INTERVIEW: How I Led ICNL From Low Moments to Profitability- Yusuf, Former MD

In this exclusive interview, Ismail Yusuf, immediate past Managing Director of Inland Containers Nigeria Limited (ICNL) explains his 21 year journey as Chief Executive of one of Nigeria’s fastest growing indigenous player in the maritime industry.

He gave a detailed explanation of his emergence and leadership style that kept him on for over 21 years as the company’s CEO.

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Yusuf spoke to Ismail Aniemu about his initial fear of Lagos and how he became a business champion in West Africa’s commercial hub.

Q: You recently retired from ICNL after serving as the company’s Managing Director. Give us an insight into your journey with the company.

My career with Inland Containers has been since 1991.In 1990/1991, I was a corp Member and I served the company from Kaduna.

After youth service, the company decided to retain me because of my good performance and I was the Assistant Accountant then because I read Accountancy .The Depot Manager then recommended me to the General Manager/ Chief Executive in Lagos and the General Manager/Chief Executive approved it immediately.

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I was asked to resume in October, although my Service ended in July.They didn’t allow me to go .They told me to continue until my letter came from the Head office and I was being paid.After six months, I was transferred to Kano.Although I didn’t want to go to Kano because of the story we used to hear when we were young and I didn’t want to come to Lagos because of things like hustling lifestyle, Area Boys and other things I heard about.

I didn’t have a choice. It was either I resigned my appointment or I pick one of the stations to go. So I went to Kano reluctantly and I was there for another six years.I was an Assistant Manager in the Finance and Account Department then.I remained there until the accountant then was transferred to the Head Office in Lagos and I was asked to take over from him .I was there until I was asked to come to Lagos and I refused.

They said the vacancy that existed in Lagos will be given to my junior colleague and that will make him my senior.I didn’t want that to happen so I needed to pray to God to help me out of the problems in Lagos.I told my wife and I left on February 23rd, 1998 and resumed in Lagos as Head of Finance and Account of the company when the former Financial Head got another job and resigned his appointment.

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I witnessed the company’s challenging period and contributed to its recovery. I was there when it had financial challenges.Actually, during the former administration, the General Manager was forced to resign and we got a Sole Administrator nominated by NICON Insurance because they were the majority shareholder then.We were working with the first Sole Administrator, Hassan Ibrahim.

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Thereafter, they brought another person who is late.When he left, the vacancy was opened to contestants.The Chairman of the Board of Inland Containers then, was a politician nominated by the Board of NICON Insurance.Luckily, it was a person I knew .He was a Corp member when I was in Form 1 in 1977.He didn’t know me again because I was a young schoolboy during his NYSC year.

I saw his phone number somewhere and I called him.I introduced myself.He asked where I was working and if I knew him and I said yes.I told him that he was my English Language teacher when he was serving  .He was very happy and asked of where I was working.I told him I was working with Inland Containers .He asked if I knew that he was the Chairman and I said yes, I got the information and that was why I tried to get his phone number.He said it means we will work together.He asked of my position and I told him that I was the Head of Finance and Account.

When the former Sole Administrator left, I told him that as the position was vacant, we should try the people in-house instead of getting someone from outside.He asked if I could do it and I said why not? Every Sole Administrator that came , when they go on leave, or back to NICON Insurance,I used to relieve them.At least I have been holding the company.He asked that how many of us were Managers and I said we were three.He said the three of us should submit our CVs which we did.It was processed one way or the other and luckily, the day the Board was meeting, since I was Acting Sole Administrator, I used to go there to present the quarterly financial position of the company which I did that day.When the issue of the vacant position was discussed, I was asked to excuse them and I did.A lot of discussion took place of which I didn’t know.They eventually asked me to come in again and someone just stood and said congratulations . Courtesy of my former teacher, he said I had become the Chief Executive of Inland Containers and that I should meet with my colleagues, restructure the place and let the company perform.That was how it happened in November 15th , 2002.

Since then, I have been paddling the affairs of the company although the company was in a bad shape.It was bankrupt and nothing was happening.There were a lot of liabilities on ground.The company was also owing the staff salary of one year.I had to form a formidable management team and we met almost every day weekly to discuss how the company will move forward.It got to a level when people were getting weak and tired and we didn’t know what could happen again.I told them that if the company were to be our own, would we abandon it and go? We needed to put heads together and bring the company up otherwise we would have to go and look for another source of livelihood.I prayed to God and Almighty Allah answered my prayers.The following week,

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I called my colleagues in Lagos, I had a meeting with them and I told them what we should do.I told them that after my prayer, God directed me that I should review our tariff and I asked the question that how long have we been using the tariff? They said it was up to eight years.I said it was overdue for review.We had to review the tariff to enable us sustain and make money and we had to be efficient in what we were doing to make our customers happy with us.Those were the two things we could do.I set up a commitee to review the tariff.They brought the tariff and they were adding ten to twenty percent and I said it was wrong.As an accountant, I had done my calculation and I had seen the cost per unit.If we came with this recommendation, we will continue to remain in the same position.I picked the tariff myself and worked on it .I used about 120 percent increase.By that time, we were charging about N40,000 to over N80,000 per 20 foot and 1 by 40 was over N130,000 from over N80,000.Before I went ahead, I had to play politics with it.After our discussion at the Head Office, I went to Kaduna to seek the support of my big customers.Those who had say in the Association .I told the biggest of them of whom I don’t want to mention .He asked if that was what I wanted and I said yes.He said they were ready to support me.He said they will talk to others but I was to get involved in a trade by barter with him.He said he will help me seek others support but I will provide employment to two persons .I told him to bring them.He gave me two CVs.One passed and the other didn’t pass.I employed the one that passed immediately.The tariff also went through. When we used the tariff in 2012, from our losses, we made a profit of N100,000,000 .In 2013, we made N17,000,000.In 2014, we made about N560,000,000.After I had paid the liability I met,  of about N120,000,000 , I came back to the staff that were been owed a year salary including myself because I was in Kano at that time.

