Dr. Bola Akindele is the Founder/Group Managing Director of Courteville Business Solutions Plc. He shares some of his entrepreneurial milestones with TOBI AWORINDE
Can you share a bit of your educational background?
I had my elementary and post-elementary school education in Lagos. My secondary school was Ansar-Ud-Deen College, Isolo, where I finished in 1979 and proceeded to the University of Ife, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture (animal science) in 1985. Subsequently, I have been a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, for 27 years now. I also have an executive master’s degree in Banking and Finance from the University of Lagos. I hold a doctorate in Business Administration from the International School of Management in Paris (France).
Why did you choose to study all these courses?
I guess, for the most part, the circumstances chose me. I studied agriculture because when I was in secondary school, it was a cherished ambition. I had visited one of the best farms in those days at Oke Afa, Isolo as a form four student. Oke Afa farm started after the bridge and just before where Jakande Estate is now, all the way to where you have the Lagos State University down to Egbeda and Iyana Ipaja. That was the size of the farm at that time and it had everything. It had animal husbandry and plants. It was a sight to behold and it motivated a lot of us. It was highly mechanised, especially in that era. But within few years of starting agriculture, I couldn’t sustain that interest.
Again, providence and circumstances prevailed because coming out of school between 1984 and 1990 — those were years that were tough for fresh graduates- there were no jobs. Unemployment was rampant and it was really bad. You could only find things to do if you were lucky. If I can remember correctly, out of every 10 graduates at that time, maybe two would get really good jobs in banks or insurance firms. Maybe another one or two would get teaching appointments or jobs in ministries. The rest would just have to find other things to do. So, after a couple of years working with the family business, I decided to extend my experience and went for audit training with KPMG-Peat Marwick Ani Ogunde & Co.
What was the family business?
My dad had retired from the Central Bank of Nigeria, but all the while, he had always encouraged me not to rely solely on salaries, even though I wasn’t working then. So, there was always some business around: dry-cleaning, trading, contract financing and all that. The company was called Bala Usman Attahiru. He left a bit of it for me to handle as soon as I finished my National Youth Service Corps programme and I wasn’t working. So, while he was still with the Central Bank of Nigeria, I was the one taking care of the business. That was just for about two years, after which I trained with KPMG.
It was the only way I could establish myself as a professional because whenever I went for job interviews at that time, and I wanted to work in a bank, it was always, ‘If you had read Economics…’ or ‘If you had read Accountancy…’ or something like that. So, I went to do that and thank God, I came out tops. I started that in 1987 and by 1990, I had qualified. I went back to the Central Bank of Nigeria. From then, I worked as a banker and I moved on to my master’s immediately after qualifying as an accountant. But those were the low-hanging fruit of that time. Once you had an ICAN qualification or certification, you were largely established, and could to a large degree, start a good life in the profession of banking or anywhere for that matter. Studying for ICAN was an option — a very tough one for me to choose but eventually, a very worthwhile one. It was just God pushing me all the way.
So I finished for my masters in 1993 from UNILAG. I stopped doing academic work for a long time until 2010 or thereabout when, just for self-esteem and self-actualisation efforts, I decided to see how well my brain could handle academic work again. So, I went for a doctorate programme at ISM. The convocation was last year. I now have my doctorate among other things.
Commercial banking is not as buoyant or attractive to new graduates nowadays. Did you foresee this when you decided to leave the banking sector?
In those days, it was not as bouyant as it is now. There were very few banks. I’m talking about 1989 or thereabouts. I remember my dad would send me to his branch in UBA. I would leave Mushin first thing in the morning. Before they opened, I would drop his cheque and get a tally number and I would have to go back at 3pm to pick up the cash. UBA, First Bank, Union Bank, Afribank, Wema Bank — those were the banks in existence then. When the new banks started coming up, employment opportunities grew. In 1990, they started licensing finance houses, mortgage and community banks. This in turn provided employment. That was when things started opening up and people started doing things with traditional banks.
