It was not narcissism that saw Papa Kwesi Nduom name his company after himself. It was that desire to put his reputation on the line when it came to business; that strong belief, born of a brass neck and a steel backbone, to be accountable for his work.
Today, Groupe Nduom sits atop of a business made up of tourism, investment advisory and management, financial services, technology, media, management consulting, cross border trade and sports.
It is a modus operandi born in Nduom 47 years ago, when the first opportunity knocked.
“There are certain stages in life that you get to know things. I had the privilege of getting a scholarship and spending one year in the United States in 1970. Prior to that, I wanted to be a medical doctor. I went to the United States and was introduced to other things. Through that I got to know that you could also be in business. In just that one year I took so many different classes outside medicine which broadened my view in life and all sorts of opportunities became possible,” he says.
His uncanny ability to spot opportunities led to the formation of a business empire, based in Ghana, with 60 companies in its portfolio. When we meet at the Coconut Grove Hotel, on a warm Saturday afternoon in Accra, Nduom has a spring in his step, a broad smile and an energetic “good afternoon” for everyone as he ushers us into his inner office in the sprawling resort.
At 64, Nduom’s attention to detail is slightly intimidating; his demeanor is composed and authoritative. His gaze is attentive as he reminds us politely he is flying out later that evening to the United States to complete the acquisition of a new bank. Nduom’s intuitive timing has served him well over the years. That skill was born of the transition from medicine to business.
“I ended up at the University of Wisconsin and that is where I did the Bachelor of Economics and PhD in service delivery systems. It is there that I actually went off course. I wanted to be a medical doctor and I took all the admission tests and everything and got to a point where I needed a lot of money to continue if I wanted to get into a high-quality medical school. But I found out that I could take some different courses and take a degree in economics and get to work quickly, so I took that path so I could finish and get to work and make some money.”
“I had to fend for myself. Some of the things I do to make a living today, like finding opportunities, comes from the fact that I had to do those things myself and scrape along to survive. I had to pay my own fees, pay for my rent and go to school at the same time,” says Nduom.
In those lean days, he packed canned beans in a factory; toiled for two weeks on a construction site, in the cold winter; and spent long hours as a parking lot attendant.
“I would do the third shift at work which was at midnight and when you come back there would just be enough time to take a shower and go to school. If they said a semester was 15 credits, I wanted to take 20 because I calculated how many credits I needed to take to get out of school early because it was money I had to pay.”
The search for new opportunities to make money taught Nduom two key business principles: the first was how to negotiate.
“One job I really liked was working second shift at a meat factory. It paid well per hour and you learned how to cut meat, and you were also able to take some of the off cuts home. So you had food. So the people I shared my apartment with at that time were two Somalis who loved meat, so I used the meat to trade for other necessities which I couldn’t afford myself.”
Second lesson: the power of perseverance.
“Right after university, my first job was with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance in Milwaukee. I went there and applied with my Ghanaian name and the lady looked at the name Papa Kwesi Nduom and started asking all sorts of other questions. I got to a point where I couldn’t answer all the questions so I failed the interview.”
“I went back to the university and I carried a different identification because my passport had two names in it. So I went and changed my clothes and came back as Joseph Hubster Yorke Junior, which was my other name. The lady didn’t notice that it was the same person. So now, with my new name, she asked me completely different questions, which I answered and she gave me the job and I became a life insurance underwriter,” says Nduom.
Then, Nduom worked at the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin, a health insurance company, and then the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, a county government institution. Here a rare life-changing experience, in an unlikely place, unfolded through a chance meeting.
“You never know where and when opportunity will make itself available so you should always be ready. I was on the fourth floor of my work building but on the seventh floor was a nice men’s room, which was big and had marble floors, which was really nice. So I would go and use the men’s room on that floor instead of going to the one on the fourth floor,” says Nduom.
“One day I was washing my hands and a guy comes also washing his hands and we strike a conversation. He asked if I would be interested in a job opportunity. He happened to be a recruiter who worked in the building and was looking for people that Touche Ross might be interested in. So we spoke and he set up the interview for me with the partner at Touche Ross and that is how I got the job. It was just an accidental meeting in the men’s room.”
Touche Ross later became Deloitte Touche, one of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms with revenues of $36.8 billion, according to research company, Gartner. Nduom worked his way up to become a partner in the firm where he would learn his most important business skill, the art of selling.
“Every year they had a book that had all the partners in the US and in that book every partner’s production was there. In it were also the points that you earn as a bonus, so you see the entire top performing partners. So you knew where you were and what your business was supposed to do. So it is important for you to deliver. So you learn how to sell, you learn how to provide service and you learn how to satisfy the need of your customer.”
Nduom became a partner at Deloitte in 1986; with that the pressure to deliver increased. Ronald Reagan was president, Wall Street was booming and business was opening up around the world. Deloitte was in the thick of it.
“When you become a partner in the firm, you are a shareholder in the firm and basically you work for your own account. What you earn is strictly based on the business you bring in. The minimum amount you had to bring in terms of consulting fees was $1 million a year.”
Nduom moved to Washington when the firm merged the Milwaukee and Chicago offices. That put him in contact with the international division at Deloitte; another opportunity Nduom quickly took advantage of.
“One day, over Thanksgiving dinner I told my wife that I wanted to go to Ghana to see what it was like to work there because I had never worked in Ghana before. So I bought a ticket, came to Ghana and I wanted to spend about a month or so to look around,” he says.
