By popular demand, we represent the classic interview by Chief Olusegun Osunkeye, former managing director and chairman of Nestle Foods Plc, offering valuable tips on how to create value and build a comfortable life working for others. By staying at Nestle for 41 years (27 years of executive responsibilities and 14 years as Non-Executive Chairman), Chief Osunkeye, a Chartered Accountant by training, has demonstrated that you can be wealthy and live a good life working for others. The interview was first published in the May 8 edition of Thisday. Enjoy
In this interview with Ayo Arowolo, he explains some of the strategies that made that feat possible. Please enjoy.
Q1. When did you decide you would stay that long working for others instead of building your own business?
After completing my professional examination in accountancy and taxation May/June 1965, in the United Kingdom, I stayed on to work for 18 months with a practising firm of Chartered Accountants in the Birmingham area. Those times gave me the chance to think about my future goals. I had to decide whether to join a practising firm, in this case, Messrs Akintola Williams & Co, where I started my Accountancy tutelage in 1959, and work my way to the top to become a Partner; or join a manufacturing company, and work my way up, to become a ‘Captain of Industry’ as the cliché goes. Meanwhile, to hedge, I wrote to Mr (now Pa/Elder) Akintola Williams informing him that I had completed my studies and might want to work for the firm on my return to Nigeria if there is a vacancy. Mr AkintolaWilliams graciously replied that there will always be a place for me if I wish to join the firm as a qualified accountant. I maintained contact all along with Mr Williams, which developed into a mentor/role model over the years to this day. Towards the end of 1966, the United Africa Company, UK advertised on behalf of its Nigeria Subsidiaries, UAC Nigeria, an opening for Accountants to work in Nigeria. I applied, and luckily, I was appointed to start work at UACN in March 1967. So, the decision to work in an industrial organisation was made.
Q2. What made you take that decision? Was there any specific factor that influenced it?
In all my considerations of where to work or what to do, it never crossed my mind to be a “businessman” or to buy and sell/distribute or import/export. I had always been moving in professional circles. Before going to the UK, I worked in Peat Marwick Casselton Elliot & Co, a practising firm of Chartered Accountants, to complete my studies. So, the dignity of the accountancy profession and comportment, professionalism and ethics of my bosses (Mr Akintola Williams, Mr Charles Sankey, both of Akintola Williams & Co and Messrs H.W Bond, D. Easton, and Leslie Parker of Peat Marwick) influenced me. Doing audit work took me to industrial clients to learn first-hand the broad range of commercial and industrial management and operations. I suppose this also shaped my thinking and ultimately swayed me to the path of becoming an industrialist.
Q3. Given your personal experience, what would you suggest are the success factors for anyone who wants to follow that path to wealth creation?
From the onset, I was determined to be a person of character and integrity. These must be your credo alongside your competence in your work. Whatever work, pursue excellence in your assignments, whatever you are given to do, and this involves diligence and continuous learning and improvement. In this same vein, try your best to develop a savings culture. Like the richest man in Babylon said, a tenth of what you earn is yours to keep. Your accumulated savings is the seed of future investment. Integrity, too, is a big asset. In due time, it can and does attract/create other assets. Let me expatiate:
Under the 1976 Indigenisation Decree, foreign companies were required to sell at least 40% of their shareholdings to Nigerians. So, a close friend, a lawyer, and I, also working in a big company, wanted to benefit from the indigenisation exercise, but we had no money to back up our wish. So, we approached UBA (General Manager then was Mr John West). We told him our mission. He agreed to give us a loan of N60,000.00 each on credit to buy shares in any companies of our choice. The loan was repayable in five years, and no collateral was required, only self-recognition (integrity at work!). That was how our wealth creation (as an employee) started. We repaid the loan within three years.
