He knew poverty with capital P! He was the fifth of six children, comprising five men and one woman. “My childhood was rough as I was born to two poor parents,”, he narrated. To reduce the biting poverty in his family, his father, a carpenter, combined it with farming and hunting. This notwithstanding, poverty would not leave its hold on the family and Ade-Ojo’s future.
Also, the possibility of future education for him was bleak. He was not to attend school at all. At this point, providence intervened. A man who was a native policeman living in his uncle’s house told his mother that she should endeavor to send the young boy to school because he was a fine looking boy and “it would be good if I go to school”. His mother didn’t have any money but the local cop encouraged her to try and she took it up.
Was his father such a wicked man that he would not send his own child to school? No, absolutely not! In fact, the boy loves his father. In his words: “One of the reasons my father wouldn’t send me to school is because of the three wives, he could only send one of her children to school and the first born has already taken our own turn of my mother’s slot. But convinced that schooling was good, my mother decided to shoulder all the responsibilities and she sent me to St Michael’s school.”
One thing fired his determination to succeed in life: Abuse by people saying that he was poor. For example, he suffered verbal abuse from an uncle who was a rich person in the community. He explained: “He would abuse me as if I came from heaven with poverty. He would say things like ‘baba e ile ewe lo ni, baba won ile pan,’ (all that your father could boast of is a thatched roofed house, but our father’s building is roofed with zink). Those things meant a lot to me; they were things that gathered together to make sure that I was determined to change my family dynamics.”
He was doing well in school; he took the entrance examination of three schools and passed to enter Imade College. His brother who was in Police College in Lagos helped him to buy the things he needed for school and his mother managed to scrap the fees for that first term. She spent all she had. To further cushion the effects of poverty, whenever he was on break, he would go about helping people with different chores. “I would help carry loads, cut grass, and other farm activities. One other popular thing I did was to carry mud for bricklayers building mud houses,” he reminsced.
When his attempt to enter the Army failed in Yaba, his mother who was apprehensive that the young man was going to die, was happy. He attended the school of Agriculture, Akure, from 1959 to 1960; then he was posted to Ibadan. He gained admission to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1963 where he studied Business Administration and graduated with a Second Class, Upper Division. After a tour of duty with British Petroleum (BP), he decided to go into auto business where he has made his marks.
Read the narrative of his rise from grass to grace in the following interview, published early in 2018 by The Nation.
The Story of My Rise to Wealth- Michael Ade-Ojo
HOW does it feel to be 80?
That God has been so kind to allow me to live up to 80
How was your childhood; where you born with a silver spoon?
I was born without spoon at all. I was born on the 14th of June 1938 in a church- The Apostolic Church in my home town and according to my mother; she labored for five days before I was born; so I was lucky to have come out alive.
My father was Chief Solomon Ojo. He died in 1956 when I was in the secondary school. I wasn’t told when he died until I came home one day for holidays and my brother’s wife came to me saying “so you have killed baba.” I said which baba? Someone that had died about a month ago and they had even buried but they didn’t tell me because I was in class three and I wasn’t going to play any part in the burial.
I loved my father; the only time I remember that he beat me was only once and I cried really hard. My mother lived with her mother, so I lived with her along with some of my brothers; so seeing my father was mostly during weekends but my father was a good man. He was a carpenter and he combined carpentry with farming and hunting.
My mother was Chief Mrs. Beatrice Ademola Wells Ojo; she died in December 1991, at the age of 100.
I was the fifth of six children, comprising five men and one woman. My childhood was rough as I was born to two poor parents.
I was not to go to school but one person who was a native police living in my uncle’s house told my mother that she should endeavor to send me to school because I was a fine looking boy and it would be good if I go to school but my mother didn’t have any money but he encouraged her to try and she took it up.
One of the reasons my father wouldn’t send me to school is because of the three wives, he could only send one of her children to school and the first born has already taken our own turn of my mother’s slot. But convinced that schooling was good, my mother decided to shoulder all the responsibilities and she sent me to St Michael’s school.
As a young child, I was very obedient to my mother. There was nothing she said I should do that I wouldn’t do. She was a disciplinarian who wouldn’t take no for an answer. When my elder ones had gone to farm, I would go and fetch water from the brook, help my mother to cook, sweeping and other household chores.
My mother taught me to be responsible and obedient and whenever I misbehaved, I was never spared. It is from my early life that working was a normal thing to me. In the morning, before I went to school, I would go and do all my chores, then go round to sell the pap made by my mother and when I came back from school, I would go and sell my own wares which was kerosene and matches.
