The stunning mansion in Dubai’s Emirates Hills gated community is crammed with countless frills, some customary, some not. The eastern European shepherd guard dogs, the liveried staff and the line-up of shiny Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Porsches and Lamborghinis in the indoor lot set the tone. Then there is the exotic-bird-filled aviary, the bowling alley, the nightclub, the automatic car wash, the outdoor singing bar frequented by the likes of Lionel Richie and, for the deepest of pockets, a basement casino. The tables come alive when Sunil Vaswani, chairman of $3.72 billion (revenues) Stallion Group, headquartered nearby, hosts his famed soirees.
“Africa is a complex jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are just beginning to fall into place; we plan to invest a further $9 billion in the coming years to help Western Africa,” Vaswani declares. The strategy: To grow, build or make on the continent, not be a mere go-between. He wants Stallion to expand steel, farming and auto operations and get into fertiliser production, power, roads and health care—all sectors in need of investors. “We want to be the Africa specialist; we want to partner with credible global names and African institutions,” he says.
Nabbing a Blackstone or a Carlyle from private equity would also leave Vaswani less prone to buffeting by political winds as in Nigeria’s past decade—he was deported under president Obasanjo, then brought back under Yar’Adua and enjoyed a golden period under Goodluck Jonathan. Things are still uncertain in the new Muhammadu Buhari era, but Vaswani is thinking big: “Our plan is to supply roti [food] and makaan [home or shelter] for Western Africa’s 340 million people… but not kapda [clothing], as we can’t compete with Chinese prices,” he says.
In 1954 Vaswani’s father, Sunderdas, migrated to Africa to work as a shop assistant, first in Ghana and then in Nigeria. He thrived and years later began opening stores for imported sundries under the name Jacky Impex. Sunil arrived in Nigeria as an infant in 1963, and his brothers were born there. He went to college in London, returning at 21 with a degree in finance and accountancy. Jacky Impex’s slowing operations did not inspire hope. “I told Dad that we needed to switch and get into what the country most required—shiploads of food,” he says. “The turnaround in commodities like rice, wheat and sugar would be faster and margins higher because of high demand and short supply.”
In 1983 Jacky Impex became Stallion Industries, named after Vaswani’s favourite animal. A team specialising in finance and port operations opened the rice trade. From the profits Vaswani bought eight fishing trawlers to meet local demand and bring in shellfish for Europe. The food business grew despite Nigeria’s road and power gaps.
Stallion’s car distribution began in 1989 and grew until 2003, the year of the deportation from Nigeria. It was all rubbish, Vaswani says: “Certain rivals wanted me out of Nigeria so they could monopolise sectors. They engineered my family’s exit through trumped-up allegations.”
The family’s exile in Dubai turned out to be a blessing. “The anger,” Vaswani says, “made me work so hard, I was driven and told myself I will never allow another competitor to do this to me again.” The siblings returned to Nigeria in 2007, only to be banished again in 2009. This time they challenged the action in the courts, got a government apology, damages and a new welcome. Vaswani became a Nigerian citizen in 2010.
Stallion acquired a defunct Volkswagen assembly line in 2010 and began assembling buses for India’s Leyland. A year later Stallion began lobbying the Nigerian government to buoy its domestic auto industry. “If Brazil with a similar population could kick off a 3-million-cars-a-year domestic industry by levying high import duties, why can’t Nigeria?” was Vaswani’s argument.
By 2013’s end the Jonathan government had announced a National Automotive Industry Development Plan with import duties of 20 percent to 70 percent on vehicles. Stallion’s rivals cried foul, saying it had received an inside tip-off and had flooded the market with imports. In mid-2014, with the backing of Carlos Ghosn, Stallion got its foot in the factory door, rolling out a ‘Nigeria-made’ Nissan, a first for the global automaker in Nigeria. Hyundai vehicles and Iveco (Italian) trucks followed.
“Nigeria and Pakistan are the only two countries with over 100 million people without a domestic car-manufacturing industry,” Vaswani says. The acquisition of an integrated steel plant, one of only two in Nigeria, feeds into his goal of building a low-cost “people’s car” with Chinese technology, a 1.6-litre engine, sub-$10,000 sedan that will cater to the market of an annual half-million used-car buyers. Sounding like one of his lot men, he says: “It will come with a tempting single-digit interest rate and a service package.”
Agriculture can follow suit: Stallion has set up rice mills and is working with farmers to seal supply. It is adding aquaculture to fish imports. In the works are mining, fertiliser production and a power project. “We are keen on big ideas that make it worth our effort,” says Suresh Vaidyanathan, the group’s chief financial officer and Vaswani’s shadow. “Execution risk is very high in Nigeria, but Mr Vaswani always pushes the group into taking bigger risks.”
Back in Dubai, where he repairs to most weekends to spend time with his family, Vaswani declares: “I want Stallion to play a key role in Nigeria’s and Western Africa’s industrialisation as well as its green revolution.”
(Additional reporting by Tolu Ogunlesi)
(This story appears in the 29 October, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)