Managing Director Kresta Laurel, Dideolu Falobi, is arguably one of the most respected CEOs in the Nigerian engineering industry. He speaks of how he weathered difficult financial and economic crises which might have caused a great deal of damage to the confidence of investors, consumers and employees, about pioneering new business models, his mistakes, career, and marriage and so on in this insightful interview with Bnlpulse
Give a brief introduction about yourself and growing up
Dideoluwasunmotile, means the second coming of Christ, is a name I got from my father. He was spiritually inspired to name me. I was born and grew up in Ilesha. I am from Ijesha, a small town in Osun State. I attended Methodist High School, Ilesha. My parents are teachers, so I grew up like a typical teacher’s kid.
What were those values you grew up with, especially being a child of teachers?
One thing that I can recall is that I grew up reading books. My house was filled with books, old and new magazines, readers digest, newspapers, novels and reading was such a passion for me, so I was inspired by the books I read. The things I read were such a valuable source of information and also gave me the opportunity to create heroes. I read about the good, bad and ugly sides of notable people. I grew up in discipline. The environments were safe and clean and free.
Any major prank you played as a child and got caught doing?
The only prank I ever got caught doing and thoroughly disciplined for was going to play football on Sunday. That, in my house, was a no-go area, as Sundays were strictly for Church, bible reading and evening service in church. I, however, knew I was going to get thoroughly thrashed, but I took the chance to play football that Sunday, and my father never disappointed me.
Are your parents still alive?
Yes, very well.
What is your relationship with them?
Very cordial and wonderful relationship. My father is a tough and strict disciplinarian; blunt, sincere, very generous and accommodating. He would take his time to point out the reasons why I was wrong, why I shouldn’t do it, the likely consequences and he would still cane. He was a typical old school teacher. He is my number one hero.
My mum is a typical Yoruba woman. I got several slaps from my mum. I remember when I was doing my school certificate examinations, my mum read all through with me. That is something I would never forget. They are good parents.
What are those traits you took from them?
I think I took a bit of my blunt, very sincere attitude and generosity from my dad. Although it’s a weakness in both of us, however I am consciously working to correct it. I took mum’s simplicity. No hiding corners. She is as open as a book. I also took the genes, so I am hoping to live till old age.
Let’s get a bit more personal. What’s the relationship with your wife?
I believe that I spend most of my lifetime at home, at least 11 hours, and hardly do I spend so much time elsewhere in 24 hours daily. If I do not have a happy home I would not look forward to going home. And so if I am lucky to have a woman that makes me feel like going home, even if I cannot define what makes me happy to go home, I think I should thank God.
I am sure you can define yours?
You are scratching a deep surface.
Trust me, the question is harmless. So, tell me?
I have been married for four years and that’s my second marriage. I am divorced. Prior to that, I was married for 19 years. Out of the 19 years, we were separated for about eight years.
What caused the break up?
Every break-up has a remote and an immediate cause. If the marriage breaks up today, don’t think that marriage broke up overnight. I think we probably married a bit too early. What people explain when they break up are what they can explain. Sometimes they cannot even remember the root cause. I guess I was inexperienced with women because there were so many things I did then I would do differently now. And so I don’t blame her, neither do I blame myself.
Did you at any point try to salvage the marriage?
We tried to, but it had to happen. We have since moved on.
Was it a mutual separation?
No, she relocated abroad. And that is the immediate cause. We just came from a holiday and she wanted to relocate and practice abroad and that affected the relationship. Looking back, there were remote causes. I don’t blame her. We are still very good friends and that’s what is most important.
It must have been a depressing period for you. How did you handle the transition between both wives?
At the beginning when she left, I was lonely. Initially, it was a moment of deep reflections and then I shifted to work. I have always been a workaholic and I also had the children to take care of. The romantic side of me after twenty years of marriage died, and at that time the realistic side of me was awakened. I think one of the things that happen as we grow older is that we grow less emotional and get more realistic with and about life. Dealing with emotions has an age clause and it varies as one grows older, because you get wiser and you don’t look out for beauty but behavioural patterns, attitudes and values. It doesn’t mean we get it right all the time, but I think more realistically, one gets wiser with age. Somehow, I managed to move on and God brought my wife to me. On that fateful day, she just worked into my office, we got talking and one thing led to the other. The rest has become history.