In life, opportunities come in waves, and it is beneficial to have a discerning mind or recognise or perceive the wealth potential in some event, activity or hearsay. Let me paint an example for you. Pay keen attention:
After securing the line of credit, we now searched for companies selling shares. One obvious place to go is an Issuing House, Nigerian Acceptances Limited (NAL). Two of the officers handling the issues were friends (the power of networking!). They included our names in one particular issue-Imperial Chemical Industries Plc (now known as CAP Plc). The 50k nominal value shares were sold at 18kobo (at that time, 1976, the share price was determined by the Capital Issues Committee (now known as the Securities & Exchange Commission). When the list of names of prospective buyers was collated and sent to the Chairman, who had his own list, the Chairman looked at the (list with our names) as submitted by NAL, and retorted loudly to everyone around “who are these small boys” and crossed out our names, including the NAL officers. Eventually, we were offered the crumbs because the shares were not fully taken up. In my case, 10,000 shares of 50k each were offered to me.
My friends at NAL were angry that we had been called “small boys” and declined their offer. I told them that “I am a small boy” for this purpose, and I accepted and paid N1,800 for the 10,000 shares. A year later, ICI declared a dividend such that I received N2062.50 net! A year later again, ICI declared a bonus issue of 3 for 2, and I received 15,000 bonus shares. One of the NAL officers who had declined his offer offered to buy the bonus shares at N1.50 per share and paid me N22,500. I learnt later that the officer offloaded the shares at N2.25 per share within months! A win/win for all concerned. Wealth creation!
Another example: 30 years ago, at a business meeting, the Managing Director of Unilever Nigeria Plc mentioned that they had sold their factory and head office premises at Apapa and would be moving to Oregun when formalities were completed. A few days later, while pondering over the information gleaned at the business meeting, I deduced that the assets sold would have been fully written off and that the sale would have yielded a huge capital gain realised, which would show in the Balance Sheet at the end of the year ending December 31. I reasoned that shareholders would benefit from a handsome bonus issue if declared. This was around August/September, so I started buying Unilever shares on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, hoping that by the following May or June, when the Annual General Meeting would be held, I would realise gains (more wealth) on my investment in the shares. Unfortunately, it did not happen as planned. The paperwork transferring ownership, which would allow the sale/capital gain to be realized before or by December 31, had not been completed. So, I had to wait/tie-down capital for 12 months, and I continued buying more Unilever shares. Everything worked out as expected the following year – wealth accretion. It was amazing!
Q4. What are the difficulties you encountered along that path, and how did you overcome them?
From the word go, I imbibed hard work, integrity and honesty, character, work ethics, competence, commitment and loyalty to my employer as my emblem. These attributes would engender my bosses, peers and subordinates to repose trust and confidence in me as I move up the corporate ladder and generally in the journey of life. These principles have been critical success factors in my career. It is expected that along a career path spanning over 45 years, one would encounter intrigues, frustrations, and disappointments. I had a fair share at different times. Let me recount a few:
In the company I worked for, Nestle Group, international auditors go around auditing the operations of the Nestle subsidiaries in over 100 countries around the world (including Nigeria). They would arrive in the country without prior notice, bearing a letter of introduction from Nestle headquarters in Switzerland. In one such instance, the Auditor came and, after his work, went back to Switzerland and wrote a damning report laced with untruths and incorrect figures to make his case. It was a low point for me in my career, especially coming at a time (in 1978) when I was being prepared for secondment to Nestle companies in Malaysia/the Philippines/Switzerland for international exposure and development for further promotion. All this was now in potential jeopardy. As it was the practice, the auditee (Nestle Nigeria, typified by me) would be allowed to respond to the Auditor’s findings, comments and recommendations. I gave a robust defence supporting my statements with verifiable facts and figures to disprove or lay bare the falsehood of some of the Auditor’s major “findings”. The powers above must have been satisfied with my response, and the transfer programme for me went on as planned. However, presumably, as a hedge, if things were as bad as the Auditor had painted, the same Auditor was posted to Nigeria to replace me as the Finance and Control Director on my transfer to Malaysia. During his stay in Nigeria, and in his unguarded moments, he would tell colleagues and the friends he had made among our distributors that he deliberately wrote a bad report so that he would be posted to Nigeria to come and clean the mess. He got his wish, except that there was no mess to clean!
