John Obaro is the Managing Director of SystemSpecs. In this interview with BUKOLA BAKARE, he speaks on how he took the financial technology company to great heights
Having had a successful career in banking, what propelled you to set up SystemSpecs?
Essentially, it was some form of restlessness at that time.I had been doing the same thing effectively for seven years preceding that period and I felt that I needed a change. The option before me was to travel overseas; I contemplated going for a PhD programme or going into accountancy. Someone encouraged me to go into the business side of accountancy and that sounded interesting because I could remotely continue to do the kind of things that I was doing within the banking industry and beyond. In fact, like someone said to me then, ‘‘You are a computer manager in the bank, so you can actually begin to work with several computer managers and influence what they do.’’ I found that very interesting because coming out, one could now relate with computer managers, like they used to call them across a wide industry range, and that was interesting.
Your company is financial technology-oriented and has developed its own proprietary payroll and human resource management solutions. What were some of your objectives at the beginning of this journey?
When we started, the focus was to provide accounting software. I came in from the banking industry and at that time, apart from the banks and oil companies, most of the other companies were not properly automated. I saw an opportunity to provide accounting services which cut across a wide industry range because they all needed accounting services, so we stepped in. From there, we saw some huge gaps.
What were some of these gaps that you noticed?
A major one was that many of these companies didn’t have a payroll system; the payrolls were largely done manually and the foreign payroll packages at that point in time could not operate in Nigeria. We saw that as an opportunity and came up with something and over time, it evolved. We started out as SpecsPay and people knew us with a campaign that we ran around that time. It was about some monkeys taking over the boardroom and we said that a company that pays peanuts will end up with monkeys.The ad managers wanted to create some drama around the word, ‘pay’. It was a very exciting time and we became very popular, so when people talk about payroll, we became top of might and by God’s grace, that also helped us as an organisation to look at the niche that we created in terms of payroll systems.
Since inception, what are some of the challenges you have been faced with?
SystemSpecs is now a 25-year-old company and we’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs. We’ve come to realise that even the down moments are part of the requirements for growth. We have been through different challenges –cash flow, staff retention, relationship, dissatisfied customers, malicious competition, political and environmental challenges. We’ve been through challenges but by God’s grace, we’ve always come out well and that has also helped us to have some form of confidence that God would always take us through because He’s always been there for us. That encourages us to go on.
Since the introduction of the cashless policy into the Nigerian banking sphere, more people have embraced e-payment mode as a means of carrying out transactions. How did you get involved in offering this service?
Like I said earlier, we had a payroll system and in the early days, we would produce schedules that organisations took to banks. In the first round of automation, instead of printing paper schedule, we were putting them on CDs. By the time things started evolving, we now started linking up directly with the banks and that came out well. One day, we went for a presentation at a multinational corporation and they liked what they saw; they were very excited but towards the end, the finance director who was an expatriate then raised a question that he likes what he’s seeing in terms of payroll and payment process but wanted to know what would happen to the vendor payment which would remain manually done. He said managing half of his business in an automated fashion and the other half in a manual fashion would create a problem for him and therefore, he would not be able to go ahead with the business and that was how we lost that deal. On our way back to the office from Ikeja, we started thinking that since we already had a base routine to do these things, we just needed to get up there and be able to handle vendor payments and that was how we started. We were now able to do both vendor single payments and bulk payments for salaries. We focused mainly on the corporate world and proffered solutions for organisations to be able to initiate payments and if you go through their schedules, you’d find approval rules -it may be rules for transactions above N1m or for two or three people or it could also be rules for transactions above N5m to be signed by the MD or branch manager. Whatever rule the organisation wants to put in place, we set it up on the system and it obeys all of that before the account of the organisation is debited and beneficiaries are credited. Having done that in the payment and business world, only now are we beginning to look extensively at the retail market. The technology has been there but we have not aggressively pushed the retail part. Just a few people who got to know keyed into the system but now, we want to increase the numbers.
What specific challenges have you encountered making these innovations work?
Ironically, one of the major challenges that we had at the beginning were the banks themselves. I remember one of the banks that we presented our innovation to said, ‘‘You mean with electronic payment, people would just be able to debit their accounts and money would leave and we would have no control? We would not allow that.’’ He went on to say, ‘‘We have no problem if it is done under a manual system, we can always tell them to present regular signature or use something to manage our position. With what you are saying now, we would not be able to do all of that.’’ We had to go through a lot of education to sell the product and make them realise that customers would make a choice. Gradually, more people started seeing the need for e-payment and in the early days of anything electronic in Nigeria, people were contented with just having an ATM. We then tried to sell the fact that with e-payment, cash can become less and you can even do more; you can have faster transactions, stay in one location and transact business at the other end and even beyond, so the benefits of electronic payments are quite enormous.
