By Oye Atilade BSc, MSc, MBA, PMP
“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24 NKJV
NIGERIA is a challenging place, to do business in any situation and under any circumstance. People, politics, processes, finances, infrastructure, government bureaucracy, the environment, and even the weather are all factors. While there may be structures, processes, and rules in place, not everyone follows them, and not all the time. But when it is a family business it all becomes very personal, very real, very quickly.
In some sense, it makes it even harder to understand simply because if it is a family business and if you are not family then what is your own? But to answer this question we have to define who is and who is not family.
Because in Nigeria everyone feels entitled; newly hired employees feel entitled, people who have been with the business and family for a long time feel entitled, people not in the business directly but knew your parents or your parents’ parents feel entitled and, people who your family has been taking care of since their/your grandfather’s time also feel entitled. So who is family and what rights do they have? For family is never small in Nigeria.
My grandfather, Papa, was both a clergyman and an educator. He loved God with all his heart, all his mind and all his soul, and he believed that everyone, including the most economically disadvantaged, should have an education. My cousins and I act as the Administrators of Papa’s estate, representing my father, who is the head of the family. Papa’s legacy consists of his six children of which my father is the eldest.
When Papa died in 1997 he was survived by mama, his children, 21 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren. Now we are more and that’s just immediate family. Papa’s Estate currently consists of 3 schools (he founded 8 in his lifetime), real estate, over 200 published books, and a missionary church with 250 stations. Our family is large and complex, but there are only a few immediate family members managing the family business.
We have been in this role since January 2019 when my uncle, the previous Administrator, died. Starting out, my first goal was to understand what was going on. This in and of itself was a challenge as everybody had a story to tell. There was a lot of ingratiating and he said she said, so in order to try and discern what was true, I listened and I watched. The estate was not in an ideal condition when we took over, so my second goal was to upgrade and put a structure in place. Putting a structure consisted of legal registrations; electronic systems especially for the schools; and developing an organizational culture of oneness and win-win between management and family, employees, teachers, students, parents, guardians, vendors, and tenants.
I find myself talking a lot, not something I like but I find it is necessary. I am constantly trying to explain why collaboration towards a mutual goal ensures a win-win for all of us. I explain to staff that working for the goals of the business invariably means working for themselves because as the business grows, rewards increase; but if they only work for themselves, they end up working against clients/beneficiaries which reduces the rewards.
We also try to maximize the utility of all facilities. When running a business, there are three ways to make money: 1) expand the revenue base, 2) increase revenue, and 3) reduce costs. By maximizing utilization, you expand and increase revenue, while reducing costs simultaneously. We are also developing a maintenance culture. What we do day to day, every day, is corporate turnaround management. My cousin — a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of logistics in the British Army — pointed this out.
Though we have increased welfare for staff not everyone understands or agrees with the actions we have taken and that we continue to take. It is not business as usual and it is causing a lot of angst as people’s lifestyles are changing. We have been challenged by employees, vendors, the church and even immediate family. Everyone wants more, and they want it yesterday. Employees want more renumeration, the church wants control, and family wants the money to be shared.
They all feel that there is a lot of money that we are sharing it, and they should get theirs. Some staff have left, one or two terminated and I have received various direct and indirect threats; one staff has been taken to the police station by a cousin, another cousin has threatened legal action unless she is paid ‘several millions’ she feels are her due, and another has claimed one of Papa’s properties as his late father’s own.
There are also administrative and bureaucratic challenges. As we assess the estate, we have discovered that certain lands have been lost, encroached upon, taken over, disputed, and there are others we cannot find at all. We have found that entities have to be registered or re-registered which is taking an inordinate amount of time as the process winds its way through government offices and the courts. I personally have been to government offices so many times they should give me an office! Even when we think we have scored a victory (once I even sent a thank you cake) we often have to go back for some issue or the other. This then delays bank and other required processing. In the second term of school, for example, we had to collect school fees manually because we did not have access to any of the corporate accounts and, in the third term we finally got access to just one bank which was better but not convenient. This cost us dearly.
One day I had a serious exchange of words with a younger cousin. I was so upset I went to see an Aunt from church. I wanted her to tell me it was okay to quit. I wanted her to tell me that I should not come and kill myself. I wanted her to tell me that I should just do what I could and leave the rest. But she did not say any of that. After explaining her own challenges as the sole administrator of her father’s estate for the past 30 years, and she not the oldest of his children, she shared Colossians 3: 23-24.
She explained that I wasn’t working for my father that I wasn’t even working for my grandfather. She told me that I should work as if I am working for God, and that it is God that will reward me in the end. She said I needed to continue because it was God that had called me to do this work. And then we prayed. It took two days for me to thank her for her words. It took all of two days for me to accept that she was right.
I do believe that God is with us because when I look at where we have come from and where we are now, I know that there is no way we could have done any of it without God being on our side. It has been tough but we have achieved quite a lot in a short time. One day, I got a call late at night from an employee telling me about one of our facilities being used as a car park illegally. The next morning, I talked to the erring employee. It turned out that the one who called was also involved. I called both and asked them to stop. I explained that the cars could be stolen or we might inadvertently entertain armed robbers. I followed up by withholding certain payments and that got their attention. I later received a proposal from them that the family should take it on as a business. I said no. They are stopping. Yes, talking helps but one also needs to bite once in a while. I am constantly praying for God’s guidance and protection, and so are others around me, especially my father. These are challenging times. But these are also interesting times.
