To his admirers and detractors, he is certainly an intriguing personality. His calm mien makes it easy to underestimate him, but that will be at your peril. Mr Femi Otedola, needs no introduction. Rich, successful and sometimes controversial, he is the second Nigerian to ever make the Forbes annual list of the world’s richest people. After two years on his trail, he finally yielded to granted this interview.
Otedola spoke frankly on most issues, his childhood fascination, his role in his father’s political career, how his business practically collapsed, what he did to get it back on track and his relationship with his bosom friend, Aliko Dangote among others. It is revealing and riveting. Shaka Momodu interviewed him… first in over six years.
What is your typical day like?
I wake up at about 6.30 am and say my prayers. I then go to the gym for 1 hour. After my work out, I have a healthy breakfast during which time I start speaking to my business people in Nigeria and abroad on the phone. The issues I discuss with them tends to shape my day. After speaking to my key staff, depending on which country I am in, I go into the office to conduct more business and work. My day at work is generally packed with meetings and on busy days I could work till quite late. When in the Far East like in China my days tend to be very long due the time difference. I also read a lot during the course of my day and when I have free leisure time I enjoy watching movies.
So you don’t spend so much time running your businesses?
I would say I spend a lot of my time running all my businesses although my approach is to delegate wisely and give clearly defined responsibilities for all my staff. That way, if there is a problem we know who is responsible. As I cannot be in all places at all times the key is to ensure that I have a sound team, which steers the ship in the right direction under my guidance.
Tell us about what growing up was like for you?
As a young boy growing up, I always had the ambition of becoming a Catholic reverend father. I used to admire reverend fathers in their clean white cassock and I thought this was my destiny but of course events changed all that and instead of becoming a reverend father I ended up becoming a businessman.
What was growing under your father like?
He was strict and was disciplined. He always kept saying to me that honesty is always the best policy, hardwork and contentment. He would always allow you to pursue what you believe to be your destiny, he wasn’t the type to interfere unnecessarily with what his children were doing. I can remember that I formed my first company when I was 8 years old. It was called FEMCO. Then my father worked for Mobil Nigeria and I used to write receipts for my father’s friends after cutting their nails and they paid me.
Why didn’t you follow up on being a reverend father?
Well to be a Reverend father you must be celibate and never get married (smiles).
As the son of a former governor many Lagosians have been expecting you to make a move for the governorship of the State. why haven’t you made that move?
For me the first thing is to realise the future God has charted for you. Then of course, you also have to realise that you can’t have it all. God has blessed me as a successful businessman. I am not a politician and I do not crave political power. It is an issue of contentment and I am happy being a businessman. For the last 15 years I have been under tremendous pressure by very influential people to run for governor of Lagos State saying that I would make a good governor; but I have always said that being a successful businessman does not necessarily make you a good politician. Some of the ethics required for businessmen like myself is not the same for politics.
Some credit you as being the strategist behind father’s candidacy and subsequent emergence. Can you shed some light on this?
It is a very interesting story. I remember, I went to meet my father after IBB brought out the election timetable in the early 90s. I said to him then that he has worked with great politicians like Awolowo, Akintola and that most of his contemporaries were politicians like Alhaji Jakande who was a former governor of Lagos State and Late Bisi Onabanjo a former governor of Ogun State, who were journalist’s like him. So why don’t you run for the position. He said I should get out and never discuss such matters with him again because he is not cut out for politics. So, we left it at that. But I went back again after about three weeks and this time, he accused me of being drunk on Star beer and warned me for the second time not to come back to him to discuss the issue.
I still persisted because something kept telling me he would be a good candidate for governor. The third time I tried he warned me again that, if I ever came back to discuss the issue again he would stop talking to me altogether. I think it was after about six months that he asked me to come and see him at home after church. He told me that he had now realized that the idea of being governor was a brilliant one for him and he was willing to give it a try. The Michael Otedola Campaign Organisation was set up. Of course politics cost money so he started spending a lot of money, which was affecting his business. At that time he owned one of the largest printing and packaging industries in Nigeria. On top of that, IBB now came out and dissolved all political associations and formed two distinct parties, which were the NRC and SDP. I can remember my father called me up at 2am and said “Femi I will disown you as a son because you brought me into this politics and made me waste my money”. All the while my mother had also been complaining about my father going into politics. He wasn’t sleeping as well as he used to. A man that used to be a very private person gradually relinquishing his private life. Over fifty to a hundred people would fill his house right up to his bedroom from morning till night. It was all so strange to him. And he became very grouchy every time, but I still kept on encouraging him not to worry about the hurdles he might be facing at that moment.
With the formation of NRC and PDP, my father was in a dilemma on which political party to join. I advised him to wait for the manifesto of both parties before joining either one. The manifestos were finally released and I remember SDP was green and NRC was white and I said Papa we should go to that white party. He said how can we choose a party because its colour is white? I was adamant about my inclination towards the NRC and he eventually followed my advice.
