You wouldn’t think George Sambonos is a multi-millionaire. He may drive a Porsche, but he spends his Fridays helping clear the tables in the rush of Friday lunchtime at his flagship store. Hence, two words describe him: ‘humble’ and ‘shrewd’.
The son of a Greek entrepreneur, Sambonos was born in Hillbrow, South Africa. His life has been filled with doses of luck and bucket-loads of hard work. It all began with his father’s business, started by his mother to pass the time. The Dairy Den was a franchise, from the US Dairy Queen, selling ice cream and fried chicken to customers in their cars. He worked at the Dairy Den from the age of 18 and would stay until the wee hours every day.
He uses words like “awful” and “horrible” to describe working for his Jekyll-and-Hyde father. Sambonos recalls days when he’d have to go outside and cry for five minutes in his determination not to quit. Another time, his father threw a bread knife at him for dropping a glass—the knife stuck into the skirting board. He remembers his father as a good businessman but an awful boss. Sambonos is the opposite with his daughter, Chantal. He considers himself strict but fair, believing that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
It was the benign side of Sambonos senior that threw tickets to America across the dining room table and gave the young man a chance to make a discovery that was to change his life. The condition of these trips was that he visit his aunt in Greece on the way back.
The overseas trips allowed him to soak up everything he could about the US restaurant business. Sambonos would spend his days walking from one outlet to another, trying out the food and taking photographs of the menus. He claims that he still does this, but is now more selective and secretive. When he takes a picture these days, he gets his wife to hold the menu, while he pretends to take a picture of her.
It was on one of these trips, in 1972, that Sambonos tasted the fried chicken which would change his life. He asked the business owner in Waco, Texas, to give him the recipe. He wore the owner down to making a deal but did not have the $5,000 asking price. The chicken shop owner took pity on Sambonos because he was young. Further negotiations brought the price down to $1,000—all the money he had for the rest of his trip.
Sambonos came back too afraid to tell his father what he’d done. He began mixing the spices under his bed and adding them to the chicken at his father’s roadhouse, from a recipe he hoped was right. Chicken sales grew. The Dairy Den went from taking in R25,000 a month to a staggering R200,000 a month in the course of a year: a fortune in those days.
It was a good three months before Sambonos came clean, if you can call it that. It was a visiting relative who asked Sambonos’s father what he’d done to the chicken and the old man said: “That little ‘bastard’ must have done something—I’ll kill him.” The secret recipe for the addictive chicken is safely in the hands of Robertsons Spices, and its chemist was made a director in the company to safeguard the company secret.
With business doing so well, thanks to Sambonos’s bold move, he thought it the right time to ask for a 5% profit share. This did not go down well with his father, who told him to either be happy with what he’s got or his cousin would be called in to replace him. So when the opportunity came up to sign the store’s lease in his name while his father was in Greece, Sambonos jumped at it. It was a move motivated purely to save the lease, but his father didn’t speak to him for three months and died three months after their reconciliation.
Rebranding was next. In 1981, Sambonos wanted to name the store ‘Golden Fried Chicken’, like the name of the company he’d just formed, but was turned down because the name was too descriptive. A despairing Sambonos had his head buried in his hands when one of his waiters suggested the name, Chicken Licken, from the children’s book, Chicken Little/Chicken Licken. The waiter received R300 for his idea.
The Chicken Licken signs went up and by 1982, Sambonos had taken over the business and was franchising into the townships. The first franchise was in Zola, Soweto. Sambonos admits to giving away the first franchises. By 1985, he began selling them for R3,000 and giving the franchisee R15,000 worth of equipment to get them started. A television commercial featuring a well-known black actor drove up sales in 1989 with the jingle “It’s good, good, good, it’s good, it’s nice.” Sambonos found out what his customers liked and used it to make money.
Setting up in the townships of South Africa during apartheid was another risky move by Sambonos and in 1984, things took a turn for the worse. The growing turmoil in Soweto meant that delivering chicken to the township was nearly impossible. Business suffered.
