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Chairman, Zinox Group, Chief Leo Stan Ekeh, has carved a niche as an entrepreneur fired up by the desire to make a significant difference in a sector dominated by international companies. Ekeh, who spoke on the Fidelity SME Forum on a radio programme monitored by Festus Akanbi, shared his perspectives on winning in a market dominated by international brands
What various lines of business are Zinox into right now?
Zinox as a company has a history of 14 years in business. But we’ve been in business for 26 years. I started as a very small entrepreneur. The Zinox group is the largest ICT group in sub-Saharan Africa. We are into ICT products manufacturing, distribution, upscale core technology solutions and support and more. But let me start from the first company: Task System. When I came into this country, I had to create a little bit of disruption in the system because the economy was an IBM-driven economy, so I came with Apple Macintosh. I launched Apple in the country about 24 years ago and we computerised all the media and multi-media houses in the country, including the book publishing houses nationwide. After this first disruptive move, we moved to offer solutions to the oil and gas sector of the economy and it was at this point that Steve Job enhanced the Graphics interface of Apple with User interface which limited it initially from being used in the corporate sector as an alternative to IBM, and that gave me the impetus to expand into the rare corporate sector.
That said, Task System delivered solution to the first 20 largest multinationals in the country in the 80s, 90s and till today. That is in the oil, banking and manufacturing sector. It’s a highly integrated solution company. In order to segment the market, I launched the first ICT distribution company in West Africa – Technology Distributions, which today is the largest ICT distributor in sub-Saharan Africa and controls 70 per cent of the Nigerian ICT distribution market. Few years after, I launched Zinox to create digital identity for Nigeria. I mean to say, that after you’ve achieved a little bit, you’d also want your country to have an ICT identity. So Zinox was launched to create an IT identity for the nation. Within the group, we also have a digital Internet hub called Zinox Telecom which is streaming online content using our robust broadband infrastructure to about 226 tertiary and over 1,000 secondary institutions and other strategic corporate organisations in the country. We also have a huge support backbone nationwide which is in charge of support services because it is critical in the third world. We are going from one step to another. You can say we are an integrated group in the ICT sector.
What is the key to your diversification and how do you identify and take advantage of opportunities?
When we started, it was from an analog century to digital century. The entrepreneurs of last century are different from the entrepreneurs of today because you have better education, global exposure, more informed clients, we even eat less and you have news online to read. In short, a lot has changed. Zinox is known as an original equipment manufacturer, but that is seven per cent of the business we do because we know what people think about Zinox is less than 10 per cent of what we are. We have done the biggest ICT projects across West Africa. Two months ago, a government in Africa invited us to intervene on their electronic registration for their election. We finished the job and they paid up and we moved on. We deployed and designed the largest e-library solution in Africa. We are a house of Digital Research and Development people. A lot of entrepreneurs must define what they want. In the olden days people did not have access to resources and human capital, and so they started too small. What happened was simple; the big time traders took advantage of everybody. But in the 21st century, money is available and human capital is a little bit in your hands. But you’d have to differentiate an entrepreneur who inherited wealth and an entrepreneur from nothing. That’s where people like me and a lot of Nigerian entrepreneurs come from today. If you are coming into the market today, it’s like trying to sell cement. Do you have the resources to compete with Dangote? It’s like coming into IT; do you have the resources to compete one on one with the Zinox group? By resources here, I don’t just mean cash. If you are a smart kid, then you’d understand that for you to be known, you have to cause positive disruption in the system.
To identify opportunities that abound, you must look at your earlier script with less greed and it must be commercial opportunities that are in line with your prescribed road map and must add value. I wrote the script of my group clearly from day one and that’s why I stay focused on the ICT business. A lot of entrepreneurs get too excited too early. Ninety nine per cent of today’s successful entrepreneurs started with ‘tokunbo’ cars. They lived with their friends in one room for many years. A lot of people fail because they believe in ‘status business’. They want to show off, so they spend more money printing expensive complimentary cards, cars, fashion than incubating genuinely for a while. Entrepreneurs must be very clear on what they want and attach humility to it because smarter people learn from smart people, rework it a little bit and become global wiz kids and that is what access to technology has brought to our door step and that is why I say there is no one created by God in the 21st century to be poor.
