Emmanuel Ekong, PhD Chairman, Briscoe Technologies
By BEIFOH OSEWELE
The appointment with Chief Emmanuel Ekong was fixed for 7:30p.m. It was midweek. He was in the middle of a snooker game when you arrived. He greeted you warmly, and even pumped you hand. But he never took his eyes off the ball. He remained focused, as if his life depended on it. “I will be with you in a short while,” he pleaded as he knocked one ball after the other into the pot.
For Ekong, chairman, Briscoe Technologies and Asoju Oba of Aworiland, ability to remain focused is key to achieving success in any endeavour. It is even more so in the competitive world of business. There is so much distractions, but that is not an excuse to relent. In the business of life and life of business and social life, you are bound to face challenges, he said as he mopped beads of sweat from his brow. But you have to keep going, he added.
Born on December 14, 1962 to ‘very extraordinary parents’, he attended Salvation Army Primary School in Ethinan LGA, and secondary education at Ethinan Institute both in Akwa Ibom and later went to Holland where he bagged a degree in economics in 1983. He also holds a doctorate (PhD) in the same field.
He started business by exporting lizards, mosquitoes, toads and geckos. But today, his business interests transverse airfreight logistics and telecommunications where is the sole licensee of TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio), one of the most modern radio technology.
An astute businessman, Ekong has never been in any paid job, just as he has never received a pay cheque. He believed there are so many business opportunities in Nigeria waiting to be explored and exploited.
It is one interview that would set you thinking.
Is your company in any way related to RT Briscoe?
It is a company that I bought from RT Briscoe. I decided to retain the name because the goodwill I paid for came with that package.
When did you acquire RT Briscoe and what do you do?
I bought it about eight years ago. My business transverse a little bit. I am into telecommunications. Since we took over, we’ve made some changes to what it was because at that time, they had a network called Eko Telelink. It was an analogue platform, in which walkie-talkie radio networks could be used to communicate between locations. It is more or less like having your own private radio network by which you can talk within your organisation and across to other places. But that platform quickly got outdated because the technology was also pretty old.
So, I introduced TETRA. It is a radio-based technology used in communicating at the professional level. TETRA is an open, digital trunked radio standard that is defined to meet the needs of private mobile radio (PMR) users working in time and mission critical environments. It provides integrated voice and data communications with improved audio quality, encryption for enhanced security and maximum use of the frequency spectrum by allowing more users onto a single radio channel.
In addition to providing advanced and flexible systems architecture, TETRA offers call privacy, fast call set-up and high-speed data transfer. It has standard solutions for security, group calls, open channel (continuous communication for a large number of users in emergency situations), priority calls and Direct Mode Operation (terminal-to-terminal communication that does not utilise the infrastructure). It also supports dispatcher room functionalities such as managing group calls, reassigning priorities, and command and control activities.
It is used at the level in which communication means a lot, not just the casual communication where we would dial and talk. The TETRA platform is what the Americans use to protect their president. You can’t eavesdrop into it, unlike the GSM platform. It is the only one in the continent. I have an SLA (service level agreement) with oil companies, FAAN and NIMASA who are my major clients on that platform.
Can you offer a brief insight into your background?
My father was a diplomat although he retired as a banker. In the later part of his life, he was a traditional ruler. He had a different way of inspiring people to make the best use of their time on earth. So, we went to school in different parts of the world. I come from a large family. My mother was the first, but my dad dropped to accepting changes that resulted to us having half brothers and sisters.
How many were you in the family?
We were 10 children (five of them from his mum). I was number two.
How would you describe your upbringing?
I had a very strict upbringing. My parents didn’t take prisoners, my father particularly. You did as they said or you were out. But there was no option of being out. You had to stay in. It is not like today that you would say if I don’t want to stay with my father, I stay with an uncle or even get into some wayward children’s home. It isn’t like now that my children would change TV channels and watch whatever they want to watch. We had to live by, and do according to the rules, whims and caprices of our parents. You had to do as you were asked to do. There were no options. So, when they asked you to go to school and that your future would be based on what we get from there, and not what they leave behind, it was a bit troubling as a child to think that you were not going to inherit anything from your father. We though that the man was being selfish. Who was he going to leave everything for? It wasn’t easy to fathom it. However, given the very strict upbringing and background, you had to do as you were required to do. So, that has been why it has been difficult for me to deviate from my style, in the sense that no matter the amount of temptation to go political, I have not chosen to be a politician. I don’t think the way politics is conducted in this country is anything to be proud of.
Growing up in that kind of environment couldn’t have been without its own fair of challenges. But what were the motivations?
I keep saying that inspiration comes from both bottom and up. My mother wasn’t an academician, my father was. But she embraced and valued education so much that even when we came back from school, and she wasn’t able to assist us with our home work, there was one subject that she was always talking about: ‘make sure you read.’ It was easy then to say, ‘if I don’t read, how would she know?’ She would know, because when the result came, it would be announced. Some of the rewards we used to have in those days were that if you passed your exams, that chicken is going to die. You’d be celebrated. That special food that was prepared for you for passing very well set you side from the rest of your siblings and friends; and that moment of honour was something that you wanted to repeat as much as possible. So, that in a way made one to realise that recognition of achievements and rewards go hand in hand, because when you encourage people to do more, when you are able to recognise what they have done, they would do even more. So, that is a lesson that has served me well, even as we speak.
