Necessity is the mother of invention, the sages have long taught us. If you are uncomfortable about something then do something about it, the motivational speakers have since drummed into our ears. Are they right? I sure believe they are and one man who does not just believe that, but has gone ahead to prove it by making road transport as easy as ABC is Mr. Frank Nneji. He is the founder of ABC Transport. And here he shares with us the story of How ABC Transport Started.
What else can transform a company which started a little over two decades ago with about N1 million share-capital to more than one billion naira today? Or what could have diversified an ordinary road transport company into a multi-faceted, hydra-headed business empire spanning the hospitality, haulage, and courier industries? A worthy invention I say and a man of character at the helm of affairs. Join me on this ride as we find out how ABC Transport started and the secret of their success.
HOW ABC TRANSPORT STARTED – ABOUT THE FOUNDER
Born in 1960, Frank Uzoawuotu Nneji was born on April 30, 1960. He hails from Aboh- Mbaise in Imo State, Nigeria. His growing years were spent in the village with his family of nine. After his secondary education, Nneji gained admission into the prestigious University of Nigeria Nsukka. He graduated with a degree in Zoology in 1982.
Evidently his mother desired that her children would be medically inclined. However you can take a horse to the stream, but you can’t force it to drink water. Nneji discovered his entrepreneurial skill set early, and gathered good sum of money publishing and selling past question papers even as a student. Other students quickly took note of him and his entrepreneurship spirit but even they would never have imagined how far that was going to take him. From this venture, he made enough money to travel to Italy on a student rebate ticket where he purchased clothing items for sale.
As soon as he was done with the burden of studying, Nneji dusted out his entrepreneurial shoes for good. He set up a company, Rapido Ventures, which supplied educational materials. He started out supplying writing boards, most of which he made himself. And he grew that little board company into the leading producer and marketer of audio-visual products in West Africa then. He became very popular with most schools within and outside the country as his materials were in very high demand.
HOW ABC TRANSPORT STARTED – An unpleasant journey was the turning point
In the pursuit of his Rapido dream, Nneji engaged in frequent, unsafe and uncomfortable road travels. While others groaned and complained, or suffered silently as most Nigerians do, the beginnings of a new business empire were busily hatching in his head. In his mind passengers deserve more comfort than they received. The safety of passengers didn’t seem to matter much to the bus owners. But he was convinced that the general enjoyment by the passenger of the whole road travel experience can improve.
Then came the day he made a journey that meant he couldn’t take it any longer. According to him, in that journey he found himself in a certain cramped bus. He was squeezed next to a woman who had a baby. Typical of Frank, he was not only concerned for himself, the image of that suffering baby who could not be comforted but cried all the way and his struggling mother, was the tonic he needed to fire his ambition to establish a bus service that would truly care for the comfort of its passengers. He believed that passengers deserved better than they got. But people in the transport business seemed not to care. He then made up his mind that he was going to do something about it.
THE CUSTOMER SHOULD TRULY BE THE KING
We often hear business owners say that the customer is king or the customer is always right. But rarely do customers have a say in the type and manner of services that they receive, especially here in Nigeria. He said: “ABC transport redefined the travelling experience for road travellers by initiating a conducive ambience to give travellers a pleasurable trip. With the air-conditioned buses, snacks and entertainment on board, spacious leg room and souvenirs for passengers, travelling became a pleasurable experience.” To further explain this point, Frank thumped his chest concerning ABC’s bid to give customers the utmost experience. “Before we came, people offered buses and dictated the conditions under which they will move you. Customers didn’t have a say. But ABC changed all that. What we did was add customer service to the whole travel experience. We launched our website when most people didn’t know that Internet existed.”
A DETERMINATION TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
While everyone around him may be astounded, Frank does not think he has done anything particularly outstanding. From the beginning he was determined to make a difference, a factor he considered key but often ignored by others-the human element. While the existing companies of yore thought more about buying fancy buses and could boast of many in their garage, Frank decided to cultivate the friendship and loyalty of the people who use his bus services. Every category of human being is catered for and made to feel special-from the smallest baby to the oldest person. ABC was able to transfer some of the personal service mantra made popular by airlines into land transport. For instance, a baby would have a cot and be securely strapped into a seat.
He followed this with strict adherence to global best practices. The drivers never drove beyond approved speed limits. And for no reason would a passenger who does not have a proper seat ride in an ABC bus (no attachment). Then he added a few aesthetics like making sure that the buses are always neat and that the staff, like drivers and conductors, appear in smart uniform. On-board entertainment became a regular exciting fare that passengers looked forward to. Others include travelling in an air-conditioned bus with toilet facilities. Passengers were never expecting that such services will be possible in Nigeria. But Frank provided it for for everyone at affordable rates.
ALWAYS LEADING THE WAY
The company kicked-off operation with six buses in Owerri on February 13, 1993. Today, it runs a fleet of several vehicles travelling across the nation and the West African region.