You studied mathematics with computer science in the university, why did you decide on that?
In my secondary school days, I wasn’t initially good in mathematics because the teachers we had then were not exciting enough. It was in my form four as we used to call it in those days that we had a young man called Dr. Raphael Awoseyin. Then, he came to my school for a nine-month teaching programme. Looking back now, he was a very brilliant young man and was able to demystify mathematics and physics so much that they became my best subjects. I fell in love with both subjects and when in my form five, it was time to apply to the university, I didn’t want to study engineering and I didn’t like medicine either. Engineering was the closest that I could study but I felt that it was hard work because you would have to stand in the sun to supervise constructions. When the university form came, I was looking for what course to pick. I didn’t want to pick mathematics because it was a single honours, so I now saw the longest name on that form; mathematics with computer science. That sounded interesting and I ticked it. That was the first time that I would hear anything about the computer and I didn’t know what it meant. Thankfully, when I gained admission to the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1976, they had a big computer centre which at that time, was the biggest in this part of Africa. There were a number of expatriates there and that made it even more interesting. I’m glad that I studied mathematics and computer science because I don’t know what else I would have enjoyed. Again, in those days, to get a job with computer science wasn’t that easy, so that was another challenge for me. When I finished school, the only place you could think of working was Lagos, there were just two or three other companies; ironically textile firms in the north had computers. Other than that, you had to be in Lagos to get a job. That was when I decided to come and do an MBA at the University of Lagos, so that I’d be able to go out of Lagos to do some other jobs.
Do you recall your first job upon graduation?
During my MBA at UNILAG; even though it was supposed to be a full-time programme, many of my mates during the early days of the Jakande administration in Lagos State took up teaching appointments but I didn’t want to teach in a secondary school.
Why was that?
I just had the feeling that it was beneath me, so I went to the College of Education instead and they were very happy to give me a full-time job. It was a very interesting story because when I got there, I saw the vacancy and was asked to go and see the provost. He wasn’t in the office but I saw him at a distance and he had some students with him. I remember that he was very angry with the students and said to them, ‘‘I told you not to be reading under the tree, I am going to expel you.’’ Those ones were pleading and their teachers were doing the same. It was in that state of anger that he entered his office. At that point, I said to myself that I had better take my leave but he saw me through his door which was ajar. I went in and told him that I was doing my master’s at the University of Lagos and wanted a part-time job to teach mathematics. He told me that I could work full-time and they’d arrange my teaching hours to coincide with my free hours. Thereafter, he asked someone to give me a resumption of duty form and that was how I was placed on level 8. As a student, I was a mini big man and the hours were very good . Invariably, I was teaching a maximum of eight hours a week and somewhere along the line, the students rioted for whatever reason and the school was closed down. I had a good opportunity then at the College of Education because it used to be in Surulere before they moved to Ijanikin, so it was very convenient for me and I had interesting times while there.
How would you describe your personality and what are specific traits that have shaped you into the man you’ve become today?
Maybe I am not the best person to describe myself but I can probably just say what I try to be. When I set my mind on something, I usually want to make the most of it so I tend to be very thorough. I think that I’m a friendly person but I know when to be hard. I am also a very jovial person and I enjoy jokes. I always forget to crack jokes but occasionally when I am in the mood, then maybe I’ll crack a few. I love humour and especially in our kind of job where you have very tense moments, the only way to keep going is to relax. I like a very convivial atmosphere and I don’t operate well in a tense environment. When I observe tense moments, I try to bring it down and make everyone around me feel relaxed.Gathering together a number of people to work in SystemSpecs, one of the things I always say to them is to relax and drop their guards. You want to create an environment where everyone would make mistakes and rise up again. We’ll tease you and joke about your mistakes. You’d also probably get a nickname out of your mistakes and I believe that people would work better when you operate in that kind of environment.
Tell us a bit about your childhood and how it prepared you for leadership roles.
I grew up with an uncle of mine, Mr.Ayo Omolokun. He was the Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry Of Education in Kwara State in those days. We came in from Kaduna when the North-Central states were created. He was a super disciplinarian; he didn’t have a biological son, so I was his adopted boy but he had two daughters. He monitored every action of mine. We slept on the same bed, so there was no room for any hanky-panky. He would come pick me from school, take me to his office because he used to work with the late Sarduana of Sokoto. I would do my homework in his office, sleep and wake up on the floor until we leave the office by 7pm at the earliest. Therefore, working late became an integral part of me. I would wake up in the morning to wash his car; not because there was no house help but he just wanted me to do something. After that, he created a garden for me to water before I go to school. He was a super disciplinarian and one of my biggest mistakes was somewhere in primary five.
