Nnamdi Ezeigbo: The Driver Behind Nigeria’s Largest Mobile Phone Retail Chain, Slot System
The name, Slot, is synonymous with mobile phones in Nigeria. The name is not the brand of a phone. It is the name of the country’s biggest mobile phone retailer, second, perhaps, to the numerous brands that litter the Nigerian market, in terms of popularity.
But while Slot is a household name among mobile phone users in the country, not so the name, Nnamdi Ezeigbo. However, unknown to thousands who walk into Slot stores around the country to buy mobile phones, the other name belongs to the man that drives the stores.
Ezeigbo’s journey to where he is today is a study in doggedness, determination and tenacity. It is also a study in the upholding of virtues. In a way, he can be said not to be the regular Nigerian businessman, or a member of the school of thought that believes all is fair in business, whether or not it passes the test of integrity and morality.
He learnt the hard way that a good name is better than riches, and has over the years made the experience the guiding lesson of his life. This, without doubt, is what has brought him to the present stage of his journey as a businessman.
Ezeigbio is a firm believer in the adage that says it is not the day a well is dug that frogs fall into to it. Not for him the craze by some people to achieve big things overnight. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Nothing good comes easy. For him, slow and steady wins the race.
With impressive credentials in electrical and electronics engineering, computer science and information communications technology, Ezeigbo has come a long way, and is today unquestionably associated with the mobile phone revolution that has swept through Nigeria in the last decade or so.
The journey to the top has not been a smooth one for the Slot founder – it has never been for anyone that has attained success in any field of endeavor. But what has kept him has been an abiding faith in his vision, his belief in his innate abilities and an interrupted focus on his goals.
When Ezeigbo left the Yaba College of Technology armed with the Higher National Diploma in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, he dreamt of a career in the corporate world, just like any other fresh graduate. An attempt to do what is considered normal in Nigeria, after job-hunting for two years, aborted that dream. But then, it opened opportunities in an area he probably did not envisage. The rest, as they say, is now history.
A lesson in integrity
Eziegbo spent two years after graduation in search of paid employment, which was not easy to come by. And when an opportunity came for him to work with Mobil, he saw a bright future in the oil industry, the dream of every young graduate.
He possessed the necessary educational requirements. After a series of screenings that saw about three thousand candidates pruned down to the required number of 21, he was a breath away from his dream job when a seemingly “normal” but silly action cost him the job.
He did not meet the age requirement for the job, but felt, as most young people would do, that a simple thing as altering his age to suit what was expected was all he needed to do to get the job. The dishonesty was discovered on the day he needed to present his credentials at the final stage of screening before being issued appointment letter, when the age on his certificate turned out to be different from what he had in the formed he filled.
“That was a very silly thing to do”, Ezeigbo recalls. “It shows that I was not in that kind of game. It was just like a young man who needed to get a job at all cost. I presented the original certificate, and it showed the true age, which made it silly. The interviewer looked at me and said, ‘come on, you are at this age and this is not supposed to be the age for this job. How did you apply in the first place, and how were you selected’. They compared it with the one I used to apply and they saw the difference. They felt so bad because they needed 21 people and I was the only one that was dropped”.
He lost the job, but not an opportunity to start afresh. The important lesson that experience taught him was the place of integrity in the conduct of human affairs. It was a lesson that would guide his footsteps in the journey of life. “I became so aware of the importance of saying the truth”, he says. “And that helped me to build the culture we have today”.
Ezeigbo quickly put the sad experience behind him and moved on, but this time, in an entirely new pursuit. He started on the journey to self-employment. He spent six months with an engineering outfit that was owned by his friend, as an apprentice, working without income or any form of stipend.
He set up shop in a small bookshop at the end of his apprenticeship, since he could not afford a normal office. With the high level of competence and trust he exhibited, it wasn’t long before he won the hearts of his customers for the value he created for them. He later acquired a bigger office space that would become what is today the headquarters of Slot.
Early years of Slot
The first three years of Slot, between 1998 and 2001, were focused on computer engineering. The company was engaged in the assembly and repairs of computers. That was before the coming of GSM telephony. With the advent of GSM, the company branched out into dealing in mobile phones, but still dealing on computers, in a 60 per cent and 40 per cent ratio, respectively. The company soon adopted a 90 per cent and 10 per cent ratio for mobile phones and computers, respectively, in response to the growth. Little wonder it is identified more with mobile phone sales than computer.
Today, Slot’s involvement in computer is relatively low, compared with the attention it is paying to mobile phones. Its involvement in computer is basically on the Slot Academy, an institution for the training of kids, undergraduates and graduates who wish to acquire the necessary skills in computer engineering and mobile phone engineering. In its barely three years of operation, it has produced about 500 graduates, many of whom are now computer and mobile phone engineers. About 80 per cent of the number has gained employment in various engineering organisations, while the remaining 20 per cent are self-employed.
The company also trains teachers in technical schools in Lagos, besides taking in students for IT attachment, in line with its policy of giving back to the society.
