Michael Ibru, Business Colossus, Takes Final Bow

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tribute to michael ibru…

Joseph Ushigiale
Barely few months after the cold hands of death snatched away Felix Ibru, another prominent member of the Ibru dynasty has taken the final bow. The man in the long black coat, the late Reggae act, Lucky Dube, talked about in his evergreen Crazy World song, has again knocked on the doors of the Ibru family, recalling Olorogun Michael Christopher Ibru home as his next victim. He was 85 years old.

In death, Michael would be remembered for his trailblazing footprints mainly in business, where he was a colossus bestriding America’s equivalence of Fortune 500 blue chip companies. His business empire had tentacles spreading from general merchandising, construction, transportation, fisheries, publishing, brewery etc.

He was a man of many firsts, an outstanding entrepreneur and philanthropist with the propensity to give without hesitation.
Michael was to the Ibru family what Alhaji Aliko is to the Dangote dynasty. Extracts from family records narrate a peculiar childhood experience as captured by his late brother, Felix.

Michael’s wealthy maternal uncle, Ovedje Osadjere, had in the presence of his mother asked what his young nephew wanted him to do for them. Michael, disclosed Felix, rushed forward, and rather than ask for material gifts that would be of immediate help to the struggling family then, he simply took permission from his uncle to pluck some cocoa pods from his farm. The purpose of the request, according to Felix, was for Michael to carry out an experiment with the liquid from the pods to see if he could brew some drink from them.
Ovedje was stunned by the request and granted his nephew’s request but Michael’s mother who stood transfixed was not amused at all by her first child’s request.

He attended the famous Igbobi College, Lagos between 1948 and 1951. His brilliance manifested itself for the first time at the college in 1948 when he moved up meteorically to secondary class II straight from the Elementary School without the usual preamble. In 1951, his fourth year, on a study that normally lasted six years, he passed the Cambridge School Certificate Examination with resounding distinction in Division One.

On graduation from Igbobi College, he secured a job with the United African Company (now UACN), as a manager- in training. Between 1951 and 1956 when he worked with the United Africa Company, formerly the Royal Niger Company, Ibru had an intense internship that effectively prepared him for the bigger world of entrepreneurship.

In 1956, already armed with the necessary business acumen from the UAC, he resigned from the company and at 24, formed Laibru, in partnership with an expatriate, Jimmy Large, a former colleague at UAC. Just a year later, he discovered that frozen fish market was a fertile market with the potential to deliver returns above the market rate. Notwithstanding the toughness of that market that very few Nigerians in the business, he ventured into it.

His knack for sniffing business opportunities from a million miles away once again led him to discover a niche in frozen fish (once unsuccessfully pushed by the foreign-owned West African Fisheries and Cold Stores) which at that time had a poor reputation in Nigeria.

When Michael first introduced frozen fish in 1957, its detractors, including meat sellers, labelled it “mortuary” fish. He waged a vigorous campaign that successfully persuaded the whole nation that frozen fish was good, establishing over 350 distribution depots throughout Nigeria and turned around the business as a huge money spinner in the Ibru business chain.

He formed the IBRU Sea Foods, an importing company solely owned by himself. He rented cold-storage facilities at the Ijora Wharf in Lagos from the UAC, using the facility at night and traded from the back of a Land Rover. Later, he built his cold storage facilities first at 33 Creek Road, Apapa.

By the mid-1960s, fish trading had become the traditional money maker for the IBRU Organization. Though he had other profitable interests such as transportation and construction, fish trading helped him secure financing and other forms of capital to engage in large scale trading.

In an interview detailing his success story published in Vanguard Newspaper some years ago, Michael who admitted that the journey was tough and the obstacles were almost insurmountable, narrated how he overcame these challenges by turning them to opportunities.
According to him, “We countered the ugly comments. We demonstrated. We held processions. We advertised with such catchy slogans as “Soko yo koto, Eja Ibru.” We taught people how to smoke fish. We went up at four O’clock in the morning distributing fish among market women who smoked them and we put on a bit of salt and oil. There was beginning to be a slight positive reaction.

“Meanwhile, we had to review carefully all the forces available to us for mounting a successful crusade; for a crusade it had to become. We found a vital and formidable rallying force in Nigerian market women. We mobilized that group.
“Gradually we succeeded not only in dismantling the ugly and detrimental propaganda, but in popularizing frozen fish which has helped in no small measure in reducing animal protein deficiency which the vast majority of Nigerians were suffering from,” he concluded.

He was also an apostle of diversification, in 1969, a transportation company, called Rutam was acquired as another major arm of his business as it engaged in marketing and distribution of Mazda, Saviem, Tata and Jeep brands of automobiles.

At some point, Rutam was appointed by the Federal Government, as the major distributor of Peugeot brand of vehicles in the country. In 1965, Michael started a large palm-oil plantation, Aden Farm, in the old Bendel State as well as a citrus and pineapple farm on 800-hectares site, which for some time, supplied the Lafia Cannery in Ibadan, Oyo State.

