Ghanaian entrepreneur Elikem Kuenyehia talks about his rise to the top

Ghanaian-born Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia is an entrepreneur, lawyer, author and an adjunct lecturer in entrepreneurship at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration. In 2006 he founded Oxford & Beaumont, a leading corporate and commercial law firm in Ghana with offices in Accra and London, and has since advised clients such as Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Shell International, Vodafone and Citibank. Kuenyehia, who is no stranger to awards, won the 2012 title of Young Business Leader of the Year at the West African All Africa Business Leaders Awards.

Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia

As a successful businessman himself, Kuenyehia is passionate about entrepreneurship and recently published his book on the matter. How we made it in Africa catches up with Kuenyehia to find out a bit more about entrepreneurship in Ghana and what it takes to be a success.

You were 32 years old when you started Oxford & Beaumont. What made you decide to open your own firm rather than continue working for someone else?

I had been disappointed and frustrated by my last job prior to Oxford & Beaumont. I had a boss with whom I did not share the same values and this affected my job significantly. As a result of that, I was keen to start an enterprise where I could imprint my own values. Values and the way an organisation does things are extremely important to me.

How did you initially finance your business?

I was lucky in that my initial financing requirements were very small. When I started my law firm, I only really needed my brain, a laptop and a small office space. It cost me US$5,000 to purchase a laptop and to pay six months rent for a tiny office space at the time. This came from my last paycheck at the bank where I worked.

What would you say is the most important reason for your success?

In recruiting members of my team I ask myself, “If this person was in class with me when I was in university or secondary school, will this person have challenged me?” I also ask whether I will be able to learn from this person and whether our values are aligned. Being true to this process means that I have surrounded myself with some of the brightest lawyers and managers I have come across and with whom I have shared values.

What have been some of the key challenges you have faced since starting your firm and how have you overcome them?

For many high profile transactions, because of the sheer value of the transaction and the corresponding financial and other risks, clients tend to feel most comfortable with older law firms with a longer track record. Although I had over seven years post-qualification experience when I started Oxford & Beaumont, many potential clients focused on the fact that the law firm itself had no track record. This was particularly pronounced with potential local Ghanaian clients.

I therefore had to price myself very competitively to get work through the door and then to provide a service that I was confident they would not otherwise find in the Ghanaian market. That makes a difference. The initial clients who took a risk on me quickly become (and often still are) our biggest advocates.

If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

I would have started on my own earlier than I did.

Excluding yours, what African company or business do you admire the most?

United Bank of Africa. I think Tony Elumelu and his team did an amazing job transforming Standard Trust Bank, a small Nigerian bank, into a pan-African brand and acquiring its older rival, United Bank of Africa. It’s truly Africa’s global bank with an enviable footprint across the continent and in the USA, Cayman Islands and Europe.