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The company used to pay us allowance of N500 every week to sustain us instead of paying our salary.When I knew that we had money, I had to pay off the staff arrears and everyone was happy.All those deductions from pension, taxes and those remittances which we were supposed to do which we had not been doing because of our inability to meet up were cleared .The company now came back to shape.Thereafter, I got a new Board of Directors in 2012 to 2013.They worked with me and I got full support from them to promote the company.I am happy that as the Chief Executive, it was in my time a lot of things happened.I created a department of Human Resources.I also created a Department of Freight Forwarding and Department of Commercial for marketing activities.Thereafter, I registered a subsidiary of the company called Inland Containers Nigeria Limited Logistics which today will be a separate entity under ICNL as a subsidiary for transportation.We then pursued one of the branches of the company which is Kaduna Inland Dry Port.We have been designated as a Dry Port and it is the first in Nigeria today.It is also the first that is functioning even though they have some little problems which is normal.With the collaboration of the stakeholders,if the regulators could pay the Nigerian Shippers Council,  all those problems will be over.

They took the necessary step towards that.My office was at a rented apartment but in 2013, we moved to a twin apartment.We rented one side and after two or three years ,we bought that apartment from the landlord.The building became Inland Containers Nigeria Limited Head Office.Two years later, we bought the other twin apartment and everything became for Inland Containers.It now serves as Head Office of the company.Those are the achievements so far and that is how I have made my journey through Inland Containers.

Today, by the grace of God, I have retired as timely appointed by God even though I am supposed to go in September for this year.I have given that notice since last year February of which the Board begged me to bear with them and give them one year notice so that they can recruit a capable hand to take over from me .I agreed with them, that was done and the new MD has been recruited.He assumed office on 2nd May this year.The big challenge I had while I was managing the company occurred around 1996 when the company was going down before the former Chief Executive was asked to leave in 1997.When I came to Lagos in 1998, the volume of activities reduced to about 400 containers in a year.That is why we were unable to meet up with the daily and monthly obligations.

Q:What was it before it reduced to 400 containers in a year?

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When I was in Kano, I used to keep the register as an Assistant Account Manager.We used to get about 1400, 1500, 1600 to 1800 containers on yearly basis before it reduced to 400.Most of the customers had left because of the nonchalant attitude of the previous management.After we took over, most of the customers in Kano were friends with us and we had worked together both in Kano and Kaduna, we had to go back to them and talk to them.They listened to us and came back.We were getting increased volume.In 2017 or 2018, the volume increased to about 23,000 per annum.The company has been performing well and I thank God for that.I believe that if it were not for the present predicament of the country which includes high duty rate, lack of forex and higher exchange rate, some of the customers would have been able to go for import of foreign items.That has also dropped drastically.I think the company is doing around 1300 or 1400 per month now instead of our target of 1800 to 2000.I believe that if the economy improves, the import will also increase and Kaduna Inland Dry Port will also get their own share from it.

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Secondly, after my battle for increasing the volume of throughput for the company, another challenge I had which I was unable to solve before I left was injection of capital into the business even though the shareholders were willing but unfortunately, we were unable to do it before I left.I believe with the new person coming in,  will do that so that the company can expand.

My vision for the company is for ICNL to have a branch outside Nigeria, in one of the West African countries.That is one of our vision which we came up with in one of our strategy sessions in the past years but I was unable to achieve that.

Q:I know you had interaction with traders in Niger Republic on security issues.

Yes, we did .It was the security issue and we were unable to solve it.We are still facing that problem.I could remember that one of our Directors also went with us, the port manager in Kaduna also went with us. Those are the major challenges I faced and I feel unhappy for not achieving them.My target was big in order to make the company big and recognized worldwide so that it will be reckoned with as one of the global businesses.

Q:Let’s look at mentorship, advice to younger managers.What lessons would you want them to pick from this your wide experience ?

Firstly, my advice to the upcoming Chief Executives/ Managers is that they need to be honest and dedicated with what they are doing because everything has a reward.Forget about making money quick.If you are honest and dedicated, that pride is there for you.I can boast of it because I know series of ways I have been tested even if no one told me .I knew through the wisdom and intellect God gave to me.They didn’t find anything against me and maybe that is why I lasted for 21 years as Chief Executive.

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You need to network too and keep customers by giving them good services and prompt response.In logistics, if you lose a day, and you want the customer to pay for that day, if he has 50 containers for you at the last rating with shipping and terminal operator, if you multiply 16,000 a day by 50 containers, it is a large amount of money.That is why prompt response and quick delivery is the key in this business.For a Chief Executive to achieve that, you need to have a close marking with people that are in operations. You have the Commercial Head of Operations and Head of Logistics.They must give report regularly and you must call them for meetings.If there are challenges, discuss them and put heads together.That is how problems are solved.If customers are asking questions, give them the information on time.If you are unable to meet up with the time agreed, you will let them know on time before that day.

Once you give updates regularly, they will know that you are for them and they will continue to stick to you.Today, I can tell you that we have a significant number of customers that are still with us.

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