My mum was the policeman in the family, because she implemented all the rules that were made by my father. These days, mothers are a little bit softer, but I thank God I had a mother who could manufacture something from nothing.
What about dad?
His own code was easier to crack, in the sense that he came from a zero academic background. My grand parents never went to school. For his father to have recognised education as the way forward, as the key that would unlock opportunities, as what is going to integrate mankind, was a great foresight. What better could you ask for in life than having a background that inspires you? I mean, when you do what your parents have asked you to do (education), you can never get it wrong. Education is a universal currency. Knowledge is power.
At what point did you make up your mind to go into business?
I have never been employed before all my life. I have never had a pay cheque before in my life.
So many people would tell you that doing business in Nigeria is a difficult task
I travel frequently. When I am coming back, there are more Europeans in the aircraft. At the Immigrations and Customs, if you check their baggage, these guys don’t have swimsuits or bikinis. They are not coming here as tourists. What they have in their briefcases are calculators and computers. They are coming here to harvest. So, when I see Nigerians overseas loafing and committing crimes, Nigerians who prefer to stay in jails there rather than coming to live here, I feel depressed. It is a pathetic situation. I want to believe some of these guys have psychotic problems. You can’t rule that out. It is only somebody who is mad that would own a house and sleep on the streets. Nigeria is our house. There’s nothing you cannot make here.
Are you saying vast opportunities are here?
I told someone recently that it is impossible for me to be poor, because there are so many opportunities around. If tomorrow, I am not doing what I am doing now, I would go start up a new business in Mile 12. I would trade in foodstuff because that is one great set up a lot of us intellectually, sound-minded individuals don’t go into. We don’t even think of doing it. We have left that line of business to the ‘cut-and-join’ individuals. And those guys are making cool money. If you go to Benin now, buy a bag of garri and bring it to Lagos to sell, the minimum return on your investment is 20 percent. Do that for six-seven months in a year, you get a 140 per cent of whatever you started up with. You can never get such money anywhere else. No way. Isn’t that money? Some people would say they would not want to go and sit with a bag of garri. You don’t even need to. You just pay for it, they would bring it down and before you know it, some other persons are there to take it away from you. Have you been to Mile 12 market at say, 4 O’clock in the morning when they are offloading the onions, tomatoes and so on? Go there and you’d see real business. If you go there, you buy that truck (the content), they would bring it down and you split it into two-three, people would buy it from you in a matter of minutes and your five-ten percent profit is ready. Your money is in your pocket. They keep splitting it and moving it to the next level. By the time the market women come at 6a.m., that transaction would have changed hands two-three times. The money you would have made that morning, you can never make it in anything except in illegal business. By 7a.m., you are back home sleeping.
Next day by 2a.m., you are out at Iddo, Mile 12, Carter bridge market. I did my studies on all these. You see how real grassroots, live money moves. I have participated in it just to brush up. At Carter Bridge, people come from Okitipupa, Warri and so on with shrimps, fish and crayfish in baskets. They offload it there by 3-4a.m. Between that time and 6a.m, the price has changed by a minimum of 30-50 per cent; and all of these is cash. So, if you go there with a N100, you come back with N150; with a N1000, you come back with N1500. Meanwhile, somebody has got up at 4a.m. from Agege to go to Victoria Island to sweep and get N20, 000 at the end of the month. That’s foolishness.
What does it take to start up and successfully run a business?
You need ideas.
What about capital?
Capital is not the first thing you need to start a business. How would you use a finished product as raw material? Cash is already a finish product. You first come up with ideas. What exactly do you want to do that somebody has not done already? You come up with something unique. Your selling point is that differential between what is there and what you have. When you do things that you are passionate about, money inevitably would come. But if you go out chasing money, it is an illusion. You’re not going to get it.
Let me take you back a bit. Your dad was a diplomat, banker and traditional ruler. Wouldn’t you consider yourself a privileged person?
In a way, I cannot say no, totally. Then, I cannot say yes, absolutely. It is something in between. Part of the privilege was having parents that allowed me to traverse the world. I have travelled to most countries in the world. As a student in Europe, I was based in Holland, but I travelled to several countries. I got to see things that we would continue to see as rubbish here, but which is of extreme value there and vice versa. One of those areas was that I discovered that everybody was treasuring things we considered as nuisance here like Lizards, geckos, toads, spiders, mosquitoes, fishes, snakes etc.
What did you do with the discovery?
Anything that is a nuisance to us, I was able to get a new home for them, where people would appreciate them, where they would be harmless to those people and we can be free from the harm we get from them. Also, we would have some valuable resources moving to our terrain and those useless things moving out of our terrain. So, I exported mosquito larvae to China, Europe, the Americas and Far East because some of the fishes that these people would buy from me feed off those larvae. So, naturally, the food for the fishes automatically was the nuisance in our country. I also exported lizards, geckos and toads to countries that consume them as delicacies. And these guys would pay me money for it. How else could you have had God bless you, living off a very natural world; taking away from your people things that were a nuisance to them? I still have the company called Wildlife Embassy.
