Quietly backing a number of SMEs in the country, Dr Akintoye Akindele is an astute financier, investment guru and leading investor. He was more than willing to spend some time with us discussing all things money and investment. Enjoy the read!
The Managing Partner and Founder of Synergy Capital, Dr Akindele sits at the head of a private equity fund manager managing money for Developmental Financial Institutions like the IFC, CBC, EIB and also for some international investors like Ramo Capital Sangle. Synergy Capital currently manages about about 350 million dollars.
“We currently have two funds under management. Our first fund is worth $100 million and our second over $200 million. We invest across Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone (Anglophone West Africa) in medium sized businesses, SMEs really, across these markets.
We have teams in these countries and the focus is on adding value to them locally. What we’re about is more than capital; it’s more than money. We are about adding value, hand-holding and ensuring that money works. I work with a team of great people who actually do more work than I do!”
Dr Akindele attended Nigerian Navy Secondary School, and then went on to Obafemi Awolowo University where he studied Chemical Engineering as his first degree. He says, “Along the line, after chemical engineering, I, like a lot of people, tried to do other things. These were the Abacha years and Nigeria was going through a transition and massive economic reconstruction. So when I graduated, there was a lot of confusion. I ended up doing a few things while being a banker; I wrote MCSE exams as well as CFA exams. I also did management courses at London Business School. I also did my PhD in Finance.
I have done a lot of courses because I like to read and learn.”
It’s not often that you meet someone who makes a career switch from engineering to finance. Dr Akindele tells us how that happened:
“I actually didn’t want to be a finance person at all. I grew up in a home with our dad as a banker and our mum as an entrepreneur. Two of my elder brothers were already finance people, and this drove me to want to be an engineer. Reason being, apart from having a mind for numbers, I also wanted to create solutions. Therefore, I wanted to find a way to balance these two things. I was always looking for solutions, and back then, if you were good with numbers, you’re pushed into sciences. I wanted to create solutions and this led me to study engineering. I was lucky to have older siblings who were torch bearers. At this point I want to make a point that I’m a product of grace.
My first lamp post asides from my parents, was my elder brother, Bola Akindele. He is currently the CEO of Courteville PLC. He was a banker, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend time with him and his friends who were fellow bankers. They would come around the house and talk about how they were solving customer problems, and how they were financing local businesses. These bankers were more than just lending money and I got to appreciate that for what they were doing, they had to understand the business of finance. Being a banker means that you have to understand risk. It was almost like they were General Managers on their own. They understood everything from engineering, to trading, and to health. This piqued my interest as I wanted to be a solution provider.
As an NNPC engineer back then, getting funding to back our ideas was a major issue. This influenced my decision to learn about funding and or banking, with a plan to then come back to engineering — I haven’t been back since.”
“I had great mentors, from my dad, to my siblings and particularly my immediate elder brother, Gbogboade Akindele who was an accountant. I had the best start to banking anybody could have. I was a benefactor of two visionaries, Fola Adeola and Tayo Aderinokun, who set up a training school back in the 90’s. They saw it as important to build an institution that would outlive them but more importantly, to invest in the next generation of managers. Back then, it was unheard of to have a six-month training school with trainees fully paid. We were trained in everything from Accounting to Banking, from Corporate Finance to Law. Beyond that, they taught us how to think about ourselves and our purpose in life. They helped me ask myself the right question; ‘What’s your purpose in life?’
I think the idea behind the training school was to create great bankers by creating human beings who were not just thoughtful, but also purposeful. That was my training. Imagine coming from an engineering background with my ambition of creating solution and having the opportunity to enter into GTBank at the right time. I also had the chance to have the best character-builder and nurturer in the world, Tutu Soleye who was just God-sent to me. She was the head of the GTBank Training School back then. Tutu made it her life calling to make sure that we knew what we wanted from life. We got the right values, the right exposure, but more importantly we were taught how to think. And I think that’s one of the best things you can teach anybody because, if people can think, they can solve questions.
With the training school, I had a good foundation. And once a foundation is right, the house you build will stand. That was how I made my transition from Engineering into Finance, through the Banking route.”
INSPIRATION TO START SYNERGY CAPITAL
“My Group Head was Herbert Wigwe. Herbert is one of the most brilliant people I’ve known in my life, and his work ethic is fantastic. Herbert was truly competent and gave us the opportunity to learn, but more importantly, he also demanded that you grow beyond your best. Also working with Segun Agbaje, who had done Treasury, and was now into foreign operations, to create solutions needed to solve importation and inventory finance gap needs. Solving client problems using various types of corporate finance solutions, was already part of the DNA of our work at Corporate Banking in GTBank, led by Herbert Wigwe.