My posting to the Far East and Switzerland was from mid-1978 to the end of December 1980. As time was getting close to return to Nigeria, the erstwhile Auditor (now Finance & Control Director) was brazen enough to ask our employer (Nestle S.A. Switzerland) for posting out of Nigeria, giving as his reason that he could not serve under me (a Nigerian). He was asked to submit his resignation immediately, which he did. He left Nigeria and resurfaced a few months later, having been engaged by one of our distributor partners, an influential Nigerian. After about six months, he fell out with the influential Nigerian who got him deported within 48 hours! The good Lord had fought for me; it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay”, says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
I served as de facto No. 2 in the company for 11 years before being elevated to the Chief Executive Officer position (NumeroUno). That waiting period taught me some lessons in patience, show competence with hard work to be blameless, and tolerating some indignities along the way. It is written that “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the Lord delivers him out of them all” Psalm 34:19.
Q5. What were the wealth-building strategies you employed while you were actively working?
The answer to question 3 has partially covered this question.
Networking allows you to meet diverse persons in various occupations, vocations, and professions, such as bankers, realtors, lawyers, industrialists, stockbrokers, analysts and persons with business acumen. One can glean opportunities for wealth creation from interacting with diverse personalities. Seek advice and information from experts and those you think should know. Stockbrokers will tell you that the market thrives on hearsay (and, of course, analyses); at the end of it all, you have to decide, go or no go, which would depend on your risk appetite. Every investment decision has an element of risk. Generally, the older one is, the less long-term your risk horizon should be.
Q6. How did you prepare for the years after work?
Much earlier in my career, about the age of 40, I took a long-term view of my career path, including where I would like to live and work. I could see a bright future working my way to the top at Nestle Nigeria to become the proverbial “Captain of Industry”. Since Nestle’s head office was (and still is) situated in Ilupeju, it is expedient that my residence should not be far away from my place of work. I was already staying in company-provided accommodation in Ikeja, GRA, with a good standard of living for my family. Therein lies a vulnerability, supposing I were to lose my job; where would my family and I stay? This is part of thinking of life after work, I started in earnest in 1981 to look for landed property to buy in Ikeja, GRA. I eventually succeeded and moved to my own house in 1986. I was then entitled to receive a housing allowance in place of accommodation, which I used to repay the loan on the house over the next 10 years (whilst still gainfully employed in my career path).
While living in Ikeja, GRA, I took note of the fact that the EKO hospital was under construction (family health needs would be taken care of); also the Sheraton Hotel was under construction (for my entertainment), and the Ikeja Golf Course & Lagos Country Club were nearby (for leisure), and our spiritual needs and upliftment are met at our place of worship (Archbishop Vining Memorial Church, now Cathedral) also situated in Ikeja, GRA.
The mandatory retirement age was 60 years of age at Nestle Nigeria, but one can voluntarily retire after 55 years. We prepare an annual Management Succession Plan (MSP) projecting yearly for three years forward by putting the name of your successor in the box and so on. In the 1996 plan for my position as MD/CEO, I wrote my name and ditto for 1997 and 1998. For 1999, I wrote A.N. OTHER and submitted the plan by the due date (Sept 1996) to Nestle headquarters in Switzerland. On receipt, I got a phone call drawing my attention to the A.N. OTHER I wrote for 1999 and asking whether it was an error. I replied that I would like to retire in 1999, and the Executive at the other end said, “let us discuss it when we come (to Lagos) to review the Annual Operating Plan (AOP)” in November (1996) when I formally informed Nestle of my desire to retire in 1999. This was a calculated strategic decision and forward-thinking on my part, and it paid off.
The Agenda for the November 1996 discussions included a review of the AOP, MSP and Board Composition Plan (BCP), with the number of participating managers reducing progressively until we got to the BCP, leaving me as the only executive to discuss with the visiting Nestle executives. In the BCP review, the incumbent Chairman would attain the age of 70 in 1998 and would retire according to the policy at the following Annual General Meeting in 1999.