I wouldn’t tell you that I foresaw all of these happening, but while I was still studying accountancy, it was easy to see because a number of my colleagues who were working with audit firms really did not want to stay on as auditors. But then, once you had that certification, you could fit into any industry. You could be an accountant in a manufacturing company; you could do anything because accountancy is needed across board. We knew that it was our Golden Fleece. I did it in 30 months because I had to start from scratch. The standard was 36 months if you were in an audit firm, but I left the firm before my completion. As soon as I was done with it, I became an assistant manager at the Central Bank of Nigeria and I was not yet 27.
Many of your businesses are technology-based. What inspired the decision?
Survival instinct. I was in banking till around October 2004. The last company I worked with was Fountain Trust Bank. I was at the general manager level when I left and I needed to promote some business that I could understand, so I registered Courteville Investments Limited as a Securities and Exchange Commission-certified corporate business advisory firm. I had to be around what I knew how to do. We started with some groups: Chisco, Chief Akande Group, the Ibru Group, among others. We were writing industry reports and doing well enough. The challenge was just that we were just a little fish swimming in an ocean that had sharks. We needed to find our own river where we could be the alligator easily. I knew at that time that it was going to continue to be a struggle and I’ve been proven right because it boomed a bit during the large boom of the stock exchange. However,consultancy has been in a slump for a while now.
In 2006, we decided to change our model and look for more mass market-oriented service provisions. That was how we decided to look for areas where we could improve services and the one that I had been toying with while I was still in the bank was what came out as AutoReg. I had been looking at vehicle licence registration, but nobody took it seriously when I was telling them about it in the bank because there wasn’t enough research about it to bring out the business potential in it. When we did our research, we shut down everything that we had been doing for over a year to conclude the research, develop the documents, start marketing, pitching it, and designing the slogan and the software. We were lucky enough that Lagos State gave us a chance on February 2, 2007, to start with it. We needed Lagos State or Abuja and Lagos presented the greatest challenge to us because of its cosmopolitan nature and the fact that you have the most enlightened set of people. They are the most contentious as well and they will debate everything with you. The terrain is difficult and people (motorists) don’t comply. We wanted to showcase ourselves in that kind of tough environment. God was very kind, we did so very quickly and the story has grown from there since 2007. Ten years after, we’re now in over 20 states. We also now have operations in Jamaica, Zimbabwe, and starting Gambia, Ghana and Sierra Leone soon.
The company is now a public limited company. Why did you decide to go public?
We needed funding. We knew we had to expand and by the time we were going public, we were only working in two states: Lagos and Anambra. We needed to cross the boundaries to other states. The business development costs are very high. At the time we were chasing after Lagos State, we were also chasing after Ogun and Abuja. We started in Lagos State since 2007 but we only started in Ogun State in December last year. We started in Ogun but they stopped us and we have yet to resume there. You can’t stop in-between. You’ll continue to travel back and forth, pay for hotels and do what you need to do with government officials. There was a state that gave us the go-ahead to start. We already paid N5m as commitment fee, after which it is just for the government to say, ‘Start now’ but eight years after, we have yet to begin! You see, business development costs are high. We also needed to go into the private sector, so we decided to take advantage of the boom in the stock market at that time. We wanted to raise a billion (naira). So, we started, and in three days, it was already N1.53bn. I had to shut it down in two or three days because it was much more than we needed. By the time we woke up after two or three days, we had about 1,500 shareholders. The value of the company was already over N3bn. It was very useful and we were able to carry out a lot of feasibility studies across the country and overseas. That was part of what took us to Jamaica, Zimbabwe and some other places.
What does success mean to you?
It means contentment. Success is part of a journey, not an end in itself. It is part of what you do. You are born and you go to school. Success for you as a student means passing your exams. The next step is graduating from the university with a good result. Success is when you achieve that. And the next step, is that you want to get a good job, not just because getting a good job is an end in itself, but because you want to be able to live well. To live well, you might decide to have a good family. So, there is always a next level. Success is a journey, just like failure is. Everybody in life will have most of this in succession, though not necessarily in a rapid manner.
I couldn’t help but notice your impeccable sense of style. What do you consider to be fashionable?
It is about comfort and looking the part when you need to look the part. I wore suits and ties for almost 20 years. So, when I came here, I decided that except it becomes absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t wear suits and ties.