It was under that company you exported those things?
Oh, yes. But I have not done that business for about 12 years now. There are so many possibilities around. I get bored so easily. I like to invent. I like to discover and then move on.
Did you make a ‘kill’ from exporting those ‘nuisances’, to use your term?
Absolutely. It was something so good that I couldn’t just believe it myself. At a point, I told myself, it is enough. I need to put my hands on something else. There are so many opportunities and possibilities. I tell every Nigerian I meet that this country is so endowed with resources. Everywhere you look at is money. The foreigners who come here see the same thing I see, but somehow, we as Nigerians have sort of taken our eyes off the ball. We are looking at something completely different. We have total focus so much on to things that we don’t have control over like petrochemical. Well, I have supported the industry in my communication business, but I have not gone into selling crude or distributing petrochemical products.
As a businessman, what is your guiding philosophy?
The pleasure for me is when a client calls and says thank you so much. That gives me more pleasure than any other thing because at the end of the day, the money goes to the bank, you don’t even see it. You have a piece of paper that you call a cheque book. That doesn’t mean anything. But if that customer had told you thank you so much, but I don’t have money yet, I would pay you next week, the satisfaction you get from that is unparallel. It is far better than when a customer who says, ‘take (money), God punish you,’ In fact, you cannot even use that money. Therefore, it is better for one to try to build that relationship which could allow you to enjoy psychologically, socially, spiritually what you are doing.
What kind of management principle do you adopt in running your organisation?
Everyone, be it the messenger or the manager in every organisation has something uniquely special about them that would make every one at different levels of the organisation to feel inspired, because inspiration doesn’t come from the top only. Just like in the natural science, the plant receives sunlight from the top to enable it grow as much as it receives nutrients from the bottom to enable it grow. So, one would not be looking at captains of industries as the only source where you can get inspiration. You can also look at those people who have attempted to do something, then learnt something out of it but decided not to continue to do that thing. They have information, which would help others who want to go into that field.
Most world-class football coaches have never played before, but they have the wherewithal to be able to make people that have decided to play football to be better players. Therefore, you can see a guy who is not like Messi or Ronaldo building from near nothing the likes of Messi and Ronaldo. The point I am making is that we as a society should not only look at top echelons for inspiration.
For some of us who had climbed to the top, it may have been due to certain privileges. For instance, if you are born into a family that has been doing very well and you are appointed to run an organisation, which had always belong to the family, you may not necessarily have the pedigree but you are just privileged, and therefore, being the captain of that particular organisation or industry does not necessarily mean that you have that ingredient that others could use to make a soup as sweet as what you are serving. So, inspiration is something that can be derived when you actively source for it. You have to seek for it. It is not something that would come and wake you up from sleep. You have to make conscious effort to be connected to that source. As human beings, we are more like a radio. You tune to the channel you want to listen to. If you don’t tune to that radio, eventhough you have a radio all right, you are not going to receive transmission. So, the difference between those who succeed and those who fail in life depends on the channel you tune into and whether you are actively receiving the right information or otherwise. If you are actively receiving it, you are going to be in a better position to utilise it.
In our organisation, I would say we have a very flat structure. We don’t have that pyramid structure. We are just who we are, so we interact. We are like a family. In a family set up, it is agreed that the man is the head of the family, but you are bound to listen to what your partner is saying. It is said that your wife is your better partner, which means you are just the good half. So, you have to listen to what she says and put that into perspective. You would now be in a position to put that seal of approval. You hold the seal, but that does not necessarily means you have all the senses. That collaboration must come into play. Everybody that comes into the party has something to provide. There is no nonentity as far as I am concerned. Everybody is an entity that has something to put on the table. And if you are open to that, you would be able to see something from the others’ perspectives, because while you may be looking at it and the colour you see is red, somebody else might be seeing purple. And if you give them a chance to explain to you why they are seeing purple, you might notice that from the angle they are looking at it, the shade they see is purple not red. So, you can’t just rule it out that it can’t be purple. After all, what makes purple? It is red and blue, which means if there is a little tint of blue unto the red from where he/she is sitting, it just might be purple.
As a leader, you must keep an open mind. That is the only way forward. There’s nobody that has the exclusive right on intelligence. Knowledge is something that we are constantly learning.
At 50, and as a businessman, what are the lessons you have learnt?
The major one is that in life, you have to keep going. There is so much distractions, but that is not an excuse to relent. In the business of life and life of business and social life, you are bound to face challenges. In family life, you disagree to agree. In business, it is the same thing, but you must remain steadfast. Yes, it might look like somebody is autocratic and not democratic; I have an inspiration, I need to live on it. You have to grow it. In the process of driving that idea, you must be able to persuade the people around you to carry them along, because, then, it makes the implementation more effective and the friction less. No matter how sound your idea is, if you don’t carry other people along, it becomes more challenging to implement. So, my business principle is to carry others along.