“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This African proverb is the glue that binds the Saltzman family. It has ushered in fame, fortune and happiness for Lynette and Ivan Saltzman.
This husband and wife duo founded Dis-Chem, one of South Africa’s fastest growing pharmacies. It is a specialist in beauty, health food, sport supplements and health and wellbeing. The company reported an impressive R17.4 billion ($1.46 billion) turnover in its full financial year results for the year ending February 2017, giving it a R30.43 billion ($2.56 billion) market capitalization.
It is big money.
As we meet, it is a clear summer’s day in Greenside, Johannesburg. Clarity has played a big part of Lynette and Ivan’s life. On this day, they feel the warmth of success born of a strong family bond.
“You know Ivan used to stay upstairs when he first moved to Johannesburg to study,” says Lynette as the pair walk into the studio.
Inside, the fan moves sluggishly through the stifling air as the power couple sit for a rare interview.
“I had an inclination towards retail from early age and I’m happy we now employ 15,000 people,” says Ivan with utmost humility.
It is an empire built through passion and love. Four decades later, you can still see it in their eyes whenever they look at each other.
It all started in a pharmacy class in 1972.
“We were doing a science experiment and he lent me an eraser or something like that and that’s basically how we met. We started dating quite soon thereafter and we got engaged in our final year,” says Lynette.
Once married and working as pharmacists, Ivan says he was frustrated about how things were done at his workplace in Mondeor, south of Johannesburg. He had many ideas of how to make the business more profitable so he made an offer to buy out the owner.
It worked. Lynette left her job to join Ivan in the business. It was time to put their innovative ideas to test.
“We were just anxious to start putting all these new things that weren’t in the shop before. People started coming into this tiny neighborhood shop and they wanted to see what we had. We were always looking for new things, like putting earrings into the shop. The day we unpacked the earrings we had queues of people,” she says.
It marked a breakthrough. According to the Saltzmans, the shop started making profit almost immediately.
Growth was inevitable. Six years later, an opportunity to open another pharmacy in the northern suburbs knocked.
“A lot of people turned down the opportunity to open shops at the newly build centre in Randpark Ridge because of high rentals. We thought this is our opportunity, let’s take it and let’s make it work, which is exactly what we did,” says Ivan.
The answer was discounts on medicine. It was a case of volume over gross profit. It may have been an old theory but it worked. From there they improved their supply chain which gave them reasonable pricing, which they’ve kept to this day.
“We would go to other stores and check their prices and then take our prices down. Our customers knew that we were always cheaper. We made sure we had plenty of stock and the concept of a discount pharmacy was born,” says Lynette.
“There was a time when we couldn’t advertise discounts, so the Dis-Chem could be dispensary chemist or discount chemist, but most people took it as a discount chemist,” says Ivan.
To keep expanding, they advertised the business on mass media and continued to innovate.
“When people needed medicine and came to our store, we could sell other things too. We were unique and our stores were always larger than any other pharmacy. And we had the variety in that space. We discounted heavily on medicines and we were competitive on the rest,” he says.
The discounts paid off. The second store expanded about four times within the mall; but not without challenges.
“It was unusual for a retail operation to have a wholesale operation at the same time, so that was a challenge to get wholesale prices,” says Ivan.
There were also unkind comments from people. In those days, most women stayed at home with the children. Lynette says she faced some negativity for being a working mom.
“I used to get comments from people, and a few of them that hurt at that time came from family members. I tried to juggle my time. In the earlier days, I used to try and get home in the afternoons, where I used to do homework or take kids to wherever they had to go to and work at night. Our marriage has come out stronger and our children are closer to us, we are more a family than some of the people that were making the comments about how I should spend my time with my family,” says Lynette.
Although some couples may find working together a problem, the Saltzmans made it work.
“Sure you have disagreements, on how to do things and how not to do things, but a strong factor is that we do different things in the business and we were not in the same office. Ivan has the foresight on most things. He can see the possibilities into the future and once the idea grabs me, I can then take it into implementation,” she says.
Ivan says they always move together and Lynette is an innovator in her own right. For example, being the only woman in the family, she built the business’ cosmetics and beauty category.
Lynette says she found that in the early days, although she would have been in charge, people would want to go to Ivan when it was time to sign agreements.
“There is a time when we were in the pharmacy, and I was dispensing and one of the customers said to me, ‘just because you are married to a pharmacist doesn’t make you a pharmacist’. But now everybody accepts it,” she says.
“In the business side there are assumptions that I’m the boss, but we are both bosses,” says Ivan.
Teamwork has earned them 135 stores and 15,000 employees. It’s a remarkable story considering they started with one store and one employee. They will open 21 stores this year alone.
The company also has stores in Namibia and will be getting into Botswana this year.
“Namibia is different but [also] very similar to South Africa. The consumers are very similar, the supply chain is different, there are different laws and regulations, but it is very busy and competing very well with the South African stores,” says Ivan.