What was that?
I came second in class and worse still for me, it was a girl who took the first position and my uncle wondered how it happened. I still remember the beating that I got as a result of that because it was very memorable. Even in situations where you came first in the class, no matter the score that you had, he would focus on what you had lost. If you scored 90 per cent, the discussion would be what happened to the remaining 10 per cent, so that was the typical fight that we used to have. While I thought the beating that I got was hard then, it paid off later in life and I realised that excellence is not enough, you must aim higher. No matter how good you think you are, there is always some room for improvement so even within the setting of SystemSpecs, we thank God for all the accolades and all the things that we’ve been able to do but frankly, what occurs to me most of the time are the things I believe we should still be able to do. You must avoid looking back, look forward.
What does success mean to you?
Success would mean having the best of this world and the best of heaven when the time comes. It’s not enough to acquire material things in this world and leave everything here. I appreciate the value of faith in everything we do and our focus should be on the hereafter. Whatever one does on this side of the divide should not be viewed in isolation; it should be viewed as preparation for eternity. For me, success is being able to achieve your full potentials here on earth while at the same time, be ready to make the most of eternity.
You led a team that pioneered Nigeria’s first network linking Lagos and four states in terms of real-time online banking. How did that play out?
That was when I was still at International Merchant Bank(IMB) and I worked with the consulting firm Arthur Andersen in those days. Incidentally, Nigeria’s first minister of Communication and Information Technology, Dr.Omobola Johnson was on the Arthur Andersen team then and we worked together on that project. We installed banking software and we were able to link this with other branches of the bank. We had a mini mail system which was way before emails became very popular and we were able to do real-time posting and it was very successful because thereafter, other banks started moving towards replicating the same thing and one of the keys to success is when your competitors begin to copy you.
At various times, you have also served on the boards of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Information Technology, Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria, and Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria among others. What is your take on the development of Information Technology in Nigeria?
A lot has happened because there was a time when there was nobody to guide or regulate IT in Nigeria. Eventually, we had the Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria. Other bodies have come on board and position papers have been drawn up to encourage made in Nigeria software. It would appear that more people now understand that software is an art and Nigerians are good artists and designers. Even though IT is one technology that some people are scared of because they think it’s an untouchable area, the way to look at it is that it’s an art and you are just using science to practise an art. You must be able to leverage on technology and come up with clear value for IT as an art.
Can Nigeria compete favourably with other countries and is she complying with international best practices in the IT sector?
I believe that in a number of areas, things are coming up. We have not gone as deep as we should because of a number of other infrastructural challenges but in the area of structure designs, we have done a number of interesting things that I believe can compete with anything all over the world.
How would you describe fatherhood and how have you been able to impact some values and lessons about life on your children?
I have two children-a boy and girl. My daughter is rounding up this month as a consultant neurologist in the United States. She is 30 years old and has done very well for herself. I have a son who had more challenges and eventually, he opted to go into the film industry and become a screenwriter.I honestly thought he would be in IT because he is very good in that area but he just didn’t want that so I allowed him to follow his passion. He is currently in Los Angles, California studying. One thing they know is that one has to work hard, integrity counts and you must take your faith seriously .Those are three things that we’ve talked about – the need to work hard, do not aim for shortcuts because most of the things that you get through shortcuts; you end up losing them in the long run. You must also be a person of faith. Like I said earlier, success should not be determined by only what you achieve when you are alive. At most, you’d probably spend 100 years. The real measure of success is what happens in the hereafter.
Did you entertain any fears about the business terrain when you were about to set up SystemSpecs?
I was scared of the ethical issues in business and that slowed me down. The belief was that before you do anything, you had to go into some unholy negotiations and you’ll begin to have sleepless nights thereafter. I wasn’t comfortable with that but ironically, that had to do with government. The private sector and the oil industry were still relatively clean so we then decided to focus on non-government organisations. As time progressed, a lot of things permeated the whole system so you’ll find that even in the corporate world, there are a lot of challenges on ethical issues but by God’s grace, it’s such a huge market and you can always move away from the situations that you are not comfortable with and God always creates packages that are enough to make us satisfied.
How do you unwind?
I used to be an addict of chess. I have a friend in Agbara, Ogun State who unfortunately had an accident sometime ago and became bedridden. There was a time when for upwards of 12 years, almost every Saturday when I am in town, I would drive to Agbara from Victoria Island to go and play maybe seven or 10 hours of chess. I enjoy chess because the game teaches you a lot of things-behaviour strategy, I don’t want to say mind-reading because it makes you to be able to anticipate what your opponent or competitor is planning and you must be one step ahead. You need to learn how to make short-term sacrifices in order to gain long-term. I also enjoy walking because it gives me a lot of time to reflect. Most of the things that we come up with in SystemSpecs, I got the inspiration while walking, so I love living in estates where it’s easy to walk either in the morning or in the evening and you get a lot of refreshing ideas in the process.