So what is that deep-rooted feeling about your new found love?
In true love, you really don’t know. It’s just a feeling that you are comfortable. I am always feeling happy going home. Is it the food or sex? Not necessarily the reason! I guess I feel this way because I’ve had the benefit of a first marriage. It’s a total feeling of a conducive environment where I have total peace and rest.
So what do you do to spice up your marriage?
We go out together, have dinners together, go night-clubbing once in a while together, sleep on the same bed, laugh and cry together when the need arises, and share a lot of things in common. We are open. We share memories and thoughts. It is always a difficult hurdle to cross, as most traditional men believe they cannot be completely open to their wives. I believe a man should be open to his wife. Women are gifted and there is an aura they exhume. I wouldn’t want to go spiritual now.
Oh why not? Please do if you have to.
I am a Christian and the bible says where two or more people are gathered I am with them, and whatever they agree on earth, I will establish in heaven. There is one major ingredient in marriage. It’s the power of agreement. When husband and wife agree as one and partners before God, in most cases they succeed.
What do you owe to your spiritual inclinations?
I was brought up by Christian parents, grew up in a very Christian environment, and so as a young child I went to church twice daily, seven times a week; 5am for morning devotion and 6pm. It was a routine I did until I came to Lagos.
When you look at your children, what part of your childhood does it trigger?
My sons turned 21 two weeks ago and one of my younger friends imagined what I was doing at 21, that gave him an idea of what my boys are doing now.
But the times have changed…
Yes, times have changed, they’ve only done it in a different way. But we are doing the same thing.
So what do you see?
I see a bit of myself and a bit of their mother. Children of now have their own mind. When I was a young man, becoming an engineer, doctor or pilot was the in-thing. But now, becoming a footballer, musician is in vogue. The likes of Davido, Tuface Idibia and the likes are those influencing them. I see focus in them because they know what they want to be.
What would you want to be known and remembered for?
Let me quote Bode George, but I’ll amend it to suit my purpose. He said he would want them to remember that a Lagos boy once passed through Ondo State. Wherever I pass through, I want to leave a positive and indelible mark. I want to impact positively whoever I come across.
What is your relationship with Otunba Gbenga Daniel?
He was my boss at H.F Schroeder. We’ve known way back 25 years. At that time, there was no PDP or APC. We have a professional and a brotherly relationship. I am not a card-carrying member of any political party.
With you relationship with Otunba Gbenga Daniel, might there be any future political lining in view?
I can’t say, because it is not in my immediate plan today. But it’s not completely ruled out.
Why would you want to go into politics? To multiply your wealth?
It’s the biggest platform to impact on the lives of people. Political, elective appointments grant one the opportunity to make direct and significant impact in the lives of a larger number of people.
Let’s talk business. In the business of heavy lifting, your firm is the leader in the crane and hoist sector which has operated successfully and profitably. How would you describe the journey so far?
The journey began in 2005 and I must tell you the journey has been exciting. It’s exciting because no day has been like the other. The challenges have been quite varying and over the past nine years, I thank God for what he has done. The environment has though been hostile, in lieu of that, we decided to be a success in the same environment. I am privileged to be working with a very good board, thus moving Kresta Laurel to a very enviable position in the elevator and crane industry. We’ve had to deal with very poor quality of manpower from the institutions, especially in the technically driven industry. The schools of engineering are not so bad. Other schools are worse. We’ve had to cope with that and the political challenges also. As the nation prospers, the people also prosper. But when the reverse is the case, the people have a downturn. A curve of our operations and success has followed the Nigerian curve. When elections are coming, everything goes down. All the negative factors militating against Nigeria are almost a direct impact on business. We’ve developed a thick skin and our own way of dealing with different challenges. We have over the past 10 years executed major projects successfully. We have gone into areas that were hitherto unchartered and we have acquainted ourselves well with the terrain and become masters. We have installed equipments that until a few years ago were the preserve of the multinationals. Looking back nine years down the line for my stewardship, I thank God I have weathered the storm.
You spoke about major problems, what would be the probable solutions?
We set up committees in Nigeria; spend good time and money coming up with solutions with some of our challenges. Most times, we dump these solutions in the bin of history. Sometimes we pretend to implement these solutions and recommendations are not seen through.
