‘I thought it was a joke’
One strategic decision I took was to marry early in life. At 19, I got married. As a Christian, I didn’t want to be sinning with women, so I chose a wife. After my marriage, I teamed up with a friend in Lagos, David Nwosu to form a company called Cosdave Motors. Cosdave Motors is still in Idumota, trading in automotive components. We were importing motorcycle spare parts from Japan and selling.
By 1980-81, we had over a million naira which was like a two million dollars going by the exchange rate then. By 1982, we differed. I have always had my ideas about the way I want things done. It has always been a problem with some of my friends. I felt like they were drawing me back. The way I see business today is that you have to see it before it happens. You must visualize the business. You must see what others are not seeing.
Some years ago, Bill Gates said: “I saw a laptop on every table.” IBM said: “Not every table but on some tables.” Of course, it was Bill Gates’ vision that fashioned him to do what he did with the software that has made him the No.1 person today in the corporate world. The other man didn’t see what Bill Gates saw.
Business opportunities are not lost. It’s either you see it and take advantage of it or you don’t see it. But I see it and take advantage of it. You must perceive it. You must sense it. If you listen to your instinct and it strikes you as right, and you do what it tells you to do, the result is bound to be positive.
I wanted to sound like a Greek name’
We parted—my friend and I. Then in 1982, I incorporated Coscharis. Coscharis is an amalgamation of my name and that of my wife. Cosmas and Charity. Instead of saying Coscharity, I said Coscharis. I wanted it to sound like a Greek name. That has helped me over the years, demonstrating that in business, the choice of name is a very important factor.
Initially, people thought it was a Greek company. And I like it that way. It works for me. I remember that in late 1982 to early 1983, the Nigerian economy was almost grounded to a halt. Things were really bad. It was in the era of the import licence regime and they were to give some motor companies import licence to import spare parts. Only ten companies were to be given the import licence. The companies included Leventis Motors, UTC Motors and Coscharis. We were No.7 on the list apparently because the political authorities ranked us as a big foreign company just because of our name.
I was in Japan when my wife called me to say that our name was on the list of the companies granted import licence. I thought it was a joke but she told me it was for real. I couldn’t believe it. That was the real great turning point in the history of my business. Of course, I had made money. By 1981-82, I was controlling about three million naira, which was like 4.5 million dollars. But I still had the quest to do more.
I bought my warehouse, from one end of Coscharis Street to the other, for N1.7 million at that time, which was about $3.5 million in value and conversion rate then.
The business really went well that year, because it was a seller’s market. You could sell everything you brought into this country. You could dictate your price. As customers were hustling to buy at maybe a hundred percent margin, you could suddenly change the price at your own whims and caprice, and the people would still buy without thinking about whether about whether to buy or not.
I made quite a lot of money during that period. I was sitting on wealth but maintained a low profile lifestyle. But there was nothing in our outlook to suggest we were making money. I was still driving my second-hand Peugeot 504 car and living in Ajegunle ghetto. So nobody really knew what was happening. But I already owned our factory, warehouses and showrooms on Coscharis Street. I had the expansive property where we are now situated in Kirikiri Industrial Estate and I was wondering what to do with it. I started thinking. I looked at the things we were importing and the volumes we were doing then and felt we had the capacity to go into bigger ventures like manufacturing or assembling process.
I then decided to buy a technology to produce motorcycle chain. So I employed six Nigerians and sent them overseas to learn how to run the machine. We entered into joint venture agreement with manufacturers. By 1988, our factory and office were fully built. We moved in here in 1986. By 1988, we rolled out the first motorcycle chain to be manufactured in West Africa. Business was good.
I looked at the tariff structure in West Africa and found out that in Nigeria, you were required to pay 30 percent duty on motorbikes, but in Ghana, you paid zero duty. We bring in most of the motorcycles here but the customers come from as far as Burkina Faso. Some even come from Central Africa. On the basis of this, I set up an office in Ghana. Our premises in Ghana is bigger than that of Nigeria. What we did was that some of our customers that came from Burkina Faso, Mali and other places, we directed them to Ghana to buy and we gave them ten percent discount for buying in Ghana rather than buying in Nigeria. For us, buying in Ghana gave us 20 percent margin which we should have paid as duty. We opened an office in Gabon and in Ivory Coast because of this.
Today, Coscharis operates in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Gabon. We have a very good setup in Ghana. When we went to Ghana, the market was not deregulated. It was still a licensed kind of thing. So, we got a licence to deal in petrochemical products. Today, it is deregulated. Everybody can do it. We made some good money because our competitors were Shell, Mobil and Texaco. And these companies have hundred times more overhead compared with the kind of overhead that we were carrying. We used that as competitive advantage and we really took a sizeable share of that market. As you enter Kotoka International Airport, Accra, you would see the Coscharis building. We share a common wall with the Central Bank of Ghana. This is how far we have gone in internationalizing the business.
(Culled from NIGERIA’S MARKETING MEMOIRS—50 Case Studies. By Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe. Foreword by Felix Ohiwerei. Xmas Special Bonanza Price for the fans of this column: N15,000 instead of N30,000 Order by email: or 08119464747, 08033445125, 08026019981)