Compare and Contrast: Branson, Adenuga

By Simon Kolawole, This Day Newspapers:

There is one hell of a guy in the UK called Richard Branson. He is called the “guy with the beard”, an entrepreneur who has the knack for the outrageous and the courageous. While schooling at Stowe School, UK, he set up a magazine at the age of 16. In 1970, aged 20, he founded Virgin, beginning as a mail order record retailer. He then opened a record shop in Oxford Street, London. In 1973, he founded Virgin Music and signed Mike Oldfield, whose first record “Tubular Bells” sold over five million copies. Branson went on and on and on, crushing obstacles and challenging traditions, and expanding into all sorts of business – air travel, mobile, internet, drinks, rail and leisure.
I have been trying to understand this man called Branson, whose businesses are worth billions of pounds. I have heard of his influence on competition, his touch on expertise and his impact on local enterprise. I have also noted, through his writings, the role of the system in the emergence of the man. Indeed, Branson is the face of new business in Britain. As it has now become my habit, I decided to “compare and contrast” him with a Nigerian entrepreneur, Dr. Mike Adenuga Jnr. Of course, there are many differences. Branson has never enjoyed government support, unlike Adenuga who got his first oil block in the military era. Also, Branson is eccentric – he once posed virtually nude for a photograph. Again, I don’t know much about their management styles, so I can’t compare them on that level. However, it is their similarities, more than anything else, that I’m interested in.
I found striking similarities between them. It would appear as if both of them operate with similar philosophies. Here are samplers of their quotes. Branson: “There is no point in going into a business unless you shake up the whole industry. Then, you are not just making a difference for yourself. You find the whole industry has to react to your being there and change the way it does business.” Adenuga: “Leading the pack is the only worthwhile resolve for the achiever. There’s no room for the second place. It is often said that it is not the winning that counts, but the participation. This adage does not reflect an achieving attitude. It is not the mere participant, but the achiever, the winner, the leader who makes the difference that advances the course of humankind in the judgment of history.”
Branson started his business as a young man’s madness. With his friends, Branson founded his first business enterprise with a publication, The Student, in the garage of one of their parents. It was not a business as such but a place where youths sowed their oak. According to Branson himself, such office was a place for a lot of alcohol, sex and other vices associated with youth. But they were committed to what they were doing and, like the oak tree, the branches grew and have kept growing till date. Although, Adenuga was a little older than Branson when he started business, he bumped into big business also sowing his oak as a young man. He was studying in the United States and was on his way home to Nigeria on holidays. He reportedly picked a car stereo so that he could install it in his brother’s car and, as it was usually said then, “paint the town red”. But the young man did not know he was sitting on a gold mine as he was offered a price many times what he bought it. He quickly gave it away and travelled back to buy more. Behold, business had started. Lesson No. 1: It is not every youthful exuberance that destroys the youth. Some are indeed useful experiments that may end up with monumental benefits.
And if you think it is their childhood idiosyncrasies that bring these men together, then wait for this. When Branson started the magazine, he was initiated into the challenges of business. But he did not know anything about competition until he started his Virgin Atlantic, the airline that has grown to become the national carrier for Nigeria. In his book, Losing My Virginity, Branson narrated his ordeal with British Airways. He revealed all the intrigues, plans and orchestrations of British flag carrier to frustrate the fledgling Virgin Atlantic. He fought through every available means. Today, Virgin stands toe-to-toe with British Airways, and in some routes, it is even the preferred airline. Adenuga’s life has been dominated with fights. Every business is replete with fights but I think the man started mainstream corporate fighting when he decided to go into oil, an area exclusively for the multinationals. Going into oil prospecting was like committing business suicide. He was once quoted as saying that when he stood on the platform (which has now been named Oyin after his mother) that fateful Christmas, he made up his mind that his end had come should he not strike oil that day. But his problem only started when he struck the oil as the multinational cartel had made a ring round him.
Perhaps that was when Adenuga developed his goal on achievement. According to him, “Running a business is similar to leading a military operation, or orchestrating a political campaign or performing as a great athlete. The fundamental principles are the same. The overriding objective is to out-manoeuvre the opposing forces, to outsmart the other party; to outperform the competition; to outwit the other guy to achieve…” If Adenuga thought he had seen fight, he was joking. Not until he went into the downstream and not until his foray into the telecommunications sector did real fight come. From government authorities to competition, there appeared to be a brick wall against the man. Branson would have come out openly to fight, calling names. But Adenuga fought from his boardroom. And if you think that is less lethal, then pray that Adenuga does not fight you. Lesson No. 2: Business war is a fight to the finish, either subtly or openly.
Both men also share in their vibrancy in business. When Branson was going into airline business, the greatest advice he received from admirers was to stick to his record and show business. He did not have the least experience in airline business. But, restless as Branson is, he ventured into aviation and today, he is into countless number of businesses. Adenuga started with buying and selling, then moved into production and today, he is everywhere. At the moment, Adenuga operates in almost all the key sectors of the economy. He is into banking, upstream, downstream, aviation, telecommunications, media etc.
But more than anything, what these guys have done to competition in their various countries cannot be overemphasised. Branson single-handedly fought British Airways’ monopoly of the British airspace. Services were improved, rates became more affordable and passengers were getting their money’s worth. Adenuga has changed the face of competition, especially in telecommunication industry. Because Nigerians were hungry for phones, the early entrants took it as an opportunity for exploitation. The “per second billing” issue is a particular case in point. Lesson No. 3: If you play your ball well, competition will take the lead from you.