Kola Karim wants to build bridges in Nigeria and the whole of Africa. This is best appreciated when meeting him in person. African in style and looks, he speaks with a posh British accent and has the sophistication of someone who has been part of the business elites of London and Lagos for a long time.
A die-hard afro-optimist, the Harvard graduate sees himself as a mediator between two very different cultures with two very different ways of doing business. He also wants to put Africa on the map as the world’s most promising investment destination of the next decade.
At 41, Karim is one of the wealthiest and most influential entrepreneurs in Nigeria and on the continent. His conglomerate Shoreline Group, which employs more than 5,000 people in seven countries, has interests in all essential industries, from electricity to oil and gas, construction, engineering, commodities trading, logistics and agro-allied products.
He got there through hard work, focus and persistence. Karim, the son of a policeman and an entrepreneurial mother who ran a small commodity trading firm, spent the first years of his childhood in Nigeria. After his father’s death, he moved with his siblings to England at the age of 14, where he studied management, finance and later obtained an MBA.
From there, Karim slowly worked his way to the top. His first job was as a trainee manager at one of Britain’s largest insurance companies, Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance.
“That’s where I cut my teeth, in financial services. It gave me a critical understanding of how business works,” he says.
Two years later, he joined the prestigious investment firm HK Beaumont & Associates as senior manager responsible for pension and investment funds.
Another couple of years later, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. The place where he saw the most opportunities was Africa. He returned to Nigeria in 1993 to start Koda Trading with his mother, specializing in the import and export of bulk feed stock, raw materials, heavy-duty machinery and equipment.
“My focus has always been Africa. My mother taught us to always remember who we are and where we come from. Today, I am building businesses right across the continent. We’ve got businesses in Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Kenya, Uganda… and I want to continue growing,” he says.
When Karim talks about his career today, he makes it sound like an easy ride. But the truth is that his entry into entrepreneurship was rather rocky. He and his mother struggled to access finance to kickstart Koda Trading and were forced to put up their family home as security.
“We were mortgaged up to the neck to the banks. I was under a lot of pressure. If I hadn’t succeeded, my whole family would have gone bust. Because of the pressure, I started to panic. I remember I couldn’t sleep because of the responsibility I carried,” he recalls.
It took him nine months to gain back his confidence at which point he made a deliberate decision to view every negative in the narrative of the African story as an opportunity. His luck started to change, and two years later, Karim turned his first profit.
His ticket to success was Nigeria’s persistent shortfall of electricity. Following his new motto of turning negatives into positives, Karim became an independent, private electricity producer, offering corporates a full range of services, from grid-connected to off-grid power generation, plant management, repair and optimization, power lines, substations and various high and low voltage services.
“Energy security is one of the most important drivers of Africa’s economic growth. It has therefore one of the largest growth potentials for the continent,” he explains.
Power shortages remain a major stumbling block for businesses and households all over sub-Saharan Africa, where only a quarter of residents have access to electricity.
As the Nigerian government struggles to meet rapidly growing energy demands, private companies have a chance to offer complimentary services. That is where Shoreline Power comes in.
Taking on a job that is traditionally the role of government, Karim is keenly aware that a smooth interplay between the private and public sectors is important. While business can take over the slog work, entrepreneurs rely on government to create an enabling regulatory environment.
“Bureaucracy can throw a spanner in the works and hold back growth. We need more transparency, rule of law, open and functional processes to attract investment.”
At the same time, he is keenly aware that the private sector needs to play its part by creating best practices based on international business standards. Eradicating corruption should be on top of this list, says Karim, who was chosen as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2008 for his excellent management skills and his transparency in conducting business. That is crucial in a nation like Nigeria, which has long been considered one of the world’s most corrupt states, with billions in oil revenue pocketed and misused during the past decade.
Despite his excitement about the possibilities of public-private partnerships, Karim has over the years become wary of relying too much on government contracts. He learned from his past experiences.
His main lesson came several years ago, when he chased a range of major government contracts, which were eventually awarded to a Chinese competitor. It was a serious setback for Shoreline from which the company took a long time to recover.
“It was a huge letdown, mentally and financially. This is where African governments need to think because they could drive successful entrepreneurs out of the continent. While my revenues stay in the country, a Chinese or Indian company can just pack their bags and go [if things don’t work out]. So who deserves the bigger support? Africa, at this point, has the opportunity to strive. But we need government to support us,” he says.
It was at this point that Karim decided to never again put all of his eggs into one basket. He began to diversify, branching out into food, construction, oil and gas services, exploration, logistics and production.
“I built my business by investing in anything that contributes to the lives of ordinary Africans. All you got to look for in entrepreneurship is the simple stuff,” he suggests.
It doesn’t need rocket science to understand that a continent with a billion people and some of the world’s fastest growing economies offers tremendous opportunity.
“Africa is reaching a position where it can negotiate. And the world is ready to listen,” says Karim.
He is, however, keenly aware that Africa will never come out of its economic doldrums until it creates a generation of entrepreneurs that will create sustainable businesses willing to reinvest in Africa.