In those days, people could not afford to buy a box of matches so we tied them either five or 10 in nylon and hawk them around.
Because of my parents’ poverty, I was subjected to some kind of use by two of my uncles. When we are playing in the evenings with the moon shining brightly, and when we sat down to hear fables, anybody who had errands to run would send me; so they deprived me of the communion of hearing the stories.
I also suffered verbal abuse from an uncle who was a rich person in the community. He would abuse me as if I came from heaven with poverty. He would say things like “baba e ile ewe lo ni, baba won ile pan,” (“baba e ile ewe lo ni, baba won ile pan,” (all that your father could boast of is a thatched roofed house, but our father’s building is roofed with zink). Those things meant a lot to me; they were things that gathered together to make sure that I was determined to change my family dynamics.
I was doing well in school; I took the examination of three schools and passed Imade College. My intention was to become a doctor but I didn’t know that I needed Physics to be a doctor. I was good in other subjects but Mathematics didn’t allow itself to go into me.
My brother who was in Police College in Lagos helped to buy the things I needed for school and my mother managed to scrap the fees for that first term. She spent all she had.
Whenever we are on break, I would go about helping people with different chores. I would help carry loads, cut grasses, and other farm activities. One other popular thing I did was to carry mud for bricklayers building mud houses.
From the school they came to do recruitment for the army. I passed the examination, came to Yaba to do my interview but I was not taken, which made my mother happy because when I told her I was going to the army, she thought I was going to die.
I was in the school of Agriculture, Akure, from 1959 to 1960; then I was posted to Ibadan; then I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1963 where I read Business Administration and graduated with a Second Class, Upper Division.
It was all the money I saved – 100 pounds and another 1 pound and 10 shillings given to me by two of my female cousins; so it was with 101 pounds 10 shillings that I took transportation to Benin and then to Asaba and it was my first time of crossing the River Niger.
How did you meet your wife?
At the university they nicknamed me Adeojo Lumumba- that’s the name of the first President of Congo and I looked like him and shaved my beards exactly like his own.
I met my wife in the university’s church evening devotion. It was a very funny scenario. I was sitting next to her friend while she sat on the other side. I noticed that while we were singing, both of them were laughing and this happened only when we were laughing so I concluded that they were laughing at me. But as soon as church ended they both ran out and I couldn’t catch up with them but surprisingly after getting out of the hall, they were waiting for me.
They apologized saying they believe that they embarrassed me. They said it was not about me but the man sitting next to my wife who was singing a wrong tune entirely while we were singing. That was how we became friends and then husband and wife.
To my greatest surprise, she gave me 40 pounds which was her entire pocket money when she saw my difficulty in school and I was really conquered and that’s how I made up my mind that I would marry her although my last two years in school was on CFAO scholarship. We married when she was still in Nsukka and I had graduated. We married at Enugu on February 26th, 1966. There was a crowd of 14 people in our marriage. We lived very happily, blessed with two children- a boy and a girl.
How was Elizade born?
In my last year in the university, I decided that I must be in business because we were the first set of business administration students in Nigeria. My late wife is Elizabeth; I am Ade so the name Elizade is the combination of both names.
After school, I decided to pay back CFAO for their kind gesture, so I went to work for the company. I was there for 18 months. In fact, they placed me on contract and they didn’t renew the contract at the end of 1966 because of some disagreement, so I went to work at Inland Revenue where I worked for less than six months and then I joined British Petroleum, BP.
At Inland Revenue something happened which I want people to learn from. I was not used to laziness but when I got to Inland Revenue, I found out that government office is a house of laziness. Within the first one or two hours, I would have finished the job assigned to me for the day, so I decided to start making use of my free time.
I decided to start going to our registry where I would collect the names of those people who were not insured. I would collect their names and go after them, talk to them, introduce life insurance to them, and I was more successful than those doing it full time because I was hitting targets. I was going to people whom I knew were not insured. Those who are fully into it were going around looking for people but me; I had their names and addresses, so I just needed to go to them.
So, I was able to sell insurance to many people and that was where I was able to make some money to start my business. When I started to work at BP, I didn’t have time, so I couldn’t sell insurance for more than one year, but I was doing very well. Within the four years I spent in BP, I was their highest sales person. I am a very good sales person; that is where my success lies. If you are not careful I can sell shit to you thinking that it is moi-moi.
I left BP because the man I went to Benin to relieve and even increased their sales by 25 per cent was brought to Lagos to be my direct boss. I applied for my leave and within that four weeks’ leave, I was able to sell 40 cars and with that sale, I started my business.
