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Dick Kramer grew up in Kansas where he watched his parents and grandparents, who were pioneers, build farms, schools, businesses and communities from the scratch. It was from them and from the vast plains of Kansas he learned hard work, honesty, discipline and commitment to building communities for posterity.
He has spent his entire 85 years living tirelessly these lifelong principles and devoted just as much to imbibing them in others. Dick, as he is known to friends and even first time acquaintances, strives to do right consistently. Protégés, friends, colleagues and business partners all remember him firmly footed in his beliefs, even decades after their first encounter. He is down to earth, a straight talker, patient listener, mentor, father, friend and lover of Nigeria
A modern day pioneer and management missionary, he led the startup of Arthur Andersen (AA) offices in Buenos Aires, Brussels and Lagos from the scratch. Argentina was his first mission. This was nine years after he graduated from Harvard Business School in 1958 where he learned best practices of management.
To understand the pioneers of America is to catch a glimpse of the formative years of Dick.
Red Cloud, Nebraska is 494 kilometres north of Hugoton, Kansas, where Dick was born in 1934. Red Cloud is the setting of the epic novels of Willa Cather, particularly her prairie trilogy: O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia, her most celebrated novel.
The fictional lives portrayed in the works of Willa Cather give a window to the early years of Dick Kramer. Reading about Cather and her works gives one tasked with writing about Dick the free rein to imagine his upbringing. It makes one understand those years he spent with his parents and grandparents as they farmed the uncultivated prairie land of Southwest Kansas. Otherwise it would be difficult to understand how he became a modern day pioneer and management missionary.
O Pioneers!, the first of the trilogy, was written in 1913, 21 years before Dick was born. It was the first of many books that Cather wrote based on her memories of Red Cloud. She drew inspiration for the novel, and subsequent others, from the farming communities she encountered as a child in the plains of Nebraska. The flat, sombre land, the work of the pioneers as farmers and their rural lives were the subject matter of her novels. She composed her stories from the lives of people she knew; from the experience of immigrants from Germany, Poland and Sweden who first lived in the plains. The grandparents of Dick were European immigrants.
In the works of Cather, “the land is the hero”, notes David Stouck in a historical essay on O Pioneers! In her debut novel, Cather depicts the grit of the characters, of life lived close to the ground as they make the wild land succumb to their labours to yield grains. While their youthful romances, church communities, shared joys and sorrows, love of family and friends, the lifelong lessons learned from mothers and grandmothers, the quiet example of fathers and grandfathers serve as a backdrop. This is probably the closet description to the early years of Dick.
How Dick met Wanda, his teenage sweetheart and wife of 67 years, is a living example of the youthful romance Cather wrote about. Both are children of “the strong pioneer families who built vibrant communities throughout rural America” writes Dick in the first chapter of Making Change Happen: Partnering to Build Nigeria, a book published to mark his 80th birthday in 2014. They were born in the same year, grew up together attending the same school, church and youth activities. Dick reckons his parents fell in love with Wanda faster than he did and approved their marriage before they left for university.
The idea of modern day pioneers comes from Wanda. In Making Change Happen, she likens their decision to come to Nigeria in 1978 as a late response to the call missionaries of their church made to them as teenagers to come to Africa.
O Pioneers! was dedicated to Sarah Orne Jewett, “who advised Cather that the things ‘which haunt the mind for years’ are the proper material for serious literature.” You can tell memories of Kansas where Dick was born and raised never left his mind. And like Cather, remembrances of these past times forged Dick.
In an interview with BusinessDay to mark his 80th birthday, he relates how his background shaped his tireless commitment to nation building long after retiring as Managing Partner of Arthur Andersen, Nigeria in 1994. “You have to realise this is the result of the way I was born and raised. My grandparents were pioneers who settled in the part of Kansas that I grew up in. There were no school systems; there were no towns, nothing at all. And then they started the process. It was my parents’ generation that renovated a lot of those buildings and we were raised with the idea that we are supposed to leave the world better than we found it.”
How then does a modern day pioneer work to leave a better world? In the case of Dick it was through management, as a leader, mentor and investor. Ernest Shonekan, a friend and business partner for decades, calls Dick a “missionary manager”. Imo Itsueli, another close friend who has worked with him for close to 40 years is more colourful, “…Working with Dick is akin to being permanently in a Harvard or Cambridge Executive programme specializing in emerging environments, with a focus on Nigeria.”
Other management-related pioneer works of Dick in Nigeria, apart from the startup of AA, include the Lagos Business School (LBS), the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG), African Capital Alliance (ACA), American Business Council (ABC), Harvard Business School Alumni Nigeria (HBSAN) and BusinessDay.
One way to depict Dick, the leader, mentor and investor is through his involvement in the founding of BusinessDay. During the early years of NESG, he got Frank Aigbogun, the Publisher of BusinessDay who was then Editor of the Vanguard, involved. Dick recognised the role of the media in pushing ideas for reform in a military era; particularly when, as Aigbogun narrates, soldiers and businesspeople were considered the twin enemies of Nigeria.