Karim is taking the lead from one of his mentors, Africa’s richest man, cement magnate Aliko Dangote, whose net worth FORBES estimates at $20.8 billion.
“I have learnt a lot from Dangote. He has been like a brother to me. He is dogged and determined, and he doesn’t let anyone push him around,” he says.
The business acumen Karim has shown in recent years has not gone unnoticed by Nigeria’s entrepreneurial elite.
“Kola Karim is one of Nigeria’s emerging entrepreneurs who has already made his mark on the national scene with the remarkable growth recorded by his various interests. He is a versatile and astute businessman, a role model,” lauds Dangote.
One of Karim’s secrets is to keep business in the family. He is running Shoreline as a tight-knit family firm, which he believes is part of the group’s success. Apart from his mother, four of his five siblings work for the conglomerate. “As a family business, you always have people in management who have the interests of the business at heart, because you’re in the same boat. Together, we grew the company from a small firm into a global business,” he says.
His focus as founder and group managing director is Shoreline’s overall strategy and vision. But he also has the reputation of being a brilliant salesman, which, combined with his endless optimism about Africa, has over the years helped him strike major deals with powerful financial backers and multi-nationals.
Karim says he learned to sell himself during his time at Harvard Business School when he realized that communication is one of the most important tools for the success of any business.
“As a Nigerian entrepreneur, you have to be your own best salesman. We have to be relentless, determined and persistent because we come from a disadvantaged position. We have lots of things that speak against us: threats of kidnapping, Boko Haram, corruption. We have to fight prejudice and negative perceptions,” he says.
“If you want to convince global corporations to invest, they have to believe that you are trustworthy and reliable. The first thing you have to do is make known that you are not a conman, not a fraudster, not a drug dealer.”
This approach clearly worked for him. Karim single-handedly turned his national company into an international conglomerate through strategic acquisitions and partnerships.
“I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. My business model is to look at existing, successful international brands that want to enter my region. The best technology belongs to the big corporates, so we partner with them and that way create positives for us,” he explains.
He has struck partnerships with industry giants like electronic equipment manufacturer Siemens, power and automation technology developer ABB, oil and gas technology and project management provider Schlumberger, engineering and construction group Costain, tyre manufacturer Michelin and communications giant Motorola.
His very first acquisition was that of Swiss multinational ABB. According to Karim, it happened by coincidence. He was chatting to the man seated next to him on a plane. When the aircraft touched down, they exchanged business cards. Only then did Karim realize he had been talking to a senior manager at ABB.
When he learnt that ABB was considering pulling out of Nigeria, Karim saw his chance. He suggested they sell their Nigerian operations to Shoreline.
“To my shock and horror, he looked at me and said ‘let me discuss it’. Three weeks later, he invited me to Switzerland to make a proposal. I was stunned,” Karim explains.
The deal with ABB gave him a taste for what was possible. He realized it could be replicated with other multinationals in other business sectors.
Karim purchased controlling shares of the West African operations of British group Costain, followed by the acquisition of a cache of oilfields in the conflict-scarred Niger Delta in a joint venture with Heritage Oil for $850 million, in November 2012.
With the deal, Karim secured himself a portly share of Nigeria’s oil production, which is the largest in Africa. It also brought him a step closer to his goal of becoming a significant upstream oil operator in his home country.
The father of three children, who live with his wife in England, spends much time jetting back and forth between Lagos and London. Although he could easily afford it, he doesn’t own a private jet. He prefers flying commercial airlines, since they are better for networking.
“I do have access to one or two private jets to travel with, but to me it’s boring because you travel on your own. A commercial plane, in contrast, is a good place to meet interesting people,” he says.
With that much on the go, it’s surprising that Karim has a private life at all. Every now and then, he escapes from the humdrum of loud and chaotic Lagos to one of the megacity’s lakes, where he likes to race speedboats.
His other hobby is the exclusive game of polo. With a handicap that nears professionalism, Karim is one of Nigeria’s most ardent and popular players. He is a member of Nigeria’s prestigious Lagos Polo Club on Ikoyi Island, the city’s most upmarket neighborhood.
A true fanatic, Karim, who started playing polo in his early twenties, bought his own team, the Shoreline Polo club.
“I play a lot of polo in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and England. My brother, my son and I play a lot of tournaments. Polo is one of the sports that demand the highest mental aptitude. You ride a horse while at the same time holding a stick and hitting a ball,” he says.
One comes to fully understand Karim’s love for polo when realizing that it is mirrored by his fashion sense. Classic with a modern twist, he is a fan of fashion guru Ralph Lauren’s famous Polo flagship brand—so much so that over the years he has become friends with the celebrated designer.
In May, Karim threw a glamorous charity event at London’s Ralph Lauren store on the expensive New Bond Street in aid of The Pure Soul Learning Foundation that supports people with autism—one of his many philanthropic initiatives.
It was a move with a somewhat ulterior motive however. Karim plans to invest in the fashion industry next.
“I want to boost African brands, from fashion to design and furniture to market Africa’s image. I want to re-brand Africa.”