By Steve Agbota
“From a tender age, I have always been entrepreneurial in my thinking,” says Dr. Taiwo Afolabi, the executive vice-chairman of SIFAX Group, as he marks his 60th birthday.
Going down memory lane, he reminisced on his tutelage under the watchful eyes of his mother and uncle who instilled in him the rudiments of entrepreneurship that now run in his blood.
Hear him: “My mother was a trader and, through her, I learnt the rudiments of trading and that passion has stayed with me ever since. So, starting my business was a natural progression for me after spending some years learning the ropes from my uncle who owned a clearing and forwarding business in Lagos”.
In this interview, he discussed his humble beginnings, how he built his business empire and how he expanded its tentacles to other African countries, Europe and America.
Who is Taiwo Afolabi?
I am Dr. Taiwo Afolabi, the founder and group executive vice-chairman of SIFAX Group. Obviously, I am an entrepreneur, business leader, mentor and many more. I am an indigene of Ogun State and, by the grace of God, I am 60 years old. I was born in Ondo on April 29, 1962. As my first name indicates, I am a twin; I have a twin brother. I had my primary school at Ondo and my secondary school education at Baptist Grammar School, Ibadan. I hold a Law degree from the University of Lagos as well as master’s in International Law and Diplomacy from the same university.
I have been running my business for over 33 years now. I actually launched my company in 1988 as a freight forwarding firm in Lagos, Nigeria, after working with an uncle, under whom I learnt the rudiments of the clearing and forwarding business.
From the little beginning in 1988, SIFAX Group has grown to become one of the leading indigenous corporations in Nigeria with thousands of jobs created, both direct and indirect. We have also spread our tentacles to other African countries as well as Europe and America.
Our core business focus is integrated logistics but, over the years, we have diversified to other areas, including financial services, oil and gas, and hospitality.
Aside from running my business, another thing I am passionate about is societal impact. As an organisation and in my individual capacity, we support causes and individuals who are not privileged in the society. Our key intervention areas are education, health and youth and women empowerment. We have a foundation, which is devoted to implementing our beliefs in this regard.
I have also been privileged to be a recipient of a national honour in Nigeria, Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), while I am also the Honorary Counsul General of Djibouti in Nigeria.
I am a family man. I am married to a beautiful and supportive woman, Mrs. Folashade Afolabi, and blessed with children who are all doing well in their different endeavours.
How do you feel turning 60?
Let me start by expressing my appreciation to God Almighty who has remained my source and inspiration over the years. He has not only kept me alive but has also granted me grace, meets all my needs, grants me good health, peace of mind and a great family. I am indeed a grateful man as I turn 60.
I am sure some of my peers have died and so many are not as privileged as I am. These and many more give me unending joy because of the grace. I am probably not the smartest, but God’s grace has found me and beautified my life.
So, as I turn 60, I am grateful to God. I am happy that life has been kind to me. I am grateful for the modest impact God has accomplished through me. I am grateful for a wonderful family and I am grateful for a greater future.
You started your career with your uncle and later left to float your own business. What was your motivation?
Well, from a tender age, I have always been entrepreneurial in my thinking. My mother was a trader and, through her, I learnt the rudiments of trading and that passion has stayed with me ever since. So, starting my business was a natural progression for me after spending some years learning the ropes from my uncle who owned a clearing and forwarding business in Lagos. I rose to become the operations manager in the company. By this time, I was well-grounded and ready to take on the next challenge.
Apart from expressing my passion, I also set up the business to take advantage of emerging opportunities and to provide a platform for others to fulfill their dreams through job and wealth creation. Today, our companies employ about 5,000 staff and you know the implication of such a number of employees, especially the ripple effect on their immediate and extended families as well as the society. If you also throw in the number of businesses, both large and small, that do businesses with our various companies, you will see how far we have come in impacting the society. Those are some of the things that motivated me to start my business then.
What are the lessons life has taught you in the last 60 years?
There are many of them. One is that you must be strategic in your thinking and planning in order to become outstanding. Ordinary approach will always deliver ordinary result. If you look at the growth pattern of SIFAX Group, it is a result of well-thought-out plan. The integrated approach has helped us. From running a clearing and forwarding firm to starting inland container depots across Lagos, to bidding and winning the concession of a port terminal, to setting up a haulage business that conveys goods from these ports to the container depots, to bidding and winning concession of a ground handling company, to launching the Marriott Hotel and a financial services company. You will see that these businesses are complementary in nature and this has given us some form of advantage over competitors.
I also need to emphasise the place of humility. Let me tell you, before God, we are all equal, whether you are rich or people. Everybody deserves respect. Humility will attract people to you and they can go to any length to support you if they know you are not arrogant. I have always believed in living a simple and humble life, which is scriptural because God admonishes us to live humbly, and promised to elevate us.
I have also studied the lives of many successful godly people and you’d see humility in them. I have many VIPs – ministers, successful businessmen and top government officials as associates, but I always come back to my constituency, which is my old time friends, and schoolmates and I cherish them greatly. I won’t abandon them because I now have new friends. I’ve gone to several places and people doubt if I were the Dr. Taiwo Afolabi they have heard so much about. I always tell them that simplicity owns the world.