Sambonos has come a long way since then, with 245 outlets and franchisee payments of 12% of their turnover, up from the pre-2012 payments of 10%. These consist of 6% for royalty fees and 6% for the advertising share. The group is said to turn down five people a day. This is all testament to how much the brand has grown. There is an outlet set-up cost of at least R2.8 million ($354,670) and an initial franchise fee of R120,000 ($15,200). The flagship store in northern Johannesburg cost R5 million ($633,240) to set up, excluding the R500,000 ($63,330) for the generator. Unlike the 1980s, a lack of electricity is a concern these days.
Sambonos is still at the helm, ensuring stringent quality control. All the outlets receive their ingredients from the same licensed suppliers; use the same specs; are furnished with identical equipment; and have access to the trademarks.
This rigorous approach has led to problems when expanding in the continent. The company opened two stores in Mauritius, with a three-year royalty break. The country only had two chicken producers, one of which supplied Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC); they had no choice but to use the other. The outlets did well, but when the royalty break ended, so did Chicken Licken in Mauritius.
Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, had four outlets which were doing extremely well; one of them was a top performer in the entire group. That is, until the country ran out of foreign exchange to pay for ingredients.
Nigeria’s five outlets in Lagos closed down due to issues with the franchisee. According to Sambonos, the franchisee wanted to refranchise to others at a lower rate and loosen quality control.
Chicken Licken plans to invest in the rest of Africa, beyond their 12 stores in Botswana. Sambonos says this is provided they get the same quality chicken in those countries. The company is awaiting expansion into the continent by Rainbow Chicken, South Africa’s main chicken supplier. Sambonos feels that the key to success is to control the chicken and the advertising. In Nigeria, the cost of fuel to run generators has to be thought about as no business can rely on the electricity supply.
Sambonos says: “Nigeria’s only got 30 million chickens, that’s all. The big producer is the former president and he won’t let you import chicken, so you’re finished.”
As if going into the rest of Africa is not hard enough, Chicken Licken has had to battle the image of being a township brand in its attempt to enter wealthier malls. There is an apparent fear that the outlets will bring in the wrong element of people.
Sambonos was annoyed when O.R. Tambo International offered to slot them in the back. He believes his brand will win over the sceptics.
The company’s annual turnover is close to R1.4 billion ($177.4 million) and is powering its way towards its R2 billion ($253.5 million) target for 2014. Sambonos says that the company reaching R3 billion ($380.2 million) by 2017 will be his cue to step down from handling the suppliers and the advertising. “They can’t mess it up after that,” he chuckles.
The 2012 budget is R64 million ($8.1 million) for advertising and Sambonos oversees the ideas right down to attending the photo shoot.
The group is also a firm believer in taking care of its employees. Every three months, the best performing manager receives a R6,000 ($760) to R12,000 ($1,520) bonus and the rest of the outlet, about R600 ($75) each.
Sambonos says: “If the manager is right, then the rest of the outlet is right.”
Kind to his employees, but merciless to his competitors, Sambonos has seen his fair share of battles, or caused them, as some might say.
The first legal battle, in 1982 with KFC, was over the name. Sambonos opened up an outlet in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, not far from a KFC. The new store took half of KFC’s business in just two weeks. The battle lines were drawn.
KFC claimed Chicken Licken’s name was too close to their ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ slogan. Sambonos says the trademark lawyers told him he could change the name or fight in court. He chose the fight, dropping off the R10,000 legal fees in a Chicken Licken plastic bag that ended up in the office fridge. Chicken Licken won both the case and the appeal. The proud Sambonos says KFC offered him R250,000 to change the name, a sum he clearly refused, adding a sly: “Harry Swartz (of KFC) said, ‘Hell or high water, I’ll see you in Bloemfontein [High Court]’.” They never made it there.