Then the leader of the discussions (a senior executive in the Nestle Group) asked me, “as you are retiring in 1999, would you like to take over as Non-Executive Chairman of the Board?” I replied, without hesitation, that I would gladly accept to be the Chairman of the Board. That was the matter’s conclusion, and it was so minuted in the confidential minutes of the 1996 Decisions.
So, in effect, I gave three years’ notice of my retirement from 27 years of executive responsibilities (of which three years as the MD, 1988 to 1991, and eight years as MD/CEO, 1991 to 1999) followed by 14 years as Non-Executive Chairman of the Board (1999 to 2013), a satisfactory prolongation of a career, most gratifying. It is one thing to plan and prepare ahead, and it is another thing entirely for God to bless the Plan. Man proposes, God disposes (Proverbs 16:9), and so to God be the Glory, great things He has done for me!
I strive for balance in my life while pursuing my career of lifelong employment, first in the UAC Group for five years, then in the Nestle Group for 27 years. Managing the work/life balance is very important. You may not be 100% successful all of the time, but one must be conscious of it and work at it. Let me illustrate by quoting from the Word for Today, Issue of December 9 2009. “Imagine life as a game in which you juggle five balls in the air. You name them: work, family, health, friends and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. But the other four balls, family, health, friends and spirit, are made of glass. If you drop any of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life”. You also have to look after yourself as you look after your family. The Bible says in 1 Timothy 5:8 that if a man does not provide for his own, especially his household, he is worse than an infidel. If you cannot work, you cannot look after your family, wife, children and you. Each must have their space at different times to think and commune with self and God. Your work/career must also not suffer because it is from your work that you can feed the family. Rest is part of the work/life balance because you need to recharge your batteries to move forward again. As time goes by, you take a broader spectrum and say that society has been kind to me with wealth, position and possession. What do I give back to church, school, community and society? Giving back improves your well-being and uplifts your soul.
Q7. What personal finance tips have you employed that you want to share with others who want to follow the path?
The quotation of Alan Greenspan in your Wealth Capsule 9 (Thisday, April 3, 2022, P.22) is apt here. I commend it to the reader. I have a head start in being a well-trained professional accountant. I continually hone my financial skills, extending to fundamental and technical analysis of organisations/before making financial investment decisions. Nonetheless, it is always useful to seek views and advice from stockbrokers and other professional advisers. This enables you to validate your standpoint or helps to broaden your options.
As I said earlier, build up your funds by imbibing a savings culture early in your career, regularly saving between 10% and 20% of your monthly salary. This I did by monthly standing order, and in some years, the entire increase portion of the annual salary increment went into savings. Forward-looking and forward planning, the accumulated savings over the years is a form of investment waiting to be deployed into human capital investment in the children’s education when they reach Secondary School/University age. This is a primary responsibility of a parent when the time comes, and it cannot wait; time waits for no one, especially when the children are growing in age. It helps to have a “nose” for investment opportunities in your networking, followed by rational thinking and thorough analyses.
Q8. How would you deploy it if you have 50m to invest now?
If I have N50 million to invest now, I will allocate it to four instruments that are not necessarily equal. I would start by recognising that I require funds to meet living expenses such as food, fuel, shelter, repairs and maintenance, transport, and social pressure (gifts and donations); therefore, one must be liquid and have sufficient funds in a Current Account. The second category of expenditure is periodic, such as school fees, insurance, rent, unforeseen motor vehicle repairs, medical bills etc. For these, you should have funds you can draw upon or at very short notice. This will be in a Savings Account, which would yield relatively low interest instead of being idle in a Current Account.
I would probably allocate about 30% to the Current and Savings Accounts combined. Moving into more exciting areas (along with the risk involved). I would allocate about 40-50% to Fixeddeposits/Equities (Stock Market)/Mutual Funds, Treasury Bills, and Commercial Papers of Corporate bodies. This is where I can create wealth; the income from these instruments in the form of interest and dividends will be used to replenish the current and savings accounts. Success in these investments would depend on how savvy and informed I am in the market. For instance, when the Interest on Treasury Bills cascades down to low levels, I would probably move to the Stock Market or Commercial Papers.
