Babatunde Savage is the immediate past Chairman of Guinness Nigeria Plc, a position he occupied since 2009. He has served the multinational company in various capacities in the last 40 years. In this Interview, he took general assessment of the Nigerian beverage industry; spoke on the impact of Covid-19 on businesses, his tenure at Guinness Nigeria and more. He says Guinness Nigeria has always been an ambassador of good governance. Daniel Obi reports. Excerpts:
How would you describe your almost 40 years’ journey in Guinness Nigeria?
Mr Savage: Exhilarating, eventful, nothing compares really. I have been fortunate to undergo this journey first as an employee and then eventually as the Board Chair, and it has been an exciting ride. Guinness Nigeria Plc remains a place to be. The people, the brands, the culture… all super. I will forever be proud of my association with this organization with such rich heritage that constantly reminds you that you are standing on the shoulders of giants. Guinness Nigeria is and will always be family to me.
Were there any major change/s that you needed to make when you transitioned from an employee to Chairman of Guinness Nigeria?
Mr Savage: As with any transition, the first few days were critical. And even though it was a major change, one thing remained constant – whether as employee or board chair – I was there to contribute value as well as expand and promote the company’s interests. Having this mindset made the transition very easy for me. Then I also must give kudos to Diageo and Guinness Nigeria for always having a solid and consistent foundation with regards good corporate management and a remarkably solid Board. I was coming into steady ground, all I needed to do was continue the great work my predecessors had done. And that is exactly what I did – consolidate on the tremendous leadership being provided by the Board.
What stands out as your biggest accomplishment and your proudest moments in your 12 years as the Board Chairman of Guinness Nigeria?
Mr Savage: I have had so many proud moments as Board Chair for Guinness Nigeria, but I can call out a few. The first has to be just a few years into my reign has Board Chair when I led the organization into investing N52 billion into capacity expansion. This was the largest single investment by Diageo anywhere in the world at the time. Another exciting time was in 2016 when Diageo’s Nigerian spirits business (hitherto managed through Diageo Brands Nigeria Ltd) was absorbed into Guinness Nigeria Plc to distribute Diageo’s International Premium Spirit (IPS) brands. This move made our business a Total Beverage business, providing consumers with opportunities in spirits, in beer and in non-alcoholic drinks, the only company in our category who have got that kind of portfolio. Guinness Nigeria Plc’s association with Diageo remains remarkably beneficial for the organization’s expansion program and adding value to our esteemed shareholders. And you can also imagine the boost this singular act, among many others, gave to international investors.
Still on your highlights, we see that Guinness Nigeria also invested heavily in various programs and campaigns targeted at supporting communities and growing the economy in your time. Why is this?
Mr Savage: As you know, our impact should outlive us. I was excited to lead the organization’s sustainability and responsibility strategy. Guinness Nigeria is committed to making continuous socio-economic contributions into Nigeria. Over the years, it was deliberate to step up our social investments as we upgraded and expanded our plants to ensure sustainable growth that benefits our operating environment positively. So, we constantly addressed significant public health and social issues with initiatives such as our Water of Life Projects, Guinness Eye Hospitals, our Undergraduate Scholarship schemes, and our backward integration programme, tagged “Grow with Nigeria”. These efforts have enabled our host communities thrive; and has also helped us to create more jobs in the economy. Our social, economic and environmental footprints certainly represent my major areas of impact through the company over the years.
How would you describe the biggest challenge you encountered as Board Chairman of Guinness Nigeria? How did you overcome it?
Mr Savage: 2020 was challenging and daunting for the company and for me as Board Chair as it was for most companies. The rapid outbreak of the Covid-19 virus which started off as a health crisis, fast became an economic crisis disrupting commerce in most industry sectors, including ours. That was the toughest time I have had leading the Board of this great Company, but I am glad we are gradually coming out of it thanks to the support and leadership of a great Board and a management team devising and implementing quick proactive strategies.
