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The Last Coal Tycoon

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The masseuse felt the broken bones and the scars and asked Chris Cline what he did for a living. Cline said he was in the energy business. What kind of energy?, she wondered. Maybe solar panels or windmills? No, not that, he said. You’re not a fracker, are you? No, not that either. Then what? “I own coal mines,” said Cline. Without a word she stopped working on him and left the room. He waited a while, but she didn’t return. Cline won’t name the resort (“I might want to go back there”). And the scars? From his years underground in Appalachian mines, where the coal seams have been worked so thin it’s like “crawling under a table all day.” Cuts on his back from a mine’s ceiling “felt like insect bites.”

Cline, 59, is one of the most archaic and unpopular specimens of capitalist: the coal tycoon. He doesn’t mind people not liking him. He knows that coal fuels 40% of the world’s power needs. “People deserve the cheapest energy they can get,” he says. “Tell the poor in India and China that they don’t deserve to have reliable, affordable electricity.”

Coal is far from dead. Global demand has dipped because of America’s shale-gas boom and tighter regulations in China, yet it remains 50% above its level in 2000, at 7.2 billion tons per year, according to the International Energy Agency. Even factoring in a carbon tax of $30 per ton, coal can compete on price with natural gas and renewables. And Chris Cline, relying on operating efficiencies that he has honed over nearly 40 years of running his own mines, intends to be the last man standing in the industry, supplying low-cost coal from Canada to energy-hungry consumers around the world.

Cline thinks the carbon crusade is folly: “I’m all for getting sulfur and mercury and nitrogen oxide out of the air – that’s common sense,” but ultimately, he posits, “global cooling” will be a bigger threat. “I believe in our children’s lifetimes that they’ll wish they had paid us per ton to put more CO2 in the air.” (It’s easy to forget that, as recently as the 1970s, fear of a coming ice age was part of the mainstream climate conversation.) Which is why he has no qualms about having built his $2 billion fortune with a series of all-in bets that have taken him from Appalachia to Illinois and now to Canada. He created one of America’s biggest publicly traded coal miners, Foresight Energy, and two years ago sold most of his interest for nearly $1.4 billion. He’s since sunk $150 million into a new mine in Nova Scotia that may produce 500 million tons of high-dollar metallurgical coal by mid-century. And he has permits to develop 1.7 billion tons more at the Vista mine in western Canada.

“If you had any idea where I started,” Cline says wistfully. Trim, powerfully built, 5-foot-11, he speaks in a quiet growl from the back of his throat, as if accustomed to keeping his thoughts to himself. Cline’s father, Paul, was a contract miner in Beckley, West Virginia; he operated rich men’s mines in exchange for a cut of what his team pulled up. When Cline was 6, his dad paid him a penny for each little bag he filled with dirt, which would be used to pack explosives into coal seams. When their front porch collapsed, it became clear young Chris had been excavating dirt from under the house. “It taught me the importance of engineering roof supports,” he says. He first went to work underground at age 15; the miners would hide him when inspectors came. Growing up, did Cline consider himself poor? “How much more poor can you get?”

Cline’s first, battered hard hat sits above the fireplace in his mansion in Beckley. He created a lake here by damming up the hollow; it’s big enough for waterskiing and features a 400-foot waterslide. There’s also a go-kart track and a pasture, where 150-pound Italian sheepdogs keep tabs on livestock – including Fabio, a white stallion that stands at stud in a luxurious stable. Cline has four kids, now grown. His first wife died of cancer; he’s divorced from his second. For four years he dated Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, Elin Nordegren.

Cline’s gun vault holds more than 50 firearms, including a Magnum .44 and a Gatling gun. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms comes out once a month to take inventory. A few years back, Cline was the subject of an extortion attempt that threatened his children. “Let ’em come,” he says with a grin. Today he’s armed with a sheaf of papers. There are architectural renderings for his island in the Bahamas and photocopies of old pics. A black-and-white shot shows a young Cline outside the little house where for fun he’d flatten bottle caps under the rails of the coal trains that ran a stone’s throw from the front door. “I’d hitch a ride on a train, hang on for a few miles, then grab one coming back.”

