COVID-19 Pandemic: This Crisis should not go to Waste for Business, Economy
Lead Partner, Stransact Partners and Stransact LLP, Eben Joels has been a constant feature in Nigeria’s professional financial services space since 2009 when he left PWC to co-found Tax Ideas, and subsequently, Stransact Partners. Since then, the firm has grown in leap and bounds. His firm Stransact LLP is presently the only known Nigerian Audit firm operating a fully licensed showcase in the United States. Eben’s multiple accounting expert certifications include; Fellow, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (FCA); Fellow, Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (FCTI), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Institute of Management Accountants of the US (IMA), Certified Public Accountant (CPA), American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA); and Associate, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA, UK). The trailblazer recently obtained his Juris Doctor (Business Law) and is licensed to practice as an attorney in Massachusetts, USA. In addition to his expertise in accounting and law, Eben has a firm grasp of business strategy and management having attended the Executive Development Program (EDP) of the Wharton Business School (University of Pennsylvania, USA) and the Advanced Management Program (AMP) of the Columbia Business School (Columbia University, New York). Eminio Adejobi spoke with him on career his trajectory, how the Corona Virus pandemic would affects Nigeria’s economy at a time of tax increase,and how he’s giving leadership to Nigeria’s operations….
How did your end up in Accounting, Consulting, and Law after studying Agriculture and specializing in soil chemistry at the University?
It is a very long story. In secondary school, Agriculture came naturally to me because I followed my father to the Farm every Saturday when I am in my village for vacation. My father was a teacher, but he always had a small farm – or a big one depending on the economy… So I was very interested in how and why beans will grow out of the soil carrying its seed on its head while the corn will grow out with its grain in the ground. It was always interesting for me digging out seeds that had been planted to see how they were doing after a few days. Naturally, I routinely took the class prize for Agriculture, but I knew that I wanted to do business when I “grow up” – as we say. My business mind came from watching my maternal grandfather trade in the village market as a kid. I grew up with my paternal grandmother in my village, and so I was allowed to visit all my other grandparents regularly. Whenever I arrived at Bigman’s shop, (he was nicknamed Bigman ), I got a gift of 1 Naira. I always assumed that he was wealthy because of the goods I saw displayed in his shop. And naturally, I was dreaming that I could be big too one day.
I took the option to study agriculture at the university because the alternative was to wait an extra year to get the course of my choice, which was Chemical Engineering. My best subjects were Chemistry, Agric, History, and Religious Studies in that order. My father insisted I focus on sciences, but apart from Chemistry, I did not have any serious interest in other sciences. I decided to actively seek business knowledge by the time I had spent four years in the University even though I was only in 200 level – Strikes and other Crises had their toll on Ahmadua Bello University, Zaria and Abacha had to appoint a sole administrator- Uncle K- for the University. I planned to do an MBA shortly after my first degree, but I had a discussion with an Uncle who was one of the first Chartered Accountants from my village. He gave me a lecture on why it is better to gain practical experience working in a form of apprenticeship with an accounting firm than going straight for an MBA. I believe God was directing my path because I then got a job in an accounting firm during my national service year. In the course of my career, I realized that legal reasoning was critical to enabling excellent business advice. This is why I took time off work to study law.
With the price of crude oil crashing to record lows, and Nigeria’s growing population and the current Corona-virus pandemic, what do you think those who run Nigeria’s affairs should focus on to avoid a major economic crisis in the future?
There is a common adage that the wise will never let a crisis go to waste. We already have many crises. Before Corona, the unprecedented level of uncontrolled violence in Nigeria- Armed herders, Armed Robbers, Kidnappers, politicians, police, and area boys etc. Everyone unleashes violence on the harmless, and we all go about our lives as if this is normal. There is no country in the world that has the level of violence that we have in Nigeria unless those ravaged by on-going wars. Corona is just another crisis among several crises that the average Nigerian lives with. And if you are asking me for solutions, what use will anything I say be?
