Cosmas Maduka is a man who knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity.
By the age of six, Maduka had survived bombs and bullets. It was in the dark depths of that civil war over the failed secession of Biafra – a civil war that saw 30,000 dead and more than a million refugees. His home state of Anambra was right in the thick of it; it was the base for relief flights to the beleaguered Biafran population. This drew airstrikes by Nigerian warplanes.
“We had a bunker outside our house which we ran into during times where the military opened fire and dropped bombs with their fighter jets. We did not know whether we were going to survive to see the following day,” says Maduka.
One day, as the young Maduka walked to the market, soldiers opened fire, killing scores of civilians. Again, Maduka was lucky to escape with his life. Soon afterwards his mother sent him away to safety to live with his grandparents.
In these tough early years, Maduka had no idea who his father was until the day he was led to his funeral.
“The best I knew of my father was the day I saw a man lying lifelessly in a suit… It was like a festival, people were exceptionally kind to me that day and whatever I asked for, I got,” he says.
The sad celebrations faded into struggle and grinding poverty. Maduka became a street hawker to provide for his family. Every morning, at 5AM, Maduka would wake up to sell bean cakes on the streets with his older brother, Pius, to feed his family.
In a small step up from street life, Maduka began life as a lowly apprentice in his uncle’s motorcycle business. It was a sour first taste of the motor industry that was to make his millions decades later.
The motorcycle workshop job was poorly paid and after seven years of service his uncle fired him – the severance package was less than $400. In these difficult times, Maduka hugged to his heart two guiding principles.
“Firstly, no matter how careful you are things are always going to happen that you never anticipated. The second lesson is don’t ever take a risk you cannot discount.”
Both principles were the rich harvest of a bitter and expensive worst day that will forever haunt Maduka.
“Sometime in 2011, I was sitting in the office and my phone rang, it was a kid brother from my state who was in the oil business who said he wanted me to assist him. He had some difficulties in raising money for a project. I tried to talk to him and counsel him and at the end of the day he convinced me to come and see what he was doing,” says Maduka.
“I went with my wife and I was fascinated looking at how far he had built his business. He was looking for a line of credit. I was sitting in two publicly quoted banks owning about 70 percent equity in one of them. I tried to get the bank to support him but they refused, so I said I would guarantee the transaction. I told the bank to put the credit under my name and I parted with over $300 million.”
The approach came from Ifeanyi Ubah, the CEO of Capital Oil and gas, for a loan to import petroleum premium spirit. Maduka took a calculated risk.
“We did things systematically. The first consignment came and within 45 days we cleared the shipment. We did it for the second one too and that went well but I didn’t know he was goading me. Before December 2011, he came with six documents saying if I did this for him he would be eternally grateful. We had done several transactions and they were all successful, timely and he paid at the correct time so I had no issues.”
Maduka opened a line of credit to guarantee the loan for Ubah to secure his goods for the six consignments but, to his horror, the goods never arrived in Nigeria.
“The guy went abroad and connived with the shipping company and sold the vessel offshore. Every month interest of N300 million ($972,000) was dropping into my account,” says Maduka.
He was left liable and had to sell his entire stake in one of the financial institutions, where he was a director and had a controlling share, to pay off that debt.
“My franchise was threatened because this was not something we planned for. That is why when we talk about success, you can never be complacent and say that you have arrived because there are always obstacles you meet along the way. An entrepreneur must continue to reinvest into his business and keep reserve capital because there are shocks that you are going to meet that you never anticipated,” he says.
Today, Maduka is the President and Chairman of Coscharis Group, franchise holders of over eight luxury automobile brands and one of the largest distributors of spare car parts in Nigeria. The company also has interests in real estate, banking, technology, medical equipment, petrochemicals, elevators and agriculture. He stresses the importance of trust and loyalty to his 300 staff. Clearly, he doesn’t want them to suffer as he did in the motorcycle repair shop a lifetime ago.
The lessons from his worst day also led to a wiser, more cautious Maduka whose mantra today is never take anyone at face value.