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The $500-Million Survivor

Seven years without pay, showering in the street, scrapping with his brother, fired by his uncle, fired at by his wife’s uncle. A rocky road for Cosmas Maduka, who started out fixing cars and now makes millions selling them.

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In 1967, there was growing divergence between two parts of Nigeria. Biafra, a secessionist state in south eastern Nigeria, at the time represented the nationalist aspirations of the Igbo people, whose leadership felt they could no longer coexist with the federal government. The desire for a separate state led to up to 30,000 Igbos being killed and around a million refugees fleeing to their homeland in the east. Anambra, the eighth most populated state of Nigeria, provided the base for dangerous relief flights loaded with food and supplies for the war-torn Biafran population. The area was also home to Cosmas Maduka, who was only six years old at the height of the civil war.

“We had a bunker outside our house which we ran into during times where the military opened fire and dropped bombs with their fighter jets. We did not know whether we were going to survive to see the following day,”

says Maduka.

Once, while on his way to the market, soldiers opened fire, killing a large number of civilians. Maduka narrowly escaped. In a bid to protect her children, Maduka’s mother sent him away to live with his grandparents before he later embarked on the journey that would see him become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Nigeria.

Maduka is the President and Chairman of Coscharis Group, franchise holders of over eight automobile brands and one of the largest distributors of spare car parts in Nigeria. The company also has interests in real estate, banking, technology, medical equipment, petrochemicals, elevators and agriculture.

Like his early childhood, getting his business to this point has been tough. While talking to FORBES AFRICA in his gigantic dealership, which houses over 300 luxury car brands, he is quick to credit someone else for

his success.

“My mother was the lady who inspired me to greatness. At a young age in my life, she looked at me and told me I am going to be successful. She said people will always like me and people will struggle to say no to me,” says Maduka.

It’s easy to see why. He is composed as he sports his trademark Jesus broche. He has a quiet confidence about him without being arrogant. His mother’s “indoctrination” would later be the impetus he needed to turn N200 ($1) into a $500-million conglomerate.

On average the company sells more than 400 cars per month with prices around N150 million ($752,787) for the top end of its luxury fleet, which includes Rolls Royce, BMW, Jaguar, Range Rover and Ford. This year, the company partnered with Ford to build one of the largest manufacturing plants on the continent for its pickup trucks.

Coscharis’ medical supplies business represents GE Healthcare, Philips and Siemens in Nigeria. Coscharis also holds the number two position in the ICT market through its own brand, Coscharis Technologies Limited, and their pool of partners which includes HP, Microsoft and Lenovo. Coscharis Technologies provides hardware and software applications to organizations.

Maduka’s success is all the more remarkable when you consider he lost his father when he was a toddler.

“The best I knew of my father was the day I saw a man lying lifelessly in a suit… It was like a festival, people were exceptionally kind to me that day and whatever I asked for, I got,” he says.

The four-year-old Maduka didn’t know it was his father’s funeral. The celebrations ceased immediately after this day. Maduka started street hawking to provide for his family. Every morning at 5AM, Maduka would wake up to sell bean cakes with his older brother, Pius, to generate money for the family. True to his mother’s prophecies, Maduka was a better salesman than his brother. As a result, his mother, who could no longer afford the tuition fees for both brothers, took Maduka out of school at the age of six.

 

At the age of seven and no longer attending school, Maduka was sent to live with his uncle and serve as an apprentice selling motorcycle parts. It was not a conventional apprenticeship. Firstly, Maduka worked for seven years without pay. Secondly, the shop floor that Maduka traded on during the day would be transformed into his bedroom at night. He would wake up early in the morning to have his shower on the street before customers arrived and then proceed to manage the shop by himself with occasional supervision from his uncle.

In most countries, these conditions would constitute some form of breach of child labor laws. Maduka has a different take on the experience.

“I believe this was the best university any young man can go to because it was a system where there was no contractual agreement. If you did not behave yourself, you were sent back home to the village, but if you performed, your master would give you start-up capital for your own business at the end of your apprenticeship,” he says.