ABC introduced online ticketing where you can book tickets online becoming the first road transport company so to do. If you don’t have enough credit on your card, you can put the ticket on hold and go to the bank. Even in the cargo business, once you send an item, the moment the item arrives, you receive an automated SMS that your item has arrived. Considering where we are coming from as a nation, when Nigeria had no telephone service, ABC had to install FM radio in its buses, knowing the importance of effective communication so that the drivers can reach their situation room at the head office. They also introduced call centres where customers could call and make inquiries.
ABC is not only excellent in customer service, but also well known for its strict adherence to safety rules. It was the first transport company to install a speed device to regulate traffic and speed control by the drivers. They also have the panic control button, which the driver can use when there is a crisis. This has distinguished the transport company from its competitors, making it the first choice for most travellers. Besides, the company has a training school for its drivers to ensure that they are updated on the latest skills.
In 2006, ABC Transport became a Public Liability Company, making it the first transport company in Nigeria to be mentioned in the Nigeria Stock Exchange. The CEO highlighted what informed the decision to go public. “Basically, it was for two reasons. One is survival. And by survival I mean survival for today; financially and survival for tomorrow in terms of succession. We needed to have a company that has a broad outlook in terms of ownership, diversified ownership, which will lead us from one generation to the other. So we had the big picture in mind. We needed also to increase equity and to achieve this we had to bring new owners. And the only way you can bring new owners is by floating the shares so that people can buy and share in the equity ownership of the company.”
So successful has been the ABC initiative that many other transport owners are wowed and want to copy ‘the Frank’s model’. “It is not that ABC has done a wonderful job, which other transporters cannot do. But we take the lead for the revolution in the road transport industry,” Frank remarks. Trying to let people know that things could be done better; road travel can be more enjoyable, more pleasurable and more fun.
IT IS ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE
During its 20th anniversary, Frank said the celebration was about the people; customers and staff alike. He admitted having been blessed with good people. From the people who work for him, all who have imbibed the right work attitude to the extent that many of them feel that the company is theirs in more than one way. A couple of them wore the ABC badge proudly in as many years. Staff retention been one of the highest anywhere in the country also goes to show the healthy relationships and welfare package the staff enjoy from Frank. Quite remarkably too, Frank rolled out the drums in honour of his teeming customers whose loyalty is largely responsible for ABC’s widely acknowledged success.
HOW ABC TRANSPORT STARTED – THE COACH WEST AFRICA
Another great achievement for which Frank takes the crown is the opening of the ECOWAS route by launching the Coach West Africa. This conveys passengers from Nigeria to Ghana, passing through Benin Republic and Togo. This route alone created room for interaction between peoples of the region and gives a boost to tourism as well. It took 11 years to plan, but in the classical Frank Nneji style, when he was ready to launch, he pulled the entire stop. For the maiden trip, the then Director General of the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation, NTDC Mrs. Omotayo Omotosho, was on board; Frank recalls the historic journey.
“If there is any service we are proud of, it is the Coach West Africa, which was launched in 2004. That is 11 years after ABC Transport started. It’s one of the great stories I like to tell. I had to make a road journey down there on two occasions, taking my vehicles across the border to be able to experience the problems that people experience along that route.
PROMOTING REGIONAL INTEGRATION
And of course, after looking at it, we noticed that we needed to have some kind of a bilateral relationship with all the countries along the corridor. That is Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana, so we brought in the NTDC into the picture. And on the day of the launch, the Director- General was on hand there, meeting her Ghanaian counterpart. When we started we were running the bus on alternate days. That service has grown to a point where we do as many as 10 buses in a day during peak periods such as in December. And at other times we do a minimum of four buses a day. That’s probably twice what we do on the Lagos to Abuja route. It’s been a tremendous success and it actually opened the tourism potential of West Africa because it came with a lot of education and enlightenment.
“People didn’t know that Ghana was as close as this. And people didn’t know that they can really explore West Africa and didn’t need to go only to Europe every holiday. Going by the statistics from the Nigerian Immigration Service, the number of people going across the Seme border has tripled. It has encouraged interaction between the West Africa region. And I can say that since the signing of the ECOWAS treaty, the next good thing that has happened in that zone is the establishment of ABC Coach West Africa in terms of empowering people of the region to interact. And of course when we opened that route a lot of other transport companies now go to Accra.”
Even with the seeming competition, Frank is unperturbed about the place of ABC and as they say, he is not ruffled. “Those who require our kind of service will come to us.”
WHERE IS ABC TRANSPORT TODAY?
It now has executive-express, super-sleeper and 40-seater vehicles in which you can relax and sleep like in a bed. The company also came out with different services that are a novelty in Nigeria. One of such services is the ABEX Services. This makes it possible for mail and goods to be delivered over night at an affordable price. This service is made all the more easy by running on a fleet of more than 100 vehicles. Plus more than 15 trucks and a daily departure of more than 80, movement of individuals, mail and goods. With over 1,200 people in their pay roll, ABC has gone into other areas like courier and hospitality.
As of 2014 ABC Transport Plc, was still the only transport company quoted on the Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE). And when it released its audited results for the year ended December 31, 2013, it recorded a growth of 2.03 percent in turnover over the 2012 result. Making turnover increase from N6.5b in 2012 to N6.64b in 2013.
This is the story of how ABC Transport Started. Let us know the lessons you have picked from this and if their story has inspired you in any way.