Monday, March 19, 2018

Segun Ogunsanya: A good ambassador for Nigeria

Segun Ogunsanya: A good ambassador for Nigeria
March 02
12:19 2018


I’m yet to meet Segun Ogunsanya, the Managing Director & CEO of Airtel Nigeria, in person, but I will. Before I do, I want to earn my license for unfettered access to him by sharing the feelings I get each time I read of him or hear him talk on TV.

As a customer of Airtel Nigeria of longstanding, I have followed the metamorphosis of the organization and the various changes including the names, brand and leadership. When I bought my first mobile phone, it was Econet Wireless Nigeria. There was something about Econet. Then, they had only MTN as their competitor. MTN was all over the place with massive branding and advertising, but Econet had a thing for customer service, which they have held most admirably to, and has won several accolades for. So, I got myself a Buddie line (080233….). I have held on to the line through thick and thin. Of course, it has not been all rosy, but I’d rather remain with a network that listens to and acts on customer issues than one that’s flashy, big and rich.

As I was saying, I have followed the organization from 2001. From Econet, they became Vodacom but for a brief moment. Then, they dramatically changed to Vmobile, when, as we were told, the South African operator, on suspicion of some unwholesome deals, pulled out. Interestingly, all the executives Vodacom sent to run the Nigerian business resigned en masse and elected to stay back to run Vmobile, which, to me, was a child or product of circumstance. Vmobile lasted some time. Probably, the management and staff felt personally committed being that they rallied round to create the brand from scratch after Vodacom left them high and dry.

Then, one fine day in 2006, the company became Celtel Nigeria. We later learnt Celtel was owned by Dr. Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecommunications Engineer, who worked in British Telecoms. Well, Celtel metamorphosed into Zain and later Airtel. Zain, the free-spending Bahrain group, felt it wasn’t making money in Nigeria and sold the business at a staggering $10b to Sunil Mittal, the Indian pace-setter, who launched the very first GSM network in one of the countries with the largest population in the world. Interestingly, Dr. Mo, it is said, had made his money helping Mittal set up Airtel back in 2000. He made so much money he set up Celtel Africa (formerly MSI) with headquarters in Nairobi Kenya, a business Mittal was to later buy over from the Arab owner of Zain.

Like the name changes, the CEOs have also changed. There was Zachary Wazara, the pioneer CEO, followed by Boye Olusanya, who acted for about a year before Willem Swart came from Vodacom. Willem led the business until it became Celtel, which would rather a Nigerian CEO took over-and so brought Bayo Ligali. Ligali was formerly the MD of Dangote Pasta, a position he took after retiring early from Unilever, where he served as Chairman of the East African operations. Sadly, he fell sick and later died making way for Alan Sante Marie who handed over to Rajan Swaroop. Swaroop, the calm bespectacled elderly looking man midwifed the emergence of Airtel in the Nigerian market. His looks belied the aggressiveness with which he drove through the agenda his employers. After 4 years or so, I believe the Bharti-Airtel group decided to hire a Nigerian to run their Nigerian operation. Now, it has turned out to be a very wise decision because the man they chose for the job has not let them down.

Enter Segun Ogunsanya, the 1999 Electrical Electronic Engineering graduate of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. Now, 52, Mr. Ogunsanya has led the organization now for 5 years, the longest serving CEO. As I watched him welcome guests to the recent launch of Airtel 4G in Ibadan, I saw a man full of ideas, energy and passion for the work he does. I also saw a man focused on making history. As a matter of fact, he has already made history now only as the longest serving CEO of the organization but as, Senator Olabiyi Durojaiye said, the only Nigerian CEO of any major telecommunications company in the country.

In a country where most multinational organization have reverted to foreign CEOs, Mr. Ogunsanya deserves the thumbs up for being an enduring symbol of local content especially in the highly demanding telecommunications industry. Being in the saddle for 5 years also speaks volumes about his achievements as a leader with targets, sometime stretching targets. For someone who has been CEO since the age of 32 (so he’s led big businesses for 20 straight years) he is certainly living up to expectations. He cut his teeth at Arthur Andersen having switched easily from Engineering to Accounting and then moved to Coca-Cola International starting from Ghana, where he grew to become the CEO. He moved to Kenya as CEO of the Coca-Cola operations there and returned to Nigeria as CEO of the Nigerian Bottling Company, the bottlers of Coca-Cola. It was from there he joined Airtel bringing along his FMCG experience apparently to make Airtel the Coca-Cola of the telecommunications industry.

How far he succeeds with that tough challenging considering the huge investments required in network expansion and distribution is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: Segun Ogunsanya is proving his worth as a true ambassador of Nigeria being perhaps the only one still holding strong in the leadership of a billion-dollar multinational business in Nigeria.

I hope I have earned the rights to a breakfast or lunch or dinner with this special Nigerian who must be a good case study in leadership.

Adekunle writes from Lagos.


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1 Comment

  1. Wole
    Wole March 03, 15:58

    An excellent and well researched article. I work with him at airtel and can confirm from my vantage insider position that he is indeed a great leader by any standard

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