He exudes royalty, but he does not wear it like a toga. If you are not told, you won’t know that Prince Tajudeen Ademola Oyewunmi, the managing director of Tiger Shipping Company Limited, is also a prince of the ancient city of Ogbomoso as the current reigning monarch, Oba Oyewunmi Ajagungbade, is his father. Demola, as friends and colleagues call him, had the unique opportunity to have studied at the two of the most prestigious universities in the world-University of Ibadan and the Cambridge University. After studying philosophy in Ibadan, he went on to bag a bachelor’s degree and master degree in Law from the Cambridge University. He started out practising law and later veered off to join his brother in setting up Tiger Shipping. Speaking to Samuel Ajayi, the prince, who recently clocked 60, reels out how the journey has been, the initial challenges, the headache the Apapa road is giving businesses around the port and how his law background has been a massive advantage for him
You trained as a lawyer but you now into shipping. That is a professional culture shock so to say. How did the transition take place?
I don’t think it is a culture shock so to say. The good thing about law is that it is a versatile discipline and it is relevant to virtually everything. How I got to shipping from being a lawyer was that, even as a lawyer, I was into maritime law. I was dealing with so many shipping companies as my clients and that was where my interest in shipping developed. When we were to start Tiger Shipping Company 20 years ago, as one of the co-founders, I was to use my experience as a lawyer to be in charge of the administration of the company. But as times went on, and need arose, I needed to get involved and became the managing director of the company.
Can you compare the two vocations? I mean law and shipping.
They are much related as there are lot of laws in commercial shipping which is what we do mainly. You cannot compare so to say because what the lawyer does and shipper does are different and shipping itself is so wide that you need to specialise. But what I know for sure is that my knowledge and training as a lawyer has helped tremendously in running Tiger Shipping. When legal documents arrive on my table, even before we refer them to our solicitor, I go through it. And when I am talking to the solicitors, it is between two lawyers which is good in trying to finding solution to the matter at hand. You are very conscious of the law; you don’t want to make mistake. So in any areas, law is not only important, it is very useful.
Maritime law or Cabotage law, they are all related to shipping. How have these been relevant in managing Tiger Shipping?
We deal with a law of legal documents in shipping. For instance, Bill of Lading is a legal document in shipping. You need to know what are the standard terms in a bill of lading and you also know the implications of each term. Manifest is another legal document. There are certain terms not favourable to you or terms that should be there but are not; straightaway, you point them out. Even at the rudimentary level, understanding of the law is very important.
Nigeria of 1999 and that of 2009 are different. You built Tiger Shipping Company from the scratch. May I ask how the formative years were?
Let me be specific about the two periods. We started 20 years ago and Apapa, where we operate, is no longer the Apapa we have now. Things were much more organised; the roads were good and you didn’t have all these congestions. When we were starting, we had the benefit of a better organised environment. You can imagine someone just starting now. But be that as it may, starting business, no matter how good the environment is, even abroad, starting a business and growing it is never easy. They say 70% of businesses die before reaching five years. So there is always that gestation period; and every business must undergo that. The key things are perseverance, hard-work and what we call grace of God. Some people call it good luck.
What exactly do you do at Tiger Shipping? Is it freighting? Do you have ships and which countries do you operate in or ship to and fro?
When I meet people and I say I am into shipping, what comes to mind generally is that I am a clearing agent. They think you are a clearing agent. Well, to some extent, that is true: clearing agents are into shipping. But they are into a very minute part of shipping because they deal mainly with cargo. They help do with the documentation, Customs papers and so on. That is the most basic of shipping but it is much more than that. What we do at Tiger Shipping is that we are shipping agents and what that means is that we handle, more specifically, we husband vessels. Every ship that is coming into a country must have a port agent. It is that port agent that the ports authorities and statutory government bodies deal with. The role of the port agent is to ensure a quick turn-around for the vessel. In other words, the port agent will interface between the ship or cargo owner with the government agencies. In our own case, it is ports authority, Customs agent, NIMASA, port health, NDLEA and so on.
You interface and pay the statutory duties. These are not just the import duties, because this is what the people know, but you have to pay the NPA charges and these include the berth rate. This is because as the ships goes into berth and it is imperative the ship sails back as soon as possible. You also ensure that the documents of all the crew members that are coming are complete. Their seaman books are complete and even port health. All the drugs that are on board are good drugs and not banned drugs.
These are what the port agent does. In our own case, we handle tanker vessels on behalf of oil marketing companies bringing products into the country such as Sahara Energy, Oando,Vitoil and so on. We also handle crude vessels coming into lift crude oil from the off-shore terminals. That is our main business. And these things constitute up to 70% of our business.
Do you have your own ships?
We don’t have ships since we are not shippers. We manage ships on behalf of owners. We husband ships on behalf of those who own them.
This is a capital intensive business since you need so much to spend even before clients pay. How easy has this been especially going by the general cash crunch in the country?
