JOHN OBARO : SystemSpecs Has Capacity to Show that the Future is Africa 

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JOHN OBARO

Today, Nigeria’s financial technology and human capital management solutions powerhouse, SystemSpecs, enters a new phase in its corporate history. In this interview with Eromosele Abiodun, the company’s Managing Director, John Obaro, highlights what constitutes the new era of the institution, including its revamped brand identity, the launch of new products into the market

We are aware that this is a season of new beginnings at SystemSpecs. Can you elucidate on what this means and how it pertains to the long-term goals of the company?

Indeed, it is. We are currently in a special year of the Gregorian calendar and the date we have selected to launch the new SystemSpecs—02/02/2020—is also symbolic in that it is a mirror date. A mirror date because the first four digits are a mirror of the last four and as such it occurs once in a millennium. The peculiar nature of the date coincides with the special activities that form the crux of our operations at SystemSpecs, hence we decided to formally announce our vision for the next millennium on such a unique date. It truly is a time of new beginnings as SystemSpecs is 28 years into its existence and the time has undeniably come for a refresh. It is for this reason that we are announcing a new era in the history of the company marked with a revamped brand identity, new products and neoteric corporate head office.

What was the underlying reason behind this new phase of the corporate existence of the company, including the decision to rejig its corporate identity and strategy?

As I earlier mentioned, this year represents our 28th year of existence, which is a long time in the technology field. We are also probably the oldest software company in Nigeria today and have witnessed the entry and exit of many a company, but by the grace of God, we are waxing stronger. Despite our successes, we are convinced it is time to refresh and that there is no better time than now to do so.

In addition, we came into this environment (Obalende) at a time when the environment was quiet, but owing to the upshoot in population and commercial activities, it has become noisy and the time has come to relocate. The move to our new office is not only a physical change of address, but also a strategic business decision that includes the revamping of our identity.

Remarkably, our corporate logo has withstood the test of time despite that of our products were altered over time. However, we are now resolute in our belief that the logo requires changing, and we also want to take advantage of the date by introducing new products into the market.

Our new head office is also situated at a strategic location in metropolitan Lagos that brings us closer to critical stakeholders such as clients, partners and suppliers.

The new corporate identity appears distinctive in its design and colouration, what does it symbolise?

The new identity is made up of two colours, three dots and the inscription of our name. Black signifies boldness and unambiguity in what we represent as a brand. It represents strength, integrity and a core value – dependence on God. It is also a beautiful colour and implies our heritage which we are proud of. Green, on the other hand, is the symbol of life and growth. The three dots atop the inscription of our name signify the progression of the company. The first represents our country Nigeria with the others signifying our movement to the entire African market and the rest of the world. The incremental sizes in shape, illustrates the types of metamorphic processes that we seek to catalyse in the domains of our business which are Nigeria, Africa and the world. In all, they represent the past, present and future of SystemSpecs.

Why change an identity that has become engraved in the minds of stakeholders?

The logo has been with us for 28 years, but we have decided that it is time to refresh and give a new meaning to the brand. We have decided to reflect the historical progression of the company in our identity and add a contemporary feel that shows our youthful renewal from the inside and to connect with our new generation of customers and partners.

We debated at several times in the past if to change the logo or maintain it, however changes were made to those of our products. The change is also in line with our view of sustenance and longevity as a firm as we believe the sum of our activities on the second of February will remain with us for a long time.

How has SystemSpecs maintained its industry leadership over the course of its 28-year existence?

Over time, we have been enamoured by the big picture and not short-term gains, which is usually money for most. This has greatly impacted our drive towards building a brand. The intention from the start was to build a company that would outlive us, and, with God, we have grown gradually but consistently while maintaining focus on software even at a time when software was largely unknown in this part of the world.

In fact, 28 years ago, computers themselves were hardly known in this region, so it was difficult selling computer hardware let alone software that cannot be seen or held. Nevertheless, we remained resolute in our beliefs and now people have come to understand the value of software.

