Theodore Okwurunicheta Ejike Ekechi
HIS OFFICE FURNITURE REFLECTS A SIMPLE TASTE. BUT THE SPARTAN NATURE OF THE INTERIOR DECOR OF HIS OFFICE IN THE HEART OF IKEJA, LAGOS, DOES NOT TELL THE STORY OF A MAN WHO SITS ATOP FOUR COMPANIES THAT ARE ALL DOING WELL. FIRST AMONGST THEM IS MARKETING AND MEDIA LIMITED, ONE OF THE NATION’S LARGEST OUT-OF-HOME ADVERTISING CONCERNS. THERE IS ALSO ALLIANZ MEDIA LIMITED, ANOTHER OUTDOOR FIRM WITH OFFICES IN SOME WEST AFRICAN COUNTRIES. FIRST COMMODITY BROKERS LIMITED IS INTO COMMODITY BROKERAGE ACROSS THE COUNTRY AND ALSO INTO AGRICULTURE IN LARGE SCALE. HIS SOLAR ENERGY BUSINESS HAS ITS HANDS FULL WITH JOBS ACROSS THE COUNTRY. WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF THEODORE OKWURUNICHETA EJIKE EKECHI. SIMPLE, UNASSUMING BUT RUTHLESSLY DECISIVE WHEN IT COMES TO TAKING TOUGH BUSINESS DECISIONS. WHEN THISDAY TOOK HIM ON RECENTLY, IT WAS TOE AT HIS BEST, HE SPOKE WITH SHAKA MOMODU...
The man and his business philosophy…
For Ekechi, business should have a human face. In other words, you cannot run a business without building personal relationships along the line. In the same vein, you must be ready to take decisions that hurt friendship. Some might find this confounding, but not for the man from Imo State. A consummate businessman who sees marketing as the ability to identify needs and satisfy them, TOE has seen it all in the world of business and that is why he will tell you that his position about business and personal relationship is not confusing. In his two major companies, Marketing and Media Limited as well as Allianz Media Limited, he has deployed this and thirty years on, it has obviously worked for him.
“Business relationship is really different from family and friendly relationships. The latter is determined by sentiments and emotions whereas business relationships are determined by objective criteria. But over time, the reality is that the two tend to meet. I have come to realise that you cannot conduct business relationship without some little bit of personal relationship. But sometimes, when you want to take some tough business decisions, they will hurt personal relationships. You must, however, have the heart to take decisions that are good for the business even when you know they will hurt personal relationships; otherwise, you may lose both. You will also discover that successful businessmen have better friends. At times, it pays to survive a business so that you can sustain personal relationship.”
TOE agrees that businesses should have a human face and that personal relationship should not be sacrificed on the altar of business exigencies. But he does so with a proviso.
“You have to strike a balance. But as the business grows it will help cement your personal relationship. You must still be able to take tough decisions because as the business grows, the lives of many people depend on the success of that business not on the personal relationships you have built. So it is in the interest of even if those who have personal relationships with you that you take objective decisions, which will help sustain those personal relationships.”
In living this philosophy, TOE often strives to offer any new employee the requisite boost that would enable them perform maximally. This is particularly so with top management staff. To him, the point is ensuring that the man or woman so employed does not have anything to complain about. He once reputedly employed a marketing manager and gave him a sport utility vehicle. This was apart from a salary nearing seven figures. When asked why he went to such length, he simply replied that the man would have no reason not to deliver.
A wholesome makeover…
A visit to the corporate headquarters of his companies shows that some changes are taking place; both in physical facilities and human capital utilisation. When asked why this is so, TOE typically chose the classic example of the snake that changes its skin when the time demands. He said there was the need to respond to changes in the industry and to also position the companies for the challenges ahead.
“In the life cycle of a snake, there is this natural process of shedding its skin from time to time. Either it has come of age or it is going from one phase to the other. This is applicable to these two sister companies. We are growing fast and as we are doing that some of our old practices are no more sustainable by the new realities of the times. So we have to change and we also discovered that some of the human capital that was in place might not be appropriate and it became imperative we effect some changes. Also, competition and market challenges have made the changes also imperative. We have to device new ways of doing things and these new things brings new ideas and new people and new strategy and practices.”
