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Igbo business leaders hall of fame: A date with history

By Leo Sobechi
05 December 2020   |   3:01 am
A passion project is a challenge that you willingly embrace for fun, increasing your zest for life, or making a contribution to the world. Igbo Business Leaders Hall of Fame is one of such projects

President of Coscharis Group, Cosmas Maduka

“A passion project is a challenge that you willingly embrace for fun, increasing your zest for life, or making a contribution to the world. Igbo Business Leaders Hall of Fame is one of such projects; this is my way of giving back to my society. I want Igbo society to regain pride in its past. To learn to celebrate its exceptional children.”

The brevity of this submission by Ifeanyi Igwebike Mbanefo, President of Champions Court, the initiator of the Hall of Fame notwithstanding, it captures the significance as well as the meticulous meditation that gave birth to the pet project.

And really, when the list of pioneer inductees came out, nobody would agree less with the choice. They are true, exceptional business leaders who have continued to lift their communities and their compatriots.

They are Dr. Cletus Madubugwu Ibeto; Prince Arthur Eze; Dr. Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma; Dr. Stella Chinyelu Okoli; Dr. Leostan Ekeh; Dr. Samuel Maduka Onyishi; Chief Allen Onyema; Dr. Cosmas Maduka, and Senator Ifeanyi Patrick Ubah.

The induction ceremony today at Nike Lake Resort, Enugu has former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as chairman while parading Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote; and former Director-General of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Professor Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, among others, as special guests of honour.

“Induction into the Hall of Fame is one of the highest honors attainable in business, sports, or professional life. Our inductees will be recognized for their achievements. The Class of 2020 is undoubtedly one of the most historic of all time and the talent and social influence of these 10 honorees is beyond measure,” said Ifeanyi Igwebike Mbanefo, on behalf of the hosts and partners of the award.

“In 2020, the business community suffered unimaginable losses: the world economy was literally shut down as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, internal disturbances escalated with attendant security problems. Lives were lost, businesses closed shop, and families lost incomes. However, the courage and tenacity of our awardees served as both example and a source of hope to our people. Most of them provided palliatives to their workers and members of their immediate community.

“We thank our awardees and others not explicitly mentioned here for all they did to keep hope alive, keep the country’s economy working. We look forward to celebrating them at the Enshrinement banquet in December.

“The Enshrinement festivities will begin at Nike Lake resort on Saturday, December 5, 2020, with a banquet followed next year with unveiling ceremonies at of pictures and intimate personal items of the awardees at the National Unity Museum, 65 Abakaliki Road GRA, Enugu and National Gallery of Arts, on Temple Avenue, GRA Enugu.

“We consider the coming banquet a ray of light in a dark time for business. The business community was already struggling with a slow-growth economy and grieving the death of some of our members. Then came the coronavirus, which shut down the economy. This event, will at least, for a moment, bring something to celebrate”, said Mbanefo
Five entrepreneurs operating at strategic segments of Nigeria’s transport and logistics value chain, two oil moguls, a pharmacist, a computer and technology entrepreneur, and a financial and investment guru – all of them billionaires – will be honoured.

All of them are champions and leading lights in their fields of endeavor. They are serving the country in key sectors of the economy.

NIGERIAN manufacturers, farmers, traders, tourists, and other travelers depend on Dr. Cletus Ibeto (Ibeto Group of Companies), Dr. Innocent Chukwuma (Innoson Motors), Dr. Samuel Maduka Onyishi (Peace Mass Transport), Chief Allen Onyema (Air Peace), and Dr. Cosmas Maduka (CosCharis Motors) to ship their goods to consumers quickly, cost-effectively, and reliably.

Indeed, transport and logistics have direct and indirect links with important economic and social development aspirations of the country. Efficient transport and logistics boost trade performance, which leads to higher incomes, employment gains, and lower poverty rates. It is also a key determinant of a government’s ability to move important human development goods—like basic foodstuffs and vaccines—to its population, particularly in remote areas, at the lowest possible cost.

