The grass to grace story of Seahorse boss, Ebuka Onunkwo
Easygoing and humane, the Chief Executive Officer of Seahorse Lubricant Industries Limited, Ebuka Onunkwo, is a silent achiever. Humble and hard working, the Ihembosi, Anambra State-born does not flaunt his wealth; you need to be close enough to him to know his true worth. Even as the Eze Igbo in Cotonou, Benin Republic, Onunkwo remains unassuming, cool and calm.
He turned 48 earlier this month, and in his usual way, he didn’t throw a big party. In fact, he was in Lagos on his birthday with his wife and daughter, who will soon be leaving the country for further studies, to keep a visa appointment at an embassy. Notwithstanding, the industrialist was amazed with outpouring of wishes from friends, family members and staff; his social media handles kept buzzing.
In the evening of same day, his media consultants paid him a surprise visit at his hotel in Victoria Island, where they presented him with cake and popped champagne in his honour. To reciprocate the gesture, the ‘birthday boy’ arranged a buffet for everyone in the hotel’s restaurant.
However, his staff in Anambra took the celebration to the next level with a special video, which they recorded right from the factory. The senior staff of the company had assembled themselves and made a special birthday video for their boss, who obviously had impacted their lives positively. The video showed the staff in semicircle, singing ‘Happy Birthday…’ to their boss, with one of them conducting the makeshift choir; the video was then sent to him via WhatsApp.
“I almost shed tears when I saw that video,” Onunwko said, beaming with smiles. “I was like, ‘so, this people can organise this for me? So, they are thinking about me in this manner when I didn’t even instruct them?’ It came to me as a surprise; I was intoxicated with joy when I first saw it.
“They’ve been sending me individual messages, each expressing how they see me. The inspirational words I got from these people are touching; I’m so happy about this.“I’m very happy, especially when I see people commenting, saying so many good things about me; I didn’t even know I possess those qualities. To me, I did not do anything special about this birthday, but people took over the celebration, doing everything. But the way people are taking the birthday, celebrating it in my absence, gives me more joy than any other thing.”
“I asked myself, ‘had it been it was my death, so this is how tributes will be pouring in?’ I’m happy not because of the wine, cakes or cars, but what people feel about me. This is a challenge to me not to deviate from the way I’ve been living,” he said.
Unlike those, who were born with a silver spoon in the mouths, Onunkwo worked his way to fame and fortune. Not even the fact that his parents couldn’t see him through the university was a barrier.
“In my primary school days, I was one of the best in Ihiala Local Government Area; I wrote the best Common Entrance examination to enter into secondary school. But before the result was released, my parents had sent me to Warri to do apprenticeship. I went to learn a trade. When the results were released, my teachers and the headmaster were mad, ‘Where is this guy? Do you want to spoil the brain?’ That was how the news got to my elder brother in Enugu and he came to see my Oga,” he narrated.
Back home, the family resolved to send him to secondary school, thereby ending his apprenticeship in Warri. “I started school on Monday at Okija Grammar School without an interview in 1984. In class, people were pointing at me saying, ‘that’s the guy who scored highest.’ They had been waiting to see me because the result was pasted on the notice board,” he added.
Being a smart kid, Ebuka was part of the school’s debating club; he represented the school in different competitions at the state level.“Particularly, in 1989, I represented Onitsha Zone in Enugu; it was between my school and Nkeje Girls. I remember the topic of the debate was, ‘In our present society, the rich gets richer and the poorer get poorer.’ Nteje Girls was to propose the topic, while we were to oppose it, which was a difficult thing to do. Unfortunately, Nteje Girls won the debate,” he noted.
By the time he left secondary school, things went from bad to worse for the family to the extent that paying his fees became a major challenge, following the death of his father in 1986.“I lost my father when I was in JSS 2. So, after my secondary school, there was no money to go to university, even though I was brilliant. So, I told my mother that I would like to go back to apprenticeship. This time, they gave their consent and that was how I found myself in Idiroko Border, Ogun State.”
Serving under his nephew, young Ebuka was in the business for three years. And by 1994 when General Sani Abacha took over, Benin Republic’s money was devalued, making things difficult for their Cotonou customers.“It was expensive for them to come to Nigeria to buy things. So, I told my master, ‘let’s leave this place and go into Cotonou. These people are no longer coming, but they still need spare parts.’
