In this interview, Mr. Unyime Idem, managing director, Idems Ultimate Limited and Chairman, Standford Microfinance Bank limited, speaks about his educational background, business indulgence, visions in life, challenges and achievements as the biggest telecom partner in the country.
Who Is Unyime Idem?
My name is Mr. Unyime Idem, managing director, Idems Ultimate Limited and Chairman, Standford Microfinance Bank limited. I started my academic journey from Qua Iboe Church Group School, Ikot Akpa Idem in Ukanafun local government area. After that, I proceeded to Western Annang Secondary Commercial School, Ikot Akpa Nkuk still in Ukanafun. Later, I moved to the University of Uyo where I obtained a degree in Business Management. Because of the love I have for business indulgence, I had to go back to the same university to read for a Master’s in Business Administration.
I would say that what I am today is something I had already figured out as a child. I actually started business at the age of 12 when I was in secondary school. At that age, I started business indulgence and developed business ideas. Vividly, I could remember in one of my classes when one of my teachers taught us on how to create employment opportunities through business ventures. At that time, I set for myself two cardinal objectives. One was to create employment for the young school leavers and the other was to be render service to the people of Akwa Ibom state and Nigeria in general. Believe you me, I have been living by those two objectives till date.
What are your Challenges in the business world?
At that early stage, it was a very challenging one because of the civil service background of Akwa Ibom state. Back then and up till now, some people did not want to join and build the business. To employing people who will work and sustain my business vision has been very challenging. If you meet a person today (either you want to assist and groom person to become an entrepreneur tomorrow), he does not want to go through the rudiments of becoming entrepreneur but prefer to becoming rich overnight.
At the end of the day, he does not know how the business is being run because he does not spend time to study it. After one or two years, the person may want to leave you, and when you ask him, ‘why are you leaving?’ He replies that he wants to join a business enterprise that gives him instant money without going through all the processes. Even your staffer may want to leave to establish his own without understanding some stages you passed through before you get to managerial cadre. As soon as he joins your business, the person wants to become a director or a manager and earn fat salary. These are the kind of things that we face. When I realised these inadequacies in business, I started what I called, “Internal Training centre” in my business to groom and train my staff. Realising what they learnt in the school may not have direct relevance to my work, I decided to mount an intensive training on a monthly basis for them.
The scripture says that the word of God cometh by hearing over and over. Before you understand the scripture, you need to hear it all the times. This is one of the ways to reduce laziness among our staff and curtail inconsistency. For the past 17 years, we have been consistent in training them. Fortunately, I have been able to sustain staffers who have worked for me for the past 13 or 14 years. This has been one of the strategies that I have used to retain my staff. Actually, security is an area that poses a big challenge to me. Before now, I had through bank robbery lost many staffers and huge sum of money some years ago. I thank God that the state government of the day has been able to reframe the security situation of the state.
Before the second term of his Excellency, I think he would improve the security apparatus ensure that Akwa Iblom state is totally free from insecurity. Security wise, the state is faring better now compared to when I started business. In the area of power supply, we are still having bottleneck in the cause of running our business. We spend a lot of money on power such that if you are not really a core businessman, you will not like to continue. Even if you make profit, you still spend more on it. I want to commend the governor of Akwa Ibom state for his efforts in ensuring that we have near-stable supply of power in the state.
Next is the challenge of encouraging customers to be consistent in business indulgence. This also boils down to the fact that Akwa Ibom structure is not germane for business but for politics, civil service and the rest. Having customers who are consistent is very difficult. I can tell you that the turnover we have from customers is very high. You have customers that stay with you for just one year, you ask him ‘what happened to his business; he will say that he has gone into something else’.
You will start grooming a new set of customers because you must have people who will take your goods out. There must be off-takers when you produce the goods or when you print the recharge cards. That’s the problem that we face. In the area of customers, I also use the same strategy on training of staffers. I have been able to sustain customers for six years now. It was a very big challenge. Right now, I can say we are improving- we are doing well. Anyway, there are other enormous challenges, which I may not be able to mention here.
Someone seeing you as a big-time business entrepreneur may not understand your background. From the cradle, how has the journey been in the business world?
When I opened a barbing salon, I was in secondary school. I actually employed another person to manage it for me. I started with food stuffs business at Akpan Assiek market. I started that business with N45,000 some years back. It was not really easy- getting the foodstuffs in few bags, not much quantity until I gained experience in that field. And when I earned the trust of my suppliers, they started giving me the goods in large quantity.
