Wondering over which of Nigeria’s many businesses would go home with the trophy of the grand doyen of the Nigerian business space? Look no further: it is CSS Limited! Mr Dare Oluwatuyi, incumbent MD/CEO at CSS Limited spoke to Business Hallmark about the feeling, the journey and the future even as the firm marks 150 years of doing business in the country. Excerpts:
At 150 years, CSS Limited may be the oldest surviving business organization in the country today, how does that make you feel?
Well, I will say I feel elated and I am happy to be part of the structure at 150. As you have rightly put it, we are likely to be the oldest standing business organization in the country. And I think this has been possible because of the owners of the business. It’s not a one-man business. Right from the beginning, it has had an organized structure. Yes the company has had its ups and downs but we have been able to survive up until this time. So I am very happy to be part of the story and also very happy to be at the helm of affairs while the company is celebrating its 150th year anniversary.
It is striking that the business was started by the Church and the information we have is that the Church still forms its core investor base. Would that be correct?
Yes it is correct. To refresh our memory, the company was established by early missionaries. It predates the amalgamation and ab initio it was established not as a business venture per se but as a channel for bringing in resources for the establishment of schools and churches. Then it used to bring in not only Christian literature but also building materials: planks, iron roofs, nails, and related stuff. It was then known as CMS (Church Missionary Society) Bookshop. At a point, the company started selling some of those materials to indigenous Nigerians.
I remember some fifteen years ago when the veteran bookseller, Mr Adefila of Adefila Bookshops told me stories about when he was patronizing CSS Bookshops. He said that they would come and buy planks, iron rods, roofing materials and nails from the company. The company was at this time chiefly engaged in the distribution of Bibles, Christian literature and books to schools and other users. After some time, when it was realized that the schools that it had set up were becoming stable and more solidly established, and that its own churches were also becoming quite stable and strong, the owners of the company now took the decision to also begin selling some more of those same materials that they were already engaged in to other general members of the public. But care was taken to ensure that they were traded at basically break-even prices. That’s how the company started evolving and at a time it had branches in literally all the then established major cities in Nigeria. You may be surprised if I tell you that CMS Bookshop had over 90 branches at a point!
It had now become a business and was then incorporated as a Limited Liability Company. It was at this point also that the name was changed to Church and School Supplies, CSS Limited to cover the expanding scope of the business. We were now supplying schools with books and other resources even as we equally continued supplying the churches with their needed materials, more so when they are the owners of the business. At this time also, most of these materials were being indigenously produced. So we would make them ourselves and then distribute and sell.
And then for the churches themselves, when they want to produce their own materials, we equally did it for them. You know that we have our own press, the CSS Press, which is also about the oldest press in West Africa as it was established in 1913. Then we also started supplying schools beyond even the schools that the CMS mission had established. This was in addition to their just coming to buy materials from us at our shops.
Part of our continuing success factor is that C|SS is not a one-man business in structure. The Church’s interest as owners and prime drivers has always been protected. Whatever we do, we take into consideration the fact that we are a Church-based organization. Pricing must be reasonable and our operations Christ-like. And so when we go to some places, people may remark, are you still around, and we will say yes. The fact is that being a slim-profiting organization, we did not have the cash to be loud even if we wanted to.
We have always endeavoured to ensure that our pricing is very reasonable and as such we primarily focus on breaking even, paying the salaries of our staff and paying dividends to shareholders. Our shareholders are about 80 per cent Church-based. They are the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), and several of the dioceses that are also within the Church. Infact, for CSS Bookshops itself, about all of the shares are owned by the church.
But the Bookshop is not our only line of business as in addition to the Bookshops, we also have the CSS Press and Bookshops House Limited but it is CSS Bookshop that most people know.
Bookshops House Limited is the arm of the business that focuses on our properties and property investments. At the time we had over 90 branches spread all over the country and most of those properties were directly owned by the company.
To be continued…..