He acquired the Mitchell Farm in 1973 and at the time, the farm was the largest producer of day 1-1 old chicks and processed poultry in West Africa. The company was acquired from the American owners, Alizar, who had established the farm in 1963.
By 1974, he extended his business footprints with the acquisition of Nigerian Hardwoods, a logging and sawmilling and wood processing company at Ubiaroku, at a low price from the Lathem Group, UK. The firm was originally established in 1919 and exported hard wood logs.

Having recognized the benefits of education, Michael donated a college – Abraham College which was later re-named IBRU College, to his people. Additionally, he donated classroom blocks, vehicles and money to various educational institutions and charity organisations; awarded several scholarships to deserving Nigerian students in seccondary schools; distinguished entrepreneurial schools and institutions of higher learning both in Nigeria and abroad; and sponsored various sporting activities in order to ensure an even development of the mind, soul and body.

Besides education, Michael is touted among his people to be a major pillar in the economic empowerment of the Urhobo nation especially in the area of human capital development.

He would sure be missed by many whose lives he had touched while he traversed the world. For many, including Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, Michael’s death would be a personal loss that would be difficult to bear.
Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State has said he received with sadness and an immense feeling of great national loss, news of the death of the patriarch of Ibru dynasty, and Nigeria’s foremost entrepreneur, Olorogun Michael Christopher Onajirhevbe Ibru, (OFR) who died at 86 years.

A statement issued in Asaba on Tuesday, by his Chief Press Secretary, Charles Ehiedu Aniagwu, said the Governor expressed sadness over the news of the demise of Olorogun Michael Ibru whom he described as one of Nigeria’s foremost industrialists.
According to Aniagwu, Governor Okowa said the late Ibru was an epitome of integrity in business who founded the famous Ibru Organization in 1956. The Governor recalled how the Ibru Organization has grown into a multi billion-dollar conglomerate with interests in shipping, agriculture, aviation, banking, brewery as well as oil and gas.

“On behalf of my family, the Government and people of Delta State, I extend my sincere condolences to the entire Ibru dynasty of Agbarha-Otor, the Urhobo nation and Nigerians on the passage of the beloved, urbane, cerebral and quintessential businessman and industrialist whose contributions to the growth of commerce and industry in Nigeria remains indelible.
“Olorogun Michael Ibru was an accomplished businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist and community leader who built the Ibru dynasty to command the respect, trust and love of the entire country.

“Because of the successes recorded by the Ibru Organisation in many areas, many Nigerians were encouraged to delve into several business interests which no doubt has contributed immensely to the growth of commerce in industry in Nigeria.
In yet another condolence message, Chief James Onanefe Ibori has described the death of Olorogun Michael Ibru as a great shock, not because the man who was born in 1930 and so was 86 died young, but because he was one of the few that actually defined the veritable Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit.

In a press statement signed by Tony Eluemunor, Ibori said “Olorogun Michael Ibru was a trail-blazer, who streaked through Nigeria like a meteor, lighting up the way for others to follow. In 1956, Ibru was just a 26-year-old young man, yet he had the vision and the boldness to leave the UAC, and started a partnership with an expatriate, Jimmy Large, which he called Laibru. Laibru successfully engaged in general trading, yet, a year later, Michael Ibru discovered some loopholes he could plug in the frozen fish market.

Although this business was cornered by expatriate firms, Ibru plunged into it, establishing an importing company, rented and built cold storage facilities across the country, and by the mid-1960s fish business had become the traditional money maker for the Ibru organization.

From there, Ibru ventured into other profitable interests. He had such a Midas touch that he founded booming businesses in the fields of transportation, construction, etc”.
To Ibori, the greatest lesson that Michael Ibru has left for Nigerians is that fact that he saw it as a point of duty to help his siblings develop their business empires, yet, they remained as one close knit family.

The second lesson is that a business should not necessarily be a one-man concern. Thus, Ibru went into several partnerships with different people. The result is that today, the Ibru Organisation is an important segment of the Nigerian economy. In fact, it is an empire. That runs from fishing to air transportation, Guardian newspapers, the hospitality business. In fact, the Ibru family-owned houses must have been one of the first private Real Estate firms in Nigeria.

The Speaker, Delta State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon Monday Igbuya Tuesday paid tribute to late Olorogun Michael Onajirevbe Ibru, describing him as a modest and strong businessman.

In a statement issued in Lagos by his chief press secretary, Mr. Henry Ebireri, Igbuya consoled family and friends of the late Ibru, saying they should be glad because he had lived a worthy and fulfilled life.
He also urged members of his family to stand strong and united as they mourn Olorogun Ibru.
“Olorogun Micheal Ibru was a shrewd businessman with a good heart” he said.

Igbuya lauded Ibru’s great concern for the unity of Urhobo.
“Olorogun Michael Ibru as an international businessman, philanthropist, educator, a lover of children, grassroots organizer and community leader gained the respect, trust and love of the entire country and he will be greatly missed”, the statement said.
Michael held the traditional Urhobo title of the Otota of Agbarha-Otor Kingdom and received the national honour of an Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR).

His outstanding business exploits saw him being a member of the Business Advisory Council of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and served as Council Member of the several business bodies including the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Nigeria-United States Business Council.