Chief Michael Ajayi is the General Manager of Agura Hotel. He is a retiree of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), where he served as General Manager, Western Ports, General Manager, Public Affairs, among other notable positions. In this interview, he reveals how he has been able to transform Agura Hotel which had become a dilapidated and abandoned investment. Since built in 1981,only N18million has been paid to NPA after its Superannuation Funds was invested in the project with a view to generate dividends to be used to pay NPA retirees and improve their conditions. Mr. Daniel Kanu, the late Gen. Sanni Abachi’s 2 million-man match convener, is staging a battle for control since NPA took over the management of the hotel from him. Enjoy it:
How is the experience of managing this place being as the General Manager?
Well, the hospitality industry is a strange turf. However, management principle is universal. It has only one language irrespective of the country or continent where it is practised. Since management principles are the same, it is the application of those principles that I have applied. Otherwise, I would say that the hospitality industry is another terrain for someone like me but I applied management principles and it is working. It has been so tedious because what I was expecting wasn’t what I met. The state of infrastructure here was downtrodden and there was no investment to put the business on the mainstream. Virtually everything in the organization was miserable. The challenge I had was that I inherited no penny from the previous administration. In fact, I inherited debts. We started from minus because there was no account to operate from. The total amount in accounts of the previous managers was N400,000 in about five bank accounts but when we came on board the account was frozen to prevent the former managers from perpetuating any further fraud.
On the day of the take-over, N800,000 suddenly disappeared in one of the accounts and the new chairman had to quickly freeze the accounts. So, we had only N400,000 as the total sum in all the five bank accounts but when you put that against the debt they had incurred which included: Unpaid workers’ salaries for three months, energy debt for three months, unpaid taxes, water bills, among others. So, we came in and met a chaotic situation. The hotel was not properly lit, the rooms were dirty and the bed sheets were so dirty that one would hardly agree to sleep on them. The challenge was how to change the system and be able to attract more customers. Do not forget that the Abuja hospitality industry is highly competitive. So where you get some customers and you decline to maintain them with a flexible rate and efficient service, they would go to other hotels.
We couldn’t immediately attract customers because of the bad reputation the former management had generated over the years. Aguda Hotel was run as a private family business and dividends were not paid to investors. In summary, the state of infrastructure that ought to attract customers wasn’t available so we had to start from deficits and try to improve on the infrastructure so that so we would be able to attract customers. The roofs were leaking, thereby soaking the walls and the rugs and some of the rooms were stinking. Cockroaches were found everywhere at that time. However, by the grace of God, we have been able to effect changes. We did internal and external painting, changed the bed sheets. We removed all the rugs and replaced them with tiles. We even changed the cutleries.
The problem was that the business which ought to be an investor’s business was converted into a family business and the reputation that came out it was bad. This reputation was scaring our customers and we had another challenge to portray Agura Hotel and the new management in a new image. When people heard that Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) had taken over the management of the place there was high expectation from the public and that gave us an opportunity to sell the hotel on the platform that a new management had come.
The challenge and pressure was high and the public expected so much from us after NPA took over the place. We were struggling to meet up the expectations. For example; we took over at the time the harmattan season was to begin. When we came in, if you had to take your bath with hot water you would have to order for it from the room service and it would be brought to you by hand in buckets. While one person was demanding for it, another person was also calling for it and to meet up was difficult.
The equipment and central body system had been abandoned for ages so how do we retain our customers by providing hot water when they need to take their bath in their rooms? Initially, we provided kettles in all the rooms as a remedial measure and with some good thinking we got hot water to every room by installing a water heater in every room. Agura Hotel has over 140 rooms and we had to install water heater in every room which wasn’t a small feat. The installation was done by our plumbers because it would have cost a fortune to give the job out to contractors.
This development also became a big relief to the employees as they were no longer running from pillar to post to provide water for guests. We also had to improve the hygiene of the hotel. When you come to a hotel you expect to perceive good odour and not bad odour, so we were able to provide that. We also cleaned, painted the corridors and made them beautiful and worked on the rooms that were leaking because the rain could destroy the aesthetics we provided in those rooms. The first attack was the roof to identify the bad areas and we observed that the problem was massive and we removed the roof and started afresh. Today, you won’t find any leaking part of the hotel, whether at the rooms or the lobby.
We also fixed the doors of most of the rooms because they were damaged and I still find it hard to believe that the previous management expected to receive patronage despite all these challenges.
Who were the former managers of the hotel?
That was the Kanu family; Mr. Daniel Kanu and his daughter. Daniel Kanu managed the place for eighteen years. He was once the Managing Director and at another time he was the Finance Director. I found it difficult to see his impact for someone who had stayed that long at the place. We have only stayed at the hotel for eleven months but we have changed the fortunes of the hotel. We have been able to do some marketing to attract patronage. Such marketing activities never happened for many years.
