By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, this is the third part of my serialised tributes to The Parakoyi of Ibadanland, Chief Bode Akindele, the enigmatic businessman who departed this earth on June 29, 2020 and was buried on July 31, 2020, in Ibadan, Nigeria. I can’t remember writing such a detailed essay on anyone else except Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. Such was the respect I had for this icon whom I had studied like a recommended textbook in an MBA class. I had thought I could finish this tribute in two parts but that is impossible. His escapades in the world of business was just as daring as a kamikaze jump. I mentioned some of the business stunts in my previous articles and I’m ready to give you more sweeter ones today. Please, get your drink handy.
After Chief had gone round and invested heavily in produce, fishing, real estate, flour mills, and so on, he was not yet done with diving into high stakes businesses. The one I found interesting was how he narrated his foray into the production of matches. Ordinarily, matches look too cheap a commodity but it became one of Chief’s most ambitious ventures. Let me allow Chief to describe the complex scenario, as he told the crew of Ovation International magazine, about 17 years ago:
“I was not interested in the match industry at first but a friend of mine, a Lebanese, who I was assisting at the time, went and put my money in matches without my knowledge. I became a forced shareholder. They were doing things I didn’t like so I tried to get out. We went to Europe to see one of the companies that supplied us with materials. They owed us money. When we got there the people said they had used our money. I insisted that we had to get the money back. Besides, all the Lebanese people in our own match company wanted to sell their shares. At that time I had become a 30% shareholder. I decided to buy the shares. When I got to Sweden I called one of the managers of the company and pleaded with him that his company should pay us their debts. He told me his company could not easily pay us their debts because I did not know what my partners had been up to. That was the company that manufactured machinery for all the match companies in the world and the manager informed me that they were being put up for sale. I was surprised. He advised me to buy the company and if I bought it I could just inform him the next day to pay the Nigerian company the money that was owed them. I asked him how much the Swedish company would cost and he said it was one billion dollars. This was in 1990. I enquired about and people encouraged me to go for it. I talked to one or two of the managers to give me the papers; since it had been put up for sale and I wanted the bidding papers. I had a Swedish friend, who had left Nigeria for about 15 years at that time. He had been the Swedish Ambassador to Nigeria and we kept in close contact after he left. His name is Ambassador Bjornson. I called him and told him everything that was going on. He phoned the chairman of Swedish Match, Mr Svenson, and immediately, they ordered the Managing Director to come and meet me in London with the bidding papers and to apologise to me for not giving them to me when I asked for them. So, I went to Switzerland and spoke to my financial adviser, Dr. Alfred Hartmann. I told him about Swedish Matches being for sale. He wondered why I would want to go into match production when I had everything I had. He asked for the selling price and when I said one billion dollars he said I must be joking. He said how could I invest one billion dollars in matches. He said no bank would listen to me. What he did not know was that inside the company there were subsidiaries like disposable lighters, shaving sticks and so on. They were numbet 3 in the world in disposable lighters. They had huge factories all over Europe and in Brazil. So we put in our application to buy. The MD came to Geneva to have a private meeting with me. He wondered how I would come up with the money with just three days to go. I told him .not to worry and he told me to tell him exactly why I wanted to buy the company. I told him I was buying it for the match division. He said the match division was only a third of the company and he advised me to allow some other buyers to buy the company so that later, I could go in and acquire the match division, which would be less than 400 million dollars. That was just before Christmas in 1990. On Christmas day, I got a telephone call telling me that Gillette had bought the company for over one billion dollars and Gillette wanted to sell off the match section. We started negotiating. They were asking for 100 million dollars. We did this for nine months when I realised that this same MD/CEO had organised some other people to compete against me. It became an international tender. We were divided into two groups: one was led by a company in Italy and the other was the Nigerian group, led by me. My partners in those days were Chase Manhattan Bank, Rothschild Bank, Citibank and two other banks. City Bank was prepared to put 400 million dollars down for our group to buy the company. We quickly gathered capital of 50 million amongst ourselves. This MD/CEO now began to play the Italian group against the Nigerian group.
He would come to me and say he would never support the Italians because it is usual for Italians to replace the CEO of any company they bought with their own relatives. Then he would go to the Italians and tell them he would never support Nigerians since he was Italian just like them. I went straight to the Italian group to tell them what was going on. I told them we could come together to do something. And before we knew it, we had come together and we brought the price down by 50 million dollars and bought the company…”
And so how much was the company bought eventually? The next response from Chief will blow your mind:
“About 400 million dollars. I brought about four banks, while the Italian group also brought four Italian banks into the deal. So, there was a plan to sell off the individual companies, which were in what was referred to as soft currency areas. These were in Zimbabwe, Philippines, India, Thailand and so on. In about 45 days I visited 42 countries. When I got to Brazil, I hired a jet for a whole week because I wanted to visit Chile and so on. Sometimes I visited three countries in a day so as to be able to see the factories and managers. I singled out the ones I wanted to buy, which included Chile, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana. I got hold of the 10th largest company in Zimbabwe, Lion Matches. It’s owned by us. I’m also in Tanzania. I then decided that Chile was too far. I had bought the Chilean company for 25 million dollars. I then decided that Indonesia and Thailand were too far away. I later sold the Chilean company. In 1990, the UK company alone made 9 million pounds profit – just one company out of the 63 countries. If you go to the UK you’ll see Bright & May Matches. It is owned by Swedish Matches.
In 1991, we were taken to the Monopoly Commission by the British government for making too much money. After they conducted a very extensive investigation for six months, they said they could not determine how we were making the money and that we had to sigh a declaration that we would not increase the price of matches in the UK. In Brazil, we were making about 48 million dollars profit.
Towards the end of 1991, we went to a meeting of the board of directors in a city that’s just thirty minutes drive from Geneva, Switzerland. There was a letter on the table of every director saying that the management had almost sold the company to another group. It only remained for us to pass the resolution agreeing to the sale. Not only that, but they had also put in a letter of comfort from a bank saying that the money was readily available. I had a penthouse suite at the hotel where I stayed. One of my own bankers came to see me there; he was from Citi Bank. He advised me that in my shareholders agreement I had a veto power. If I didn’t want to sell I could match the offer so that the bank could match the offer so that the bank could have exit. He came to me and said , ‘Chief, we want to teach you a new trade of touching profit. You must sell this business because what you are being offered is substantial and even if you are running the business you can’t get that kind of money.’ We had something like 30% shares in the company at that time. So, that was the first holding I ever sold to touch profit….
We sold the main company, Sweedish Matches, but now we owned Associated Matches, which was a combination of all the five subsidiaries in Nigeria. We have factories in Ibadan, Ikeja, Ilorin and Port Harcourt. It became the single largest match factory in Africa. We have another in Zimbabwe which was established in 1937. They make not only matches but also blades and pens. In Tanzania we have the only match country there. We are also in Malawi with the only match company…”
At this stage we asked Chief what his assets could be globally. His response: “I think the accountant would answer that question better. However, our annual turnover is in excess of one billion US dollars…”
To be continued.