The New Vision is in throes of celebrating its thirty years of existence. On March 19th 1986 the first issue – a grainy black and white, eight page newspaper hit the streets. The initial one thousand copy print run was snapped up within hours of landing in the vendors hands.
Uganda was barely two months into the new NRM administration and information was at a premium.
Over the last three decades the paper has grown into a multi-media company that straddles the media industry like a colossus.
"All this achieved while beginning from a literal standing start in 1986 – the company’s accounts show that it was started with only a sh42m grant or about $30,000 from government, which included the land it sat on, furniture and some cash...
There are lessons to be had from this 30 year odyssey that will not only serve Ugandan businessmen well but the country as a whole.
1. Service above money
The New Vision was built with a mission to “Inform, Educate and Entertain”, which has informed its middle of the road reporting tradition. It has been a profitable company every year but the first one of its life. While being profitable has been good, it is the basis on which the company can continue to pursue its original mission. The company has been painfully frugal – in its first year the entertainment budget came in at sh360,000, about $250 then and there has been little need to contract debt over the company’s lifespan. There have been many opportunities to make money away from the company’s core mission but these have only provided a passing temptation. Making money is good but is only a by-product of a service that is delivered well and cost effectively.
2. Systems are everything
From the very beginning there has been an emphasis on developing and respecting systems. So much so that management staff have taken regular leave from the company’s earliest days without a fear that they would return to find a company tittering on the brink of disaster. This discipline has ensured that even as the company has expanded it has done so almost seamlessly.
"The story of our businesses is that in the last half century of independent Uganda there are a handful of indigenous companies that have transcended a generation successfully, the major failure being their lack of structure...
3. People are key
New Vision has no choice but to take its Human Resource seriously, as it is its biggest asset literally and figuratively. Systems are all very good but in a knowledge company, a lack of investment in the people would be detrimental to the product quality and company durability. Competitive remuneration, regular training and the establishing of a conducive working environment are the hallmarks of the company’s history.
It used be one of the better paying companies in town, not any more, but that is a function more of the economics of the industry than anything else.
4. Life is a marathon not a sprint
"Media companies have come and gone. The New Vision is not more special only maybe in its strict adherence to its journalistic tradition and financial discipline, which has been key to not only staying afloat but thriving through the ups and downs of the last three decades. For many businessmen when the money starts flowing, the cost of their lifestyles rises to consume the new surpluses and when the bad times come as the inevitably do the business can’t stand on it’s own feet for lack of savings.
The media world is changing at a very rapid pace. No sooner have new technologies been adopted than they are rendered obsolete. It is against this background that it may be hard to say with certainty that the New Vision will be here in 30 years’ time, or at least still be a predominantly media company.
However, the lessons can serve as a useful basis for other companies to learn from.
It is critical that we build credible businesses, because a country is only as viable as its private sector.