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Cline has since upgraded his transportation. He spends 400 hours a year in the air – most of it on his $50 million Embraer Lineage 1000 – shuttling between his homes, making due-diligence tours of mines in Australia and Colombia, or hauling a Forbes camera crew to Nova Scotia, where he has been operating the Donkin mine since April. He applies the same philosophy to his planes as he does to his capital equipment: “We buy the best and run it hard.”

Underground, 1,000-horsepower mining machines rip the coal face with rotating claws; roof bolters hammer steel rods into the ceiling to hold the rock in place. Cline saw early on how much more coal he could produce with reliable equipment. Productivity and profits correlate strongly with uptime. If a vital machine breaks down and needs parts, Cline thinks nothing of sending one of his jets to fetch spares from anywhere on the continent. The math is easy: Every minute his crews are not ripping coal out of the earth equates to hundreds of dollars in lost revenue. And, yes, it’s dangerous. “It used to be brutal,” he says. “We’re trying to get all the hard work out of it.”

In 1980, when Cline was 22, his father had heart bypass surgery, and his partner offered $50,000 to buy him out. “My dad was going to do it.” But Cline had no doubt he could work harder and smarter than anyone else. “I said, ‘Why don’t we buy him out?’” And so they did, borrowing every penny. The first two weeks he worked 16-hour days and never saw sunlight – whatever it took to make his payments. With every success he doubled down. He lays on the table some pictures of himself from the 1980s – grinning, mustachioed, standing in front of an early mine named after his daughter Candice. His first big success came with Pioneer Fuel, a mine he acquired for $1 million and flipped for $17 million.

Cline’s father in Appalachia (Photo by Jamel Toppin)

He bought a Lamborghini and a 200-foot yacht called Mine Games, but most of the money went back into the Appalachian ground. He implemented worker-friendly innovations like air-conditioned cockpits for mining machines. And he began handing out daily bonuses in the form of dollar coins, based on how many feet of coal a team had mined that day. “A man can go home and give it to his wife. Or buy some beer,” Cline says. At year’s end he’d hand out checks to cover taxes due. “Those guys would run through a wall for him,” says Andy Fox, an independent mining engineer who first met Cline when Cline pulled up to his office in a red Porsche 928 on the way to the beach and unloaded five bags of coal he needed Fox to analyze.

Still, it’s not enough to be innovative. “You need a little luck,” Cline says. In the late 1990s he had acquired enough reserves to build six new mines. Enron was big in natural gas and wanted to diversify into coal, especially coal trading. Cline got $85 million in loans and equity from Enron to build three mines. After Enron’s 2001 collapse, he bought back the interests for $13 million, then turned around and sold a similar stake to ArcLight Capital Partners for $151 million. By 2003 he was out of Appalachian coal altogether.

The coal industry had watched intently as the EPA cracked down on emissions of acid-rain ingredients like sulfur dioxide in the early 2000s. The quickest way for many power companies to comply was to stop buying high-sulfur coal (e.g., from Illinois) in favor of low-sulfur varieties (like those from Wyoming). Panicked holders of high-sulfur reserves just let their leases lapse and walked away.

Through a new company, Foresight Energy, Cline started accumulating 3 billion tons of high-sulfur reserves in Illinois for less than 30 cents a ton, some of it from the likes of Exxon Mobil. What did Cline know that they didn’t? He believed in technology and was encouraged by power-plant innovations like scrubber systems that capture toxins before they go up the smokestack, enabling them to keep right on burning high-sulfur coal. Plus, he was used to making money on mines with seams just 3 feet thick. Those Illinois seams were 6 feet or thicker. “If it gets to where you can vertically stand up, it’s a lot more pleasant.”

“I didn’t see it as a huge risk,” Cline says. He took on private-equity capital on one condition: no second-guessing. “He didn’t want to be tinkered with,” says Bartow Jones, a partner at Riverstone Holdings, which invested $600 million between 2007 and 2008. Not only did they acquiesce, Jones says, “we insisted on it.” Cline put $2 billion into four mine complexes, which soon became the most productive underground operations in the nation, averaging 13 tons per man-hour at costs of $23 per ton with output of 20 million tons per year.