There is a common truth that there can be no active learning where either the teacher or the student is not willing. If we believe Fela Anikulapo that Government is the teacher, it is clear that they are not ready to play their part. Sometimes, it looks as if there is no government. There can be no development where those at the helm of affairs see their role as a lucrative job- that requires spoiling their offices. We can only develop if those going into government have a mindset of service and value they will add to the office. This is the time for those who mean well for Nigeria (not those who seek to enjoy the spoils and prestige of office), to come together and agree on a comprehensive vision for the country we all want to see in a few years. Humans have proved that prosperity is not contingent on natural resources. The greatest resource required to create wealth is right-thinking people. Luxemburg, Switzerland, Norway- these countries were not always wealthy. At a time they were very poor too. But it took some good governance and the right strategy and not even the latter discovery of natural resources to turn them around. Japan and South Korea are some of the richest in the world today. These nations got rich by developing their people to provide services and manufacture for the rest of the world. Nigeria should have a proper Service economy. That is the future. But the bedrock of a proper service economy is wage and hour reforms. We need to respect and install a proper national minimum wage that includes the housemaid.
Do you think Nigeria’s emphasis on increasing taxes, as we have seen in the last few years, is a viable strategy?
I always try to avoid discussing tax administration and strategy in Nigeria. No matter what you say, there are small minds that will think you are posturing for a job. When we stuck our neck out to say that Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) consultants have no right to look into the books of taxpayers, everyone treated us like a pariah. Today, the new FIRS chair is singing the same song. We have always believed that the better strategy is to expand the tax net to bring in more taxpayers. You will be shocked to find out that apart from civil servants and members of the organized private sector, the word “tax” is alien to many Nigerians, especially many politicians. I believe very strongly that we should have a more comprehensive tax reform that allows every individual to render some accounting to the Federal Government every year. The current model where individuals pay all their taxes to States and only incorporated business pay to the Federal Government is part of the reason why we do not hold the Government at the Center accountable the way we should. Yes, increasing taxes is not the ideal. We can bring in more people to pay taxes. We can restructure taxes. We can have a proper inheritance tax to stop those who stole money from passing all of the stolen money to the next generation. There are many things we can do.
Before you left, do you think you made an adequate exit plan? Share the experience of how you are settling into the life of entrepreneurship in America and giving leadership to Nigeria operations?
First, I do not think I have left Nigeria. I grew up here and have lived all my life in Nigeria until I left for law school four years ago. I had no exit plan because I was not planning an exit. However, I knew from talking to certain elders that it was in my interest to keep a low profile, and that was why I left for law school- to avoid screaming at the deaf. I will only get more frustrated and put me in more danger. In the last two years, we have incorporated Stransact LLP as a Certified Public Accounting firm in New Hampshire. The firm focuses on helping African companies set up and succeed in the United States, which is still the world’s largest economy. We also now have Joels Law Office as a secondary practice, and we provide comprehensive one-stop tax, legal, accounting, and business solutions. Yomi Salawu leads our practice in Nigeria. I continue to assist our clients as best as I can. Technology has made the world a small place.
Before you left Nigeria, your company was known specifically for training tax managers and training on financial reporting. You also organize conferences and seminars in Ghana, UK and across the world. Do you still do these?
Those who knew me from my university days know that I particularly enjoy organising seminars, conferences, and professional events. I still do this. We are currently working on our vehicle, Knowledge Company LLC, to provide knowledge brokerage services for emerging companies. We are conveniently located in the greater Boston area to channel evolving thoughts on business problems from Harvard and MIT- two of America’s premium learning institutions. We think, as Africans, we are better able to tailor foreign ideas and solutions for the continent. We are planning on a Nigerian subsidiary for this business, and our focus will be on sourcing and polishing talents for businesses.
How does your firm manage to compete with the multinationals in Nigeria?
