October 1, 2022

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ROBERT OGIRRI: Building LADGROUP To A Multi-billion Dollars Business Conglomerate

21 min read

Robert Ogirri is the Managing Director of Nigeria’s fast growing shea nuts processing and agricultural conglomerate, LADGROUP. This is a company founded by the business tycoon, Prince Babatunde Onafowokan. LADGROUP commenced operation as a commodity trading company in 1971 and in the late 90s became a processing, manufacturing concern emerging as the best exporter of commodities along the line. Today, the company has metamorphosed into a multi-national giant worth billions of naira, merging with a foremost Capital Investment company, the Sahel Agric Capital owned by Mr. Mezuo Nwuneli, a renowned boardroom guru and investment czar who obtained a vast majority of the company’s shares and is the Chairman of LADGROUP.
Ogirri, a graduate of the University of Benin, brought along the line an enviable educational attainment and prowess to reflect on the success story of LADGROUP today. A strategist and transformation expert ensured that the company rated conveniently at the zenith competing favourably with others of its ilk in the entire universe. Ogirri, a very delectable and tremendous business leader on regular basis encourages Nigerian youths to venture into agriculture in spite of his high level of education via obtaining three Masters Degrees from different reputable institutions like the University of Benin Edo State, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) Ogbomosho and the prestigious Lagos Business School, Ajah Lagos. All these sterling academic achievements are pointers to the fact that Robert Ogirri is very much prepared to daringly confront the daunting challenges awaiting him in the Nigerian and global business spaces. In addition to all these enviable qualifications, Ogirri, not relenting on his high level of education went further to achieve knowledge at the Institute for IFSS Lean Six Sigma, CLSSGB. Others include the IBRC/University of Wisconsin Business School in the United States of America, European American University where he bagged Honorary Doctorate Degree in Entrepreneurship and Agribusiness and Global CEO Program for Africa at the Lagos Business School Lagos, IESE Business School, New York USA and the Strathmore Business School, Nairobi Kenya.

The astute business administrator and an ebullient personality is also a man that never rested on his oars in enduring qualitative leadership. This is why he propelled himself more in further exploring the professional development space. In that process, he became a member of the Institute of Directors (IOD), Fellow of the Nigeria Institute of Management (Chartered), Fellow Institute of Credit Administration, Fellow Institute of Information Management, Fellow Institute of Management Consultant. Robert is also a ISO QMS 9001 and FSSC 22000 Auditor, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Certified and Project Management Professional (PMP).

Amiable and easy going in nature, Robert Ogirri is a man with a very strong vision and mission not only for his personal development and growth, but for the overall advancement of the teeming Nigerian youths, many of whom have found themselves in the bedeviling labour market. Ogirri, through his successful, gradual rise to stardom in the commodity and agricultural business runs an open door policy in his heart aimed at redirecting the youths to focus on agriculture and unleash their information technology skills and God-given vigor and strength to contribute positively to the growth of Nigeria.
As a responsible and very outstanding family man, Mr. Robert Ogirri creates enough time for members of his family despite his very tight official schedules and enormous responsibility as a head honcho in one of the world’s most prolific business empires, sitting at the helms of LADGROUP where he directs the day-to-day activities of both human and capital resources of the company.
In a media chat with ISAAC IFEANYI AGWAZIM, publisher of TOP SOCIETY MAGAZINE and online platforms, Mr. Ogirri speaks extensively on shea nuts value chain and the agribusiness in Nigeria among other sundry issues. It was a mind-blowing session with the magnificent business leader. Enjoy the excerpts:

Can you give us an insight into your background and the formation of your company. Was your entry into FCMG business by design?
First and foremost, I’m Robert Ogirri. I am a graduate of Microbiology from the University of Benin where I spent about six years obtaining both B.Sc and M.Sc and also across that time, I have had the opportunity of working in multinationals. I started with Cadbury and I spent about 21 years in Cadbury. So, what that did for me basically was exposure, development and the knowledge of a lot of things that have helped me today, especially in the agric business space, I was involved in cocoa, involved in sorghum, involved in commodities as it were. So, from there, I moved to Nosak Group where it was basically oil palm, then ethanol, backward integration in both oil palms and ethanol using cassava. Currently I work with LADGROUP where we are looking at maximizing and harnessing the opportunities in the value chain of Shea nut. Interestingly, Nigeria has over 65% of global Shea nut output and yet the people benefitting from it are setting up industries in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo. Currently, we are taking that experience by looking at maximizing opportunities in the Shea nut value space which is essentially what LADGROUP is all about and we are the number one processors for a long period. The company was founded in the early 70s as a commodity business, but in the 90s, it went into processing. We have taken it a much higher now, we are establishing ourselves as a major player and expanding into the value chain of the process to ensure that we earn the much needed foreign exchange for the country to develop other industries locally and we build small and medium scale enterprises into using our products to also harness their businesses. So, from that point to where we are now, it’s basically about developing Nigeria as a hub and a key player in the agric business space. In a nutshell, that’s me and what I do.

