Billionaire business mogul, Barr. Taiwo Olayinka Afolabi, CEO, SIFAX Group, is 60. But he does not look it. A few days back he spoke about his life and other sundry issues. Below are excerpts.
Tell us about yourself?
I am Dr Taiwo Afolabi, the founder and group executive vice-chairman of SIFAX Group. Obviously, I am an entrepreneur, business leader, mentor and many more. I am an indigene of Ogun State and, by the grace of God, I am 60 years old. I was born in Ondo on April 29, 1962. As my first name indicates, I am a twin; I have a twin brother. I had my primary school at Ondo and my secondary school education at Baptist Grammar School, Ibadan. I hold a Law degree from the University of Lagos as well as a master’s in International Law and Diplomacy from the same university.
I have been running my business for over 33 years now. I actually launched my company in 1988 as a freight forwarding firm in Lagos, Nigeria, after working with an uncle, under whom I learnt the rudiments of the clearing and forwarding business.
From the little beginning in 1988, SIFAX Group has grown to become one of the leading indigenous corporations in Nigeria with thousands of jobs created, both direct and indirect. We have also spread our tentacles to other African countries as well as Europe and America.
Our core business focus is integrated logistics but, over the years, we have diversified to other areas, including financial services, Oil & Gas, and hospitality.
Aside from running my business, another thing I am passionate about is societal impact. As an organisation and in my individual capacity, we support causes and individuals who are not privileged in society. Our key intervention areas are education, health and youth and women empowerment. We have a foundation, which is devoted to implementing our beliefs in this regard.
I have also been privileged to be a recipient of national honour in Nigeria, a Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), while I am also the Honorary Consul General of Djibouti in Nigeria.
I am a family man. I am married to a beautiful and supportive woman, Mrs Folashade Afolabi, and blessed with children who are all doing well in their different endeavours.
How do you feel turning 60?
Let me start by expressing my appreciation to God Almighty who has remained my source and inspiration over the years. He has not only kept me alive but has also granted me grace, meets all my needs, and grants me good health, peace of mind and a great family. I am indeed a grateful man as I turn 60.
I am sure some of my peers have died and so many are not as privileged as I am. These and many more give me unending joy because of the grace. I am probably not the smartest, but God’s grace has found me and beautified my life.
So, as I turn 60, I am grateful to God. I am happy that life has been kind to me. I am grateful for the modest impact God has accomplished through me. I am grateful for a wonderful family and I am grateful for a greater future.
You started your career with your uncle and later left to float your own business. What was your motivation for this?
Well, from a tender age, I have always been entrepreneurial in my thinking. My mother was a trader and, through her, I learnt the rudiments of trading and that passion has stayed with me ever since. So, starting my business was a natural progression for me after spending some years learning the ropes from my uncle who owned a clearing and forwarding business in Lagos. I rose to become the operations manager in the company. By this time, I was well-grounded and ready to take on the next challenge.
Apart from expressing my passion, I also set up the business to take advantage of emerging opportunities and to provide a platform for others to fulfil their dreams through job and wealth creation. Today, our companies employ about 5,000 staff and you know the implication of such a number of employees, especially the ripple effect on their immediate and extended families as well as the society. If you also throw in the number of businesses, both large and small, that do business with our various companies, you will see how far we have come in impacting society.
What are the key lessons life has taught you in the last 60 years?
One is that you must be strategic in your thinking and planning in order to become outstanding. An ordinary approach will always deliver ordinary results. If you look at the growth pattern of SIFAX Group, it is a result of a well-thought-out plan. The integrated approach has helped us. From running a clearing and forwarding firm to starting inland container depots across Lagos to bidding and winning the concession of a port terminal to setting up a haulage business that conveys goods from these ports to the container depots, to bidding and winning concession of a ground handling company, to launching the Marriott Hotel and a financial services company. You will see that these businesses are complementary in nature and this has given us some form of advantage over competitors.