After selling the 40 cars, I calculated what I was going to earn and discovered that it was my one year salary in BP. But that was not all; when I started this business, I was asked to pay 600 pounds by Brisco, the company that was dealing in Toyota to become an agent, which I did after the bank refused to loan me and I got money from my cousin. I was being paid two and half per cent commission but their dealers were paid 10 per cent commission.
With the commission, it was work, work, work; not that the money I got was sufficient because I had to get something for our home and equip our office at 71, Awolowo way so I still needed some money.
What lessons do you want people to learn?
Never spend your capital. At this time, I was driving a Volkswagen when I started my business and I continued to use it until I was able to buy a second hand Creseda and I used it for some time and then luckily I sold two heavy vehicles that I was able to get some money and I decided to buy Corolla Panelvan- the one we call Shalake. That was my first new Toyota car. I want to make it plain to you that at that time, I could buy that car but I needed the money to promote my business because the more I bought the cars the more I made profit so I started with a used Creseda instead of a brand new car.
When I sold those two vehicles, I made 720 pounds from it and I put the money back into the business. Through cutting my cloth according to the size of my cloth, I was able to build the company up very quickly and what I got from it, I made sure that it is not wasted on luxuries. I did not attempt to do things that I knew would kill part of my capital and I am still like that. Never waste your capital.
Why did you go into education?
Education is not business as far as I am concerned. Anybody who is going to build a university to make money has missed the road. I went into education for charity and development of my native place.
Since 1988, I have promised myself that I will build a secondary school in my native town but I told them that they must give me the land free but they told me that they could not find land even as land was there. As year rolled by my mind kept reminding me to do it.
I now told them that if they give me land, I will not only build a school but a polytechnic but still they said no land until some young boys formed an association, went to meet the Oba and I got only about 2 plots of land which could not do anything but I took the lots and found out the owners of the adjoining lands and from there we were able to start buying until we got about 100 acres of land.
I have spent roughly 25 billion naira on that school, not one penny has come to me.
Afe Babalola said it last week that anyone who goes into school business is wasting his time and he is saying the truth because the fees we are collecting do not cover anything.
Assess the auto policy?
We are addressing it the wrong way. I have witnessed two which did not succeed. This is the third one. My problem with the auto policy has been the fact that before success can be achieved in that aspect, we must be able to produce the parts in reasonable quantity; we must have steady electricity because if you are running any business on generator, it is hard. I told Obasanjo in February 2007 during the breakfast a breakfast meeting that… ‘you are talking of 2020, let us forget about 2020 and focus on electricity alone. With this, the GDP of this country will increase to between 10 and 15 per cent.
What are you doing to ensure that the manufacturing companies you do business with bring their manufacturing plant to Nigeria?
Look, there is no businessman who sees a very good opportunity to make money that will be afraid. The thing is that if this basic infrastructure is not in place, it is not encouraging to invest in it.
We are here because this is our country; if a country is like this and you want me to go and start an auto business there, I won’t. Because of what we saw, I later have my own assembly; we saw it as a way to take our business over without laboring to do it. How many of us have assembly here and have failed. It is not a matter of having your own assembly, sustainability is the key. How many have had assemblies and have failed? Didn’t you hear about Anambra, or the one in Kano or Niland? Do you know how much was put in Niland in Ibadan? How much has been made out of it. What about Volkswagen?
My policy is that I don’t tell lies. I only say what I can do. I put my assembly here in Lagos to fulfill all righteousness. I face my business and other things don’t appeal to me too much but then I cannot live alone. What affects you to an extent affects me too. But as far as I am concerned, I don’t think we are serious about fighting corruption.
What is your advice for young people, considering the state of the country vis-à-vis when you were growing up and now? Can a poor man’s child make it?
It is very possible and I have given you the keys. I told you that you must differentiate between your capital and your spending.
In business, you are to use your head; you must allow some profits for yourself, otherwise you are working for nothing and you are not going to last. Whatever you are going to take from the business, don’t waste it.
You must ensure continuity for the business. You must make sure that you avoid what will hurt the business. For me, I do all I do with God in mind. I must know that even though some people don’t see me, God sees me. I try as much as possible not to waste money. You must know what you are doing and face it squarely, provided it is clean business.
As chairman of Club 38, tell me about the club?
Club 38 is a club that its members are people born in 1938; and we enjoy together, do things together but all members were born in 1938 and I am the current chairman. We are winding the thing up because the remaining of us will be 80 at the end of this year.
What is your staff strength?
Up till last year July, we were about 500 in Elizade alone; not to talk of Toyota Nigeria Limited and the university, the Golf Course. We are about 2, 000 all together but we had to do some retrenching last year.
• The Nation