It was this conviction to understand the Ghanaian market that lent Nduom his next big entrepreneurial break. Initially, he sought to offer his services for free to get a feel for the consulting market in Ghana. At the time, Deloitte had representation, with Haskins & Sells, in Accra as well as an association with Akintola Williams in Nigeria. Nduom looked for another opportunity and his instinct paid off, yet again.
“One of the partners said Ashanti Goldfields was their client and it was time to go do an audit, so maybe I should go with them to do an information systems audit. I traveled with them to Obuasi and spent a week, did the analysis of their systems, wrote a report and spoke to the man in charge of the whole area. He said he liked what I was suggesting which was something they might like to do but I should go talk to the managing director of Ashanti Goldfields, which was Sam Jonah, but then he was based at Diamond House in Accra.”
This principle of perseverance, which Nduom had learned a lifetime ago, when he secured his first job as a life insurance underwriter, was to serve him well – just as well, as a frustrating time was ahead.
“So I tried to talk to Sam Jonah several times in Accra and it didn’t work. I went back to Obuasi and somehow somebody there accused me of messing up with their computer systems so they ordered me off the mine. So I left the mine but sat by the supervisor’s door all day and convinced them to let me in because I wanted to talk to him about what can be done to improve their systems. He let me in and I left with an agreement to come back and organize their information systems,” says Nduom.
The contract was for a complete systems overhaul of the gold mine, involving the change of computers, accounting systems as well as payroll. Nduom enlisted the help of Deloitte to deliver the projects. After this, Nduom delivered more projects, including overseeing the merger of Touche Ross and Deloitte Haskins & Sells, forming Deloitte & Touche.
“When they merged they didn’t have a management consulting section and that is what gave me the opportunity to set up Deloitte and Touche Consulting West Africa and brought some other people from the US and hired them to join the team,” says Nduom.
The team had nearly 100 people in Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe. Ever the opportunist, Nduom spotted yet another gap in the market.
“While we were here, we realized that nobody was doing consulting work. So I took my own money because the firm said you are a partner in the US and not a partner in Ghana or Africa. They had no interest in setting up a branch of Deloitte USA in Ghana. Deloitte is set up as member firms. So they said we will give you two years after which you will get Africa out of your system and come back to the US.”
The two years taught him resilience. The new West African consulting business was inundated with work. Nduom secured major contracts with Texaco and Elf Oil in Nigeria, the African Development Bank and Malawi Oil. He was also responsible for setting up the computer software for Zimbabwe’s social security system.
“Eventually I became the coordinator for consulting for the African region for Deloitte and the time came for me to go back and I said there was enough work to do here so we set it up as a member firm of Deloitte. So when senior partners will get together every year to have their annual meeting, I would go as the senior partner for the West African consulting practise,” says Nduom.
Nduom became the chairman for the African region for Deloitte and held that position until the end of 2000. His says his success is down to focusing on long-term objectives, while staying flexible enough to solve day-to-day problems.
“We would look for a place to relax or do some work, we couldn’t find anything and so we set up Coconut Grove. We were looking for people to do some software work for us and we couldn’t find anyone, so we took a bus to Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and recruited some students, gave them computers, gave them software to tear apart and build again and then we started a software company. Out of that we set up a software company called TSS, then a hardware company called IBS, and out of that came corporate finance which became Gold Coast,” says Nduom.
The slogan of Groupe Nduom grew beyond expectation and owns a string of companies, from hospitality to entertainment. It has hotels, a football club and an artist management business. In media, it has newspapers, television, radio and advertising; it also owns primary and secondary schools and a university.
Nduom’s intuitive timing helped elbow out competition across his empire; a shrewd strategy that led to his worst day in business.
“I try to forget the date. It was 1995. It is the day I traveled from Ghana to Wharton to speak to graduate business school students about investments in Africa. I was one of the keynote speakers so I traveled from Ghana to Washington and my brother met me with faxes from Ghana, which said number one, I was on the Ghana Airways board at the time and I have been sacked from the board. I had consulting business with Ghana Telecom and it had been canceled. I was doing some consulting business with State Enterprise Commission and it said I was under investigation and in one day I lost over $2 million worth of consulting business,” says Nduom.
He believes this was an attempt by the government of the day to block his businesses for reasons he never found out. The event prompted a passion to be a part of the political system to prevent this injustice from happening to anyone else.
“I didn’t want anybody in Ghana to go through that experience where a government will just get up and, for whatever reason, decide that somebody should not be in business and that they should cancel their contract and just try to move him off the earth. There was a plan to do away with my businesses and everything I was doing in Ghana. They said they would smoke me out and get me to go back to where I came from. This was elevated to an extent that it became a row between the government of Ghana and the US,” says Nduom.
Nduom turned lemons into lemonade and expanded across Africa, leaving trading in Ghana until the impasse was resolved. It was, and 40 years on the business is riding high on its acquisition of Illinois Service Federal (ISF) Bank in Chicago, US. Nduom is older, wiser, with a clear eye for new horizons.
“Working here is like working in our own republic. We are governed by our own rules. You have to send a daily report, monthly report, quarterly report, a mid-year report and a yearly report. The idea is if something was to happen to you, anybody is supposed to look at your business and pick up where you left,” says Richmond Keelson, General Manager of Groupe Nduom Corporate Affairs.
What a journey – from packing canned beans in the United States to owning a bank there – a first for Ghana. The next couple of years will be spent trying to help the bank – the newest entrant into the group – find its feet in the business of its faraway owners.
Nduom is driven by the passion to have a business set up, thrive and succeed beyond Ghana.
That is the legacy Nduom is building; one opportunity at a time.
This post originally appeared in the April Edition Forbes Africa Magazine and subsequently online at forbesafrica.com