Dr. Jimoh Ibrahim, the Group Managing Director of Global Fleet was yesterday a year older and he was available to speak with ThisDay Newspapers on his experience with running a thriving business in Nigeria and his plans at expanding the business.
Read excerpts of the interview below:
How do you feel at 46?
I feel good. But to be honest, I have noticed some grey hair. I guess, due to hard work. I have been battling with the grey hair through constant removal. But by and large, I feel great and healthy at 46; praise and thanks to God.
At just 46, with a huge conglomerate, would you say that you are fulfilled?Fulfillment is from God not of man. I have not completed my assignment. I am still on it. I am still on my mission to create more jobs for Nigerians and to improve on the economy of this country. I will continue doing these. However, I am satisfied with what I have done so far. I will continue until I get to a stage when I can no longer continue. Then, I will resign like the Pope did.
I guess that means you are on until age 85, because Pope Benedict XVI is 85?
When, I don’t know; it depends on what God wants.
At such a young age, what is the secret of this your business success? It is mainly due to the grace of God. After the grace of God, it is the intellectual capacity of the individual. The difference between a man that is rich and a man that is poor is knowledge. Also, the difference between a man that is a success and a man that is suffering is knowledge. If the man that is a failure gets the knowledge that will change him, he will rise from failure to success. You must demonstrate high level of intellectual capacity to solve problems. That is key. You must know how to get water from a rock. You must read widely. The success stories of all our companies are based on one case study or the other. You read books to know these. Mirror and Newswatch newspapers are based on the study of New York Times. Our Premier University, Sao Tome is based on the Harvard standard. I believe that by the time I retire, I will get somebody to come and continue from where I will stop.
There are stories about how you struggled to get education. What were the challenges like, while growing up in Igbotako, Ondo State?
I am a village boy and growing then in the village was interesting. Like every other kid, I enjoyed the village life. We would go to the river to swim and fetch water for domestic use. We would return home to eat in a common plate, while some of my seniors will use their dirty teeth to share our pomo meat. We sleep on a common mat. My story is very simple. I went to St. John’s School, Igbotako; and then to Community Grammar School, also in Igbotako. Thereafter, I attended Federal School of Arts and Science, Ondo and then to the University of Ife where I read Law. I also attended Harvard University. Nothing has changed. My village still remains my village. I go there virtually every weekend. I still maintain some aspects of my village life. I still eat my good old village foods. I don’t joke with my local black soup prepared with no oil. I dress like a village man. The only thing is that we are confronted every day with new ways of doing things in the city.
As a fresh graduate, did you work for anybody? How did the success story start?
Right from secondary school, I was very determined to be a success in business. My classmates in secondary school can testify to this. I never worked for anybody after the NYSC programme. The only thing I did was attachment at late Gani Fawehinmi’s Chamber for a month during the law school programme. After NYSC, I started organizing seminars and lectures in Lagos, mainly for local government officials on the then new local government autonomy. As a youth corper, I built a house in my village. I built four houses in Lagos while doing my NYSC programme. I built a four-storey house in Ikotun-Egbe, Lagos as a corper. Under one year as a corper, I built six houses. So, you can see my drive.
You made huge money as a ‘corper’, doing what?
By delivering lectures and organizing seminars all over the country. I also held series of workshops, taking advantage of Babangida’s local government autonomy. I collaborated with so many institutions, including the Administrative Staff College of Nigeria. It was very profitable. Some of the LG chairman that attended my seminars are now big men in the society. People like Elder Wole Oyelese, who went all the way to become a minister. Over six of other also later became ministers.
How did you make your billions of naira?
You don’t make a billion at a time. We also take loans in billion from banks. I don’t work with the aim of making billions. I just keep doing my job and if there is big money available in the accounts, we just keep re-investing the money. You must also note that investments are not made in my name. It is in the names of the companies in the group. I just go on with my job. We have had cause to borrow billions and return billions to the banks. A billion naira is a figure as far as we are concerned. I don’t really see what is so special about it. Money is simply an instrument to work with. If I show you my personal account now, you might not find any serious money in it. I operate by whatever money I can get from the companies in the group. The investments are there and the profit will come later. The profit is what I can spend for my retirement. Not keeping billions in my account.
In terms of assets, you are obviously sitting on billions of naira.
How big is your conglomerate now?