The Saltzmans currently own just over 50% of the group. Dis-Chem has become a major retailer of health products, with annual sales of more than R15 billion ($1.26 billion). In 2016 they listed the company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). Its shares opened at R18.50 ($1.50). At the time of going to press, Dis-Chem shares were R35.39 ($2.97).
Being on the JSE may have posed some questions when it was found that other listed companies were cooking books.
“We are not worried about our own company, but it is just sad to see, that some companies have misrepresented their assets. I think it taints the country,” says Ivan.
Although they say they haven’t made major mistakes in the business, Ivan says they were, and still are, cautious. He wishes they had expanded faster and earlier. On the other hand, Lynette feels they grew as they were comfortable.
“We expanded as we felt we could cope. We could handle everything properly, do it properly and get it right. So it’s taking us a bit longer to get more stores; it’s a great business. I feel that we’ve done it the right way,” she says.
The business has had its share of struggles. Lynette remembers some bad days. One of them is an employee strike eight years ago. The striking crowd threw a gas cylinder into one of their shops in Pretoria. The second is when an electrical fault caused a raging inferno in their store in Roodepoort.
“That was absolutely terrible. The whole roof came down. The whole shop was destroyed and it took us a year before we could reopen the store,” says Lynette.
Ivan says those were disasters that happened when the business was strong. They were able to pick up business in surrounding stores.
With all this success, they don’t hesitate to offer advice to young people.
“The basic thing is that, whatever fields anybody wants to go into, they have to have a passion for it, they have to want to do it. If it’s just a job, it’s not going to succeed,” says Lynette.
Ivan says the next boom is artificial intelligence and information technology.
To ensure smooth processes, the company already makes use of technology. A few days after our meeting, we visited the Saltzmans at their head office in Midrand to see the technology at work.
As we walk up the stairs of the 40,000m2 building, many awards hang on the wall. We meet Saul Saltzman, one of Lynette and Ivan’s three sons who takes us on a tour.
The warehouse is semi-automated. Processes are still run by humans with the help of robotic technology.
“It will be impossible to run ourselves without some sort of robotics. I don’t believe that robots have replaced jobs, it has probably, in our case, created jobs because it enables us to do far bigger volumes and there are always people involved,” says Ivan.
The group has three other warehouses around the country. Most of the business comes from Johannesburg, with Cape Town accounting for 25%.
“We have the ethical, beauty and retail departments and the warehouse doesn’t shut down. We work 24 hours a day and seven days a week and there are 2,500 employees in this warehouse. We are always busy and the technology we use helps us with efficiencies,” says Dis-Chem’s Logistics Manager, Brian Sher.
There are machines which wrap 500 pallets in plastic per day and some that help sort 4,000 boxes per hour.
“Because we deal with sensitive things like medicine, we always have pharmacists available and have controls in place to make sure things are done properly. For example, you can find medicines that need to be kept under certain conditions and we also use these technologies to track orders and progress within the warehouse,” says Saul.
Giving back also forms a big part of Dis-Chem’s DNA. In 2006, Lynette founded the Dis-Chem Foundation to help South Africa’s impoverished communities.
“We started a loyalty card program to give back to the customer and the community. We then started the foundation which works closely with registered NGOs who work with orphanages, rehab centers, abandoned babies and old age homes. We also have two mobile clinics in the Western Cape,” says Lynette.
She also saw a need for nutrition and in 2013, the foundation decided to use two hectors of vacant land in front of their offices for farming. As we walk through the garden, we pass all types of vegetables, from onions to carrots to spinach. Lynette introduces us to farm manager Lebo Malinga.
“We have 13 farmers working here to make sure we feed 10,000 underprivileged people per month. Now we even have students interested in agriculture visiting us to learn. We even get students studying agriculture in college coming in to test the soil, look into irrigation systems and water catchments,” says Malinga.
As we leave the garden, the sun blazes down from a cloudless azure sky and the heat bounces off the streets creating a mirage of wavering images but Dis-Chem’s future cannot be clearer – brighter than ever.
How we made it:
- Convenience – We made sure to create a shop that offers many things so that it’s convenient for our customers. They can come into our store to get their make-up done or buy medicine or buy healthy food items.
- Hiring the right people – Our employees know who we are and we are not inaccessible to anybody. We are still very much a family business. I think our employees feel this loyalty. They see our passion and and they feel the passion and they go all out to help run stores. So having passionate, well-qualified and well-trained staff has helped us.
- More for less – Being a discount pharmacy helped because we were always affordable compared to our competitors.
- Passion – When you love what you do it becomes easy to grow the business. You have to love your job.
You Only Live Twice
The Two Faces That Mean Business
A complete irony that just as the words ‘women power’ are mentioned in the room, the power goes off.
It’s a cold winter’s day in Johannesburg and the Greenside suburb that we are in for this interview is encountering unscheduled load-shedding.