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Cline had created a market for high-sulfur Illinois coal. “Coal is not a commodity,” Jones says. “You can’t just shove it into a pipeline like natural gas.” Cline swayed power plants to his coal by paying for their sulfur-catching upgrades out of his own pocket. He acquired docks on the Mississippi and built rail spurs to load coal from 100-car trains directly onto ships bound for India and Europe. Cline needed an exit for his investors. In early 2014 Foresight held an IPO and hit a market cap of $2.5 billion. By early 2015 Riverstone had exited, having nearly doubled its money at a time when many coal giants like Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources were headed toward bankruptcy. Foresight’s relative soundness made it an attractive target for Robert Murray, a 77-year-old coal magnate whose privately held Murray Energy paid Cline a little less than $1.4 billion cash in 2015 for most of Cline’s Foresight stake. The two coal barons had been at odds for years in Illinois, blocking each other via strategic land purchases. Cline stepped down from the Foresight board of directors last March, though he still owns 2 billion tons of Illinois reserves, a slug of Foresight bonds and around 29% of Foresight shares – which have traded down 75% since the Murray deal.

In 2010, as Foresight was hitting its stride, Cline was hungry for something new. He formed a company called Gogebic Taconite that tried to get permits for a Wisconsin iron ore mine on the shores of Lake Superior. But in 2013 the plan ran afoul of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who farm wild rice in the area. Cline canceled the plans, he says, because of low iron prices. “It will be mined someday.”

Canada was more hospitable. On the day of Foresight’s IPO in 2014, Cline rang the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, then hopped on his plane and three hours later landed in Nova Scotia to go down into a mothballed mine shaft on the eastern tip of Cape Breton, in a town called Donkin. He was drawn to the huge 12-foot-thick seam and the coal’s high energy content, which at 14,000 British thermal units per ton can be readily turned into high-value coke for steelmaking.

He was also impressed that the highest-risk capital had already been sunk. The Donkin Project was a Hail Mary by the Canadian government to prop up a dying industry; it spent $50 million in the 1980s to bore twin tunnels 2 miles out under the Atlantic Ocean to tap a massive 500 million ton coal bed. By the time the shafts were cut in the late 1980s, benchmark coal prices had dropped (see chart, p. 68). When 26 miners died in a 1992 explosion at Nova Scotia’s Westray mine, it seemed like the end of the industry. But time – and higher commodity prices – heals all wounds. And Donkin was the perfect size for Cline, who bought 75% of it in late 2014 for an estimated $20 million (he’d snap up the remaining 25% the following year).

Since then, 10 of Cline’s old Foresight lieutenants have jumped to Donkin, where they’ve overseen $150 million of investments. That includes a 6,000-hp conveyor system to carry raw coal out of the mine, run it through a cleaning plant and hoist it 100 feet in the air, from which pulverized chunks drop onto jet-black pyramids. In time the conveyors will extend a half-mile to a barge-loading dock. For now front-end loaders scoop coal into trucks that carry it to Panamax-size ships at nearby Sydney. Legendary coal trader Ernie Thrasher is Cline’s partner on the logistics side. He says Donkin’s location, nearly halfway across the Atlantic, makes shipping costs to Rotterdam at least 30% ($5 per ton) less than they would be from central Appalachia. The best coking coal fetches more than $200 a ton today. The simplest way to sum up Cline, according to Thrasher: “He sees value in assets others overlook.”

Chris Cline

Cline hoped to create 200 mining jobs for distressed Nova Scotia. After layoffs, there are now only 81 at the Donkine mine (Photo by Jamel Toppin)

Environmental opposition in economically depressed Nova Scotia is restrained. “Even those protesting the trucks know the coal is a good thing for the community,” says Paul Carrigan of the Port of Sydney Development Corp. “It’s in our blood.” European settlers mined the first coal here 300 years ago. Through the 1970s mining and steelmaking thrived, employing 20,000 before competition from the likes of China wiped it all out. There’s talk of using some of Donkin’s output to fuel Nova Scotia’s remaining coal plants. With plentiful wind and hydropower, Nova Scotia is well within Canada’s emissions standards.