Furthermore, we promote family-centric values at SystemSpecs and as a result we have had members of staff who bought into the corporate philosophy and went over and beyond in supporting the dream. On account of the environment we have fostered for years, we have some members of staff who still view the company as home years after moving on from it. Just recently, SystemSpecs alumnus, who leads a team at IBM Canada visited the country for the sole purpose of training on new trends. The relationships we maintain with members of staff is so good that some of these trainings are pro-bono.

We can proudly state that SystemSpecs has its footprints, with regards to ex-staff, in all the leading companies globally such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and the likes.

How has SystemSpecs coped with client demands down the years vis-à-vis technological advancements? 

Clients have played no small role in our innovations over time. We listen to their feedback and requirements, regardless of how it is passed across, while re-engineering our products to meet their needs and making it more attractive such that when we meet newer prospects, our products would be the industry’s gold standard.

Over the course of 28 years, SystemSpecs has successfully operated in Nigeria and other African markets, what would you attribute the secret of the company’s success to and what can stakeholders expect from the firm this year and the future?

Throughout the course of our existence, our growth has been organic, without the involvement of external investors or financial leverage. However, at the current stage of our growth, we probably may consider other models that enable us fully capitalise on the assets and intellectual property built over the years.

We are in prime position to take on the world, inspired by our history of firsts across the globe in terms of some of our innovations.  For instance, in the year 2000, we ran a ‘’self-service’’ campaign for our product, HumanManager, which centred around the inventive nature of the product. At the time, our peers around the world provided server-based solutions but we switched things up by delivering self-service functionality on the web to enable employees directly manage their HR activities. Quite unfortunately, we did not scale at a commensurate level to our first.

Another example of unprecedented innovation is Remita. Remita is about 15 years old this year. Two years ago, I read of one of the biggest global banks celebrating a bank-account aggregation – a feature which is one of the features that has been present in Remita from inception. Besides that, we have innovated many of the features global competitors are just now celebrating. On the flipside, it is also possible that our innovation in this regard was borne out of our peculiar needs as Nigerians; there probably was no need for such innovation from our international counterparts, hence the delay to achieve certain things.  The average Nigerian, for instance, has multiple bank accounts which means they own numerous applications on their phones for financial transactions thereby creating a clutter of apps. What we have done with Remita, is to provide a one-stop solution that allows seamless integration with all banks on one screen, which takes away the burden of having multiple applications while affording convenience for the user. Now, we have organisations both in Nigeria and across the globe developing similar solutions and presenting them as novel, whereas we have been doing the same thing for years now. In this new phase of our business, we shall be deliberate in projecting our innovations and intellectual assets to the world to show what great technology solutions come out of Nigeria.

It goes without saying that staff are the lifeblood of any organisation, how enthusiastic are they to be a part of the new era of the firm? Also, how can the country forestall the burgeoning problem of brain drain?

A good number of our initiatives today were pushed bottom top. A huge portion of our workforce joined as a result of their desire to be part of the company’s journey while yearning to make their marks. We also have the older generation in our workforce, some who have been with us from the start and will be here for a long time due to the purpose of the brand. There is a fine mix of the old and young at SystemSpecs, a fusion of maturity that accompanies experience and vibrancy of youth. The feeling is that the company is set for the foreseeable future.

With regards to brain drain, we must officially recognise what I call the “Canada threat’’ and strategically combat it. A lot of our young ones find the lure of foreign countries irresistible and organisations across the country are incapable of halting the emigration as some of the reasons adduced are justifiable. So, what we try to do at SystemSpecs is to make the most of the situation by maintaining cordial relationships with our people no matter where they go.

Nigeria as a country needs to recognise this exodus of our brilliant young people and develop a strategy to forestall the worrying trend. We might be unable to completely stop the outward movement of talent, but we can make it less attractive by creating an enabling environment for them to thrive. Most of our young ones ideally prefer working in Nigeria due to the weather and awesome social network and support systems, however owing to the unending insecurity challenges, weak judiciary and economic downturn, working in the country continues to become extremely unattractive for these bright talents who are in high demand elsewhere. The quality of education on offer nationwide must also be significantly improved. A great number of our graduates from tertiary institutions are not immediately employable and we must buck the trend.

Whereas, there is gain in being an exporter of skilled labour; this should not be at the detriment of the country. Our policy should be focused on exporting labour when there is a market oversaturation and not out of necessity. That way, we can convert the need of the West into a good business opportunity for us as a country.