The word power was in describing Phuti Mahanyele’s and Stacey Brewer’s ascent to corporate celebrity.
On this day, just before the photoshoot, they are quivering in the cold, dark studio, defiantly relating separate stories about their successes, but united in their quest for excellence in a renewed South Africa. They are resolute about gender dynamics and what it has meant to stave off stereotypes and rise to being leaders in their individual spheres.
Sipping hot coffee out of a styrofoam cup, Mahanyele talks about success born of years of hard work.
It was not just blood, sweat and tears that defined her growth, but also sacrifice and illness.
Today, she is one of the richest self-made entrepreneurs in South Africa, a mentor and businesswoman commanding the boardroom.
This is a world away from apartheid South Africa into which she was born.
She was born in the urban township of Soweto, home to icons like Nelson Mandela, Richard Maponya and Trevor Noah. Here, she first learned about struggle, power and resilience.
In the 1970s, it was a place of defiance and resistance. She credits her parents’ hard work, in the face of a racist South Africa, for her success. Her father, Mohale Mahanyele, one of the country’s pioneers of black business, taught her that limitations are actually opportunities.
Mohale knew hardship. He grew up in a four-room house in the township with 12 siblings.
“He once told us how he told his friends he wanted to have a degree and they would all laugh. I remember him telling us that one of his friends said to him, ‘you know, if you work hard at this job, one day, you won’t have to catch a bus because you would be able to catch a taxi. That’s how good life can be’. But my father had other plans for his life and worked hard to make it happen,” says Mahanyele.
At the time of his death in 2012, Mohale was one of South Africa’s most successful businessmen who served on many boards. He left a wealth of knowledge and a legacy.
“My father used to include us in everything and travel with us. I remember going to events with him as his partner. He was not afraid to expose us to things he wanted us to achieve. We would go with him to gala events and meetings here in South Africa and oversees,” she recalls.
It steeled her for a future in the cold, dark world of business.
“I remember at one gala event, my father was sitting next to the CEO of a large mining business. The CEO was a very big personality in South Africa but for some reason, they didn’t get on well. At this event, they sat next to each other and I was in the middle. I was so confident that I took it to myself that since he won’t talk to my dad, I would speak to him. I remember speaking to this man and he would look at me awkwardly and respond to me very briefly and I would ask him another question,” chuckles Mahanyele.
She says her father spoke to her like she was an adult business woman. He also had a career plan for her. He wanted her to study economics, but she wanted to be a ballerina. Like an obedient daughter, she followed his instructions and went on to study for a bachelor of economics in the United States (US).
“Even after finishing the economics degree, I still wanted to be a dancer but my dad had a whole plan for me. He had even worked out which companies I should work for,” she says.
It was only when she was working on her thesis for her MBA in the United Kingdom (UK) that she fell in love with business.
“I was looking at how black economic empowerment would impact black business. I then had an interest in mergers and acquisitions because I saw this as an area where one could create opportunities for black-owned businesses in South Africa.”
After graduation in the US, she returned home to work for her father. She says it was interesting but she quickly discovered that working in an environment where her father was the boss was not ideal.
“You could never really achieve anything without it being attributed to your father,” she says.
In 1995, just a year after South Africa became a democracy, she moved to Cape Town to work at a company where her father had no influence.
“I remember going to interviews and they didn’t know anyone with my surname which was wonderful.
I knew I was getting that job because of my own merit.”
It wasn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She was employed as a brand manager but had little to do.
“I had a title, a lovely office and everything but there was no work. I essentially could show up, do nothing all day and nobody would care. I wasn’t expected to do anything. I think it was a time when people were just trying to fill the numbers to say they have a black female employee except I had zero to do. Everyone was busy and the person who had worked in that position before had work but I didn’t,” says Mahanyele.
She quickly realized it was time to move on. To properly arm herself with enough tools to disrupt the world of business, she swapped her high-paying job for a less-paying position in advertising.
“They were launching SABC 1, 2 and 3 and I was recruited as an account manager back in Johannesburg. It was very busy and I worked unbelievable hours but I loved it because I needed to grow.”
As she was working, she realized there wasn’t going to be any longevity on the job. This was when she left to study for her MBA in the UK. She then applied for a job at Fieldstone, an investment banking advisory service firm in New York.
“They were not looking for anyone and they had never had a black person from the African continent apply for a job so it was a bit weird. I heard ‘no’ several times but I kept applying.”
When they realized she wasn’t going to stop, they offered her an internship. It came with a small stipend, long hours and no benefits. Even though it was less than she was used to, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“It was very difficult at first because I was from the African continent and I had never been to an Ivy League university. People I worked with were from Ivy League and it was difficult competing with them…I made the most of it. At home, it had not made sense that I would go from a corporate job to having an MBA and then an internship. It seemed as if I was going backwards but I knew I wasn’t going backwards because I was getting experience in an industry I had zero experience in.”
With hard work, at the end of the internship, she was offered a job.
