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I HAD AN IDEA, I DIDN’T HAVE A LAPTOP

Restless millionaire Ladi Delano dropped out of college, worked in finance and made a fortune selling vodka to the Chinese. Now, this Yoruba-speaking entrepreneur is home in Nigeria planning his next 31 years.

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Ladi Delano always had his eye on the horizon. In his mid-teens, he asked for two years’ pocket money from his mother, to buy a few pairs of cheap designer boots to sell to his school mates. At 19, he sold services to universities. By 22, he had founded a top selling liquor company. Many dollars and a few hard lessons later, Delano couldn’t be more sure of himself. You may choose fancy words to describe his business acumen, but one will suffice; entrepreneurship. This is the story of a born businessman.

Delano was born-and-bred in England to parents he calls part of a generation of unsung heroes. He might easily pass for a full-blooded Brit, with an accent you could cut with a knife, but he is as much a Nigerian. As we sit at his homely residence in a leafy Lagos suburb, overlooking the gray ocean, Delano is as warm as his sofas; his memory, as fresh as a daisy.

“In my household, London started when you walked out the front door and Nigeria started once you walked back into the house. We had three square meals of Nigerian food everyday and spoke lots of Yoruba,” he says.

Delano’s grandfather, Isaac Oluwole Delano, is a Yoruba novelist who compiled a dictionary of his mother tongue. Despite growing up in London, rather than Lagos, Delano’s Yoruba is far from shabby.

“I was born to parents who essentially sacrificed everything in order for their children to have a better chance and start in life; because they gave up everything they knew in order for us to access better opportunities,” he says.

One opportunity was a head start in business. Delano’s father is a corporate executive and MBA lecturer.

“Growing up with my father was incredible because the time we spent together, were literally MBA classes. Most of our conversations were on dissecting businesses, understanding how they work and how different products come to market. We would have CNN on in the background and Business Today would come on. Our two biggest pastimes were Michael Jackson, we went to two concerts together, and business. As long as I can remember, that was our thing,” he says.

The path may have been well lit, but hardship lurked around the corner. In his student days, Delano found he suffered from mild dyslexia and deafness in one ear. Learning became more and more difficult and the idea of school waned. Despite this, with the help of extra lessons, Delano made it to a top university on a day he describes as glorious. The novelty soon wore off and academia became Delano’s nemesis. In his second year of a political science degree, he made up his mind.

“It became quite clear that I didn’t have a passion for my course. I think that lead to me being easily distracted and that, ultimately, culminated in me thinking that rather than flogging a dead horse, it would make more sense to do something I was more comfortable with. There are two types of education and each form of education is equally as valuable. The academic approach to education is vital, no business can operate and be successful without those who have spent the time to understand the academic side of anything. However, that approach to education is not necessarily for everybody. And in my case it wasn’t. So, I decided to withdraw from university,” he says.

Delano’s decision didn’t go down well at home, but there was no stopping him. At least university had planted the idea of becoming an entrepreneur.

“We wanted to look at things like career advice for students, get recruiters to advertize their industries to students and M-commerce retail structures where students could use their mobile phones to make purchases,” says Delano.

Think again. In six months, Delano had lost the thousands he had borrowed.

“I was 19, I was confused. I knew my degree wasn’t for me, I knew college wasn’t for me. I tried my hand at the only other thing I knew I could do, which was business, and this happened. I was extremely upset, disheartened and discouraged,” he says.

Delano had always had a fascination with Asia: his father’s family home had a Bruce Lee poster; one of the London homes the family lived in was in a predominantly Japanese area and he had used chop sticks at a very young age.

So, with a plane ticket, a clouded mind and very little money, Delano flew off to figure out life—in Asia.

“I moved around, worked in bars mainly to earn some cash and fund more travel. I was being exposed to a lot, meeting lots of new people and learning more.”

Delano traveled from Thailand to Malaysia and Hong Kong, for eight months, before joining his family in their new home in Chicago.

In the States, it was time to find a job. He called cinemas, record stores, and department stores. His parents encouraged him to go back to college.

“It dawned on me while I searched, that I met this guy while I was in Hong Kong. He was a Goldman Sachs broker and we had struck up a casual conversation—he told me that when he came out of high school, he went into the city and knocked on every single door until he got an apprenticeship, from which, he worked his way up to being a stock broker and he’s been in banking for many years ever since. This made me think to myself, I don’t want to work in a department store. I thought I’d emulate what he did. So I started calling every single investment bank in downtown Chicago for weeks. After about three weeks, I got an interview for an internship with Merryl Lynch,” he says.

In Chicago, Delano felt at home.

“This was the most interaction I had ever had with any type of financial institutions in my life. I was consistently reading the Wall Street Journal all this time, to beef up my day-to-day business knowledge,” he says.

Soon he was cold calling investors to free lunches for wealth plan pitches—a task he found boring. After a couple of weeks, he decided to approach his bosses.

“I went home and polished up a presentation of a business I had been working on, called—the Minority private client initiative ( MPCI)—This was a strategy to target high net worth ethnic minorities and talk to them about moving aspects of their private wealth portfolios and businesses to our team. My bosses loved the idea and gave me an opportunity to do it. I traveled around the United States trying to make this materialize,” he says.

