The Sun News

My Two Boardroom Heroes

Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, ex-Central Bank Deputy Governor, Director Nigerian Breweries reflects on board leadership in our forthcoming book

To lead an important organ of a business such as a board requires some qualities.  If you are to become a board chair, you must be experienced––experienced in management, experienced in leadership of corporations and business.

I have met a few board chairmen that made huge impressions on me.  One who particularly stands out is the late Gamaliel Onosode.  I worked with him on a couple of projects, and so got to know him on a personal level.  When I was new in the Central Bank and my accommodation yet to be settled, I spent a few months in Transcorp Hilton Hotel where incidentally he was my next door neighbour at the time he was working in an advisory capacity to the government on the Niger Delta.  We used to breakfast together every morning.  We became even closer during that period.  He was a remarkable person.  We discussed everything from Greek philosophy to Latin poetry to Mesopotamia to Greece and Persia and Byzantium.  Of course, we also discussed boardroom issues.  I was privileged to watch him on occasions in the boardroom, though I was not a member of that board.  He struck me as a very learned, compassionate and considerate person, the kind of person that is able to inspire others to achieve even more.  I would rank him as one of the best––very competent, very knowledgeable, but also very firm, businesslike, yet, very perspicacious, able to understand issues and reduce very complex matters to a very simple set of propositions that are actionable as well.

Chief Kola Jamodu, the chairman of Nigerian Breweries Plc where I am also a director is another remarkable chairman.  He is very competent, no doubt about it.  He knows finance more than anybody I know.  He has an accounting background.  He has worked in manufacturing.  He has been president of MAN. He has been minister of trade and industries.  So he has a huge and impressive portfolio in terms of experience which he has brought into the boardroom.

The Nigerian Breweries board

Towards the end of 2014, I was appointed to the board of Nigerian Breweries.  Why they chose me to be a member of the board, I have no idea.  I can only speculate.  I do not think it was on account of my column in Businessday.  I wouldn’t particularly think so.  A lot of other people write and I don’t think I am particularly the best writer.  I am at first an academic, and a banker, and so a writer in that sense.  The column may have helped them to find out who this person is, but I wouldn’t believe it was what decided it.  Perhaps, my experience internationally put me in good stead––I have done consulting works.  I have worked in banking.  I have attained senior position at the African Development Bank.  I was deputy governor of CBN.  I was briefly an adviser to President Obasanjo on economic matters at the tail end of his tenure.  I would imagine they thought these bits of experience would be useful.  That must be the reason, I think, plus the fact that they look out for people without tainted records.  

Two years in a row, in 2015 and 2016, Nigerian Breweries won corporate governance awards.  That speaks volume about a company that is extremely careful.  I can vouch that money invested in Nigerian Breweries is good investment.  The company is competently run, run by the staff as if it is their father’s business, from managing director down to everybody.  You cannot waste anything because it is company’s thing.  They don’t waste anything. They don’t mess up with anything.  They do things properly and staff members are well paid.  The Dutch are supposedly very tight-fisted.  What is yours, they will give you.  Not more.  Beyond that, it is for shareholders.  Anyone connected with the company is there to maximize shareholders values.

It is a well-run business.  The management and staff are very serious, very committed.  Most importantly, they mix work with fun.  They expect you to relax, to have a balance between work and enjoyment.  That is why at many of their factories, from 5 pm, the bar is open for free food, free drink, and I have never seen a drunk there.  There, people drink moderately.

Nigerian Breweries is a business that is very well run on sound leadership principles.  I am not saying it is a perfect organisation, but they have done certain things very well, and Jamodu, the board chair, has continued in that tradition.  Not every of their executive director is taken back on to the board after retirement.  The company has a handsome pension scheme, and upon retirement, you take your pension and you say bye.  If you are exceptionally good, they bring you back as a non-executive member of the board, as is the case with Segun Adebanji.

My invitation was via a phone call.  The secretary of the board called to talk to me.  I was in Brussels at the time, about to return to Nigeria. Till date, I never knew who nominated me.  I found it very difficult to ask.  Nobody told me either.  I didn’t lobby.  I didn’t even know there was a vacancy.  It came completely from the blues, which is to say that if a board thinks you are good, you don’t have to lobby to be invited.  At about the same time, Nigerian Guinness also scouted for me, but Nigerian Breweries was more persistent.

Being on a few other boards, the appointment to the Nigerian Breweries board wasn’t particularly a whole new experience.  Earlier, I had been on the board of CBN as a deputy governor.  So sitting in the boardroom of Nigerian Breweries felt very normal.  However, I realised every board is different.  I always revert to the wisdom of the Parable of the New Fowl in Town each time I found myself on a board for the first time––a fowl taken to a new town will at first stand on one leg, look around to see if people in the village walk on one leg.  If it discovered they walk on two legs, the fowl will start walking on two legs.  My approach to board is the same.   Go there, first of all, to observe what is happening.  Every company has its own culture, its ways of doing things which one has to imbibe.  If you stand out like a sore thumb, it becomes a challenge, because you must be a team player, and that means you must fit into the culture.  At Nigerian Breweries, it was important for me, at the first two, three meetings, to observe, to take note––and to ask questions, most importantly, in accordance with the Hausa proverb: Mai tambaya baya bata––the one that asks questions hardly loses his way.

My appointment to the board of Nigerian Breweries came just before my father died and my little worry was how to explain to him, an evangelical conservative.  I had to explain to him that I am in charge of the soft drinks–– a joke, really.  Of course, a board member is a board member.

I was appointed at the same time with Mrs. Ndidi Nwuneli, also a very competent person.  On the board also are Atedo Peterside and Segun Adebanji––I must admit I am in good company––and a whole lot of Dutch and Belgians, Nigerian Breweries being a subsidiary of Heineken.  Overall, it is a very solid team, very international team, very experienced.

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