• Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Why foreign firms are exiting Nigeria – Alonge

Chioma Alonge, managing director of Michelin

Chioma Alonge, managing director of Michelin, in this interview with select journalists, spoke on the company’s operation in Nigeria; why the company moved its production plant out of Nigeria; balancing work with the home front, among other issues. INIOBONG IWOK brings the excerpts:

By way of introduction, may we know you better?

I have a master’s degree in marketing; I have another master’s degree in Brand marketing. I like to see myself as a believer of the brand. I love brands. I started my career in marketing. I’m typically a marketing professional; I believe strongly that brand rules the companies; the companies exist for the brands. It is the brand that makes or mars any company.

Michelin left for Ghana some years ago, any plan to come back?

I would have been surprised if you didn’t ask that question. Michelin never went to Ghana; it was an erroneous belief that had taken root in this country.

Michelin never left Nigeria for Ghana, and there was never a time it happened. The fact is; 63 years now, Michelin has been in Nigeria, we used to have a manufacturing plant in Port Harcourt and had Lagos as the headquarters for commercials, which is in sales. What happened was in 2007, the company shut down the manufacturing plant, it was the manufacturing plant that shut down in 2007, and they never went to Ghana.

There has never been a manufacturing plant in Ghana at any time, so the business took a strategic decision for reasons we all know and they still exist today and I know the next question you will ask is; are you coming back to Nigeria? Those reasons are one, power; two, due to insecurity.

If you remember in Nigeria, back in the 2007 was when they were kidnapping expatriates in the Niger Delta. At that time, Nigerians were not being kidnapped, we had security issues and we had over 200 expatriates in Port Harcourt that time. And at that time, we had power issues, very epileptic power conditions in Nigeria. Not just constant power, but consistently at a certain voltage, because if there is a drop in voltage all the tyres on a production line are gone.

So, it has to be at a certain voltage, completely through that production batch. It was all of these things that made the company take the decision to shut down manufacturing in 2007.

Even after it was shut down, the company was still here majorly selling tyres. That’s what we still do up till today, we have been here, now we bring our tyres in, 100percent importation from the 62 factories that Michelin has all over the world, we bring these tyres, aggregate them and still send them to Nigeria.

Given the challenges the company faced in the past that was why you started importing into Nigeria; would you say it is more profitable to import than to produce here?

Not at all, it is one of these things that make you shake your head because Michelin still has farms in Nigeria, these rubber plantations are still existing in five states in Nigeria; Edo State, Ogun State, Delta, etc. In these rubber farms, Michelin still harvests this rubber and ships it out all over the world where tyres are produced and we import the tyres in dollars.

Just like the government is doing with crude oil, take it out as crude and import it as fuel.

For this rubber, we have people working in the plantations, we harvest this rubber and by the way, the rubber from Nigeria is one of the purest forms in the world. One of our engineers, a gentle man from the Netherlands, I met him in France and he said to me; let me tell you the rubber in Nigeria is of the purest form, the rubber we get from here is purer than what we get from other places comparably.

We export the rubbers and import dollars in naira and you understand what is going on with dollars, by the time you bring it in, in naira, it is so expensive, there is no business designed to run like this.

We have a new government that is trying to attract foreign investment, looking at the climate, vis-a-vis policy of floating the naira; is the environment still the same compared to 2007 and is it still possible to have a production plant here?

Even as you asked me this question, you know the answer. Like any other multinational in Nigeria, we struggle, we struggle with a bad economy, and we struggle with foreign exchange. We are all optimistic and we hope that the policy that the government has put in place will make it more favourable to do business in Nigeria but for now, the means of getting forex, any business that has any foreign raw materials is impacted with the two windows, we have the parallel market and the official rate.

For tyres, they are excluded from the articles that can access forex through the CBN, we still access forex from the parallel market, and it is hugely exorbitant, expensive. I’m a strong believer in Nigeria and that there will be a better tomorrow for us in Nigeria, because this particular market when you refer to Nigeria is a mass market, with potentials, it’s the biggest economy in Africa, once you talk about Nigeria and just the number alone is attractive.

Now, Michelin has divided the country into sub-Saharan Africa and in terms of size, Nigeria is by far the biggest and there is no reason why we should not have a plant here, if the conditions are enabling.

