Who is Mrs. Bernadine Eloka?
My name is Bernadine Ifeoma Eloka. I am the founder and operator of Clarion Shipping West Africa Limited (Bonded Terminal) at Alakija in Lagos. I studied Biology at the University of Lagos. I am also a chartered accountant and a diploma holder in Logistics and Supply Chain Management from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife.
With your educational background, how come you’re into the maritime industry?
It all started in 2003 when I picked an appointment with the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping (NCS) as an accountant. While working with the Chambers, I paid a courtesy visit to the MD of Salvor back then. My DG, Mrs. Ify Akerele, called from the UK. After attending to her call, the man saw me as the kind of lady he would like to work with. He later took me as his finance manager. I remember he told me that I was in the wrong place; that actually, I was not supposed to be an accountant that sits down in the office. He saw me as someone who should be out marketing businesses and that was what I was doing with the chambers because I would go out and market the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping. The truth is anywhere I find myself I’d want to make an impact. It's in my nature and character to make impact anywhere I find myself. It is in the process that I began to market NCS despite being an accountant. Whenever I finished my accounting work, I’d do something else for the benefit of the organization. I hate idle moments. I always want to give myself some responsibilities.
While working for the chambers, I discovered that I had a lot of idle times; I knew that every business may be marketed at one point or the other. If you fail to make yourself or your business, you may not grow the way you are supposed to grow.
Anyway, I left the chambers and joined Salvor. While in Salvor, I found out that I was still involved in marketing; that 80% of the customers from the clearing section of Salvor were my contacts. When I left Salvor, I moved with all my clients to where we find ourselves today which is Clarion Shipping West Africa Limited and that is how we started.
Initially, it was Clarion Bonded Terminal?
No. From the inception of the company which was in 2006 when I started the business, it has always been Clarion Shipping West Africa Ltd. When we expanded to bonded terminal operations, we transmuted to Clarion Shipping West Africa Ltd bonded terminal .The business name as we speak is Clarion Shipping West Africa Limited .But when you tell people you operate a terminal, they will ask you ‘which terminal?’ Then you can say Clarion Off- Dock Terminal or Clarion Bonded Terminal.
In the recent past, your business went through an ordeal after which victory was all yours. Kindly share the experience with us.
The court case that we won is something that warrants a thanksgiving to God Almighty. As a matter of fact, after the day we won the case, the company commenced operations for the year. It happened that we won the case on a fateful Monday when we had already scheduled prayers and mass with the reverend father as usual. This coincided with the court verdict. When I recall all what we went through all the years, I discover that the court it was a huge relief to us. I danced all through the day as a result of the court judgment because whenever I remember that if I want to travel now, I don't have to bother myself with the court case, whether they’ll issue a bench warrant on the date set aside. You looked at a deal you would like to strike and look back that your account is frozen. It was worrisome. So you will discover that there is so much relief after the judgment and when I remember winning the court case, I always say ‘Father, I thank you’.
The issues surrounding the court case is a very long story and the story began with Clarion Shipping West Africa Limited (either bonded terminal or customs warehouse). The beginning of the problem was the beginning of the expansion story of the company and business because everybody knows the truth. Lke I said earlier, I love challenges; I also love to set target. I aim high to the maximum so that even when I don't get the maximum, whatever I will get at the end will still be okay. When you look at somebody with financial limitations and inadequacy dreaming of a bonded terminal business, then you understand that such person is over- ambitious because everybody knows the nature of that kind of business. Everybody knows the capital requirements, the calibre of people that can dream of such. The singular fact that I love dreaming big made me set up Clarion Shipping West Africa Limited. After that, we got our customs agency license and commenced operations because I know the regulations and requirements to run such a business. At a point funding became an issue and we invited our friends who equally felt that the business was indeed a good one. That was how the two friends got involved in the business.
PIX: Mrs. Benardine Eloka
The mere understanding is that the money they brought for the business was actually a loan that would be paid back with interest. But other than that, they said they would be part of the profit- sharing within the period. But you know it is only when something happens that you will understand that experience is the best teacher. One would have asked that question from the beginning: why can't you bring the money and keep it to form equity? But we felt these people are close friends and they have always been supportive. We never knew it would come to the level of fighting over who owns what. Those were the mistakes one found herself in and it will never happen again. When they came to the point to be part and parcel of the management, it made me realize how critical the whole thing was.
Because you don't have all the money needed to do the business, you invited friends for loan and the next is for them to insist be part of the business. But we said that is not the understanding we had in the first place knowing full well that if we run the business aground, we are still liable to them by paying their money by 100%. That was exactly the case I had with them.