“I didn’t expect it at all because I remember one of the difficult times during that internship was when I tried to speak to a black female partner so I could introduce myself. She was shocked I was there and assumed I was lost. She quickly showed me the way to where the interns sat.”
Mahanyele dedicated seven years to the firm. She went from intern to associate, then associated director and finally the vice president of the company.
“I worked long hours and one more thing I used was what I learned from my father. He taught me to always have good relationships with people. It doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with everyone but it means whenever you engage with people you are positive and it’s meaningful. That’s how I managed to climb the ladder fast,” she says.
After seven years, it was time to move back home. With her skill and experience, she was immediately snapped up by a big organization.
“I was used to working long hours to get the work done but here, I had a team and at 5PM, they would all leave to go home. I remember the first time it happened, I thought there was a meeting somewhere and my PA had forgotten to tell me about it. I remember calling one of them and he told me he was home. I said ‘what time are you coming back?’ and he said ‘why?’ and I’m like ‘the sun is still up’. I was shocked but quickly realized everyone came at 8AM and left at 5PM.”
She says it was a difficult time for her as a leader. She assumed that her team was demotivated and had many of them in disciplinary hearings.
“I realized I had to understand my new environment. People here had a different way of doing things. Because you go home early, it doesn’t mean you are not productive,” says Mahanyele.
“What I didn’t realize was that the problem was with me because I hadn’t looked at the environment to realize the culture here was that people did what they needed to do at the time.”
It wasn’t long before she was recruited by South Africa’s current President Cyril Ramaphosa as the head of the energy division of his then business, Shanduka Group. She was soon chosen as the CEO of the group.
“The boardroom was very interesting. We weren’t seeing a lot of young black women. I remember one of my colleagues telling me that they walked into a boardroom and one of the board members assumed she was one of the tea ladies and immediately placed an order…I remember even being on a flight and sitting next to a person I had only read about and he started flirting with me telling me what apartment he could buy me even though I was married,” she recounts.
She didn’t let these gender setbacks deter her.
At the helm of Shanduka, she managed the group’s multi-million dollar investments in South Africa and on the rest of the continent including in energy in Mozambique, and telecom in Nigeria. Shanduka had big investments in companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, SEACOM, Aggreko in Mozambique and in other sectors.
“What I loved about Shanduka is that it was business that wasn’t just focused on returns but focused on impacting the lives of people. When we launched the business, we also launched a foundation.”
In 2015, after a decade of service, she left the company after making bold moves boosting the company’s profits. During her time at Shanduka, Mahanyele was responsible for securing important transactions such as the China Investment Corporation (CIC) – which was the corporation’s first direct investment in South Africa – which owned 25% equity in the Shanduka Group at the time. She also sealed a partnership with Aggreko that increased Shanduka’s skills in the temporary power sector. This translated into the company becoming one of Eskom’s private power suppliers.
Soon after her departure, she founded Sigma Capital Group, a privately-held, majority black-owned investment group. It has interests in power and infrastructure, real estate, technology, media and telecommunications, consumer goods businesses and financial services.
It was a tough journey here. A few years before this venture, the long hours almost cost her her life.
“Sometimes, we can overlook ourselves. I focused a lot on what was going on at the time. My father had passed away, we were finalizing the closing of Shanduka and I had a lot of stress. I remember I was in a board meeting and I had a massive headache. I took it that maybe if I went shopping, the headache would go away but instead I collapsed in a shopping center in London…”
She felt better, returned to South Africa and collapsed again on her way to a meeting. She lost her short-term memory at the time and struggled for a long time.
“Fortunately, I had a great neurologist who I don’t see any more, thankfully.”
She had to redesign her life.
“It’s about looking after our health and managing stress. My schedule has changed significantly. I don’t manage as many things at the same time and I don’t put as much pressure on myself because I realize you can die young,” says Mahanyele.
One of the things she still does though is mentoring young people. One of her lucky mentees is Emmanuel Bonoko, a public relations entrepreneur and part of the 2016 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list.
“I am blessed to have mentors like Phuti Mahanyele…She taught me that small things count a lot, she taught me to keep putting in more effort and learning from others, never to be ashamed of struggle, humility, start small, to arm myself with education and to adapt with trends,” says Bonoko, crediting Mahanyele for his success.
According to Mahanyele, mentorship is an important part of the growth of an economy. She says a lot of young people lack confidence.
“It’s something I often see missing in young people. Just having the confidence to approach someone that you don’t know and try to build a relationship towards something you want to achieve,” she says.
With all the work, there has been recognition too.
In 2007, she was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. The Wall Street Journal counted her among the Top 50 Women in the World to watch in 2008. In 2011, Forbes named her one of the 20 youngest power women in Africa, and in 2014, she was named FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Business Woman of the Year.
It’s clear that this bright star is still adding to her net worth, rising, inspiring and disrupting business.
The Futurist In Education
Equally adamant about disruption is Stacey Brewer, swimming with the big fish in South Africa’s booming education sector.
