By HENRY UMAHI
Mr. Frank Umeh was born into a family where it is a crime not to obtain at least a first university degree. But that was not the path he wanted to chart for himself. He had always nursed the ambition of being a successful businessman.
So, after his secondary education, he launched into the world of business. But his parents, both of whom were schools principals, would not take that. They mounted pressure on him to acquire university education. Left with no choice as it were, he went to read law. Upon graduation, he returned to his first love: business.
Today, the decision to obey the wishes of his parents is paying off. Being a lawyer in business has widened his horizon, creating opportunities for him to excel even in new frontiers like free trade zones.
Indeed, Umeh, who is the managing director, Tradewinds Duty Free Market, Tinapa Calabar, Cross River State could be described as an expert in free trade marketing process. He has understudied free trade operations in various climes and helping in new initiatives.
In this interview, Umeh offered perspectives into his operations, vision and mission.
What informed your decision to ‘dump’ law for business?
I was in business before I went back to school to read law. And my understanding is that if you want to operate effectively in any environment, particularly if you are in business, you need to know the legal framework under which such trade will function. So, I read law to know all the laws that will guide a person to do business effectively and to understand the legal framework that controls such business.
How has reading law helped you in doing business?
To start with, I got opportunity to do business in a free trade zone. I know that every free trade zone is a legal creation and doing business in such a place is like a corporate law practice. So, doing business in a free trade zone and using the legal knowledge I have has allowed me to relate both locally and internationally with the business people or the manufacturers and also to relate with different arms that necessarily play a role for the success or effective operation of the business. So, reading law has really helped me to integrate very well in a free trade zone.
What are the dynamics of free trade zone?
Free trade zone is actually a child of necessity. Each country has its own peculiar nature of allowing trade to operate. So, a free trade zone is an economic zone where the country allows a particular territory to be free from those local laws. They create a law, which allows everybody from any part of the world to come in and practice their own trade or their own investment not in line with the local laws. It is like being given freedom to come into a territory, do business as if you are staying in your own country. Those things you know about your own country, you can come in and continue to practice your own business. It allows you to come into the territory, engage in your trading activities, assist the local economy through employment, through the utilisation of their local raw materials and still acting as if you are in your country. So, it is bringing you closer to another country without necessarily being in that country. A free trade zone is a good place.
How has it been doing business in Tinapa?
Tinapa is a unique free trade zone in the sense that there are two classes of free trade zones in Nigeria: one devoted to manufacturing and another devoted to trading. Tinapa is the only free trade zone in Nigeria today that is engaged in trade in finished goods. The trade in Tinapa involved importing goods from outside the country for onward distribution to either the local market or outside Nigeria. If you have customers from other countries outside Nigeria coming into Tinapa to buy, it becomes a form that Dubai takes. You have Nigerians going to Dubai to import goods into Nigeria. In Tinapa, we have customers from different countries like Cameroun and even from the Equatorial Guinea coming in to do shopping. Then for the local economy, Nigerians come to Tinapa to make their purchases. Anytime you visit Tinapa, it is assumed that you have left the country. Trade in Tinapa has been good; it has been wonderful.
Did you understudy free trade operation or were you involved anywhere else before coming into Tinapa?
Since Tinapa was commissioned, I have been a keen observer of the development in Tinapa free trade zone. Being a lawyer, I have read several gazettes of other free trade zones in Nigeria like the Calabar free trade zone. I have also had reasons to travel to Dubai and I have heard much about the operations of the Dubai free trade zone. So, in 2009, when the Tinapa law was signed by the late President Umar Yar’Adua, I took time to read through the law and I saw the enormous potential and opportunity that Tinapa has for any serious trader that really wants to excel beyond the identified hiccups and difficulties in logistics in the importation of goods into the zone then. Having read the law of Tinapa from the beginning to the end, I am also relating it with the free manager, Nigeria Export Promotions Authority. Having read through all that, I believe it is a good place for any business to thrive.
As a lawyer in business, how would you define your management style?
