel where we will run a panel discussion on “connecting with the consumer in a recession”. We have selected five notable CEO’s to do justice to this topic. It is in the course of the same evening we will tell the story of Algorithm Media.
Do you think media agencies have been creative and have successfully reinvented themselves?
In all honesty, I think there has been a huge improvement in the quality of media services offered by the main media independent players in the last few years. I say that reflecting back on my 30 years working on the client’s side. I think we must thank MIPAN and APCON for the roles they have played in this regard. Today, we are seeing more and more agencies having the necessary tools to enable quality insights for media strategy and planning, we have better and sharper responses to clients’ briefs and we are tracking media placement much more effectively. If you take the example of outdoor, with technology now, taking date coded pictures of flighted campaign on the billboard has been made a lot easier. I can go on and on. That said, I couldn’t possibly boast that we have the best people on the agency side. I dream of a day where the quality of talent of the agency can fully match that of the clients in every sense- exposure to international training, reward package etc. Also, due to the fragmentation of the industry and at times, the desperation of certain agencies to win clients’ businesses, I suspect there’s a bit of pricing war that happens at pitches with the result that margins are getting thinner by the day. Lastly, I crave for the day media owners no longer have to complain about the level of debts and payment overdues by the media agencies. This is eroding away the confidence of advertisers and media owners alike, and personally I find it upsetting.
What mechanisms do you want to put in place to ensure that AM is able to deal with and successfully navigate this?
Simple; we just have to stay true to our purpose and vision, and ensure our values are consistent with the same. We will put the mirror in front of ourselves daily to achieve this.
Do you have any affiliations or intending to have one?
We will formally disclose this at the unveiling event on the 9th February.
Is it true that advertisers are gradually moving from traditional media to digital?
The world is changing, and marketers must change with it or be extinct. You can no longer be overly brand centric or medium centric, the centricity must be about the consumer. Technology is really redefining our lifestyles and media consumption habits. Mobile distribution is high and internet penetration has expanded significantly too. Social Media has become a major platform for communicating and connecting with the consumers such that all responsible brands are participating in it.
Who are your role models in business?
My mum was a fantastic business woman that created something out of nothing. She was absolutely enterprising when we were growing up. I adore Sir Dr. Michael Omolayole of the old Lever Brothers Plc. I have loads of admiration also for a certain Alex Cummings, the former Executive Vice President, Coca-Cola Worldwide. He taught me to see the power of humility in leadership.
What community service initiatives have you implemented recently?
I believe so much in leadership and mentorship. In the last two years, I have sponsored 100 students of the University of Lagos with payment of their Chartered Institute of Management Accountant registration fees annually to God’s glory; in the hope that when they get trained, they would have something significant to add to their and / or their employers’ businesses. I have also hosted and shared my personal experiences with them a couple of times. Besides, about 12 months ago, I established a new school in my home town Sagamu. Furthermore, as I said before, I have a weekly Leadership Column in a leading newspaper, through which I hopefully impact the young corporate Nigerians. My purpose is to inspire a new generation of corporate leaders and sharing my practical experience while with multinational companies is in service of that. Oh, and yes, as an Otunba of the Remo Kingdom in Ogun State, I do tend to make financial advisory contributions in the community as much as I can.
How do you balance work and other interests like family, personal development etc?
I am extremely privileged to have a wife who supports my career. She is a successful chartered accountant and MBA holder who has ventured into entrepreneurship herself, running her etiquette consulting outfit. She is my number 1 confidant. I work long hours (I’m not necessarily proud of that) and at times the family complain about not being there for them sufficiently due to my work schedule. However, when I am with them, I make sure time spent with them is quality time. I love football and support Newcastle United; I have been a supporter since 1984. I socialise when I need to with my group of friends. I am just intense with everything; I am intense with work, intense with my family and also intense in friendship.
You talked about your wife the etiquette consultant, how has she changed your life and lifestyle relating to etiquette compliance?
Oh, you don’t want to go there. She’s contributed massively to making a “Remo man” like me to understand better the essence of good looks, matching colour combinations and even dining etiquette. Several years ago, she used to refer to me as her worst student in that regard, but thankfully, she acknowledges that I have improved significantly. I tell you a story; there was a time I went to deliver a major presentation at a high-profile event some years back. She was out in the UK that week. When the pictures came out in the papers the day after the presentation, I realised that while the jackets of the other people in the picture with me were clearly visible, mine was not. So sometime in the evening when we were on the phone, I told my wife I was upset by what happened and she asked me “were you wearing a white jacket”, and I said, “oh my God – yes, but how did you know?” and she teased me by saying “bush-man, you got what you deserved”. I learnt something that day. Additionally, it took a while before she “allowed” me be joining my friends to use spoon for “amala” served at social event. That’s my wife for you!
What’s your thought on the economy?
We are all sounding like broken records now. There has to be a breakthrough this year. The tension caused by this economic quagmire is palpable. I am concerned that the increasing economic inequality and disparity between the rich and the poor could create unimaginable social vices. I know we talk a lot about oil pricing and output negatively impacting our revenue base. I get that. However, the questions are: what has become of our diversification plans; our vision to transform the agriculture space, our intent to improve manufacturing’s contribution to GDP through infrastructure development etc.
I have heard of the strategy of funding our way out of recession through borrowing. This makes sense but in truth, do we have the confidence of investors and international lenders to make this happen? How are we certain to meet their criteria for accessing these loans – not least the bit about harmonising our exchange rates, which are all over the place at the moment – official, parallel, BDC, Travellex, M.A,N rates, etc. This potentially breeds corruption and is a turn off for investors, many of whom are currently sitting on the fence and watching the economic direction we are charting for ourselves before deciding to put their money in the country. We simply must get it right in 2017.
Last word of advice to the government
Less is more. They must not try to solve all the problems, but pick a couple of pertinent issues, which are within their control and put a lot of horsepower behind the same to make a difference. I am always inspired by what Buba Marwa said and did when he became the Sole Administrator of Lagos State, sometime in the mid-90’s, I believe. He told my MD at Coca-Cola then, one Mr. Islay Rhind that Lagos had a myriad of problems that he would not attempt to address all, but would create a legacy in two areas – fixing the roads and fixing security. In my record, he scored 100% on both. He suddenly made available the same bitumen that the administration before him had said was not available, and filled the potholes. He then set up Operation Sweep to curb armed robbery in Lagos. It’s 20 years on, and I still remember like it was yesterday because that approach made a lasting impression on me.
We are back to the same boat on a national basis where the current government is faced with challenges on all fronts and must not attempt to fix all, but pick their battle areas.
So, thinking back on your career so far- what are you most proud of?
I am immensely grateful to God for enabling me to achieve some firsts in my career. I thank God that when I got in role as the Marketing Director for Coca-Cola Nigeria, that was the first time an African would reach that level. I am grateful to him that at the time I was appointed MD of Guinness in Ghana, I was the first African in the history of the company; similarly my appointment as CEO of Guinness Nigeria made me the First Nigerian in 20 years. However, to the glory of God, I think leading Guinness Ghana to win the Company of the Year award in the whole of Diageo/Guinness International worldwide in 2009 worldwide; and subsequently being awarded runner up Forbes CEO of the year, East Africa in 2012 are perhaps my best moments professionally; and I will continue to cherish the same.
Finally, it gives me an immeasurable quantum of joy seeing some of the talents I groomed in the course of my career becoming MD’s and Directors in high profile companies and successful entrepreneurs. There are loads of them, and I thank God for empowering me in that regard, because without Him, that couldn’t have been possible.