#Interview: Life and SuccessTalks with Entrepreneur Extraordinaire, Tony Elumelu || #LFDW Special!

Tony Elumelu
Image Credit: Daily Times Nigeria


‘Ambition is the first thing, says Tony Elumelu, speaking at the Lagos Fashion and Design Week. Chairman of United Bank For Africa, Transcorp and Founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, he delineates the ingredients for success in more ways than one. Allowing members of the audience ask questions, he also speaks on issues to consider when starting out a business partnership and many other nuggets of wisdom he has gleaned over the years.

The first participant asks a question related to the method of overcoming a reluctance to form partnerships and the quidelines to consider when forming them

Tony Elumelu responds saying:

‘I like partnerships and I think it is good to cooperate and collaborate. However we have also seen that when partnership is forced, it doesn’t endure. So what I normally say to people who are starting out is try to identify people who have complementary skills compared to resources, so that together you can build a great organisation. However, there should be fundamentals that drive such partnerships. Also, it is good to put a tag on issues on the table.
But most times, when people start, with the  initial passion to conquer the world.  But after 2/3 years they are separated. They  are on social media,  fighting and quarrelling. What is enduring is a realisation that there’s a need to partner and defining the basis for that  partnership, what each one brings to the table, and when success happens how do we appropriate it. From experience when success happens that’s when the challenge starts. Some would want it split, divided immediately. Some have a long term orientation and want it reinvested. And so, at times quarrels ensue because one party is more dishonest and it leads to distrust.But if you define upfront to build a certain kind of organisation and set your expectations and profit sharing model when success comes. Most entrepreneurs get early winds of success. The challenge is in managing that early success. Often times people don’t manage successes very well, and that is why especially in our part of the world we always hear ‘This person was great’, but the ability to manage and translate it from one generation to the next is the problem. And one problem that causes this is we don’t properly define what success means. Does success mean being able to buy a big house? Do there should be a voluntary willingness to partner and people should not shy away from discussing the tough issues. Put it on the table so everyone is guided.

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Another curious entrepreneur asks,  ‘How do you manage your time with so many distractions? How much time do you put in for work, family and other things?’

Tony narrates, ‘I considered myself in the past as an avid reader, but these days, I find that I don’t have time to read so much again. The problem is this device we carry- you are on the phone from when you wake up. It is a major issue and it has eaten into so much of our time. But it has increased our efficiency level, whether positively or negatively. Before it my boss sends me a mail, you would expect him to take 24 hours before him react, but if you send a mail now and you don’t get a response immediately, it is a problem.

There are so many things to do these days, but if you are so wise with your device, you can also read,  there are book summaries now but you lose certain elements.

For me, I manage my time, but it is not easy; it’s difficult. Largely, I have work and family. Work is uppermost and family extremely important. My daughter is going back to school tonight and I am trying to see how much I can bond with before she goes back. There are so many ways of catching up. It’s just about being creative in managing our time. But I am impressed that you recognise the fact there is a lot competing for the short time that we have. We have to sleep, exercise, study, work, spend time with family and socialise because we don’t live alone and the world is tied to relationships.

One of the things I do to manage my time is prioritise the things that are important to me. I have a journal where I write down so many things that are important to me. I have a plan for days, weeks and months.’

My seat buddy asks this: ‘As a young person who wants to go into business, you learn the art of business and about the business itself. Now, as a young entrepreneur, you might have to pitch yourself to someone established in business. How do you do that without having to cheapen yourself or lose value, because sometimes when you come to people already in the business of would seem that you didn’t package yourself well. So how do you put yourself together as a young person who doesn’t really have much to show but is actually willing to learn?’

Tony explains, ‘We need to understand a couple of things. First, in this business of entrepreneurship, ego has no space. People who succeed roll up their sleeves, soil their hands and just say ‘I don’t know about this area, but I want to go into it and succeed and I know if I put my head down, I will succeed. Thirst is so important. By the way, who cares if people laugh at you? You’re just starting. In fact, I would care if at some level, I am supposed to be an authority in an area I don’t know anything. In entrepreneurship, you see people who study law going into fashion or entertainment. It’s not just about your technical expertise, but what you’re passionate about. I was discussing with someone about stress and I said to them that my definition of stress is people doing what they are compelled to do, not what they are passionate about. So you’re doing it, but every opportunity you have not to do it makes you happy. People who are passionate about what they do enjoy it, and even when the opportunity is not there to do it, it’s like something is missing. So for you as an intern, you should bring yourself down. Forget what they say, whether they laugh.

As regards pitching yourself to be an intern, there are many ways you can do this. I have many stories. When I applied for jobs but didn’t meet the requirements , and  I thought I needed that job and would do well, I believed in myself. So I wrote to them to give me an opportunity even though I didn’t meet the requirements, I had other skills. I was given the opportunity and I performed well. So as an intern who is passionate about a profession and calling, or somebody who wants to intern, you write.

At the foundation people write to us and say ‘ We are passionate about what you do as a foundation and we would like to have the opportunity to work with you, even if it is a token for compensation.

At the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship foundation, we train people on how to package themselves. So you need to find out how to engage people who are not ordinarily interested in what you’re doing.

When someone writes to you and says ‘I can add value to your business I don’t have experience, but I am passionate about this area. I believe as an intern, I would use the opportunity to learn’, I believe people would listen. I personally would listen.

