MERALCO, the largest distribution utility in the Philippines, in joint venture with a British-Nigerian firm, has just won two major bids to manage and operate the electricity distribution of two major cities in Nigeria, West Africa. This, according to the Meralco’s President and CEO, Mr. Oscar S. Reyes, is just the beginning of a series of international ventures the company has already been working on and is reportedly close to concluding the negotiations on. In line with this international thrust, the company’s top management is urgently forming their expatriate teams. For this reason, the company’s HR leadership, spearheaded by Mr. Ramon Segismundo, Mr. Noli Tibayan, and Ms. Amy I. Tuason, organized a forum on 5th March this week aimed at generating interest from among the executives and managers to enlist for Meralco’s pioneer expatriate teams for Nigeria.
KSearch Asia Consulting, Inc.’s Managing Director, Manny Guillermo, was invited to the forum to share his personal and professional experience in Nigeria based on his work stint when he headed the Change Management Services Division of Andersen Consulting in Lagos, Nigeria from 1988 to 1994. The 200-strong leaders of Meralco who were invited to the forum appreciated Mr. Guillermo’s “candor and insights” and that “all the many inputs he provided to the group were beyond expectations”.
KSearch, incidentally, has a mandate from Meralco to assist in identifying external talents for certain managerial positions to form part of the Nigeria-bound teams.
Here below is an excerpt from the gist of Mr. Guillermo’s presentation during the Nigeria Forum:
Thank you for inviting me to speak about Nigeria. What I have decided to do – instead of citing facts and figures about Nigeria which I thought you could very well download from the internet anyway – is to share my personal account of how I managed to immerse myself with the Nigerians and the expatriate community there during my 7-year stint in that country. From this short account, I would hope for you to discern how exciting it had been for my wife and me to have actually flourished while in Nigeria from 1988 to 1994.
So, along that line of thought, I’d like to give you a quick glimpse of my last days in Lagos (by showing you some photos) where it took a month to send me off by our Nigerian friends, close associates in the professional community, as well as our friends from the close-knit Filipino community.
As a background, I was a Partner of Sycip Gorres Velayo in the Management Consulting Division and belonged to the so-called SGV’s Foreign Legion. This bunch was typecast in SGV to get assigned on projects funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and other multilateral funding agencies.
The last of my six years aggregate of consulting work in Indonesia was as Lead Project Manager for a two-year Manpower Development Project for the Ministry of Public Works which we completed in early 1988. I practically went straight to Nigeria from Indonesia when the SGV leadership quickly seconded me to the Andersen Consulting in Lagos, Nigeria. SGV was then merged into the Arthur Andersen global organization. By that time I would have already completed 10 years of working in a wide variety of infrastructure projects funded by World Bank and ADB in such countries as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar (then still called Burma), among others. Some of my colleagues in the SGV Foreign Legion found themselves being assigned to the Middle East, India and Pakistan, and some parts of Africa.
To sum up my expatriate career, I had an aggregate of at least 25 years of expatriate life – 10 years in Thailand, six years in Indonesia, seven years in Nigeria, and roughly two and a half years of short stints in various parts of Asia. The Nigeria stint was to be the culmination of my expatriate life and it turned out to be the most rewarding in every sense of the word – I’d say, both professionally and financially.
I became part of a high-achieving global organization – the Arthur Andersen and Andersen Consulting group – which had very demanding standards for excellence. In Nigeria, our Managing Partner was a tough American from Kansas. We had partners from the UK and the US, complemented by very bright Nigerian partners. Our Nigerian professional audit and consulting staff were the top graduates of the leading universities of the country – not unlike the rigorous hiring standards of our own SGV here. Consistent with its global standard practices, we followed in Nigeria the demanding Up- or-Out policy for our professional staff. Our clients there cut across the major industries in Nigeria, but the dominant sectors were those from the Oil and Gas and Banking.
I knew I had to prove myself in my new professional environment. I confronted myself with the challenge that a Filipino partner from SGV should be up to the challenge in terms of professional competence and everything else in their expectations. I was to lead the startup Change Management Services Division of the firm. Well, with good dosages of hard work and determination, I coped and succeeded in no time and gained the support and loyalty from my foreign counterparts and those of the Nigerian professionals. I would tell you, I have not worked with a more hard-driving and seriously motivated group as these Nigerian professional staff. They were very bright and definitely outspoken. They knew what they wanted and they spoke their minds.