They don't have knowledge about the business. I don't even want to go into details on how the person became the chairman of the business because in business before you get clients from anywhere, the company would want to know the background of those that own the business. We were looking at it as ‘freshers’ in the business and we felt ‘this person is a close friend and I can make him the chairman of my business so that when people see my profile and the people involved they will know that the company is intact as regards the calibre of people involved’. This guy that is claiming ownership of the company did not bring in one naira equity into the business. I also remember that we used his office address to register our company. Since we didn't have a business office as at then, we felt we could use him as the chairman of the company because of the clout he has in the society and that was it and nothing else. The guy that was supposed to set up Clarion Shipping West Africa Limited with me was named Henry Okpa. We both sourced for Clarion India to have a base in West Africa. When he noticed that we gave the chairman 25% share and made him the chairman he was like ‘this man does not qualify to own any share in the business’. I never understood what he meant by then. Henry told me that at the moment the company was nothing but that in the future it would be great and that this guy would want to take over the business with all his powers and might. But I didn't understand all what he was saying. That was how Henry abandoned me and Clarion. When the dream started unfolding he came to me and said "I told you that this would happen". It’s really a long story.
The guy goes about telling people that he is the majority share owner. While at the EFCC, I asked him who gave him the 25% share in the business. The truth is that they have no case. Even the court told them that there is no proof to show if they have any business that would warrant generating funds for anybody to steal. However the judgment was very clear because they were never part and parcel of anything Clarion does. Whether in shipping, clearing, logistics and bonded terminal, they don't know anything about the business. I told the judge that I registered Clarion Shipping West Africa Limited and Clarion Bonded Terminal.
How do you cope as a wife, business woman and a mother?
When I got married, there was an understanding between us that house work and rearing children is a whole lot of work on its own that cannot be placed on salary. I would stay in the house, take care of the house and take care of the children at that time. My husband said when the last child would be two years old I could start doing something. I obeyed as a loyal and obedient wife to my husband. That was what happened. For the ten years of my marriage I was a full time housewife and then when the time came for me to launch out, my husband had to give all the support. That support is what people cannot understand today because the guy knows when I was there as a house wife I did the needful and now that I am in business he gave all the support. My children as we speak are children that are brought up by their mother because the evidence is there to show. By the grace of God they are all flying. The man is happy that I was so obedient to him and he knows that I have performed. And that is the enjoyment I have till date.
I have six children and I want to thank my husband for the support he gave back then and now. During the period of the issues we had with those guys they told my husband to let me remain in the kitchen, that I am a woman and that such a business belongs to men. My man ignored their advice. They ended up saying that I am the one controlling my husband.
He told them that the person is getting more than expected results. However, the family doesn’t have any problem. My children don't have any problem because everything was planned and God supported us to achieve it. I can go out anytime I want to; my husband is not complaining because my going out is for a purpose, with positive results.
My husband and I recently met with the MD, Innoson Vehicles Manufacturing Limited and he told my husband that he is the luckiest man alive to have a talented and gifted woman who is very well focused. Innoson also told me that I have a wonderful husband as well for all the support for making me express my stuff .He was the one that urged us to go for the thanksgiving.
People assume that all your company does is import, export and clearing vehicles. Is it true?
We don't import or export; we are not into clearing of vehicles. That is what people who are not in the industry fail to understand. What we do is classified into four segments, which include customs clearing whereby you can import items into the country and we mediate between you and customs to process the clearing and deliver your goods to you. The second thing we do is the one that gave base to the bonded terminal operations which made the people we are talking about to bring money. We also serve as a government warehouse whereby consignees or shipping companies warehouse their goods. We are not importers. As the operator that we are, we take care of imported vehicles from the ports and this is why we have bonds. The fourth has to do with transportation. We are not importers.
Who takes care of the vehicles transferred from the ports?
We are the ones that take care of the vehicles because of the bond and as an operator. They even asked those people that we had issues with in the court if they have bond and they say it is Clarion Shipping that has the bond. It's a 50 million bond and we are the risk bearer; all liabilities are on us. That was how they came that they wantd to run the business with me but I insisted that they should pay the equity.
Where do you see your company ten years from now?
We have been working on how to own a vessel and a port. We want to own a terminal at the port like the seaport terminal operators. In Lagos or anywhere in Nigeria, we want to own a terminal because where we are at the moment is an inland port. That is my vision. Already I have a name for my vessel called MV Bernardine.
Transferring vehicles from Apapa to Alajika where your facility is situated must be problematic following the deplorable ports access roads.
Two years ago we wrote to the Minister about the dilapidated condition of the access roads and the risk it caused on our business. But they never reacted to it. They choose to give us deaf ears even when they claim they are doing something about it. We are actually suffering because the added cost on the roads is transferred to the end users and it's highly beneficial to foreigners. During raining season, our trucks spend two weeks on the road without getting to Tin Can or Apapa; the demurrage charges continue to count. It is something that is heartbreaking.
Do you support local manufacturing of vehicles in Nigeria?
I am in support of locally- made vehicles in Nigeria. In fact, we have decided in this company that we will not buy imported vehicles in order to encourage our people through patronizing their brands because we can easily have an understanding with them. Last year, Innoson was able to prove to the world that Nigeria has what it takes to manufacture vehicles and today the brand is there for us all.
Why are you not interested in women activities in shipping?
I am not a member of any of the groups. I don't think it is necessary for now. Maybe much later in life I might want to be part of them. All those things for now, I believe, are distractions.