How many energy millionaires and former ministerial nominees do you find randomly speaking at youth events, writing columns in national newspapers, directing traffic at the Redemption Camp during the popular Holy Ghost Service?
It’s a question I have had for almost a decade of knowing Tonye Cole, known (deliberately) as one of the founders of Sahara Group (which is the safest way to describe him, since no one knows for sure if he is Managing Director or Executive Director, or just Director) – but only just now got to ask, on Conversations with Chude.
“If you take care of God’s business, God will take care of your business,” he says to me, his eyes registering a little bewilderment that people don’t know the apparent reason. “If there is one thing God will fight you for, it’s pride. You might fight with human beings and win some or lose some, but if you are going to fight with God, you will lose all the time…so doesn’t it make wiser sense to carry humility as an action point?”
Does this explain why, of its three co-founders, the public still doesn’t know who calls the final shots at an extensive energy group that houses over 3,000 staff and has operations in 12 countries?
He smiles at this question.
“In an environment where everybody wants to see the man at the top, the innovation can’t happen,” he finally explains the flat management structure. “Where every decision must go all the way to the top, then you are not really allowing people to innovate.”
This is not just idle talk. The culture at the 20-year old Sahara is one of its drivers – at least as far as visitors to its headquarters or any of its Lagos offices can see. Its young team members appear to have unrestricted access to their bosses, with an average age that must trend below 30, two of the younger team members assigned to train its founders across internal and external meetings for a period of time as part of preparation for management.
“There are two things that drive us at Sahara Group,” he shares the ultimate motivation for this mission. “The first is to prove that Nigeria can do it, that we can go out there and do whatever it is. The second is that once you can do that, there is a whole generation of people (second generation) that see that it is possible and will open up a whole world for them because they now know that they can.”
But, despite stated ambitions to build a truly world class company, he is an oil entrepreneur in a country where oil can mean corruption and scandal – and he has, apparently, had his fair share.
“There is something called a “pulling down syndrome” whereby people will always seek to bring you down,” he says, shrugging. “What do I do to stay above whatever?” I will always say: do your work and do it very well, it really doesn’t matter, just make sure you know what you are doing because the truth will always come out at the end of the day.”
“People will always try to start a rumour somewhere to bring you down. They haven’t succeeded and they won’t.”
He says the key is relevance. “As long as you remain relevant in the space that you occupy, people will always come back to you,” he insists. “Those who know what you do know what you do, those that depend on you to deliver the services that you do will always come back, it doesn’t matter.”
From all of this, the greatest lesson he has learnt in 20 years of running a business he started in his 20s is simple.
“One of the things we learnt as a business,” he says to me. “Is that we just stay true to our cause – we stay true to why we are here.”