‘Any little thing I can do to help mankind, I will do it’
Popularly known as Don Perry, Onyeka Ogbatu is the CEO of Spanish Kingdom Group, with interest in real estate to hospitality and winery. In this interview with CHINONSO IHEKIRE, the Imo State native spoke on his exploits abroad, especially in Spain, and his resolve empower young people through investment.
From doing business abroad, you have successfully established your brand here in Nigeria. How did this venture start?
Actually, after secondary school, I went to university abroad on a scholarship. From there, I went to Moscow in Russia, then moved to Spain where I eventually finished my degree and worked for a while.
I started my first company in 2009, it was called Don Perry XL; we specialised in exports of construction equipment, ice and wines. We grew to the extent of expanding to other businesses. In 2012, I took the decision to come back home and help boost employment for my people. That is why I left that comfortable area to come down here and invest in real estate.
What informed your decision to move your business to Imo State?
I did it to make more impact. There are so many issues, from unemployment to people not being able to eat daily. Sometimes, they tell me that I employ more than I needed, but I am the one that pays one of the highest salaries here. I believe in serving humanity. By touching one life, I am touching 20 lives in their families. God has done much for me and he doesn’t tell to anybody. So, I don’t go to social media to share what I do for people.
These things give me joy; they make me look younger. I am a Catholic and I don’t believe in all these Man of God things. When the apostles asked Jesus what they needed to enter the Kingdom of God, he told them ‘When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was in prison, you visited me.’ So, whatever we are doing in any way to touch lives, let us continue doing it. If it were solely for making a profit, I would have sited my businesses in Abuja or even stay back in Spain. I’m here to help develop my state.
Starting a business is usually very tough for young people, how did you manage to survive the early challenges?
The first thing I did was to get myself a permanent house in Owerri; I didn’t take that decision once. I started business in Abuja and then I was visiting home. Then, I realised that I needed to be home to understand the environment before I can make an impact. I consulted people here and studied the terrain. Then, I started acquiring landed properties here. So, being on the ground helped me to know better about how to operate here.
Owerri is an interesting city. For me, it is the Las Vegas of Africa. The only problem here is bad governance. Owerri is a very central location to many cities across Nigeria; it’s easy to come in here. People aren’t asking for more than good roads and security.
The last time I was talking to the Deputy Governor, I gave him ideas on how he could leverage private individuals to improve infrastructure in the state, just by giving tax holidays. It works because they will give you the best value. In one year, they would have fixed all the roads. I told him to set up a task force; he is a professor and not a politician, so he knows what to do. But you know that they won’t allow him. We lack people who are dedicated to our politics. There is no integrity; everyone is about his or her selfish interest.
If the proper investment is done, how much do you think it will benefit youths of that area?
The most educated state in Nigeria is Imo State; the highest score in JAMB and WAEC is given to Imo State. Yet, it is the capital of unemployment; it pains me a lot. Education is the key. I was talking to a young girl who said she needed a boyfriend because she is lonely. I told her that her priority should be education. I gave her examples like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Chimamanda Adichie. It is very frustrating, that is why I decided to create employment here to see how we can change things for good.
Where are you on the hospitality front now?
We are on the second phase now. The first phase was the kick-start to showcase where we are going. Now, we are expanding and building a resort. The hotel is not a typical hotel; they are fully serviced short-let apartments. The only thing you need to do there is to carry your bags and move in; that is our selling point. When you come to Owerri now and you are looking for an apartment, Spanish Kingdom Apartments is the best. Once you visit, you must come back.
The resort is more about apartments too, but we have added indoor swimming pools, gyms and a VIP bar. We will have a lounge on the ground floor, alongside a Sauna. We are trying to do some magic before Christmas and see if we can open the place.
Then, we have a five-star mall project currently ongoing. It gives me joy, particularly, because it will create a lot of employment. The winery can create employment; the cinema and rooftop too. Before you know it, you have employed over 300 people. Ask them, nobody pays the salary I pay here.
It seems you are big on human capital development?
Look, I spend money on training and retraining them because many of them aren’t savvy with hospitality. There is a collaboration I am doing with my partner, AVITO, who is a European-certified hospitality consultant; he is experienced. When you train these people, even when they serve you, you’d realise that they are no different from those you will see in Dubai. Anybody can build hotels, but not everybody can give that service; you train and keep training.
I outsource this training to this person; he employs my staff and trains them. I see this as my social responsibility to make this society work. I make more money from my other businesses, like Winery and others. For me, the hospitality sector is more about giving back.
Talking about the wine business, what led you into that?
You know that Spain is one the best countries in the world when you talk about wines. I lived in Spain for 23 years; I have been going there off and on because my family is still there. I am a wine lover, first of all; you need it to do this business. The wines I import are the wines I like a lot. You don’t see it in the market here.
There are so many synthetic wines, but I buy traditionally made wines. The main wine that is good for the body is the traditionally made ones; which made me venture into the wine business. I also make Champagnes. It is produced by a state-owned winery in Moldova, called Cricova. I am the first individual that they are producing for. I had to make a strong agreement and deposit with them. It is called Don P champagne. I am just waiting for the NAFDAC certification to launch.
Unlike what you have in the market, it is not expensive. What you can use to buy a carton of other champagnes, you can buy three of mine without compromising the standard. Owing to the fact that I see a lot of fake champagnes in Nigeria, I am doing this business. I started by selling to the people who know that I don’t compromise. We have been selling to some people, especially wealthy people.
How is the real estate business doing?
It is doing well. However, due to my work here in Owerri, I don’t have much time to do what I do in Abuja, but I am also going to start real estate in Owerri too very soon. I am not taking it so seriously like before, but it doesn’t mean that I am not building; I am doing it gradually. Next year, I will move big time to bring the company here; there is also a moving market here.
As a young person, how difficult was it for you to start your life?
It wasn’t an easy task. On my own side, I am privileged. I left Nigeria at 16; I had a father who gave me everything I needed in life. He is the only man in this world that I can listen to completely. When I was in the seminary, he gave me everything. I was to become a priest before I later ran away to serve God from another angle. I had another brother who also supported me.
I only had a very hard time when I started working in Spain. I was leaving my comfortable life as a student to work for someone and it came with a lot of insults. It was hard, but I needed it to build my self-esteem so that I could stand on my own. The advantage I have is that I can speak many languages from French to Russian to Spanish; it helped me build my self-esteem. It helped me also a lot. I could communicate with different people. When you are doing international business, it is very vital. All my partners like communicating with me because I speak multiple languages.
For young people who don’t understand the need for language, what would you say to them?
I can actually say that any young person should know at least two foreign languages; it is one of the key things that put me where I am today. All these businesses I set up abroad are all Spanish people. The first people I brought to Nigeria are Russians.
Finally, why are you passionate about people?
First of all, that is the principle of Christianity; Christ lived for everyone. If we are practicing Christianity, we have to practice it. I practice what God teaches me. God knows we are all sinners, but there are things that we do that helps us atone for our sins. Actually, I am passionate about humanity. Any little thing I can do to help mankind, I will do it; it gives me joy.