I DID NOT PLAN TO BE A TRANSPORTER; I STARTED FROM SCRATCH- G. U. OKEKE
It is not always that people plan to undertake a particular kind of business before they go into it. Circumstances and situations, as well as providence, could lead people into engaging in businesses they did not initially plan to go into. Sometimes, they get into such ventures and still prosper.
Chief G. U. Okeke, chairman, G. U. O. Group of Companies, which includes Motor Transport, is one of those providence must have led into transport business and he went into it with full determination, honest and handwork and has indeed excelled.
Daily Sun went in search of this transport magnate to find out the secret behind his success, and some revelations were actually made. Though this hand working, successful business mogul almost tactically withdrew from active business to give rest to himself as he advances in age, he still always has cause to go out and oversee a few things, even at odd hours. He gave this writer an appointment to be at his house before 8am on the interview date and even before he got there at 7.45 am, the chief was already out. He came back an hour later, and eventually granted the interview.
Tell me briefly about yourself, your parents and what they did, which possibly influenced you.
My names are Godwin Ubaka Okeke (MON). I am a native of Adazi-Ani local government area of Anambra State. I was born in the mid-40s into the family of late Chief Joseph Okeke and Late Mrs. Christiana Okeke. My father died at 80, while my mother died in 1997 at 82.
Both my father and my mother were traders. Though, initially, my father was a carpenter. I am the sixth child in a family of eight children - seven boys and a girl.
Where did you have your primary education?
I attended Central School Onitsha for my Primary Education and then Community Secondary School, Nnobi, for my post primary education.
How did you come into business?
During the war between 1967 and 1970, I was coordinating officer for Biafran Army, and I later became their contractor, evacuating food items from Ihiala Airport. From my school days, I was helping my parents in business and, through these, I gathered experience and developed interest in business. I learnt a lot from my parents.
When the war ended in 1970, I trekked from Adazi-Ani to Nnewi to see things for myself. That was a distance of eight kilometres, and I saw that everywhere was peaceful.
How did you start the transport business?
In fact ,I did not plan to go into transportation. What happened was that two days after the end of the war, I drove down to Onitsha in my car to observe the event. Everywhere was calm; the soldiers were not molesting anybody. After going round, I saw some people who were going to Enugu, and they requested that I took them to Enugu at one pound each.
That was a lot of money then. I carried them to Enugu in my car and also brought some people back. That day I made sixteen pounds, and I was encouraged. I was combining that with my trading business. I did that for a few months and raised a little capital, with which I started going to Lagos to make purchases.
Where was your business stall located at that initial stage.
I had my stall at Fegge in Onitsha, where the market was located and when the then Administrator of East Central State, Mr. Ukpabi Asika, completed building Ochanja Market, I moved it, along with other traders.
What was your stock in trade then?
I was selling towels, 'Kerchiefs, head ties, underwears, bed sheets, baby dresses and some fancy materials.
How did you eventually develop to a big time businessman that you are today?
In 1973, I travelled to Japan, Hong Kong, China, Holland and UK. By then the exchange rate was between 34-36 kobo per dollar. In Japan, I bought some goods and started developing good relationship with some of the people there. By 1971, I had started buying Kombi buses.
You are one of the largest Luxury Bus owners in the country today. How did you come to that level?
I bought my first two Mercedes 911 trucks, one each from Ekene Dili Chukwu and Izuchukwu Transport companies. By then the cost of one was N9 million. The 911 started carrying goods from Onitsha to Lagos and back.
By 1980, I went into luxury buses with the old model Mercedes 0362. We had advantage later by purchasing 0364 model, which was the latest model then.
How many vehicles do you have in your transport fleet now?
I cannot tell you that now. My children can give you the answer to that, because I have started handing over to my children. I no longer play very active part.
What was the number before you started withdrawing from active service? Just give a rough estimate?
Before I started handing over, I know I had more than 100 vehicles plying various routes. They were financed by different banks.
What would you say has been the secret of your success as a business man?
I must tell you that the secret of my success is honesty. When we started, some of us borrowed money from the banks but failed to pay. I have been borrowing since then and will continue to borrow. The banks lend to me because I pay. If you add honesty to hardwork and wisdom, then the fear of God, you will be blessed and you prosper.
What are your major challenges as a stakeholder in transport industry?
There are challenges confronting transporters - bad roads, armed robbery operations, high interest rate and high cost of vehicles. Some factors are not favourable to transport operators, but we have been wading through the tide. I think the Federal Government owes a lot to transport operators, especially the Luxury Bus owners. The price of diesel was increased from about N40-N150 in the last one year and we have not increased transport fares. That is sacrifice, which should be appreciated by government. We need to be compensated.
There has been debates on the proposed removal of oil subsidy, what is your take on that?
I want to advise that Nigeria should listen to professionals and heed their advice, so that we do not repeat the mistake we made during the administration of General Babangida. Nigerians were then advised by professionals to accept devaluation of the Naira as an economic measure to avoid the travails we went through, and we all, rather than accept that wise professional advice, clamoured against it and compelled the General Babangida's government to take the Structural Adjustment Programme pill, which later adjusted our economy out of tune, to the detriment of all and sundary.
History is about repeating itself. Those who are benefiting from the oil subsidy are busy pushing Nigerians into rejecting the subsidy removal and majority of the people are, once again, basing their argument on sentiment rather than sound reasoning. The fact is that very few are making billions out of the subsidy, while the country is losing. We must listen to the professionals if we must develop our economy and the nation. And the professionals are saying that oil subsidy should be removed. I stand by their advice, based on their expert advice.
People are saying that transport fare will increase, if fuel subsidy is removed. Remember that the cost of diesel increased from N40 to N150 in the last year and the transport fare has not increased. It will be the same with petrol. People are charging the atmosphere for nothing. It is those that are benefiting from the subsidy that are making noise. The subsidy money should be invested in building good roads, providing security, hospitals and improving our education system. If they are utilized well in those areas, Nigeria will compare favourably among the developed countries of the world. It is important to check and ensure that the money is not used in funding unnecessary oversea trips.
What do you have to say on the proposal to re-introduce Toll Gates?
Even overseas, people pay toll. So, our own will not be different. There is nothing wrong in paying toll on the roads. Toll gates could returned but the Federal Government must ensure that they are evenly distributed among the regions. A situation where it will be concentrated in the South, while the North is left with just a few, will not be good enough. Government must also ensure that the money generated from the toll gates are used to maintain the roads. The state of our roads was better when the toll was being collected. All I must stress on is accountability.
What would you suggest to government that will assist in developing the Transport industry in Nigeria?
Government should assist transporters by reducing bank interests and ensuring adequate security for everybody.