Under your leadership, Guinness became a Total Beverage Company. How were you able to drive this growth and expansion?
Mr Savage: This was achievable through the vision of the Board, the creativity and support of the Management Team and every input by the dedicated and committed staff of Guinness Nigeria. It did not seem easy at first, but we all made it happen.
In your time as a Director and later as Board Chairman, what were the major investment milestones impacting on Nigeria that Guinness Nigeria made which makes you proud of your association with the company?
Mr Savage: I already spoke to some of my proudest moments as Board Chair but there are many exciting highlights that make me so proud. In addition to the introduction of other brands and spirits which came with the expansion and association with Diageo our Parent Company, another milestone was the commissioning of the Spirits Plant in our Benin Brewery in November 2016 to be precise. This investment enabled us produce globally iconic spirits brands locally like Gordon’s Moringa Gin, Smirnoff Chocolate Vodka and Mr. Dowell’s Whiskey & Brandy. Then I must mention our innovations at various times including Guinness Smooth, Guinness Gold and Orijin into the market which are doing remarkable well. Another proud highlight for me will be the organization’s corporate governance practices. Guinness Nigeria has always been an ambassador of good governance. As one of the first companies to be certified under the Corporate Governance Rating Scheme of the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), and the Convention for Business Integrity (CBI), you can tell that we are big on integrity, which is aligned to my personal values. We have also been recognised at various times by various tax and regulatory authorities as being compliant with our tax and regulatory obligations.
What is your general assessment of the Nigerian beverage industry and where do you see the industry in the next few years?
Mr Savage: The impact of covid-19 remains with us now and may be so for some time to come, but I see the industry making strides and recovering in few years to come. For certain, out-of-home consumption which use to be the biggest income generator for all the players, has reduced considerably. However, the industry is moving with the times to find other creative avenues for revenue generation as things gradually return to some form of normalcy. So, I think it is safe to say that the beverage industry has always been around and is going nowhere except for continuous improvement and expansion. I can certainly say this with confidence about Guinness Nigeria and its unparalleled portfolio of products and brands given the quality and iconic reputation of these brands.
What do you think may be the biggest challenge/s Guinness Nigeria must prepare to deal with in the future and what would be your counsel in this regard?
Mr Savage: Guinness Nigeria should consolidate on its strength and presence in the market, whilst getting ready for the unknown. The Company should not expect anything less. We have taken lessons learnt from the pandemic year, which I can honestly call the biggest economic disruptor in our lifetime. If the business got through this, it can get through anything. The business is also only as good as its value chain. We can only get better with our Distributors whilst hoping the demand and supply chain is kept constantly alive to its responsibilities.
If you were to say a few words to the incoming Board Chair, what would those be?
Mr Savage: I will simply say, carry on the good work and take Guinness Nigeria to its Eldorado so that Guinness Nigeria retains and improves on its iconic reputation for years to come. It is a trend that must continue. Another thing I would say is that I was deliberate with was the creation of enduring stakeholder relations and affinity throughout the country. Please let that remain. No doubts, Dr. Omobola Johnson as incoming Board Chair perfectly complements the Board of Guinness Nigeria because of her unmatched skills and experience, and I am confident she will continue to provide the right leadership and valuable perspectives to enable the Company to sustain the execution of its unique strategy, drive profitability and enhance value for all stakeholders.
Would you be open to sharing a snippet of your plans for the future?
Mr Savage: Well, I am retiring but not yet tired and will remain active in life and in the service of Almighty God. I will always make myself available for any guidance sought and required of me in my field of expertise. It sure was a pleasure being of service to Guinness Nigeria Plc. I also wish to take this opportunity to thank and appreciate Diageo PLC as well as the wonderful group of shareholders of Guinness Nigeria for their trust and support over the last four decades that has enabled the modest successes that the Company has recorded under my leadership as the Chair of the Board once again. It surely has been a remarkable and pleasurable journey serving this great Company.