Amechi Ogbonna; Moses Akaigwe
In 25 years of entreprenuership as a transporter, Mr Frank Nneji, the enigmatic founder and Chief Executive of ABC Transport Plc, ……has bestrode the Nigerian hospitality , logistics and haulage industries like a collosus.
Notwithstanding the tortuous experience encountered starting business in an industry that was an all-comers affair decades ago, Nneji has by dint of hard work and outstanding commitment to rewrite the history of his chosen profession, transformed the sector with his midas touch, giving commuters a refreshing travel experience and leaving his competitors to do the catch-up game.
An employer of labour and entreprenuer par excellence, the 1982 Zoology graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has, in the last 25 years, left an indelible mark on the Nigerian and West African travel map and hospitality industry.
In this interview with Daily Sun, Nneji who is also the Managing Director / Chief Executive of the only transportation company qouted on the Nugerian Stock Exchange gave reasons why its stakeholders rolled out the drums recently to mark a quarter of a century doing business in Nigeria’s harsh operating environment.
Why we’re celebrating at 25
We have so many reasons to celebrate ABC Transport at 25. As a matter of fact, the industry should be celebrating every evolution that took place 25 years ago not just ABC. It means that the celebration should be industry-wide because looking at where we are today, we can draw a line about the transport industry before ABC .
From all indications, there has been a marked revolution in the way people travel and some other logistics businesses as cargo deliveries cargo, express haulage, and so we are celebrating for so many reasons.
Twenty-five years ago, the industry wasn’t where it is today. We are celebrating because after 25 years, Nigeria can raise its head and say that our transport system can compare with what obtains in many parts of the world. We may not have got there yet but I can tell you that a lot of things have happened. We are also celebrating the company, that is, ABC Transport Nigeria Plc. We did not just change the way we travel but we also contributed to advocacy in the transportation industry. And what people don’t realise, when you hear about the Federal Road Safety Transport standardisation scheme, we were part of the group that spareheaded the reform. How do we standardise an operator, which appears to be the only regulator in the industry? When you talk about speed limiters in vehicles, we championed it single-handedly and most importantly, people do not realise that we may not have had the Federal Road Maintenance Agency the time we had it without the input of transport industry.
We spotted the need for road maintenance agency; it was our initiative. Because after several attempts to bring the attention of the government to the state of the roads, we did things that were quite dramatic including policing on the road, which was centralised. President Obasanjo saw it and one month later, a task force was set up as a result. And from there, it has metamorphosed into an organisation, so there is much to celebrate. And we are celebrating that we have demonstrated to the Nigerian populace that the transport industry, which has been seen as a very informal sector can get formal to the extent of getting into the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) and maintaining the position for more than 10 years.
Quite a lot to celebrate because on May 15, we rang the closing bell at the NSE. That was an acknowledgement that we are with this company, and that they have complied with the status of regulation on NSE. So much to celebrate at 25.
Transforming Nigeria’s transport system to compete with Greyhound of US
Greyhound company may be what it is because of the environment where it operates. This is what we are talking about. Many of the facilities, including roads, don’t belong to Greyhound, the regulation in the system doesn’t belong to Greyhound and network doesn’t belong to Greyhound.
The peculiarity of their operation is that they will tell you what time to start, tell you arrival time. But there is no where you go to in Nigeria that you see arrival time. It’s not Greyhound that does it. It is their system.
So in terms of how hard we work, we probably work more than Greyhound with respect to getting things fixed because those things that are our responsibility, and those that are not supposed to be our responsibility, we do them most of the time. For instance, Greyhound is not bothered about security outside its terminal. Here we bother. Greyhound is not bothered about road infrastructure, police on the highways, stop and search, among others. But we do.