What does your company LADGROUP stands for?
LADGROUP as a company stands for excellence, quality and we value our people. So, talking about collaboration, teamwork and also integrity, we want to have a people and a company that does what it says and says what it does. But the major stand, I mean the footprint we have in terms of quality, is ensuring there’s standardization, ensuring we take the lead in the global space in terms of what comes out of Nigeria and so, we are looking at quality of our processes, quality of our products and quality of our people. So, that’s essentially what LADGROUP wants to aim, in terms of value to bring out of LADGROUP.

What is the scope of your operation presently and what plans do you have for future growth in terms of where you want to be in the next five to ten years sir?
Okay, this is a brilliant one because it’s basically on the strategic intent of the business. The business has come a long way, starting as commodity traders through the founder Prince Babatunde Onafowokan but it is his strategic intent that has led us to be the first processors in Nigeria, the biggest and from there what we are looking at is to be the major player in the totality of the value chain, so in terms of the totality of the value-chain, we are talking about impact in the environment, we are talking about developing much of community based farm holders, we are talking about women, women play key roles in the shea nut value-chain, we are talking about empowering and developing women groups in the areas in which we play, we are looking at the product line itself, we are looking at taking it a step further, we are talking of refining, we are talking of fractionation, we are talking of packaging, we are talking of oils, which in terms of health benefit is number one. The company is also involved in the real estate sector. We have properties, we have cold rooms, we have warehouses. So, in all of these, in the next five years, we are trying to bring shea oil into dominance, bring it in forefront, which we have linkages with local companies that do cosmetics, drugs, that do foods and the global shea industry is growing and we are looking at about 40 Billions dollars because it’s now a replacer to the cocoa butter in chocolate business and in terms of the cosmetic market globally, and like I said, 65% of the shea tree population is in Nigeria and so we want to make it the next crude oil for the country. So, in that whole process, let’s say in the next five years, we want to see ourselves as number one in terms of research and development, in terms of initiatives in the value chain stream and dominant player in sub-Saharan Africa.

Carving a niche for yourself means you are working on a very strong competitive edge. What do you considered to be your main competitive edge in the industry?
This is very important because we all know about the African-Continental Free Trade Agreement which means that we cannot look at ourselves as Nigeria, we look ourselves as, for instance in West Africa, between us, Ghana and Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin. That’s where you have the large population of the trees. As I speak to you, we have very solid companies in Ghana. So, we know that in terms of competition, we cannot look at ourselves as ourselves. We look at it in that we are competing against companies in the West African space. We have cosmetic companies that are backward integrated into Burkina Faso, they are sourcing and producing for themselves. So, those are the people that we are looking at as competitors. Then also locally, we’ve had three or four companies also coming out locally to harness these same opportunities we have and what that means is that we cannot look back, we cannot become idle, we cannot become obsolete. That means that we must take one step ahead of competition, whether it’s in products or in processing. In terms of technology, we must be up there and that involves continuously investing in technology, continuously investing in people and what we are looking at, is that we become the top three major global players in terms of processing, it has to be us. If you look at the economy’s space now, it’s a little bit tight, you know if we want to build up the technology, we are talking about bringing in the equipment and the likes. So, with those constraints in terms of infrastructure, those constraints in terms of ways of working, we have to be cost competitive. So, it means we internalize our thought, to see how we can get better day by day, how we can get to the consumers faster with least possible costs so that we can compete across West Africa and be winners in what we do.