When he agreed, I went into Cotonou to look for a shop and I got one, though they said the owner would leave at the end of the month. But towards the end of the month, my master said he was no longer interested that I should continue staying with him. He promised to post me to another branch and I said, “okay, I will go, but if I witness the same thing there, I will not stay.”
Eventually, hi master took him to his new location in the morning, but by evening, he came back for him, saying that his elder brother just died.“So, we had to go to the village. After the burial, I was in the village for about a month; that was when I decided I will not stay with my master anymore; my mind was in Cotonou. When I returned, I told him I want to move to Cotonou and he said, ‘Okay, if you want to go, there’s no problem, but I don’t have money to give you.”He stated that there were four different Ogas in the shop he was operating in; one was selling motorcycle spare parts, the other was selling Renault, the other Peugeot, while his master deals on Volkswagen parts. Having no money to finance his business in Cotonou, Ebuka came up with a plan that eventually paid off.
“I went to the man selling Peugeot parts and got front grail and fan blade, which I used to attract customers. The man gave me goods worth N1, 150. I went to another man, who wanted to sell off his goods and I bought them for N6, 105. I assembled all of them, waiting for a Customs Officer from Benin Republic to help me cross the goods.”As it turned out, the Customs Officer had a spare parts shop in Cotonou, but he didn’t know the trade. So, Ebuka saw an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands.“He just put somebody there and they were buying nonsense for him. So, I spoke to the man for us to combine the business, since I know the trade. He agreed and we started doing business as partners.”
He continued: “One day, a customer came to buy spare parts from me; the ones I didn’t have, I took from my neighbour. The next morning, I ran to Idumota in Lagos to buy more and added to the ones I had. I was very honest with the customer and we had a good relationship.
“At a point, the Customs Officer said he was no longer interested in the business, so, we took stock and I paid him off. That was how I started business.”Unlike other Nigerian traders, who set up their business in the main town, Onunkwo’s shop was a bit off town, which turned out to work in his favour.“I was in the outskirts of the main town; most Igbo traders clustered themselves in one place called Dantokpa Market. I stayed away from there and it helped me a lot. Before other people realised it, I had gone very far,” he revealed.
One day, Ebuka former master paid him a rather surprise visit in Cotonou. “I was afraid that maybe somebody else may have died, but he said, ‘no,’ he only wanted me to help him move to Cotonou and I said, ‘with all pleasure.’ I looked for a shop for him, but I couldn’t get one. There was an uncompleted building, so, I used my money to complete it and he moved in. That was how he joined me in Cotonou,” he noted.
From selling spare parts, he started importing oil lubricants from Dubai; after denying himself of some luxury. And before long, the business expanded beyond his imagination.“That was the time Mercedes ML SUV was in vogue; I gathered money and asked people to help me get the car from Cotonou Port. When they eventually got it and were calling me, a thought came to my mind, ‘why are you buying this car? It will not give you any income.’ I felt, why can’t I import for myself, rather than keep importing oil and selling for other people? They kept calling me for the car, but I told them that I was no longer interested and that was how I used the money to start importing oil from Dubai,” he recalled.
Onunkwo’s import his first oil from Dubai in 2003; he brought tin one container. He grew from ther and then added motor batteries. By 2007, he established the Lagos arm of his company, which was limited to just batteries. However, in Cotonou, he had both oil and batteries and started importing oil in Nigeria in 2010.
“At some point I discovered that the world is going towards production, so, I set my mind on it. But before I was forced to go into production, I had already acquired over 70 plots of land to build my factory. Though a long time plan, something happened that forced me into starting my factory.” He continued: “In Nigeria then, as far as lubricants were concerned, I don’t think there was anybody that could beat me; I rose very fast and the product was widely accepted. People were asking, ‘what is behind this product?’ But, I bought the land to start production here in Nigeria as it has always been my desire.”
In February 2015, his partners in Turkey couldn’t meet up with his monthly demands, which became a major concern.“Because they couldn’t meet my demands, I called them to ask why, and they said they don’t have money to buy raw materials. I asked them what could be done and they said if I can transfer money to buy shipload of raw materials, things would be sorted out. So, I transferred money to them; they supplied half and stopped. I was asking, but they were telling me stories and I had to go to Turkey.”