According to Berkery Noyes, an independent mid-market investment bank in the US, in 2015, there were 415 mergers and acquisitions in the education industry valued at a whopping $17.75 billion.
In Africa too, there has been a spike in demand for quality.
Caerus Capital LLC, an investment and advisory firm that focuses on healthcare and education businesses in emerging markets, says 25 million children are expected to join private institutions in the next five years. In its Business of Education in Africa report, it predicts that one in four children will be enrolled in private schools by 2021. If this prediction is true, it means investors could pocket between $16 billion to $18 billion over the next five years.
Those with money – and ideas – are taking advantage of the opportunity.
In South Africa, last year, the country’s first education impact fund, Schools Investment Fund, announced an investment of nearly R200 million ($15 million) to build four new schools.
Although she wasn’t inspired by the high-profit margins, through her venture, SPARKS Schools, Brewer is making her mark. She is an unlikely candidate for education entrepreneurship but like Mahanyele, she relentlessly pushes for success.
“I think my first word was ‘no’. I don’t like rules and regulations, so I’m naturally a person who loves to create her own space… I really like to figure things out and especially when people say it’s impossible to do, it makes me want to do it even more,” says Brewer.
Also similar to Mahanyele, her life changed while she was doing her MBA.
“I was actually shocked; I didn’t even realize the state of education is so bad in the country. The professor was showing us how much we spend on education and the fact that we prioritize education but we are ranked at the bottom of the world. I just thought that it’s completely unacceptable and it just makes no sense and that’s when I did my thesis on it,” she says.
Armed with research, a co-founder, Ryan Harrison, who understands technology, and people who believed in her, in 2011, she took a bold move and founded SPARKS Schools to help improve the state of education in South Africa.
“I literally spoke to everyone I met about my idea and asked for referrals. If I hadn’t done an MBA, I don’t even think I would’ve had the idea, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage and support to go out and launch by any means…I honestly don’t believe in the fact that someone else could steal your idea if you share too much. I mean most ideas are out there anyway and the difference between that is actually the execution process and the passion and believing in it completely because that’s the only thing that keeps you going when times are tough,” she says.
She finally received R60,000 ($4,500) in seed capital to travel overseas to explore the idea.
“We took a lot of inspiration from the US so we had to go see if it was viable. We looked at Rocketship, a school in the US which pioneered blended learning there. We went there to see if it’s possible to take inspiration that would work in South Africa.”
Brewer was impressed.
“The results the kids were achieving were unbelievable. They were competing against affluent schools in the area, they were working with second language English speakers, they were working with families from a complete mixture of backgrounds, and a lot of them were from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet they were competing with affluent schools. It was very impressive in terms of what was possible and from there, we said we absolutely can do it and then two of their staff members came to join us,” she says.
It wasn’t going to be easy. They needed to raise R4.5 million ($340,000) to start a school. They tried to raise funds but doors were being shut everywhere they went.
It was dark times because they had no track-record. All they had was a dream to open a network of schools which would disrupt South Africa’s education economy.
“You lose confidence at some point because you’re not sure if it’s ever going to kick-off. But luckily, Ryan and I could pick each other up when one was down and times were tough. We had to find another way, as we really had nothing to lose. If it didn’t get off the ground then it didn’t, and we would have to find a job in that case.”
Luckily, through a contact at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), where she did her MBA, they got a lucky break.
“The entire experience was really tough. It was only when the first person said yes, and put in money that we felt better. At first, we were like ‘are you sure?’ It came as a surprise because everyone else was just saying ‘no’.”
It was a start to a multi-million dollar company. Their initial investor introduced them to a group of other people who also invested.
They opened the first school in a house in Randburg. It had six big rooms, a kitchen, lounge and a pool. They used a lot of PR to get publicity and build credibility.
“We recruited our first family while seated in a coffee shop. I take my hat off for families who started with us because it is high risk,” says Brewer.
Their model of education won many parents over. The vision was to build a network of schools that offer better education at the same price as government. Here, they mixed traditional classroom learning with computer learning.
This kind of teaching was a hit. They enrolled 160 children within the first year. They then opened another school in Cresta, also in Johannesburg.
“We opened it up in 2014, but we had originally planned to open it up in 2015. We then realized that the model was working, the demand was high and we went for it. In fact, by 2015, we had four schools in total.”
Today, there are 15 SPARKS schools around the country. Brewer plans to open another six next year, including their first high school.
“Our high school model is going to be different. We haven’t formally announced the model yet but we will offer a whole lot of different subjects…It’s going to be an evolution,” she says.
The way they teach has already evolved. The school has two blended learning modules. In the foundation phase, which is Grade R to 3, they have lab rotation and Grade 4 to 7 is the flex model where the high-level children get introduced to a concept in the classroom, and then they leave the classroom and go to the lab where they get to interact with the data software to allow for extended reinforcement of what happened in the classroom. Right from Grade R, the children are rotating like in a high school and go to their special subject teachers for particular subjects.