The second battle was born of Sambonos’s usual trips to the US in the early 1980s. Walking down 6th Avenue in New York, he saw a KFC banner advertising KFC’s popcorn chicken. Loving the idea, he called his lawyer to put in an application with the South African registrar. A while later, back home, he saw a KFC advert for KFC Pops in the paper and did some digging into how this was even possible.
Apparently, his paperwork was not pushed through due to clerical forgetfulness. Sambonos demanded due diligence as he had placed his application first. The matter was settled at the registrar; KFC lost again.
By the time the hotwings saga began in 1992, Sambonos was already a thorn in KFC’s side. KFC held a convention in Swaziland for its franchisees, who were served fried hotwings. A friend’s phone call prompted Sambonos to call up his lawyer and say: “Hotwings! See if we can grab the name quickly.” The lawyer found out that a company called County Fair owned the name in South Africa, but had failed to use it. Sambonos’s lawyer offered them R750 ($300 at the then exchange rate) for the name, pointing out that their ownership could easily be expunged and they’d get nothing from it. The lawyer signed a check on the spot.
Sambonos describes how he quietly went to Rainbow Chicken and asked them to supply him with his wings, even drawing a diagram as to where they should be cut. In the meantime, the creative entrepreneur would buy normal chicken wings and cut them himself. He sold them at one outlet—six ‘hotwings’ and chips for R2.95 ($1 at the then exchange rate)—and had the manager keep all the receipts just so they could use the name for the minimum required period. This paid off because KFC decided to start selling the hotwings its sister company in the US had introduced, only to be informed by Rainbow Chicken that Chicken Licken had beaten them to the order and would use the same name.
Since the name legally belonged to Chicken Licken, KFC offered Sambonos about R85,000 ($29,460 at the time) for it. “No deal,” said the man who had already paid R750.
According to Sambonos, his company sells an average of 12,000 cases of hotwings a week and is now importing XL wings to keep up with the growing demand. The original ‘six hotwings and chips’ meal now costs R21.95 ($3).
Sambonos attributes his business savvy to his constant need for something new. He still reads trade journals every week and travels as much as he can. He says that the US isn’t as secretive as the South African market. There, when a company creates something new, they test it and it becomes common knowledge.
Sambonos says: “If somebody has got something good and you’re not going to go to jail for it, use it.”
Wise words from the humble millionaire who owns the trademark “Soul” in the food category, and probably has his eye on a few more words.
The Maverick In Tech
The founder of some of Nigeria’s best-known startups on the mistakes and the millions that made him click in the technology business.
Sometimes, the simplest business ideas can come from strange places, or even strangers.
In his first year studying law at Waterloo University in Canada, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji was approached by a stranger who asked to stay in his house.
“I was like ‘I don’t know you, you have long hair and you are white; I don’t know about this’, but I said, ‘ok cool’, and he stayed over and we became good friends.”
About a year later, Pierre, the friend, decided to head to Silicon Valley for his cooperative education term.
“He told me about this amazing world of Silicon Valley, tech and investments, and I was sold. A few months later, we decided to start our own tech company called bookneto.com,” says Aboyeji.
It was a platform that enabled students to download past examination questions and work with a team of people at the school to help answer them.
The company did decently for three years until it got sued by the university, but at least that marked a turning point in Aboyeji’s entrepreneurial life.
It turned out that the intellectual property for past examination questions belonged to the professors at Waterloo University, a fact that was “unknown” to the pair of entrepreneurs and they were found “guilty of piracy”. The venture was eventually sold to a professor who wanted to teach students not enrolled on campus, for a small fee.
“We had it for three years, and by this time, I had graduated and looking for a new adventure and I was pretty sure I did not want to run another business in Canada, so I had started looking at other markets and Africa was a big one for me, Nigeria in particular,” says Aboyeji.
After graduating, he returned to Nigeria in 2013.
His proclivity for identifying opportunities inducted him into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The dominant players at the time were Coursera and Udacity.