Under the previous management, when there were problems with a particular room, rather than fix the problem, the room would be abandoned. Now, we solve the problems identified in every room immediately. It was their managerial approach that led to the level of degradation at that time. The water closets in several rooms were bad and had to be replaced. The list of things we worked on is long; we also changed some of the floors. Most of the sinks were bad, just like the Water Closets as water couldn’t flow through them. We have been able to replace all these.
I recall one time we had a customer who wanted to bring his group to the hotel and when he inspected the rooms in the first floor and second floor he said there was no difference between the first and second floor because we changed the second floor to the extent that it was competing with the first floor which has the executive rooms.
As a result of the attitude of the old management, people come to the hotel to bargain to pay N3000 per night or N5000 for a hotel that is centrally positioned. Sometimes, the former managers demanded payment by cash without records. We had to overhaul the rates because customers had become used to paying peanuts. It has been a hectic experience, one that I never imagined to face after my retirement. I thank God that we have received a lot of commendations from those that have come here in recent times and we would keep listening to criticisms that would help us to improve the facility.
NPA through the aid of the chairman of the board, Ms. Hadiza Bala-Usman is also assisting in many ways in ensuring that NPA officials lodge here and most of their programmes are held here. I want to use this opportunity to thank the Chief of Army Staff who has directed all the military commissions to use the services of the hotel. We appreciate him. As you can see, an Army Major has just come in with some delegates. They wouldn’t have considered this hotel in the past because the place was considered dead. Today, it is booming even though we still have a long way to go.
The best way to run a hotel after investing massively in acquiring global best equipment is to give it out to other companies to operate like the Sheraton and others. That is the best approach to managing a hotel. The structures here are very good; the only problem was bad management.
Now, our challenge is to revamp every piece of infrastructure that was developed almost thirty years ago. Most of them have outlived their lifespan so we need to change them and when we are changing we are going for the best. We are attracting customers from the Ministry as well as private individuals.
Remember what you did with the Surulere pitch in Lagos. It was instrumental to your been posted here. You weren’t brought here in error. Why was one family responsible for managing this place over the years?
They adopted what we call executive management but this isn’t obtained in the company’s act. The executive management was not supposed to have operated as Executive Directors but they were operating as such. The Chairman, Mr. Daniel Kanu regarded himself as Executive Chairman and the daughter also regarded herself as an Executive Manager. There was a court ruling of 2003 that asked them to refrain from acting in such executive capacity which was contrary to the company and allied matters act.
Just like the Surulere field, it was a waterlogged field and the world-cup was approaching, so I invited an Engineer and did a proposal and Bill of Quantity. He gave us a very good submission and I approached the then Executive Director, Engineering at NPA, Engr. Haruna to discuss the dream. He was able to buy the idea and the project entered into NPA’s budget. I was able to provide a justification to explain why NPA should invest in it. We believed that if we could get the pitch up to global best standards, those coming to play football matches at the stadium would use the place as a training pitch and we would be able to earn foreign exchange from them. Unfortunately, we tried our best but it didn’t come on stream but at the end of the day the project was done and everybody appreciates that place. From that pitch which was waterlogged and abandoned, we were able to generate revenue to pay about five or six workers that were engaged at the facility. We used the money from the facility to repaint the place and bought giant air conditioners, fans, tables and turned the place to an event centre where we charge up to N250,000 per event. The business was booming and it was a source of income. This was a place where people go to defecate but we cleaned it and it became an event centre. We also opened an account that had over N3million by the time I left. If not for the closure of the road by the former Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, we would be swimming in money. He needed to reconstruct the Surulere/ Bode Thomas road so the place was closed for almost a year and that affected our patronage.
Recall that the magazine we created had over N11million duly paid for advertisement at the launching. The magazine was generating funds to sustain its production and we handed over N26million to our successor at that time.
If you also go to the Calabar port, the swimming pool there was repaired and it became a centre for relaxation. We also opened an account and it generated money and employed people. With the revenue from the pool, we bought a snooker board, bought a satellite dish, changed the television and several other things. It is the same positive management tactics that explains that if you manage a venture as if it was yours because you don’t want it to fail, definitely it’s going to work. That is what we have applied here. It is not like we received a big money somewhere to transform this place.
Under whose administration did they assume such responsibility?
It’s been a long time. The plan of the hotel was done in 1981 under Alhaji Sheu Shagari’s tenure and they got funding from foreign loans, equity participation by Nigerians and they also raised money from local sources.
Weren’t the local equity stakeholders supposed to be receiving dividends from the organization?
Yes, that was the case. From the records, only N18million has been paid as dividend to NPA which is the largest shareholder. Since inception NPA has only profited N18million, yet this is a project where the NPA Superannuation Funds was invested with a view to generate dividends to be used to pay NPA retirees and improve their conditions. Nothing was coming in. I wrote a report titled, “Synopsis of Hospitality in Distress” because the hotel was really in distress.
