Wearing ties for years was like bondage – John Obaro

September 29, 2014  |   In The News  

You are currently the Chief Executive Officer of one of the biggest indigenous software firms in Nigeria; do you feel fulfilled in life?

I would say yes and no. Yes, because of the honour of leading a company that is strategically affecting the economy of Nigeria positively and setting the standard for excellence around Africa. I do not take this privilege for granted. But no, because the expectations for our company; our people, products and service hopes are higher, and since we can do better than where we are, I cannot rest and be fulfilled. I believe there are heights in the market place we are yet to climb, mountains left to conquer and opportunities waiting to be harvested. So truthfully, I cannot be completely fulfilled just yet.

What are some of the challenges you faced while building your business?

There were three main issues; we came into the market at a time when most people did not understand the difference between hardware and software. We therefore had quite some hard time selling our products. Coupled with this was the challenge of getting knowledgeable, yet affordable staff that could run with the business. Many applicants had exaggerated views of their capabilities while the competent ones were far and in between. At a point in our history, within a period of two years, we lost about 10 quality staff to Canada and the US. Then of course, there is the perennial challenge of corruption, which feels native to our environment. We resolved early in the game to avoid anything that would not glorify God and that is not easy, at least in the short term.

What are the major peculiarities of the Nigerian market that make it distinct?

The Nigerian market is distinctive both positively and negatively. A negative one we have been able to turn positive for ourselves is that in creating the platform Remita, we realised that the average Nigerian company has accounts in multiple banks. This is because of fear of failure of one bank, patronage of banks because of friends and family and different other reasons. This is not usually the case abroad where organisations tend to be with a single bank. We saw in this an opportunity to create a platform that would allow customers to see their balances across all their banks and have their global total all on a single screen and to fund payments from any of them. This has been a well-received feature of Remita. One positive thing we have also been able to ride with is the Nigerian drive. The average Nigerian is energetic, positive and a strong enterprising person. We have them aplenty in the SystemSpecs team, the innate drive to succeed in spite of monumental social and economic challenges encountered. This has played to our advantage at SystemSpecs in the recruitment of right talent as we have employed men and women who have stuck by and succeeded in bringing increased achievement to our business through the sheer tenacity of their will.

In an interview, you once said the main factor you do not like Nigeria for is its rate of corruption and the fact that no one owes up to being corrupt. Have you had any personal experience where your business was frustrated because of corruption?

There are stories but one stands out. We implemented a pensions and payment system for a large government agency. We never got a chance to succeed but in our quiet and tenacious manner, we were able to come up with what arguably remains the most credible pensioners list for that agency. Then the pressures started. One man came on board, threw us out of the project and painted himself as the saviour of pensioners in this country. This man had the Nigerian press singing his praises while the whole pensioners’ database was completely muddled up. Against our written advice, pensioners were unnecessarily drafted into the field for some much uncoordinated fingerprint exercise. The e-payment in place was stopped while manual cheques were being hand written on the field. No one has any record of such payments. We simply stayed out and watched the drama played out until some distinguished men in the senate saw through all the grandstanding. While government owed us almost N500m, I was delighted when I read in the senate report that SystemSpecs was the one that produced the cleanest pensioner’s report, which was thrown out by this “saviour.”

You left the banking sector as a senior executive to start-up your business; did you foresee your success?

Failure did not cross my mind. For one, I knew I had God’s leading as I waited on Him for at least two years before setting out. Furthermore, I was too excited about doing something new and impactful on the society that I honestly forgot to analyse and see the possibility of failure. However, I did not expect success of the magnitude that we have witnessed, which again, I attribute to God. Incidentally, my business plan was looking at making a million naira profit per annum, which was some huge sum back then. The beauty of vision is that you can always redraft and polish your vision. One can always have bigger dreams and brighter visions. Therefore, our visions today are bigger than what they were then. Our hopes, dreams and aspiration for the marketplace, of services to render and of profits to make are better than what they used to be. Our definition and expectations of successes are undeniably greater. Yet, we see it even more clearly.

If you had the power to turn back the hands of time, what would you have done differently?

I do not know.

You once said you hated Mathematics as a youngster. Being the boss of a leading software company, at what stage did you begin to like the subject and what changed your mind?

A young man, probably still a teenager then, came to teach us Mathematics and Physics in my form four. He was not just brilliant; he was able to demystify all the Mathematics topics that earlier teachers did not simplify, but instead we were intimidated. I then calmed down to discover that Mathematics is the easiest subject on earth once you break that entry barrier. When it was time to go to the university, I applied to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. On the course selection page, there were many courses but one stood out. It was Mathematics with Computer Sciences. The name sounded musical in my ears and I ticked it without knowing what it meant. Looking back almost 40 years later, I would not have wished for anything else. Clearly, God was working out something for my life.

What is your fashion disposition, can you wear a native attire to work even if it is not a weekend?

For several years, especially in and after my banking years, I was a white-shirt-freak complete with a well-knotted tie. You would not catch me in anything else. In the last couple of years however, I have come to learn to enjoy life with non-white shirts and definitely without a rope called tie, around my neck. I so much enjoy the freedom round my neck that I wonder how I subjected myself to so much bondage for several years. No offence meant though to those who still enjoy the formality that comes with neckties. Every Saturday, I wear casual clothings while Sunday is for ‘resource control.’ If you do not know what that means, please call the Presidency.

Do you think your business would have grown this big if the government did not patronise your Payroll and Human Resource software?

Our success with record of accomplishment of delivery and accomplishments in the private sector endeared us to government enough for them to entrust their job in our hands. It is no secret, even in developed countries, the biggest driver for IT revolutions are governments. Most of the innovative solutions that are exported to us here were developed in original partnership with governments in other parts of the world. Is it the Internet revolution or large databases? All have their root in governments. It is therefore an enormous privilege to be working with governments at different levels: federal, states and local governments as we actively collaborate towards transforming Nigeria. We are making tremendous impact as market leaders in our own space.

One of your hobbies is playing chess, a game based on deep thinking and strategic moves. Has your knowledge of chess helped in growing your business?

Just as you said, chess is a thinker’s game. It requires the deployment of mental resources in the anticipation of an opponent’s move so you can counter-move. Unlike most games where you often react, a good chess player is repeatedly required to ‘pro-act’ to win his game. That is where my love for chess began.

Source: Punch Newspaper

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