At a point in time, we adopted the 6-3-3-4 educational system which recognises that not every child has the ability to study law, engineering and medicine. So it created the opportunity for re-assessment of the child at the end of nine years. Because, fundamentally, if, as a child, you are not able to lift your game at that stage of life, you are not likely to lift it phenomenally thereafter. The idea is that those who after the evaluation, if found to have the ability and capability to go on and become highly skilled labourers, move on to the stage of pursuing high skills, and those who have limitation were going to be directed to a three-year period of technical education so that they can also become useful, without anyone ending up without skills. This was implemented haphazardly as the facilities were not in place.
Secondly, the tools, machinery and materials required to train them along the technical lines neither provided.
Thirdly, the teachers that were to provide the tuition were not given the basic training to be able to do that, as technical schools continued to remain and operate outside this 6-3-3-4 educational system. So what you had were people finishing the first six years of primary and secondary education, and then going back to technical school to do another three years, and that was not the concept. Nobody continued to ensure that the implementation was done to meet the actual goals set. The results are the kinds who come to us for jobs and have no knowledge, training or expertise of the job. Some have never seen a Lathe Machine nor know what to do with it. For such people, we need to train them because they haven’t gone through the basic things.
In my industry, we now import builders, painters from Benin Republic. We are running short of skilled labour. When we move into the industrialisation era which will come soon, our challenges would be this big question; who are those who will provide these solutions? I believe that the proper implementation of the 6-3-3-4 educational system would probably solve it, once they make the facilities available, train the teachers and then leave the rest to the local education managers to manage.
With a view that there is the dearth of skilled labour in your industry, as the helms man at Kresta Laurel, are there any succession plans in place to address these growing concerns?
We have continually taken steps to train. Even in the industry, we are fast becoming the training ground. We believe that the only way to improve our people is to train them. As a principal in Kresta Laurel, every week, a staff or two of the organisation must be in training, and that’s because we believe it is the only way forward.
We are also partnering the Association of Consulting Engineers, the Nigerian Society of Engineers to provide information, guidelines and training. The technical way of changing the system is through advocacy and that is what we are doing as an institution. We’ve had to from time to time do papers of intervention to educational institutions on the need to being proactive. As far as the industry is concerned, we have a good pool of well-trained technicians, but it took us more energy and training to train them, especially knowing that they didn’t have the pre-requisite background training.
What types of lifting attachments do you offer?
We get our supplies from KONE elevators, proudly one of the top-three in the world. It is actually the technology leader. In 2013 it was rated by Forbes Magazine as the only company in the top 50 companies in the world. Most of the changes in microprocessors of control systems, and that is a major innovation that has changed the face of the elevator industry. KONE are the pioneers. We also work with DEMAG, the number one crane company in the world. We’ve been their partner since 19990 and done a lot of business with them. In Nigeria today, I can say without doubts that 80 percent of the cranes purchased and installed in Nigeria are DEMAG. They have very high quality standards in terms of the products, and the quality they expect from their authorised distributors are high standards. For us to have retained the agency affiliation of these companies in the last 25 years, especially in a fast changing, dynamic business landscape we operate in, it means there is something we are doing right and we hope to continually do things right.
We’ve done major installations like the tallest building now in Lagos - Union Bank, United Bank for Africa and we are working with a lot of first class contractors across the country.
You were recently inducted into the Nigerian Engineering Society as a Fellow. How do you feel?
Fellowship is the peak of recognition in the engineering society. I feel honoured being accepted into the body of elders and experts in the engineering practice. I feel good making progress, but I am not accomplished yet. I will be accomplished when we are able to produce our own Made in Nigeria elevators; when we move to a consuming nation to a producing nation. My goal as an engineer is to enhance and make these lofty ideas and wish come to fruition, because that is the way the future can be secured for our children.
There seems to be a growing awareness and patronage of cranes in Nigeria. What do we owe to this?
When there is development and growth, the first place to seeing it is in the construction industry. The whole world is, however, witnessing urbanisation, as more people are moving from the rural areas to the urban centres. So it then means that the needs of the urban centres increase, population density increases, land becomes more expensive, so they have to go up by maximising space. Going up means bringing cranes to site and they will no doubt buy elevators. But, also, industrialisation brings about the use of the equipments like crane that’ll be used in the factory to function maximally. Development means more construction, more elevators and more cranes.
