Nnamdi Ezeigbo: From Hardship To Inspiration
After two years of joblessness, upon graduation from the university, Nnamdi Ezeigbo launched himself into the IT sector with sales and repairs of computers to satisfy his desire to do something. Few years on, and with the advent of the GSM, he moved into sales of mobile phones. Today, he runs Slot Nigeria, the mobile device retail store which has grown to become a household name in Nigeria.
Just like most successful entrepreneurs who started from the streets to the top, Nnamdi had it rough in the beginning. But his vision and self determination helped in turning a life of hardship into one of inspiration. While other mobile device companies struggled or were snuffed out by an ailing economy, Slot Nigeria has quietly thrived, expanding its operations to major cities in the country.
As he clocks 50 years, August 7, the Abia State born businessman, who is married and blessed with four children, tells his story from the very beginning…
Looking back at where you started from, 50 years on, how does it feel to be 50?
It has been a long journey and it’s really amazing to see how I have been able to overcome challenges and grow from one level to the other. The things I saw as very big while growing up now actually look very simple and small. It has been a very interesting journey and I have been able to grow in terms of wisdom and, most importantly, I have been able to separate being wise from being wise.
Over the years, I would say, I have been able to achieve what most men would be proud of. I have a good home. I have beautiful kids and I have been able to touch lives. I have been able to help some people through school, which makes me happy. When people come back to me to say ‘thank you for paying my school fees’ or ‘I am a product of that scholarship’ or ‘now I have a god job’, it inspires me to do more. I think my fulfilment is based on the fact that people have been able to become who they are today because of God’s grace upon my life and I have been able to extend that to touch more lives.
Tell us a bit about your background and what your journey was like to get to where you are?
I hate to say that I come from a humble background; my background was more difficult. I come from a family of nine. I remember when, after secondary school, I stayed home and worked for 4 years to raise money to go back to school. My parents were not able to pay my school fees. When I got admission to read Electrical Engineering at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, I had to work in a factory. It was a very difficult period for me; my colleagues who worked with me, gained admission and went back to school but I had to work for four years.
The first two years I worked, I saved my money and funny enough, my dad was the one who saved my money for me. After two years, I got admission and asked him for the money but, unfortunately, he had spent the money so I had to work another two years. My savings were able to keep me for the first one year and, the following year, my dad was able to pay my fees. While I was in school, I went into modelling and TV commercials to raise money to also pay my fees. So, my journey was really interesting.
Fast forward from those years; you have built a business empire. What was the first point of contact?
I discovered that most successful CEOs say they became successful by luck. I won’t say mine is different but it’s by the grace of God. There was nothing that gave me the inkling that I will become a businessman apart from the fact that I sold bread for my mother as a kid. I sold bread on the streets and I enjoyed it. I would carry a full tray of bread and come back with an empty tray and the money in my pocket. So, that was the only idea I had as far as business or trading was concerned.
My idea of going back to school and studying Electrical Engineering, because I was good in Mathematics, was to work in a big oil firm with a good income to take care of myself and my younger ones because I am the oldest child. I have eight other siblings looking up to me. When I came out of school with a good result, I spent another 2 years trying to get a job and nothing came.
Then, I remembered I had a friend who had a computer outfit. I decided to join him and keep myself busy while learning a few things. So, I joined my friend and later became passionate about the business. It took me less than two months to understand what Computer Engineering was all about. So, I took it from there. But unlike the others, I was not after the money. For me, it was the joy that I could fix clients’ computers. So, barely 6 months after, I left because my friend and I were having problems. I usually objected to him collecting exorbitant fees from customers and he did not like it.
That was how I left without any money on me. I went to squat with another friend who had a shop on the same street which made it easier for me to meet people who wanted my services. That was how I started and, because I was good, I was getting a lot of customers. I got referrals by word of mouth.
I was honest with my clients and I always told them the truth and at reasonable cost. For instance, if your problem was cooling fan, I will tell you it’s cooling fan and it’s three hundred naira and my labour is five hundred; which was very cheap. They saw an engineer who could actually tell them the truth. It was a customer that also said ‘I think this place is too small for you’. Sometimes, I would have 20 people waiting for my services. My first employee was my younger brother. After school, he was searching for a job. I brought him on board and later, his friend also joined us and we became three.
That was how we started growing. Then, I was referred to fix computers for Daily Times, Standard Chartered bank and the University of Lagos, Idi Araba. I became busy and I started making money. Then, there was no phone alert to know how much you have in your bank account so I went to the bank one day and saw 1.2 million naira. I had no car. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment in Meran area of Lagos. I thought to myself – is it easy or that possible to become a millionaire?
That shaped my life. I began to think like a millionaire. I attended seminars and trainings that were relevant to what I was doing. I saw myself as a businessman, not as an engineer anymore. We dabbled into sales of accessories as well, computer parts, and started assembling computers as well. We began to build computers for clients and competing with the HPs of this world. The kind of services we were offering was better and cheaper, in terms of after sales, than those of the multi-nationals.
We could go to your house and fix your computer. It got to a point when we had to hire a consulting firm to organize our departments but, like I said, my training was engineering. I had do something in line with Business Administration. First of all, what I did was go to Ladoke Akintola University for my masters in Information Technology. Then, I proceeded to the Lagos Business School for an MBA.
We saw ourselves moving from one level to the other. Between 1998 and 2001, we were selling and fixing computers. It was in the advent of GSM in 2001 that we now moved to GSM. For me, it was the high point of my business because one of the things I learnt was that entrepreneurs should be sensitive to opportunities and understand government policies and direction.