For the remaining 30%-20% of the funds, I would want to recognise that we are in a high inflation economy (hovering around 15%), which erodes the value of money and its purchasing power. Therefore, I would invest the balance (30/20%) in Eurobonds, which are denominated in US Dollars), to yield coupons in (US Dollars) on six monthly bases, which can be converted back to Naira to feed the Current/Savings accounts. Investing in Eurobonds is to preserve value vis-a-visthe Dollar and the depreciating Naira exchange rate. One Dollar invested at the exchange rate of N189 in December 2014 will fetch over N500 today in the parallel market rate. The value of the investment has been somewhat preserved.
As an alternative, the balance of the funds could be invested in real estate, in a choice place, which may not be in Lagos, to yield good rent (from a good tenant) and at the same time preserve value since land is finite and property in a good location increases in value over time.
Q9. Any regret following that path?
No regret whatsoever in following the career path that I chose for myself. It has been rewarding and fulfilling, especially the legacy I left in Nestle Nigeria which has been sustained in the agro-allied industry, by which over 26,000 farmers are deriving many benefits today in Corporate Shared Values partnering as suppliers of grains for the manufacturing operations of Nestle Nigeria (see 2020 Nestle Nigeria Annual Report). “Golden Morn”, the popular nutritious food product composed mainly of locally grown maize and soya beans supplied by our farmers, was conceived, produced and introduced into the Nigerian market during my tenure as MD/CEO, with me as the Team Leader of a committed management team, who shared and bought into my vision. Here, I give kudos to the project team (drawn from procurement, quality assurance, production, sales and marketing, product management, legal and finance departments). I also acknowledge the technical assistance and support of Nestle Technical Assistance company (NESTEC), based in Switzerland.
Q10. If you were to start that path again, given what you now know, what would you do differently?
The good Lord has been most gracious to me with numerous (uncountable) blessings; what more could I want or would want to do differently? Nothing! In his first letter to Timothy, Apostle Paul enjoins him that “godliness with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6: v 6-8).
Q11: Anything you would like to add?
The power of prayer in all situations of life. Pillar #1-understanding the essence of wealth building is relevant here. The power of prayer in all situations of life. We have no power of our own. Our time, talent, treasure and thinking all come from God. The Bible says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding, (Proverbs 3:5). It is God who gave us the power to make wealth. Whatever we have, we shall leave behind at the appointed time. So, we are caretakers of God’s resources, which encompasses wealth, position, and possession.
Talking of wealth creation, our subject matter, how you acquire wealth, and what you do with the wealth are crucial to your well-being and the upliftment of your soul. God expects and indeed enjoins us to build wealth to glorify His name (recall the parable of the five talents). Wealth must be acquired legally, and there are many opportunities for the discerning person (I gave some examples above).
Having acquired wealth (at one’s level – do not envy others, their own higher level). What do you do with your wealth? You make a living by what you have acquired, but you make a life by what you give. Therefore, be generous in giving, thanking God for the resources and advantages He has given us. King David captured this eloquently when he prayed, “Both riches and honour come from You, and You reign over all. Therefore, our God, we thank You and praise Your glorious name. For all things come from You and of Your own, we have given You (1 Chronicles 29:12-14)”.
One feels some dilemma as to the level or proportion of one’s wealth to give without jeopardising one’s well-being, then resentful. This is a continuous tussle in one’s mind, and although one should not expect to meet every need that comes one’s way, there is great reward in giving; we have been blessed to bless others.
In all my considerations of where to work or what to do, it never crossed my mind to be a “businessman” or buy and sell/distribute or import/export. I had always been moving in professional circles.
I strive for balance in my life while pursuing my career of lifelong employment, first in the UAC Group for five years, then in the Nestle Group for 27 years. Managing the work/life balance is very important. You may not be 100% successful all of the time, but one must be conscious of it and work at it.