How can you describe your company’s relationship with customers and other partners?
What we do is, we yearly hold supplier’s forum that enables us to engage with suppliers. In terms of consumers, we work with them, develop products for them that suits them. We are very open to listen to what they want and try and see how we can manage our processes to suit them. We have two organizations that we are also fully involved with. We have the Global Shea Alliance (GSA) which is based out of Ghana, then we have NASPAN which is our national body. We are having a conference in August. Basically, these two bodies are concerned about how to ensure that we build standard within the system and LADGROUP is a key partner with these two. So, we have customers, we have suppliers and we have regulators and we have standard organizations and in all of these four areas, we collaborate and work closely with all of them to ensure that we are in touch and abreast with current development.

Apart from your line of business, what is your view in the Nigerian market generally in respect of the challenges and contribution to the Nigerian economy?
We have a very dynamic market in Nigeria and you can’t compare it with twenty years ago. One of the key drivers is consumer awareness. The consumers now know what they want. They are particular about what they want. So, you have to evolve with your customers, you have to evolve with your consumers. You need to be very adaptable. What is happening now, what do we want, what would they like? Infact, you have to think for them, what would they want in the next one year? I was in the market recently with my team and we find out that a lot of Nigerians are actually importing shea-butter products from Ghana and Togo and that’s a slap on our face, and we have to look at those products, because we are not directly interfacing in terms of other derivatives of our products. So, a lot of people buy shea-butter for instance, they use it to make soap, they use it to make creams and we saw that a lot of finished products are imported into the Nigerian markets and we have to interface with producers and they complain about one or two things. And we say yeah, you can work with LADGROUP to ensure that you can now make products. We shouldn’t be importing them. When 65% of the raw materials are available locally. Those are the kind of things we do, we’ve been able to develop people who are now taking products into the US market, into the UK market, into the Asian market and we’ve worked with them and they’ve told us that look, these are the kind of things we need in this country. And we said, look no further, we are open and we can manufacture to your needs in terms of what you want and that is what is helping us as a company. Needs are evolving and you will be surprised that there are different things that they use shear butter for. Its medicinal for instance, it can be used as an ointment, some people use the nut its self as food, it’s a very good high source of protein, it is use for soaps, it’s used for creams, it’s used for lotions, it’s used by people in the salon, the uses are very wide, now we as a company cannot play the role of all these categories. So, what we are doing is, the soap users what do you want, the lotion users what do you want, pharmaceuticals what specification do you want, we can feed you raw materials that can enable you grow, we can also get a linkage to what the consumers want, and help you to tailor your development in that area. So, that is what we try as much as possible to do, to ensure that the country first of all benefit, to ensure that in terms of employment, if you can develop a product, you will need workers, you will need marketers, you will need distributors, and that has a multiplier effect on the Nigeria’s economic space. So, is a forefront, it’s a big leg into the way we think as a company.

As a businessman, what is your greatest challenge faced in running business in Nigeria?
Infrastructure, we are competing against companies in other countries that have things provided for them, you know, they have energy, they have other basic needs, they have government officials that are working closely with them, I do export, sometimes you have congestion in the port, sometimes you have products that stay for two to three months in the port, you have customers from abroad that cancel contract with you because you are not delivering to them as at when due, it’s a great challenge, as I’m talking to you diesel is about N800, N850 per liter, we all did budget coming into this year and we used N300 per liter as our price, it’s gone, it’s about 350% higher than that, you can’t price that into your product you know. So, even with gas, we have not gotten to that point in terms of infrastructure where gas is easily available to companies like ours, you know we have an arrangement with Axxella now but you see, I understand how difficult it is, you have to do environmental impact assessment, they have pipes running into communities to get to you, we have the challenges of road, we have to move products from one area to another, the logistics guys are charging you, it’s understandable, they are also facing the challenges of diesel, we have multiple taxation, we have the federal, state, local government officials struggling to see who will tax you most. So, I think we need to get to a point in this country where we look at the benefits of companies like ours, and begin to fashion out ways in which to help them, I have travelled extensively, sometime in some country you just have places where they call industrial zones, and everything is provided for them, energy and all of that, you just come situate there, and you have a platform to be competitive, it’s difficult to be competitive in climate like ours, you go to a place like Togo, you can move in and move out products within a reasonable time, it’s online, if you are brining things into Togo, you complete all your documentation online and ship comes before you know it, it’s done. It’s a big challenge you know, but one of the benefits it does in terms of manpower, in your thinking, you think as a Nigerian businessman, you are thinking forty-three months ahead, if they bring a counterpart from anywhere else, because of what you have gone through, your thinking process is different, you see problems before it happens, but it doesn’t mean is a good thing for us, because at the end of the day is a global village, the cost to produce a tonnes is what drives your business revenue, if your cost in producing at tonnes is higher than your competitor in any other part of the world, you are in trouble, you are in big trouble because your margins will be low and if you can’t deliver on a value for your shareholders then why are you in business.