Even First Nations peoples, like the Mi’kmaq, have been placated with jobs and a royalty on every ton. The mining jobs, paying $100,000 a year, are “an economic lifeline,” says Geoff MacLellan, a rep in the Nova Scotia legislature. But how many jobs will there be? At first, Cline had said 200. But in early November – six weeks after Forbes toured the Donkin site with Cline – the mine laid off 49 of 130 workers. Just a bump at the start of a long road, Cline says. After they did some test drilling for a few months, productivity wasn’t high enough, so they need time to bring in new equipment. Cline is patient. He has no equity partners or outside financing on Donkin. Once the mine is rocking and rolling, within 10 years it could be generating $500 million in annual revenues and putting $100 million in cash into Cline’s pocket. The reserves are vast enough to last for decades.

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Is there anything that keeps Chris Cline up at night? “Sago,” he says, the name of a West Virginia mine then owned by International Coal Group where in 2006 a methane explosion killed a dozen miners. Initial reports claimed there were many survivors. Which only deepened the anguish once the bodies were found. Then in 2010 came the disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, also in West Virginia, where 29 died. Cline had nothing to do with either incident, though over the years four workers have died in his mines, including his best friend. There are other risks. The Illinois attorney general sued and settled with Foresight for just $300,000 (plus $6.9 million in mine “retirement obligations”) over the pollution of groundwater with toxic coal slurry. Lisa Salinas, a critic of Cline who owns a farm 100 yards from an unlined slurry pond in Carlinville, thinks the settlement is a joke because it “calls for little to no valid mitigation of the existing pollution and, in fact, only encourages more damage.” A Foresight mine near Hillsboro, Illinois, has been shut since 2015 because of a dwindling coal fire.

Cline is amused by the popular misconception that coal is on its deathbed. Yes, coal-fired power plants do continue to close, and U.S. coal output, currently 700 million tons a year, is down 30% from its peak. And yet the U.S. still relies on coal for 30% of its electric power, compared with just 7% for wind and solar combined. Worldwide demand for coal continues to grow, possibly (but not definitely) peaking by the mid-2020s. Policy and technology are the wild cards; Paul McConnell at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie figures that advances in solar and battery technology plus worldwide carbon taxes have the potential to erode coal demand by 8% a year.

But the death of coal – if it comes at all – will be long and slow. Cline aims for his next project, in Alberta, to be a survivor. He acquired the Vista project via his takeover of the Toronto-listed company Coalspur in early 2015 for an estimated $75 million. The seam is 70 feet thick on the surface, so Cline will build Vista as a pit mine, then go underground to eventually tap 1.7 billion tons. By 2022 it could be doing 10 million tons per year. Cline is cold-blooded when it comes to pushing marginal operators out of business. His Illinois mines took business from Appalachia. His Canadian projects will take business away from Illinois. “I think [Vista] could be the last mine operating after they’ve shut down all the rest of the coal in the world,” he says.

Cline plans to enjoy the rising sea levels in splendor. He recently acquired Big Grand Cay, a 280-acre archipelago in the Bahamas that used to be owned by Bob Abplanalp, inventor of the aerosol spray can. On his iPad, Cline scrolls through plans for a serene resort amid azure waters and non-judgmental massage therapists. It’s too expensive even for this billionaire to haul in enough diesel to keep the generators running, so he’s installing solar panels and researching Tesla batteries, and has three wind turbines on order. “Where it makes sense,” Cline says, “I’m absolutely for it.”

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Gordon Ramsay Plots 100 US Restaurants With New Private Equity Deal

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On a given day at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, chef Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous pub and grill will make around $20,000 from fish and chips. The 1,200-square-foot space sees around 1,300 guests a day. Since debuting on the strip in 2012, Ramsay has added another location in Atlantic City.

Combined, both have sold more than 300,000 fish and chips dishes. “It’s taken the nation by storm. I look at the lines outside the door,” Ramsay told Forbes on the phone earlier this week.

His steak restaurant, which launched seven years ago at Caesars’ Paris Las Vegas Hotel, has meanwhile expanded to Atlantic City and Baltimore, luring diners with beef Wellingtons (more than 250,000 sold since 2012) and sticky toffee puddings (more than 200,000 sold).

That kind of demand needs to be taken advantage of quickly. Which is why a year ago, Ramsay started looking for a partner to help him rapidly expand these brands. “I wasn’t ready to pedal this bike up a hill on my own. That would take me another 15 years,” Ramsay says. “Let’s get this thing done.”