We are slowing down now. The only reason we are doing this is because human resources have been disappointing of recent. So, we are no longer doing new investments. We are consolidating on existing investments. However, I will soon resume new investments. Investments create jobs. I am always happy when I see the number of people that get paid at the end of the month. It impresses me a lot. This is what I am always out to do. I love creating jobs. Some of the companies we bought were passed on to us. We also need to pass it on to the next generation. It should not die with us. It is a pity that our environment has now influenced human resources and we are unable to get the kind of human resources we want.
What is your staff strength like now?
We have over 21,000 people working in our group within and outside Nigeria. NICON Insurance has over 1,200 workers. We have workers in Nigeria-Re; we have eight hotels with thousands of workers. Global Fleet has over 200 gas stations, with workers. We have banks in Ghana and Sao Tome; newspapers in Nigeria, University in Sao Tome, NICON Insurance in Sao Tome, all with thousands of workers. National Mirror and Newswatch combined, employ about 800 workers. As Newswatch newspapers go daily, more people will be employed. We are all over. We have a diversified portfolio which creates jobs for so many people. We are at a level now, where we now have so many foreigners working for us. We have Americans, UAE, Britons and so many Africans working for us.
How challenging has it been running all these companies?
It is about what I enjoy doing. Running 16 companies is like running four terms as a Senator. Some politicians are doing their fourth term in the National Assembly and they are not complaining. It is entrepreneurship that is in me. I always want to do more. I like to see troubled companies rescued. I like to see more jobs saved and new jobs created. We are still employing more. The bulk of our income is used for salaries. It is okay by me.
We hardly hear your name when it comes to charity. Have you been eating your billions of naira alone?
I don’t know the billions you are talking about. But the point is that we don’t make noise when we help people. I can’t help somebody and then, go and put it in the newspapers. When we help institutions, like what we did for the University of Ife, we can put that in newspapers. We built a Post-graduate hall in Ife worth about N100 million recently. When helping individuals, I don’t talk about these.
Where are you hoping to be with all these companies by age 50?
By 50, I definitely would have retired and somebody else will be running these companies. One of the CEOs within will definitely take over. I will start that process next year. Then, I will start short-listing for the new GMD that will take over. After handling the succession plan, I will retire to Igbotako to see how I can help the people of Ondo State. I am also thinking about retiring to the university to share my experience.
Are you thinking about going public with your companies? We are thinking about that. If we go public, obviously we will make a lot of money selling the shares but what about the dividends to investors? We need to stabilize the companies very well and make them profitable first before going public. We are in a recession now which will probably not end till 2022. So, why should we now go and put a company in the market. When we are sure of the outlook, then, we will put the companies in the market. We want to be an ultimate investor. The investor is that man that ran his company and then put it on the market for others to benefit. I am praying very hard to see one of these companies in the market before I retire.
At 46, what is your message, first to your critics and then to your fans? To my critics, well they have been very nice to me. Although, atimes, they go hare wire. They have helped me so much. I have almost finished reading the Bible and I am now heavily loaded with a lot of spiritual words from the Bible; not as a pastor. The Bible has helped me to realize the weapons I need to fight my battles.
People have a right to criticize me. But I get worried when a person running a barbing salon or a firm with ten staff, starts to suggest how to run a conglomerate. It is laughable. Somebody who does not know how a company is managed will be writing in the newspapers on how we should run our companies. It is ridiculous. He will be talking to a person with a balance sheet running into several billions of naira. It looks stupid. Some people will say ‘I don’t like how he closed Air Nigeria.’ Do you want me to kill people? We noticed that our workers were disloyal and we had to take action. If I decide to continue running, and the plane crashes, it will bring a lot of pains to many people. So, we have been very careful about it. Nigerians should thank me that I did not kill anybody while running Air Nigeria. We have not said that we will not run the airline again. We have only taken it for surgery.
To my critics, how I wish they are well informed about me. But I must thank critics and I encourage them to continue. Some people will say that I took over a company to sell the assets. I often wonder where they get such information. If a company has that much assets, then it won’t be sold. Some people really don’t have correct information about our businesses.
For my fans, we are in the journey together. Obviously, we are doing it together. The support we get from them has been a big source of inspiration.
Jimoh Ibrahim is the current Group Chairman and Group Chief Executive Officer of Global Fleet Group, a diversified conglomerate, based in Nigeria, with business interests and subsidiary in neighboring West African countries.