I saw the privatization of the telecoms industry as an opportunity to launch myself into the telecoms sector so we switched and started doing more of mobile phones than computers. We were the first GSM store and business in Nigeria. When MTN came, we already had a solid customer base so they decided to train those of us on ground. I also took a trip to South Africa to know more about what GSM was all about and I saw that it was big business. I knew the same thing was going to happen in Nigeria so I came back prepared.
So which was your very first store and how did you come up with the name SLOT?
I derived the name ‘Slot’ from the big desktop computer that had a robust processor called ‘slot’. I always recommended them to my customers. The slot processor is very rugged. You can imagine the kind of environment people placed their computers; I will always recommend slot. People began to call me Mr. Slot. So, I checked that word in the dictionary and realized it actually fit in to what we were doing and I came up with a colour which is red and white. So my training actually helped me to position my company.
So how has it been so far? What would you say are some of the challenges facing the country’s telecom sector?
I think the problems we have (is that) Nigerians are not knowledgeable in identifying quality phones. The influx of fake Chinese phones has taken over some reasonable percent of the market share. People buy these phones because they are cheap and it’s a big challenge because if people are knowledgeable, it will reduce the sales of these phones. Also the cost of running business is a challenge, in terms of power supply, and that of employable members of staffs in middle management. What we do is employ new graduates and train them and make them staff.
So, in what ways do you think the influx of fake phones can be reduced?
Well I think, the NCC and other regulatory bodies have done so much unlike what we used to experience in the past. In the last two years, they have done so well, because now you must have an approval for you to bring in a new device. For consumers also, their awareness is increasing and people can actually identify that this is not a quality product. So that would actually send the distributor and dealer out of the market.
What would be your advice to government in terms of creating conducive environment for entrepreneurs?
I think government may not be able to solve problems in entrepreneurship because the people who drive policies in government are not even entrepreneurs so it becomes very difficult. So I advise that entrepreneurs themselves should be in government and participate in policy development. The problem that entrepreneurs face today is that they lack managerial training. Most of them just acquire operational knowledge; that is the reason why you see death of many companies. I would advise that entrepreneurs should be competent, especially in managerial ability. If we get that right, obviously Nigeria is also a good business place no matter what people think. Return on investment is quite high when compared to other countries even though the risk elements are higher as well but the return is encouraging. However, if we can reduce the cost and risk of doing business, we can actually have better reward.
With the number of mobile companies in the country, how do you handle competition and what do you do to remain relevant?
Competition is very interesting; I think that no business can actually stand if you are not conscious of competition. We are very conscious of competition. Our strategy is making competition irrelevant by keeping it simple and being smart about it. One of the things that have helped us at Slot to stay focused and lead is the fact that we have smart people who understand our business culture; every member of our staff work in line with our vision. Competition is good; you can’t kill competition. If it comes at the top, then we move from below. It’s very interesting because it makes companies work harder and it brings good governance and enables companies to stand firm. One of the things I have also done is to study at Harvard because we are not just a Nigerian company. We also look beyond the shores of Nigeria.
Do we see Slot manufacturing phones in the future?
We may not name it Slot. We are just growing our brand and I am happy that people are actually asking for our phones. In 2006, we brought Tecno in and we knew what we went through to get it into the Nigerian market. Now, the brand is stronger and people are asking for Slot phones; we are enjoying the patronage. We are doing something different that meets the needs of the Nigerian people which would be very adaptable; for example, our charger has a tip of torchlight that has two openings, enabling you to charge two phones at the same time. We also have trading in of old phones for new phones and also good screen insurance. We decided to bring in Tecno in 2006 because people carried two phones on their hands and we decided to make a phone which uses dual sims.
With your very busy schedule, how do you take time off to unwind?
I believe, in life, we need to take conscious decisions and plan. So, spending a month or days with my family is not difficult. What I do, if I am in Nigeria, I play lawn tennis. I go out with my wife and kids to see a movie and I travel with them once in a year.
Where is your best holiday destination?
The best place to spend holiday for me is my village. The trees, the serenity and life generally is very peaceful. I enjoy it.
When it comes to fashion, what are you comfortable in?
I love white clothes because what you wear should reflect how you think. White makes me happy, feel comfortable and makes me conscious of myself. I love native wears also because they are comfortable, unlike the English suits.
Which Nigeria designer makes your clothes?
I have a Nigerian designer called Vanskere. He makes my clothes.
What inspires you in life? What keeps you going?
The fact that I am touching lives and the fact that somebody is happy keeps me going. I want to see how much I can give back to the society; which was why I established Slot Foundation. It is a vocational skills acquisition centre that enables young people become entrepreneurs or skilled enough to work in other companies. In the past four years, we have created jobs for 300 people in that academy and they have been able to build houses and get married. We have been able to use the Slot Academy to touch the lives of young people.
What would you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered as a man who stood for integrity. One thing we do not do in Slot is that we don’t take bribe and we don’t do government contract.
Because it’s difficult to do government contracts and not get your hands soiled.
This life style started when I was looking for a job in Mobil. I was asked to come with my birth certificate and I brought the wrong birth certificate because I had actually falsified my birth certificate. I was 26 years old then and they wanted candidates from 28 years. One of the judges noticed my false age and that was how I lost that job. So that thought me a lesson and I said I would never tell lies again or do anything that would put me in a position to defend myself. So, one of our core values at Slot is integrity.
By Yemisi Suleiman