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Covid-19: A Reflection

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented changes in the workplace. To get a better understanding of how organisations have navigated the various changes and challenges brought about this year, Tadiwa Mandivenga virtually interviewed three business leaders to find out about their experiences this year. In the first instalment of our Covid-19 Reflection Series, Adekunle Rosiji, Executive Director of Lexcel Group gives us insight into how the pandemic affected them, how they overcame the challenges, and learnings they will take into 2021.

Adekunle is the Executive Director of Lexcel Group and currently heads the group’s flagship companies, Supreme Distilleries Ltd Nigerian Distilleries Ltd and their Marketing and Sales company, Grand Oak Ltd. He has over 15 years’ experience in varied industries including Finance, Professional Services and Manufacturing.

In the past, Adekunle has worked at Goldman Sachs, KBC and Houlihan Lokey, and then ventured into Grainger West’s Debt Finance practice in London and established their HR Consultancy and Executive Search franchise in Paris, Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai.

Can you tell us some of the challenges that the pandemic has presented for Grand Oak this year and how you and your team overcame them?

The challenges for us have been on three levels:

- Financial in terms of the issues that have come up off of the back of Covid-19 such as coinciding with very low oil prices which Nigeria is incredibly dependent on and affecting our ability to do things in terms of how the international banking system works and access to dollars and the cost of those dollars because we are a heavily import, input dependent business. This year started with dollars costing about NGN360 unofficially and NGN305 officially. What has happened with the pandemic is that within a few months, it was clear that the central bank could not maintain those kinds of rates so from an official rate of NGN305, it is now at NGN380 and from an unofficial rate of NGN360 it has now moved to NGN470 and is still increasing. In addition to dollars being so expensive which has caused our cost base to shoot up by about 30%, they are also scarce which makes it very difficult if not impossible to get them.

- Operational in terms of supply chain problems. Apart from us, no other business produces their own alcohol from local input material. All the alcohol in the country is essentially imported which therefore requires you to have access to dollar credit lines to allow you to bring in your alcohol. For us as a drinks business, it is very much the joke of having a car with no petrol. You can have the fanciest factory in the world and all kinds of packaging materials but without the alcohol to go into the drinks, you can’t make anything. Beyond that, there has been a huge knock-on effect around supply chain partners, particularly those that supply us with paper based and plastic products. Sourcing and keeping materials and therefore operating consistently was tough.

- Regulatory in terms of state and federal laws. Ports were closed off and because we are dependent of imports, it was very difficult to find a way to keep our business running . On the front-end side of the business i.e. sales and marketing, even if the financial and operational issues managed to be solved and the brands are ready for market, there were still some challenges that came up. For example, the closures of state borders of which Nigeria has 36 states wherein alcohol can be sold in 19 of them. What happened was that each state essentially became its own country, so moving anything across borders was extremely difficult. Furthermore, markets were no longer open 24hrs a day so rather than having operations from Monday to Saturday or Sunday, we find that markets are only open on Tuesdays and maybe Fridays but only for a few hours. Other key outlets like supermarkets have limited opening hours and have restrictions on the number of people allowed inside. Restaurants, bars, and clubs are not open either. This is a perfect storm of issues to navigate.

Remarkably for us, we have actually been able to grow through this period. When we compare how we have been progressing this year to last year when there was no pandemic, we have improved by 25% - 30% in terms of our volumes. What we were able to do in order to navigate the issues I mentioned was that we asked ourselves “what would happen if?” where the “if” was a whole set of worst-case scenarios. As we looked at each of the scenarios and how bad things could get if the pandemic was as awful as it was predicted to be, we realised that there was a lot of work that needed to be done ahead of what was thought to come. From as early as late January to mid-February, we started front-loading the business in terms of trying to bring in more materials, securing financing, starting to practice health and safety measures to reassure all our stakeholders. We also started make use of and getting used to remote working and the relevant tools early. For us, because we imagined the worst, asked ourselves what we would do and started preparing early, we were able to find ourselves in a situation where with the team’s effort and willingness to adjust, we were able to do well and grow the business despite all the challenges.

How would you say the company culture has been kept alive while working remotely?

We started working remotely in February, although in a pilot type of manner. When lockdown started in March in Lagos and then everywhere else towards the end of that month, we could not do things like have our distributor conferences. Normally, we would have about 200 distributors gather in a hotel for four days with all the company staff and we would all break bread for a few nights. We could not do that or even have the few staff who are normally in the headquarters come and be together for a full day of work. So, we decided to run our various offices and factories on alternate days. For the headquarter and the regional offices, we would have about 40% of staff come into the office where there would be one or two people from each department such that key operations could keep working. Everyone else would work remotely. In the factories, rather than running 24hrs a day, we decided to break up the day into many smaller shifts and run half a section at a time. For example, if we could produce 100 units a day, maybe we would now produce 25, but it was still good because we were able to protect everyone working.

When it comes to the culture side, the modern tools have been so useful. Thanks to the HR team, we’ve managed to keep things lively and social through Zoom. We would have daily check-ins where each department would check-in with each other and with HR for 45mins – 1hour. All our meetings and projects would be carried out on Zoom. We would also have Zoom parties where we would send our staff a bottle of one of our drinks along with some cups and mixers and invite them to come and join us on a Friday after work on Zoom where we’d bring in a DJ and play some online games together. We would do this a couple of times a month to keep people interacting and socialising and it would foster a sense of community during what has been a challenging year. It also allowed leaders and managers to interact with those who they may not normally interact with on a regular basis such as new employees, juniors or even interns.

How did you have to change the way you lead and manage your teams during the pandemic?

I am still working remotely. Everything has changed. Usually, I have an open-door policy for my office, so I am normally able to have anyone come in and say hello, talk about something or get help with anything. Nowadays, my interactions are focused on the top team such as the other directors, general managers who report directly to me. Below those top two levels of the organisation, my interaction has become very minimal which is not my usual style of operating. However, I do believe it has brought some significant benefits, one of which is being able to ensure that the top teams are more aligned and focused. Another benefit is that because the interaction with the more junior team members has reduced, they really have to route their issues, challenges, and opportunities through their direct bosses much more, so the chain of command is being forced to align and operate the way it should rather than being circumvented in any way which has also all forced us to carry out our proper roles. It has made us make faster and better decisions and to trust our judgment more.

What would you say are some of the biggest lessons that 2020 has taught you?

Trust yourself and trust people more than you normally would. We all work in our own self-interest and we should all learn with the group’s interest in mind. As they say, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.

The more we step back and focus on what really needs to be focused on in the best interests of the organisation, there more space there is for others to be able to step into roles that they are either meant to do, can do, or have a desire to do.

I have been so pleased that there has not been a single department where we are anything less than 85% - 90% complete in terms of our year’s action plans. These are plans that were made at the back-end of last year and some of them have been completed or well exceeded as we speak to the point where we have deliberately stopped to think and plan how to do things bigger and better in 2021.

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