There is a significant number of family owned businesses in Africa, however only a few of them last beyond the founder’s generation. We interviewed Sheila Ojei, the Chief Commercial Officer of Forward Group – a conglomerate in the business of commodities trading, manufacturing and energy. She shared her experience with us about what it takes to run her family business empire.
Tell us about yourself and how you moved back to Nigeria
My name is Sheila Ojei, I am currently the Chief Commercial Officer of Forward Group under which we have Forward Ventures – a commodities trading company, Covenant Salt Company – our salt refining and packaging company and Forward Energy – our oil and gas company with operations in the downstream oil sector. However at the moment, I am more involved with Covenant Salt Company as this is where needs my attention the most.
How and when did you decide to get involved in the family business?
I always knew I would get involved with the family business from a young age. As a teenager, my father would put me through the happenings of the company, after secondary school, I was his PA and secretary for almost a year before going away for University so being a part of the family business was never a debatable topic. Truth is, the business had become my passion from an early age, because I saw it start from our living room as a child, so its success meant so much to me.
The real question however was ‘when’ to join the family business and that question was answered for me sometime in 2014 because as much as I liked my job as an investment banker, I didn’t feel fulfilled so I decided to leave and officially join the family business.
Tell us about Covenant Salt, the role you play and the value you have added since joining the company
Covenant Salt Company is a salt manufacturing and trading company. We own a salt refining plant located in Agbara Industrial Estate, Agbara and we refine all kinds of salt, from retail table salt, known as Sun Salt to salt for the culinary manufacturing and even salt for agricultural use.
I am currently the Chief Commercial Officer, and my main responsibility is to manage the overall sales strategy of the company, manage existing client relationships and build new strategic relationships. In addition to my role I often call myself the executive ‘every every’ of the company because I do everything else that needs to be done on an executive level.
Since I joined the company, I have been able to put structure and establish an internal control system within the company. I have also set up a thriving sales strategy and team; but as you know everything with doing business in Nigeria has its challenges.
What are the challenges you face in filling in such big shoes and how do you mitigate them?
One challenge I have faced is proving my worth to management. Management, being my father in this case. There is the pressure to live up to some standards. I don’t know if there is a way to mitigate this, what I do know is that you keep working hard and putting your very best into the company until your voice is heard.
Another challenge is proving my worth to other staff. It is very easy to be seen as a lazy child that just came to take a position that they never worked for, therefore it was important to me to also prove my worth to employees especially those that have been in the company for as long as I have known myself. If you are serious about managing a family venture, you’ll find that you’d have to fight the ‘Oga pikin’ mentality. Make sure you go over and beyond the standards that have been set by the employees – work twice as hard and lead by example.
How do you manage your relationship with your dad as your boss and as your father?
I have learned to put all personal sentiments aside, and look at my father in the same manner as any of my previous bosses. Being in a family business, you learn quickly that you’ll probably get it the hardest because so much is expected from you. Bringing in any personal issues to the workplace will only affect your growth and productivity in the workplace.
What are the advantages of being in your position?
You’re close to the boss. Which means you’ll find it easier to implement structural changes and will be able to see your suggestions come into fruition.
Having no work-life balance – Everything around you revolves around the business. There is also no appraisal because nobody appreciates your efforts as it is assumed that you are meant to go overboard for the company since ‘nah your papa work’.
Another disadvantage is establishing your identity. It’s a double-edged sword being the owner’s child. You may or may not get the respect you deserve. Some employees may unfairly compare you to your parents without taking the time to get to know you. Others may resent you, thinking you have it easy or were born with the proverbial golden spoon in your mouth. I had cases of employees who refused to take instructions from me because they saw me as a ‘child’.
What future plans do you have for Covenant Salt?
My future plan is to keep the legacy alive for generations to come. I plan to diversify the business and expand into other African markets.
Give us 5 key tips for anyone considering getting involved in their family venture:
In getting involved in a family venture you must be patient, be observant, be willing to learn, always lead by example and believe in the vision of the company.
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