Novac was founded in Basel, Switzerland in 1977, and Nigeria’s branch on 1st June 1978. And the man who has weathered the 40 years of Novac Ltd is Marcel Grossenbacher who came to the country from Switzerland by “pure coincidence” as an employee in 1976 but in 2002 became the CEO of the company after the retirement of the former CEO on 31st December 2001.
In our new column, COMPANY PROFILE, we feature Mr. Grossenbacher and Novac who while responding to a question of corruption in Africa said: “We have actually never experienced any form of corruption since we came to Africa forty years ago. We assume it depends much on the business sector one is active in.”
What brought you to Nigeria in 1976 and not to any other African country?
Pure coincidence brought me to Nigeria in October 1976. During my apprenticeship in a Real Estate company a staff working in the accounts department approached me with the idea of joining him after finishing my apprenticeship in his own business he was planning to setup. I was curious about the offer and when he told me that he would operate a purchasing office for a Swiss metal-work company based in Lagos, he got my fullest interest. The offer also carried an interesting rather challenging employment conditions. At this time I knew or heard much about Biafra and not Nigeria, so I first had to look on the map where exactly Nigeria is located.
I started in the Basel office in April 1976 where I met my partners I would have to work with later, and were about to open an office in Lagos. They had been working in the dyestuff division of Ciba Geigy and were responsible for the dyestuff division based at the famous Basle Street in their premises along famous Motor Agege Road, Lagos State.
When was Novac founded in Nigeria and who were the Nigerian partners and were there similar companies then?
Novac was founded by my partners in Basel on 19th October 1977 whereas the Lagos operation started on 1st June 1978 on the premises of General Metal Products Ltd in Iganmu just behind the National Theatre.
Amongst the founding Nigerian partners were: David Dankaro, a former Prime Secretary who became Chairman of Vicoda Limited, Chief Dr. Daniel E. Awani, a renowned architect, Chief Emmanuel Adesoye, Proprietor of Adesoye College, Offa Kwara State.
The reason for starting the operations with Novac/Vicoda was the booming business in the textile industry that particular time when one could serve over 60 companies all around Nigeria, i.e. in Lagos, Aba, Asaba, Onitsha, Funtua, Kaduna, Kano, Gusau etc.
There was only one company which also originated from Ciba Geigy doing the same kind of business that time.
Is it still in the business, or has switched to another business or left the country?
Our competitor is still in this business but also had to drastically scale down and concentrating more on the packaging industry now.
How would you describe textile business in the first decade of Novac in Nigeria, in term of demand?
As said already the business was fantastic in the first decade of Novac and there was no real need for selling skills, rather for being able to meet the huge demands of the textile mills.
Has Novac ever changed its ownership, and what led to the change? And how was the growth of the company during the years?
There was no change of the ownership in both, Novac as well as Vicoda Limited and our growth was in colour separation making Vicoda Limited the Number one in that particular field for many years.
Novac is described as MAJOR supplier of textile machinery and after sales services to the textile industry in the country. What makes it the MAJOR?
We are always been very close to our customers we knew right from the beginning that we must render utmost best service to them and to try to be always more active than our competition in that field. We rendered a 24/7 service and were reachable by our customers whenever the need arose even under the different working conditions with telephone land lines, telex etc.
Computers, internet and mobile phones came only much later facilitating, on one hand, our activities and opening doors to more competition on the other in our field as desktop marketing became quite easy and personal customer contacts were becoming less and less important unfortunately.
Still today we keep up this special kind of customer service which makes us the MAJOR in our field in Nigeria.
You took over Clariant (Nigeria) in 2002 under the name SwissnovaChem Limited. Is SwissnovaChem Ltd under Novac or vice versa, and what are the services each provides?
Being the MAJOR in our field we were approached by CLARIANT in 2001 whether we would be interested in taking over their business operations in Nigeria and after meticulously considered the offer we entered into a MoU with CLARIANT and finally took over the company in 2002. Their name Clariant (Nigeria) Limited was changed to SwissnovaChem Limited which was fully owned by NOVAC.
