WALE ABODERIN, CHAIRMAN OF THE PUNCH NEWSPAPERS IS THE FIRST SON OF LATE CHIEF OLU ABODERIN, THE FOUNDER OF THE PUBLICATION. WALE, IN HIS MID-50s, WAS NAMED CHAIRMAN JUST ABOUT 18 MONTHS AGO. IN THIS INTERVIEW WITH YEMI ADEBOWALE, HE TALKS ABOUT THE INITIAL CHALLENGES OF SETTLING DOWN AND THE CHALLENGES OF NEWSPAPER PUBLISHING IN NIGERIA
The interview with Wale Aboderin was slated to hold after the Saturday morning practice of his beloved Dolphins Basketball Club at the old Punch premises, in Onipetesi area of Ikeja. This writer arrived the premises about ten minutes to the agreed time and headed straight to the basketball court, hoping to catch Wale in action with the basketballers. The first surprise was that the hitherto open training ground of the girls had been replaced with a standard indoor basketball court. The second surprise was that there was no training that Saturday morning and the chairman was nowhere in the hall.
Calls put across to him did not go through. Based on my experience during my tour of duty at The Punch about eight years ago, I could still remember the bungalow occupied by the Dolphins, among the numerous bungalows within the compound. So, I dashed to the place and found out that the chairman was in the house. Well, there was no practice that morning because one of the girls was getting married. I was ushered in and the chairman joined me a couple of minutes later and he pleaded for the interview to be delayed for a few more minutes. He had just shaved and needed a shower.
The ever jovial and lively Wale Aboderin came back about 15 minutes later to commence the interview. I was so much in a hurry to listen to his experience so far, as the chairman. Many think that he was not actively involved in newspaper publishing prior to becoming the new chairman of The Punch last year. So, what were the initial challenges of settling down? "Well, to start with, I was not really prepared for the job at that particular time. I had no idea that they wanted me to be chairman. I had established a life outside the media. But in so doing, I still took an active role at the board level. And every now and then, I will notice some flaws and point them out. I had always promoted The Punch. At the board level then, there were a lot of decisions which I was able to influence. I was involved in how the company was running. But don't forget that I started with my father when the paper took off. I started as a driver. I also worked in the compu-graphic section for more than a year. I was also a journalist. I have a clear idea about many aspects of journalism. The paper started in our house and my father engaged me in a lot of discussion about running a press. And then, I had also managed a press, way back, for about two years."
Prior to his emergence as chairman, there were rumours that he was supposed to have been named chairman of The Punch when he clocked 40, "according to his father's will," and that he declined. Is this true? Wale laughed for a couple of seconds and responded: "I did not even hear this rumour. It is not true. You know that the will of my father has been a case study even in the law school. Many people have gone through it. If you get it, you will discover that there were things that my father would have wanted but (which) did not come to pass. He is not around; the environment has changed. But the aspect of me taking over as chairman at age 40 is not true."
Is Wale an executive chairman? Is he involved in the day-to-day running of Punch? "The difference between a chairman and an executive chairman is the salary. I am not an executive chairman. But I am quite involved in the running of the paper because I cannot be a sitting chairman. I cannot go there and just sign cheques. I like to know what is going on. I like interacting. As much as I know that we have very capable hands, I rub ideas on them as a chairman would, as I guess you understand. I am happy to say that they seek my opinion on so many things quite a number of times.
Looking back, one and half year down the line as chairman, what has the experience been like for Wale? "Let me say this; we had a board meeting recently and I told them that I was thanking Chief Ajibola Ogunsola for taking The Punch to where it is. We had just won the NNMA Newspaper of the Year award. We are really very proud to be the very strong voice of the voiceless Nigerians. However, it has been very hectic. Demands on my time are so many. In fact, I remember that less than a week after I took over, there was a major catastrophe in our premises. The managing director was not around. There was a huge flood and the fence of premises collapsed. The MD was out of the country. Nobody knew what to do. There was no fund at that time to secure the place. The water rose to about five feet in some of the buildings. But to the glory of God, we were able to get some contractors who had worked in the place before to come over and rub minds on how to tackle the crisis. I sat down with them and had a conference. We were able to solve the problem. I think that was the first time the staff started to look at me differently and began to appreciate that I could do the job. I thought and everybody thought: 'how could it just happen at this time?' May be it was a set up by the devil. But at the end of the day, it established me quickly among the staff. I want to believe that I have not let them down so far."
There are some traditions associated with The Punch. Newspaper agents pre-pay while unsold copies are not accepted. How has it been, keeping up with this tradition? "A lot of the advertising agencies will collect money from clients and hold on to it for months. Newspapers need money to run their businesses. When we were really looking for funds, preparatory to our expansion, we had to change the philosophy. There were some credit adverts that had become bad debts. So, how do we avoid such? We then said 'let's put on our plate only what we can consume' at that time. We are not establishing a new law. We are just correcting a norm that has always been wrong. That is it."
With his experience in the last 18 months, what does he consider the challenges of the Nigerian newspapers' operating environment? "Well, high taxes, problem of power supply, more taxes, high cost of printing materials, again, as a result of more taxes. These are some of the major constraints. I don't think that there is any publisher that would want to sell newspapers at the price we are doing now."
Despite his tight schedule, the Punch chairman still creates time for his beloved Dolphins. "Well, that's my first passion. Investment in human beings is the greatest job any man can do. I say this because all these thieves that we have in government, steal so much, and yet when somebody needs, say, N250,000 for a life-saving operation, they will say that there is no money. I can relate Punch to Dolphins. If we did not have workers who believe we care about them, we would not be where we are today. It is the same thing with Dolphins. Human beings first! They make the world go round. Now, if I were to get to Punch and say that because I am the chairman, I don't care about human beings, then I will be saying that life has no value. Part of the benefits I gained from being my father's son was the investment in people. It opened some doors. Being the chairman of Punch has opened more doors. I love investing in people. We should give a chance to people who would not have thought that they have a chance. That is why I am sponsoring a female basketball club. This is one way to do so."
But why females? Why not males or a combination? "If you want to make a mark, be different. I want to be different. In being different, you must be able to swim against the tide like salmon. You must be able to swim upstream. All the people criticizing now are not ready to help anybody. Initially, people might think that there is an ulterior motive. But when you are persistent, when the testimonies start coming, they will believe. When somebody from the village now has a degree; can now eat better and help the family, then you will know that there is a complete circle. At Dolphins, less than one third of the team is Yoruba, despite the fact that I am a Yoruba man. I don't care where you come from. You are a human being. We are trying to change situations of the girls. I pay for their education, medicals and they also get a salary. A salary that many graduates can't get. I recently bought land for three of them that have been here for long and have shown loyalty. Some of them are building houses."
Does he make money at all from the Dolphins? "I don't make any money. I understand something about God. If you care for his creatures, he will always reward you. This is something I sincerely believe in. Many people practise Christianity when it is convenient. Let me tell you a story. I had cancer many years ago and I was given three months to live. I was not going to church, I was not reading the bible, I was not praying, yet God came to me and said 'you are healed'. Although, it still took about a year plus, working on the challenge, but I never went back to the hospital. I am still here today."