And this does not look like something new to TOE. In fact, since he floated Marketing and Media in 1993 as an out-of-home advertising concern, one thing that has been working for him is the ability to think ahead. In fact, he once told friends that until there was a massive regulation of the outdoor advertising industry, the company was arguably the largest in the industry. Demolition of sites actually affected the company then, but his indomitable spirit has propelled him to break new barriers.
An iconic site…
The desire to move ahead and break new ground is evident in the new site the company is developing in Lagos. The biggest, not only in Nigeria, but the whole of Africa, the site is occupying seven hundred and fifty square metres and is located in Lagos. Though he declined to state the cost, sources within the industry told THISDAY that it is in the hundreds of millions. He throws light on the new development.
“We have been having iconic displays right over time but as the industry gets more and more sophisticated, what was iconic yesterday is ordinary today. I tell you that in 2013, we are building one of the most iconic boards, not only in Nigeria but the whole of Africa. It is called the Millennium Iconic Display, MID. In terms of total area the site is covering, we are talking of about seven hundred a fifty square metre on one single stand. This is unprecedented. We are using the latest technology to build the structure and in LED and we are doing it in the very heart of Lagos.”
When pressed further to disclose the actual cost of the site, TOE simply smiled and told this reporter that though it is a massive investment in the nation’s advertising industry, it was made possible by a bank who saw the opportunity in an industry many are wary of.
“It won’t be fair to say this as we have combined efforts with one of the most venture-friendly banks in the country today, Sterling Bank. It is this combination that is putting this up together.”
The boardroom crisis
Time it was when Marketing and Media Limited nearly went under. That was when it was embroiled in ownership crisis that tested the strength of the company. But like TOE stated, the company displayed the resilience only an institution established on strong footing would have shown. It stood its ground in the battle against instability.
“Marketing and Media Limited is like the proverbial beetle. There is no killing the beetle. When a brand is well crafted, environmental factors can only poke at it, they cannot destabilise it. Marketing and Media was a brand that was carefully conceived and with a long time strategy to sustain it. The little mishap we had was about boardroom crisis. Let me also say that there is nothing that succeeds like success. Once a product is well structured, it is only normal that many people will want to be part of it. It is that struggle to be part of it that led to the crisis that lasted for about four years. Let me also say that the real brain behind the Marketing and Media brand never left the brand. So it was just a matter of time before the brand returned to it is normal self. And it has returned bigger and better.”
An experience nurtured…
One of the things that have worked for Ekechi is the fact he seems driven by the vision never to relent once he sets his sights on anything. When the crisis that rocked Marketing and Media lasted, he quickly floated Allianz Media with its target as premium brands that crave the kind of visibility only top players in the corporate world could afford. Even when Marketing and Media returned, there was no looking back on the part of Allianz Media. He simply unleashed the two companies on the market place to slug it how. And the competition and performances of the two attest to the fact that perhaps, there is something this 50-year-old man sees which the competition does not see.
“I will share this with you. As a person, my growing up experience as a young man saw me not really enjoying the caring of a father or the pampering of a mother. This shaped me a lot and made me know that life is a contest. For you to succeed, you have to be determined and ready to fight. I had a practical experiential upbringing that taught me how to conquer life challenges. Secondly, I was most fortunate to attend the marketing department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which is considered the pioneer marketing training centre in the whole of Africa.
I was also lucky that I trained under the tutelage of Professor Julius Onah who I acknowledge as the doyen of marketing training in the whole of Africa. I have always gotten myself stuck in simplistic way of defining marketing which I learnt from Professor Onah. He said marketing is the processing of discovering needs, identifying needs and designing the process of satisfying them. Once you are involved in this, you are likely to be successful. What bothers the consumer is the challenge to satisfy their needs. If you ask me, that is the centre of my competitive edge. I have a knack for discovering needs, identifying them and satisfying them.”