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And now Ramsay has inked a deal with Lion Capital, a private equity outfit with offices in London and Los Angeles, which has scaled restaurants like wagamama, the pan-Asian noodle chain, as well as brands like Kettle chips and Jimmy Cho. Lion now owns 50% of Gordon Ramsay North America, while the other 50% is controlled by Ramsay.

He declined to comment on the size of the transaction, but the deal stipulates that Lion will invest $100 million over five years to build an empire of Gordon Ramsay restaurants across America. The joint venture expects to open 100 new locations across the U.S by 2024. 

“I fell in love with this country 20 years ago. There’s a will here. My goal, right now, is to establish one of the most exciting food brands in America,” Ramsay says. “Being a control freak, I needed the right partner on board. There’s a lot of businesses that don’t like that kind of stranglehold. For me, the partnership was crucial.”

Ramsay already has eight restaurants across Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Baltimore in partnership with Caesars Entertainment. There’s five concepts in Las Vegas, of which three are brands that will be expanded through the new deal — Gordon Ramsay Steak, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill, Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips.

“Vegas has been the most amazing platform. Everyone thinks it is just full of partying and entertainment, but it’s one of the most severe and revered culinary capitals anywhere in the world. You don’t get a second shot at it,” Ramsay says.

The restaurant concept, Gordon Ramsay Steak, launched in 2012 inside Caesar Entertainment's Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
The restaurant concept, Gordon Ramsay Steak, launched in 2012 inside Caesar Entertainment’s Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.GORDON RAMSAY STEAK

The deal will also bring two more concepts to the U.S.: Gordon Ramsay Street Pizza and Gordon Ramsay Bread Street Kitchen, which he calls “a modern Cheesecake Factory.” It already has successful locations in London, Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore. 

Ramsay is a six-time Celebrity 100 listmaker who earned $62 million last year, mainly from his television deal with Fox, in which he produces and stars in shows MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, MasterChef Jr. as well as 24 Hours to Hell and Back.

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“It may seem aggressive, but we’re not opening up 80 or 90 of the same restaurant. We’re crossing over with a multilayered brand. That’s the bit that I’ve worked hard at. We’ve divided and conquered.”

Ramsay’s 15 restaurants in London won’t be impacted by the Lion Capital investment. The announcement comes just a few weeks after British chef Jamie Oliver announced that all but three of his 25 restaurants in the U.K. will close.

“It’s a very oversaturated market there, and you need to be very careful with that level of expansion. It’s unfortunate to see the situation he got himself into, but that’s what happens when you’ve got a juggernaut that’s out of control, as opposed to being in control,” Ramsay says. “I’ve sat patiently, learning from other people’s mistakes.”=

-Chloe Sorvino; Forbes Staff

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Pain, Poison And Potential

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For a man who wanted to end his life at one time, it is quite ironic that Steve Harris is today one of Nigeria’s most successful life and business strategists.


Being born into a lower middle class family is one thing; trying to make a name for yourself after dropping out of university twice is another. That is what Steve Harris, a life and business strategist and motivational speaker, fondly known as ‘Mr. Ruthless Execution’, has accomplished.

Harris learned the sinusoidal motions of the entrepreneurship journey very early in life.

At 40, he is the Chief Executive Officer of EdgeEcution, an organization that helps high performance individuals and institutions bridge the gap between their performance and potential.

Today, he is among one of the most downloaded, quoted and followed personal development trainers in Nigeria, a feat that is outstanding when you consider that he almost committed suicide before this journey even began.

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The events leading up to his worst day began to unfold when Harris gained admission into the University of Benin in Nigeria. His parents wanted him to become an engineer but his failure to attain the required grades meant he had to take the Industrial Maths class instead. That is when his emotional saga began.

“I had altercations with my lecturers and I was flunking because I was not cut out for math. I had issues with my lecturers because at the time, my department was the most corrupt department in the university and if you wanted to pass, you needed to bribe your lecturers. So they were pretty much a cartel and if you didn’t pay, you wouldn’t pass, so someone like me who at best was a C student became an F student.”

As a result, he scored 4% or 11% in his exams even when he had prepared well enough.

“I eventually got kicked out [of university] in 2004.”

Harris managed to get into a private university but this time, he was required to start all over again.

“I couldn’t go the distance and I dropped out in my seventh month. I couldn’t handle it because my mates were already working. My younger sister was also already working and I was going back to my first year of university. I started having suicidal thoughts and I couldn’t handle it anymore so I dropped out.”

