Patrick Chidolue: At the Age of 21 I Had 256 Employees
His rise to the top was lonely, cold and gloomy; an apprentice at the age of 12, he was destined to become a patent drug store owner. Completing his apprenticeship at 16, that was not to be -a jealous and worried master would not want him to ply the same trade he trained him for. Determined and optimistic, he chose a path less travelled at that time. His inspiring story is hinged on character, conviction, decency, devotion, grace, trials and triumphs. From selling patent drugs to audio and video cassettes, producing Nigerian local films, to making and losing millions, Patrick Chidolue has had his fair share of highs and lows. The self-made billionaire has always remained a risk-taker, with his eyes on the prize. Over the years, he has learnt never to buckle under pressure or take the easy way out. As a steady, measured and well-informed businessman, his life-long devotion to excel has seen him rise to greater heights. Chidolue, the smart, tough, and tenacious Chairman of Chelsea Group speaks with Adedayo Adejobi on his love for his wife, children, grandchildren, parents and golf. He also presents a narrative of how he turned a medium-sized business into something of an empire
What is your story?
My name is Patrick Tobechukwu Chidolue. I am a businessman, father of seven children and married to Evelyn Chidolue. At the age of 12, I went for patent medicine store apprenticeship when I completed primary school education. By the age of 16, I left my master to start a record business in Aba. Other issues made me quit the patent medicine store. I decided not to do the same business as my master because most people would want to come to me. He was afraid that if I was in the same business, his would suffer. He commanded me that I would not for any reason do the same business. I then switched to selling records and music cassettes. I was doing that in Aba till I was able to move down to Lagos, following my uncle’s invitation to see the back of his shop in Lagos where his brother was. He asked me if I liked it, I answered yes without seeing it. I stayed there and rented a shop. At that time, Nigeria’s economy was booming in 1980. Within a period of six months, I was able to buy a shop of mine for N14, 000. Those shops now sell for more than N25 million. On my birthday, I also bought a car, and a land which I started developing. My philosophy for buying that land was that it was affordable at N43, 000 and its proximity to the market. I built a bungalow on the land within three months.
My reason was simply on the impulse that if for any reason, I had any accident in business, I would not have to be sent home. I would at least be able to stay in my own house until the problem is resolved. Shortly after that, I decided to start manufacturing video cassettes. The first thing I found was the Nollywood we now have today. I started paying people to act films. We recorded and mass produced same for distribution and sell to dealers and street hawkers. The very first film we sponsored was the Biafra-Nigeria war in 1981 or 1982. It sold very well. Most of the people acting in Nollywood today are offspring of my business. Andy Best, Iwomas Venture and most of the actors are the ones we sponsored.
What other business did you go into?
Along the line, I also went into properties where we built houses, developed shops and markets. This was what I was doing until I had some setback in business. I sent one of our staff to bring in cassettes because the demand was mind-blowing. Unfortunately, the cassettes they brought were not good. I then decided to go into properties by selling one of the buildings I had developed – Cooperative and Commerce Bank in Alaba for N8.5 million and used the proceeds to solve the pending problem, thus using the remaining sum to come to Abuja with a view to investing in properties. At that time, Babangida was asking people to help in the development of the Federal Capital Territory. Besides, we analysed the future of Abuja based on value, it being a virgin land and the fact that the government was moving to place. With that in mind, within a short time, the property value in Abuja would be like Ikoyi and Victoria Island where the government was residing at Bonny Camp. We now called a meeting of Igbo people, shared the postulations with them and all moved to Abuja that year. We got here and developed the National Assembly Estate Quarters, Solid Minerals Quarters, Federal Ministry of Works and Housing and more. All these we did until 1991 when we wrote the President on the privatisation of telecommunications. But, even at that, the sector wasn’t privatised until 1995 when decree 75 that established NCC.
We tried to get a licence because most of our businesses depended on imports and long international phone calls. And at that time, it was a Herculean task going to make phone calls with long and endless queues at NITEL. We luckily got the licence in 1999 with the name Cell Communications, sold to Jim Ovia with a changed name, Visafone, now MTN.
We then moved on to hotels because they employed up to 800 people in one location, because they have shifts with a minimum of seven floors.
You also established a university; what informed that step?