Which is your heaviest, largest, tallest, most powerful crane and how many tonnage can it lift?
We have quite a number of 25 ton cranes, a few 40-50 ton cranes installed, but in the past four years, we have done installation of cranes in the region of 25 tons. For elevators, our biggest functioning site today is in Abuja at the National Assembly where we have 27 elevators installed in the same area in Port Harcourt. But our biggest on-going project is in Port Harcourt where we have currently 56 elevators for the biggest single development in the country, consisting of 25 towers and auxiliary services.
In terms of speed, the fastest we have installed is 2.5 metres per second, but we now have a contract to install an equipment that runs at 4.5 metres per second.
Considering the fact that your firm engages in high profile projects, the number of cranes on-site at any given time has also kept your projects in the public eye. What would you say has been the highest billing and turnover in the last nine years?
If I say it here, it might be mis-interpreted. Our turnover and profit are fantastic. But the reality is that because of the kind of industry we are in, when you see a turnover of X, you then expect a profit of Y. If we install a lift for you, it is going to give me income for the next 25 years. So that means that I may take a project not necessarily because of the profit margin on it today because it is a continuous business for the next 25 years. The emphasis is less than the profit on sales; it is more on the profit of the equipment in service. And so we seek to build a huge number of equipments in operation. The single biggest project hit a billing of $5million.
From a more global leadership perspective, what is the biggest mistake you have made in your life and what did you learn from it?
One of the biggest mistakes I think I have made on this seat was to lose a project simply because I got to a point I said I could not give a penny as a discount. It was a project I could have taken at a break-even price. For the profile, size of the project, repeat patronage and the future business opportunities it would have brought, I always feel bad each time I look back, thinking I should have made more efforts. My decision was purely decided on pricing, but I felt I could have made more efforts.
On a personal note, I think the biggest personal mistake I ever made was not to start my career in well-structured and established organisation. There are a few firms where you get lots of opportunities for training, mentoring and proper tutoring on management. I had the opportunity to make a decision when I was leaving the university and decided to settle for consulting. I had the opportunity to go into the Gulf Oil of those days, the Nestle, but I felt I should do consultancy. And because I went into consultancy, it gave me challenges quickly, I grew up very fast, but the fundamentals I missed. I had to go back to learning the curves later. I tell my kids today, when you have an opportunity to start your life in a very structured firm, go and take the training, it’s very important and it helps you. It’s wonderful to become an entrepreneur at a very early stage. Financially, it may be wonderful, but the question really is, how many people who venture into entrepreneurship at an early stage without going through the basic tutoring actually have the chances of succeeding? I might have been fortunate, but looking back I felt the journey were more torturous, the challenges more formidable because I took a particular path. There are people out there who left university and were not able to get a job. They had to become entrepreneurs. Luckily, in the curriculum of universities now, entrepreneurship is now becoming more emphasised.
When you took up this job, what was the first thing that registered?
I wasn’t strange to the job because I am part of the founding team. So I left Kresta Laurel for some years. Coming back to Kresta Laurel is like coming back home, so there were really no serious challenges in terms of settling into the firm. I had done about 60 percent of what I now do earlier under the supervision of someone else. So it was an easy and seamless takeover.
What was on mind was the vision, which was very clear - to make it the first among others. The concept was that anything anyone can do, we can improve on, whether the company is coming from Europe, US. When we set up the firm, we knew we were going into an area that was the exclusive preserve of the multi-nationals. We knew it is not a typically foreign business as the names hitting the front row were non-Nigerian brands. And so, I felt we could make a change by doing it well. So, coming back was an opportunity to continue the vision we had set for ourselves years earlier.
You come across as a strategist. What is your competitive edge?
The courage to take decisions.
Whether they are right or wrong?
I will only get to know whether the decision is right or wrong after I have taken them. I don’t believe in not taking decisions. And I believe that you must have the courage, provide the basic necessities for you to be able to take the right decisions. Then, when the needs to take decisions come, you must take them. Taking decisions distinguishes the successful and non-successful businessmen. At all times, being the boss of any organisation, it’s about taking decisions, and quite a number of people don’t do that. And so I believe that for me, my competitive edge is that I don’t ever shy away from taking decisions. Not all the decisions have been right and/or wrong. But they are learning curves.
