‘How I got my fingers burnt for ignoring a parental counsel’

June 28, 2019

After spending about 20 years, holding strategic positions in two blue chip companies — Cadbury Nigeria Plc and Nigerian Breweries PLC, Kufre Ekanem resigned at a time when some people thought he was too young to do so. But he had other ideas. He birthed Philosoville, a corporate communications company. And within just eight weeks, his company produced Hymnodia, a reality show that hit it off in its first season, after housing 14 contestants in a house for 12 weeks. In this interview with PAUL UKPABIO, Kufre, who left Nigerian Breweries as Corporate Affairs Adviser, tells his story. Excerpts:

Would you say that you had a privileged background as a child?

I had a happy childhood. You may call that privileged because my father was able to provide us with almost everything we wanted as children. But he never wanted to spoil any child by giving more than that child needed to live and survive. I grew up on both sides of the street neither lacking in anything I needed nor having all the extras I sought for.

 Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Rivers and Akwa Ibom states concurrently. I was born and bred in Port Harcourt but did all my schooling at home in Ikot Ekpene (and later Calabar). I usually say that I am a Port Harcourt boy and an Akwa Ibom man. I enjoyed both places. I enjoyed being in the city and also enjoyed being in the village. Even till now, I wouldn’t choose one over the other. Which means that I still shuttle between both places at present. If I stay too long in the city, I miss the village and if I stay too long in the village, I miss the city.

What memories of childhood can you recall?

Memories? Oh, that will be too plenty; we won’t have time to finish it today (laughs). I had a happy childhood. I enjoyed being a child. I did everything children do and even more! I had a special childhood.

 What does your background look like?

I am the third out of 12 children. My father once jokingly called us ‘my dozen’. Unfortunately, we have lost two to remain 10 alive now. As I mentioned earlier, I am an Annang man from Ikot Ekpene.  I had primary school at Ikot Ekpene, my secondary school was still in Ikot Ekpene at Federal Government College, Ikot Ekpene, and then proceeded to the University of Calabar for my first degree and then post-graduate studies. Since school, I have done a little of broadcasting, journalism, teaching, insurance, printing, advertising, brand management and public relations in all its gamut. I have gone round the block a couple of times before getting to where I am. I have always been very interested in adding value to people, branding and communications. In the past two decades, however, I have been privileged to do all three in multinational environments.

Who would you say determined your eventual life career?

I chose my path. However, my parents gave guidance at several points to be sure I had thought through on my choice. It took a while to convince my father that I wanted to go into marketing communications. He wanted me to do something else. Interestingly, in the end he was convinced about the path that I wanted to go into, so, he allowed me to ‘walk my talk’ with the promise that I must aim to be among the best in my generation at it.

What was the turning point that led you into corporate communications in Cadbury Plc?

I had always been an entrepreneurial person. I wanted to practise marketing and marketing communications but I knew I will be an entrepreneur ultimately. My parents felt I shouldn’t go into entrepreneurship early being too restless. They told me to go into a well-structured organisation and serve to learn the way things work. With that, I will be able to succeed better with entrepreneurship.  I ignored them and started my stuff there in Port Harcourt. After a few years of working, I got my fingers burnt. I lost aplenty but I caught the bug which hasn’t left me. From then, I started working for my employers as if I was working for myself; as if I was an entrepreneur. Even when I came to Lagos and I had to restart at the basement, I was the same.  So each time I have wanted to move, colleagues wonder why, saying they thought I was having fun at the job. Take the move from SO&U to Cadbury for instance. I didn’t apply for it. They head-hunted me because they wanted a self-starter to add to the marketing team to succeed another self-starter, who needed to move onto some other role in the company. So when I got into Cadbury, from advertising and marketing services to brand management and later to public affairs, it was the same. Locally or internationally, it did not matter. God used intrapreneurship to lift me up.

 What position were you holding when you left Cadbury Plc?

I left as Corporate Affairs Manager for West Africa. I was in Cadbury for nearly 14 years and I really enjoyed my time there. From advertising, brand management, public affairs in Nigeria and leading corporate affairs for the West African sub-region; it was a super opportunity for personal training, which also tested my skills and so on.

Were you sure of where you were heading when you left Cadbury?

I was leaving Cadbury to kick-start entrepreneurship when the Nigerian Breweries opportunity came. I had achieved a key promise to myself and the company. I decided it was time to go out and do what I wanted. However, Nigerian Breweries head-hunted me during the notice period with an offer and a challenge that I couldn’t refuse. I just put everything in the freezer for five years.

What challenges did you face at Nigerian Breweries Plc and how were you able to overcome them?

