Many Nigerians are consumers. This is especially so for those with disposable income. To meet their insatiable consumer needs, companies (both local and international) constantly manufacture different types of products targeted at them. A perfect example of such companies is Austin Laz & Company Plc whose many product lines range from ice block making machines to aluminium roofing sheets and disposable plates.
Apparently, Austin Laz is a very prolific manufacturer. It is also a small-capitalised entity on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), especially when compared with bigger companies such as the NSE 30. Yet, this company plays an important role in the Nigerian economy.
But what investors are interested in knowing is whether this company, which can best be described as a jack of all trades, is just as profitable. It would make common sense that when a company is diversified it would have multiple streams of income and as such be very profitable. But is this the case with Austin Laz?
As the focus of this week’s Nairametrics company profile, this article will help readers learn more about Austin Laz, as well as the investment opportunities inherent in it. In other words, you will read about the company’s history, business model, products, ownership structure, and competition. Most importantly, we will be looking at whether this company is profitable, bearing in mind its many product lines.
About Austin Laz & Company Plc: Its history and business categories
Headquartered in Benin City in Edo State, Austin Laz is a Nigerian manufacturing company which is specialised in the production of both industrial and domestic goods. It manufactures and distributes thermoplastic and building materials.
Initially incorporated in 1982 as a private limited liability company, the company began operation as the first major manufacturer and distributor of ice block making machines in Nigeria. Back then, there was a huge demand for ice blocks in the country, a need which Austin Laz recognised and ensured to take advantage of.
As the years quickly rolled by, the company continued to identify other related areas of needs whilst taking advantage of them all. For instance, it expanded further into thermoplastics in 2002 by producing coolers which are widely used utensils in Nigeria for the purpose of either retaining heat or cold. The company also began manufacturing ice cream machines as well as assorted plastics, including disposable plates, cups and spoons which are typically used at parties.
By the year 2005, Austin Laz & Company Plc had diversified further into the production of aluminium products, ranging from corrugated aluminium roofing sheets to PVC windows.
From the foregoing, it can be seen that Austin Laz & Company Plc’s business model can be broadly categorised into two: thermoplastics and aluminium products. These products are used mainly for domestic and industrial purposes.
Meanwhile, information available on the company’s website has it that there is a total of four subsidiaries namely:
- Austin Laz Engineering (Refrigeration)
- Austin Laz Building Materials (BMT)
- Austin Laz Thermoplastic Coolers and Warmers, and
- Austin Laz Aluminum Roofing sheets
Moving on, Austin Laz converted to a publicly-quoted company in 2011. By 2012, its securities were listed and traded on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE). According to information made available by the company, some 1,079,860 units of shares were held by a total of 370 Nigerians as of December 2017.
Some of the company’s products are listed below:
- Royal metrotile Roof
- Glazed Roofing Tile
- First Lady Coolers/Warmers
- Ice Cream Machine
- PVC Window
- Aloo36p Model, etc.
The company’s ownership structure
According to information contained in Austin Laz & Company Plc’s 2017 full year financial report, there are only three substantial shareholders, each of whom owns a total of one hundred million (100,000,000) units of shares each. These shareholders are Unibake Ltd, Resort Securities Ltd, and Arin Labs Int’l Ltd.
What market audience does Austin Laz target?
The company targets a diverse group of consumers, including end users and industrial users. For instance, its coolers are targeted at average Nigerian mums, many of whom have at least one large or medium-sized cooler in their kitchen store. The coolers are also targeted at food vendors and caterers because they need to keep their foods warm.
In the same vein, the plastic/disposable plates, cups, and cutleries are targeted at food vendors and party caterers. They need these products in order to advance their businesses.
Meanwhile, the ice machine and ice block making machines are also targeted at ice cream makers in fast food restaurants, as well as ice block sellers.
The company’s corrugated aluminium roofing sheets and PVC windows are targeted at homeowners, real estate developers, and generally, operators in the building construction industry.
The company’s board of directors
The board of Austin Laz & Company Plc is comprised of six key members, including the Chairman, Dr Pat Utomi, and the CEO/Vice Chairman, Dr Austin Lazarus Asimonye. Others include Barrister Mrs. C.O. Asimonye (Director), Barrister Ifeanyi Offor (Director), Engineer Charles Odita (Director), and Dr Oguike Tempe.
Is Austin Laz & Company Plc faced with any competition?
Yes, there are competitors dragging market share with Austin Laz, especially in the building material segment. Some of these competitors include First Aluminum Nigeria Plc, Aluminum Extrusion Industries Plc, Sparkle Aluminium Company, Mathelise Aluminium Limited, Tower Aluminium Nigeria Plc, etc. These companies are major players in the aluminium industries, manufacturing and distributing various types of aluminium products, including roofing materials. They all, therefore, constitute a huge competitive threat to Austin Laz.
A look at the company’s financial performance
As we noted earlier, Austin Laz is a relatively small company compared to others with a market capitalisation of just ₦2.26 billion. Being a small-cap firm, it is not surprising that this company’s revenues and profits are simply counted in millions instead of billions.
