Nigerian enterprises have suffered one critical deficit. It is the subsisting inability of our entrepreneurs to run vast business chains, or networks of branches.
When I told Uzoechie that the entrepreneur who founded Slot was easily one of the greatest, if not the greatest Nigerian entrepreneur in modern times, he shuddered, almost derisively.
And I was forced to hold back. It is difficult to canvass an idea that is not yet sufficiently well received over social gatherings. I thought the quiet authority of the printed word may hold back emotions. With words, readers may in solemnity judge and score arguments. This may not be the case over hot pepper soup and chilled beer.
First of all, we all readily run into the error of defining all entrepreneurial values solely by volume of money made. Yes, Forbes runs the big rich league. But beyond the Forbes, there is what we may call the Harvard Business Review List. This more discriminating Harvard List is made up of entrepreneurs whose distinguishing features are not money made or lost. This list is made up of entrepreneurs whose unique selling points are the seminal contributions they make to business. These are the men who sow the seed under whose tree others may take shade and prosper. These are the iconic entrepreneurs.
For example, Bill Gates has always been richer than Steve Jobs. But as entrepreneurs go, Jobs is the more iconic entrepreneur. [Pleases see: 10 Greatest Tech Leaders of All Time (in Order)].
The issue is that, at the point of being an icon, money is still counted, but it is not money that counts. Money is subject matter not master. Ideas are. In other words, making money is not synonymous with making history or even making sense. If in doubt ask rich heirs.
Now, Nigerian enterprises have suffered one critical deficit. It is the subsisting inability of our entrepreneurs to run vast business chains, or networks of branches. Routinely, nearly all Nigerian businessmen have failed in this. They are often limited by their 1) inability to separate ownership from management and 2) the reality that Nigerian hires have the dubious reputation of being managerial dupes. That is, a lot of managerial hires pilfer off the system they are paid to work for. And, unfortunately, this incidence of the employees as pilferers involves even hired top dogs, including CEOs and boardroom types. Billionaire business leader, Aliko Dangote, for instance, once complained of the wanton levels of employee pilferage.
Having admitted to the difficulty of hires as in-house pilferers, one thing is certain, it is a Nigerian terrain problem. To make money in Nigeria or indeed in any other territory, you are required to overcome terrain-specific issues, among others. Business finally is about solving society’s problem and not just making a penny.
This is exactly where the founder of Slot and perhaps a few others come in. Before we speak further, this caveat. We do not know and are not craving to have the founder of Slot on our Rodolex. Our interest remains those of scholars. And we have for our authorial credits, well received business books like “Minorities as Competitive Overlords,” among other business books.
Having said this, one may now state that, as far as this correspondent knows, there are no other purely indigenous retail outlets that come a close second to Slot. This is in the number of branches or spread of the Slot chain. Within Lagos alone, the Slot shops are so numerous they literally assault the eyes at every street corner.
Of course, any person interested in business will know that there is the economy of size and chains. A company like McDonalds built its international commercial glory on the logic of that. The economy of chains and thus size is not just that there are savings for the entrepreneur. The economy of chain is that some of these savings are passed on to the customer, competitively. And immediately this loop of entrepreneurs-customers shared savings is achieved, it becomes self-reinforcing. The import is that the nation and citizens are made richer and better served. That is to say, the customer pays less and gets more value. In that way the economy is taken a notch higher, to all parties’ benefits.
Yet, despite the riches that abound in chain economy, the Nigerian entrepreneur has not quite succeeded in domesticating the model, till these Slot chaps came along. How did they do it?
But before we attempt to answer that question, the following. The idea implicit in the chain nexus is not really in running a chain or a big volume. The real idea is more in the logic of separating management and ownership. A family, an entrepreneur, etc, could own a shop or a shingle all alone. But if the said business is to grow into a behemoth, the entrepreneur must hire competent management and devise a way of keeping them. And that must be in such a way and manner that the management is given the leverage to exercise her intrapreneurship on one hand. On the other hand, there must be a check and balancing system that makes the management not to want to run away with the company or pilfer its assets.
Perhaps, we should broaden the analogies to give a hint of the culture of such a performance. A little long ago, I was a utility hand to one of the big rich Nigerian families. And it so happened that I was detailed to deliver a message to a certain address. And it happened to be a hospital. It was situated at Old Ikoyi. Till then, I honestly didn’t know hospitals were located in forbidden pure luxury estates like Old Ikoyi.
Anyway, I noticed something that amazed me. The nurses and staffers I encountered were all full of smiles and looking happy with the universe. These nurses were more like the relationship officers one finds in modern banking halls. And that was the first time I noticed that medics could be “in the zone,” commercially speaking. Since I was a “continuity hand” I couldn’t hang around to ask questions as a practicing scholar.
And just some while ago a replacement opportunity called. Now I hang out with lots of doctors. The reasons include the fact that doctors have exerted great influences in the literary arts and in philosophy. Physicians like Chekhov in literature and Avicenna in philosophy are just two of critical defining prototypes.
So, when a doctor friend called for an evening out, I was in my graces. My friend is associated with the Cedar Group Hospitals, of which he is the founder. Cedar, a top-end provider of medical care services, has the distinction of servicing high-end and famous patients. For instance, when one of Nigeria’s biggest musicians had a gunshot incident at the Cele Area, it was to Cedar Hospital, at the considerable distance of Festac, that he was ferried to, for emergency medical services and other follow-up procedures. And it was quite a scene as fans made the hospital and its environs some Mecca for groupies and for vigil.
To cut a long story short, we made for our outing passing through the new Cedar purpose-built complex, in a more exclusive Festac neighborhood. And as in the Ikoyi hospital, nurses and other staffers of Cedar were full of smiles, happy with their universe. And my mind raced to conjecture. Was the happiness of staffers because both Cedar and the Ikoyi hospital were attending to the in-crowd, the big rich who own the universe? Or was it as is often said of scientists, that practicing at the cutting edge makes for happiness?
Anyway, in a chat, it showed that my friend was also happy with the performance of the hospital. Yes, he has been away, on “secondment” at an international agency or government assignment for about two years and more.
It is at this point that our friend interests us as an entrepreneur and not just as a medic. Perhaps, the following should help guide us. Hospitals have been central fixtures in business studies. For instance, Mayo Clinic in America is a staple of Forbes’ “Best Companies to Work For” in the last 10 years and more. Also, Mayo Clinic was a key testing ground for Frederick Taylor’s Time and Motion Studies. Taylor is a father of business studies.
The point is that my friend is been away for this long and the business arrangement he has works in his absence. This achievement is so unlikely in the Nigeria it is almost a black swan event.
Just imagine the billions consumers would be saved, would gain, if we had successful chains or a vast pool of managerial integrity. Just imagine if many Nigerian businesses would copy and run on the Cedar-Slot model.
What then is to be done? We think the nation, especially her business and management scholars owe us a duty. It is to set up teams to understudy these brands and their kinds in details. The point remains that it is the Nigerian soil that must seed that by which we can grow Nigeria. This is how others have grown their countries.
In other words, all the American business models we adore were invented out of American experiences. A practitioner, a Cedar-Slot-like corporation, works it out or stumbles on it, almost innocently, as it were. Then the American scholars come in, acquire a trans-firm, multi-company knowledge of things. And next fleshes the model out in replicable forms. And in the end, the scholars get the professorships and all America becomes richer for it.