“These are some of the things we have been doing, apart from GSM business”, Ezeigbo explains.
The company, which started out as an engineering outfit, has now become a GSM mobile phone company. In fact, it is the first mobile phone retail company in Nigeria. It opened its first retail stores in 2006, and the following year, it redefined retail business by opening a chain of stores across the country. “Yes, Slot is a chain of stores”, says Ezeigbo. “That is the simple way to describe Slot right now, and we have about 65 retail stores across Nigerian cities. And as you grow, you need to hire people. We have about 700 people, and we also have to create jobs for another 1,000”.
The company has a partnership with phone manufacturers and GSM providers, in a wonderful ecosystem that creates a win-win situation for everybody. “The manufacturing company has its own value chain, from manufacturing to distribution, from distribution to retail, then the telecom companies also, like Glo and MTN”, he says. “The manufacturing companies obviously need our presence and contributions. If they have to produce, they have to actually get advice from us on what we sell in Nigeria, and what we don’t sell. We have a wonderful relationship with them; we buy directly from them, and that helps to reduce the retail costs of the devices”.
Integrity as a core value
Ezeigbo runs Slot on the core value of integrity. It is what has kept the business going, and what will see it grow to become the empire of his dream. “If you want to achieve excellent results, then you have to build an excellent foundation”, he explains. “From the onset, we have made up our minds to run a business that will grow to become an empire, and we are not just here to make money and close business; we are here to build a structure and an empire. We are emotional about our name, Slot. So we try as much as possible to inculcate these core values in the minds of our employees”.
The company trains its employees on its core values from the time they are engaged. It holds the issue of integrity dearly to its heart. “We fire people for slight mistakes”, Ezeigbo says. “Once it has to do with integrity, the person is gone. We appraise people based on two things – core value and performance”.
Says he: “If your performance is low and your core value is high, we will train and keep you. But if your performance is high and your core value is low, we will show you the way out. We don’t appraise you based on your core performance alone, but we appraise you based on performance versus commitment and core values. That has been our DNA, and is something we hold so dearly and people know that, right from the onset”.
The company is blessed with employees that are committed to its core values of integrity, performance and value creation. Some have been there for the past 18 years. In appreciation, the company rewards such commitment with in-house trainings and promotions, rather than bring people from outside to occupy senior positions when they become vacant. “We look for smart, young people who are trainable, not necessarily experienced, and we inculcate our culture, our core values, that have helped the Slot concept”.
Phenomenal growth of Slot
The growth of the Slot brand can correctly be described as phenomenal. Ezeigbo attributes it to God’s grace and the human factor, in that order. “Yes, our growth has been very phenomenal”, he agrees. “But most importantly, as a Christian, I will say God’s grace and the human factor. The human factor is the fact that I was able to identify where I am going. I was able to say, ‘okay, you know what, this is our vision”.
He says every company must have a vision of a minimum of five years. The next task is identification of the vehicle that would take it to where it is going. “There was a vision, and there was a need to have the vehicle, and when you have the vehicle, you need to look for who the driver will be”, he says. “We were able to identify the importance of having key people and smart people”.
He said one of the mistakes the company made at inception was involvement of relatives and friends in the business. The company corrected the mistake at the expiration of its first five-year plan, and weeded the people out of the system to create room for engagement of fresh hands to drive the vision of the founder. “So, the key point is, get the smart people, train them, share the vision with them, let them understand what you want, and share the founder’s mentality with them”, says Ezeigbo. “Every company must have a founder’s mentality. Share the mentality of the founder with them, and make them think like you. If you have such people and they have the right competence, of course, the customers will be happy for the kind of value you create”.
He says there is also need for discipline – financial and moral discipline. This means cutting one’s coat according to the cloth that is available. He said a lot of businesses run into bad weather because their owners live above their means, in an effort to impress society. “People want to spend money than what they earn. How do you intend to survive when your problem is more than what you earn? Pay the guys N300, 000, their problem will increase. Pay N500, 000, their problem will increase to one million naira. People are not disciplined”.
That explains why Slot places premium on financial discipline and integrity.
“Once you have a system that says, ‘this thing will result to dismissal, stand on them”, he says. “That is what discipline is all about, and that has really helped me”.
Ezeigbo advises against allowing one’s self to be under financial pressure, which he says is the major cause of indiscipline and loss of integrity. “Do not allow yourself to be under financial pressure, just like when you are asked to pay one million naira for a wedding hall of your brother-in-law, but you don’t have”.
Mixing family with business
Ezeigbo was once reported as saying, “If you want to kill your business, employ your brother”. He stands by the statement. He was at Covenant University to give a talk, when he was asked the pitfalls to avoid in business. “And I said, ‘do not hire your relatives, because you will not be able to fire them’”.
