GRASS TO GRACE
Oliver Ubah's story is like a song with contrasting melodies. It is a dirge and a mellifluous at the same time. It is like a movie with a sad beginning and happy ending. Indeed, it is akin to sunshine breaking forth after a heavy downpour.
Ubah was born to run as it were in his Achina town of Anambra State. He traveled a long lonely dark road, crisscrossed by thorns and potholes. But he refused to quit. Vicissitude of life began to toss him about before his first birthday when his father died. The arduous task of providing for the family fell on the weak shoulders of his mother, a peasant farmer.
Fate dealt more devastating blows on the Ubah family as the siblings began to die one after the other. From a family of 11 children, only three were left at the end of the Nigeria/Biafra war in 1970. Two more died later, making Oliver the sole survivor among the 11 children his mother had.
Growing up was not rosy for little Oliver. While barely out of his diapers, he began to do all manner of odd jobs to augment his mother's meager earning, which could not sustain the family.
He worked as a kid labourer, carrying sand, stones and blocks at building sites. Later, he began to scoop sand at erosion sites after rainfall and sold to contractors and builders. When he became older and stronger, he began to gather rocks in very difficult terrains, which he crushed into various sizes with hammer for sale.
On completion of his post-primary education at St Peter's Secondary School, Achina, Ubah came to Lagos and became an apprentice trader in motor spare parts. There, he cut his teeth in the unpredictable world of business.
With a dint of hard work and determination to succeed, Ubah's story changed. He has become the proverbial tree that made a forest. Now dressed in the elegant robe of success, he is the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of CrownMaide Group of Companies, a conglomerate with interest in diverse fields.
Narrating his extraordinary story to Saturday Sun , Ubah said: 'My mother had 11 children. But of the 11, only three survived the civil war. I am the last child of my mother and the only survivor today. My father died when I was barely a year old. My stepmother had nine children and seven of them are still alive.
'Following the death of my father, we lived from hand to mouth. My mother was a farmer and she could not earn much. But through the assistance of my maternal uncles, we were able to survive. My paternal uncle, Mr. Louis Ubah, also helped in his own way.'
'Everybody in the family struggled to eke out a living. As a teenager, I worked as a labourer at construction sites, scooped sand from erosion sites, gathered and crushed rocks with hammer. The proceeds were deployed into the family upkeep.'
Ubah said that after his secondary education in the village, he joined his elder brother, Abel (now late) in 1979. At the time, Abel was assisting his uncle in his foodstuff business.
On arriving Lagos, Abel reasoned that it would be better for young Oliver to learn another trade instead of joining him. In other words, it would not be proper for them to put all their eggs in one basket as it were. Oliver chose to learn automobile spare parts sales under the tutelage of a friend. There, his little education became an advantage as it helped him master the trade within six months.
'I had a friend, who taught me spare parts business within a short time. You know, business is easier if you are educated because it will be very fast for you to know names of things, you can read and write. So, within six months, I was able to learn the motor spare parts business.
'Again, when you are educated to that level, you can make decisions faster than somebody who did not attend secondary school. You cannot compare somebody who attended primary school and can hardly read signboards with somebody who went to secondary school.'
However, on completion of his apprenticeship, Ubah had other plans. Even in those days, he already knew his desires in life and how to accomplish them.
'When I started, I opted to sell cars instead of motor spare parts. I started by selling used cars. I would buy old vehicles, refurbish and put them out for sale. In fact, I started as a commission agent; I had a spot where people gave me cars to sell and they paid me commission for every sale. Through that I raised fund and started buying cars. From the commission I made at Maza-Maza, opposite Festac Town, Lagos, I started importing vehicles. It was in the era of Belgium cars, so I traveled to Europe. Honda Accord, Santana etc. were in vogue. I went to Antwerp, Brussels and Anderlecht.'
To maximize profit, Ubah had an ace up his sleeves. He said: 'In every business, you must know the tricks or a way to go round it. Instead of buying very clean cars, I opted for cars with minor dents. You know, the cost of the repairs in Europe is very high. So, when I come back with them, I give them to panel beaters in Nigeria to fix. It was cheaper. So, I made more profit selling that class of cars. Once it was not a major accident, the chassis was not involved or damaged, such cars were easy to fix and cheaper all things considered.'.
But it was not smooth sail all the way. Unexpected challenges came up and disrupted the pace of his business. He would, however, not dissipate energy crying over spilt milk. He explored other opportunities, which the development offered and it paid off at the end.
He said: 'It got to a time when the Lagos State government came into Maza Maza and its environs and pulled down structures. While that was on, I decided to try something new. So, I went into aluminum profiles business. Up till today, we still have warehouses and showrooms at Akowonjo, Lagos opposite Tower Aluminum. At that time, Alumaco was in vogue. If you are a big boy and you build without aluminum, you won't be counted. We imported aluminum profiles from Egypt, United Kingdom, China and other countries.'
As the company grew bigger, it intensified the diversification of its investment base into key sectors of the economy.
'The business has expanded over time. Initially, it was only the Ubah Global Inc. but now there is also CrownMaide Nigeria Limited, which is the sole importer of Dakota motorcycles. We bring in completely knocked down (CKD) vehicles and assemble them in Nigeria. We have our brand in almost everything we do right now. We have Supa Fix Limited, which is in charge of our building materials section, dealing in bulletproof doors, water closets, granite, marble and ceramic tiles. Now, we have a service outlet that installs for our customers in various areas including roofing.
'The philosophy of the group is to serve every Nigerian. We want to encourage people to build their own houses. This is a country government does not provide anything; social and infrastructural amenities are lacking. The country has the resources that can afford the people the opportunity to live well but poor leadership frustrates that.'
He can't disclose the financial base of his business but just says: 'The company is growing and we have potentials. Let me just say that it is a ten digit venture because we have sister companies.'
Interestingly, despite his profound entrepreneurial talent and creative ideas that have yielded remarkable success over the years, Uba went back to school to read Business Administration in London.
Why would a mega business owner go back to school? What was he searching for in the classroom instead of dishing out orders in the boardroom? His answer: 'I went to school at old age in the sense that I was already married and I was traveling overseas for business and leisure. When my wife was pregnant with our first baby and we traveled to London to have the baby, I saw the opportunity to empower myself academically. So, I decided that it was an opportunity to further my education because my business was still running in Nigeria and I had free time. That was how I enrolled. Before I went to London, I had enrolled as a diploma student in the Lagos State University (LASU) to read law and that helped me.'
Ubah says that although the bottomline in the business world is to make profit, the moral attributes of trust, hard work, dedication and honesty remain indispensable partners of his business philosophy.