First, business has its own culture. As an Igbo man, it comes from the blood. As a kindergarten, you have started doing business, so you know the art of give and take associated with trading. Then as you grow into the section of being a lawyer, it also allows you to see the laws that regulate those give-and-takes even though you use to do it in a crude form at the time you were doing it from your own region. My style is driving the business, getting engaged body and soul as a necessary ingredient for any success to come out of the business and also relating it within the laws of free zone and opportunities inherent in those laws. Both human resource management and actual trade allow you to form all the contracts that you have; contracts that definitely will work. You don’t engage in contract just for contract’s sake or you just open your precedence and write contracts. You are a practitioner; you understand that sometimes law in the paper may not be as it is in practice. So, you try to relate those laws in practice to work with the same law as in the book so that at the end of the day, you are not violating any aspect of the law and it will help you to relate very well with people outside the country. During my travel to China, I realised that the contacts some of these expatriates have been having all the while have been with traders with their own unique style of operation. They have the erroneous belief that ones you are trading and you are a Nigerian, this is actually the way you operate. So, having had experience locally and relating with them outside gives you the opportunity to redefine their own understanding of how Nigerians do business. On this basis, I will wish to encourage other educated, learned men to come out and trade. The way you relate with them, the honesty with which you engage them in trade discussions and negotiations, the dynamics of you trying to do both the finished importation, backward integration, creation of know-how and understanding that your own management can work with their own management and build a conglomerate. In my activities in the zone, I have been able to marry both local knowledge, education in law and also being able to relate with the international players in trade.
To succeed in business, there is serious competition, so what is your marketing style?
Our motto in Tradewinds is: ‘Good products with good price.’ Sometimes, you see a product that is being sold for $20 outside the country; you come into Nigeria and you see it at $40 – artificial inflation. And for the past three to five years, the level of inflation in those other countries may be one or two percent. It has always moved from $20 to $21 to $22; you don’t see $20 to $40. You see Nigerians in an effort to maximize profits go into reducing quality of goods they are importing. It is either that or they are selling at cut-throat prices so that they will maintain their 100 percent profit projection. That has also caused some people that want to do business to burn their fingers. When that happens, they run away from trade. My style is to try to do quality products, maintain a good price margin and try to be consistent. Having done that, it may be slow but I give you a case of one bulb that we imported. Everybody said the bulb was expensive; that we had other bulbs in the market that are far cheaper, but we know that from the cost of manufacturing to what we are putting as our sales prices, which is less than 10 percent, and we maintain the sales. Most people that attempted to buy those bulbs have seen that for the past two years, the bulbs are still working. Some come to say that they have changed some other bulbs they bought for more than five times. So, good products at a good price; and that’s the advantage Tinapa has to help introduce good products at a good price. Nigerians that will come into Tinapa to buy should be able to get good quality products at a good price if it is being managed well. Good products at a good price have been our system of operation and I think we are doing well; we are making progress.
You said that before you went to school, you were in business. Are you from a family of business people?
My father was a parliamentarian in 1966 and my mother a teacher. But they are both retired now. After politics, my father went back as principal in a secondary school, so they are teachers. I think later in life I will still want to be a lecturer somewhere. I am impacting positively so far in trade training in Tinapa. We are collaborating with the zone management in their efforts to train as many Nigerians in international trade. Tinapa now has a proposal with the NDDC (Niger Delta Development Commission) to train the South-South youths. It is a way of engaging them on how to trade; both local and international trade utilising the Tinapa legal framework as an incentive. So, training and teaching runs in the family. All my siblings are graduates doing their own businesses.
All your siblings are graduates and all of them are doing business?
No, not all of them are doing business. The ones in the United States are working in different institutions; the ladies are civil servants. Being an Anambra indigene, trading comes naturally but again we are from an educated family.
As teachers’ son, what was growing up like?
Discipline was the watchword. I am a Catholic and once you are a Catholic, you know there is a limit to which you can engage in other activities. First, you are disciplined to have a very high moral. You have been told you can have a high integrity; you know that teachers are not rich but they impact something on their children –honesty, integrity and contentment. It also has been there in business. You see people grabbing without knowing the limit of what they should grab and they don’t look out to see how they can empower others that work for them. In an organisation where I work, I believe in empowerment and core values. I assume that my workers should come first. Even before we take out money to do the next investment, I believe their own convenience should be paramount. If people working for you do not put their body and soul in the organisation, you may be growing but believe me, that growth is an artificial growth. If anything happens to you tomorrow and you are not in that organisation, it will die because they don’t have any commitment to it and probably that’s why Nigerian industries don’t survive the next succession. The owners want to accumulate everything and assume the workers are mere tools. If you carry those workers along as stakeholders and make them see their dreams and that of their children’s children in that organisation, you will have assured succession of that organisation. It is funny, you see where the boss have fleet of cars and workers that have been with them for five to 10 years do not have any. It is all part of what I learnt from my parents – being able to live beyond your own immediate need; reach out to other people; carry people along and also in your relation with other people, maintain a very high level of integrity and honesty.
Who are you role models?