So far, it has been stressful, frustrating, fun, and the most fulfilling role I have ever had in my life. I find myself growing personally and spiritually. I am learning to choose people who can perform, to train them to perform even better, and to delegate to them so they can. I realize I cannot and should not do everything. I pray and read scriptures every day and rely on God to see me through. God is teaching me to be patient, to persevere, to mind my tongue, to control my temper, to learn to be at peace with everyone, and most importantly, to love and show compassion. It may not be appreciated now, but one day maybe it will be. Being connected to God also helps to ensure a lasting legacy.
Papa was a man of great vision and foresight, a foremost philanthropist, and his estate is 60 years old and still standing. As good stewards we need to ensure that it stands for at least another 60 years holding true to the family’s vision. That will be our legacy.
There are critical lessons I have learnt so far which I would like to share as they may be helpful to others. In a family business, it is best to have a will or a letter of administration clearly stating the wishes of the owner of the estate and roles and responsibilities. Not having any of these instruments causes a lot of challenges especially when it comes to legacy, legal matters, inheritance, succession planning and taxes. It may be difficult to do because of the traditional societies we have in Nigeria, but it is necessary.
Treat everyone equally with respect, love and compassion. Try not to have an ego just because it is your family’s business or property. You are merely the custodian at this point in time and you are accountable to all stakeholders. And when people know you truly value them, it is easier for them to be loyal to you.
Survey the land. Do not assume anything. Take stock. People talk but find out what is really going on before jumping to any conclusions or making any decisions. I found out that things were very different inside from when I was outside looking in. All that glitters is not gold but all that looks dull is not dross either.
When the time is right — and this is in the short term after surveying the land — develop short, medium and long term goals and objectives. Develop a vision and a mission and communicate them clearly and consistently to the entire organization and especially immediate family. Organize a family meeting as soon as it is feasible when you have a coherent story to tell.
People need to know and understand what you are doing, where you are going and why, and the family needs to be carried along. Family may not always agree but they cannot say they did not know. It also gives them a chance to ask questions and to understand and support the vision if they so choose. Until you can have a family meeting, liaise frequently with individual family members. We have not had the chance to have a family meeting yet, so in addition to reporting regularly to my father, I also discuss with family members.
You need to develop an organizational culture to ensure that everyone is dancing to the same tune. People should have all the information needed to carry out their responsibilities. It makes the business more efficient and effective. People working against the business spoil things, even the best laid plans. Implement structures that are critical to the creation of processes and rules, and communicate roles and responsibilities. Everything should be registered, legalized and accounted for, for longevity, strategic planning, and decision making.
Document everything. Take notes especially during meetings. Computerize and report on what you are doing regularly. This helps show where you have come from, where you are now and where you are going. It gives an idea — especially to immediate family — of the changes that you have made so they understand what is going on. In fact, you should take before and after pictures especially where there are upgrades and updates to facilities. We do.
Keep lines of communication open. This means that in addition to regular team meetings, have one on one meetings and even an open door policy. I have an open door policy and this has helped me hear things that I would not ordinarily have heard. It also gives employees a chance to air their grievances and feel that they are truly part of the organization. It is however important to prioritize and set boundaries otherwise, the stream of issues never ends. They will keep coming for one reason or the other. So set business hours, have set times for discussions, and enforce them. For example, do not pick calls or respond outside those times. Everyone will get the message.
There also have to be clearly communicated rules with repercussions that are enforced. For example, we have let all staff know that any monies collected directly from students or parents without management approval will be deducted in full and immediately from their salaries; in addition they may be subject to disciplinary action, including suspension without pay, termination, police and/or legal action. Do not be afraid to terminate if necessary. Yes, it is good to be nice and compassionate but love includes correction and we do not help anybody when we keep people in positions where they have shown themselves to be ineffective and even dangerous.
When it comes to legal registrations and bank processing never have sole signatories. Have at least two directors, trustees, signatories, two of everything. That way, if someone is unavailable or passes on, the other —with an alternate — can take over and life goes on smoothly. The signatories do not have to have equal signing authorization but one should not be dependent on the other.
Remember to retreat, relax and rejuvenate. Rest. Meditate. Revitalize. Drink tea. I drink coffee when I want to work but tea relaxes me during meetings. One day I had to listen to a man and woman in their late 50s and 60s hurl insults at each other. I drank my green tea with honey, lemon, and ginger, and just listened. When they finished, I told them that I had no doubt that God will bring back the love I was sure they had for each other as brother and sister and gently but firmly showed them the door. I was floating… Do not forget to go on vacation. Getaway. Then come back ready to do more.
Finally, build a legacy and do not just do a job or fulfill a role. Being involved in a family business already means you are walking the hallowed walls of history. Make sure you build on that because, in the end, that is what will be remembered. What we have is Papa’s legacy and that is what we are building on. That is our driving force.