Those suicidal thoughts would come back to haunt him later.

Being the first-born of three children, Harris was the one most likely to succeed. As fate would have it, his two failed attempts at university made him the black sheep of the family.

“I remember coming back home and my younger sister had graduated and my parents were super stoked, and here I am, the first child and I didn’t even get it together. Very quickly, she got a job and started earning money. She began buying things for the house and taking care of responsibilities and started giving me an allowance. I remember she gave me N10,000 ($28) and I was very grateful because I didn’t have any money,” says Harris.

“Like all African parents, my parents started complaining and reminding me about how I wasted their money and how I failed. How the children of others were working in [companies like] Shell and I was just at home.

“I would hide from friends and family members when they visited so I wouldn’t have to tell them my situation. The next month, my sister gave me N5,000 ($14) and I couldn’t ask her where the other N5,000 had gone. She was such a high-flyer that within six months, she moved into her own place and bought a car and here I am, first-born and I couldn’t even afford to buy a Christmas card,” avers Harris.

Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“One day, my sister asked me to come over to her house for my monthly allowance. I went in and she had everything I wanted, she had a flat-screen TV, the whole nine yards, and I was just sitting there comparing my little sister with myself and I was thinking ‘there is no way I was ever going to catch up with her’. We were talking and in the middle of the conversation, I pissed her off and she said, ‘I am not even going to give you any more money’ and she kicked me out of her house.

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“I felt so embarrassed and ashamed and here I was, the one who everyone thought was most likely to succeed and I was being kicked out of my younger sister’s house because I didn’t have money. That messed with my mind. I remember sitting at home and I had bought rat poison. I kept thinking that it would be so much better to die than being alive and subjected to the misery I was giving my parents,” says Harris.

As he sat down with the box of poison, mentally preparing himself to end the pain and embarrassment he had brought to his family, one of his siblings walked into the house, in the nick of time.

“That is what stopped me. Then, I also found out that if you commit suicide, you will go to hell and here I am, living my own hell on earth and if I died, you are telling me I am going to be in hell forever?”

That was the wakeup call Harris so desperately needed.

He began to work his way up, starting off with volunteer jobs such as being a church driver for his pastor and also working as an office assistant with Fela Durotoye, a management consultant and recent presidential candidate of the Nigerian elections.

Harris grew through the ranks until he became a management consultant before starting off on his own entrepreneurial journey. Amid the challenges of finding his true purpose, certain thoughts came to his mind that changed his outlook towards life forever. He began asking himself: ‘why am I on this earth?’, ‘how can I make enough money to take care of myself and my family?’ and ‘how do I use my talent to help others?’

He found the answers in books on business written by authors such as Tom Peters and Michael Porter. That is when Harris first discovered he had a penchant for success.

And with his ability to overcome failure, Harris is now on a mission to empower millennials to look inward at their strengths and inner power, and with his able guidance, build brands that can beat the odds and survive, just as he did. 

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Rewriting The News On Africa

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African media can reverse the downward spiral affecting newsrooms across the continent, says APO Group chairman, Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard.


The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade. As a result, newsrooms have been forced to make monumental changes such as reducing the staff complement to keep up with the demands, or they have simply had to shut down.

With some African newsrooms being written out of history, there has been an emergence of international media setting up shop on the continent. This interest serves as a double-edged sword for African media that often finds itself under-resourced. 

Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, the founder and chairman of the APO Group, is of the view that the African media landscape has faced challenges that precede digital migration, which have compounded existing problems. An incident that stands out for him, before the digitizing of media, was a lack of access to information for African reporters, and that propelled him to start one of the foremost media relations firms on the continent.

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 When he was a journalist for online publication, Gabonews, and the deputy president of the Pan-African Press Organisation in France, between 2005 and 2007, Pompigne-Mognard says this was a recurring problem hampering the productivity of African reporters. 

“If you wanted the right to attend an international press conference, you would need an official card.

“As an African correspondent, the only way for you to have that card and get access was to prove that you were getting at least €1,000 ($1,121) of earnings, and most of them didn’t have that,” says Pompigne-Mognard.

“It was rooted in disparity. If you have two journalists and one of them has the right card and the other doesn’t, then of course, the other one cannot do his job. He cannot earn money or write articles. 