As the boss, your subordinates see you as a hero. What superhero would you be and why?
As a boss, a lot of people see me as a devil; the number one bad man in the organisation. But, do I really want to be a hero? No. I just want to be able to impact on lives; I want to be able to look back and see people I have mentored and helped to achieve their maximum potential. I want to be able to ask myself what I have given back to my society. Whether at the end of the day, that makes me a hero, I wouldn’t know; but that, for me, is the driving force and not money. I look back today, and nothing gladdens my heart today when I look back at those I have mentored, having been in the generator business for seven years, some of my protégés holding very key positions in these companies. These are the things that motivate me. Do they see me as a hero? Maybe, in retrospect, yes! But when I was training them, most of them couldn’t stand me. So, for me, I see myself as a hero and not a superhero.
What is one misconception people have about you and why?
Do I really know? Honestly, I wouldn’t know. Because I believe I am driven by pure altruism, I don’t check. Maybe if and when I get into politics, I can then start wondering what people are thinking. I take decisions in the best interest of my company, staff and stakeholders. Whether there are misconceptions about the decisions taken, I really don’t know.
Behind your success, there are some people who have influenced you. Who are your heroes and why?
I have so many. My parents are my first heroes who continually inspire me. I must also mention a book that taught me about raw courage at a very young age - the book is the story of Shaka the Zulu. But in my business life, I have been strongly influenced by three people. Namely, my first boss in the engineering trade, the late Engineer Akin Taiwo, the Chairman of Kresta Laurel and the beneficial owner, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, who taught me the rudiments of marketing and management, and the man I also regard as my mentor, Engineer Folu Olusanya, who taught me what real altruism is and doing good for the sake of doing good, and not because of what you want or can benefit. Luckily, these three leaders have taught me in small ways a bit of that. They mentored me, gave me opportunities, challenged me and taught me hard work. Whatever I am today, apart from the grace of God, the genes I inherited from my parents, the influence of those people mentioned have been very important to my life.
I also owe my wife; she has made it possible for me to do my job by creating the right atmosphere at home for me to be focused on doing my job. I am very well indebted to her.
What works for you and why?
In business, success is eighty percent preparation and twenty percent execution. So the policy here is that we do quite a lot of preparation, and I believe that has been our little secret. We also build relationships. We do not sell like the typical salesman, we partner with our clients, and so their challenges are ours too. We don’t sit on the fence, instead we work with them, and that is what I believe is what works for us.
In life, sincerity and hardwork work for me. My sincerity initially brings me enemies, because I am blunt, but after sometime people realise they know where they stand with me. In the business world, what has worked for me is integrity.
We have worked away from jobs because the client says ‘deliver in twenty weeks’ and I say it cannot be less than twenty-two weeks. I stood my grounds, we delivered the job in twenty-one weeks and that client has not left us since then and the part he insisted must be delivered in twenty weeks was given to a competitor and wasn’t delivered for almost thirty weeks.
In Nigeria today, we are executing most of the CBN projects, having taken 15 branches nationwide, and they are not politically induced. It was purely on merit.
My lines are open 24 hours. My clients know they can reach me at any time of the day. Integrity, hard work and commitment to my passion, work for me.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you have faced on the job?
The biggest challenge I have faced is personnel, because your ability to deliver on your promise is a function of those who deliver on your behalf. There are the technical challenges; equipments, environment, people’s culture and failure to pay bills are general challenges. But, for me, the biggest of them all is the quality of the personnel.
What was your most and least satisfying job and why?
My most satisfying project is the Shell headquarters, Marina project. It’s particularly strategic, because it’s a different contract in a live building, a competitor’s product that was there meaning the shaft wasn’t tailored to my own product, so we needed to make a lot of amendments. Thirdly, I had a job turnkey. I am an elevator supplier, but I had to do the civil works, tiling, aesthetic and the rest. With the consideration that Shell is renowned for their strict Health Safety and Environmental policies, to have installed a lifting equipment in a live building, and had to finish same ahead of time, and got a letter of commendation for a job well done, that, for me, is the most satisfying project I have executed.