How do you manage your family, relationships, emotion and business altogether?
The truth is that family is critical, you know at the end of the day, the diesel tanker that caries 33,000 litres needs diesel to function, the diesel it needs might be just 40 litres, so without that 40 liters diesel it cannot move the 33,000 liters. The family is like that 40 liters you need that in your system, you need to be well oiled to be able to carry a 33,000 liters load. So it’s important that you keep that afloat, you get inspiration, you get energy from that base to drive you to deliver. It’s that important and work life balance is also very important. Work life balance is something that a lot of people seem not to understand. You know, the totality of balancing work and life is to ensure that you are a high performer, a very high achiever. I tell my managers, you must rest. There is no point, if I work you 24/7, you will not deliver to me. You must take time to rest and reinvest yourself. That is what I need, I need a manager that can re-invent himself and think clearly. So, work life balance I think is something that can be built into the system and every business leader in my position should think of the value of the people in the system, not just value of the result that they will have to deliver but value them as human beings. That’s very important. Over the last one year, I have been looking at the issues of mental health in the work space and it is something that is very important. Covid 19 has taught us a lot. Covid has taught us to a point that we began to realize that people can work out of their stations and still deliver results. You know, before Covid, the mindset of people is that we need to see you to know that you are working and at the end of the day, I judge you by your result and your performance. Now, it doesn’t matter where you are, if you deliver that result and performance for me, the better the business is. So, work life is a strategic part of business and what I will tell colleagues in the business space is, build it in as a strategic imperative for your business, build it in for the workers, let workers realize that as a business executive you value work life balance and see the quantum leap in your delivery base. So, that’s my thoughts on work life balance.

In my own view, most of your counterparts would want their offices to be in areas like Lekki, Banana Island, on the Lagos Island general. What informed your desire to settle in Isolo on the Lagos Mainland?
It was because of the usual nature of the business. The way it started as Export, you have to be close to your export processing zones and in this case, it was Apapa. We were moving out a lot of products and situated the factory at a point where you can easily access the raw materials and we situated the head office at a point where we can immediately be in charge of ensuring the goods go out and that led to siting the office at Isolo Industrial Estate and so, it gives you the opportunity to control your front end and your back end. So, for us, we believe we are in the agric business, we believe we are glorified farmers of sort, so, the beauty of standing from your office and looking at the ocean was not priority for us. So, we wanted to stand from our office and look at the ports and see our containers moving out and of course, making money from the business. At the right time, with the development of the Lekki Zone, we’ll probably look at setting something in the free trade zone to further ensure that we get benefits that accrue from such area. But, those taught were the immediate taught that we had to settle down at Isolo and also in Shagamu.

As a businessman, what is your definition of success?
Hmmm! Success. Firstly, I’ll look at success from the point that it’s not a single achievement. Success is not like “I have arrived somewhere”. Success is a continuum. I’ve gone through phases in my work career where I have achieved something and it’s on to the next one. So, success is not just about believe in numbers. Success is also character, success is also value, you know success is multi-dimensional. So, if I tell myself for instance that I want to hit N10 billion and I achieved it, it’s just a leg to it. So, I look at success from all of those points. Success is the people I developed for instance, success is developing people to be able to stand on their own and drive the vision. That’s success you know. Success is not just about the happiness that comes from achieving results. Success for me is also my goal in developing value, character of becoming the kind of person that I intend to be. So, it’s much more bigger than achieving result. So, success for me is transiting and becoming the person that I want to be and making an impact on people all around me. So, I see it as multi-dimensional, you cannot say am a successful man because I’ve done this, then you go and rest. No, no it doesn’t end there for me. Am not one of those that think in box and say am a successful man. You can be successful in business and you are not successful as a family person and that means you have not achieved your end goals for instance. So, we need to open our minds in term of success, it’s one of the things that is killing our society. The average person believes that until I have N200 million in my account, am not successful. That’s not true, it’s beyond that. Success cannot be measured in terms of naira and kobo. It’s more than that. So, it’s important the way I view setbacks and it helps me bounce back quickly. It helps me realize that a setback is not fatal or final. So, immediately, you are thinking of oh! I didn’t do well here. It’s not the end, but I can do well in this world. So you don’t get into a depressed mood you know, you talk to some people, they are saying they are depressed and that’s because they’ve put numbers to a lot of things around them and because they are not achieving that number, they are not happy and they claim they are not successful. It’s not true.