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“More than that, it reinforced the dependence of African media on international media. They had no other choice but to rely on the information provided by the biggest media.”

To remedy the circumstances that seemed to disempower his peers on the continent, Pompigne-Mognard founded APO from his living room, using $11,000 in savings.

APO has grown since its inception as it provides a variety of media offerings such as press releases, videos, photos, documents and audio-files.

The company has sources such as global Fortune 1,000 companies, reputable international and Africa-based PR agencies, governments and international institutions.

“I didn’t start it to make money. I didn’t start it as a business. I wasn’t an entrepreneur at the time. I was a journalist and I wanted to address a problem. At the beginning, I wasn’t even aware that companies were paid to distribute press releases.”

Pompigne-Mognard has since realized many things through the medium of his company as APO delivered growth of 60% in 2018, representing a turnover that has more than doubled in two years.

As a correspondent of Gabonews, before the inception of his company, Pompigne-Mognard was covering Europe, and he had to report Africa-related news and needed information. As a result, he would ensure he was receiving as many press releases as possible; however, this came with its own logistic challenges.

“That’s when I realized it was extremely difficult to actually ensure I received all the press releases from institutions like the United Nations, as an example. There was not one point where I could get all the African information issued by the international system. 

“Journalists had to rely on information that was on websites. It was very time-consuming to get access to all the content…

“It got me thinking about how if international media was not receiving information from our most important institutions, then what does that say about our voices in the world?”

A single conversation propelled him to make decisive change, Pompigne-Mognard says.

“I had a serious meeting with the president of the African Development Bank at the time, Donald Kaberuka, and he told me something that was instrumental because that’s when I decided I wanted to do something about it.

“What he told me is that the destination of information about African economies contributes to the growth of the continent, because at the time everybody was talking about poverty, war and struggle.”

Over the years, Pompigne-Mognard has observed a similar trend in the way press releases are compiled and disseminated.

He feels this has contributed in transforming the narrative on Africa.

“Something that is specific with press releases is that 95 percent of them convey good news. Usually, when a company issues one, it is to say that they are appointing a new CEO, they are opening a new branch, or they are expanding into new markets.

“We (APO) have been participating, for several years now, in changing the African narrative. We are in a unique place where we have a chance to influence the narrative and make sure that Africa has its own voice and is not influenced by the bias of international media.

Although information is accessible to those who seek it, he says there is currently another challenge that African media needs to resolve in order to maintain autonomy and make money to sustain itself.

“I think there is a big problem coming towards us and it is coming fast,” says a concerned Pompigne-Mognard.

“Nigeria is starting to watch more international media than the local media. Think about the international companies which are willing to expand on the continent. What if 10 years from now, the conclusion is that in the most developed economies on the continent, the nationals are watching more international media? Where exactly do we think the international companies are going to spend on advertisements?

“As an international company, why would I deal with five national TV stations in different countries, if I can approach a single international station and get, not only those five countries, but also better coverage?”

Pompigne-Mognard says the continent is ripe with potential and international media companies, which have observed the budding possibilities, are striking while the iron is hot.

“They know the population is going to grow, the middle class is growing and that purchasing power is growing.”

Finances remain a colossal inhibiter to the growth of newsrooms, as many have had to retrench to make ends meet.

The ripple effect is that the quality of the content produced eventually suffers.

“On a global scale, the media landscape is in a challenging position. It has become very difficult to finance content and to find new ways to make money. Africans also have the same challenges, but often they don’t have the same means or resources.

“I would prefer to be wrong on this matter, but if I’m right, in 15 years’ time, the media landscape in Africa will be completely different – in a bad way.

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“I want Africa to have a strong media landscape. But in order to do that, people need to understand that media companies need to be run as businesses.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom for African media; Pompigne-Mognard sees hope. He says the status quo can be reversed if there is a joint effort to curb the problem. 

“One of the solutions is to create pan-African media,” he says. “The person who is going to crack the code and make it happen could be extremely rich. It doesn’t have to be [entirely] pan-African, even 30-35 countries are more than enough.

“There’s a thing about Africa which is a strength and a weakness; it’s that doing something here will always be more difficult. But the good news is that for those who manage to do that thing in Africa, they can do it anywhere.”

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