He advised that business should be managed as a profession, not just for the purpose of making money, or as a mere passion. “Business is a profession and should be managed as a profession”, he said. “Profession requires years or period of training. It requires principle, policies, rules, laws, dos and don’ts. When we run businesses like self-employed businesses, we majorly hire our brothers, relatives, brothers-in-law. And imagine when your brother-in-law misbehaves, how do you sack him? You cannot sack him, and if you do, there must be problem at home. So, why must you put your brother-in-law as the accountant of the company? He will sell off the company. Those are the pitfalls in business, and it is common. You don’t hire your relatives”.
Slot will not end at being a Nigerian brand. Ezeigbo plans to take the company outside the country’s borders. “Of course, that is our next plan”, he says. “Every company, like I said, must have a vision, and the vision must be timely; you must have a timeline. Don’t just say I want to be number one. There must be timeline; what time, when, and all that. We have that vision”.
The company is also trying to consolidate and build on its acceptability in Nigeria, because of the huge potential that abounds in the country. “We have not been able to exploit the northern part of Nigeria because of the security problems”, he says. “As the economy stabilizes, we will be able to do much more, and we can cross the borders”.
Ezeigbo holds the view that taking a private business to the stock market is not a good idea. His position is informed by the experiences of many companies that went public and lost control and direction. He would rather invite private investors into the company, to make it more of a Nigerian company, not just Ezeigbo’s.
“We would want to sell some shares, maybe 40 per cent, to maybe four Nigerians who are reputable and who are sure of their source of income, and not politicians”, he says. “The issue of Plc is not a good idea, because of my personal experience from what I have seen about some companies that are Plc”. He said he has shares in some companies from which he has never received even one naira. “They collect money from you and so what happened at the end of the day? The money is used for something else and you will not hear anything about it. So, going Plc is not something very immediate; maybe in the future, I don’t know about that. But not in the next five years”.
Corporate social responsibility
Ezeigbo’s idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is different from the norm. While he appreciates the fact that intervention programmes, as is commonly done by corporate organizations in Nigeria, are commendable, his concept of CSR is what his company has been doing from inception, which is creation of jobs and establishment of an academy that trains people to be qualified employees and employers, for the multiplier effects it has on families.
“When you create jobs for people, you pay tax, you have a training school where people, every year, about 500 people go through that school and they become employable and they can be self-employed, that is the real corporate social responsibility”, he says. “Today, about 500 people that have gone through the Slot Academy, they have been able to create jobs for themselves and their families. We have created jobs for these guys, and we also signed an agreement (MoU) with the Edo State government to train about 2,000 youths in Edo State. We intend to take that to other states”.
He continues: “That is, for us, social corporate responsibility. We don’t believe in building structures and donating that to communities as corporate social responsibility. We believe in developing human capital. For us, human capital is the most important thing. When you develop a man, train him, and let him acquire the kind of knowledge that he needs to create wealth, that is what responsibility is all about”.
Ezeigbo prefers to be seen as an entrepreneurial or social speaker, not a motivational speaker, as is commonly known. “Why even motivating somebody at all”? he asks. “I should be addressed as an entrepreneurial speaker, and if you address me as an entrepreneurial or social entrepreneurial speaker, I will prefer that. I want to be called a social entrepreneur, not a motivational speaker who will come here and throw out 12 slides of what happened and people begin to clap hands. That is not what it should be”.
Says he: “A social entrepreneur goes out of his way, spends his time and resources to train budding entrepreneurs. That is what I have been doing. I have been to Covenant University, University of Lagos, several churches, several organizations, companies’ annual general meetings to train their senior managers. I do that because that is what I think I owe society. Train people in the area of entrepreneurship; make them understand what it takes to grow a business, achieve sustainable growth and continue to grow”.
Ezeigbo received his early education at the Pamol Primary School, Sapele and Ogini Grammar School, Ogharefe, both in Delta State. He studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the Yaba College of Technology for his HND, and later did his national service with Guinness Nigeria Plc.
He studied Computer and Electronics Engineering at the Lagos Stat University, where he obtained a B.Sc. (Second Class Upper). Not done with education, he attended the Ladoke Akintola University at Ogbomosho, where he bagged a Masters in Information Technology, before capping it up with an Executive MBA from the Lagos Business School. He is also an alumnus of the Harvard Business School.
Awards and recognitions
Ezeigbo has numerous awards and honours to his name, some of which are: Nigerian National Integrity Award; Distinguished SME Partner Award by Fidelity Bank, 2014; Global Leader of Integrity Award, 2014; Mobile Phone Dealer of the Year Award, 2014; Businessman of the Year, by Hall of Grace Award, 2014 and Nigeria Customer Service Award, 2015. Others are Nigerian Telecom Award for Mobile Phone Dealer of the Year Award, 2016; Businessday Most Innovative SME Award, 2017 and Outstanding Entrepreneur Award 2018, by the Nigerian Society of Engineers.
Ezeigbo had the honour of representing Nigeria in the United Kingdom as an Olympic Torch Bearer for the London 2012 Olympics.
He served as a member of the Federal Government’s ICT Drafting Committee, and is happily married with children.
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