“In our flex model, each child is on a different rotation, moving from different modalities of learning from online, to group work, to getting into practice, to direct instruction with the teacher. In the lab rotation for the foundation phase, there’s actual software that the kids use for a maths program and a literacy program. It’s all about mastering, as they will go on the different levels. We have no text books and it’s all about doing different projects.”
Here, teachers go through extensive training to be able to handle this type of system.
“It gets tough for other teachers who have experience from other traditional schools. It takes about six months for them to fully get used to the teaching system. It’s just so different from the other schools,” says Brewer.
Although aligned with the national program, Brewer says their learners should be way ahead, as they are constantly benchmarking international standards.
“What I love about this model in particular, is that its personalized learning. It doesn’t matter when the learners come to us; we are able to get them up to speed…We don’t screen any of our children, it’s a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning any child from any community can achieve and grow…An example would be that in the country you’re only expected to know how to read when you are in Grade 2, whereas our learners can do that in Grade 1.”
SPARKS Schools have over 7,000 children and they employ over 750 staff. She is now focusing on growing the school network with hopes to double the number of schools they currently have in the next five years.
“When I did my MBA at GIBS, I was always worried because people see entrepreneurs as calculated and that they only worry about making money. But I was like, there’s got to be another side to it, there has to be social good,” she says.
This success has earned Brewer much praise. Many call her an innovator.
“I don’t necessarily think of myself as an innovator, but it’s something we definitely want to do as an organization, to completely disrupt the education sector and not just locally, but internationally as well. We deliver education on a high note and get our kids ready for what the future may hold,” she says.
Although Brewer grew up watching her father build businesses, she says she never ever thought she would end up becoming an entrepreneur.
“Even now, I’m still not sure if I am an entrepreneur. It’s just so funny – it’s just this title. I’ve always been someone who wants to create change and I don’t wait on other people. If social entrepreneurship is about someone who is adamant to create a social change, and move the human race, then I’m absolutely that person.”
According to Brewer, success doesn’t mean the end of fear. She says, even after opening the school, she was paranoid that something might go wrong or things would fall apart. Even today, she says worries about absolutely everything.
“Now I have just built up a huge amount of resilience over time. I don’t take things as personally as I used to,” she says.
One thing she is afraid of though is the future of education in Africa. According to Brewer, Africa’s classrooms, as we know them, are changing. She says the classroom of the future will be ushered in by high demand for futurist classrooms such as what they offer at SPARKS Schools.
In the words of poet W B Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Brewer is just the spark that was needed in the dark.
The Tall Lawyer, Investor And Philanthropist In A Power Suit
Aluko & Oyebode, Nigeria’s formidable commercial law firm, at No.1 Murtala Mohammed Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, is unusually empty for a Saturday.
It gives one enough time to admire its plush interiors. Describing it would be taking a page out of a John Grisham novel.
The imposing building houses three floors of prime real estate in the heart of the city and on one of the most expensive strips in Lagos.
As you walk in, the blood-red walls are juxtaposed with grey metallic fixtures and fittings. The décor of the building is reminiscent of past cultures of various African countries.
Each floor is delightfully curated with Afro-centric artefacts and in the middle floor of the building is the firm’s seat of power, the office of its leader, Gbenga Oyebode.
For a sweltering Nigerian afternoon, Oyebode is dressed like no other in a 100-mile radius of the elite Victoria Island hub of Lagos: in a two-piece power suit, his signature outfit. Today, it is in black, accented by a deep blue tie.
Oyebode is cordial and pleasant with the team as he takes his position on the ground floor for the first set of pictures for the FORBES AFRICA cover.
He is the Chairman of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients. In his capacity as chairman, Oyebode coordinates the various practice areas of the firm.
Described as a consummate dealmaker who has received plaudits from clients and peers alike for his corporate acumen, Oyebode’s areas of expertise cover energy and natural resources, power projects, foreign investment and privatization, telecommunications and project finance.
It is not just his formal dressing that is unusual.
Law firms in the country, family-owned by tradition, almost never run their firms like well-oiled machines providing solutions for several sectors at the same time. Oyebode was one of the pioneers of this concept. And it has not been an easy journey.
“It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,”
The 59-year-old spent the early years of his life musing over the promises of life in the civil service, a path taken by his father. It was a stable and comfortable job and one had guaranteed employment as well as a good salary. But he was compelled to ponder the possibilities of a riskier career.
“In those days, being a civil servant was the dream of every young person due to the stability of the job. However, as I started reading law, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and for a lawyer that means opening a law firm,” says Oyebode as he takes a break from the photoshoot to begin our interview.
And that is exactly what he did. But not just any law firm, he wanted to leave behind a dynasty of great lawyers whose work would carry on long after he was gone.
If he had worked for any Nigerian law firm, his future would not have been guaranteed.
