BY DELE MOMODU (PENDULUM)
Fellow Nigerians, I’m back this week to the story I started two weeks ago on the life and times of The Parakoyi of Ibadanland, Sir Chief Bode Akindele, the business colossus who passed on weeks back and has since been buried. There is so much I’m sure most Nigerians don’t know about one of the greatest African businessmen that ever lived. Believe me, this is not an exaggeration as you will discover shortly. I have been interacting with many of the movers and shakers of Africa for over three decades and can confidently confirm that Chief Akindele was in a class of his own. Here was a prodigiously gifted gentleman who grew his business organically. God truly blessed this iconic figure so much that he was still working at over 87 and died peacefully in his Apapa home, the morning, after a family dinner, reminiscent of the Last Supper, the evening before.
Let me now continue to regale you with the amazing takes of his sagacious and roller-coaster stunts in the unpredictable world of business, as personally revealed to Ovation International magazine about 17 years ago. Sorry, if you missed my previous article but even this second part is powerful enough to inspire, educate and entertain you. Chief Akindele was very bold and daring. He was a consummate businessman who invested in whatever he felt was, or would, bring profits.
His first major foray into the business of produce and commodities was to deal in shea nuts which was needed in Japan and Denmark. He then added chilli and Gum Arabic which he sold all over England. Everything was running smoothly in the mid-sixties before the Nigerian civil war came to tear Nigeria apart. By then Chief already had 16 branches in the North alone for his business. According to him:
“Shea nuts in what is now Niger State was so abundant that they were falling from the trees and there was no one to pick them. Nobody talked about crude oil then. Then the civil war came, and some Northern leaders started feeding their people with wrong information that the Southerners were coming to the North to exploit and plunder Northern produce. So, people who had been friendly suddenly became hostile…”
He had opened his first store in what is now known as Abuja as far back as 1964/65. Abuja was not yet in this state. It was just a small village and there was unity, safety and peace. He could travel day and night carrying huge sums of cash without any fear of encountering armed robbers or bandits. Nigeria was one family. The leaders then were better educated and certainly more cerebral. As soon as some selfish leaders started fanning embers of distrust and disunity, things began to fall apart, and the country has been no longer at ease since then.
Chief Akindele continued, “there is something called castor oil seed, from which you make oil, and this is abundant in places like Igala. Every part of the country had its own produce. But the civil war brought down a lot of things and discouraged people… Until that war started, there were no roadblocks… One night I was travelling from Lagos to Minna (which I usually did every weekend to be back before Monday), and I approached Jebba. We used to leave Lagos by 9:00 p.m. in order to get to Jebba by 6:00a.m. and in good time to patronise a lady who prepared Eja Osan (fresh fish) at a roadside restaurant. As I was entering Jebba, a police officer flagged me down and said he wanted to search my car. I asked him what he had lost that he could be looking for in my car. I was baffled. I had never been stopped at a police checkpoint. He asked to see the boot of my car and I asked if he had put anything there. It was strange to me. I asked my driver to open the booth of the car for the officer. There was 75,000 pounds inside the boot of the car. In those days, they hated paper money in the North and when we got to our destinations we always had to change all the money to coins and hire labourers who would carry bags of coins on their heads and follow us about. So, the police officer saw the bags of coins in the cars and was shocked. ‘Sir, what is this’, he asked. I told him it was money and said ‘Bature para’, meaning shea nut dealer, which was a very respected title in those days because the Europeans were also involved in the business…” There was no harassment and no bribe demanded.
