The Rolling Stone That’s Never At A Loss

Forbes Africa
Published 10 years ago
The Rolling Stone That’s Never At A Loss

It proved a hellish journey to see Pascal Dozie at his Lagos office on a Tuesday afternoon. The nightmare ride across the city, through dense traffic, bumped along to the parp of angry horns and the lurch of battered vehicles. Everyone seemed to veer towards each other in the fight for inches. It is hot and everyone is bothered.

To make matters worse, the pink-shirted traffic police stepped in to slow the lumbering vehicles even more by pulling over cars—including ours—with what looks like trumped-up charges. At one point, the traffic cop and our driver are hurling rapid fire insults at each other inches from my nose. Bizarrely, the traffic cop—who was far from pretty in pink—kept walking away, as if the fight was over, before turning on his heel to launch another finger-jabbing tirade. I felt like a monk in Gomorrah.

“They just want money,” our driver scowled as we drove off.

Then we arrived at the gate of Dozie’s business to find the rain had left a puddle wide enough to breed fish in. The wet welcome ended a torrid hour on the road with a metaphor of which writers dream. The failings of Nigeria, that Dozie wants to put right, lead right up to his door.

“Lagos is the only place in the world where you can utilize all the faculties God gave to man,” chuckles Dozie as we stand in his plush, air-conditioned office.

This is the office from which Dozie commands his investment and finance empire, which has made him one of the richest men in Nigeria. He is a gentleman, in the literal sense of the world, who loves Mozart and Bach, a man who is close to his roots and his family of five sons and 10 grandchildren.

“We didn’t see my father that often when we were growing up but when he came home to see us it was really quality time. We would sit outside for hours while he told us stories and sang us the songs of his ancestors,” says Uzoma Dozie, one of his sons, with a smile.

The polished office contrasts starkly with the dog-eat-dog poverty and chaos a stone’s throw away in the streets of Lagos. After half a century of business, as his own boss, Dozie could be forgiven for shutting out the problems of Nigeria behind his tall gates and high walls—but he says he can’t. He believes crumbling infrastructure and corruption are Nigeria’s heaviest shackles and hopes entrepreneurs will help shrug them off.

“Many people see Nigeria as an entrepreneur’s gold mine—the opportunities abound. Every single disadvantage you see—the traffic and the infrastructure—is an opportunity, but you can only change once the government goes hands-off,” he says.

I counter this with the words I heard Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni utter a few years back, in Kigali, that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to keep government out of business. Of course, Dozie disagrees.

“In Nigeria, we have been moving towards this for a long time. If the government had not been hands-off they would not have a number of major cellphone companies in the country. Some of them got their operating licences on the same day. This hands-off approach has helped us leapfrog communications technology,” says Dozie.

“We won’t get anywhere until we, in Nigeria, can say anything can be done in 24 hours.”

The other big concern for Dozie is corruption. The multi-millionaire says he has been campaigning against it since the dark days of military dictatorship under Sani Abacha.

“This is the only country in the world where people ask what business are you in and you say politics.”

“The clock is ticking, as massive strikes in January showed Nigerians,” says Dozie.

“Nigerians are waking up and the civil society in the country is coming alive. Nigeria is a country that is skewed towards the youth.

The Blackberry generation is using their Twitter and Facebook and you should see the things they are writing. In January, this country was besieged by angry youth when the government removed the fuel subsidy. Nobody could go to work. It is no longer business as usual and things are changing. Look at the number of probes into corruption, before it would have been covered up, but now it is no longer easy to cover corruption.”

Outspoken and salty, Dozie has reaped a fortune through his work and wits on a long and difficult journey from Owerri in Imo State. This is where he was born, the son of a country court interpreter, on April 9, 1939.

“We did not have many modern facilities, but we had the village set up. If you were hungry someone would feed you. If your neighbor caught you doing something wrong they would punish you. When your parents found out they would talk to the neighbor to make sure they had given you a proper spanking. Modernity has changed all of this.”