“The history of Nigerian law firms in the early 80s and some of them today was that they were set up by great minds essentially to be kept in the family. Their children went to law school and even if you were a great lawyer who worked with them, they make it very clear that you shouldn’t be thinking about your future at the law firm, because they were going to hand over the business to their children. So I understood that it was not going to work for me,” says Oyebode.
At well over six feet, Oyebode has a towering presence in any room, yet his calm and cordial disposition immediately sets you at ease and makes you feel as though you are having a conversation with an old friend.
Sitting in the conference room of his eponymous firm, Oyebode recalls a series of events that shaped the course of his career.
Like the time he was going to university and struggled to get guidance from mentors who would have advised him on the best path to take to become a successful legal entrepreneur.
The prominent Nigerian lawyers at the time were not strictly lawyers who worked at the firm but were mostly also involved in other professions.
According to Oyebode, the earliest nationalists of Nigerian politics were all lawyers, who used the law that they had learned abroad to change the system in Nigeria to gain independence and push the envelope against colonialism.
That would later become the real motivation for Oyebode to become a lawyer. For him, the ability to use law to change the political system with democracy or creating value was a calling he wanted to be a part of.
After graduating from the University of Ife in 1979, he immediately went to the Nigerian Law School and thereafter, completed his postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the United States (US).
“What UPenn did for me was show me that there was a different way to do things and that the world was bigger than the opportunities I had in Nigeria. One of the most significant things about going to an Ivy League institution is how they draw from great minds around. So we went to conferences where great minds in the capital markets were and it was a game-changer. It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,” recalls Oyebode.
His journey is a textbook case study on how to systematically build a business step by step. He eschews convention. From the minute he finished primary school, his father signed up to a subscription of Reader’s Digest that was to become his monthly diet.
“He thought that it was important for us to read. He said it was important for us to understand what happened around the world. So one of the things that I do continually even today is I read the Reader’s Digest every month. It shaped my view of the world and created for me a situation where I learned more about the things that were happening around me and I was not limited to Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
His tenure as an associate at White & Case, one of the world’s leading law firms, helped him visualize the type of law firm he wanted to build of his own.
“American law firms were the type of law firms I thought we could replicate in Nigeria. Their vision for building big partnerships and for those partnerships to survive named partners was impressive. So it was very clear where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I worked with White & Case for a year and I said to myself it was time to come back home,” says Oyebode.
Home had changed a whole lot while he was away. Nigeria had returned to democracy after years of military rule. The business environment was growing and there was a need for competent people to push the envelope and help with the development of law and business.
Furthermore, there were less than 10,000 lawyers admitted to practice law and Oyebode decided he would rather be one of 10,000 in Nigeria than one of a million in the US.
Soon after making that decision, disaster struck. No sooner had he returned to Nigeria did the crude oil market collapse and the Nigerian economy took a dip for the worse. The democratic government that had motivated Oyebode to come back was very quickly removed in a coup d’état in 1983.
“Before we knew it, the [Muhammadu] Buhari government was in power. To make matters worse, the naira had collapsed and the country was looking at a structural adjustment program with the World Bank. So contrary to my plans, things changed very quickly. I couldn’t go back to the US and I had to make do with things in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
But where there are clouds, there is also a silver lining. Oyebode chose to keep faith and stick it out. He applied to work for the Gulf Oil Company, which later merged with Chevron, and spent two years learning about the oil and gas industry.
“That was very instructive because it gave me an opportunity to work in an industry, which was Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner. I essentially cut my teeth working in Nigeria’s oil industry. I saw through the merger of Gulf and Chevron and then decided it was time to go out and do my own thing.”
In 1985, Oyebode went into partnership with friends and started his first law firm
Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko. After eight years of success, the firm was dissolved due to internal challenges. The string of such incidents, be it the country’s economic downturn or disagreements with partners, have all contributed to the success story Oyebode is today.
“What is impressive about Oyebode is his calmness and composure in times of crisis. He has the ability to look beyond that problem and says ‘how do we move on from this and get to the solution’,” says Tunde Folawiyo, Managing Director of Yinka Folawiyo Group in Nigeria.
That steadfastness has been an invaluable trait for Oyebode over the years.
He went on to establish Aluko & Oyebode with his other partner. Perpetual wins translated into mammoth personal gains for the legal mastermind.
Oyebode’s is also the story of a smart entrepreneur who, spurred by the increase in the proliferation of Western companies in Nigeria, spotted an opportunity in corporate law and has methodically worked to cash in on it.
He is currently advising on the Brass LNG Project, a joint venture between NNPC, TOTAL, Conoco Philips and Agip for the construction of a $3.5 billion Liquefied Natural Gas plant. He has also advised on key transactions like the $1.275 billion financing of the Exxon Mobil Natural Gas Liquid II Project, the $1.06 billion financing of trains four and five of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Expansion Project and the $3.5 billion financing of the NNPC and Mobil Producing Unlimited Satellite Oil Field Project. He sits on the boards of MTN Nigeria, Nestle Nigeria and CFAO, among many others.