Over the course of 28 years, SystemSpecs has successfully operated in Nigeria and other African markets, what would you attribute the secret of the company’s success to and what can stakeholders expect from the firm this year and the future?

Nigerians can be fully confident in our position as a technology powerhouse that can hold its own anywhere in the world. Over the years, we have constantly developed high-quality products and services and this year will be no different. Currently, we have no less than seven products in the offing that would be launched this year to different sectors of the economy. These products would be geared towards addressing a variety of market needs. The first of the product is Paylink with its launch coinciding with our corporate identity unveil on the second of February 2020. Subsequently, we shall introduce to the market another product targeted strictly at bills payment, – a product that will challenge Remita in a figurative manner. A major misconception held by the public is that SystemSpecs is Remita, but Remita is but a subset of our business. Therefore, we want stakeholders to witness the technological prowess of the SystemSpecs brand and appreciate it even more. In all, we have product launches, scheduled for the rest of the year

In what ways will the company operate differently on account of the corporate restructuring you mentioned?

SystemSpecs in now a new entity on account of the corporate restructuring. What we have now are four distinct strategic business units (SBUs) focused on different segments of the local and international markets but still under the umbrella SystemSpecs brand. The first SBU is Infrastructure and Payment Gateway, which undertakes the provision of critical connectivity between us and other ecosystem players such as banks, payment processors and other service providers. In our bid to operate in a more strategic manner, we carved out this function as a separate business unit in order to provide this service directly to the market. The unit possesses Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that are designed to serve us and even competitors because we already have an efficient network with a number of service providers. We are committed to extending these APIs and other similar backend services directly to merchants, aggregators and by extension individuals and businesses in need of such services.

Another of our divisions is the vertical markets which is saddled with the responsibility of providing customer-centric applications like Remita and Paylink. The division is responsible for all our corporate or retail customer-focused financial payment products.

Additionally, our third SBU is focused on providing human capital solutions and services. This division is responsible for managing all our payroll and human resources management products and services, which we were primarily known for before the rapid popularity of Remita. Surprisingly, not many people tend to remember this side of our history as a result of Remita’s growth. This division will work with organisations of all sizes to relieve them of the task of managing their people, which we would do leveraging technology, so they can be freed to focus solely on their businesses.

Finally, our fourth SBU is the Public Sector and Special Projects Division. As you know, our Remita serves as the payment gateway into the Nigerian government’s Treasury Single Account (TSA) while we also have our footprints in about 22 states nationwide. Hence, we constituted this business unit to strategically manage this aspect of our business. We believe this approach will help people better understand the SystemSpecs brand, thereby quashing the notion that the company is all about TSA and enable them understand that TSA is under the jurisdiction of just one of the company’s four SBUs.

Was the decision to revamp the corporate strategy and brand identity of SystemSpecs mandated by key stakeholders or borne out of the need to fully explore certain market potential?

Both factors contributed to the decision. We are constantly on the lookout for market needs that can be satisfied, analysing the needs of customers and drawing inspiration from the overarching vision of the company. Just as I earlier mentioned, people were starting to think of SystemSpecs in relation just to TSA, which was becoming unfair to customers who predate TSA and go as far back as two decades. TSA has its positives and negatives, but we decided that the time has come for it and other related businesses to be unbundled as a stand-alone unit and thus the uncoupling of the business into four distinct market segments.

Do you as a technology company come up with products that will transcend your immediate realities and what has kept you in business for 28 years while others failed?

Two pivotal components to the survival of any company are its vision and unique selling propositions. I have always admired and applauded businesses who go against the grain to well and truly create innovative technologies.

A huge portion of players in the indigenous technology space are more focused on emulating others rather than creating ingenious things. You will be astonished to know the number of companies that went after PSSP licenses with the belief they  would be the new TSA gateway, without understanding the market nor thinking through what value they can add. Nevertheless, companies like Coral Pay have decided to innovate. There is ample space for innovation in the software space and we pride ourselves in being innovators. Over the years, we have developed numerous products and services by being able to think ahead of others. Being innovative is a prerequisite these days to staying competitive in the technology and even other fields, otherwise you run the risk of going out of business in no time. From research you would realise that some players entered the market with hits and fizzled out in no time. But at SystemSpecs, we prefer to maintain a slow but steady growth and keep innovating. That, we believe, is the strategy for long-term sustainability.