According to a report by Component, globally, the MOOCs market is estimated to hit $20.8 billion by 2023. Aboyeji wanted in. He set up a company in Abuja called Fora.com focused on incorporating MOOCs into the university environment especially for courses that were relevant but not provided by Nigerian universities due to a lack of quality resources.
“I was very naïve. I imagined that it would be a breeze to build that business and learned the hard way that anything regulated doesn’t operate rationally. So, the regulators didn’t give me any approvals and universities were skeptical and didn’t want to be laid off so it didn’t work out. We ended up pivoting that business and ended up selling online MBAs instead. Our typical clients were young bank managers who wanted to get an MBA or advanced degree courses to improve their chances of being promoted,” says Aboyeji.
The firm began to gain some traction. People were paying for the application courses and Aboyeji decided to pilot a loan program where financial institutions would offer loans to students.
“So, we were making money but it wasn’t popping off. I went to New York with the team because we had just gotten some new funding and we had to meet the new investors. I had met a guy named Jeremy Johnson when he was in Nigeria earlier so I pinged him and told him what we wanted to do. I wanted to learn from his experiences. He agreed to meet for coffee in New York.”
During their meeting, Johnson expressed his idea about a new form of education geared towards skills rather than degrees. Aboyeji also talked about unemployment in Nigeria and how that represented a massive opportunity.
It was a match made in heaven.
“One of the things he told me was that he could not find a sales force engineer for $150,000 in New York. They just didn’t exist so I said, ‘man, I can train you sales force engineers’. And he said ‘if you decide you are going to pivot, what you are doing or adding to it… I would fund you and I will be chairman and we can do this together’. So, I said ‘someone is going to fund you to do a new business, why not’.”
Aboyeji had just stumbled on a new gold mine and Andela was born. He started with one person and began teaching him how to code. He repurposed the team from Fora into coding masters, bid masters and operational staff, and shifted the focus of Fora because they had the flexibility to do it.
“I don’t think at the time we had any idea how big what we were doing was. We did the first one, it was semi-successful, we trained the next four, which was really good. We put out a job description saying no experience required, we will pay you to learn how to program and we had over 700 applicants off Twitter and we knew we had something.”
They whittled down to about four or five people that completed that program. To find work for his new coders, Aboyeji used Upwork, the popular freelance jobsite, to bid for jobs.
“We didn’t know anybody, so we bid for jobs, executed it and before we knew it, we had about 150 people in the room. That was how the transition happened from Fora to Andela,” says Aboyeji.
The company has since gone on to raise $180 million in venture funding from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and other notable investors from Silicon Valley. Aboyeji left the company after three years in search of his next adventure but is still a major shareholder in Andela.
That voyage led him to co-found Flutterwave, an integrated payments platform for Africans to make and accept any payment, anywhere from across Africa and around the world. Under his watch, the company processed 100 million transactions worth $2.5 billion.
Turning his eyes firmly on future opportunities has led Aboyeji to set up his own family office called Street Capital, with a focus on identifying passionate and experienced missionary entrepreneurs with the integrity and courage to flawlessly execute in Africa.
With a solid track-record of unearthing diamonds in the rough, Aboyeji hopes to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs to achieve their fullest potential and help build some of Africa’s fastest-growing and most-impactful tech businesses.
The Movie Buff With A Happy Ending In Business
Kene Okwuosa continues to make profit selling the immersive cinema experience across movie halls in Nigeria.
If trailers of Simon Kinberg’s upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix have whetted your appetite for more action-packed cinema, you could take your pick from the likes of Hobbs & Shaw, John Wick 3: Parabellum or Avengers: End game. But as any film buff would tell you, watching these adrenaline rushes on DVD or TV is no match for a full-throttle cinema experience.
Kene Okwuosa is bullish about letting Nigeria’s 190 million population experience the thrilling excitement of the celluloid world. Using the theater to extract a sizeable profit from the Nigerian culture of socializing and communal engagement, his Filmhouse Cinemas has grown from just three screens to multiple locations across the country.