Chelsea University; the reason is that Nigeria as a country has land and human resources which are the biggest assets. Turning these into real results, we discovered that we needed a university; as it’s only a privileged few that could afford to send their children to schools abroad, where you must pay school fees at an average of $20, 000 per annum. With that in view, we sought to bring to Nigeria, the same quality of Ivy League class of education and lecturers to teach in Nigeria. We figured out that we had to partner with Texas A&M University; a co-educational public research university located in College Station, Texas, United States. They focus on agriculture and mechanics. We are partnering with the university which is nearing completion. For the IT section, we are partnering with the Indian Institute of Technology, whilst the library comes with a partnership with Oxford University and Amazon. Entrepreneurial Studies will be compulsory, as the first 10 years of the institution would see and bring almost all the would-be captains of industry there.
By the time we take off, our target is to develop them so that they’ll in turn develop others. And our policy would be one-year theory and one-year practical. So, by the time you are graduating, you are practically trained in your field of influence. We can now partner with you get a credit line so that you can set up a thriving business to practise what you have learnt over the years. This is entrepreneurship which the Igbo people have practised all their lives, and the success rate for the apprenticeship is 98 per cent. The university has acquired 10, 000 hectares of land in Kogi State for agriculture, and 11, 000 hectares in Imo State for industrial parks. We have a roadmap and we would do it in phases. All the students would be working in the factory learning keeping records, accounts. Our target is not to train people who will end up looking for jobs, but people who will create jobs. If we succeed, I believe that before I die in my lifetime, I will sit down and thank God for a fulfilled life.
Looking back at the economy in the 1980s and now, what has changed?
Nigeria is a very rich country. People often wonder why we are not developed as opposed to the whites who are technologically advanced. Necessity is the mother of invention. Why is it that children of the rich don’t develop? But the children of the poor excel in everything. They are simply complacent. The black man is in paradise. Economy of Nigeria today is not very good, but for an entrepreneur, there is an opportunity, a golden opportunity. I have had to see people in governance who are deliberately blind to human resources. Meanwhile, these are the people they need to create wealth. Let it be that agriculture is the major source of wealth for this country, you will see public office holders begging people to come and see them in the office. They will dignify and value people whom they serve.
What would you say is the major challenge of running your kind of business?
I’ll put that to laziness and greed. Most of our people are lazy and they want everything money can buy. I used to mentor my workers. I advised them to share their salary into two halves, by managing the first half and using the remaining to invest in properties which would appreciate in value. Many of them had done that and are happy. Nigerians don’t want to think out solutions. There is dignity in labour. When we started the telecommunication business, wireless telephony, the first thing my friends did was to buy telephones, plastic tables and chairs and umbrellas, recruiting school leavers awaiting admission into the university. One man could own as much as 300 of these phone-call spots. That’s how business centres started. Everyone wanted to make a call, but could not afford to buy a phone then. It was until GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) came in that the barrier broke. A lot of people made a huge living from that ingenuity and grew to an unbelievable level. I know some who started the business and ended up far richer than I am. Opportunity abounds, but people should be disciplined enough to harness this opportunity, thus being faithful and upright.
What is your assessment of the mobile telephone space in Nigeria?
The industry has done very well. I subscribe we do proper privatisation of electricity. Ernest Ndukwe did a great job whilst he was at the helm of affairs in Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) by championing the auctioning of GSM licensing operation in Nigeria under Obasanjo. Everybody took it for granted; now they have done electricity. Is anybody benefitting from it? We are worse–off than where we were. If this was the same way telecommunication was handled, we wouldn’t have telephones today. When privatising, we expect people to inject money. Electricity wasn’t properly privatised. If I were the President, I would call a meeting of all stakeholders, and re-privatise electricity because it’s the engine of growth, and without it Nigeria would be in one spot. When Soludo came in, there were plenty ‘struggling’ banks in Nigeria. He quickly asked them for a minimum capital base of N25 billion, and they had to merge, went to the stock market to raise money. The rest went, leaving banks that have N3 trillion in assets and more, as opposed to N14 billion they had. Now, they can fund businesses. In power, we do not need more than three companies to distribute.
What is it like being a husband and father?
It’s a beautiful feeling. My wife is God-given. She is from my town, though I wanted to marry another person outside my town, Nnewi, and I did not tell the person. I had told the parents of the lady who were local parents for me. When I went to Lagos, I was still very young and I saw myself doing well. One of my older brothers had married from that family, and so I attached myself to the family and I needed a guardian so that if and when I derailed, I would have people to fear and respect. By then, I was 21 years old with 256 workers, and so I had grown to love their children, particularly the 16-year-old girl I told them I would marry. When I got home and told my mother I had seen someone I wanted to marry, on hearing where she is from, my mother told me I could not marry her. She then offered to get me a wife.
Did she give reasons?