The 2020 laureates are standing on the shoulders of Igbo pioneers who developed the mass transit business. Men such as Sir Loius Odumegwu-Ojukwu (Ojukwu Transport), Chief Augustine Ilodibe (Ekene Dili Chukwu Motors), Vincent Obianodo (Young Shall Grow Motors), James Ogbonnaya Mamah (Ifesinachi Transport)

Take for example Dr. Cletus Madubugwu Ibeto, a leader among the Igbo entrepreneurs. Indeed not a few of the members of the 2020 hall of fame class look up to him. Billionaire entrepreneurs, such as Sen. Ifeanyi Patrick Ubah of Capital Oil, and Innocent Chukwuma, Chairman of Innoson Group, consider Ibeto a mentor and the leader of the Igbo billionaire pack.

“If you run into financial problems and go to him to help, he would help you out. Ask any of the big business persons from Nnewi and he will tell you the same thing. He has helped me too,” Chukwuma said.

Ibeto who dropped out of school at the age of 13 to become an apprentice spare parts trader hit a jackpot during President Shehu Shagari Administration when he secured a first-mover advantage. Shagari had introduced import licensing, an administrative procedure requiring the submission of an application or documentation other than those required for customs purposes to the relevant administrative body as a prior condition for the importation of goods.

Whilst others adopted a wait-and-see posture, Cletus dived in headlong and secured an import license for himself with N3million with which he imported 65 containers filled with motor spare parts.

His goods arrived shortly before President Buhari’s first coming which resulted in border closure. By shunning international trade, Buhari made Cletus an instant monopolist. “That was the turning point for me,” he said. “Come and see the line-up of people who wanted the spare parts. I was packing money with cartons. There was no armed robbery then, no kidnapping…It was a seller’s market. And the mark-up was almost 500 per cent.

Today, the Ibeto Group is the biggest trading conglomerate East of the Niger. His companies include Ibeto Industries Limited, Ibeto Cement, Ibeto Hotels Limited, Odoh Holdings Limited, and Union Auto Parts Industry. He started with the manufacturing of automotive batteries for the Nigerian market to exporting batteries to other West African countries, the United States, India, South Korea, and Indonesia. Besides manufacturing automotive batteries his company also manufactures motor accessories including reflectors, fan belts, front grilles, wheel covers, brake pads, brake linings, clutch linings, brake shoe kits, and PVC materials. Ibeto Petrochemical Industries Limited started with the production of lubricant and later established a tank farm, the largest storage facility in Apapa, Lagos. Ibeto owns the Eastern Bulkcem Company Limited and Nigerian Cement Company Limited, (Nigercem) Nkalagu.

Dr. Innocent Chukwuma, who was born a year after independence began business as an apprentice to Chief Romanus Eze Onwuka, a motorcycle spare parts treader after his school certificate examinations. His brother, Gabriel of the Gabros football fame recalled him after a year to join his business. In 1981, he left Gabriel’s business and began to trade in Honda motorcycle parts. Soon he noticed a gap in the motorcycle importation business which he cashed in on. Importers were bringing in fully built-up motorcycles in 40 feet containers. Chukwuma reasoned that he could fit in 200 motorcycles in a 40 feet container as knocked down parts. Others were importing 40 built up motorcycles per container.

Because of this, he was able to bring down the price and take over the market. He soon began to assemble motorcycles locally, first as the Jingcheng brand of motorcycle and later as Boulos and other brands. He set up a plastic factory to produce plastic components needed when he noticed motorcycles have a lot of plastics on them. Attempt to replicate his vision with motor vehicles led to the establishment of Innoson motor manufacturing. Innoson group of companies assemble motorcycle, and tricycle, manufacture tyres, and plastics. Chukwuma soon became the biggest and most successful motorcycle parts dealer in the country. President Goodluck Jonathan commissioned his motor manufacturing plant in Nnewi in October 2010.

