Henry Akubuiro, Lagos
Unlike a cube of sugar, a coin isn’t enticing or sweet to be licked, needless to say, swallowed whole. But Frank Nneji, the founder of ABC Transport, did it, and not for the fun of it!
“Do people eat money?” that was the exact question young Frank Nneji posed to his mother, a local midwife, who assisted pregnant women to deliver of their babies, after she had told a desperate husband, who couldn’t afford her bills decades ago, ‘You have eaten my money, abi?”
The youngster, then, didn’t understand the implications of transliteration. Taking her mother’s words literally, he swallowed the coins his mother had left with him, recalls Frank Nneji in his new memoir, Who Says You Can’t? (Storytellers Services: 2018).
“She went nuts. Everybody started to panic. Things happened quickly. Someone put something in my anus, pumped in water, and gave me a prescription that helped to excrete the coins,” writes Nneji.
Before then, the family’s small table clock had gone missing. For he was only five years old, nobody bothered to ask him what happened to the clock. Unknown to them, he was the culprit. He had dug a hole and buried the clock, thinking it would germinate, one day, if he watered it regularly.
Nneji recalls: “After some days, my siblings noticed I kept going behind the house to pour water on the same spot. I had obviously planted something there. They decided to dig whatever it was up, and, to their utmost shock, they found the missing table clock! It had become rusty and spoilt…”
No doubt, Nneji’s curiosity for moneymaking was stirred up quite early in life, and it didn’t take too long before he discovered that money could, indeed, multiple like mustard seeds but only with the incubation of ideas. In the 234-page book, the author chronicles how he rose from a groundnut seller to become the CEO of Rapido Ventures, a company that has birthed many brands reckoned with in Africa and round the world.
At 23, leading a carefree life filled with partying and binging is a given for many Nigerian youths. Most of them will seldom look for how to search for a dark goat before nightfall. In 1983, Nneji was only 23 years old. It was at that age that he set up his first registered business, Rapido Ventures, as a fresh graduate from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, instead of searching for a white collar job.
Having studied biological sciences at UNN, he felt it was wise for the newly formed Rapido Ventures to go into the supplies of laboratory and scientific tools and materials to schools. His main customers were universities in the eastern part of Nigeria. From there, be started supplying high quality chalk boards.
Not resting on his oars, he started supplying overhead projectors, turning his house into his first factory. He was to sign a contract with Elite and Magi Board of United Kingdom for the sole distributorship of their products in Nigeria. One surprising thing is that Nneji never prepared any business plan for Rapido Ventures. He admits: “I just came up with the idea and moved on it.”
Rapido Ventures’ growth became phenomenon such that, between 1984 to 1992, it became the major supplier of educational materials in Nigeria and across West Africa. “I am always thinking of how to do things better and add value. When you achieve this, good things will follow,” he writes.
In a way, the telltale sign of what a man would be in future begins at a tender age. Nneji’s first transportation service was way back in his secondary school as a teenager. Borne out of the desire to facilitate the easy movements of fellow students to watch football matches and attend debating competitions, after the civil war, he hit on a plan to transport them to those venues, each student paying two to three pence.
“I eventually came up with the idea of linking up with drivers of Mammy Wagon…Once I had their money with me, I would simply pay the drivers their fees and pocket my own cut,” he narrates in Who Says You Can’t? For him, curiosity births innovation, and innovation is what sets entrepreneurs apart.
By the time he got a university admission, he had developed a predilection for business, starting to mass produce booklets of past exam question papers for students preparing for their exams. This business thrived so much that, from his second year in the university, he rarely asked his parents for money to further his education.
From there, he moved to trading in clothes, bags and sundry accessories on campus, travelling all the way to Italy to purchase them, and deploring ingenuous marketing strategies. He was to become the director of transport of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Students’ Union, and left the position as a high deliver.
One of things that one takes away from the odyssey of Frank Nneji is that becoming a successful businessman is a natural progression. “Passion, natural traits, flair and interests led me from one entrepreneurial attempt to another… By the time I finished school, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to apply for any job,” he says (p.23). And he didn’t: he created Rapido Ventures.
Probably his most popular brand is ABC Transport, a publicly quoted company that provides road transport services that operate through coach passengers operations, sprinter passenger operations, shuttle passenger service, with over 1500 employers, haulage services, cargo services, among others.
But, was beginning a dog’s breakfast?
Sometime in 1991, he was in a bus going to Lagos, which broke down along the way. It got him thinking how to create a bus company that would be on schedule, provide comfort and safety for travelers, be driven by profession, and provide refreshments to passengers.
He didn’t have the required capital, but he was determined. First, he embarked on a feasibility study. He read everything he could find. Diamond Bank provided the initial operating lease agreement of N1.5m, which paid for 5 brand new Toyota fourteen-seater buses while he bought the six himself. By February 1993, the reindeer emblazoned buses were on the roads with limited passengers, though. However, he stuck to his principle: the buses must leave at scheduled time.
What’s more, he abolished “attachments” on board, and ABC Transport charged premium for maximum comfort. With the June 12 annulment by IBB, which led to heightened tension across the country, ABC Transport found itself with many passengers to contend with. Nneji recalls in the memoir that he had to increase the fleet by 4 buses, equipping his 55-seater Volvo luxury buses with TV and video for entertainment during travels and providing an accident insurance to each passenger.
He continued to increase the fleet of ABC Transport until it became one of the leading transport companies in the country. He also introduced adverts on the back of the bus tickets, making extra income monthly. He began hiring graduate drivers, a departure from the trend of using illiterate drivers then, and providing smart clothes for them.
Another thing that aided the growth of his business were adverts aimed at reaching primary target markets. The newspapers, television and radio were utilised effectively, as well as deploying handbills. He was personally involved in t creating adverts for ABC Transport. His good relationship with motoring press also helped his business, he admits.
This book also chronicles how his documentation of the sorry state of Nigerian roads got the attention of the then Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, which led to the creation of FERMA (Federal Road Maintenance Agency). Besides, if you read how Nneji’s ABC Transport became the first successful Nigerian transport company to break into the West African Coast, you will doff your hat for him. It took a lot of diplomatic engagements with ECOWAC to make it a possibility.
Thanks to a partnership with Shaanxi, China, Nneji’s Transit Support Services, which had taken over the moribund ANAMMCO (Anambra Auto Manufacturing Company), has been assembling Shacman Trucks in Nigeria. He writes: “… in 2017, we assembled about one thousand trucks in Nigeria, with Dangote Group being our major customer.”
With limited job possibilities for our teeming Nigerian graduates, Nneji’s Who Says You Can’t? offers you with timeless lessons how you can make something out of nothing. It goes to reaffirm one thing: a stitch in time saves nine.