Money is available but what is critical in 21st century is knowledge of the business, humility and integrity. If you have integrity, then you don’t need money from the bank. And that’s what I’ve done. I don’t have a godfather than God and I can tell you the truth, that if I have a business of 20 billion dollars to deliver, I have foreign partners who trust me and will readily extend credit facility to execute the job. And I pay after I finish the project.
What is the importance of remaining focused and developing depth in a particular sector?
An entrepreneur should be very disciplined and principled and must see himself or herself as an only child. I wanted to take IT to the highest level. The temptation was there to go into oil business being a Nigerian. I remained focused on the ICT sector because it does not lie. When you are in the third world, you face a lot of distractions and too many people are talking it the same time. Technology does not lie. Its either you’ve gotten it right or you’ve not. Although I have few interests, I can tell you that technology is the only platform that can take you beyond your limit. I’m doing business through one of my platforms in UAE and I don’t know what would have taken me there, looking at the limitations of my family. So it means, to a large extent, that I am a global citizen. I don’t need money, I work with credibility. As an entrepreneur, if you want to stay focused, you need to first of all build personal collateral. You are the collateral of the company at the early stage and if you are morally upright, then you build corporate collateral and the banks will be your best friends. That will help drastically to reduce crises in your business. I decided to stay in IT, it’s exciting, it is my passion and I am digging deep into it and it is the next thing to happen.
If you have 50,000 Nigerians in the ICT sector, and God decides to touch this country, ten of them could create disruptive wealth globally that can take this country to number three or four amongst wealthy nations. This is because every person is a global citizen as long as you are knowledge driven.
How can one compete and ‘disrupt’ a business arena dominated by international brands?
There are many entrepreneurs but there are very few successful ones. That is why I tell people that many are called but few are chosen. So it is your decision if you want to belong to the chosen platform. It was clear to me that I was going to compete with the ‘big boys’. And when you are competing with the ‘big boys’, they have resources in terms of cash, human capital, structure, they are global and they have a brand. To play with the ‘big boys’, you have to be very courageous and have the heart of a lion but the great humility of a sheep. People teach strategies but the tact to deliver the strategies is more critical and more important than the strategies. If you want to compete with multinational companies, you have to be knowledge driven and you must stay focused on a niche market.
Again, managing the resources creatively is paramount but you must be determined to incubate over a period. The entrepreneurs must watch the gaps. What I have done in the ICT industry is to collaborate with multinationals while competing with them. At Zinox we look at the culture and mentality of our people and pep our strategies with these while putting world-class structures, systems and contents to sustain growth. You must continuously monitor the weaknesses or burden of these competitors to dynamically rework your strategies and tact. And your Research and Development arm must be very strong to contain developments in your sector.
Looking back, are there things you did that helped to bring you where you are today?
For me, I can say it’s been between me and God. As a child I tried to stay away from frivolities and I tried to stay close to the Supreme Being. Successful entrepreneurs give their lives to God and businesses.
Will you sell Zinox if you are offered a good price?
Zinox is a mustard seed and a spiritual responsibility, and I am not done with it yet. It’s a call. When I finish with it, then I’ll go to the market and leave it in the hands of Nigerians. It is a public trust.
How do you attract and retain talents?
What you must do as an entrepreneur is to hire people that are better and more knowledgeable than you if you want to be successful. A lot of entrepreneurs are afraid of employing people that are more knowledgeable than them. What I have done over the years is to open up to my colleagues, nothing really special to hide. When you are open to people, you give them a sense of belonging in a knowledge driven business and so they don’t have more to ask. Make them know they have a future in the growth of the enterprise and you are just an agent God is using to deliver.
You must have God’s influence in your business and that is why an entrepreneur has to be spiritually strong if he wants to run a successful business not just in Africa but in every part of the world.