Along with a generation of idealistic Africans, from newly independent nations, Dozie headed for Europe to drink from the fountain of knowledge.

Dozie went to the London School of Economics where he rubbed shoulders with Mick Jagger, the louche singer who was soon to drop out of college to form the Rolling Stones. Legend has it that Jagger stood up during an economics lecture and shouted: “Eureka!” before walking out to a life of rock and roll.

In reality, it was less dramatic. Jagger studied Economics, British Government, Economic History and Political History, earning mediocre grades. He hedged his bets, by studying in the library, before leaving in 1963 when the Rolling Stones cut their first record.

“We thought he was different. We were very conservative and he had long hair. Me, as an African, coming from Nigeria, I couldn’t believe he was leaving what he was doing to go off and play music, it was against the grain to me,” says Dozie.

Dozie wasn’t the only one to wonder.

“My father was furious with me,” Jagger told a journalist decades later.

“But I really didn’t like being at college. It wasn’t like it was Oxford and it had been the most wonderful time of my life. It was really a dull, boring course I was stuck on.”

Unlike Jagger, Dozie earned his degree in economics and followed it up with a Masters in administration from City University in London in 1963. He went to work in London and consulted in Croydon where he worked at the National Economic Development Office.

Dozie wanted to go home, but his people, including his two brothers in the army, were fighting the Biafran War against Nigerian forces in the cause of secession for the Igbo people. It was a bloody war waged between 1967 and 1970 that cost 30,000 Igbo lives and those of an estimated one million civilians.

“It was a very traumatic period for us. Bombs were going off everywhere and you didn’t know what was the truth. People were being shunted from one place to another and at times I didn’t even know where my own mother was,” he says.

It meant Dozie had to take a job in Uganda until the war was over. When peace came, he moved home in September 1971, at the request of his mother, who was by then in poor health.

In Lagos, Dozie set up his own consultancy, the African Development Consulting Group. He never worked for anyone else again. In the early years, he was fortunate enough to gather consultancies for the big guns like Nestlé and Pfizer. In his spare time, he wrote about economics for the respected publication Business International.

In the 1980s, the road to real riches opened up thanks to a simple idea. Dozie had noticed traders from the remote villages in the east of the country, where he grew up, faced the problem of carrying huge bundles of cash when they trekked to Lagos on business.

“Sometimes they would be waylaid by rogues on the road,” he says.

Dozie pioneered electronic transfers in Nigeria so traders could transfer their cash to Lagos instead of having to carry it. It saw the creation of Diamond Bank, which opened its doors in 1991.

“The first customer was my wife,” laughs Dozie.

The bank started from a third floor office in Victoria Island with 20 people and $5 million.

“The assumption was we were going to come by money easily—it wasn’t easy.”

The problem was most companies, at that time, would not deal with a bank less than three years old. So the small staff at Diamond Bank went out to persuade everyone, from traders to car dealers, to part with their money to generate cash through deposits.

“In my view he is brilliant, driven and a great manager of talent—qualities which helped him in establishing Diamond Bank, especially through the 5 year period, from 1985 to 1990, when nothing was happening, and the early years from 1990 when he says they had it really tough,” says Akintola Akinbamidele of Renaissance Capital in Lagos.

The bank blossomed into a $240 million concern, but this was merely one step on a difficult path. In 2005, disaster struck when a new law that said all banks had to hold a minimum of 25 billion naira ($158.3 million) in share capital. Diamond Bank had a mere 6.4 billion naira ($ 40.5 million) in share capital—so it had to list to raise more, which led to a severe dilution of the family stake.

In the years leading up to this, Dozie had been busy with a deal that was to make his name and a large chunk of his fortune.

