The Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Coleman Wires and Cables, George Onafowokan, talks about his career, in the cable and wire industry
You have a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance, and a post-graduate diploma in Management and Information System. What informed your decision to study those courses?
Studying those courses was a pathway to where I saw myself. While in secondary school, I realised that I loved mathematics and anything that has to do with finances. Accounting and Finance was a combined course that felt right because it entailed understanding the rudiment of money and knowing how money can be managed. As young as 12 years old, I already felt inclined to do business.
The post-graduate diploma was in Management and Information System, which was a combined course. The reason for studying that was because information technology, as well as management, was becoming a fundamental part of life. It was a sort of Master in Business Administration because it was a two-year combined course. It had six modules of management and six modules of information system, which was like doing two courses in one. It prepared me better for where and what I have been able to achieve in both my career and personal life.
How did your childhood or parents influence your career choice?
A big kudos goes to my father because he always believed in the second generation philosophy. I remember that as early as when I could speak simple words, my father’s approach to life has been, “I don’t have any money to give you but I can afford to give you the best education possible. It is left to you to make good use of it”.
Also, when we (children) were older, he (dad) used to encourage us to come to his office and work part-time in those early days. Whenever we went there to work, we always got paid. But, we were made to work at the lower levels. He used to say that, “You need to be a follower before you can become a leader”. That was actually one of the things that encouraged me to study accounting because then, I used to work as an account clerk, filling ledgers and vouchers. That was the encouragement we got in terms of growing up with a father that literally projected our future before projecting his own future indirectly on us.
I think we were lucky that our father made sure education was seen as a fundamental part of life. Whatever one does, one’s family should understand what one us doing. Also, he always drummed it into our ears that, ‘money does not drop from the sky. One has to work for it’.
How can the cable manufacturing industry contribute more to the country’s economic growth?
Infrastructure wise, as a country, there is practically nothing we can do without cable. Cable is a conductor of electricity. In every sector of the economy, the importance of cable cannot be wished away. As water is important to humans, so is cable an important part of the economy. Without electricity, we are fundamentally going nowhere. The cable industry is vital, and the government needs to see it like that way, in the same way it sees the importance of crude oil, diesel and petrol. After steel, the most important thing any country should have is a very good stable cable industry. I don’t see anybody, rich or poor, who can do without it.
What are the major challenges facing the Nigerian cable industry?
One issue the industry has is the lack of belief in how important the industry is. The focus needs to change to how fundamentally important this industry is. The same way we put efforts in trying to re-grow some certain agricultural products such as rice and sorghum, is the same way we should focus on this industry. If we are having a lot of projects that will need cables, it would be better we can produce it locally and pay in Naira, rather than paying in Dollars.
It will also create employment. There should be a deliberate effort by the government to buy local (cables). Those are the key things we need to push. The government also needs to focus on the solutions to our problems using the cable industry as a catalyst to solving problems such as the inadequate transmission of power (electricity). The companies producing gap cables in Africa are not many because the cost of producing it is very high.
How did your company start manufacturing cables?
The company was set up in 1975, so we did not start manufacturing cables; our father did. In 1996, we went into cable manufacturing because he had traded in cables before. The early stage of any small business is never that good. Unfortunately, we did not have the best of a start-up when we came in. The management team was changed around 2020/2021, which involved me, my brother (the Executive Director, Technical) and a couple of new members. It was a turnaround for the business from the unfortunate situation we met. We started restructuring the business even though it wasn’t easy. We did not have working capital. We had to convince people to pay us in advance (for jobs), then use the money to buy materials, produce and give it back to them. Of all the businesses my father has, we took over the worst one. I studied it to know whether I should focus more on trading or on the manufacturing aspect. The manufacturing arm was not making good money like the trading arm, but in the long run, I realised that the trading would die naturally but the manufacturing arm could be a lot better. We then decided to focus on the industry, which meant that 95 per cent of all the money we made went back to the company. We had to endure delayed gratification. However, the business that was worth less than N20m is now one of the biggest in Africa within the space of 20 years, and we are still growing massively. We have a workforce of about 400 people, filled with Nigerians and one expatriate, who is not even on the management team. He is a supervisor. Our management team is populated by Nigerians. I told the team that we would never import cables but produce them.
Which government policy has had a notable impact on your company’s operation?
Yes, certain government policies have definitely impacted our operations. One of them was the Local Content Logic Act 2010, which is the biggest catalyst of our growth. The Act was very specific to every type of product and industry. It started crystallising into more local production in the oil and gas sector. The Act was specific to the oil and gas industry at the beginning, but I think the National Assembly is looking at local content for every other sector. The drivers of that Act also created another set of catalysts which is the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board, whose job is to make sure that these things actually work.
In 2014, we opened our factory, which was worth 30 million dollars under the local content law that drove us to do it.
Why should people patronise made-in-Nigeria cables and wires?
This industry is one of the only ones where standards are very strict in this country, especially for those who are members of the Cable Manufacturers Association. Nigeria-made cables and wires are of good standards. We don’t have a case of anyone buying made-in-Nigeria cables or wire and having their house burnt down. What happens with imported cables is that the importers change the specification to make more money.
What are some of the negative effects of using poor quality cables?
Cable is a conductor of electricity and can generate heat. If a poor conductor is used, there is a high tendency of having a fire outbreak, especially in the last 20 years when we all used the conduit type of wiring. That means if there is a fire inside the wall, one won’t know when it started. This type of wiring is either passed from the floor or from the roof. That is why fire outbreaks from substandard cables are bad because 90 per cent of roofs are made of wood, and the whole building collapses when there is a fire outbreak. Though the substandard cables appear cheaper, they are more expensive because of the risks associated with them.
How can the government assist in growing the cable manufacturing industry?
There must be a deliberate push. The same way they promoted agriculture is the same way they should treat this industry. Why should we be importing machines and paying excise duty? This industry cannot be separated from any other industry. Even in the agricultural sector, they need cables to switch on their machines. We need to aggressively push policies that would make the importation of raw materials a lot easier. The cable industry needs to be encouraged so that we can be exporting and earn foreign exchange. That is the kind of support we need.
The government has been talking about the decentralisation of ports in Nigeria. How do you think that would impact your sector?
We are an import and export company, so I am using both aspects. The port is a problem today. Importation of raw materials that is supposed to take just three or four days drags to about three to five weeks. It is even better now. At a point, it could take three months to get anything out of the port. The cost of transporting anything out of the port is very high. Exporting is even more difficult. Getting one’s containers exported takes a lot of time, yet we say we are trying to encourage non-oil export; how? They need to deregulate a lot more. Facilities need to be made available for people to build new ports. It is good we have the Lekki Deep Seaport coming up. We need to have another one. Let there be another port that is private-owned. Some countries are landlocked, but we (Nigeria) have a thousand kilometres of seafronts, so we should not be having port problems. We are in a fantastic location in the heart of Africa. We should be the hub for everybody bringing in goods (to the continent), using this place as a transit point to bring their goods from Europe and America. We need to change the dynamics by deregulating these ports (deregulation here means letting the fundamentals of running the port be done properly).
Looking at the electricity problems in the country, do you think there has been any serious engagement in finding lasting solutions between investors like your company and the DISCOs?
With all sincerity, there has been. A lot of the discos have engaged us, and we have seen them come out with solutions, which we are working with them on. We think that is the right direction. For cables, a lot of them have come to us; and for other solutions, they have gone to other Nigerian companies. That will drive growth in some other sectors, not only in cable, and it will force growth for the discos in general.
What are the most important lessons life has taught you?
The most important message for me is patience. I am an optimist and I become more optimistic when I know my patience will be rewarded. It’s good to be patient.
What are some of the principles that have guided you thus far?
The first principle is that no business is worth doing if it entails someone ending up crying. Does that mean one has ended up disheartening somebody? Also, character and integrity matter in business. If one does not have anything in the world but good character and integrity, it is the biggest collateral one can have. I have zero tolerance for bending rules on integrity.
How do you unwind?
I think I am too much of a workaholic. However, family time is important to me. Once in a while, I also hang out with friends. I am a cinema lover as well. I am attached to watching films in the cinema, and it is the only time I don’t pick calls. It allows me to blank out for the 90 minutes or so duration of the movie. I also create time for family, and I do mingle with people once in a while.
How do you create time for your family?
Family is quite important to me, because they are what makes one whole. Getting home and having that family time is key to one being able to reset oneself once in a while.
What’s your favourite meal?