She did; but not the kind of reasons I would want to share with anyone. So I accepted. When I came back later in the year, for yearly bazaar in the village, I went to the harvest. My mother had spoken to my would-be wife’s parents though I had not met her. I eventually saw the girl’s mother when she came to greet me. On seeing her mother, I thought she would be equally as dark in complexion as her mother. She then pointed to some ladies saying my wife is amongst them. I nodded in agreement that all the girls looked good. I eventually met her and the rest they say is history. The fourth commandment says honour your mother and father so that your days may be long in the land of the living. And I have found out that it’s easy for a child to rebel against his father and mother. If I had not married my wife, maybe it would have been a different story today. And indeed it would have been a different story. I later found out that it would have been a different story.
Because I listened to her, my mother loves my wife and vice versa. There is harmony in the family, and everyone loves one another.
My mother is my angel. I grew up under her and she mentored me. What she suffered at the age of eight, I prayed to God to give me money so I can take good care of her. I asked God for money so I could buy bags of rice that would fill my parlour, such that my mother would eat and never be hungry again. In fact, I finished that prayer feeling God had answered. I reckon that when you pray and they are not answered, it means you don’t know how to pray. One year after that, a day in the evening, I took shovel with energy, packed the sand by the side so vehicles could drive past. By the time I finished, I had heaped about five trips of sand, and was exhausted by 2 am. The next day I woke up late to an unknown man’s shout ‘Who owns this sand?’ I was hearing it in my dream and woke up to see the man. I told him I am the one. While struggling to tell him why I packed the sand out, he asked how much, and I asked him to pay whatever he had. The man paid, tippers came in to take the sand away, and that’s where I got money to buy my first bicycle in 1971. There were few people riding bicycles, amongst which were old people. I had money remaining after buying the bicycle. I continued to give my mother money, and she never lacked till she died four years ago.
So, how has that helped you to play the role of a husband and father?
As a father, I am doing my best to train my children. But ultimately, it’s God that trains them. As a father, I make sure I show good examples to my children; get them to do the right thing at the right time; urge them to study when they have to; and to play when they have to play. I teach them to be respectful, take charge of their lives and decisions they make. I feel fulfilled because I am a multiple grandfather, and I am proud of my children. And my wife and I are very close.
How do you feel as a grandpa?
Good, fulfilled and happy. My grandchildren are good looking, intelligent and healthy. I believe they will be very successful too.
Who offends who the most?
By her nature, she is quiet; so I offend her more. I apologise though. I am afraid of offending her because she will not tell me I offended her and she will take it to heart and suffer in silence. I avoid offending her. But we are mutually mature.
Do you take out time to give her a treat?
Why not? My recommendations to people who want to get married, I say to the woman, look at how the relationship between both parents of whom you want to marry and the man. If he cares for and respects his mother, he will definitely respect you. If it’s the reverse, it’ll turn out to be the same for you. You might be enticed by love, as he showers you with temporary gifts. Once you say ‘I do,’ he will just treat you the way he treats his mother. If he is not proud of his mother, he will not be proud of you, because within few months you will become like his mother. And if it’s a man who wants to marry the lady, look at the way she treats her father. If she doesn’t honour and respect her father, the man is in for trouble because he will never be honoured by her. These are triggers one should watch out for.
I see you have a mini-golf course here. You love golf?
I love and play golf. I thought tennis was addictive, until I started playing golf. It is an interesting game. In golf, you see a man the way he is. In fact, in Japan, if you are being interviewed to assume the responsibility as a departmental head of an organisation, your employer will go to play golf with you. And the employer playing golf with you will show them who you are. You can hide when playing other sports, but not golf, because it is played over four to five hours. And in those hours, you are unconscious of what you are doing, because you are focused on the game. If you are conscious of what you are doing, you will not play golf. All your character traits will show in those hours of game played on the golf course. If you are a generous, honest, dishonest, sociable, hot-tempered person, that will show. Golf is a living game.
So, what handicap are you?
I play off nine. It could be better. As you know the game depends a lot on your state of mind. If you are in difficulties, it would be hard to play a nine.
You have a rosary. You come across as a man with some spiritual leaning Are you?
Yes. God is awesome, slow in anger and rich in compassion. Sometimes I feel like God is my direct father. When things get difficult and I remember God, I feel relieved. I most often do not feel the need to worry him in prayers, the way I should worry him. Because I feel that if I ask him once, it’s done. Sometimes I struggle to ask, until I am pressed, God then comes handy. We are all beggars. It depends on the kind of beggar you are. I’ll rather beg God than beg man