The Managing Director of Primero Transport Services Limited Mr. Fola Tinubu is not relenting in his determination to ensure the success of the organisation. Mr. Tinubu believes that Nigerians should invest in the transport business so that the sector could compete with what obtains in developed countries of the world. He speaks on issues of interest in this interview with OLADIPUPO AWOJOBI. Excerpts…
It appears all the blue buses in Lagos State now use the same card from “Cowry,” is Primero now in charge of all the blue buses in the state?
We are not in charge of all the blue buses in Lagos State and Cowry card belongs to the Lagos State Government. The government wants the card to be used for all regulated traveling in the state. The card will be used on the metro rail when it is ready and by the end of this month, it will be used on the ferry. All organised transportation system in Lagos State will use the card. Before now, Primero had its own card, but we are now using the Lagos State Government issued card. The state government, via the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), controls the Cowry card. They have licensed five bus operating companies and you can use it in any of the vehicles of the five companies.
So, how do you sort the whole thing out?
We use technology to sort everything out. There is a reconciliation that takes place daily. The Bank and Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System Plc (NIBSS), are responsible for the reconciliation and so far, they are doing a very good job. And there have been few or no issues.
What has been your relationship with the Lagos State Government and how have they been helping in the provision of infrastructure?
Our relationship with the Lagos State Government has been excellent. They have gone out of their way to help us every time we needed help and as you would notice they are spending a lot of money on infrastructure, repairing roads and constructing BRT lanes.
Will you say Primero has broken even, and do you have any issues?
We have so many issues, but operationally Primero has always been profitable. We have been working with our financial advisers to get cheaper financing. We went into the bond market about two years ago to raise capital at a cheaper rate. We are working hard to get the rate reduced to a single-digit interest rate.
What of the staff, what efforts are you making to properly train them?
We just don’t give our vehicle to anybody. You have to go through a proper training set up by the Lagos State Government. After the training, you do what we call “shadow run,” we make you drive up and down the corridor without carrying passengers on the BRT corridor to demonstrate your competency. We also organise quarterly training and quarterly medical check-up for the drivers to make sure that they are fit and sound to drive. The passengers they carry are human beings; we want to ensure that whoever is driving our bus is fit and is properly trained to drive.
How soon are you expanding your scope?
We have expanded our route to Abule-Egba-Oshodi axis now and we plan to bring more buses before the end of the year as soon as LAMATA and Lagos State Government give us approval.
Have you always been doing this because it’s clear that you have been doing a good job; were you prepared for this by your background?
My background and experience have prepared me very well for the job. Even though I never saw myself going into transport business until it happened. Fate brought me into this and I have learnt a lot in the last four years. I keep telling people that we were businessmen that went into transport business when we started but now, we are transporters. We have made a lot of mistakes since we started but we are constantly learning and we will continue to get better.
What is your advice to both the State and the Federal Governments on transportation business, especially interstate transport business? How best do you think this can be done?
My focus and energy have been on the intrastate not interstate area of the business. I believe that federal and state governments can help the transport sector with improvement in road infrastructure. They can also help by encouraging more private companies to come into the sector. This is what the Lagos S t a t e Gove r n – ment is doing. The government does not have e n o u g h resources to solve all the needs of Nigerians, they need the private sector to come in and invest heavily. By so doing,it would reduce the pressure on government resources. They also need to help us on the issue of financing; either through special intervention funds or single-digit interest rate. Transportation business requires a lot of money and long-term financing. But most Nigerian banks do not give out long-term financing. The tenure for their loan ranges between one and three years. But in the case of the transportation business, we need a tenure of seven to 15 years. We need long term funds with a single-digit interest rate. It is tough to operate the transport business with double digit interest rate. The third one is security; we need the government to help in this area because there is so much of insecurity in the country, especially for interstate traveling.
Will you say Lagos State and Nigeria are open for business based on your experience so far?
Lagos State and Nigeria are open for business, but the Nigerian government can do more by reducing the burden of doing business here. The things that businesses take for granted overseas are major issues in this country. Whether we like it or not nobody will come from abroad to develop Nigeria for us, it is us Nigerians that can develop Nigeria. The way forward is for Nigerians to invest their money in Nigeria and not taking it abroad. If you invest abroad, you are developing other people’s country and their economy and not our own. The Federal Government needs to encourage Nigerians to invest locally.
How have you been able to cope with the challenges of the office?
It’s been very challenging, but you must do what you have to dow. Nobody forced me into the business and nobody put a gun to my head that I must do it by force or by fire. I decided to go into the sector and one has to do what one has to do. Is it challenging, yes, is it stressful, yes, is it demanding, yes! But so are other jobs. There is no easy job. If you ask an insurance managing director or bank managing director, it is the same thing. There is no job without its own issues; the thing is how you manage the issues. Nobody forced us into the job, it was a voluntary decision, there is no point in feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t believe in sitting in one corner and feeling sorry for myself. You do what you have to do and do whatever it takes to make sure the company succeeds.
Would you say you have actually achieved your dreams for the company, is there anything you would have done better?
There is a lot I could have done better. Like I said earlier, we have made a lot of mistakes; the only person that cannot make a mistake is God. The question is what did you learn from your mistakes? We are humans, we will always make mistakes; we’ll learn from them and move forward. Have I made mistakes in the last few years, yes, but I am learning from my mistakes and I keep improving. I am learning every day, the moment you stop learning and you believe you know it all, that is the beginning of the end. Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom; you don’t know who you would speak to that would provide solutions to the problems you have. Is the company where we want it to be, no! We are still improving daily and ensuring the company continues to move forward.
How close are you to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu?
I am very close to him because he is my uncle.
Did he influence your appointment into the office?
No, my position is not an appointed position; Primero is a privately owned company and not a government agency. We got some investors together to start the company and got a loan from Sterling Bank. I am very proud to be associated with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. He has been very influential in my life. He has always supported me. He was even there for me when I was in the United States of America before coming back to Nigeria. But he does not have anything to do with Primero.
Asiwaju has influenced a lot of people into political offices; do we expect you in that category soon?
For me, my attention is on this project. It must succeed, it must grow and it must work. What I would do tomorrow is in God’s hands. I told you I never envisaged being in the transport business until we started Primero. Tomorrow is in the hands of God. But for now, my focus is for Primero to grow and become a company that Lagosians are proud of. That is where my energy and focus is.