When I looked at the business, it was restricted to Ukanafun. The space in the telecoms inspired me going into the business. By then, Ukanafun did not have viable means of telecommunication. For the first time, I had to go to Aba, bought antenna and one telephone called Samsung R220 that had a pole. We used it to make calls. I spent N45,000 to get the accessories. We moved from there to where we are today. We made the desired impact in the telecoms for the first time when we moved the headquarters of the business from Ukanafun to Uyo, the state capital. As at the time we started business in Uyo, we were about seven or eight dealers in Uyo.
In February 2007, we moved operations to Uyo. I am 11 years now in Uyo, but I was in Ukanafun for six years. When we came down here to Uyo, we met stiff opposition- competitors- in the business. It was not an easy thing. But focus helped me to get to where I am today. Yet, I was not distracted by the heavy weights I met.
And I discovered one secret in business- consistency in terms of product availability. So, this was one of the strategies that I used when I came in, and by the grace of God it has really helped us. Again, we opened our doors early on a daily basis and closed late. Some people were happy seeing somebody that was coming to do business like Igbo person. As a matter of fact, they used to come to me and asked me whether I was Igbo, and I told them if I were Igbo, what about this name -Unyime Idem? (Laughter) Is that an Igbo name? From the humble beginning, we struggled to where we are today.
For the first time, we emerged the best telecoms partner in the entire South-South region. It was surprising that people who came to the state capital two years after made such remarkable progress. I am surprised that from a little beginning, we now become the biggest telecom partner in Nigeria in three networks consistently for five years. In terms of impact, no telecom partner in Nigeria that has attained that feat for the past 17 years of telecom experience in Nigeria. No partner has ever emerged twice as the best in Nigeria. Owing to our consistency and diligence in the way we pursue our business activities, we have emerged five consecutive times and won all the best cards that the network provided.
What lessons did you learn from either your parents or siblings in business?
I learnt many lessons from my parents. Though I lost my father, my mother is alive. My father was not a big-time businessman. He was one of the poorest persons in Ukanafun because of engaging in petty trading. It did not fetch him much money. In those days, my mother was the source of my motivation. She was engaged in all forms of petty trading, and was an exemplar in saving money. Even when there was urgent demand for money, she never bulged but thought of saving for tomorrow. Her belief was ‘If I use this money now, what am I going to use for the business so that it could fetch us what to eat.’ When I studied her element of prudent management of resources in those days, I had to key into her style of management.
Is your mother your role model in business?
My mother was my source of motivation. If my mother was given N2,000, the entire household would feed from the money in the next two weeks. That is the kind of person she is.
You started business with N45,000. What is the worth of your businesses today?
I cannot mention the worth of my entire businesses in naira and kobo. In terms of shares, we control larger shares in the telecom market in Nigeria. Being the biggest telecom partner in Nigeria, we distribute our products in five states in the country. Initially, we started with two staffers, but we have grown to 450. In terms of financial strength, we are grounded. As a conglomerate, I won’t be able to quantify the assets in terms of Naira or Kobo.
How did you appease the bereaved relations of your staffers who were killed by unsuspected hoodlums?
It was not a good experience anybody should go through. I am happy that the killing has not happened since then. When I went through the trauma, I remembered one of my courses in school that as a business man, risk is one of the things that we must face or business is prone to risk. When they mentioned risk in those days in the school, we were forced to ask our lecturers: can you explain these risks, the nature of the risks so that when we see them, we will know how to handle such.
The moment I remembered these things I had learnt, I summoned courage and fashioned the way forward instead of contemplating on the ugly situation. I started meeting the parents to resolve the whole thing. The parents knew that the unfortunate incident could happen to anybody on the road, not just in my organization as a business person. So, they really exhibited a high sense of maturity and understanding, and eventually I was able to get over it. Since then, we have worked very hard and strategised seriously to forstall its re-occurrence. Till now, we are running a hitch-free business devoid of security lapse.
In April, Senate invited some GSM companies to come and explain why they are short changing their teeming customers. Do you like the way some GSM companies are short changing their customers?
This matter prompted to the Senate to invite some of our partners for interaction to know why they are doing this. That was what prompted us to form a body in this country to speak with one voice. Eight years ago, we came together and formed a body called Telecom Partners Association of Nigeria which I am the chairman since then. I am in-charge of 105 partners in the entire country.
One of the objectives of the body is to champion the course of the common people like the subscribers who patronise our services. Each time we speak individually, the operators fail to give us attention. So, we thought it wise to come together as a body and then fight against some of the irregularities perpetuated by these partners. The effort has been yielding result. What the National Assembly is doing at the moment is a welcome development. We appreciate them because we need to protect the interest of our consumers.
The consumers deal with us and not the network providers. I am on the side of the consumers. At the same time, we advise to our fellow partners- the network providers that they should manage well so that consumers do not drop the lines as it may affect their revenue.
TO BE CONTINUED…