On arriving Turkey, Onunkwo stopped over in another production company where he got the biggest shock of his life.“They showed me a newspaper publication that the company working for me is bankrupt; I couldn’t believe it. I went to the company and confirmed the story; they had problems but I didn’t know. We went to court in Turkey; I hired a lawyer. In the end, court declared them bankrupt; that was how I lost my money.”
Determined not to allow the brand, which was already popular in Nigeria, die, Onunkwo came up with a plan.“I told the man, ‘now that your company has closed, allow me to produce the same brand in another factory,’ but he said ‘no.’ Meanwhile, I had registered the brand name in Nigeria. I pleaded with him to allow me continue the production so that the name will not die in Nigeria, but he refused. Instead, he was asking for more money; I gave him more money and I lost almost $80,000 in the process,” he explained.
Just when it looked like he had met a brick wall, Onunkwo came up with a new strategy that birthed Seahorse.“I wasn’t sleeping in my hotel room in Turkey, know the money I lost in the process. Immediately, I created a new brand called Megarich and it started moving and we were doing well. But along the line, I asked myself, ‘if these guys could do this to me… I could buy these companies that are producing for me. Why not go home and build the factory?’ I started talking to machine fabricating companies in Turkey. I paid after our discussions and they manufactured them, came to Nigeria and installed them and did all the necessary training. That was how I opened my factory in Nigeria and we started production in April 2017,” he further narrated.
Seahorse Lubricant Industries Limited, manufacturers of lubricating oil for internal combustion engines and mechanical systems, is located in Ozubulu, Ekwusigo Local Government Area of Anambra State. Having secured approval of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), it started operations in 2017. “I must tell you that I’m fulfilled. Although, I might not be making billions, but when I look at the number of people that are dependent on this factory, it gives me enormous joy. When I sit in my office looking through the CCTV cameras, watching what is happening in the factory, I usually ask myself, ‘so, this is happening in my father’s land?’ This is something I usually will take permission before I go to their production floor whenever I go to Turkey. My value has appreciated before government because they’ve seen what I’m doing; they have seen that I’m creating jobs in Nigeria. I can’t quantify the level of recognition and value that I’m earning since I built the factory,” he enthused.
Although it is challenging in a country like Nigeria where cost of importation is high, Onunkwo says production is the best way to go. “If I had continued with importation, I won’t need this number of staff. When I was importing from Turkey, I didn’t have up to 10 per cent of the staff strength I have now. Today, I have a crowd working here. So, government is expected to intervene and help manufactures. Importation kills the economy; it kills local production. We are competing with people that have no issues with light. I used 99 per cent diesel at the factory. They don’t use diesel abroad. Yes, there’s competition, but I like what I’m doing.”
Onunkwo’s vision is to become number one, not only in Nigeria, but also in Africa. “For example, we started a year and six months ago and before the end of this December, we are going to introduce a new synthetic oil; I don’t know how many people do it in Nigeria. We are going to break that record as the first indigenous company to introduce synthetic oil into the market. We are not looking at local producers as our role models, no; we are looking at international brands; we are setting our standards.” Having traveled far and wide, ideas come naturally to him Onunkwo on how best to get things done better.
“They say that traveling is part of education. So, I have gone far and wide and when I get to any place, we will be talking, but I will be calculating everything. If I tell you how I got to position the machines in the factory… nobody came to teach me how to do that. While I was traveling, while talking to them in their factories, I used my legs to measure the machines and take notes. That was how I got everything you see at the factory. So, I’m not competing with Nigerian companies. Imagine, we started last year, this year, we won the Best Transmission Oil of the Year Award, we also won the Best Customers Friendly Lubricant of the Year; all these under one and half years,” he noted.
On how he intends to sustain the standards, he explained, “We are undergoing training on ISO quality management system. How many people did that in less than one year of operation? Many people may not see the importance of that; they may see it as waste of money, but I have my own perspective; we have a direction we are headed.”As for his loss in Turkey, he said, “I give thanks to God because I didn’t die that time; I didn’t develop any terminal illness. As a tailor, before you make a better cloth, you must cut the material first. If not, you can’t make a good design. So, I believe God dismembered me and reformed my business through that experience. I thank God for that phase because it has fast-forwarded the ambition of building the blending plant; God used that to make me start it.”