Later on, Dick inspired Aigbogun to set up BusinessDay in 2000 and ACA invested in it. Dick, as Chairman of the Editorial Advisory Board of BusinessDay (long after the private equity firm he co-founded divested) has been pivotal in its journey to become Nigeria’s first and leading daily business and financial newspaper.
Every first Monday of the month for 14 years, the board has met without fail in his house. So long as you thought straight and talked straight you had the attention of Dick. Otherwise, he would learn forward, stare you in the eyes and ask you to defend the logic behind your conclusions. All evening the editorial team and other advisory board members would test what we heard or thought we knew. Sometimes,these discussions went on late into the evening until Wanda walked quietly down the stairs to ask Dick to come upstairs.
This newspaper has gained insights and maintained the trust of its readers through these roundtable discussions (Dick dislikes high tables but prefers work tables). Often he was at the table to welcome us with a smile, a joke, a strong handshake or a warm embrace, and a cup of water, tea or coffee.
A man of many maxims, Dick dispenses them with witty aplomb at these meetings: “In Nigeria conventional wisdom is often wrong. There is no “I” in team. The right people doing the right things consistently for the long-term will produce excellent results. You need to be deep before you are broad. Find the best, train them and get out of their way.”
His unflappable confidence in Nigeria is unparalleled. When discussions about the socio-economic condition of Nigeria become pessimistic, he is often the lone fan in the room cheering for Nigeria. Pointing to upsides and potential returns the country holds, with examples of where the private sector has done well due to government reforms, no matter how few and far between. A sage who has seen countries, communities and companies built in conditions comparable to that of Nigeria, he would add: “Nigeria is undermanaged. …what needs to be done for Nigeria to become a highly successful nation has been charted and is relatively well defined.”
Only a man who has recruited, trained, partnered and worked with some of the Nigeria’s best and brightest can speak with such confidence. It’s the assurance of a man who early on in his career learned that “it only takes one committed generation to build a great nation”. A man who Dotun Sulaiman, a protégé who succeeded him at AA, says “…has more faith in Nigeria and confidence in the future of Nigeria than most of us Nigerians.” It is the certainty of man who agreed to help start the LBS even though they didn’t have a building, enough money or a faculty.
With his wit, good nature and confidence these informal executive programmes specialised on Nigeria as an emerging economy have become a source for lifelong learning. Probably more for Dick than for us; he always took notes.
In all of these, the sense of being a leader of a family, community or team was never missing. A keen sports man, Dick was the quarterback of his high school American football team and the point guard of the basketball squad. Wanda was a cheerleader and rode with the Kramers to his games. The first hires of AA remember the lunch and dinner Wanda made for them in the early years. They recall the interest Dick took in their family.
Ezekiel Uvoh, his personal assistant for over 40 years, says Dick is “like a father rather than a boss”. He recounts Wanda and Dick picking he adn his wife at the airport when they visited the US. “Dick personally drove us around to different places. Can you imagine 79-year old Dick driving me and my wife all around town?”
Like his pioneer forebears, Dick and his family adapted, without losing their ideals, to the culture and lives of the different places they found themselves. Some may read the simplicity and ordinariness of their lives as deceptive or condescending or masked White saviour-complex. Dick and Wanda owe no one apologies. They readily shared their lives with the people they encountered in South America, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
Rather, as everyone who has met Dick will attest, he blended his American pragmatism with Nigerian resilience to become a huge believer, one of the few alive, in the potential of Nigeria. In that interview five years ago, he asks, “Where else in the world can you find the arable land that has not been fully used, the water resources, and the mineral resources, great people that are educated and have the right skills?”
This characteristic pragmatism of Dick and Wanda no doubt played a role in their choice of a permanent home in Amarillo, Texas. It’s close to the family farm in Kansas, health facilities and near to all connections to Lagos.
Kirk, one of the Kramer’s two sons, best explains the genius of Dick Kramer, if there was ever one. It is the humility to understand that he can only achieve so much, the pragmatism to pick projects carefully (Dick is never short of projects to dedicate himself to), the confidence to spot, nurture and pass the baton to other leaders who will continue what he started, and in this way have a multiple impact on communities, companies and countries. Dick consistently applied this model to develop nation builders like Kunle Elebute, Dotun Sulaiman, Seyi Bickersteth, Ifueko Omoigui Okauru, Babatunde Lemo, Omobola Johnson, Okey Enelamah, Juliet Anammah, Uche Orji and Fola Laoye.
All his life, Dick transplanted the ideals he learned from his grandparents, parents and the prairie wherever he went. He continues to give himself to achieve a noble, enduring life in order to sprout other lives. He is determined to wear out rather than rust out as his father taught him, just like the people in the novels of Willa Cather who “melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all but life itself.”
By Tayo Fagbule, Chairman, Editorial Board