Meet the Boss is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Hakeem Ogunniran, managing director, UPDC (Nigeria)
1. What was your first job?
I was a university teacher when I was 22. I was a law lecturer at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria around 1985/1986.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
A lot of people have influenced me along the way, apart from my parents who taught me the virtues of hard work. As a young manager I happened to work with a business entrepreneur called Ralph Osayameh. He was the CEO of a very large bank in Nigeria and he had an investment outfit on the side where I worked. He had a good impact on me because he was very hardworking, he was kind to people, he knew how to identify talent, he rewarded you for your efforts, and he basically allowed you to express yourself [in your work]. He is somebody who I have kept in touch with; he is like my big mentor today.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Real estate is a very risky business and part of the risk is accentuated by several factors. But in Nigeria there is always the risk of title because the legal framework doesn’t guarantee title along the transactional chain. So as a developer you do not want to invest in a parcel of land and then come back five/six years later and see that there is a problem with the title – that is a very problematic part of my job.
So we do a lot of due diligence… what I tell my legal lady is that if they can give a parcel of land to you and there is no problem with that land, then don’t touch it. Because we assume that there is a problem with any parcel of land and we try to solve the problem before we move on. So title uncertainty, title risk, is very severe in our business.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I am a Christian so I have to defer back to God because I think that you are what you are because God has allowed you to be what you are. That is my belief so I think that God has helped me to achieve so I always want to give, first of all, the glory to God.
But also there are some ingredients of business success which I have also been able to abide by and I’ve practiced. I’m a very focused person and focus is critical in business. If you have read Who Said Elephants Can’t Dance by Louis Gerstner, you know, when Gerstner turned around IBM they asked him what are the most important factors for his success. Number one was focus. Number two was focus. Number three was focus because the grass is always greener on the other side. So I am a very focused person.
I am resilient and I am very courageous. In business you have to take risks. You cannot sit on the fence, and I think that is why South African companies are more successful in Africa than European companies. European companies listen to CNN, and they do beautiful analyses in their office in Europe to make decisions. For Shoprite, they leave Johannesburg and go to Nigeria to see everything themselves. The mall that we are building, you know the CEO of Shoprite came and climbed to the 12th floor [of a building] and said: “Wow, where do these people shop?”
So I take calculated risks, I’m passionate about what I do and I’m very result orientated… and I think that I have also learnt to be kind to people and build a lot of mentees… we believe in training people because I know that if I get the right talent around me, that makes my work a lot easier.
5. What are the best things about your country, Nigeria?
I think, if we are talking generally, you can’t ignore Nigeria because it is a large country with a population of 140-160m… and massive opportunities across the sectors. And I work in supply-chain so I understand the depth of the FMCG market, the depth of the pharmaceutical market. The markets are really, really large.
But beyond that, we are good people. We are very accommodating, we are very friendly, we are kind to visitors so people find us very warm, and we are very hardworking people. I know that there are a few bad Nigerians all over, but which country doesn’t have bad people? The majority of Nigerians are good people, you know, entrepreneurs who are hardworking and wanting to make a success out of life.
We have our issues, such as political instability here and there, but if you put Nigeria on a scale as an investor, the risk is high but the kind of rewards or returns that companies like Shoprite and MTN get in Nigeria, you cannot get anywhere else in the world. So you have to balance the risk and the reward and then make a call.
6. And the worst?
The worst thing about Nigeria for me is that I think we have over polarised. There are many ethnic nationalities and a lot of the time we do not allow merit to determine appointments. We tend to want to apply affirmative action. We don’t always allow the best man to get the job… I would love to see a Nigeria where you first of all see yourself as Nigerian before you see yourself as a member of another tribe.
7. Your future career plans?
I want to do what I am doing for the next few years and move on to teaching… maybe some consulting and some business teaching. I have a strong background in supply-chain. So I have joined a lot of people in Nigeria and we started a supply-chain academy… it’s an area where I have developed a lot of interests. So when I leave this job in the next few years I will move on to teaching.
8. How do you relax?
I relax by working [laughs]. I’m a very strong football fan. I am an Arsenal fan… I play table tennis. There is a table tennis club in my house… and I have my family.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
My message is that Africa is a place of possibilities and recognised as a place of opportunities, and I have seen a lot of stories on How we made it in Africa, a lot of inspiring stories… I was also reading The Times on the plane about a guy who came to South Africa with about R70 (US$7) in his pocket who is now worth around R300m ($30m). Those are the things that happen in Africa.
So we have to be more optimistic about our future, as young people. I always tell my children that they always have to live a positive life and be very optimistic. And do things right. [Leadership mentor] Dr Myles Munroe said there is a shortcut to success and that shortcut is hard work… you have to crawl, you have to learn to walk, you have to run. Today you have people who want to go from crawling to flying, and that is a problem.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
I think, for me, we have to solve the leadership problem in Africa, and I say this with every sense of responsibility. The Bible says that when a fish is rotting, it starts from the head. So we have not been fortunate, in a lot of countries in Africa, to have the kind of leadership who have the right vision, who have the right leadership orientation and who can take this continent to the next level.
If you look across Africa today, a lot of our leaders cannot really deliver… So leadership is a major, major issue and I believe that if we solve the leadership problem we are just going to conquer the world.
Hakeem Ogunniran is the managing director of UPDC, a property development company in the residential and commercial real estate markets of Nigeria. As a graduate of the University of Lagos, Ogunniran is also a qualified lawyer, chartered secretary and chartered arbitrator and a former law lecturer at the University of Ilorin and University of Lagos. He joined the UAC of Nigeria in 1995 where he held a number of leadership positions. He is also the former president and chairman of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria.