Three Exclusive Business Lessons From Tonye Cole

Three Exclusive Business Lessons From Tonye Cole

We consider Sahara Group, a twenty-year old energy conglomerate based in Nigeria, a great example for young businesses to follow. The company's principled management, growth and sustained relevance are standards all Nigerian organisations should aspire to.

In this excerpt from the MARGIN launch event in October, Sahara Group CEO, Mr. Tonye Cole shares three vital lessons he has learned in his twenty years of business leadership.

1. Be disciplined.

Sahara Group was founded by three partners. For the first three years of the company's existence, all revenue was reinvested in the business.

"It was the toughest part of our lives to know that our business was making millions of naira and we could not take anything back." It is tempting to want to put yourself ahead of your business "but if your business is going to grow, you must put it ahead of you and it is going to take everything you make in the first few years. If you put yourself ahead of your business in its first few years, you will become the brand but your business will not survive."

2. Don't get carried away with the 'CEO' title.

CEOs are not equal. Know when your title can be an obstacle to your business.

"When Sahara Group started, Nigeria's energy sector was dominated by foreign companies. To survive in the sector we needed to differentiate ourselves and get rid of the stigma that Nigerian companies were not competent, so we registered the company abroad and set up what we called a Nigerian representative office. More importantly, for the first five years, none of us [the partners] had a title. No one knew we owned the company. Instead of presenting ourselves as CEOS and inadvertently competing with the CEOs of powerful foreign oil and gas companies when pursuing business opportunities, we presented ourselves as Nigerian agents and representatives of our own company." "There's no policy to help entrepreneurs in Nigeria," so presenting yourself as an entrepreneur or a CEO can be business suicide.

3. Build useful relationships.

To connect with the people who are important to the progress of your business, build relationships with their staff. Those are your real assets.

It is wrong to think that "because you are a CEO, the only people you should speak to are CEOs." So-called subordinate staff such as security guards, secretaries and drivers can help you reach their bosses if you build relationships with them. "In the first few years of Sahara Group, we would go to canteens, sit down with the secretaries and sit with the drivers to build relationships at the bottom of the pyramid. Those relationships played a major role in keeping Sahara Group alive at a critical time."

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