At Nigerian Breweries, I was the same person I have always been, working hard but working entrepreneurially. Now I was at the highest level of management but conversely, my scope was limited to Nigeria instead of the West Africa sub-region. I was indeed having fun working in those corporate organisations; I was lucky to have employers or bosses who enjoyed having intrapreneurs within the system. NB was great for me in that respect. I think I became a better general manager in NB. I was allowed to initiate and create things to add value beyond the desk that I sat on.

 What memories of working in Nigerian Breweries  do you have?

I had a great time working in NB or even HEINEKEN globally. No kidding you. Creating a model for non-crisis external relations that was adopted in other countries, creating value from the culture for PR and measuring PR success by direct contributions to the corporate bottom-line, and so on. Testing one’s wit against such a collectively solid team was an energiser every week. I didn’t see time was going. But when the time was ripe to do what I wanted to do, I decided to leave. It was five years; the ovation was loud and it was time to re-activate the journey. Once I had taken the decision, the rest was easy; just execute.

What are some of the things that you wanted to do?

I wanted to set up Philosoville and execute Hymnodia, among other ideas. I needed to take the bull at the horns after 10 years of thinking about the idea or I would never do it again. Philosoville Limited is a culture, marketing and PR consultancy. People understand the last two but many do not understand the culture side very much at first. For us, culture is in three spheres of service. There is corporate culture, market culture and then there is societal culture. Hymnodia as an initiative belongs to the societal culture category. It is what we choose as a team to do first. We consult for several organisations as far as corporate culture, public relations and marketing are concerned but Hymnodia is our own initiative. In marketing speak, Hymnodia is a product of Philosoville and I have been thinking of it for 10 years.

 So, what brought about the reality show called Hymnodia?

It was borne out of an intense desire to create something impactful to reignite the hymn culture in our society. We felt that the hymn culture was on the decline and that we should do something about it. Hymnodia is bigger than the reality show but the show is its flagship. Beyond the reality show itself, there are components like Street Hymnodia, Hymno-story, Hymno-trivia, and so on. We just had to do this. For me, it was also a way of showing gratitude to my Creator for all He provided for the almost 30 years I had been in the corporate world. We are very happy that it has been so very well received. For the team, it is a very satisfying adventure. People are now asking us when the season 2 will take off; when we have not even sat down to take a deep breath after season 1.

What is Hymnodia all about and what was involved in creating it?

It is an educating, entertaining, edifying reality show created around hymns and worship. It has to do with creating hymns, singing hymns, making and remaking hymns also.  There was a wide space open for wholesome entertainment and we were confident that we could create something to fill the space and fulfil that need. We are happy that we did just that with Hymnodia. The show which within its first season had so much goodwill and following is a huge success. We had 14 hymntestants selected out of a 1,500 people; we camped the hymntestants at the Hymnstitute for 12 weeks, competing to show who can hymn the best, if you will, with the public voting for them after the judges had scored them. Then we had a great concert of hymns (the Hymncert) to wrap it up at Easter. We were showing in 10 stations across the country. Working with such a great team was pure joy. The judges were the evergreen and celebrated Onyeka Onwenu; IgeSings, Sunday Olawuwo, who is the country director for the Royal School of Church Music; Theo Lawson and the set designers;  the Dean of the Hymnstitute (Ben Ogbeiwi); Music Director and choirmaster and the production crew. In all this, my wife was the producer with the expert management of the social media and administrative teams. Everybody on the team was fantastic.

 This had not been done before, so what gave you the courage to do it?

Well, our courage came from the fact that we were not afraid of failing at this. But I had told myself that it was either we looked for something that has not been done before, or do something that has been done before in a different way. Innovation had to be embedded in it or we won’t do it. It was an engaging and memorable period between November, last year, to the final Hymncert on April 25. You can’t imagine the energy that we channelled into it. That is why the outcome is so gratifying. Sadly, we didn’t reach all our goals because we had to scale down and cut our coat according to our cloth. We are convinced we will see a lot more resources from sponsors and partners as we prepare for Season 2 though. We are hoping on that as reward and impetus for the courage shown so far.

How did the youth embrace it? Oh, the youth love it. Just like the older generation too. It was as trans-generational as it was non-denominational. You need to go online and see all the different kinds of things they were posting throughout the period,even till now. New hymn-related words were joining the vocabulary daily. They had comments like ‘hymnspiring’, ‘hymninteresting’, ‘hymn-amazing’ and so on. The engagement was local and global. Others were saying that their churches do not sing hymns, that they need to get their churches to sing hymns and so on.

 What can you say about the challenges of putting together such a show as Hymnodia?

