Building Companies that Outlive their Founders

Not many Nigerians have had the uncommon privilege of being featured in Time Magazine. Even if they have, not many have been described like the early post-independence Nigerian industrialists were described in the September 17, 1965 issue; “sophisticated in trade and finance”. The writer of this particular piece did not mince words when he wrote in the piece that “nowhere is the new African businessman doing better than in Nigeria, black Africa’s most populous and most prosperous nation.”

These business wizards were no doubt phenomenal. In their bid to close the trade and commerce gap left by departing colonial supremacists, they channeled their uncommon entrepreneurial dexterity to build huge business empires that owned and controlled multi-million-dollar assets.

However, fast forward to year 2017 and none of the businesses these men built less than a century ago remains formidable in Nigeria’s business topography. Mention the names of these celebrated boardroom wizards to average Nigerian millennials and watch them give a blank stare.

Many of these businesses that were scaled laboriously have crumbled while those still struggling to hold their fortes have become totally uncompetitive in their respective sectors thereby trumping Timothy Odutola’s boast in the 1960s when he said, “the time is coming when we will produce more than we can consume and we will have to look outside Nigeria for markets.” Hardly can Nigeria boast of indigenous companies that are more than fifty years old and still waxing strong like Guiness (est. 1759), Nestle (est. 1866), or Twinings (est. 1706).

One of the foremost reasons for the failure of Nigerian business to last more than half a century is that those who created the businesses have no clear succession plans which throws their families into winding legal tussles over who gets what immediately after their demise while the business suffers. In another case, many Nigerian business owners are so nepotic to the extent that they populate the board of their companies with their two to sixteen-year old children which also throws the company off radar if the founder dies unexpectedly as the children are too young to steer the affairs of the company to enviable heights.

Moreover, some Nigerian businesses lack clear vision and organisational culture and for those who have a vision, it is not a vision tied to impact but to pecuniary benefits. In that light, most of the founders do not prepare for the long haul by not putting themselves on a salary; instead of ploughing profit back into the business, they spend it all. Most do not treat their businesses as a living entity but solely as a means of survival.

In another vein, widespread corruption, nepotism, economic instability, lack of infrastructure and viable legal and policy frameworks, dearth of employable labour all contribute to business failure as well. The scions who take over the companies may not enjoy the same level of undue favour that their predecessors enjoyed.

Building Sustainable Businesses

To build sustainable businesses that remain resilient and can survive stormy waves over a long period of time is definitely not easy however, the benefits, satisfaction and fulfilment that comes with building something that spans numerous generation makes the work worthwhile.

To start with, building long surviving businesses require business owners, no matter how young to put in place credible succession plans. While still on the job, founders need to build broad trust-based leadership pipelines that will give their subordinates an opportunity to build essential skills and learn more about the business so that they are equipped enough to carry on the vision in the case of any eventuality.       

However, we must note that a good succession plan is not enough to guarantee the continued existence and relevance of a company over a long period of time. Building strong stakeholder engagement systems that pay attention to the needs and contribution of internal and external stakeholders is also very essential.

Business leaders need to eschew all shades of favouritism and place skill, knowledge and competence above familial ties as nothing kills businesses faster than an incompetent workforce that does not reward labour.

Apart from having seasoned professionals on the board of companies, businesses will do far better by also building a cult-like organisational value system that serves a bigger purpose and answers to something higher than our own parochial interests.

Although the name sustainability might be new, business history has revealed that the concept that it advocates is as old and has been the staying power of all major companies of the world that have outlived their founders and pioneers. Subscribing to the tenets of sustainability which considers people and planet and not only profit in all dealings is another sure route to building companies that last till “morrow”.



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