We’ve Come A Long Way
By Dike Onwuamaeze
Monday, September 01, 2008
Austin Okere, chief executive officer of the Computer Warehouse Group, CWG, is one of Nigeria’s most respected IT gurus. The Computer Warehouse, which was founded in September 1992, has grown to become the pillar on which the country’s leading enterprises depend on for their IT needs. Currently, CWG provides the communications network for 22 of Nigeria’s 24 commercial banks. Recently, Okere spoke to Dike Onwuamaeze, Newswatch’s senior staff writer, on the history behind the company, its vision and challenges. Excerpts:
Newswatch: You once said that CWG is deeply driven by where it is headed even though very much encouraged by how far it has gone. What did you mean by that statement?
Okere: Computer Warehouse Group, CWG, started without knowing what the end point would be. And up till now, we have not known it. But we know that in spite of our very humble beginning, we are very deeply-driven. The vision of the founding members of the Group was that we would, as much as possible, reach our full potential and nothing would hold us down. There cannot be a bar that we cannot go beyond. So, where we are going in my view is still very far but in spite of that, we have come a long way since the 16 years of our existence.
Newswatch: What are the Group’s major landmarks in the past 16 years?
Okere: We started as a hardware company. From there, we entered into another area of business called the telecommunications variant to enable us meet our customers’ needs to network their transactions and have a local area network. One of the first works we did was for IIT in Lagos and it was one of our biggest jobs as well. They also invited us to Republic of Benin to do their local area network. We did the biggest land job in Nigeria for MTN. Again, we moved into software and signed up with an Indian firm for banking application. The firm was Infosys Technologies and the banking application was Finacle. Today Finacle is processing more than 70 percent of banking transactions in Nigeria. We have gone into the next phase of our business, which is the electronic payment system like the ATM because if you have a lot of people accepting cards for payment, they will not carry cash. I fill the next challenge is how to push electronic payment system to the merchant, so that people can use ATM to buy products. So, these are the great milestones we have achieved in the past 16 years.
Newswatch: Another striking thing about CWG is its monumental growth from a company started with $3,500 to $100 million business? What is the secret of this growth?
Okere: It has got to do with mainly our strategy, the people we attract and our vision that CWG will become a global leader. We realised early that the size of a dream matters. Apart from that, we also looked at how we can bring value to the customer so that they would recommend us to others. This is the psychology behind the CWG. It is based on candour. It is based on openness and the commitment not to deliver less than what we have promised.
Newswatch: Can you highlight your range of services?
Okere: Like I have said, we started as an IT hardware supplier. But today, we have gone much further than that. We now cover the tripod of IT. We have a hardware company called the Computer Warehouse. We also have another company DCC Satellite & Networks Limited, which is a communication company. It provides VSAT to 22 out of the 24 Nigerian banks. VSAT makes it possible for one to deposit money in Lagos and withdraw it in Enugu. We also provide same service for oil and gas companies and manufacturing firms like Cadbury, Unilever etc. Also DCC provides the technologies behind many of the telecom companies. Each time one makes a call through MTN network, what goes on behind in terms of technology is from our company. We also have a software company called Expert Edge Software and Systems Limited. It is the biggest software company in Nigeria today. The software we provide processes more than 75 percent of banking transactions in Nigeria today. By and large, our company has become a very major fabric on which the economy of Nigeria rests on IT-wise.
Newswatch: Why do you want to take the CWG to the capital market?
Okere: This is a very interesting question. From day one, we have always said that what separates us from successful companies overseas is that they run as an entrepreneurial business for a while and go public. Dell went public. Apple went public. When a business starts, it needs flexibility in order to grow faster in the market. So, it is best suited for entrepreneurial business to have that flexibility. However, this flexibility has to be balanced with governance, as the organisation grows bigger. This governance factor is much realisable as a public company. A public company will also be able to attract more businesses and confidence than a private business. Going public also makes bigger capital accessible from the capital market, so you are not curtailed in your growth. These are the reasons why we are going public.
Newswatch: Many Nigerians are living in fear of ATM fraud. What would be done to contain this danger?
Okere: The major issue is education because it is new and the people using them do not know how to protect themselves. The first rule is never reveal your PIN to anyone because your PIN is your signature.
Newswatch: What do you have to say of IT penetration in Nigeria?
Okere: IT penetration is dependent on its usage. If you buy a radio and there are no programmes to listen to, then why do you own it? Likewise, you buy television because of the programmes you are going to watch. Coming back to IT, if there is no opportunity to access internet, the PC becomes of little use to many individuals.
Newswatch: What about those that have mentored you in this business?
Okere: The one I will remember is a gentleman called Andy Nwani of Data Flex. When I was about to start Computer Warehouse, I didn’t have a clue where to buy PCs. So I went to Nwani who was running Data Flex and said: "I want to start my IT business and i'm in need of guidance." Gratefully, the man gave me his price lists and address of where he was buying computers in America and I started buying from them. For somebody to do that, is a debt I have never been able to repay. He was my mentor and taught me how to be selfless from that his action.
Newswatch: You said that the size of a person’s dream determines his success. What is the vision of CWG?
Okere: CWG is a successful company. The track record has been good and it has won many awards. But what we are also mindful of the fact that success is never a destination. Success is always a journey. There is no limit to how you can improve yourself.