Many companies in the marketing communications business are often reluctant to disclose their annual billings. TOE’s companies don’t seem to be different. When THISDAY asked him what the combined annual billings of these outfits were, he smiled and reminded the reporter that tax officials are reading everything in the public domain. He, however, added that they already have these figures so there’s no point repeating them again.
“I am neither afraid of competition or trying to be immodest or even my clients but you must know that the almighty tax people are out there reading every literature you put out there. But having said that, I will say that it would not be fair for me to disclose our billings but I can say that the two companies are within the top ten brackets of ten outdoor companies in the industry. That is the fact.” When pressed further to put a figure himself, mum remained the word. “If you permit me, I will not but it is public knowledge. If you go to the office of the tax people, they will tell you.”
His own man…
Though just about 50, but TOE has the rare honour of never having worked for anyone in his entire career. In fact, the only time he was answerable to anyone was when he served as special adviser to former minister of the interior, Captain Emmanuel Iheanacho. He started right from when he was a member of the National Youth Service Corps, in Oyo State. But now that the companies have grown and become self-sustaining, is he looking at a situation when the companies would have outgrown him?
“I am already preparing myself for that. In a recent paper I shared with some of my colleagues in Ibadan, on collaboration strategy for long term survival, I rebuked some of my colleagues and told them to review their individual businesses outside themselves. I did say that such thinking comes with some sacrifices as you might not be able to make the kind of profit you would have made if you were running the show day to day yourself. But the problem is that if you don’t do that, you might not be able to build a base that will make the business survive with or without you.
The two companies have been running without my day to day supervision for over four years. What I ensure is instilling some policy directions and strategies that must be followed. But the day to day running is left in the hands of those who manage the companies. Since you are not there, you are continually looking for people who can run the place just like yourself and it is part of capacity building. So by my policy, I am already preparing to let the company run without me. And for someone like me who is involved in multi-faceted endeavours, it is impossible not to let go. The solar energy business that I am involved in, I hardly get to know what is happening there unless on monthly or quarterly basis. In the commodity brokerage business, the same thing is applicable. But I have paid my price by being there in the field in those formative years. I am more or less an encyclopedia of the business. If you give so much passion and commitment to the business in those formative years, you are an encyclopedia in that field. You don’t have to be on the seat 24/7 before you can provide direction.”
Shedding light on his two other companies, he said the same thing was applicable. One is into commodity brokerage across the country while the other provides solar energy for companies and governments at different levels.
“First Commodity Brokers is very much alive. But from time to time, we change focus and strategy. Due to the Boko Haram problem in the North, our trading the commodities that we serve as transit between consumers and producers has seen a lull. But it has given us another direction as we are investing heavily in agriculture via palm produce. We are looking forward to operating one of the biggest palm oil plants in the country very soon. As for the solar energy, I don’t have to spend my time on that as I have a real competent technocrat in place who was trained in Scotland and practiced in the United Kingdom coming down to Nigeria to handle the project. As I speak now, we are handling projects in Awka, Ibadan, Asaba and Port Harcourt.”
Politics still beckons…
In 2003, TOE contested for the House of Representatives seat for Owerri constituency. he is convinced he won the election, but was edged out by “the powers that were then”. When asked whether he still has the intention of running again, he was very direct in his answer.
“I am always available when and if my community and my people want me to represent them.” He is, however, aware that it is never a decision he can take alone as it involves so many factors: his party, the people and the zoning arrangement in his area.
“I have always told my people and teeming supporters that the day I joined politics was the day I formally declared my readiness and availability to offer service for public good. That is the way I see politics and as long as I have the mental capacity, physical stability and the emotional fitness, I should continue to aspire to give service for the public good. And one of the best platforms for giving service for public good is taking public position and one of the best public positions that makes independent and not subject for whimsical manipulation of the so-called leaders is to go for elective office so that you know that you are accountable to the people. In other words, I am saying that I am available for political contest come 2015. But it is also difficult, since I am a good team player, to do it alone. It is a factor of what my party and my people desire me to do for them. So it is difficult to put my finger on any political position but I can tell you, because I know I am qualified, for different positions I am going to take a shot at one of them.”
Just as he believes there is a meeting point between business and personal relationship, service and politics should always converge.