“Corporate law was something I was good at. It’s something that is dependent on your network and it is something that comes naturally to me. At White & Case and at Gulf Oil, that was my forte. I had invested a significant amount of my time around that so I was able to very quickly develop as a good oil and gas lawyer,” says Oyebode.
His wife, Aisha, attests to this. “What I admire most about Gbenga is he is very kind and warm and he is a people’s person. I do not know anybody that doesn’t like Gbenga.”
It was what Oyebode did next that distinguished him from his peers.
“One of the people that I studied a lot was Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. He ran the biggest law firms in town and was a lawyer who represented all the multinationals and was a lawyer who got involved in the businesses he represented. So when I came back [to Nigeria], I saw his model as one that I could emulate. I saw that he was able to achieve his objective, which was essentially run a significant law firm and become the advisor of the biggest corporates in the market as well as the repository of knowledge of what it means to work in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
And that was to become Oyebode’s operating style over the next two decades. His modus operandi was simple.
Find opportunities, which he could maximize, and provide professional services and legal advice to top-tier corporate clients and where there was an opportunity, take a chunk of the business.
“One of the things as an entrepreneur that you tend to look at is opportunities around you, so long as those opportunities don’t divert your from your chosen path. If you ask me what I want to be known as, I would say a lawyer first, then an investor,” he says.
Oyebode sits on boards of companies that he has invested in as well as boards that he has been invited to join due to his significant expertise in corporate Nigeria.
The last two decades have seen a veritable boom in the business. For Oyebode, the key is passion for what you do.
“I am driven to build a big firm. We have 85 associates in three offices. There are 16 partners in the firm across the different practice areas that you expect a full service law firm to have, from legislation to corporate law to intellectual property, to risk and governance. So these are all key sectors that are sectors for growth of the Nigerian economy. The rationale is building a legacy that is driven by return,” says Oyebode.
Ever the opportunist, Oyebode is also looking to capitalize on the growth in demand of global companies looking for local partners in the real estate sector. He has a two-hotel deal with the Fairmont Group to establish hotels in Lagos and Abuja. Given the size in the number of tourists and business people in the country, Oyebode believes there is tremendous growth opportunities in this sector.
“The view is that there is still a gap around the hospitality business in Lagos. I go to Accra and I see the Kempinski and Movenpick hotels and I know that if Accra can do it then Lagos certainly has significant scope to develop hotels. Abuja only has the Hilton.”
But it has not all been smooth sailing. No sooner had he started his second stint at a law firm that tragedy struck.
“Life is about tripping and falling and learning from mistakes, pulling your strengths and moving on. My partner, Bankole Aluko, had a mild illness and called in sick for a couple of days. I decided to pay him a visit after work and on my way there, I was told he had passed away suddenly. It was a big shock because we had built everything together and most of the lawyers that joined us did so because of our strength as a firm. I had the corporate law expertise and he was a litigation expert. I thought it was all over at the point,” says Oyebode.
It was dark times for Oyebode.
“In those days it was very difficult to get clients. They came to you because they knew you and your reputation so it was very personality-driven. Today, clients look at your brand and your track record. So losing Bankole both as a dear friend and a professional was devastating.”
He vowed to continue the legacy they had started together and leave his name on the business as a named partner, which still stands today. These days, Oyebode is more interested in giving back. He mentors the next generation and is finding ways to give back. He has also turned his attention from corporate boards to philanthropy boards and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the community.
On the issue of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) fight to retrieve Nigeria’s stolen loot, which is estimated to be billions of dollars from state coffers, Oyebode offers some practical advice.
“My concern about Nigeria is not the lack of law or policy but always about execution. I think we have a robust legal system, we have laws and policies in place and we have a strong civil service. Do people obey the law around the world? Yes, and that is because they are afraid of sanctions. So if you do not obey the law or sanctions, then you pay the price. So our problem is a lack of execution of good policy, inconsistent application of the laws and sometimes, we have allowed federal character and the process of rotating positions to trump skill and expertise so therefore mediocrity is able to rise to the very top.”
But that is an ongoing fight, which Oyebode believes will not be solved overnight. Presently, his focus is on leveraging his expertise as one of the most formidable and accomplished legal minds to add value and give back to Nigeria.
His legal firm is a victim of its own success. And this is a happy problem to have.
Herbert Wigwe, the CEO Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s top banking institutions, calls Oyebode one of the strongest legal minds, not just in Nigeria but also across the world.
“And I say this because I have a strong personal relationship with him, apart from the fact that in Nigeria, he runs the strongest corporate law office. The existence of what is a modern Access Bank would never have happened but for people like Gbenga….All of these attributes have led him to sit on most of the large corporate boards in the country…Saying Gbenga is the new face of business in Africa is not something that is far-fetched; it is something that he has proven over and over again in his career.”
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