As we say in Nigeria if no be God.. Life is not about competition. You will be surprised that some of the multinational firms refer clients to us for jobs that they do not want to do for several reasons. However, the key to success is know-how. It does not matter your size if you know what you are doing, and you are able to provide value to your clients. Your gifts (talents) will make way for you. We like to stand on the right side of right. As a firm, this is not a difficult thing to do. We do not have to convince 200 partners on what the right thing is. For example, when the FIRS started sending consultants after taxpayers, we made a decision not to give any FIRS consultant access to our client’s books because we did not find adequate legal reasoning to support what the FIRS was doing. We informed our clients, and they agreed that we should present the position on their behalf. We earned no fee for this. We could have made a lot of fees by allowing the FIRS Consultant to start auditing our clients, and we would charge for “audit support”. Unfortunately, almost every other firm that we know was happy to allow the consultants and then charge their clients for audit support when the consultant could have been stopped by sending a simple protest premised on provisions of the law. I have personally paid the price for principles. But one day, a proper Nigeria will appreciate people who believe in doing right.
What informed your incursion into studying Law in the United States whilst running Nigeria operations and a new business in the United States simultaneously?
There can be no society if there is no law. What you call civilization is founded on law. I wanted to be properly guided whenever I hold a position. I want to be sure that what I am saying is not only factual but also legally right. I first enrolled in the University of London LLB external program sometime in 2009. I abandoned that without taking any exams. Next, I tried to do the LLM in business law with DE Montfort in 2010, and I also left that. I soon realized that I have to study law as a full-time undertaking. But the time was only right in the last four years.
What key lessons have you gleaned from your practice in Nigeria, which could be very helpful and useful to Nigeria?
Our biggest crisis is not Boko Haram or government. It is our people. There is a severe lack of properly trained and employable individuals in Nigeria. Something is broken in our education system and in our society that needs to be fixed to make our young men and women productive. Our values are now so eroded that the average person comes into work thinking that the salary is supposed to be “the allowance,” but there should be other bribe ‘egunje’ that complements the salary. I was once asked by a candidate if anyone could buy a car from his salaries. That is the Nigeria we now live in. Even though many young graduates say there are no jobs, many companies will pay a premium to hire good people. People who are unemployed can gain a lot from continuing their learning somehow while job hunting. Learning outside the classroom is actually superior to the one you get in a classroom.
You speak passionately about quality leadership in Nigeria, Africa and the Nigeria-US Relations. Do you think anything has changed with Nigeria’s leadership?
Yes. For the first time, a Nigerian government is undertaking some form of social security payments even though this is apparently, highly skewed in favour of a tribal and perhaps religious bias- That is good. The bad is that there is so much hunger, which is fanning sycophancy and violence everywhere. The ugly is that the level of despair I see around me can lead to even worse situations if there is no change.
What are the business lessons you think Nigeria can learn from the USA?
Development does not happen without intentional acts starting with simple things such as granting Zoning powers to Cities and letting States have exclusive police powers. But more importantly, the lesson that a country can be great when people have a united purpose irrespective of their ancestry, religion, or ethnicity.
You come across as a man of big ideas and audacity. Can you share some of the ideas that you think can make this country better if implemented?
I was very hopeful when the government added the words “digital economy’ to the communication portfolio. I thought we would see big, bold innovations in the digital space. Laying fiber optic cables in every town of 50,000 or more people in Nigeria can give us an edge in technology that we did not think is possible. We should start thinking of using our oil and gas exclusively in Nigeria – to power the country and industries. You will be shocked by what Nigeria will look like in 10 years.
Lastly, let us talk about Stransact, Nigeria. How do you plan to remain competitive in the near future considering the number of big four firm alumni that have similar practices?
We are actively working on becoming a member firm of an international network that is devoted to the middle market. We believe that this gives our clients access to superior resources that can create a business advantage. We are currently part of the TIAG/TAG alliance of global firms, but full membership of a network, especially one that is a market leader in technology, is the right tonic that we can use to spur the middle market in Nigeria at this time.