I have always been a rice, beans, plantain and fish type of person. Unfortunately, it is not at the top of the list of food I am allowed to eat anymore. If you take that out, I will go with seafood okra with pounded yam. On the healthy side, I like Irish potatoes with grilled fish/chicken
How do you and your wife spend intimate moments?
For me now, couple time is getting away from the children (laughs). Once in a while, we try to get away from the children by going out together. Luckily, the children are old enough now to hang out on their own. So, couple time is time away from the children.
When you want to take a vacation trip, what are the things you look out for?
Vacation is about time to relax. Wherever I am going anywhere in the world, there has to be a cinema. I am actually a bad tourist. Rather than going for sightseeing, I prefer to go and see the malls (not for shopping). Malls are like an inspiration for me. When I enter a mall, I see what they produce in that country. Anytime I go into a mall, I look at what they produce that I can also produce in Nigeria.
Do you have any goals you are yet to accomplish?
The goal I want (to accomplish) is not just about being in the industry. It is not about Coleman alone. It is about where I see Nigeria tomorrow. However, Coleman is the catalyst for me. I am most likely going to be in one or two other industries. I can categorise myself as an industrialist.
How would you describe your childhood?
My father did well. He gave us the best education. I remember then at Ilupeju (Lagos), life was fun. We walked around the neighbourhood, and there were no mobile phones. I enjoyed life more because although I was coming from a middle-class family, I really wanted to enjoy a normal life. I had aunties, with who we boarded public buses together to attend church rehearsals, even though they had been given money to board taxis instead. I remember my aunt saying to me, “George, I am going to tell you today, your father has been used by God as a vessel for you to get into this world. When they brought you into the world, the job ended. If you believe the job ended, you will expect nothing from them, and when you expect nothing from them, you expect nothing from anybody, and when you expect nothing from anybody, you are never disappointed. When you are never disappointed, you get it done yourself”. That day, I took that statement and behaved like an orphan and started thinking about survival. Back then, living in GRA Ikeja was fun. I liked taking public transport to school with my friends even though we had a driver who could take me but I objected. It made me work harder, humbled me and changed my philosophy of life.
What were your childhood ambitions?
I think I am ticking all the boxes. I played football a lot. I am actually living my childhood ambition. It was really to make a success of myself, build a good family, and create something uniquely different from what we were all used to. I wanted to build something that would last beyond me, and I think that is happening now.
Many Nigerian youths feel they have to travel out of the country before they can become successful. What’s your take on that?
Opportunities are always out there (abroad). I always tell people to find their way back here. You can create your wealth from here because with our population, we still have lots of things to achieve. In developed countries, they had done those things about 300 years ago and they continue to improve. Over there, what is new is in the smaller percentile. Meanwhile, what is new in a country like Nigeria is in the higher percentile. The opportunities to develop are high. One just has to adopt simple principles to get there. It is in building, utilising and understanding these principles that one will get there.
Are any of your children following in your footsteps as a businessperson?
They both are in their ways, because I am following my father’s path. Catch them young and explain the business to them and let them do business. My son has been doing some sort of trade from secondary school, and in my head, I say ‘well done. Kudos to you’. Business is what one must naturally want to do. Growing up, one needs to understand the difference between business funds and personal money, which is something my father always taught us. We could not go to his hotel and collect a drink without paying. He won’t give us the money because he didn’t teach us to collect things on credit. We always had to pay.
My children grew up with the same philosophy that one must operate business as business, not charity. Money does not drop from the sky; one has to work for it.
Can you recall how you met your wife and how you eventually proposed to her?
(Laughs) We met at a friend’s party in Surulere, Lagos. Some people got into my car and I dropped them off after the party. I then went on a trip to the United Kingdom and came back feeling like a star. That was how we met. We started chatting and she came up with a funny story of a bag she dropped in my car, which I never found. We courted for about nine years. When I was coming back to Nigeria, I called her and told her it was time. I asked her, “Would you not marry me?” It was not an option (laugh). She travelled with my mum to get the (wedding) rings at Naples (Italy) because we were both in the UK then.
Do you cook?
I used to but I don’t cook like I used to anymore. However, once in a blue moon, I cook. Whenever I want to cook, I don’t tell anyone. I just buy the ingredients, enter the kitchen and cook for everyone. Punch
Leave a Reply