A South African cellphone company, MTN, approached Dozie with the idea of setting up a cellphone network in the vast Nigerian market. The South Africans wanted to pump millions into a 60% stake in MTN Nigeria, with Nigerians owning 40%. Dozie set off with high hopes to London and the United States to raise capital among the big money men and Nigerian expatriates. When he got there, it was as if he was trying to sell sand in the desert. Many people saw the struggles of the government telecoms company, NITEL, with its wobbly and sparse landlines. Investors said that if the state couldn’t set up a cellphone network in Nigeria, no one could.

“It was very disappointing. You have a good project and you are turned down. You start to question yourself and start to question your head,” he says.

Dozie could raise merely enough for a 20% stake in the new company. Through debt funding, MTN poured in millions to make up the difference. It was a huge risk, at the time, but MTN prospered and the rest is history. To this day, Dozie is chairman of a solid MTN Nigeria.

“Most of the people I asked to invest now regret not investing—I even regret it myself. They would have enjoyed returns of 20 times their money.”

More than a decade on, Dozie sits atop a family-owned investment company, Kunoch, worth $50 million, which pours money into everything from power generation to gas processing, oil exploration, real estate and banking. One of its investments is in a pilot project that could revolutionize the way power is provided in Nigeria—a country that needs electricity like a thirsty man needs water. The country’s economic progress is slowed by the fact that it produces a few thousand MW for tens of millions of Nigerians—around a tenth of what South Africa produces for a third of Nigeria’s population. Not for nothing do Nigerians call the state power company, PHCN, Please Hold Candles Near.

Dozie is investing in a pioneering independent power project, the Aba Power Project, in the south east of the country near Port Harcourt and not too far from the border with Cameroon. It will generate a minimum of 188 MW, from gas turbines, with plans to expand. In a region which has 20% of the power it needs, it will be like manna from heaven. The company running the project was founded by the former Nigerian minister of power, Bart Nnaji, who resigned in August over a conflict of interest. He was meant to sell his six power generating companies and 11 distribution companies.

It is part of the infrastructure that Dozie believes could be the salvation of his country. Travelers to Nigeria will be cheered to hear that this grand old man of Nigerian business has the crumbling Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos on his agenda.

“It erodes the image of the country. When you come through our airport you say, ‘Is this the Nigeria I have flown to see?’” he says.

Dozie reckons the government will concession the airport to private business in a bid to spruce it up. Others, close to the aviation industry in Lagos, believe the government will be loath to relinquish any control over the airport as it is the only one in the country that brings revenue into state coffers.

“I will give it a long shot… it will happen in the next five years,” says Dozie.

What about corruption? Even the pink-shirted traffic police on the way were a heavy hint that it permeates Nigerian life right down to the streets.

“It is very solvable. When we start seeing politics as a sacrifice, when it is a self-sacrificing exercise from those who want to serve… We need strong institutions with integrity and political parties with a well-known ideology.”

A stable political environment could clear the way for the virile entrepreneurs of Africa.

“I think they are counting on the political will of African leaders to smooth logistics, the factors of production and the movement of people. There are a lot of bottlenecks that need to be removed. People like Aliko Dangote have done us well and created a lot of employment. For me, what is lacking here is that we don’t have that critical mass in the genuine middle class, which is the bulwark of democracy. Once this happens we could start absorbing more young people into employment and our creative forces will be unleashed,” says Dozie.

“We all worry about food, shelter and health and until those things are made accessible to all people we will never change… Be patient don’t expect miracles to happen.”

In this yearning for a new Nigeria, Dozie draws on one of the entrepreneurs he admired, the late Steve Jobs.

“I loved his never quit spirit, he lost his position in the company, but did not despair,” he says.

A new Nigeria may have been a tall order, even for Steve Jobs. It is an ideal worth cherishing, but it does help if you believe in the sound of generators disappearing from Lagos forever, taking 15 minutes from the city to the airport, or fairies.

Related Topics: #Banking, #Nigeria, #October 2012, #Pascal Dozie, #Wealth.