As part of the company’s strategic expansion plans, Okwuosa signed a pioneer deal to bring IMAX, the world’s most immersive cinematic experience, to West Africa in 2016. In doing so, Filmhouse has flipped a switch not just to beat competition from other local cinema chains, but also become one of the fastest-growing IMAX businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
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Quite a feat considering Okwuosa’s first stint at the cinema business did not have a happy ending.
The year was 2008 and Okwuosa and his partner at the time, also named Kene, were desperately looking for greener pastures beyond the borders of the United Kingdom (UK), where they were both employed as assistant general manager and general manager respectively at Odeon Cinemas.
“I had a conversation with Kene on the first of December 2008 and he was saying there is an opportunity with a friend of his who was an investor in Nigeria and we could go back, set up a company and create a great product in Nigeria. I resigned from my job on the second of December, I saw my family on the third of December and I caught a flight on the fourth of December after not being back in Nigeria for 11 years,” says Okwuosa.
And their voyage back home was favored by lady luck. A South African company at the time was exiting the Nigerian market and their assets were up for grabs. With the help of their investor, the pair bought up the assets and just like that, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas was born. It was a magical moment in the lives of the newly-minted entrepreneurs.
With three chains of Genesis Cinemas under their belt, the pair were ready to reap the profits of their entrepreneurial pursuits until everything went belly up.
“A year later, that deal went so bad we had to exit. Myself and Kene exited the company to our dismay. The private investor owned most of the business and there were issues between the investor and my partner relating to a slight misalignment of the company. We were torn between either staying in Lagos or going back to the UK. We decided to stay and tug it out,” says Okwuosa.
The pair had to downsize from the guest house they were staying in to a smaller flat and survived on noodles, while they hatched their next plan. They turned their living room into an office and went back to the drawing board.
Okwuosa believed there was still a market in the cinema theater business and he was not wrong. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Nigerian film industry is globally recognized as the second-largest film producer in the world. Total cinema revenue is set to reach $22 million in 2021, rising at 8.6% CAGR over the forecast period.
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The cinema industry is one of the priority sectors identified in the economic recovery growth plan of the federal government of Nigeria with a planned $1 billion in export revenue by 2020. Furthermore, the National Film and Video Censors Board estimates the Nigerian movie industry needs at least 774 cinemas across the country for it to tackle the menace of piracy.
“So, for two years, I was literally waking up and going to every single office trying to pitch and raise money. We didn’t know anybody and we are not sons of rich men, we had already failed with Genesis, we had no assets or collateral. We were literally telling people we were going to modernize Nigeria’s entertainment scene and everybody was looking at us like we were crazy.”
In 2009, the Intervention Funds, created by then president Goodluck Jonathan to boost the Nigerian creative industry, would prove to be the lifeline Okwuosa and his partner so badly needed.
“I am proud to say we were the very first to access that fund in 2012, which was about N200 million at the time which, when you look back is not that much but considering the exchange rate, it was over $1 million. It was enough to help us kickstart Filmhouse. We had nothing, so that particular facility was largely uncollateralized,” says Okwuosa.
The fund took a bet on Okuwosa and his partner and it paid off. The loan was used to open their first three-screen cinema in Surulere, Lagos.
“It had a slow start but ultimately grew to be one of the biggest locations in the country and that organic growth led us to open two more cinemas prior to our second round of investors, which was private equity money from African Capital Alliance.”
The investment helped Okwuosa to scale to 10 operational locations across six states. The original vision when Okwuosa started Filmhouse was to be the biggest and best cinema and create an amazing space where people could escape into a different world.
Two years after, the company set up the production and distribution part of the business.
Filmhouse now represents about 50% of tickets sold in Nigerian cinemas, according to Okwuosa. With just a dream to conquer the Nigerian market, today, Filmhouse has a vision to become a media entertainment company.
In addition to IMAX, the company represents other international brands like Warner Bros and Lionsgate. With the institutional investment, Okwuosa has strengthened his core team, which no longer includes his former partner, as well as providing the company the impetus to scale with the right mind and right trajectory.