Again, due of the deep longing for players to make tremendous cash in the shortest possible time, attention to details is ignored. However, we have an unending commitment to meticulousness. Quality, like they say, matters and a lot of companies have failed down the years as a result of their lack of paying attention to quality. Software is such that a wrong placement or an omission of a full stop may have grave consequences. Quality cannot be overstated, and we do our utmost to ensure that it is an integral component of our activities. Many players do not agree with our policy on quality, but it is indubitable in our operations.

Another differentiator for us, with the help of God, is our policy to be painstaking and resist the lure to cut corners. When we discover during our interactions with potential customers/buyers that they do not operate ethically, we would rather pull out of the deal than have our image sullied. This has come at a cost to us, but we have always been able to weather the storm.

Has the company ever undergone such a change as it is now?

We have undergone several changes but not on this scale. This time, we are reinventing our brand identity, restructuring our business, relocating our corporate head office and introducing seven products into the market.

What is SystemSpecs’ winning formula?

As previously mentioned, staff relationship and quality are indispensable in the quest to be successful in business. We respect our relationship with customers and being able to build qualitative relationships is one of our strengths at SystemSpecs.  Incidentally, one of our staff retired after 25 years of service with us and on the first of January this year, she started a consulting practice which she invited just 20 people to its launch. To my delight, I saw a client of over 20 years and his wife present as guests as well. This feat was achieved on account of the kind of relationship that we maintain with clients.

In addition to that, investing in members of staff has also worked in our favour. Our Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Emmanuel Eze, for instance, joined as a corps member, progressed through the company before travelling out for his Ph.D.; today, he sits on our board as an executive director. And there are many others who have built solid careers in SystemSpecs, enjoying what they are doing and are already in the leadership pipeline. Therefore, with the sound minds at our disposal and the help of God, we have excelled in our industry.

Can you describe the journey, including partnerships and takeovers, attaining the status the company currently possesses?

The journey started 29 years ago, when I was considering leaving the banking industry after 10 years of service, and with the mounting desire to try something new, the seeds of what we call SystemSpecs today was planted. We started out partnering with Systems Union which was then a UK-based firm that was later taken over by a US-based company and renamed Infor. We represented them in Nigeria on the sales and deployment of Sun Systems, an accounting software which remains one of the most popular software in the world. This partnership continued for 25 years until we felt the need to fully devote our resources to our own home-grown brands.

While the partnership was ongoing, we developed our products called SpecPay, SpecMan and SpecPen, which we eventually merged into HumanManager. Therefrom, we developed Remita which people now think is all we do; however, I still have strong feelings for HumanManager.

Remita has become a very big project and we believe one of the reasons people think we are all about government is because they cannot readily relate with some of the features Remita offers. We are now de-layering some of the features of Remita to make them easily identifiable. The unique selling propositions of some fintech companies today are already just subsets of Remita. Hence, we are decoupling features and strategically positioning them for target markets.

A product like our new Paylink, for instance, is designed to enable micro businesses work more efficiently. For these businesses, they can receive payments using Paylink rather than sharing their account details. Regardless of how the payer intends paying – USSD, internet banking, debit & credit card or over the counter, the vendor receives the fund with full payer details as may be desired by the merchant.

What is your vision for the company by the time it celebrates its golden jubilee?

By God’s grace, we have a structure today that runs independently of me, and we currently have four executive directors, by so doing, we have a strong management team capable of overseeing the running of the business. The only reason I am still here is because I enjoy what I do and when I think it is time to move, I have no fear that the transition would be seamless and the system would continue to run effectively.

Considering this, your question about the vision for 20 years should be directed at the next generation of executives who would still be here then. The vision is clear, and it triggered the division of the business. One of the reasons we came up with the SBU idea is to create growth potentials for our younger executives. They are now more involved in the management team in each of these SBUs and at some point, we would release them to become fully independent companies while SystemSpecs remains the holding company.