The challenges were huge but they were not a surprise. Luckily, we bore them till the end. The biggest challenge was the financial but it rode with a twin called scepticism. People doubted if it could be done and done well. If it hadn’t been done before, why would you believe you could make it happen? People asked, can this project be done? Can these people do it? Will there be an audience that likes it? The second challenge was finding the right kind of support for the project itself. We hit the road with Hymnodia and quickly realised that it was even bigger than what we thought. So we had the pressure of resources. By the time sponsors and supporters started getting convinced and interested in Hymnodia, we were almost at the end of season1. Yet, that was when more people and organisations saw that it made sense. Lastly, there was the people issue. We had some people who were part of us who had not been involved in something like this before who needed to learn on the go, including the hymntestants who had not been on a reality show before; and people who had done similar projects before but had to unlearn what they knew so they could align with the ethos of Hymnodia. Luckily, we balanced the rookies with veterans who had been there over and over again, like the dean of the faculty, the set designer, professionals on one side and green horns on the other side. The new people brought wonder and adventure, while the veterans brought guidance for pitfalls, minefield to work around. There was so much goodwill for us as producers.

 What plans are in place for season 2?

Things are already going on but first, more and more people are calling for a re-run of season1. People want to see it again as they said they didn’t see everything from the beginning. So we are putting together the rerun so that by the time we start season2, everybody will be on the same page. Information about season2 will start dropping in October and I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag before that. We are also putting a magazine together to showcase all that happened in season1, so people  could have the story documented in print for posterity too.

 Has the winner received the star prize?

Yes, he received the star prize at the Hymncert (laughs). When people ask me if the winner received his prize, I pause and smile because the main star prize of Hymnodia is the ASAPH. Every other prize is an extra. I guess you are talking about the other extra prizes. That is an interesting story on its own because we went to the winner’s church of worship to deliver the brand-new car to him, as a surprise. He had no clue that we were planning to be in his church that particular Sunday. The church service turned into a mini carnival. But that is not the main prize, the ASAPH is. For those who don’t know, the ASAPH was named after King David’s choirmaster in the bible. He wrote a lot of the psalms with King David.

 Does Hymnodia have age limit or reserved only for the youth?

No, there’s no age limit but all hymntestants must be above legal age of consent. Among the 14 hymntestants. There was a 19-year-old and there was a 40-year-old. It is for those who know their hymns, who can create the hymns and can sing. It is however not only about singing, it is beyond singing.

Now that you are fully into your business, can you advise younger people on how to make it fast in business?

I don’t think making it ‘fast’ is a good aim from my experience. Somebody once asked Picasso how he finished a painting so quickly within a short time and wanted to charge so much for it. Picasso replied that it wasn’t quick; it took all his life to do the portrait. This is similar. Nobody wakes up and does a programme like this in three months, if that is the first time that he is encountering the terrain. Before Hymnodia, I have executed several like this and learnt. If you take a look into my background from Cadbury Nigeria Plc to Nigerian Breweries Plc, you will notice that we initiated a lot of these types of thing. So, what I just did is a sum total of what I have done for a while. My advice to younger people desiring success is to learn all they can learn and practise as much as they can. If you are employed, use your employer’s platform to learn all you need, gather as much capability as you can, volunteer and practise as much as possible. Some will flunk, some will out-live you and when you finally set out on the road with your own idea or project, you will be wiser. Part of the reasons Hymnodia succeeded in its first season is because it is riding on the experiences I carried from other well-loved things that I have done in the past. Another advice I will give to the young people is, don’t go at it alone. If your dream is big, then don’t think you can do it alone. I could not have done Hymnodia alone. A lot of people invested themselves to make it happen: my wife (the producer), production crew, the faculty, the judges, the set designers, etc. In summary, have a clear idea what you want to do, learn, test and practise your skill or ideas as much as you can; fail if you must, get your bruises if you must and heal, get a support group around you, then do it again.

You also work with your wife, what has been the secret of your marriage and co-business success?

It has been God’s grace. Anybody who says he has the formula is lying to himself or he has not met the real test yet. It is grace and it is also having a friend as a partner. We truly want the other to succeed and do what we can to encourage each other. The businesses or projects just benefit from this. I have always believed in co-preneurship though, but I didn’t know what the term for it is. Interestingly I will be speaking to a group next month on co-preneurship and what impact it can add in helping us to rebuild our economy. Working with my wife is not a new thing though. I have been Chairman (and Chief Assistant Shopboy) of the Rosemary’s Group from the very beginning anyway. Rosemary’s Group is our business. Who and what influences your fashion sense?

I don’t spend time deciding what to wear. If I ask my wife how I look and she says I’m okay, I’m good to go. I mix things up but I have boundaries on what to wear. I enjoy feeling that I’m dressed decently but I have never felt the need to dress snazzy. I don’t think two weeks ahead what to wear. I wake up and ask myself what I have in the wardrobe that aligns with where I would be that particular day. That is it. I am always comfortable with my skin anyway, so the dresses I wear are complementary on my body.

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