When some people pass on, like Bassey Udo Ndiokho did on Thursday, February 21, 2013, it is worth our tears. But in mourning the dead, it is also a time to think of their life. For as we are often reminded, “Not the reach of a man’s fame nor the depth of his fortune but his ability to make a difference to humanity is what matters.”
Bassey Udo Ndiokho (1939-2013) worked for UAC of Nigeria Plc for close to three decades and retired as its chairman/managing director (1993-1999). He became a CEO at a very difficult time of our corporate history, with Unilever divesting and taking with them the “Crown Jewels” of the Group. We were, indeed, handed a bad hand, a losing hand, a lemon, motley of businesses, and a rump of disparate units with poor prospect for growth given their industries. Sometimes, you are not lucky to inherit a legacy portfolio aligned to favourable trends; his was worse. In any case, that was why Unilever was divesting from them, to focus on more profitable core operations, in their view. Ndiokho didn’t seek the job, but clearly he wasn’t frightened by the prospects and the challenges.
We, the hapless employees, were somewhat anxious, our confidence wavering, having lost an anchor investor, a corporate parent in Unilever. The prospects of being a fully “Nigerian” business with all that it portends were frightening and nervy. Some who had the opportunity jumped ship to Unilever, or elsewhere, for clearly you had to either be bold or foolish to remain – given half the chance. Those of us who had no such chance, however, had a leader – Bassey Udo Ndiokho.
Desperate times can shrink a man or embolden him. He urged us to reject the lazy narrative that a Nigerian business cannot do well, made us believe we are stewards of a great inheritance called UACN. With the lemon we were handed, we worked to make lemonade. We refused to be victims of destiny but masters of our own. There were doubters – people who wondered whether he had the flair, authority and, perhaps, the gumption to carry forward the company built in the image of his predecessor.
A gentle, simple, spartan, courtly and considerate man, who cherished the virtues of duty quietly exercised. Never one to indulge in self-promotion or media hugging, and without undue fanfare, went about trying to “unscramble the scrambled egg” that UACN was then. He stated his convictions politely but argued them firmly. Optimistic in temperament, he was bold and persistent in action.
Ndiokho was a CEO who worked for the organisation, not one where the organisation worked for him (as we sometimes see). A man of great humility, humour, a sense of humanity, radiating to us all, hope. It came easily to him as son of a village pastor, his upbringing reflected in his character. He saw power not for its sake but for the purpose, to ensure we brave out the odds, burnish our reputation through service and make UAC survive. It is a testimony to his courage, conviction and vision that UAC, once a flourishing pan-African enterprise under Unilever, survived only in Nigeria (Ghana and other countries liquidated post-Unilever divestment).
Our local contemporaries then were CFAO, UTC, SCOA, John Holt, AG Leventis, etc. It is to his credit – and memory – that he laid the foundation that today these enterprises are not our peers.
In hindsight, it is easier to understand the challenges we faced and the adequacy of his leadership response. He initiated the evolution of UACN Property Development Company Plc (UPDC), acquired CAP Plc, Grand Cereals Limited, and Spring Waters Nigeria Limited (SWAN) into the group. These were inspired judgement calls and transformative purchases that underpin UACN growth today.
He was not perfect – well, who amongst us is? He was clearly under-estimated! Bassey will have an honoured place in the memory and history of UACN. To his family, I offer condolence but also the respect and gratitude of UACN. To my colleagues, I say, we owe him a duty to succeed.
On behalf of a grateful company, we bid you farewell, sir!
LARRY E. ETTAH