The key thing is to start small. I personally feel that, money or capital, though important in business is not the most key thing. Anyone starting a business needs money but there are people you will give all monies in this world and they would still not be able to manage it. The important thing is to start small and build up your working capital and you need discipline to do that. A lot of people, as soon as money starts to come in, they go to town and become ostentatious. What we did was to start small with our small savings and built up to this stage.
In our industry, we deal in foreign currency. The NPA charges, since shipping is considered and international business, are in dollars. So if you want pay NIMASA charges and so on, it has to be in dollars. And dollars from our banks in form of credit are not readily available. So that is what makes shipping unique and like you said, it is not every time that the client pre-fund you. But you need to build up your own capital and also build your credibility.
How much has the Apapa gridlock affected your business?
It has affected us so negatively. It has affected everyone. For even workers to get to work and go home after work, is another major problem. It is unfortunate. What we have done to get round it is to encourage our workers to go by ferries from CMS and come to Apapa. That is on the individual level. But goods are not getting out of Apapa easily. We have clients that are into exports. To get their products into the ports is a major problem. Some of the shipping companies have resorted to using barges. I don’t know if you have seen some barges laden with containers on the lagoon.
They put about ten containers from Ikorodu to Apapa so you can put on the ship for export. But it has been very costly. The implication of that is that our exports would not be able to compete with exports from other countries. Let us take cocoa products like butter or cakes. Cote d’Ivoire does not have all these issues and they export cocoa too. The end product coming from Cote d’Ivoire to say Cadbury abroad will be cheaper than the one from Nigeria. What do you have? The receiver over there will just tell our Nigerian that this and this is how much they can pay per tonne because that is what they are getting from Cote D’Ivoire. It is either our own man would run at a loss or his profit margin would be so slim that the business will no longer be attractive.
So this is what the Apapa gridlock is causing us and it has made export so unattractive. For imports, to discharge bulk cargoes from our ships like fish, sugar and so on is cumbersome. While it should take you three weeks to discharge 10,000 metric tonnes of fertilizers, you end up spending two months. The demurrage you pay, on the ship and the berth, can wipe off the profit on the business. And because ship owners all over the world know that our ports are not efficient, they don’t want to come and even when they come, it is at high premium. The freight they would charge on good coming to Nigeria will be more than what they charge on freight to other countries. It is so unfortunate what is happening in Apapa.
In 20 years’ time, where do you expect Tiger Shipping to be?
Let me say that in 20 years, I don’t expect to be in charge of Tiger Shipping Limited. Of course, we are putting structures and assets in place to see the possibility of seeing the company much bigger than what it is today. We have built up to a situation whereby we have branches in major port cities like Warri, Calabar and Port-Harcourt. We have subsidiary company, another Tiger Shipping Company, in Ghana. Tema, to be precise. We have other companies owned by Tiger Shipping going into other areas that are relevant to shipping. We don’t want to be jack of all trades. We want Tiger Shipping to be much bigger than it is today but that is for other people to manage.
In 20 years, you will be 80.
Yes, I will be 80. I don’t even want to be in Tiger Shipping beyond 65. That is the truth.
You are a family man with a tight schedule. How do you create time for family?
Well, it is about managing the time you have and it also about how well you have organised the company. We have put processes and structures in place to the extent that I don’t have to micro-manage Tiger Shipping. We have departmental heads that are capable and everyone knows when a job comes and what to do. So I will not say I work 18 hours a day. If I say that, I am lying. If I am still doing that after running a company for 20 years, it means there is something I am not doing well.
You are son of a first class king, the Soun of Ogbomoso, Oba Oyewunmi Ajagungbade. Tradition is key in this part of the world and it must be adhered to. How much has tradition affected you in keeping certain things and companies so as not to impact negatively on royalty?
Culture and tradition have not put any pressure on me. Rather, they have aided me. The fact that you are son of a prominent traditional ruler makes you conscious of things you can do and things you cannot do. You don’t want to do things that will put the family name in disrepute. But that is not pressure but a guiding light towards doing what is right.
In formative years, either in school or when starting your profession, has that name opened doors for you?
Oh yes. You cannot deny that. The name opens doors but let me put it this way: the fact that people know where you are coming from makes them wanting to trust you. Something like if I give this guy money, I know where to go when looking for him. And this happens in business and I cannot deny that fact. It has helped and that is why I admit that it opens doors.
You schooled both here and abroad and your children are schooling abroad now. Can you compare them and now?
Let me clarify one thing: I have been fortunate to school both here and abroad and I have two first degrees. I was in the University of Ibadan for a degree and also in Cambridge. So I could compare when I was in Ibadan and in Cambridge. I don’t want to underplay my University of Ibadan days. Now, comparing the two, I mean schooling abroad then and now, I don’t think there is any difference. My children just finished university in England. And there is no difference. Why? Those countries have been stable. My varsity in England and that of my children are the same.
May be the only difference is internet. In my days, you could not submit essay by email which is what they do now. But in terms of quality and structure, they are the same.