They are not bothered about all that; they just go their way. And when you enter Greyhound, one notable thing is that you will see just the driver; there is no attendant, and when the driver comes out at Greyhound terminal, he comes to the hall, the luggage hall and stays like that for you to carry your luggage, that’s their business. If a Greyhound bus has a tyre problem on the road, the driver does not fix the tyre, because a tyre company comes and takes care of it. If a Greyhound bus breaks down on the road, the toeing company comes to take over; these are beyond what individuals can do. But I believe that with improved advocacy, Nigeria can get there. But it is a combination of what an individual company can do and the environment, which is the government.
So, what do you expect from government?
First, let the government take care of the environment, and when we say take care of the environment, it is not just a single item, but by being organised the way we do things. For example, government can start by fixing the roads, and making them motorable. They can also work by ensuring that the roads are safe, installing road signs, lights and proper enforcement of traffic rules and regulations. Proper enforcement means checking and making sure that vehicles that are not roadworthy are taken off the road. By ensuring that those that are not fit to be on the road will be taken off the road for the safety of people.
Again talking about security is not just for transport industry but general security of the citizens. I am sure that Greyhound will not be seeing herds of cows running across their roads on their journey; you will not see that in the US. This is why they are able to tell you about arrival time and so on and so forth. So what I’m saying is that, it is not just government fixing the road system, fixing the environment, and also not just the transportation system but any other businesses that will complement efforts for transporters to have a conducive operating environment.
If you fix security, for example, it is easy for our staff to come out early in the morning, be able to attend to passengers or to even stay overnight. If you fix security, there wouldn’t be a time limit for travel. With Greyhound, you can go at any time –1 am bus, 2 am bus and so on. So we are moving, but the government has a lot to do.
Inspiration to break new frontiers in West Africa
This is also part of what I have listed in the book I just released. The inspiration came from trying to create value for Nigerians, and the value you create for Nigerians in transportation which includes comfort and safety that ABC stands out to do.
First of all, you described me as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to create value and when they create value, they try to make money out of it. So this was what happened. My story goes that I was one of the passengers of the buses of those days where we were rough-handled and eventually the bus broke down. The driver and the attendant told everybody to find their way. There and then, I started thinking, how can we get this system better, and of course, that is creating value for the public.
And so the inspiration came from the desire to change the way we do things and for you to do that, we now started creating this – fixing departure time for the capacity of the buses, treating the passengers well; these things are not rocket science and making the passengers a lot more comfortable, getting toilets on board, getting refreshment, watching movies on board and the rest of them.
Why luxury buses are diminishing
From the time ABC started to now, the number of vehicles in Nigeria has quadrupled. But the roads are still the same. The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is still the same; it hasn’t expanded. Benin-Ore Road is still the same. Many other roads are still the same and may end up not being maintained. So it makes it difficult for the big buses to manoeuvre and for passengers to get the comfort you had to get about 15 years ago.
Yes, cost is another major issue, and part of that is also environmental factor. I remember the first time we bought luxury buses in 1994. The first luxury bus we bought was about N6.5 million and that was in 1994.
So, you find out that the same bus 10 years later was going for about N20, N25 million and today you are talking of almost N100 million.
Yes, yes, more or less and that is why they say that if the road has been greatly improved and you invest that kind of money,and you are sure it is going to last for 10 years and you will be able to recover your money then you can invest. Other than that many would prefer to keep their money and go for smaller buses that are cheaper and easier to maintain. But today you pay the price to recover the cost, then someone from here to Abuja is paying you N9,000 and is not getting the comfort because of road condition, and now the bus is not going to last more than three years. When you do the numbers, you could see clearly that it may work. I mean, this is why you see big buses are disappearing. That is just the situation.
Benefits of listing on Nigerian Stock Exchange
It depends on what your focus is. Some can be better off in the short run, running a private company but in the long run, running a public company could be better. For example, ABC was a family company. By the time we listed on the stock market, we had shares released substantially. We have more than 22,000 shareholders today.
These are partakers of the company. People can join the company; people can also leave the company.
Family members, including myself, can sell our shares in the company easily. Those are the values of the company, so it won’t be that when I’m no longer there the company would die. Listing makes the company more sustainable so that it will live after us.