A lot of people still believe that your company has not been able to tap into the local market because your tyres are still not accessible and affordable?

There is a huge market in Nigeria for our tyres, Nigeria is a huge market for fairly-used tyres, because the average person cannot afford these tyres, the fact that you have to import these tyres, makes it very expensive because of forex, it is expensive here because of this.

The reason why we are still here, and we are pushing and encouraging people to relook is that when you hear from the federal road safety, they tell you that 80-90% of road accidents are as a result of tyres, punctures and tyres bursting. Michelin has not reduced its standards.

The fact is that it is expensive means it is of premium quality. The Michelin tyres are tyres that you buy and you can go to sleep. The Michelin tyres are tyres that you buy and they give you four years. Michelin tyre does not get ruptured. Michelin is selling safety on the wheel; it is selling longevity of your tyre and you know when we talk about safety, it’s the fact that you are with a tyre.

When we talk about the technicality of tyres and why you should buy premium tyres, the difference between this and that tyre is the tyre’s resistance.

When you are driving on the road and a child suddenly enters the road, the Michelin tyre stops you right there so we talk about the braking distance, when you suddenly have to stop your car, when you apply your brakes suddenly, the Michelin tire stops you why the other one won’t.

That’s the difference between tyre A and B.

Michelin tyres are actually made to last, for the safety of his or her family.

Is there any new product your company is trying to launch? Or any innovation we should know of or expansion plan?

We keep innovating, Michelin keeps innovating, for instance, tomorrow; we are off to South Africa with our dealers, because we have just launched a campaign with dealers who will buy a certain quantity and a target.

We had a raffle draw and a selling campaign and the dealers and customers who came participated and out top are going to spend 5 days in South Africa, all-expense paid trip to have a Michelin experience in Cape Town; they will be going to a race track to see our tyres in use.

This is to encourage dealers and customers who buy. Often, we do campaigns, buy 4 and get a shopping voucher; we do that all the time.

As the first female MD in the company’s history, how is the experience?

I was expecting that question. You said the first woman in the country and I would say the first woman in Nigeria MD. We have always had foreign MD’s, our last MD was French, the one before him was French also and the other German, before him we had American.

But now the company has said your fate is now in your hands. We are having our first Nigerian MD because we are trying to empower the local people. Michelin believes it is the people that feel the need of their people. If you talk about the need to grow Nigeria or to make our tyres available in Nigeria, I will be more passionate about it than for somebody who is not from here.

When you talk about how it feels about being the first female, its basically about who is the first Nigerian to head the company in Nigeria, not just about a woman. It is the burden of leadership that makes you know that the lives of people and their families are dependent on your actions, or inactions.

The fact that you have men and women, the decisions you make every day is the burden you bear at leadership and that’s what keeps me awake at night, knowing that taking this step, how will this affect people that work for me at Michelin.

So, has there been any form of discrimination being a woman heading a Nigerian corporation?

The burden of a woman in leadership is just a stereotype that society expects you to act in a certain way. I don’t think my needs are different from any man that is the MD. I need work life balance; the male MD needs work life balance. When we say; how is it as a woman that’s where we bring in stereotypes.

Why do I say this, you expect the woman to act in a certain way or the leader to act in a certain way and those traits come easily to men, you don’t expect a woman to have the traits of a man. What I would say is a woman is first a human being before she is made a leader. The thing about leadership is that there are certain traits people look out for. People will follow you when they know your vision; they will follow you when you are transparent with the vision.

To be a leader means you are going somewhere, what it means is that you have a destination; people have to clearly see your destination.

The one rule of leadership which I imbibe strongly is point to your direction, have a definite direction, and then you get people to see it and when they see it, it is easier to lead them so as a leader it is easier to rally people around a vision.

Secondly, Michelin makes it easy for women, we have three principles which we call PPP; profit, people and plan. People first, Michelin is all about people, as a woman in Michelin, they give you a very level playing field.

You get to excel in your career. In Michelin we try to blur the line. On a more serious note, the women are given enough opportunities to excel, you don’t feel inhibited, you don’t feel like there is a glass ceiling because for us in Michelin, we talk about diversity and inclusion, we don’t just talk about it, we actually mean it, we walk the talk.