What informs what you wear?
The first rule is that I want to feel comfortable when I am in control. For instance, when I was in the banking industry and even in the early days of SystemSpecs, it had to be a white shirt. You couldn’t find me in anything other than white and of course, you had to tie a ‘rope’ around your neck (a tie). After a while, the first thing I dropped was the white shirt and gradually, I started introducing different shades of colours-sky blue, pink and other colours of shirts and that was my first step towards independence. Later, I started doing away with ties and the world has not crumbled. I like wearing something that makes me feel relaxed. On weekends, I wear natives; you won’t find me in suits or jackets. I must say that the Nigerian fashion industry has done well in the last few years, so we have very smart casual wears. Would you see me in agbada? I cannot remember the last time that I put on one and I can’t say never again but it’s not usually my first choice. Sometimes, one could wear it for weddings but even at that, the last one that I wore was about five years ago.
Who are your role models and mentors?
Dr. Christopher Kolade has been very good. He lectured me at the Lagos Business School when I was doing an executive programme. One thing led to another and we invited him to be the chairman of the board of SystemSpecs and he’s been our chairman for about 10 years now. I’ve learnt a lot from him-it’s very possible to be very prominent in the society without compromising your values. You also need to learn to live by what you preach and he is a very well exposed individual. In the corporate world, he was the Chief Executive Officer of Cadbury, he was a former Director General of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and in diplomatic circles, he was a former Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, so he has seen it all and yet, with his simplicity and sense of humour, there is a lot to learn from him. I feel personally privileged to have been able to work with him and draw from his fountain of knowledge and wealth of experience. There are also different people that I look up to at different times. I love Ebitimi Banigo and he is somebody I would call the real father of modern banking in Nigeria. He became the managing director of IMB at age 33 and what he was able to achieve was amazing. Many of the top names you see in the banking industry today are all people who passed through him-Jim Ovia, Bismarck Rewane and the likes. There was a time that we counted about 26 managing directors or executive directors of banks that were ex-IMB staffers and that was because he was able to create an environment for people to excel and there was a lot to learn from him. He was a no-nonsense person and if something was not working, he moved on.
As a successful businessman, what would be your advice to people who find it difficult to follow their passion and turn it into a business?
The first question that you must answer is this; are you called to be an entrepreneur? There are some hard facts that you need to speak to yourself. There are people who would be better off as entrepreneurs than managers and vice versa so if you wear a wrong shoe, it certainly won’t fit. Not all of us can be entrepreneurs and managers. The first thing I would say is that are you sure that is your calling? If you believe that you are an entrepreneur, one of the attributes of such a person is the ‘never say die’ attribute. You have to go through life with some kind of optimism that other people would call stupidity.You must be clear on what you want to do and believe that you can push it through; even when other people around you can’t see it. It helps if they can see it but if they can’t, that should not be enough reason foryou to step aside. You must be passionate about what you want to do because that is what would drive you at a very low moment. One other thing I would say is that despite the pressure, don’t cut corners. It always sounds so easy to cut corners but in the last 25 years, what has become our strength is being able to stay on top while our competitors cut corners. They may rise high but it’s usually for a little while; especially in our own kind of discipline. I don’t know about other disciplines but in our terrain, if you cut corners, it comes back to haunt you so integrity pays long-term. It’s extremely difficult and you can ask me about that but it pays off in long-term.
How would you rate the Federal Government’s economic policies?
Knowingly or unknowingly, government came up with full implementation of the TSA programme; that was a very powerful and bold move and even though we’ve had our challenges with government especially on fees, what has kept us going is that belief that this is a major game-changer for the country. The implementation of the TSA has helped to bring some order into how payment transactions are processed in government. Now, there is openness and clarity and it helps to reduce corruption because corruption thrives more in the dark but with what the administration has done, it’s now easy to trace payments and government receipts and it’s no longer easy to forge a receipt for government transactions. Government is now in a position to see what their cash flow is and currently saves about N5bn monthly so apart from the financial gain, you have the organisational improvement in terms of processing as well as the transparency that makes it easier for people to look at what happened in the past, which in itself has now become a way to minimise corruption and you can’t quantify that. To that extent, I give maximum kudos to government for being able to take that step and stay the course. However, government should respect contracts because it’s more honourable to respect contracts than to take unilateral decisions, it does not engender confidence long-term. You’ll win short-term but it’s not good for the long-term.