With a GDP of $375 billion making the Nigerian economy the 30th largest economy in the world, Okwuosa believes there is still a big chunk of money to be made from the entertainment and media space.
“I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of this industry and we want to position ourselves at the forefront of Nigerian entertainment.”
Advances In Nigeria’s ‘Burglar Watch’ Industry
The escalating safety and security issues in Nigeria raised the alarm for this innovative entrepreneur.
Today, organizations not only face escalating risks but also the certitude that they will face a security breach at any time, if proper precautions are not taken. Such was the case for Paul Ajibulu when his office premises were ransacked by thugs in Adeola Odeku, Victoria Island, Lagos.
“We had just got our office fully furnished with MacBook computers and the whole works. When we came in the next day, we found the locks broken and all the office equipment had been looted. I lost about $20,000 in all that day and that set our business back for a couple of months,” says Ajibulu.
To solve his problems, he reached out to Extreme Mutual Technique, an automated digital systems solution and renewable energy service provider.
The company says it boasts top-tier clients such as MTN, the Embassy of Sierra Leone, South African Breweries, and Africa Finance Corporation, amongst many others.
Akpobome Ojoboh, its founder and Managing Director, is adamant his systems are a must-have for every organization in Nigeria.
“We initially started the business called Extreme Surveillance Systems limited. Coming from my previous background, we decided to focus on CCTV and digital security. Considering the fact that Nigeria was being terrorized by security mishaps, we decided to [resolve] that,” says Ojoboh.
Safety and security have never been discussed in Nigeria as they are now. Threats are from everywhere, and at all places. Routine security checking at offices and shopping mall entrances has become the norm.
The idea of preventing crime is an appealing twist in today’s times and although it’s comforting for many to imagine a competent police officer monitoring every camera in Lagos, the question remains whether CCTV systems really do prevent crimes from happening or do they merely help in nabbing a criminal once a crime has occurred.
In a city like Lagos where you have constant disruptions to power, the long-term success of these systems presented significant hurdles for Ojoboh in the early days.
“There are so many limitations to digital security vis-à-vis the lack of a proper database that even when you have [identified] the culprits, you cannot find them. Furthermore, there were limitations to how people took ownership of their equipment because there was [often] no power. So, you put a system and people say ‘what if there is no power’?”
To combat these challenges, Ojoboh decided to provide another solution, by moving into the world of inverters.
“Then again, these inverters run down when there is no power to charge them so we went into renewable energy called solar to back up our inverters and digital solutions. That is when we changed the business to Extreme Mutual Technique Limited,” says Ojoboh.
Security is one of the largest businesses in the world, according to Ojoboh.
He has seen an increase in more families opting for peace of mind by having big brother watching over their loved ones whenever they cannot be with them.
“When I first became a mum, I would always worry incessantly about my daughter left alone at home with my nanny. Then, we started noticing strange marks on my daughter and I had heard about people mistreating children they cared for but I never thought it would happen to me. I reached out to a security company to install a camera in the house and lo and behold, I saw the nanny hitting my daughter. My whole world crumbled,” says Rebecca Gyan, a grocery store owner in Accra.
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“You have to be prepared because if you are not, then you almost cannot stop any security breach. It helps you to know some proactive measures to protect yourself. If you have a CCTV system and you notice there is a particular group of people visiting your building, you will be able to notice and react,” says Ojoboh.
As organizations become familiar with probable threats and vulnerabilities, they will be able to establish both preventive measures and responsive systems, to decrease the likelihood of intruders and attacks.
Since starting out in 2007, Ojoboh has grown the team to a 40-member business spread across Lagos and Abuja. The company has also moved into IT and engineering services in the areas of energy infrastructure, home automation, fire safety and digital security solutions.
With power still an issue in Nigeria, Ojoboh sees the future of his business in the area of renewable energy to power his systems to provide that all-important peace of mind to his clients.
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