I remember a Nigerian senior consultant under me whom I asked during one of our quarterly performance evaluation sessions what he would like to be in the future. Without batting an eyelash, without a moment of hesitation, he confidently said: I would like to be the Managing Partner of this firm”. I have not kept abreast with the firm, but if this guy is still with the firm, there is a good probability that he would be one of its leaders by now. Arthur Andersen, incidentally, has since 2003 been absorbed into what is now KPMG Nigeria, while Andersen Consulting is what we now know as Accenture.
Then being one of only 200 expatriates of Andersen Consulting, we were looked after by our headquarters in Switzerland and Chicago in a very special way. I received all kinds of allowances which included a generous Cost of Living Allowance, an International Assignment Supplemental Allowance, and a Hardship Post Allowance – Nigeria being considered then by the firm as one of the five countries of expatriate assignments which warranted such an allowance.
An incidental perk we enjoyed in being assigned in Nigeria was the inevitable stopover in any point of Europe, depending on which carrier you would deliberately choose. If we wanted then to spend a few nights during stopovers going to or from Lagos, say in Paris, then we would take Air France; Swiss Air for Zurich or Geneva; British Airways for London; Alitalia for Rome, and so on.
I played a lot of golf on weekends and at the slightest provocation would have regular get-togethers with close friends in the Filipino community. My wife learned silk painting along with other expatriate spouses.
The seat of government at that time was still in Lagos, so the foreign embassies were still in Lagos then. So, it was quite easy for the Philippine Embassy to gather up the Filipino community. The seat of government has since been transferred to Abuja, about one hour flight away, so the foreign embassies had to relocate as well.
My European and American expatriate friends never had it so good, according to them. During weekends, if they were not playing golf, they would be sailing. That’s the kind of so-called “hardship post” they happily had to go through, but especially for their spouses who were amply supported by numerous domestic helpers.
My wife and I entertained a lot at home. We made it a point to invite my Nigerian clients and my colleagues from the office and thus created solid bonding with them, just as much as I did our Filipino friends. This was probably one of the many reasons why they saw us, my wife and me, as their special friends.
As for our own Filipino group, it was represented by a good number of professionals – doctors, engineers, and executives with other multinationals like Coca Cola and the oil companies. Interestingly, we had then among us a Filipino doctor who hailed from Cebu and who was so enterprising in the sense that he trained his Nigerian male help how to prepare the Cebu lechon. So, when we had our Filipino parties, a familiar highlight would be an authentic tasting Cebu lechon, prepared by a diligent Nigerian.
I found the Nigerians deeply religious just as they were staunchly tribal -- a lot like us, Filipinos, although it was probably more intense with them.
Food was ample and was rather cheap. There were already supermarkets but no malls yet then. I, too, enjoyed the fact that the locals favored stewed spicy meat dishes accompanied by vegetables anchored on a staple of yam prepared from cassava. Having already lived in Thailand and Indonesia, I took on the spicy Nigerian food with delight. The other cuisines that were easily available were the Indian food and Middle Eastern cuisines and they were great.
I understand from my Filipino friends still residing in Nigeria that there have been major improvements in the availability of more progressive hospitals and in the quality of health care available to expatriates. Their premier universities, particularly the University of Lagos, continue to produce capable graduates.
I will not pretend and claim that I also did not have – in the beginning -- my own misgivings about working and living in Nigeria. But these apprehensions went away rather quickly enough after the first few months. The fact that I moved within the circle of highly educated Nigerians helped, of course. But, I like to think that much of the quick adjustments my wife and I were able to do was due to our natural adaptability -- as Filipinos -- to different cultures and our God-given ability to overcome, cope with and flourish especially when given new challenges.
I still believe that it’s the Filipino in us that allowed us to be so resilient, so resourceful and so undaunted by any kind of challenges that would confront us, even in distant lands. Add to this our innate complex to want to prove that we are just as good, if not better, than any other race. My point is, wherever in the planet we find ourselves in, we have to do our part at adapting, work hard at it as necessary, and do not expect that the local culture will adapt to us in a silver platter.
Throughout our stay in Lagos, we made many good Nigerian friends from among my colleagues in the office, from among my clients, and from the professional association that I made sure I was going to be an important part of. As I showed in the photos at the beginning of my talk, our Nigerian friends could not send us off enough. It took a month to get through the many farewell parties they tendered in our honor.
In all those seven years, we did not experience any untoward incidents. Sure there were inconveniences and nightmarish government bureaucracy, but which country doesn’t have such.
That, in a nutshell, is my capsule account of my Nigeria’s expatriate stint. I would be happy to answer your questions. Thank you.