You have been able to sit here but you couldn’t sit comfortably in this place when we came here initially. I used that write-up to do an experiment to see how a manager could turnaround the fortunes of an organization. I have several experiments like that while at NPA, so if you tell me certain things aren’t possible I could argue with facts and explain how good thinking and proper planning could change things for better.
Anybody coming here would believe that Chief Ajayi was given so much money to transform this place, however that notion would be untrue because we started from minus. What you see here was achieved with the revenue that came in through the front desk.
After resuming office here to find the level of dilapidation of infrastructure, how were you able to convince people to join you to kick-start the reforms?
We tried to improve the rooms. Some people advised in such scenario to do aggressive marketing but you can’t do that when your facilities aren’t in order. You can’t invite somebody to come and see your ugly house. It would only ridicule you. We took the transformation gradually and at a certain stage people that came here began to market the hotel. We are yet to reach the level I want but as soon we get there, we would increase the tempo of our marketing so that we can have bookings 24hours. We can get other hotels offload their customers to us as a result of certain facilities that they don’t have. We aren’t scared of competition now because we are actively competing.
What other activities/ initiatives have you been able to introduce to enhance the profile and patronage of the hotel?
We have a nightclub that we are reorganizing because it didn’t meet the expectation we had. It was leased out previously but we have taken over as we intend to put the place in order. We intend to generate at least N1million every month instead of the pittance we were receiving from the former managers due to careless management. We are also putting the gym Centre in order.
Can you say how much Agura Hotel makes on a monthly basis?
That would be difficult for me to state. The issue is that about 70 per cent of the income we generate goes back into the infrastructure rehabilitation and new equipment we are acquiring to improve the standard of the hotel. We are still investing to get the hotel to a level that it should be. The third floor was totally condemned when we took over. That is about thirty-six rooms and several rooms on the second floor were also in bad condition. Most of the air conditioners weren’t working. When someone leaves his house to relax at a hotel, the least he should expect is functional air conditioner. There are new television sets in the rooms and we are gradually phasing out the refrigerators in the rooms and replacing them with new ones.
How many event spots do you have here?
Majorly, we have the nightclub and some two halls which could be used for conferences. Each hall could take 200 persons but you could join the halls to cater for 400. For these halls, we also had to repair the chairs and put them in order because they were abandoned previously. We can host three or four training programmes simultaneously because we have equipment to do that.
What is the workforce in the organization at the moment?
Excluding the private security officials, the workforce is about 80 but as at the time we took over it was 105. We are having shortage of manpower on the Cuisine aspect because we laid off some workers who weren’t abreast with modern dishes.
This was as a result of the poor management in the past but we got new hands and bought equipment such as plates, cutleries, refrigerators and we found that the department is overcoming the challenges. There is a Chinese group we are discussing with to come here and provide Chinese menu but at the moment the kitchen is doing well. We have inquired about the meals from most of the customers to get criticisms and commendations and it has been mostly commendations in recent times.
Generally, how would you describe post retirement vis-a-vis what you’re doing now?
It’s really not been retirement. I have barely replaced one cap with another cap because I retired one year ago and I’ve been actively engaged with the management of Agura Hotel for about eleven months. It is the same zeal and tenacity that I have brought here. If I have an opportunity that is bigger than this one, I would still make the same impact.
I recall when I was General Manager of Western Ports, I came across a circular that trucks should be examined and that the operators should pay for the certification. I wanted to carry out the instruction but senior officers at the Authority advised me to jettison it because the truckers wouldn’t pay and they may shutdown the ports.
The circular has been there for over twenty years and I dusted it and planned how to execute it. I invited a Commissioner of Police who was actually a Deputy Commissioner of Police at that time. I invited the Deputy Commissioner of Transport and consulted very widely and that improved my plan. By the time, I stated to implement it people said I had ‘juju’.. There were massive protests when we started but I’m also well educated when it comes to insurgency and counter-insurgency. I deployed my theories and within two weeks all the agencies were queuing up to register. At the end of the process, we generated over N150million. When the former Managing Director, Malam Habib Abdullahi came to commission the event, he saw the massive representation of security agencies and planning, he invited me personally to commend me. Several General Managers had been there before me and the 20-year old circular was there but they couldn’t implement it. We were able to stem corruption in the ports. There was no structure when we came to Agura Hotel. The same thing is likely to happen at Nicon Luxury Hotel where the last two floors have been abandoned. Most times they send their customers to Agura Hotel.
Meanwhile, we have been facing battles from the Kanu family who intend to take-over the administration of Agura Hotel, again. If not for the doggedness of the current Managing Director, Agura Hotel would have gone. Ms. Usman should be commended for her leadership approach which is driven by innovation and ability to deliver on the job.