By the fifth year of his apprenticeship at the age of 13, Maduka had already proven that he had what it took to run a business on his own and was consequently placed in a new branch to manage. In Nigeria, as with many African countries, entrepreneurs are trained by trade schools, craft centers and vocational institutes. Proprietors in the small-scale industries also offer training programs based on an apprenticeship system. Whereas the government-established institutions are formal, apprenticeship training in the private sector is often informal. In lieu of this, there is an ongoing debate as to which system yields the best results. Maduka favors apprenticeship.

“I believe apprenticeship is the best university to go to. If you give a formally educated person N1 million and an apprentice N100, 000, I believe in five years, the apprentice will be able to catch up to the university student and overtake him,” he says.

Maduka learned everything about the automotive components industry outside the classroom. He learned about the internal combustion of an engine, carburettors and centrifugal regulators. He also discovered how to provide the best service to clients and where to go to get the best deals as a reseller.

He understood the power of building a trustworthy reputation with your buyers. He knew about cost price and profit margins and ensured the shop was always stocked with the products the customers often needed. That learning process ended when, due to his newly found Christian faith, Maduka closed his uncle’s store so he could fast for three days. He was immediately fired and, to Maduka’s surprise, his severance package after seven years of hard work was less than a mere $400.

“I looked at my uncle in the face and said to him I deserve something better than this, five years from now, you will regret making this decision,” says Maduka.

Adversity is a constant companion for entrepreneurs, but the successful ones learn to push through tough times. Maduka outlined three key targets for himself after being dismissed by his uncle.

“I wanted to get married before I turned 20, have children by 22 and become a millionaire by 24,” he says.

Maduka immediately put his plan into action. He formed a new company, with his brother, called Maduka Brothers, continuing to trade in automobile parts. The pair sourced parts from Lagos and resold them in eastern Nigeria. In just under a year, the brothers went their separate ways due to differing opinions on how the business’ money should be spent. After the split, the siblings became competitors with automotive shops across the road from each other. However, the apprenticeship experience Maduka had gave him an advantage over his brother.

“In business, knowing where to buy is just as important as selling. You need to buy well to sell well and I had a good relationship with all the major wholesalers,” says Maduka.

He used his relationship with large wholesalers to get his supplies at a competitive rate. Within a week, Maduka was selling enough components to get himself a three-bedroom apartment – by the age of 17. With the apartment secured, Maduka set the groundwork to achieve his first goal. At the age of 18, he met a woman who would become integral to the Coscharis empire.

“Her name was Charity and we met in church. I immediately knew she was the one. I asked for her hand in marriage and, after thinking about it for some time, she accepted.”

Maduka got married at the age of 19 and made his first million, as predicted, by the age of 24. The name of his company, Coscharis, was born by combining his name, Cosmas, and the name of the second woman he credits with all his success, Charity. Today, the group has more than 26 branches nationwide, with a presence in Ghana, Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire.

The automobile business of Coscharis Group started in 1983 when the company was incorporated with the business of importation and distribution of automotive parts and accessories of Japanese vehicles. The decision to incorporate the car business provided the breakthrough Coscharis Group needed. At a time where many businesses were choosing to remain sole proprietorships to avoid the bureaucracy and complex framework of a limited company, Maduka decided to break convention. That decision paid off.

“In 1983, the federal government of Nigeria decided to give import licenses only to motor companies and, because I had incorporated Coscharis, they placed me among multinationals like Leventis, even though it was only me and my wife,” says Maduka.

The import licenses granted to Coscharis was crucial. The Nigerian economy back then was dependent on external sources. By 1980, imports had reached a level equivalent to a quarter of the GDP. The federal government deficits had increased from $1.5 million in 1970 to $17.6 million in 1978. Nigeria’s total outstanding debt had reached the $2 billion mark by 1980. These dire economic conditions presented an opportunity for Maduka in a climate where other businesses were closing.