As a female, you keep having meetings, the top echelon of Michelin all the way to France and they ask you every day at work to have meetings with females, they will ask in this place do you feel like you are included? Do you feel like you have a level playing field? They ask us these questions. They make sure in Michelin that women are included and women have a voice. In Michelin, women have a voice, and they are extremely deliberate about it.

What is your word to other companies to ensure that their women are also included there?

Companies should be deliberate and intentional about including women in their work. Women have a lot to offer; women see much more, men do too, but women see the salient facts that men do not see. I play chess and I want to drop that bit to make a point, I play competitive chess and I have 2 silver medals in chess, as a chess player, what happens is I read body language a lot, women are much more intuitive than men, even in businesses.

Businesses that have given women a seat around the table, they succeed and succeed because when men are looking, women are looking deeper, when men are looking they are not just seeing, they are seeing deeper, they are also sensing.

What policies do you want to see to encourage women in more leadership positions either in government or in the boardroom?

I want men to be deliberate, not just men, women too. I mentor and coach women; what we say is send the elevator down, always send the elevator down, what it means is when you as a man or woman have attained a certain level in leadership, ensure you send the elevator down to pick up more females like you. Don’t stay there and shut off the elevator.

The second is; be deliberate, we all say get a mentor but I have gone a bit further to say, it’s not always about mentoring, always be a sponsor, don’t just mentor, sponsor. What I mean is when you are around the table and talking, looking for someone to do this, mention somebody you know. Don’t just mentor him and stay quiet, move further.

So many women have had mentors, what women need are sponsors, people who will call our names when it needs to be called. If you are in a meeting in a boardroom and a business is saying we need somebody that can do this, don’t keep your mouth shut, mention a female that you know, mention somebody that you know.

If nobody mentions your name, nobody sees you. Remember in the bible. Remember that for Joseph, when the Pharaoh had a dream, someone said I know a guy and he said call him, what if that guy didn’t call his name? I am very passionate about women in leadership; when we mentor these females, we should also now sponsor them.

The third point is this, I listen to a speaker who said when you see how men are, when you see a male leader, you say this are your boys, we also want the females to say, these are your girls, sponsor more girls, bring more girls to the table and when we do that we would have a lot more females at the table who are empowered and our voices will be heard.

Looking back, how did you get here, if you want to inspire a young lady who just graduated from the university especially when there is serious unemployment?

I wanted to be a pilot. I will say to the young people, dream. Dream your dream, spread your wings and fly; honestly, I wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to go to University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) somewhere in London, when I was a child then my dad was saying, no you won’t be a pilot, you need to be stable, because if you fly you might not be able to marry and settle down, you need to raise a family.

So, he made me think of something that will make me a wife and a mother. I got into marketing and in my very first job, I was exposed to brand management and I just fell in love with branding and I realise it is brands that drive the business.

I would say to young people, just be passionate, find where your passion is and drive it. The reason I say so is, when you do something, you love and it’s not just a cliché, when you do a job that you love, it will not just be a job but you will actually not what you are doing. I look at Michelin not just as a job but as a brand that has a lot to offer.

How do you cope with the responsibility of being a mother and a wife?

I just prioritise my life, I just do the same thing you do, I give myself time, there is a time to work and to see family, and they are both equally important.

You prioritise, Michelin gives you time, they know you have a family. The same way a man will prioritise his family, you are not different, when you think it’s different, it is not different. A man comes to work when you come to work and you close at the same time, you don’t have a closing time for men and women different.

Read also: Why emotional balance matters for women in leadership and beyond

How do you think women should achieve financial stability?

Just by being curious, hardworking. How do men achieve financial stability and what do they do differently? I try to say you don’t box yourself by saying I am a woman and I need to do things differently. How do men achieve financial stability, they think let me trade, it’s not all about school and they put themselves in the trade and start to learn.

A woman too can learn in the trade, apply herself in that trade and excel in the trade. If you want to go the way of the classroom, a man goes to school, earns a degree and goes to look for work with that degree, same way for a woman. I don’t subscribe to us playing the victim, having the victim mentality. We are human beings. That’s my sincere opinion.