Discovering how to solve customers needs, led us to solutions. And that itself, was my first entry into Corporate Finance. I was excited to be applying what I was taught by Rotimini Lola — a great teacher of corporate finance — in training school, with what I was being taught, in practical solutions for commerce from UAC, General Motors, CFAO, and several others. It was all very practical; we were financing expansion, financing engineering solutions. My Engineering background began to come into practice because I could understand what the entrepreneur was trying to do. I could then create solutions. As I continued at GTBank, I had the chance to take my CFA exams. The CFA basically exposes you to a lot of things, and I believe it is the most rigorous exam to do to be a finance professional.
I was doing my CFA exams when I then joined Lead Bank, I joined Abimbola Olashore and John Darlington to start the Lead Bank narrative then. Lead Bank was a merchant bank, and I took the skills I had learnt from GTBank into the bank. What was merchant banking? It was about solving merchant needs on longer-term basis. Hence, the tenure of my finance career started getting longer.
Eventually, John Darlington decided to leave Lead Bank to start Bond Bank, and I was lucky to follow John from the start. I worked with him on business planning, we raised the money together, did the banking application together, recruited together. I had a chance at the creation of an entity; turning it from an idea to reality. By the time we got a banking license, I was head of Corporate Finance. That was my full journey into investment banking from Engineering.
I had been in banking for 6 to 7 years when I felt I wanted to learn Equities because I had learnt debt enough. I moved to Africa Capital Alliance, which was a private equities firm in West Africa. I began working in the TMT Team. and there was no better person than Okechukwu Enelamah to teach us at that time.”
STARTING SYNERGY CAPITAL
“Although there’s a joke about Nigerians attributing everything to God’s grace, I’m a firm believer in grace. My life is a story of grace. I’m not the smartest person I know, neither am I the most hard-working. Everything I’ve gotten in life has been through somebody somewhere looking out for me. I’m a firm believer in the fact that you benefit from what people before you have gone ahead to do. Getting the opportunity to learn about banking from Bola Akindele early on in my career, led my switch into banking. Getting to work at GTBank and being trained by Sholeye, getting to work for people like Herbert Wigwe and Segun Agbaje, getting to work for Okey Enelamah; I’ve just had the best teachers anybody could have ever asked for. I learnt at the feet of people who were truly trailblazers and risk-takers. By the time I was going to start Synergy, I’d learnt from these people.
The idea of Synergy was one that – as tough as it sounded – was simply brilliant to me. Luckily, my partner, Ayodele Arogbo and I were more than partners. My relationship with him is more than friendship. We had worked together at Capital Alliance for four years then, and we met during the CFA exam, but we saw a gap. According to The World Bank there are “44 million SMEs on the African continent, of that 44 million, about 30 of them are micro SMEs and 10million of them are demi-sized companies across the continent. 44 million companies on the African continent compared to 162 million SMEs in other developing continents combined.”
This is the problem – in developing world, capital availability for SMEs is about 3.7 trillion. Less than 10% is available for African SMEs. Remember, SMEs form future companies; so, if we don’t have enough SMEs, how are we going to have enough big companies to invest in? We saw that the SME market was really not getting enough attention and that was because of the myths around it. We discovered through research, a way people could invest in SMEs and still make money.
We were lucky to have an amazing board of people who supported us; Aunty Moe was the founding chairman of Synergy Capital. She was very useful by supporting and encouraging us. God bless her. My brother Bola Akindele, gave us money, and supported us from the scratch.
We believe that the more people know about SMEs from an investment point, the better the economic growth of our continent. It’s tough doing business in Nigeria in the first place, it’s tough building an SME in Nigeria and we already knew how to help companies access resources. What are the resources SMEs need? People, capital, supply chain management, and market representation. We had a formula and turned it into a value proposition where, Synergy Capital could be the champion of SMEs, which became our vision.
What Synergy Capital and other SME Investment companies like Cardinal Stone and EchoVC are doing, is bringing to light investment in SMEs. This is the core of our growth in the continent. At Synergy Capital, we want to showcase that investing in SME is not as risky as people think. There are challenges and there are issues to be solved, but solving them can create big companies, as well as creating wealth for people.”