But its small-cap status notwithstanding, the truth is that this company’s financial performance has not been favourable. For instance, according to its recently reported financial statement for the period ended September 30th, only a total revenue of ₦297.1 million was recorded alongside a loss after tax of ₦25.3 million.
It makes for a rather curious case that even though Austin Laz has a really diversified business operation, it still struggles to maintain profitability. Attempts to determine what exactly is responsible for the absence of growth proved difficult. This is because generally, the company’s financial reports are not comprehensive and lack some vital information, including the Chairman’s usual explanation of financial performance. Moreover, there is no information about segments’ performances which would have helped to determine if there is a segment that is slowing growth.
Meanwhile, there are possibilities that the company’s underperformance is due to a protracted legal dispute which involved the Bank of Industry. In a July press statement signed by the company’s Secretary, Mr Ifeanyi Ofor, it was disclosed that the company had finally regained control of a vital production plant which had been sealed off for four years. Apparently, a loan deal gone awry had necessitated the sealing-off of the property. The company said the act, which it described as illegal, “disrupted the company’s activities for over five years.”
The statement went ahead to promise that the company would bounce back now that the dispute is over. It is, however, left to be seen if this is possible. In the meantime, Nairametrics will keep an eye out to see how the company fares by the end of the financial year and beyond.
Cloud services are your safest bet against data and intellectual breaches – Adejumo, Cloudflex founder
The rule of keeping data within the country of origin allows Cloudflex to collaborate rather than compete with international players.
The Twitter community went up in flames last year when the official accounts of notable personalities like Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama were hacked by individuals who managed to rip some followers of their cryptocurrency. Those accounts were suspended for some days pending investigations but what this did was to alert the world to the need for heightened cybersecurity in countries.
In Nigeria, particularly, where cybercrime has been on the increase in the last couple of years, cybersecurity is a touchy topic; especially since global laws expect that customer data should not be stored outside the company of origin and most of the cloud services companies are international. There is, however, a local cloud company providing cloud services for Nigerians in Nigeria.
Cloudflex was founded in 2016 and has focused on providing cloud support infrastructure and services for companies away from the company premises. Founder and CEO of Cloudflex, Remi Adejumo was a guest on Nairametrics Business Half Hour recently, where he explained that the company was created to provide tailored solutions for clients in the Nigerian space.
Having worked almost three decades in several institutions, the last of which was EcoBank Nigeria Plc where he was in charge of IT Infrastructure, Adejumo saw the opportunity to create a Nigerian-built cyber-security solution, “that is fully Nigerian and run by Nigerians.”
“This is not a service where one size fits all. We have our peculiarities as a market and we are designed to serve the Nigerian market. If you want to get a foreign cloud service, you could wait 6 to 8 weeks, but if you want to get one from Cloudflex, you could have it in 24 hours.” Adejumo explained.
When companies were making several adjustments to fully activate the remote-working policy at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, the importance of cloud services became more obvious. Companies needed a round-the-clock server from where the staff could access data from their homes and still work seamlessly.
The rule of keeping data within the country of origin allows Cloudflex to collaborate rather than compete with international players like Microsoft Azure and Amazon’s AWS, and use one another’s platforms.
There are a lot of security concerns about cloud services which some people think is not safe enough, but cloud-service providers would still insist that they are the safest option.
“The cloud platform is far safer than your own private server because your private server is on your premises and everyone knows where it is. From experience, 70% of breaches are done by the staff of your own organisation, and having a third party manage your own platform, means that you and your staff don’t know where it is. There is a protocol in giving access from the service provider, so security is higher. The data breach is not just financial, it is also intellectual. You can secure a building as much as you want, but as long as there is a door, somebody can still go in. That is the limit to your physical server in your office premises,” Adejumo explained.
There are also advancements in predictive learning, analysis, and reactive security, that allows the cloud systems to detect and flag activities outside the patterns until it is confirmed and validated.
Like most other startups in the tech space, funding remains a challenge. Adejumo recounts that the company started off solely on his savings and proceeds from the sales of some assets. Nigerian investors appear to still be sceptical of the tech startups and the result of this is that a lot of investment in the tech space comes from outside the country.
Cloud services will play a major role in the future of cybersecurity and Cloudflex is poised to take a space in that scene. According to Adejumo, the company is in the process of securing funds for expansion, although crowdfunding is not one of the options being considered.
Interswitch: The story of one of Africa’s earliest unicorn companies
Interswitch has come a long way, pioneering the Nigerian digital payments system.
One can hardly switch from the years of carrying large volumes of cash around to the years of using a card for financial transactions in Nigeria, without mentioning Interswitch.
Like the name suggests, the company uses a ‘switching’ infrastructure to connect the different banks in Nigeria and provides the technology now used for ATM cards. From a time when the company had only 3 banks on its network, Interswitch has grown in the last 19 years and now has 11,000 ATMs across different banks on its network.