SwissnovaChem continued the business of CLARIANT, i.e. local formulation/mixing of imported chemical raw materials for the leather, textile and soap industry running a subsidiary in Kaduna as well as a warehouse in Kano.
Do you produce in Nigeria some products you supply from European companies?
As at now we are still providing the same services as before, but on smaller scale as the business especially in the textile industry had tremendously declined. Today we are only serving some 12 textile companies out of the initial 60.
Are there Novac branches in other African countries. Where and when were they established?
We started to widen our activities in Ghana in 1991 whereas we started our operation in East Africa, Tanzania, in 1985 where we set up a complete Tissue Paper Factory in Mikocheni Area (Tanpack) It is still in operation. From there we expanded our business into Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Our branches in Ethiopia and Kenya were established in 1990.
The actual Novac branches are in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania and are still in operation. They are in the same area of business, i.e. serving the local textile industry. These branches were established to compensate the smaller business volume we could generate from Nigeria.
Is Nigeria still the headquarters of Novac in Africa? How many staff do you have in Nigeria and in each of the branches?
Nigeria is still serving as the headquarters of our Africa activities and out of 100 staff we had, we are now working with 15 staff and some 10 staff in the remaining branches.
In all, including in your branches, could you tell what type of products you produce, and services render? Would you say the diversification of your products help you stay in business?
We are mainly acting as agents of textile machine manufacturers from all over the world but mainly from Europe. As such we are assisting in selling machines, spare parts, auxiliaries etc. and we do take care of their technicians once delegated to our areas for the erection and commission of their machines.
We do formulate in Nigeria auxiliary chemicals for the local leather, soap and textile industry.
What really helped us to stay in business was not only diversification of our product range but also the decision to invest in various different African locations making the company less vulnerable to local unforeseen and unexpected situations
Last year Novac marked its 40 years anniversary in Nigeria. Could you describe how the 40 years journey was, in terms of the successes and challenges? And how are you able to continue your operations in Africa despite the challenges and complaints that leave some investors no alternative than to leave?
We clocked forty years with Novac last year and forty years with Vicoda in June this year. We can say that there was no regret at all since we started this business and moved to Africa.
Initials challenges we had were the missing infrastructure, such as communication problems, travelling challenges inside the country, regular availability of European food ingredients etc. However these were all compensated with the nice environment one could live and work. We still have the strong belief that the conditions in Africa will further improve and offer space for good living as well as good business.
One can complain wherever one stays, it is a personal thing how one sees and handles the situation one is living in. There is no law that forces me to stay outside of my own home, so going out means I have to be open minded all the time.
There is a complaint that always centers around corruption in Nigeria, and Africa in general. What’s your comment and experience on the issue of corruption and the nature of the corruption being referred to?
We have actually never come across any issue of corruption since we came to Africa these forty years. We assume it depends much on the business sector one is active in. Our customers are the owners of their textile mills so they are only interested in getting best service at the best possible price and nothing else. With today’s globalization it is easy for them to compare prices from other suppliers and choose which suits them best based on their scale of preferences.
What’s your advice to foreign investors and potential investors in Africa regarding the issue of corruption?
Our strong advice is to keep completely out of corrupt practices as one becomes vulnerable and situations can backfire in a very unpleasant way. If you are not able to conclude and transact a business the normal way there must be something wrong with your products or services otherwise there would be no need for such corrupt practices.
And what’s your advice to the African authorities on the way to attract and encourage foreign investors to make Africa their investment destination?
African authorities should/must provide sufficient infrastructure, safety and monetary freedom to attract and encourage foreign investors to make Africa their investment destination. There exists a huge demand which will further grow in a dramatic way so both should be prepared to go for it, i.e. the African authorities as well as the manufacturers.
How do you response to the welfare of your staff
We do by sticking to our contractual obligations such as health insurance, pension funds, gratuities etc. And when needs arise we render good support to them and their families.
– Johnson Oduwaiye (Editor-in-Chief)