Delano returned to London, with a burning desire for a radical career change.

“I had an idea, I didn’t have a laptop and I had to spend a lot of time at the internet café not too far away, where I spent time writing my business plan. I just had to get it all out. Myself and two friends went to raise £216,892—we raised this money through a group of high net worth individuals I had been fortunate to know. After all my travels and time spent in bars, I had realized and identified the need for an independent alcohol brand; my mates saw this too,” says Delano.

Delano was 21. Out on the streets of London a vodka revolution was taking place; Delano and his mates wanted to supply the shots.

“So, that’s how we started our vodka brand—we had no idea what we were doing but we all shared the same vision. I was the commercial guy, my friends, the operations and creative guys, respectively. It took us six to seven months to put the product together and get our first consignment… It was to a certain extent, trial and error, but we were lucky enough to have more successes than errors at the beginning.”

By the eighth month, Solid XS vodka was ready. Delano hopped from bar to bar in London, for a year, selling the new drink from a bucket. The brand prospered, but the business proved bittersweet.

“We had managed to identify a niché and introduced the first Magnum Vodka in the world which subsequently opened a whole new area as we now started selling in Paris, St. Tropez to high end clientele and clubs. We now had a team of 16, but it was clear that our margins weren’t healthy as we were spending a lot of money on marketing. Our bottom line just wasn’t there. Although, we were alive, every month was difficult and every quarter even tighter.”

There was only one way out—duty free.

“I got on a plane and went to Orlando, Florida, for the biggest duty free trade show in the world, where I met the former country head for the largest wine company in China at the time. He told me about this fantastic place called China where volumes are high and costs are extremely low. He was starting a new distribution company and asked if I’d be interested in bringing our product on his portfolio. The next six months were spent on a Chinese strategy. It took almost a million pounds from investors and launched within a year.”

Delano took language lessons and traveled the country to sell. After six months, volumes were not rising but the marketing budget was dwindling. It wasn’t looking good.

“One of my team members in London and I, packed up our bags and moved to Hong Kong where we opened an office and started to figure it all out by ourselves,’’ he says.

In three years, they had six provincial offices around the country,  staff of 200, the vodka was sold in 33 cities, controlling up to 70% of the market in China.

Business boomed as China drank vodka like water. This was encouraging, but Delano had other interests and sold a chunk of his shares so he could invest. He opened a night club, a restaurant, and was opening a hotel in Shanghai. The vodka business was expanding, as the world economy contracted.

“I underestimated the impact of the global financial crisis and what that would have on all my businesses. On the real estate side, all the commitments for project finance became e-mails of no appetite, all the negotiations became unanswered e-mails and phone calls. The world just came to a stand-still and to top it off, there was a spike in oil prices and as we were importing our vodka and our glass bottles were hand blown in a different location so our costs just skyrocketed. There was a great amount of uncertainty and that translated to less disposable income which subsequently meant less people were going out and less vodka was being bought. Our volumes dropped, costs went up and by the time we realized what was going on, it was too late,” says Delano.

“Always prepare yourself for the storm.”

China may have ridden the storm, but the business didn’t. Troubled times saw Delano move to Indonesia; from here, he took trips to Nigeria, over two years, where he saw opportunities.

“It became very clear to me that Nigeria is not too far behind on the developmental curve. Natural resources, light and heavy manufacturing until you get to the point where you have a very diversified economy. I said to myself, it is time to go home—I was 29 and I just knew it. I was ready and willing to do it. I had also witnessed the impact the Indonesian diaspora had on its economy,” he says.

“I went back to Asia and pulled together a consortium of investors made up of high net worth families and some financial institutions in the private equity space. My pitch was: ‘Nigeria is the new Indonesia’.”

With a promising consortium of investors, Delano went into Nigeria. The skills shortage proved a new thorn in his tender side. Delano sought a partner to bridge the gap.

The Bakrie family and the Bakrie Group make up one of the largest conglomerates in Indonesia. Through a joint venture with Delano, the Bakrie Group will invest $1 billion, over five years in Nigerian mining, agriculture, oil and gas.

“Ladi has a charming, gently-spoken manner. However, this is underpinned by a strong work ethic and a careful and rigorous approach to understanding the issues that underlie commercial decisions,” says Richard G. Blunt, a partner at Baker McKenzie in London.

In April 2012, Delano moved back to Nigeria—a country with 60% of the population under the age of 35 and a youth unemployment rate sitting at 43%.

“I just love Nigeria… I want to provide jobs and help the youth develop themselves. It’s an honor to be able to contribute to the economy in this way,” he says.

The first contribution will be made through a mining asset acquired in May.

“We now have $100 million to spend on the asset in order to get it to production. We anticipate that the asset will be in production within the next year or so and we’re hoping that this will kickstart the mining revolution in Nigeria,” he says.

“We recently advised Ladi on completing his first mining deal where he energetically drove the process and discussions with multiple stakeholders through to a successful outcome. Ladi is already focused on several opportunities and we see him doing very exciting things going forward,” says Raj Khatri, head of metals and mining for Macquarie Capital, Europe.

From London, to Chicago, to China and West Africa; through vodka, mining and hotels; it has been a roller coaster ride for Ladi Delano in his first 31 years and you get the feeling he has only just got started.

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