How the journey started
A young graduate working in Telnet, Mitchell Elegbe was worried by the several inconveniences Nigerians had to go through to carry out financial transactions. From making long and stressful journeys to the banks, waiting in long queues, missing transaction deadlines, and increased loss of cash to criminals, that was certainly not the easiest of times to be an adult. Some opted for bank drafts to avoid carrying cash to travel, and I remember accompanying my mother to the bank a couple of time to buy a bank draft to pay my school fees.
Many people had to join long queues at the banks on Friday evening to withdraw enough cash for the weekend, and this naturally meant that weekends became work hours for criminals. The most frustrating part of it was that the bank branches did not have any software connecting them, so customers had to continue withdrawing money from the exact branch they opened the account, even when they needed to make long business trips. Even the highway became a playfield for robbers.
The young Elegbe who had only worked two years after his National Youth Service Corps, came up with the Switch idea, but the plans did not materialise as many traditional players were not interested in buying the switch software.
Not deterred by this little glitch, Elegbe went ahead to establish Interswitch, an organisation which would use the Switch software to address the problem. This time, he got the support of Accenture, and also got buy-in from some banks to raise a part of the start-up capital. Getting a Chief Executive to head the company was the next hurdle to be crossed, as Elegbe recalls that most of the capable hands then available were expatriates “who expected to earn more than the company’s capital”.
In search of cheap labour, he had to take up the task even though he had very little experience thus resigning his job at Telnet. The shareholders and the sponsoring company (TELNET) had their concerns at first, but they gave Insterswitch a shot and under Elegbe’s leadership, the company pushed through the uncertain years to become what it is now. Eight years later after starting Interswitch, the company was valued to be worth N26 billion (over $170 million), giving massive returns to early private equity holders. The company’s network grew steadily from 7 banks to 13, and then an ATM consortium and Globacom, a mobile telecommunications provider, up till this point when it has almost all Nigerian banks and 11,000 ATMs on its network.
Though Elegbe had no shares at the outset, his impressive performance earned him and his team some equity in the company in the coming years.
“So you have somebody who invested N10 million in this business going away with N2.6 billion after eight years. That to me was real value,” Elegbe said. When you help solve big problems, Mitchell says, you’re bound to be well rewarded.
Mitchell Elegbe is now the Group MD & CEO, Akeem Lawal is Divisional CEO, Switching & Processing Group while Mike Ogbalu is CEO, Verve International.
In 2019, Visa bought a fifth of Interswitch at a valuation of $1billion, making Interswtich Africa’s first fintech unicorn.
Interswitch is the owner of Verve, an international debit card and Nigeria’s most used payment card which is said to account for over 70% of the 25 million cards in circulation in the country. The company also owns Quickteller, an online payments platform; Retailpay, a mobile business management platform; Interswitch S&P, the first Nigerian in-country interbank transaction switching and third party processing for all card brands; and Smartgov, an identity management and e-payment infrastructure for state governments. Interswitch now serves almost all the state government of Nigeria, and is present in several other African countries including Kenya and Uganda.
Just last month, the group announced the launch of Quickteller Business – a new comprehensive corporate solution focused on empowering businesses of all sizes, to facilitate payments and manage transactions from anywhere in the world– through one, simple integrated platform. The platform added to its launch offer, a three-month zero transaction fee incentive for SMEs that sign up immediately.
Buy-ins, acquisitions and buy-outs
Interswitch has had several achievements over the years, and some more distinct than others. Two-third of the company was sold to a consortium led by Helios Investment Partners in 2010, and barely a year after, Interswitch took a 60% stake in Bankom in Uganda.
In 2013 the payment processing company entered into an agreement with Discover Financial Services, and in September 2014, Interswitch acquired a majority shareholding in Paynet Group, an East-African payments provider.
In 2015 Interswitch launched a $10m investment fund for African start-ups in the payments sector, and has since then, strategically invested in other African startups in the payments services.
Interswitch has also acquired VANSO, a mobile-focused technology provider to banks. This new acquisition has VANSO’s mobile banking, SMS and security business lines being fully integrated into Interswitch’s digital commerce and technology operations in Nigeria, and across Africa.
The IPO that never was
It was in 2016 the Interswitch first hinted at an Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the London Stock Exchange and /or the Nigerian Stock Exchange as part of options to create possible exits for its backers, but that listing never happened due to “unfavourable economic situation”.
By July 2019, it was reported that Interswitch had resumed its IPO plans and enlisted JPMorgan Chase & Co and Standard Bank Group to work on the potential IPO that was expected to value the company between $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion. This listing was expected to come through by 2020, but it is believed that the COVID-19 pandemic and other economic issues which plagued 2020 may have altered the company’s plans.
A recent statement from the CEO says that Interswitch will continue with alliances in line with its growth plans, but an IPO might not be in immediate view. According to him an IPO may be considered when private equity investors want an exit out of the business.
In place of the earlier expected IPO, the company announced the listing of N23 million bond on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) in February 2020. The bond is to run at a fixed interest rate of 15% for a tenure of 7 years.
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