DR. Samuel Maduka Onyishi, the owner of 4000 fleet Peace Mass Transport, started the business after secondary school in 1981 as a bus conductor, sold second-hand clothing, served as a bus driver, and later as spare parts dealer. All these while he managed to hang on to school and studies, graduating in 1999 from University of Nigeria Nsukka and later with MBA from University of Arizona, Phoenix. Director of May & Baker, Globus bank and owner of Peace Micro Finance Bank, Onyishi’s Peace Mass Transport owns prime land and property on 450 hectares across major cities in the country. Onyeishi’s 80 billion-naira Samuel Maduka University, Ekwegbe, Nsukka will soon open its doors to students.

BUSINESS reporters still marvel at Allen Ifechukwu Onyema’s meteoric rise. A 1987 law graduate from the University of Ibadan was a call to the Bar in 1989 and struggled as a rookie lawyer on a paltry salary of 500 naira in the chambers of late Chief Vincent Amobi Nwizugbo before launching out to land agency business. In 2013 Onyema floated Air Peace, one of the biggest airlines in Nigeria with a series of aircraft including three Boeings 777. Air Peace flies to major cities of Nigeria and to other international destinations such as; Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, United Arab Emirates, India, China, USA, and the Gambia. Onyema played major roles in the training of Niger Delta militants and in the evacuation of Nigerians from South Africa during the xenophobic attacks.

IF you are looking for grit, aggression, and resilience in one person, look no further than Dr. Cosmas Maduka who ventured into business with N200 and built a multibillion dollars empire. His first startup, a spare parts company known as CosDave failed. He hit the bullseye with the second, CosCharis, a combination of Cosmas and Charity (his wife) which focused on sales of automobile spare parts in 1977. His breakthrough came in 1982 when the government granted import license to CosCharis and nine other companies.

Maduka who dropped out of school to hawk Akara for his mother at the age of seven, whose motor spare parts business apprenticeship in Ebutte Metta area of Lagos was wrongfully terminated in 1975 by his uncle, today seats atop the Coscharis Group, a conglomerate with several subsidiaries including Manufacturing, ICT, Petrochemical, Auto care, and Auto Components, Automobile Sales and Services, Agric and Agro-Allied businesses. Coscharis Motors is a leading distributor of several brands of luxury cars including Range Rover, Ford, and Jaguar.

In 2015, Coscharis Motors became the sole distributor of the BMW in Nigeria and the first company to build an Assembly Plant of Ford Ranger in Nigeria and won the Auto Brand of the Year at the Marketing World Awards held in Ghana. In 2016 the Anambra State approved 5000 hectares of land for Coscharis Farms to cultivate rice. He is one of the largest producers of Nigeria’s favourite staple.

The Nigerian economy runs on oil and gas, an industry Prince Arthur Eze, Senator Ifeanyi Patrick Ubah, and Ibeto have made indelible marks on. These men will be honoured for their legacies in upstream and downstream sectors of the oil and gas industry. Take, for instance, Prince Arthur Eze, whose company Atlas Oranto acquired 22 oil and gas licenses in 12 jurisdictions across Africa, making it the largest holder of oil exploration blocks in Africa. Or Dr. Cletus Ibeto and Dr. Ifeanyi Ubah who made massive investments in tank farms, jetties, and trucks to ensure storage, availability, and distribution of petroleum products across the country.

DAUGHTER of Felix and Margaret Modebelu, Stella was born in Kano but completed her primary education at All Saints Primary School, Onitsha in 1959, and attended Ogidi Girls Secondary School, Ogidi in Anambra State. She attended Federal Science School, Lagos before traveling to the United Kingdom for a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from Bradford University and a Masters’s in Biopharmaceuticals from the University of London, Chelsea College.
Over the years, Stella attended Executive management programmes from I.E.S.E Business school, Spain; Harvard Business school, USA; and Lagos Business school.

After her education, Stella worked as a Ward/Clinical Pharmacist at Middlesex Hospital in London and later had a brief stint as a Pharmacist at Boots Chemist UK. Upon returning to Nigeria, she worked briefly with Massey Children Hospital, Lagos, before she joined Park Davies Nigeria Limited (now Pharma-Deko Plc).

In 1977, Stella decided to set up a small drugstore – Emzor Chemist – in Shomolu where she lived at the time. It was a pharmacy retail shop where she put her pharmaceutical knowledge to use, in administering and dispensing drugs to her customers.