Although money is key to investments, Onunkwo believes that knowledge of the industry is also crucial, saying: “For you to venture into any business, money is part of it; but knowledge of what you want to do is another. “You could have all the money, but if you don’t have the knowledge, the money will go down the drain. When I went to Cotonou, my master didn’t give me one kobo. But when I left his business, it collapsed because I was doing the business with every commitment, as if it was mine; it became part of me. When I left, I left with it. Even if you teach somebody, the person can only do what he could. Without money, I was able to develop myself. So, if anybody is saying I don’t have money, do you have the technical knowhow? If you have it, then start the little you can and develop it. I started with nothing, practically nothing! When I had money to buy SUV, everybody was riding big cars, but I decided to invest the money in business; I overcame the desire to use my lean capital to buy a car.”
He continued: “I was sleeping in my little shop for years. At the back of it was local pit toilet; I swallowed everything. I used cartons to sleep; my stove, mortar, everything was inside that shop. But when people see me today, they say, ‘Oh, he’s a rich man, Dangote’s son.’ One thing is that people don’t place their priorities well. They don’t prioritise the most important things, but on frivolities,” he quizzed.He lived in a rented apartment as long as he remained an importer in Cotonou and even when he became Eze Igbo in Cotonou, he kept a very low profile.
“People would come and say, “No, Eze Igbo, this place is not befitting.’ But I closed my ears, because I wanted to do investments first. When I felt I’m comfortable and well grounded, I built my house in less than nine months. One of the best in a choice area of Cotonou; I imported everything we used for that house. So, that is to tell people not to misplace priority.’ Today, I was begging my wife that I wanted to buy one car, but she refused; I have to listen to her because we are one.”
From what transpired this night, it was obvious that the couple has bonded so well; they complement each other.“You see, my wife and I didn’t court for one day; it’s a long story. There was no courtship, but I married her. The first day I saw her, my spirit told me she’s my wife. Eventually, we fixed a date for the marriage and we did the necessary things and they handed her over to me and said, ‘take her, go stay for four days, but don’t touch her.’ I said ‘okay.’ We slept for four days and I didn’t touch her. After that, she went back home and told them that she’s okay, that she would follow her heart.”
The couple eventually got married on January 16, 1999 and by January, 1999 they left for Cotonou. “Since then, we’ve been living together; I brought her into my business and we are doing it together. Today, she’s in charge of my company in Cotonou. I only visit Cotonou maybe once in two weeks; I’m permanent in the factory in Ozubulu. She’s in charge of Cotonou and we don’t have different purse. I don’t give her money for food or to buy anything; she knows the right thing to do. I can’t remember the year I asked her to bring the account book to see how money was spent; we are living fine. This is our 19th year in marriage; by January 2019, we will be 20 years. Nobody has ever come to settle any case between us; it has never happened and it will never happen,” he said.
Having succeeded in life despite obvious challenges, Onunkwo is now determined to use his wealth to ensure that young people go to school. He disclosed that he started a scholarship scheme in the only secondary school in his hometown and it has been running for WAEC and NECO. When he started the scheme, the school’s population was 190, but has risen to 700.
“At a point, the school lost the right to WAEC centre and I was paying the fine to ensure that it remains a centre. Today, we have students coming from neigbouring towns to sit for WAEC in my community because I don’t segregate. As far as you are schooling there, you are entitled to the scholarship.”“When I remember that I couldn’t go to tertiary institution because of money, it helps me to understand that some people are facing a similar challenge today. So, if I can be of help in anyway to ensure that nobody drops out of school because of money, then I’m happy doing that.”
Meanwhile, he introduced prizes for outstanding students at the Anambra State University, as a way of encouraging them. “We have prize for the overall best graduating student, then in the Faculty of Engineering, we have a prize for Best Graduating Student, as well as in Bio Chemistry Department. I’m doing all this to encourage the students. In the secondary school, I also introduced the best teacher award, the best in Mathematics and English in junior and senior secondary. Fortunately, the school won the best in Chemistry in 2017 in Anambra State. So, I thank God for everything.”
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