Sonny Allison, Fedex Red Star Express Founder Answers The Big Question: Who is an entrepreneur?

BIG thank you to everybody who has bought a copy of my latest bestseller, “50 NIGERIA’S BOARDROOM LEADERS—LESSONS ON CORPORATE GOVERNANCE AND STRATEGY,” a book fast hurling into the orbit to become what I pray would be not just Nigeria’s Book of The Year but an international bestseller.  It’s already on Amazon Books where the paperback sells for 100 dollars.

My happiness is the young men and women who save money to buy this expensive book, seeing it as a worthy investment.  Young Nigerians whose ambition is to be in the boardroom one day like the 50 Nigerian Boardroom Leaders featured in the book: Christopher Kolade (former Cadbury), Michael Omolayole (former Lever Brothers), Prof. Joe Irukwu, Felix Ohiwerei, the late Hayford Alile, Ibukun Awosika (FirstBank), Mrs. Osaretin Demuren (GT Bank), Mrs. Mosun Belo-Olusoga (Access Bank), Chief Ephraim Faloughi (Sovereign Trust Insurance Plc), Dotun Suleiman, Biodun Shobanjo (Troyka Holdings),  Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe (Unilever), Chief Dele Fajemirokun, Olusegun Osunkeye, Udoma Udo Udoma, Gbenga Oyebode (Okomu Oil Palm), Chris Ogbechie, Dr. Alex Otti, Sam Ohuabunwa, Emmanuel Ikazoboh, Chief Arthur Mbanefo, Mohammed Hayatu-deen, Asue Ighodalo (Dangote), Tonye Cole (Sahara Group), Segun Adebanji (Fidson Pharmaceuticals),  Steve Omojafor (Zenith Bank), Ernest Ebi (Fidelity) and many more.  Who says Nigerians don’t read?  If you give Nigerians a good book, they would buy it and read—no matter how expensive.  That is one lesson I have come to learn.

As explained in the foreword, I wrote this book in the wake of the death of my late friend Dimgba Igwe on 6 September 2014, knocked down by a mystery hit-and-run driver still at large, hands covered with the blood of a great journalist, writer and man of God.  As a way of mourning the loss of my “twin brother”, I decided to write a book he would be proud of—and still carry him along by using his name as coauthor.  Before Dimgba’s death, we were writing a book on 50 NIGERIA’S BUSINESS FOUNDERS—a book on entrepreneurs, the catalysts who impact business and who drive the global economy.  Having finished the boardroom book, I am going back to our unfinished business—the book on entrepreneurs.  One of such entrepreneurs is Sonny Allison, a man who was previously working for DHL as one of their key men there.  But a complete stranger told him one day: “You are a very stupid man to be working for another person.  Why don’t you start your own courier company?”  He felt insulted but took the insult positively.  And today, the result is Red Star Express, Nigeria’s leading indigenous courier company that is in partnership with Fedex, the global courier brand.  I met Sonny Allison and he shared with me his amazing entrepreneurial journey.  I started by asking him: Who is an entrepreneur?  His response forms today’s column.


I am not the founder of Fedex.  If I am, I won’t be here.  Fedex is our global partner.  Before I tell the story of Red Star Express for your book, let me answer your question: Who is an entrepreneur?  I know about your friendship and partnership with your late friend Dimgba Igwe and I commend your partnership, even in death.  Naivety comes with your first successful venture.  You will always make mistakes.  There are certain things you don’t have experience on until you experience them.  There is nothing like a BSc or PhD in experience.  You can’t go to Harvard and register for a PhD in experience.  You must have that experience.  You cannot say when your father died, based on your experience; you are going to bury your father, because you have not buried your father before.  That burial of your father will give you the experience to guide others.  That’s life.

When I set up Red Star Express with my two colleagues Dr. Eddy Olafeso and Patrick Nwosu, I thought we were building our own company.  You will think it’s your company, because you put in your blood, you put in everything.  This feeling continues until people you have brought in would start doing funny things to you.

An entrepreneur is somebody who seeks to set up a business to solve a problem which is different from setting up a business to make money.  It is different from being a trader.  Traders either buy or sell.  They are looking for how to turn their hundred thousand to two hundred thousand naira.  But as an entrepreneur, you seek for societal problems and the opportunities they present; then set up a business to solve the problem(s).  If the business idea you are bringing sets out to solve a problem for people, such that they would be happy to buy that solution, then you will make money.  But if you just set out to do what everybody else is doing—buy some items and go and sell them—you are not an entrepreneur.  That is my definition of an entrepreneur—a provider of a solution to a societal problem.  You will find that among your staff members, there are entrepreneurs and there are workers.

So when I am employing people, I look for those who are entrepreneurs.  I look for people who have entrepreneurial minds.  They understand that a new company goes through teething problems at its nascent stage.  And at that nascent stage, salaries may not come as at when due; money may not be available for all that you want to do but they stick with you.

Entrepreneurs are people who do everything with nothing because they have to be creative and come up with ideas.  They take nothing and turn it into something.

I remember in 2003, when I was living in the United Kingdom then and my daughter who was about 17 woke up one morning and said: “Daddy, how do you establish companies?” I answered the question in three simple sentences.  I told her: “First, you have to find a reason for setting up the company. Decide what societal problem the company is going to solve?” Then get a great team with burning passion to bring your dream and vision to life.

If you identify a problem/need and you have the solution, then you have a reason to set up a company.  That is the entrepreneurial spirit.  If you don’t have the entrepreneurial spirit and you just go into business because you think you have to go into business, because you have no other job and what you can do is only to set up a business, then you are in the wrong business.

Entrepreneurial spirit is that driving force that makes you leave your comfort zone and go into the unknown, into the uncharted field with an unknown entity.  It is just taking a leap of faith.


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