In 1986, Richard Okoye was sent forth alongside a colleague, after four years apprenticeship with his elder brother at Idumota market.
He had enrolled with primary six school leaving certificate. But today Okoye is not only the Managing Director, R.O. Okebiz International Limited, a firm that deals in auto parts, with multi million naira investment in real estate, but also a political science graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State. He shares tales of his humble start with Inspire.
How did you start as a businessman?
I must say that I’m not one of those that were brought up with silver spoon. I started my business as a young boy. I served my elder brother for three to four years in Idumota. It was from there we moved to ASPMDA Plaza, Trade Fair complex Lagos 17 years ago. However, there was a friend who was one year ahead before I joined him after my primary school education. After the mandatory apprenticeship, he was not able to send us forth owing to cash difficulty. He advised us to go into partnership with N5, 000 each. After praying for us, we left with joy. With the money, we rented a shop without stock-in-trade, with agreement that the partnership would not last more than one year. The money we received from him became our start up capital. After one year, we rented another shop and severed the agreement without any misunderstanding. I took over the new shop while he retained the old one. Today, we don’t have any regrets as everyone has achieved one thing or another with the little start up.
How would you score business partnership of that period with the millennia?
It is difficult to categorically say whether partnership today will work or not because trust is the bedrock of any business. If two friends in a business start up understand each other, they can form a partnership and succeed. The challenges with partnership form of business in Nigeria is that we believe so much in one man business; sole proprietorship. This is mostly because we don’t trust one another hence we always have problems with this form of business model; everyone is suspecting the next person. Nonetheless, there are those that had succeeded but the percentage is low. Even when the business is a going concern, within a short run, it collapses.
What are your views about business succession in Nigeria?
When our partnership model began, our business name was Kevrich International Company but when we seamlessly severed the agreement, I incorporated R.O. Okebiz International Ltd, while my partner registered K-Sonnex Enterprises while Kevrich was kept aside because it was not part of our agreement that anyone could use it. But coming to why many businesses don’t survive when the unexpected happens to the chief promoter, I think it is because of pride of ownership mentality among our people. In developed countries, their businesses are usually family oriented. They establish it in a way that they employ experts or the wife of the chief promoter would be part of it. Even when the chief promoter is not around, his wife keeps nurturing it until one of the children grows up or an experienced employee continues to grow the business. In Nigeria, we don’t believe in it. Everyone wants to be in control of his business. No one wants the next person to know what he is doing and so the circle continues; we conduct our businesses in such a way that it suffers when the chief promoter is not available. Though it is not the best way to run a business, the point remains that one-man business has become part of us.
I understand that your elder brother wanted you to go to school but you refused. Why did you change your mind?
We all know the importance of education to the socio-economic development of the country. Yes, my elder brother who I understudied in business persuaded me to take common entrance into secondary school but I refused because of infantile knowledge. There were particular motorcycle brands in vogue then: 185 and 195; my aim was after apprenticeship; I would buy any one of them without knowing it shouldn’t be my priority. After apprenticeship and years in business, I realized at certain stage that education was very important because when I began to make money I found out that I could not fit into the society without education. It dawned on me what my elder brother was trying to do for me. I took up the challenge and vowed: “I must be educated.” I enrolled in a secondary school in Lagos for my school certificate. After that I decided to seek admission to the university and ended up at the University of Nigeria, Nssuka where I completed a degree course in Political Science. In the society today, I can no longer say I don’t fit in because with education, I have joined another league of the educated in the society.
What is your impression about graduate apprenticeship?
We know that education is wealth no matter what one wants to do in life. In our auto parts business we have a lot of uneducated people but it doesn’t mean they are not doing well except that there is a limit they can go. But for the educated, the sky is the limit. We equally know that everything is being digitized across the world, and it is only those who are educated that can gain from it. The Internet has also helped in terms of interacting with foreign partners. The major reasons there are not many graduates apprenticeship in auto parts business is because many of them don’t believe in it. They prefer white-collar job to trading. They want to drape in suits with ties; work in the banks and blue chip organizations where they earn salaries and plan based on it instead of running after customers. Some see it as menial. I’m sure no graduate would have loved to come into the market if there were employment opportunities in the country. They believe there is too much stress in trading where most times one’s clothes could be stained of grease from shaft or tokunbo shock absorber, and you start looking for ways to clean up before going home. Even some of us who have children that had graduated from the university still find that none of them wants to trade on auto parts. Some, who take after their fathers after university education do so out of persuasion, more so that business is very speculative. A businessman may have N1m today and may not boast of N100, 000 tomorrow. This is not the case with one who works in an establishment and earns a salary, with prospects for promotion and increments.
What are your challenges in business?
Nigeria’s business climate is certainly unpredictable. In 2005 I had a bad business experience during former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure. I discovered that my primary area of trade was not moving the way I expected it. I resolved to diversify into articles line of business. I went to Lagos Island for a research. After the study, I discovered that R3 and R6 batteries were in hot demand. I traveled to Dubai. In the Arab country, I bought seven hundred cartons of the items. We were four who bought one 40-foot container for shipment of the goods. During that period, goods shipped through Port Harcourt port were described as Free Trade Zone and were not extensively examined. I used an agent based in Onitsha for the clearing. They had their office in Lagos. When the goods arrived, the agent cleared it and based on the quantity of goods brought by each person, clearing fee was calculated and paid. After the transaction, I returned to Nigeria. On stepping down from the aircraft at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, a friend who wanted to know if I was back called. He asked if I was aware of the new policy of the former President Obasanjo led government which ordered all imported goods in Port Harcourt Port to be examined hundred percent. I told him I was not aware hoping to wait and see how the scenario would play out. By that time, 40-foot container was cleared with N1.2-1.4 million and before the policy; it took about one – two months to clear a container. But it took 8 months to clear the container and from N1.2m, we spent N4.8m. Yet, the items I imported were perishable goods. When it was cleared I paid the clearing fee, traveled to Onitsha, hired big truck and loaded the goods without knowing they were all ruined. It was in the process of opening to confirm whether it was the brand; one of the customers found out that the acid from the battery has covered its face. Meanwhile I already had about N2m deposits from customers who were waiting to buy them because the products were in short supply. On noticing the goods were all spoiled, they all went away and those who made down payment demanded refund. We tried to clean it up and sell as scraps, to no avail. It was a hug loss that almost cost me severe psychological breakdown.
What is your advice to youths who want to go into business?
It is regrettable that young people in our society want quick way to wealth. Majority of them don’t want to work their way to the top. An average Nigerian believes that even if he didn’t tell you; ‘Good morning,’ he would be richer than you. The prayer of every good master is that those subservient to him, should be richer than him. So, our youths must learn to be humble so that they can wine and dine with kings. There is nothing wrong being wealthy but it demands hard work and God’s guidance. Our youths must cultivate the mindset of starting small instead of the inclination to get rich quick. There is need for a long-term plan because there is no short cut to wealth. But it is sad most of our young people want to beat the record of a man who has made his money in 30 years to 5 years. And this has given rise to crimes like kidnapping, ritual killing and 419 with its attendant consequences in the society. Our youths should know that nobody can scuttle the will of God for their lives except themselves and nothing comes cheap. Everything is by hard work and I believe that all fingers are not equal.