“It was a seller’s market then because there was scarcity of products. In every difficult situation, an entrepreneur knows that his destiny is not in the hands of his state but in his own hands, he creates his own opportunities,” he says.

Maduka was making margins as high as 200% during this time. The import license gave him protection against the military-run government’s scrutiny and he was able to capitalize on this to grow his business. Maduka had a clear vision for his company from the onset. In the early seventies, the Nigerian motor industry had a lot of major players. Coscharis had to find a way to differentiate itself.

“Leventis was one of the foremost automobile sellers, followed by Mandilas, who were known for their excellent service. We also had some Peugeot dealers… By the eighties, almost all these companies collapsed and cars were being sold under trees with no service centers.”

Coscharis was responsible for revolutionizing the automobile industry in Nigeria by building showrooms fully equipped with in-house service centers. A second factor for Coscharis was its philosophy towards its employees. Being an entrepreneur at heart, Maduka only hired individuals with strong business acumen to ensure that the culture of innovation and competitiveness continued with the group. Maduka credits this strategy for the success of the group. The company currently has more than N50 billion ($250 million) in shareholder funds, generated in just under 40 years.

Overcoming adversity has always been one of Maduka’s strengths. Four years ago, he was faced with a scandal that threatened to scupper everything he had worked so hard for. In what he considers his worst day in business, Maduka was left with a devastating financial burden of N22.4 billion ($113 million) when he secured a loan for a business associate. At the time, Maduka was on the board, and owned a 25% equity stake, of Access Bank. He was approached by Ifeanyi Uba, the CEO of Capital Oil, for a loan to import petroleum premium spirit. After sympathizing with Ifeanyi’s inability to raise capital to save his business, Maduka took a calculated risk.

“I have never defaulted on any loans. Every bank works with Coscharis at an open credit and we are one of the few companies in Nigeria who have that relationship due to our strong financial position,” says Maduka.

He guaranteed the loan of $278 million for Ifeanyi to secure his goods, which was never repaid. In what was a huge scandal at the time, Coscharis had to repay the debt.

“I don’t think even Bill Gates can walk away from $150 million without it having an effect on him,” says Maduka.

Fortunately, the investments the organization had already made were enough to absorb the heavy shock.

Today, there is a new strategy in place. Maduka has set his organization the target of turning over a billion dollars in the next five years. Ever the entrepreneur, he has identified key sectors to help him achieve this goal. One of these is agriculture.

“Nigeria spent over $3 billion to import rice; almost 90 percent of Nigerians eat rice and we see an opportunity to create a billion-dollar business in rice over the next three years,” he says.

The current government supports Maduka’s decision and has made attempts to curb the importation of rice by raising the duty of the crop to 100%. Coscharis has acquired more than 3,000 hectares of land in Anambra State and is due to harvest the first batch.

These days, life is very different for Maduka. He has six children, two of whom are involved in the Coscharis Group. His family might not exist, however, if it was up to Charity’s uncle.

“When I told her family about my intentions to marry Charity, her uncle was so annoyed he got his gun and shot at me,” says Maduka. Luckily, he missed.

He is a firm believer in each one of his children receiving a Nigerian education before progressing to the classrooms of the United States. This way none of the children will forget their roots.

Maduka is passionate about the potential in Africa’s largest economy.

“Ten years ago, the Dangote you see today was not the same back then. The government showed goodwill and supported Dangote and today Nigeria will be a net exporter of cement instead of being an importer. Vodacom came into Nigeria and left, and now they are trying hard to return to the market without any success. A subsidiary company of a South African independent company, MTN Nigeria, has more turnover than its parent company. The potential in the Nigerian market is untapped. Saudi Arabia is selling over 150,000 units of Ford with a small population.”

“If we unleash the potential of this industry, and the government handles corruption, the true potential of this market will be unmatched anywhere in the world.”

If Nigeria does reach this potential, Maduka will be on hand to make the most out of it.

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