May 12, 2013 9:59 pm

Interview: Nigerian entrepreneur Charles Anudu

Charles Anudu©Benedicte Kurzen

Charles Anudu believes he is “entrepreneurially wired” but might have failed but for his business education

Charles Anudu knew by the age of 15 that he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but it would be a decade and half before he launched his first company. In that time he completed a bachelor’s degree in agriculture at the University of Nigeria, a masters in plant ecology at the University of Ibadan, joined a multinational company and started a PhD programme.

At one point it seemed Anudu’s future might be in academia, as he juggled a full-time job in research in Lagos, with the agrochemicals division of French chemicals and pharmaceuticals company Rhône-Poulenc (now Aventis – the agrochemicals division was sold to German company Bayer in 2002) with his weekend life as a PhD student in Ibadan, 100 miles away.

And then something happened at work that “eventually changed everything”: Anudu was promoted to general manager of his division. It was unexpected, he says, because general managers typically came from sales or marketing, rather than research.

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The new role was his first real business education, exposing him to the practicalities of running a company. In 1993, he quit to start Candel, an agrochemicals company, in Lagos. A psychological assessment he took around that time reinforced his conviction that he was “entrepreneurially wired”.

But he still needed formal business education, which is how he ended up at Lagos Business School in 1993, on the inaugural advanced management programme. It “opened my eyes”, he says. “[When] I went to LBS I couldn’t even read a financial statement.” Without that early education he says he would have ended up a “disgruntled” employee or a “bankrupt” entrepreneur.

Those were early days for the school; it was being transformed from the Centre for Professional Communications (its original incarnation from 1991) into Lagos Business School. It did not even have its own buildings, and Anudu recalls taking classes in a restaurant on Victoria Island in Lagos. The faculty was both local (he recalls being taught by Pat Utomi from Volkswagen of Nigeria; Dotun Sulaiman of Andersen Consulting, later Accenture; Dick Kramer from Arthur Andersen; and Christopher Kolade from Cadbury) and international – with visiting professors from Barcelona’s Iese Business School, with which Lagos had developed an affiliation.

Lagos Business School has come a long way from those humble beginnings. It started an executive MBA programme in 1996, a full-time MBA in 2003 and a doctoral programme in 2006, eventually becoming one of the schools of the privately owned Pan-African University, established in 2002. Lagos Business School made it into the FT’s executive education open programme ranking in 2007, and has kept a place on the list ever since. In 2012, it was ranked second in Africa (out of only four ranked African business schools).

The school’s key selling point, Anudu says, is the “unique context” it brings to business education – a focus on Nigeria’s peculiar business environment. For example, when he was studying there the country was going through a hyperinflationary period – the sort of economic conditions a US or European business school might have been hard pressed to relate to.

Then there is the school’s focus on ethics (it was founded by members of the Catholic organisation Opus Dei and openly identifies with its teachings), which is important in a country where corruption is rife and “privilege and patronage” are often seen as prerequisites for business success.

“Local context is all of it,” says Anudu. “The principles are the same [in] all business schools, wherever you find them – in Africa, Europe, North America. The curriculum is the same – it’s the perspective that is different.”

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The chance to acquire a different perspective, post Lagos, came in 1997, from a two-month owner-directors programme at Insead. The choice of France was easy. “Remember, I worked for a French group, so my early influence after I left university was [from] the French,” he says. During his eight years at Rhône-Poulenc he was travelling to France four times a year. “I understood France more than the UK or any other region.” (I ask whether he speaks French. “Un peu,” he replies, laughing. “A little bit. I understand business French – I can hold a meeting in French – but beyond that I have a headache.” )

In 2008, he started the nine-week owner/president management programme at Harvard Business School, travelling to the US for classes three weeks every year for three years.

Looking back, he says: “Each school has enriched my life in a unique way.” He contrasts European and US companies and management styles: European companies tend to be more international in outlook (the colonial legacy means they are likely to have a presence in more countries – for example, French companies in francophone Africa), but also to be more conservative in style. The Americans, he says, are “very audacious” and have a greater appetite for risk than Europe. At Harvard “you learn to dream – you’re not afraid of dreaming”.

Anudu had, of course, been dreaming big well before Harvard. In 1999, six years into his Candel adventure, he made his second entrepreneurial move, into a field in which he had no experience or training whatsoever: telecoms. Entrepreneurs, he explains, “make a living either by making life more convenient for people, or making things cheaper”.

At that time he spotted an opportunity to step into a new field and solve a pressing problem. “The way that [Nigerians] are complaining about [electricity] today was the way they complained about communication then,” he says.

But first he decided he needed to sacrifice some of his time “to really understand how deep and how wide this area could be”. And so, in 1999, he enrolled for a diploma in telecommunications electronics at DeVry Institute of Technology (now DeVry University) in Illinois in the US.

In 2002, Swift Networks, the company Anudu founded after gaining his diploma, was awarded a licence to provide wireless broadband services in Nigeria. The company started operations in 2003 and, a decade on, I am curious whether Anudu is planning any new ventures. He tells me that his focus is on expanding Candel and Swift.

“We are founding new companies, but essentially they are being built to take advantage of the platforms we have already established – business models that run off the platform that we have already built.”

So Candel is expanding into Ghana, and, at home, diversifying into manufacturing – an agrochemicals plant is being built in the new free trade zone in Lagos and a fruit-processing plant is planned. Swift also plans to expand into the media sector and provide content.

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For Anudu, entrepreneurship goes beyond assembling start-ups. “[Starting] a company is the easiest thing you could ever do,” he says – getting that company to add value and make a difference in the lives of consumers is the real challenge.

He believes there are questions entrepreneurs should ask themselves regularly: “If [my] business disappeared today would anybody notice? I ask people, if Google disappeared today would anybody notice? If Google or Facebook or Microsoft or MTN disappeared today, what would it take another company to step into its shoes?”

I observe that Anudu has not studied for an MBA, choosing instead shorter management courses focusing on entrepreneurship. It is a deliberate decision. “I didn’t need an MBA,” he says confidently. “As an entrepreneur, my needs are different.” MBAs, he adds, seek to impart specialised skills, which he considers less relevant than the jack-of-all-trades attitude and team-motivating ability required of entrepreneurs. “MBAs are good, but I really don’t think they’re for everybody.”

The view from his desk at Swift Networks is not inspiring – he faces a window overlooking the company car park. Perhaps this helps him to focus on the things that really matter: “What shall we be doing in the next five years? What sort of resources shall we need?” And, of course, talent hunting, which he says is now “the biggest job I have”.

How much does a business school education count when Anudu is recruiting? It is essential, he says. At a certain level of management “a good business education has to be part of the package”. Then there is the desire to teach business education. He reminds me that the reason for starting a PhD in 1985 was so that one day he could teach.

Whether to teach or to learn, it is a fair bet that Anudu will be returning to business school in the future. “I don’t want to leave any knowledge on the table,” he says. “I am intimidated by what I don’t understand – that is why you see me going back to school again and again.”

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