From the Magazine: Hassan Rilwan, The Sardauna’s Son

 by Mnena Achineku

He began to manage businesses when he was only 16; Hassan Rilwan has been unstoppable ever since:

 “Whether you are 40 years old, whether you’re 15 years old, if you are complacent and you are waiting for it to be handed over to you, you are making a big mistake. You have to take it up.”

 The first thing I noticed about Hassan Rilwan, Publisher of Sardauna Magazine, Convener of the Sardauna Awards, and Vice Chairman of Focal Point Group, with offices in Abuja and Kaduna, was how simple he looked. When he walked into the room and greeted me I was unsure it was he I had come to see. This simplicity was evident throughout his business. From the simple grey Jalabiya he had on, to the layout of his office. There were no ubiquitous framed pictures of Rilwan standing with or shaking hands with notable people, even though he, of course, had met many.

Simple successes

Rilwan tells a funny story of a meeting he had with a blue chip chief executive as the Editor of Sardauna Magazine. On introducing themselves (he and his colleagues) to the secretary she says, ‘Oga has been waiting for your Oga. Where is your Oga? Oga has been waiting.’ And when Rilwan starts to introduce himself as the ‘Oga’ she is asking for, she cuts in and says ‘No stop joking! There’s no time.’ The secretary remains unconvinced until the chief executive walks a guest out, sees Rilwan, and calls him by name.

His simplicity often leads to an ill-advised consideration – underrating Hassan Rilwan. A nominee for The Future Awards 2010 for Business-Owner of the Year, Rilwan has been a business creator since his teenage years.

When his father appointed him executive director in his company, he had no formal job description but he noticed discrepancies in the company’s books and brought them to the attention of the manager who attempted to dismiss his concerns. Because of the young Rilwan’s insistence further discrepancies were discovered.

Impressed by his son’s drive, the senior Rilwan gave him the job of supervising the operations function of the business, incidently that made the manager his subordinate. The manager was over 45, Rilwan was 16.

Age, for him, has always been inconsequential. “I don’t think there is anything my age has stopped,” he explains. “The truth about it is that whatever it is, entering into the mark of the successful people, I believe in this country and maybe in the world over – especially in Nigeria, it’s like a door, and the successful people are behind the door. You don’t expect that they will just open the door and welcome you in. You have to take it up. So whether you are 40 years old, whether you’re 15 years old, if you are complacent and you are waiting for it to be handed over to you, you are making a big mistake. You have to take it up.”

Flying high

With the intention of following his childhood love for planes, Rilwan studied engineering at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in order to get into aviation school. He continued to pursue business during his university years and eventually ended up focusing on business after graduation.

Looking back, he admits his father played a substantial role. From giving him his first job to paying off his debts from failed enterprises. “I think the parents’ role is everything,” Rilwan says, “You see you can never be an entrepreneur when you don’t have confidence. Confidence is one cardinal thing about being an entrepreneur. You have to have your confidence to take business risks you have the confidence to be able to manage people. Managing people is a huge challenge. You have to be able to take the right decision and it comes with confidence and you can’t give what you don’t have. If you don’t grow up being confident you just can’t give it, so I think my father went through a whole lot to ensure he built my confidence level.

“Another great thing my father did for me was that he allowed us make the decisions in our lives, about what we want in our lives. He never told me that I must be a doctor or lawyer for instance. If he did I just may be living my life for him and I will not be a happy person. I studied engineering as a profession, I publish a magazine and today I’m a drycleaner. I wash clothes so that is to tell you the latitude that has been given to me to operate. I’m into construction too. I’m ready to try my hands on new things because my father never taught me that there is a boundary – that there are things you do and things you must not do.”

There’s a renewed focus on entrepreneurship for young people these days, but Rilwan sounds a note of warning.

“On the other hand, there’s a difference between an entrepreneur, a business owner, and people who work for other people,” he explains patiently. “I think that is a function of your risk appetite. Some people are extremely safe people. You see an entrepreneur is a builder. An entrepreneur builds from the scratch,  you have to have the patience; while an employee is one who develops an already existing system. That is the difference.

“I’m a businessman now and as I told you I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to where I want to be but I am here concentrating on what I think is the right thing to do. It might be pay off in five years while my school mates  might have made so much money working in Schlumberger,  Shell, or Chevron, I am there making my peanuts but my doggedness and resolve to see what I’m doing through at the end of the day will most likely pay off over time. So you have to be a long term person to be a business man”.

The book of success

Books are an important part of his empowerment, he reveals, mentioning books by Peter Drucker (management guru) and Anthony Sampson’s The Rise and Fall of Company Man as being influential in his early years in business. For instance he was inspired to create Sardauna Magazine after reading Richard Branson’s autobiography. He also mentions books by Og Mandino, Bill Clinton’s My Life and Bishop T.D. Jakes’ Maximising the Moment.  As diverse as these authors are he says, “I identify with the content which is universal, success is universal.”

Great men are surely a fascination of his, evident in the well-attended The Sardauna Awards, based in the North but which have attracted everyone from corporate titans Tony Elumelu and Subomi Balogun to Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi.

But Rilwan sounds like the cliché – indeed, he has the sense that he has just gotten started. He is expanding his business by moving into different markets. He is intent on improving Sardauna Magazine’s circulation and positioning the magazine as one of the top magazines in the publishing industry in the country. He is also focusing on building his dry cleaning business. Although the business is highly regarded, he feels there is still room for improvement and expansion into other markets outside of Abuja.

But his eyes are set on the even longer term. “My greatest legacy and my greatest asset today is my foundation,” he tells me. “I have a small foundation where we take care of children, the Almajiri we call them, we have 20 of them. I built a school and a hostel for them and we are taking care of all their needs. For me, that’s my greatest asset and that is the direction I want to continue to build on. So if, today for example, I am no more or incapacitated and unable to work, I think there should be a [business] continuance arrangement and that’s what I’m hoping.”

He is relentlessly focused on expanding his resources to be able to create this vision. “When you talk of the magazine for instance we have not gotten there,” he says, intently. “I am hoping that God will give me the opportunity today and to be able to get there. It has the potential of being the premier magazine across the nation. The same can be said about the other businesses. Basically, I want to have a group of companies that will be able to stand the test of time.” Y!


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