TAKING ON RISK
Dr Akindele tells us about managing risk as a business person with a great opening line: “Great investors are also great entrepreneurs. I think my investment approach is largely informed by my entrepreneurial experience, especially my first where I owned a cyber cafe with my siblings and lost my money. That was probably the best thing that has happened to me.
Investment is all about understanding risk. I’m a firm believer in risk capital. If you do not have great knowledge of the risk you’re taking, your investment will not work. I don’t think risk can be mitigated; but rather managed. It doesn’t mean the risk is gone but reduced because risk is a fact of life. Everyday risks happen.
Managing risk on a daily basis is what an investor is cut out for. An investor has the first job of being a risk manager. Risk could come from various sources; from technology, from the product itself, from demand chain, from supply chain one is trying to solve, from people in Nigeria, from capital, or from trying to replicate a market. Basically, risk can rise from any source. Your job is to be on the lookout for it, address it head-on, and manage it when the risk occurs.
I’m a very firm believer in Nigeria as an investment case.”
INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES IN NIGERIA AND AFRICA
We were eager to hear Dr Akintoye’s take on opportunities in Nigeria and he didn’t disappoint. “First and foremost, almost every sector you turn, is an opportunity in Nigeria, including the old and new sectors. When people tell me banking, for instance is regulated, I point them towards digital banking. Look at what PiggyBank has done in less than two years, Kudi as well and what FinTech companies are doing. No, banking is not done, banking is just starting.
The era of digital or virtual banking is about to change the old institution of banking beyond what we know. Innovation is going to change the way in which traditional banking operates. Financial inclusion is driving innovation in banking, consumer finance, personal finance and unlocking value. You can’t imagine that as old as banking is, it has a lot of massive opportunities and massive structures to offer.
The Fintech solutions that’ll dominate are those solving real trade, real customer solutions, among Business to Business (B2B), Business to Consumer (B2C), and Consumer to Consumer (C2C). Real existing consumer. Focus on solving the real, existing problems, because we have loads of them in Africa. When people tell me about technological innovation, I say that’s great for a developed markets, in a developing market like Nigeria, we have a lot of problems to solve. Business before innovation is critical to our survival than technological innovation. For you to succeed, it has to be more than fintech, it has to be more than technology. Institutions have to solve a business need.”
ADVICE TO YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS
- The first requirement to possess is faith in your vision. Without faith in your vision, you’re working against yourself.
- The second trait to pick up is focus. Focus channels your energy to try to solve the various problems that will come your way.
- Have passion for what you’re doing. Because with focus and faith, endurance will ensure that you enjoy the process.
- You’re going to fail a lot. Be nice and kind to yourself when you do. Learn from it, there’s no better teacher than failure.
- Have useful people who you can talk to, people who can help you think about your failure differently. In my opinion, coaches are nice but sponsors are better. A sponsor is someone who is invested in your life and will fight alongside you. I have benefitted from people like Wale Adeosun, CEO of Kuramo.
- Continue to reinvent yourself. Get more knowledgeable, get better. Know your industry, know your business, know your competition, and know yourself even more.
- Lastly, it is not about money. Money is important but solve a need, bridge a gap, understand your customer, and money will come.
- You have to be your biggest critic so as to break yourself. This way trolls can never hurt your emotions because you’ve broken yourself.
“Evolve, otherwise nature will force you to evolve.”
For a man as busy as Dr Akindele, it’s difficult to imagine him at leisure. Indeed, he tells us that he practises work-life integration, because work is part of play and play is part of work.
“I’m always working. I’m a caregiver, I’m a dreamer, I’m a hope-giver, I’m a brick-builder, I’m a bridge-builder, I’m a foundation-layer, I’m an optimist. First and foremost, I believe my job in life is to give hope to entrepreneurs, to people who wish to achieve their dreams, by helping them cross.I’m always working and thinking about how to solve people’s problems.
I love listening to music, I love to spend time with my good friends and family. I love to watch movies — I binge-watch TV with my daughter a lot. I also love to mentor. One of the ways I make use of my private time is through social impact work. At Lagos Business School and the University of Lagos, I currently teach and am helping to create a curriculum around entrepreneurship.
I like to invest in education and in things that I believe will matter in the long term. I partake in activities that are important, I teach and consult pro bono; I’m involved in a lot of charity work. I love to do things that nurture the soul because it creates balance. I’m also lucky to have a wife, kids, and business partner who indulge my curious mind.
There’s a triangle I like to talk about. The triangle of purpose, faith, and magic. When you have purpose and faith, then the magic happens, and miracles become real.”
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