After all said and done and all the dust had settled, we found out that we were in the wrong party, (laughs) because the legacy of Awolowo had moved to SDP. My father called me up again to disown me for the second time and complained about the wastefulness of the whole exercise. Truthfully, all the while I was confident that he would still become governor. The SDP had zoned the governorship candidacy to Epe and the first person that presented himself was Late Otunba Bayo Dejonwo but unfortunately he died. The next person Late Senator Femi Ayontuga then presented himself but in a crazy twist of fate, he also died 6 months later. Then Jakande now anointed late Agbalajobi and of course Chief Dapo Sarumi did not accept it. So they now had to conduct another primary election. But IBB came again and banned all of them. Eventually Chief Yomi Edu now emerged. Jakande now said that over his dead body will Chief Yomi Edu become governor of Lagos. He then moved his political structure to support Otedola and that is how my father emerged as governor.
After his victory, my father now called me to his room at night and I asked him “daddy, are you going to disown me again?” (Laughs) and he said no, in fact “you are my son in whom I am well pleased.” and he said during the handover ceremony he was going to be shaking his white handkerchief with me at the parade ground during his swearing in.
To add to that, during the election he needed a lot money. So, I had to rally people to raise the finances required. I went to meet people like Late Chief Folawiyo , Aliko Dangote and he gave us a lot of money, Mike Adenuga gave us a lot of money, Jimmy Lawal also gave a lot of money and that was what sustained the elections.
What made you so persistent and confident in your father’s candidacy throughout?
You know God talks through people and he can choose anybody to send his message or do his work. I am a firm believer in destiny and as far as I am concerned it was his destiny to become governor.
What has been your greatest challenge so far dealing with people on your way to becoming a successful businessman and philanthropist?
I have always had the notion that everything I do would be based on integrity. I have not really had the kind of problems that really made me lose sleep or difficult for me to take certain decisions because once you have integrity and you deal with people that share the same values, then you are confident and there are no challenges as such; apart from the regular jealousy that you see when you are successful. Although people that are jealous of me don’t realise that you cannot compete with destiny. (smile)
Few years ago you were down and many people counted you out and AP Plc (now Forte Oil) was at its lowest. what was it like for you then?
To me, it is funny when people say I was down. It is like when a child is trying to walk, the child must fall down, but it doesn’t mean that the child will never walk again. So if God has great plans for you, he has to teach you how to crawl before you learn how to walk. There is no successful businessman today that has not gone through the ups and downs. That is what prepares you for a future of success. It helps you learn a lot of lessons about the business environment you are operating in. Well, I lost money but I was not really bothered because as far as I was concerned, I am a capitalist. You make money and you also lose money. When I make money, I am happy and I don’t allow losing money to disturb my happiness. But I must admit that there were some trying moments though.
Moving to forte oil, why was it necessary to do a name change from AP to what is now Forte oil?
As I said before, the brand was tired and when I took over the reins of AP in 2007, I had wanted to restructure the company but the old brigade in the company never wanted that change. They failed to realise that this company had been bought over by an investor so they struggled, battled and even blackmailed me to ensure that I did not carry out that vision. But being a very strong character, I was ever determined. It took me five years to get to where it is now and it almost cost me my life. But nobody can change my destiny and the will of God. The new name announced a new dawn and a new beginning for the company and we haven’t looked back since the name change.
Was that your most trying moment?
Of course, after I had lost N200 billion, I had two options to either commit suicide or solve the problem. A week after the idea ran through my mind, I heard news that the richest man in Germany Adolf Merckle committed suicide having lost his wealth. Let me tell you in case you don’t know. At one time I was subsidising the entire country because I was the largest importer of diesel and added to that had to deal with a huge amount of losses incurred by the devaluation of the currency and the slump in oil prices. You see, at any point in time then, I had diesel worth over $400 million on the high seas. So when crude oil prices slumped from $147 to $36, then I didn’t have the structure to hedge against these losses. But whatever the case, I was determined to solve the problem. What I also found funny was that when some banks were wooing me with their money, before my losses they sent beautiful looking women to run after me for the accounts. But after I lost money and the same banks wanted to collect their money back, they sent stern looking men (laughter). Some hungry looking people will come and knock on my door early in the morning demanding repayment. They didn’t care how much I lost or how I lost the money, all they wanted was that I pay back their money.
Was this the lowest moment for you?
Not really, because I knew all along that I was going to solve the problem because I was determined. And all that was needed was just a restructuring of my business model.
What has that experience taught you?
It is to give on to Caesar what is Caesar’s. When you have a business model you must adhere strictly according to what you want to achieve. Also that being a good entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager of a business. I was offered a decision to restructure which I refused, instead I decided that whatever assets I had to give up to pay my debts I will offer. I didn’t want a restructuring because the debt will still be hanging. I didn’t want that. So I learnt my lessons dealt with my debts and moved on. And I tell you, my wife has been a pillar of support all the way.