I also need to emphasise the place of humility. Let me tell you, before God, we are all equal, whether you are rich or people. Everybody deserves respect. Humility will attract people to you and they can go to any length to support you if they know you are not arrogant. I have always believed in living a simple and humble life, which is scriptural because God admonishes us to live humbly, and promised to elevate us.
I have also studied the lives of many successful godly people and you’d see humility in them. I have many VIPs – ministers, successful businessmen and top government officials as associates, but I always come back to my constituency, which is my old-time friends, and schoolmates and I cherish them greatly. I won’t abandon them because I now have new friends. I’ve gone to several places and people doubt if I were the Dr Taiwo Afolabi they have heard so much about. I always tell them that simplicity owns the world.
Life has also taught me the importance of friendship and relationship building. It is a skill that is important to get ahead in life. Value friendship. I have some of my friends that have been with me for over 40 years, some since our secondary school days and we are still together today.
Obviously, the need to give back. Most of the time, God blesses us more than what we need so we could support and care for others. This is a lesson I learnt from a tender age and I haven’t deviated from it till today.
Your company opened Lagos Marriott Hotel about a year ago. What motivated you to launch this business?
I have been privileged to travel around the world in the course of doing business and pleasure and this has exposed me to international standards in the hospitality industry across the globe. So the major reason for the investment in the hotel is to provide the same level of comfort, class and superior customer experience for Nigerians.
Nigerians are reputed for hard work and relaxation, and enjoyment should naturally follow after working so hard. The hotel provides the perfect ambience to relax, refresh, connect and celebrate the achievements that follow their hard work. In the last one year of operation, the hotel has disrupted Lagos’ hospitality landscape. It has become the favourite venue for major individual and corporate events.
Aside from this, as a corporation, we always look for opportunities to impact our country. I have this vision of creating jobs for as many Nigerians as possible. Hundreds of eligible Nigerians are currently employed in the hotel while the indirect employment and other ancillary benefits can’t be quantified. So, job creation is another key factor in setting up the business.
You are noted for your philanthropy. What is the philosophy behind this generous giving?
There is so much poverty in Africa and privileged individuals must be deliberate in helping the poor. It is part of the core philosophy of my life and business. We are not in business to make a profit alone. We believe in making an impact. We help individuals and communities as much as we can.
I can say I inherit the trait from my mother who was fond of meeting the needs of needy people around her while I was growing up. I saw the joy and satisfaction on my mother’s face after supporting these people and I believe I unconsciously imbibe the principle of sharing from her. Giving is one key success factor. I wish people realise that giving leads to abundance. It has been a way of life for me and I’ve seen its impact over the years.
When people come to me for help and I do it, I am always appreciative of the opportunity God has given me to be a blessing to others. Giving comes with a sense of satisfaction and inner joy.
I see giving more as a divine mandate to pull people out of poverty through job creation and philanthropy. Our company is also involved in this philanthropy and its key focus includes education, health and youth and women empowerment. We provide support for public education and health institutions. We make donations to schools and hospitals. We donated a 1,000 capacity lecture theatre to Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso. We donated a brand new bus to the medical students association of Obafemi Awolowo University. We have a foundation with offices in Lagos, Zaria and Umuahia that provide support to the widows and the less privileged. Many indigent students in their hundreds enjoy full scholarships from the foundation. Women are trained in various skills and then given grants to start their businesses. The list is too long to recall.
How do you balance your busy business schedule and family?
I am so privileged to have an understanding wife and family who believe in my vision and support me fully in the journey. When you run a business that is diverse as SIFAX Group, you are bound to be busy and on the road most time. I travel often both locally and internationally and this has a way affects family time.
But as much as I can, I create time for them. I make sure the little time we have together is judiciously used. We also go on vacation together to maintain our bond.
My wife is very supportive and she is my number one fan. By the way, she is a prayer warrior and you don’t need to be told that I feature prominently in her prayers. She backs me up spiritually and takes good care of the home front so I could have the presence of mind to pursue my targets.
She has also done well when you look at the way our children have turned out so well. She understands my schedule and gladly tolerates my absence. But she knows that I don’t take her for granted. I respect and honour her. I create time for her even in the midst of my busy schedule.