Can you take us into the background of LADGROUP?
Okay, LADGROUP was founded by Prince Babatunde Onafowokan after he left Shell, he was the first Nigerian manager in Shell. He started the company in 1971 and it became the major exporter of cocoa and commodities; ginger and shea nuts out of Nigeria and actually won the best exporter of the year in the early 80s and from there it was granted concession in the days of SAP during the regime of President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida to set up a processing hub and that’s what led to the concept of okay, lets start processing and manufacturing and in the late 90s that was done. In 2019, Sahel Capital under the auspices of FAFIN Funds for Investment; Sahel Agric Capital invested above $8 million to become majority owners of the company and that further brought in the consolidation of the business to make sure it was set to harness opportunities in the space. So, the company has moved from that initial stage to a company that has the founding family members, the majority owners in Sahel and two other individuals as shareholders in the business.

What is your advice for young and upcoming generation who would want to venture into agric business?
My advice for them. What are you waiting for? You should be understanding, you should be seeing the opportunities in this space and if you look at the GDP in Nigeria, basically Africa, you immediately see the gap. The average GDP driver in Nigeria over the last 10 years is in agric sector . So, agric is the driver of the Nigerian GDP with about 23%. If you do a summary of the whole of Africa in the same period, it’s also in that region, it’s about 24%. Now, if you compare that to the developed world, apart from China that is about 12%, GDP is about 1 to 5% in the developed world. Why is it like that? It’s because they’ve taken agriculture to the next level. You have mechanized agriculture and in Africa, in Nigeria, agric is still hard work and that’s where we need the youths in how do we bring impact of technology. If you compare that with manufacturing, in the developed world, the GDP from manufacturing is twice that of Agric. In Nigeria, in Africa it’s half that of it. So, what is this telling you? We need young people to come into the agric space and bring knowledge base and bring creativity and technology and begin to look at what processing can we get out of our crops. We still have high incident of spoilage of crops in Nigeria. So, a lot of people will be surprised to know that for this shea nut we hold 65%, onion we are number two, yam we are number one then lots of other commodities like cashew we are number two, apart from Vietnam and in terms of export quantities. So, we have a lot of these resources locally, some of them wastes, even the shea nuts we talk about, it’s just out of our output we can harvest every year. So, you have a lot of these things there. We are looking for people who can take these and look at the export potentials and you have land, acres that can be developed. Where you have the advantage with you is that you can come up with innovations. They are educated, they can look at storage and say oh! they can store these proper. They can look at the end to end of the system and see if we can improve on this. When you begin to harness that taught process, that mindset, that energy from the youth into this, we find out that we are going to grow this thing massively. We still think it, we leave it for our older generations so they don’t know what to do, they just put it out there for buyers. We all know the story of oil palm. As am talking to you now, there is a 1.7 million tonnes deficit in oil supply in Nigeria! I visited Malaysia and I went to a plantation of 650,000acres, it was like a community. We were driving through the plantation and it was like it’s not going to end. That is like combining four states in the South West. You can imagine, four states in Nigeria is just oil palm. Are you surprised that Malaysia is the number one supplier of oil palm worldwide? And they are making massive money out of it. So, we need our young people with that vibrancy, with that energy to come in to the space and see what every other person is not seeing and begin to harness that opportunity to build the country and begin to look at what opportunities we can have in terms of technology, in terms of process, in terms of storage, in terms of manufacturing. These are the things that will build the country, it’s not just agriculture on its own. There are other legs from it, there is the technology information leg, the processing leg, there is the manufacturing leg, there is the storage leg, there is the logistics leg. I just mentioned five legs that emanate out of agriculture that our youths can look at to build agriculture in tune and that can further help the country in terms of growth and development.

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