As for the least satisfying, I can’t point at any because I have been satisfied with all projects I have embarked upon.
Describe a time when you missed a deadline/revenues or failed to meet expectations and why? How did you feel? What lessons did you learn from it?
It’s not uncommon in Nigeria, because there are quite a few variables that make the job out of control. We have containers stuck in Senegal for three months because the militancy had heightened that no ship in Europe wanted to go to Port Harcourt, so they dumped them in Senegal for three months and had to trans-ship. Since then, we haven’t used the Port Harcourt ports and where a client’s insists on using that route, we let them know the likely challenges. We’ve had to solve some of these challenges, but the changes that we cannot manage are the ones that have come overnight.
You exude calmness, is this how you are always, and when was the last time you lost your temper? What was the situation and why do you think this affected you so?
That is a hobby I am trying to deal with. I do lose my temper. In fact, I lost my temper yesterday, but it was the person that I was speaking with that knew I lost it because I‘ve also learnt to manage it. A friend needed someone to do a job, I gave him a referral and he wasn’t delivering on it and it was becoming my headache. I had to call him to have a conversation with him, and I told him when I refer you, you do your job on time and deliver on your promise, don’t make it my headache. And you wouldn’t know I had lost my temper, because the older you grow the better you manage temper. Years ago, he would have left here with his tail between his legs, but yesterday he was shaking here inwardly. I am an Arian, so we are generally hot-tempered.
What motivates you and what doesn’t?
I am motivated by the ability to impact on others. Whatever I go for, the ultimate result, for me, is how have I impacted on another man’s life? I, however, can’t stand insincerity or people playing games with me.
Which five books have you read that have shaped you?
I have read books on Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikwe, Wole Soyinka’s Set forth at Dawn, Ake, Kongi’s Harvest. I like biographies and autobiographies and I’ve read quite a lot of them.
What is your five-year goal?
I hope in five years I’ll be able to relax and watch someone else manage Kresta Laurel with the confidence that he/she will do it right.
If you could have a magic wand, what in the world would you solve and why?
I’ll like the magic wand to get all the technical, primary and secondary schools refurbished and equipped. When I see the environment in which these children are being trained, I ask how does one expect something good to come out of that environment? I have always had one opinion; that a child that you don’t train would not allow the trained ones have peace. In most cases, armed robbers are products of deficiencies in upbringing, training and opportunities. When you don’t train people, they can’t survive and that, for me, is what I’ll love the magic wand to swing to do a full revamp of the educational system in Nigeria.
As an indigene of Osun State, how would you describe the recently-concluded elections?
The elections are a watershed in the history of politics in the fourth republic. The Ekiti election was what we thought would have been the game-changer, but the Osun State election was it. It was a free, peaceful and fair election.
Secondly, the amount of security men deployed was overwhelming, intimidating, but the people defied their presence and turned out to vote. That is significant because it then means people are taking interest in who rules them. But it goes further; if people are assured that their votes would count, people will show interest in determining who rules them. There were no doubt cases of high-handedness and arbitrary arrests, I recommend that people who feel that their human rights were trampled upon should go to the court of law; this would help deepen our democracy.
Thirdly, it showed that the APC learnt some lessons from the Ekiti incidence, and the import is that no matter how lofty or brilliant your ideas are, if the people don’t want you there, you cannot implement those ideas. And that stomach infrastructure is not about rice and beans; it is about creating jobs, opportunities and an environment for people to thrive and have a meaningful living.
It also shows that the PDP has not learnt a lesson, because they went into the elections a divided house, and their inability to put their house in order caused them the huge loss. These are major lessons learnt because 2015 is dynamically different. You can have an election in Osun State and move the Nigerian Army and police there, but you can’t do the same in 36 states simultaneously. So, there is a need to achieve this same level of fair play.
Give a voice to the present unrest in Nigeria.
The present unrest I believe is political. Every act of terrorism has a political colouration, and I believe that our will as a nation is being tested. The only way we can come out as one is working together at the federal, state, local government and community levels. These terrorists leave with people and people know them. It is also important to train idle hands, because they are ready converts who have nothing to live for, so it’s easy to get droves of people. If we had a high literacy level, they’ll question why they should commit suicide.