Life has also taught me the importance of friendship and relationship building. It is a skill that is important to get ahead in life. Value friendship. I have some of my friends that have been with me for over 40 years, some since our secondary school days and we are still together today.
Obviously, the need to give back. Most of the times, God blesses us more than what we need so we could support and care for others. This is a lesson I learnt from a tender age and I haven’t deviated form it till to day.
Your company opened Lagos Marriott Hotel about a year ago. What motivated you to launch this business?
I have been privileged to travel around the world in the course of doing business and pleasure and this has exposed me to international standards in the hospitality industry across the globe. So the major reason for the investment in the hotel is to provide the same level of comfort, class and superior customer experience for Nigerians.
Nigerians are reputed for hard work and relaxation, and enjoyment should naturally follow after working so hard. The hotel provides the perfect ambience to relax, refresh, connect and celebrate the achievements that follow their hard work. In the last one year of operation, the hotel has disrupted Lagos hospitality landscape. It has become the favourite venue for major individual and corporate events.
Aside this, as a corporation, we always look for opportunities to impact our country. I have this vision of creating jobs for as many Nigerians as possible. Hundreds of eligible Nigerians are currently employed in the hotel while the indirect employment and other ancillary benefits can’t be quantified. So, job creation is another key factor in setting up the business.
There is a need to build the next generation of entrepreneurs. What role should established business titans like you play?
The reason many people don’t succeed in business and career is due to lack of mentorship. They go into business without the guidance and support of mentors who have done successfully what they are trying to do. Mentorship is key for young entrepreneurs in Nigeria. By the way, let me say that the future of Africa is entrepreneurship.
Young people must be encouraged and supported to pursue their dreams. This is going to help in reducing poverty and high rate of employment in the continent. It is the duty of successful businessmen and women across the continent to mentor and support these budding entrepreneurs.
These young entrepreneurs need to be mentored and guided so that Africa can witness true prosperity. I have been involved in this both directly and indirectly. My company supports various platforms and initiatives that identify and nurture budding entrepreneurs. I also have people I personally take under my wings that I support their dreams and mentor as well.
You are noted for philanthropy. What is the philosophy behind this generous giving?
There is so much poverty in Africa and privileged individuals must be deliberate in helping the poor. It is part of the core philosophy of my life and business. We are not in business to make profit alone. We believe in making impact. We help individuals and communities as much as we can.
I can say I inherit the trait from my mother who was fond of meeting the needs of needy people around her while I was growing up. I saw the joy and satisfaction on my mother’s face after supporting these people and I believe I unconsciously imbibe the principle of sharing from her. Giving is one key success factor. I wish people realise that giving leads to abundance. It has been a way of life for me and have been seen its impact over the years.
When people come to me for help and I do it, I am always appreciative of the opportunity God has given me to be a blessing to others. Giving comes with a sense of satisfaction and inner joy.
I see giving more as a divine mandate to pull people out of poverty through job creation and philanthropy. Our company is also involved in this philanthropy and its key focus includes education, health and youth and women empowerment. We provide support for public educational and health institutions. We make donations to schools and hospitals. We donated a 1,000 capacity lecture theatre to Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso. We donated a brand new bus to the medical students association of Obafemi Awolowo University. We have a foundation with offices in Lagos, Zaria and Umuahia that provide support to the widows and the less privileged. Many indigent students in their hundreds enjoy full scholarship from the foundation. Women are trained in various skills and then given grants to start their businesses. The list is too long to recall.
How do you balance your busy schedule and family?
I am so privileged to have an understanding wife and family who believe in my vision and support me fully in the journey. When you run a business that is diverse as SIFAX Group, you are bound to be busy and on the road most times. I travel often both locally and internationally and this has a way it affects family time.
But as much as I can, I create time for them. I make sure the little time we have together is judiciously used. We also go on vacation together to maintain our bond.
My wife is very supportive and she is my number one fan. By the way, she is a prayer warrior and you don’t need to be told that I feature prominently in her prayers. She backs me up spiritually and takes good care of the home front so I could have the presence of mind to pursue my targets.
She has also done well when you look at the way our children have turned out so well. She understands my schedule and gladly tolerates my absence. But she knows that I don’t take her for granted. I respect and honour her. I create time for her even in the midst of my busy schedule.
Advice for young entrepreneurs
For the young entrepreneurs, I would say first hold on to God, be honest and patient. What is not enough now will eventually become a surplus for you but there are processes you need to take. There are some factors that help in the journey of entrepreneurship. One is vision. You must have an idea of what you want to do and the impact you want to make. Two, hard work is very important. All successful people are hard workers. Laziness hinders greatness. Three, solve a problem and success will naturally come. Money goes in the direction of value.
Four, persistence. You must develop the courage and resilience to keep going in the face of daunting challenges because the journey is full of different ups and downs. Don’t give up easily. If you fall, rise, take a lesson and continue your hustling.
What is your biggest challenge as a businessman?
Risk. Business is a very risky venture. Even after doing all the due diligence, things can still go bad. It remains a big challenge but no gain no pain. When you lose, you start all over again.
I have done a business in Europe where I lost about €4 million within seven months and that hasn’t stopped me from starting again or investing in another one.
Business is a risk and for those who want to make it big, you must be able to calculate your risk well and make an informed decision. But the ability and the power to overcome after a loss lies in you.
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