I admire Jesus Christ in the way he handled the apostles; I relate it with business. He was able to allow the apostles to do what he could do; he was able to, in his relations with the apostles, teach them what he knows. Eventually, he gave them the powers he has as son of God and those apostles saw the honesty in him. If your workers know that you care for them as much as you want them to care for you, they will be able to give you their best. So, my first role model is Jesus. I will also pick my father. When he entered into politics and they were annoyed after the coup, they decided to go back to the civil service. And when I asked him, dad, you were a contemporary of Uche Chukwumerije and the rest, a graduate from the University of Ibadan, how come you didn’t continue in politics? He said he needed to carry his entire family along. He saw the perilous nature of politics and needed a steady income that would allow him to reach not just his immediate family but also his brothers’ children and even the extended family from my mother’s side. So, he made that sacrifice to live far above his own immediate needs. You see, in any family where you don’t see much of progress, you know that nobody in that family wants to make sacrifice for others. If you also see where there is peace, somebody is actually making that sacrifice for there to be peace. The Nigerian system hasn’t got people willing to make sacrifices for the success of this country; people who are willing to put in their lives and actually allow others to grow. When I was coming to Tinapa, I said my theory about management would be a mass-oriented management. If I am able to make as many people as I meet become successful, then I have a chance of being successful. If you can take care of the need of others, you have reason to have your own needs fulfilled. So, my role model will be people who are willing to make that ultimate sacrifice for the success of others. I will also like to pick Professor Dora Akunyili. She came into NAFDAC, put her mind to it – she needed to save lives; she needed to make a real impact; she sacrificed her own comfort for the success. She could have been in the comfort of an air-conditioned office doing the administration, the memo as usual with some administrators but she took it upon herself to go to the field and make a success out of the assignment. If we have ministers of works go there in the field where they are doing the roads; stay there for one or two weeks- the roads will be repaired.
What do you consider as your happiest moments so far?
Having democracy in Nigeria, continuing to transit from one term to another term makes me happy. Democracy allows you to explore your potential. My happy moment will continue to be because it is a daily thing; every day you wake up, you try to look at the day; being alive and being able to live in a democratic government, being able to air my views and to make necessary impact on the environment where I find myself makes me happy. Good moment is when I know I have been able to take an assignment and achieve results.
What would say has been the lowest point or the saddest moment of your life?
When I see injustice in any form or way, when I see people who are judged just because of their current status, when I see people who, ordinarily, could have helped others but they decided not to do it. My lowest ebb which comes on daily basis is if you are driving around Nigeria, if you visit a hospital or even mortuary (and I will encourage people to visit mortuary), you will actually see the vanity of going into this massive accumulation of wealth just for yourself without necessarily taking it back to the society from where you have taken those things. Sad moments are when I see injustice and when I see areas I could have helped or areas I know I cannot help but I know people who will help and they refuse to help, I think that brings those sad moments.
Doing business in Tinapa takes a lot of resources, how did you raise the fund to start off?
First, I have good relationship and integrity. You know, you can get so many people to give you things if they can trust you. One thing I understand is that most Europeans get goods from Asia without even paying anything for it; they will sell and return those funds. So, first, we related with the people that are into trade, explained to them the benefits and sought for partnership. We provided some form of consultancy service to them. We also travelled to meet some contacts and to be able to sell our ideas to them and some came in to partner with us. Some of the Chinese and the Vietnamese bring in the goods and we sell for them and take our own due commission where it is necessary. We create ideas, you don’t need a billion naira to commence. We used the early part of our development to build trust. So, we have our own from the management board and we also quickly complemented it with our own efforts by providing consultancy services to some of the people that are already into trade. The greatest asset we have now is the experience. We have the experience of what it takes to get those goods into Tinapa; we have the experience of the customers that buy those goods. So, a meeting of experience where you get the goods, how you transit the goods, how you sell those goods, how you get the avalanche of customers we have is what drives Tradewinds today. It is growth but it is more with the assets and also with the experience.
What can Nigerians do to maximize the benefits of free trade zone?
Free trade zone is a good concept; its objective is to assist the economy. Nigeria has close to nine free trade zones now. Calabar free trade zone and other free trade zones owned by the Federal Government may not be living to their full potential. The private free trade zone like the Ogun free trade zone and the Lekki free trade zones have also been doing wonderfully well, maybe because of the kind of support that government of those investors; those core investors in those private-public free trade zones– the kind of support they receive from their own home government or from the investors. For free trade zones to impact positively on the economy of a country, the Federal Government should take a different kind of interest in the free trade zone. They should relate to see how they can actually assist those free trade zones live to their potentials because no matter what, there is a limit to what a core investor can do in any free trade zone and there is also a limit to what traders or investors in the zone can do.