One thing leaders should remember is that we are all where we are today because we had some opportunities and received some support. And as we climb the ladder, don’t remove the lines. We should try to mentor and encourage people. When people show certain signs, we should support them.
If people write and have certain ideas even if we cannot support them, we can refer them to people who can support them. So you want to be an intern you need resilience and tenacity. If you heard Alibaba’s story it was not an easy one. He kept trying and today he is one of the best comedians in the world.

Also, this generation has no excuse not to succeed because in my time, to break the screen or barrier is to seek the face of the man who has authority and makes decisions was not easy. It had to be physical. Today, you can do that by mail or websites. There are multiple channels to people these days. It is so easy break barriers now. There are different ways of engaging or breaking through now. There are more opportunities to succeed.

Tonh Elumelu
Image Credit: harare24.com

With relation to getting more funds for business, an enthusiastic entrepreneur asks, ‘How can you manage funds as an entrepreneur to start up your business. Of course, you have to start somewhere with a certain amount of money. How are you able to manage this little amount so that the records show that you started with this amount of money and you well able to take it to do and so level without being able to complete the project?’

Entrepreneurship is about discipline. You need to have proper record keeping and capture how much you have spent and what you want to do. If you don’t prepare all of this, you would not have that rigour needed, which is important when you eventually get the money. Even for your personal finances. There have been many arguments as to what comes first: capital or knowledge. In my opinion, if you bring capital first, people might not succeed. You need to prepare people before you bring in the capital. At the foundation, we spend 12 weeks teaching them about business and how to issue audits, so they know what is important. So I would say go back and have discipline to account. Your records will show the amounts you need to complete your project and judge your ability to manage your resources.’

A question was raised thus, ‘In the present generation, it is very clear that the competition is very tight. People go for trainings to set themselves apart. How have you been able to set yourself apart from everyone else?’

Tony answers, ‘You need to acquire knowledge and work on self development. Continue to do that. Everything you want to know about is just a touch or a click away. Be an expert and authority in your chosen field. Know almost everything. I am always impressed by people who know a lot about their area of specialty. It’s very very good. Personal discipline is the summation of hardwork, thinking long term, defining your purpose, working towards it, staying focused, defining success. It is so important to define success because some people’s definition is that ‘I want to be called CEO or Chairman’. Some want to have a house in Lekki, London, etc. Some want to build a Cemetary in the United States. So by your definition, you might think you have achieved success, meanwhile you have not. So personal development in terms of values and attributes is important in staying ahead of the competition. It is important to know when opportunities come and take advantage of it. It is important to understand that if you accomplish short goals, encourage yourself you think bigger.’

As regards the Tony Elumelu  Foundation, a curious participant asked, ‘What does your foundation do?’

He elucidates, ‘We support young Africans entrepreneurs to be. We train  and certify groups of 12 and they have mentors assigned to them. However, there are other entrepreneurs who help with professional training. We teach you how to be a successful entrepreneur, not how to be a specific kind of artisan’

A fashion entrepreneur curious about fashion asked, ‘Please could you shed more light on how to negotiate in partnerships? I have a friend who lìkes fashion but is not a fashion entrepreneur. She wants to invest in my business but wants a 30% share. She wants it forever but I want it to be renewable. Please advise.’

Tony responds, ‘Sometimes 100% of something may not be worth more that 1% of another company. We should try not to be too protective of a business that has the potential to grow in leaps and bounds. What is important is that you have enough. But if  people want to be a part of it, you should want to take your company to a level where it can be on the stock exchange. If you have that mindset, it doesn’t really matter who the investor is.
Please note the value for position share. They may provide capital and after 3 years leave after you pay back. But 30% might be a lot. Will the 30% be with interest? You need an advisor to help advise you as you go into this.’

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Lastly, an export entrepreneur asks,  ‘Please could you give suggestions on how to overcome supply chain challenges here in Nigeria while shipping from Nigeria to America?’

Tony Elumelu confesses, ‘I can’t give specific advice but we advocate the ease of doing business in Nigeria. We want to encourage exports. I think its about making sure these challenges are sorted out in the right environment and you are encouraged to do so. There is a Nigerian Export Promotion Council set up to help with export challenges.’


Please see below more nuggets of wisdom from Mr Tony Elumelu:

1. Tell yourself you’ll get to the top.
2. Apply discipline to everything you do and it will all work out for you
3. Apply hardwork to what you do.
4. There are no shortcuts in business
5. You have to go the extra mile
6. Focus. Stay focused. There are a lot of distractions in life.
6. Passion: this is another name for entrepreneurship.

7. You must be extremely passionate about what you do.
8. People who are passionate always go the extra length.

8. Let your passion be contagious.
9. In entrepreneurship, think long term. 10. If you build a strong foundation, it will work out.
11. In entrepreneurship, you must have trade offs.

12. Don’t do too many things. You’ll become a Jack of all trades and master of none.
13. It has never been easier to succeed.
14. About finance to start, have ideas, have discipline focus and passion to translate the ideas.

15. Have a credible plan.
16. Your success should not be myopic. It should impact your family, community and country.

17. Success is attainable.


What is your favourite nugget of wisdom from Tony Elumelu?

Who are your business mentors?


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