She started importing the drugs to be sold locally by the turn of the 80s, but it only took a short while before Stella came to the realisation that a lot of the drugs being imported could be produced locally as the raw materials were available.

“We have no business allowing importation of drugs that we can produce here because all we are doing is importing poverty. There has to be an industry where the young pharmacists can fit into after graduation,” she said.

In an environment where it is tough to be a woman and tougher to be a female entrepreneur, Stella holds aloft the banner for all hardworking girls. she is living proof that you can get a good education, set up a business, and be successful. “Business is business. There is no special business for a man or for a woman,” she said.

In 1984, she incorporated Emzor Chemists as Emzor Pharmaceuticals to manufacture high-quality drugs locally. Stella, of course, did not have the money to carry out large scale productions, and she approached her father for support.

Using his house as collateral, she secured a loan of N100,000 from First Bank of Nigeria Plc, and pilot productions started in 1985 with the popular Emzor Paracetamol. The company has now grown to become one of the leading indigenous pharmaceutical brands with well over 50 products to its name, including vitamins, anti-malaria, antibiotics, antacids, analgesics, and anti-histamine.

From that single chemist store, Emzor now has offices in Mali, India, Liberia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.
Emzor Group has a number of subsidiaries, such as Zolon Healthcare Limited, a specialty healthcare organisation targeted at providing intelligent solutions to the healthcare needs of people. The company’s specialties include oncology, gynecology, biotechnology, cardiology, and others.

Emzor Hesco Limited is a total healthcare solution provider, with a B2B business model to provide solutions for hospital equipment and services in conjunction with reputable brands and manufacturers from Europe, America, and Asia. The company procures, consults, supplies medical equipment, carries out training on best practices, and supplies medical consumables among others.

Emzor Pharmacy and Stores is the retail arm for distributing Emzor Pharmaceutical products to Nigerians, while Life Gate Medicals Limited provides training for healthcare workers and medical tourism. In all these, she never lost the common touch for she cares for the downtrodden with Chike Okoli Foundation which she established in the memory of her late son.

LEONARD Stanley, aka Leo Stan, Ekeh had a middle-class family upbringing in Ubomiri Mbaitoli, Imo State but he was aiming for the top. His mother was a dietitian, and his father a nurse. He attended Holy Ghost College, Owerri, and later travelled to India where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from Punjab University and the United Kingdom for a Postgraduate degree in Risk Management at Nottingham University. On his return to Nigeria, Ekeh set up Task System Limited, his first start-up in Nigeria focused on desktop publishing and computer graphics. Ekeh’s company is believed to have taken most companies in Oil & Gas, Telecoms, Manufacturing, and Public sectors into the digital age. The company also computerized 95 percent of Print media, Publishing houses, and Advertising agencies in Nigeria. His other companies Zinox Technologies Limited, Buyright Africa Dotcom Limited, and put Nigeria firmly on the digital technology map of Africa and the world.

Mbanefo said that “the Igbo Business Leaders Hall of Fame represents our people’s highest honour. To join our region’s most iconic legends is an honour beyond measure. The 2020 class of awardees are widely considered some of Nigeria’s greatest entrepreneurs. We are glad to bring them and their work to public attention in hope that they not only become celebrities and role models but also thought leaders who can help shape our future and destiny and inspire youths by force of good examples.

“This is a celebration of men and women who have refused to limit themselves to a narrow range of entrepreneurial problems. Their versatility and skill in solving societal problems approach the level of poetry. The lifetime achievement prize is awarded yearly to entrepreneurial icons who have left enduring legacies of success in the South East and other parts of Nigeria and beyond.

We are indebted to members of our nomination and vetting committee who did the painstaking work, including research, vetting, verification that led to this award. The award committee is made up of journalists and editors from select national newspapers.

“Entrepreneurship is celebrated in Igboland because it provides an important route to success for many of the region’s young people. It is their way up and out. It has thrown millions of youths a lifeline out of poverty, and create jobs where and when the government could not. It has given Igbo youths a voice, dignity, opportunities, and recognition.”