Forte oil has moved from heavy losses to profitability how did you achieve that and what did you do differently?
I took some tough decisions to restructure and reengineer the business. I started by putting together a strong and effective Board, which put together a strong strategic plan for the future of the company. Based on the new vision we brought in a young, brilliant and dynamic team of smart men and women to run the business. A lot of people said to me that these guys are too young, but I disagreed because I believe you have to give room for fresh ideas and for people to grow and prove themselves. If in my early twenties I was my father’s adviser and he listened to me why won’t I listen to younger people? Today Forte Oil has one of the best if not the best corporate governance structures in Nigeria. All I had to do was to effect a complete change in management and staff. So, I had to change the perception of the old way of doing business by bringing a crop of new young people that are hungry for success. They have done very well so far but we continue to ask them for more as there is still so much to achieve.
Your relationship with Aliko appears to date back a long time ago can you tell us more about it?
Aliko has always been someone that I have admired. I remember the days about 32 years ago, I used to take a walk to Aliko’s house to catch a glimpse of his Rolls Royce. I happen to be very close to him now and he is very charming and a lovely person with a very large heart. He is very accommodating too. We are such good friends because when two people see similar qualities and traits in themselves, then they become bound together even spiritually.
You and Aliko Dangote seem to have made up and your relationship strengthened. How did it happen?
You see Aliko is my mentor, my brother and my friend. If you know us, you would know that we like each other and the issue between Aliko and I was not that serious. It was a case of intrigues, conspiracy theories and the fifth columnists. It was just a case of honest misunderstanding. As I said we have a spiritual bond because we are much alike. After all, brothers and sisters quarrel too, it doesn’t mean they won’t remain family. So it is normal when friends quarrel, but history has shown that true friends get closer and stronger after quarrels. Aliko is a great guy and personally I believe God is using him for Nigeria. Just the other day I was thinking that without a Dangote in Nigeria what would have happened to our foreign reserve? It would probably be half of what it is today because we would have been using what we have to import cement and sugar. And we don’t even have the infrastructure at the ports to take in all the imported cements as it is. So, he is a blessing and it is God that is using him. I strongly believe that he would soon become the richest man on the planet which would be a great pride to not only Nigerians but the black race.
Back to Forte Oil what can we look forward to from your company in the next 5 years?
It will probably be the largest downstream company in Nigeria with the best managed and structured corporate governance. I have a team that looks at me as the Chairman of a company with a very strong board. They don’t look at me as Femi Otedola the owner of the company but rather they see me as the Chairman of a PLC with strict corporate governance rules. What I like about the management of the company is that they can tell me anything even the things they know and feel I don’t like to hear and I enjoy it as long as it is for benefit of the company. I find it interesting and challenging at the same time.
As a businessman who has experienced ups and downs, what is your advice to people on how to run a successful company?
The first thing for me is that the business must be based on integrity. That is why today the same banks that I was owing money are still the same banks financing me because they know it was not entirely my fault that I lost money and they do not doubt or fault my integrity in business. So any business that is based on firm structures of integrity will always survive. But if you are running these fly-by-night businesses, it is only a matter of time before it collapses.
As a business man who do you admire?
As a businessman I admire only four people which are Late Howard Hughes, Late Aristotle Onassis, Late Chief Wahab Folawiyo and Aliko Dangote. I admire these people because they built business empires from nothing and they were built based on integrity and sincerity.
What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is failure and not death. Death is the happiest thing to happen to someone because you will go and meet your creator free of problems after you have done your bit of what God has brought you to do on earth. Some people die in their mother’s womb but if God has a purpose for you he would keep you alive for as long.
You are known to be close to the sitting President and former President Obasanjo, infact you were seen recently in the Aso Villa church and then had lunch with both men at the heat of their alledged bitter quarrel. Tell us about what transpired?
You are right. I am extremely close to both of them and it is inappropriate for me to be discussing my relationship with both men on the pages of newspapers. What I can say is that they are both fulfilling God’s destinies in their lives. I must also add that both men became rulers of Nigeria under similar circumstances Late General Murtala Mohammed passed on to greater glory for Obasanjo to become Head of State and the Late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of blessed memory passed on to greater glory for Goodluck Jonathan to become President of Nigeria. God never makes mistakes.
When are you going to put your memoirs together for the public to read and learn from?
Absolutely, I already have people walking on that and it could take me about ten years to complete because I have so many things to talk about.
People say that FO is an abbreviation for Forte Oil, which also represents your name Femi Otedola, did you deliberately coin it this way?
Really? (laughs) it’s a good thing because it means the brand must not fail because once that brand fails it means, Femi Otedola has also failed.