By Patrick O. Okigbo III
I am on the road from Abuja for the monthly pilgrimage to participate in “Nkata Umu Ibe”, the distinguished speaker series, organised in Enugu by the Centre for Memories. The lecture topic, “Kedu Ndi Anyi Bu: An Inquest in Igbo Identity”, has my mind exploring various vistas. This month’s speaker will probably explore the origins, history, language, and culture of Ndigbo. However, I doubt he will interrogate Igbo entrepreneurship, which has become one of their most distinctive attributes; even though it does not define Ndigbo. These people, who are found predominately in Southeast Nigeria, have a well-earned reputation for entrepreneurship.
What are the factors that could explain this relationship? Chinua Achebe, in “Things Fall Apart”, referred to Ndigbo as a people who sought “fame rested on solid personal achievements”. But why did they choose entrepreneurship? The answer could be located in the fact that Southeast Nigeria occupies only 5 percent of Nigeria’s land mass but accounts for 15 percent of its population. The high population density may have spurred the need to migrate to greener pastures. The poor soil fertility and shortage of arable land are other factors that could have precipitated the migration. Once they leave the region, these economic migrants seek opportunities in business areas with minimal government control such as in the open markets. Subsequent migrants also gravitate towards these business networks through “Igba Boyi” — the Igbo apprentice system.
My thoughts stayed on the subject of entrepreneurship as the car navigated through the shop-lined streets of Lokoja and as Osadebe’s “People’s Club” played on the radio. The song celebrates the Igbo can-do spirit which I feel also speaks to the resilience of the Nigerian spirit. The people celebrated in the song founded some of the greatest businesses of their time. These men and women were giants; yet, in all their greatness, most of those businesses did not transcend their founders. The few that did are now a shadow of their former prominence. Ekene Dili Chukwu Transport Limited is the poster-company for that era. At its peak, “Ekene” was the king of Nigerian roads and was set to become for West Africa what Greyhound Transport is for the United States. In fact, it may not be too much of a stretch to think that the company could have ventured into train and air transport. Sadly, like many other businesses, it suffered significant decline with the death of its founder, Chief Augustine Ilodibe.
Family businesses fail for a number of reasons. Typically, following the death of the founder, feuds rip apart both the family and the business. In instances where there are no feuds, there is a risk that inherited wealth may dull the hunger or the drive of the new leadership. Where this is not the case, there is still the risk that the expanding needs and desires of the family may outpace the typical linear growth of the business. It is even worse when there is need to achieve consensus on how the business should be run, especially when the opinions of spouses (and in-laws) are to be factored in. If the business survives all of the above, there is still the risk of the natural order where businesses capitulate in the face of maturing markets, intensifying competition, and changing technology.
These challenges are not endemic to Nigeria; rather, they are faced by family businesses across the globe. The question, therefore, is whether the current generation of Nigeria entrepreneurs are paying attention to these issues. How many of the new companies will be around in the decades ahead? What is Dantata Organisation Limited doing to ensure it does not suffer the fate that befell Odutola Business Empire? What is Air Peace doing to ensure it does not become like Concord Airlines? What can these businesses learn from Sam Walton, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, etc.?
Apparently, this same issue has been agitating Dr. Okey Nwuke as well because this was the subject of his recent presentation at TEDx OguiRoad titled, “No Enterprise Without Continuity”. Okey is qualified to analyse the topic because it is the subject of his doctoral research. It also helps that he is the Deputy Group Managing Director at Coscharis Group Limited, a family business. Coscharis started out as a trading company founded by Cosmas Maduka but, in four decades, has become a pan-West African conglomerate with investments in automobile assembly and sale, medical services, foods and beverages, information technology, engineering, and agriculture.
Dr. Nwuke concurs that one of the obvious reasons family businesses fail is the failure to bring in professional management. However, he reflected on some of the less salient points such as “control-obsession” where the founders are not able to loosen their hold on the company to bring in partners who can assist with raising additional equity. There is also nepotism where it is believed that company positions should go to only family members whether or not they are qualified or interested in the positions.
Coscharis appears to be on the right path as it is pushing a series of paradigm shifts required for their businesses to scale up and also transcend generations. It appears that Coscharis has figured out how to partner with outsiders for equity and ideas, and is open to sharing value with those who help create them. It also seems that they have been able to sidestep nepotism (to an extent) by pulling outside professionals into very senior management roles. It may also have figured out how to manage the desires and demands of family members. Okey suggests setting up a “Family Council”, which is like a “Board of Directors for the family” to ensure their needs are properly understood and managed with minimal impact on the business. He recognises that the family needs to be successful and happy for the business to achieve its ends.
So will Coscharis outlive us? Coscharis, in this instance, is a synonym for family-owned businesses. These businesses need to pay attention to the potential blind-spots discussed above. Whatever the case may be, Okey needs to succeed in helping Coscharis transcend its founders. This victory will not be his alone; rather, it would be Nigeria’s victory becasue it may be the proof required by thousands of entrepreneurs across Nigeria to commit to shift their paradigms. After all, according to KPMG 2017 report, family businesses are key to the economic growth of Africa. Therefore, for the sake of Nigeria, Coscharis Group needs to be here after Cosmas, Okey, and all of us have long become manure.
Patrick O. Okigbo III, wrote this piece from