After the civil war, Chief decided to expand his business mightily. He had established a lot of contacts internationally and had foreign partners. For example, he knew the famous Rothschild family and a few others. He wanted to establish industries at home while doing business abroad. So, he went to his Mum who told him no one makes enemies with water. He translated that into the business of food and beverages. He decided to go into fishing which was quite new in Nigeria. He went to different European ports where fishing was being carried out. He had no experience and he knew he needed some understanding of the trade:
“So, I went to Ghana because Ghana was much more advanced in fishing. I studied what they were doing there and the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) was building ships for Ghana at the time, so I ordered for four ships. I brought them to Nigeria… This was in 1968. At that time, I made a mistake. My advisers were the Nigerians who studied fishing; they were my consultants. Later on, I started referring to them as ‘fishermen on the table’ because they can’t go inside the water, but they can lay down all sorts of scenarios for you sitting at their table. Within six months of bringing the ships here, every account was in red and I nearly lost my shirt. Why? Because in the fishing vessels we put a kitchen and some comfortable beds. So, what happened was that whenever the fishermen caught any fish, they would take the fish into the kitchen, grill the fish, and eat. After eating they would go to the comfortable beds and doze off…”
After losing so much money in a particular business, most people would probably have absconded and run to other terrains. Not Chief. He soon found a Spanish guy by the name Joseph Farcha who had a smaller boat but was making money. So, Chief offered to buy his business off him. The man was surprised that Chief was still willing to invest in fishing despite having heavily lost money already:
“He asked if I really wanted to buy his business. I told him yes, I wanted to buy. I knew that eventually I was not going to buy the business. So, he told me how much he was going to sell. He said he wanted foreign currency not the Nigerian one. He told me that before we started any negotiation we should fly to his house in Spain and that before starting discussions, I should deposit 50% of the sum in his account. So, we flew to Spain and I deposited the money in his account. We came back and then he said he was ready to sell to me. I said okay, but before I paid the 50% balance he also had to agree to my terms. He asked me what my terms were. I said he had to run the business for me for six months, so that I would know how he did it. He said whatever money we made in that time had to be put in a joint account in both our names. I agreed to that…
“The second condition I gave Mr Farcha was that I would bring my first ship into his business, so that he would manage both vessels for the six months. He looked at me and said I was a clever man… The first thing he did on the first day was to remove the kitchen from my ship. On the second day he removed all the beds. So, my staff who were used to the easy life, started to grumble. When he saw them grumbling, he sacked all of them. He then sent my first ship to sea with five men, instead of the usual twelve we used to send. When they came back, the catch was more than double what we used to get. In the first month, he had made half of the money I used to buy the whole company. The agreement was that whatever money he made during that period he would get half. A Nigerian of today might not agree to the deal but I knew I had to make a serious sacrifice in order to make it. After five months, the profit I had made was more than all the loss I made in one and half years…”
At that stage, Chief asked if the man still wanted to sell his business and the man said he already sold it off to Chief. Chief said he was ready to make him a permanent partner and would treat the earlier payment agreement 100 percent as a loan. Mr Farcha agreed. Chief told Ovation International about a popular Spanish saying that when something is going good, you do not adjust it: “So since 1968 it is still going fine. After one and half years of operations we went to do the thing that gave Nigeria a name in Spain. We went and bought sixteen fishing vessels and five big trawlers that are used for getting prawns for export to Spain. Later on, I went into breweries and quite a few other things…”
Chief later made his biggest cash from the flour mills, which cost him 80 million dollars in 1985-86. But he said he enjoyed the fishing business more because he had 500 registered customers in Nigeria apart from 2,000 marketers globally. He derived pleasure from seeing that some of the traders made it greatly from the business and were even able to send their children to schools abroad from the substantial amounts of money they were making.
Let me give a few more examples of how audacious Chief was. Chief was able to raise a loan of 40 million dollars in Switzerland alone through his connection to the Rothschild family. His own contribution was about 10 million dollars. He had some credit facilities from the suppliers of the equipment he required and awarded Julius Berger a contract of 30 million dollars for the filling of the site of the Mills at Apapa, Lagos.
Chief was not done. He started a real estate business in the United Kingdom with his partner and they built quite a formidable portfolio that included seven large Sainsbury Stores buildings and ASDA also. According to Chief:
“I remember the last one we did. ASDA is the biggest supermarket (we always go for the big ones) in the UK. It has a car park for 675 cars. We approached them and told them we wanted to buy their real estate off them since they were into trading and not real estate. It cost about 25 – 27 million pounds to buy their property off them. We then leased it back to them: first for 25 years. I think we are charging something like 4 million pounds a year on the properties. We have five other big departmental stores like that…”
Let me confess that apart from the Jerry John Rawlings interview (spanning five days and a total of 18 hours) we conducted in Accra, about the Ghanaian revolution, this unforgettable session with Chief Bode Akindele is one of our best ever. Due to space constraints, I will continue next week because it is simply a veritable and astonishing biography of an uncommon entrepreneur who stood the test of time. His next escapades were even more dramatic. This is quite an unusual phenomenon in African business circles. I venture to opine that Chief Akindele’s business style should be a topic for case studies and possibly a PhD thesis at Oxford and Harvard Business schools…