TOE Ekechi: I Used to Hawk Beer on Street

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When his name, Theodore Okwu Ekije, TOE, Ekechi, is mentioned, what readily comes to mind is a major player in the nation’s advertising industry. He’s the chairman of two leading out-of-home advertising concerns. But he started out as a supplier of tea cups to government offices before delving into commodity brokerage. Driven by passion, he switched to advertising.

It did not take him long to break through. His two companies are known for premium sites across the country. However, that has not prevented him from diversifying into solar energy business and publishing. From the backwater of Ajegunle in Lagos to rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, Ekechi tells the story of a life that was nearly truncated by the Civil War, how he started business with a loan of N30,000, he tells his story to Samuel Ajayi

Many have come to see your name as TOE Ekechi. Whereas, the three letters are your initials. What does the T stand for? Theodore? Titus? Theo? And what does the TOE stand for?
TOE represents the initials of my first, middle and third names but often times my friends prefer to call me Toe, perhaps because of its simplicity instead of taking the acronyms letter by letter. TOE became very popular while contesting in a Students Union election at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. At a strategy session we sought for a name quite simple, symbolic and significant for students to easily relate to, remember and pronounce. Hence TOE; which was later elevated to what it is today. At campaign rallies, I used to raise my leg and appeal to people that in case they wouldn’t remember my name they should just look at their feet and they’ll recall that it’s toe. The strategy paid off and my popularity at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, soared immensely.

Over the years the acronym as a word stuck to me so much so that even my parents and siblings call me TOE. I have been struggling to reconcile this with some of my documents and certificates and the way and manner I’m addressed in official quarters because TOE Ekechi. Whereas the full and true translation is Theodore Okwurunicheta Ejikeme Ekechi. Thank God, I ignored the other name my mother was so fond of which was Ashigwuike. Otherwise the confusions would have overwhelmed me.

You are easily remembered as the brains behind Media and Marketing Limited as well as Allianz Media Limited; you are also known to be involved in many other endeavours. How did it all started?

My business career kicked off through supplies. It was one of the cheapest and easiest ways to enter into business in those days. All you needed was a clean brief case, well designed call cards and letter heads, copies of invoices, a forwarding address and phone numbers which often were not yours and you are set for business. The first formal business I did was the supply of tea cups to NITEL then at Ikoyi. It was a contract of about N4,800. I bought the tea cups from around Tinubu area for about N1, 200. That was too much profit for me at the time!

As I grew in the supply business, I hated it rather than love it because the level of patronage you got depended on how your face was liked or hated, where you came from versus who was in charge of giving orders. It wasn’t so sophisticated then, so people were not so concerned on the level of skills you put in doing that job. I felt that type of job would not last long and that I was not cut out for it. I craved for something with a niche and more dignity that would make people look for me on the basis of the services that I render.

That was how I decided to go into commodity brokerage; taking advantage of the need to bridge the supply gap between the North and the South. I had this glorified store which I called a warehouse in Mushin, Lagos. Even though I had a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in pursuit, I would travel by night buses to Maiduguri, Borno State, came back with a trailer load of beans or dry fish, offload them and commit them to off-takers who sell and bring returns to me. But a lot of people didn’t see it as befitting for a person of my status. However, I was more concerned with the profit I was making. I saw it as the quickest way to raise the dire capital for a real professional practice. It was the proceeds from the business that enabled me to set up my first marketing communication firm, TOE and Associates Limited and later Marketing and Media Limited. By His Grace, I have expanded my business horizon to include interests in solar energy and publishing.

What were initial challenges you faced while setting up your companies?
I started this journey with N30,000 from my sister and her husband and I was supposed to pay back within a period of time. I paid half of the money within six months and the rest was written off. Everything that I am today came out of it. The major challenge was to get people to believe that I could execute projects very well being new in the actual practice of marketing communications.

How easy or tough was it for you getting your first set of clients?
It was very difficult. My breakthrough in outdoor advertising came from Insight Communications. The man who signed off that business for me nearly lost his job. The international associates of Nestle Plc. were coming to visit Nigeria and the company wanted to have a strong visibility of their products along the airport route. Because it was few days away, most practitioners felt it was impossible to achieve whereas I vowed to accomplish the task within the period. They took a chance on us not because they liked us but because no other company was willing to take up the challenge. When the marketing head of Nestle was informed that the job had been given to an unknown entity like us, he was furious. Our fate was to change, however, when we achieved the feat.

You mentioned publishing as part of your business now. Why are you into newspaper publication?
My stint as Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Imo State between 2013 and 2014 was a very big eye-opener. Owerri, nay Imo, is a place where on a daily basis you find around 30 different tabloids on newsstands and they are well patronised because they address the reading needs of local people. Yet one can easily see a yawning gap in the lack of basic, broad, (inter)national contents. Sunrise Nigeria, my newspaper, is founded on the premise of being (inter)nationally local with a strong focus on the South-East-South audience; both home and abroad. It is a gap-filler in the journalism space.

Can you tell us about your childhood?
Mine is actually an ironic story in the sense that, relatively speaking, we were at some point in our lives silver-spoon kids. I was born in Sapele in the then Mid-West State where my father worked and rose to the position of a Shipping Manager in one of the foremost industries of that time, African Timber and Plywood (AT&P). But the outbreak of the Civil War truncated whatever plans our parents had for us. The Civil War obliterated whatever gains my parents made; taking us to ground zero when it ended. At the break of the war my father sold all his property, returned to our native Ngor Okpala, Owerri, Imo State and deposited the proceeds in what later became the Bank of Biafra.

Recall that after the war, ‘Biafrans’ were tricked to bring their currency in exchange for the Nigerian pounds. Because of my father’s tremendous goodwill, most families in the community brought their monies to my father who aggregated for deposit in the Nigerian bank. At the end of the day whether you kept one pinch or one billion of the Biafran currency, everybody got 20 pounds! That was disaster and the beginning of trauma for my parents and all the members of our community.

As little as that money was, my father shared it equally among every member of the community who had contributed to the deposit. That was the end of any type of priviledged upbringing we ever had. I was only able to manage a primary education in my native home before moving to Lagos to join my sister and her husband and I have been a Lagosian ever since.

I attended United Christian College, Apapa, and I am so proud to let you know that Oby Ezekwesili was my classmate in that school. We also entered the University of Nigeria Nsukka the same year. She is a successful alumnus today and I am very proud to be associated with her.

I attended secondary school not knowing what leisure or luxury meant. I ran a shop for my sister, hawked beer on my head under the sun. Sometimes I would hawk vegetable that had been harvested within the gardens in Ajegunle at the local government centre. Sometimes they are seized. For the five years I was in secondary school my colleagues can testify I was branded a habitual latecomer not because it was in my character but because I must do some chores before preparing to leave for school. The earliest I could finish those domestic duties was usually 8:00am after waking up around 5:00am. The earliest I got to school was 9:30am by which time the first period would have been over. So, I consistently missed all the first lectures in secondary school.

More depriving is that in spite of all of that I was expected to be home by 3:00pm regardless of how difficult it was from Apapa GRA to Ajegunle. So, there was no time for playing after school and there was nothing like stopping over at a friend’s house; there was absolutely nothing like that. Even on Saturdays, I worked full-time, being in the shop or bar till 1:00am before going home to sleep. Because you must wake up by 5:00am, you had only four hours to sleep. Most of the times, I was always sleeping in the class.

How did this affect your academic performance?
Oh… God was and is still merciful. In spite of all these shortcomings, I am proud to say that I posted the best result in secondary school with six A1s in my WAEC. Before then I enrolled for GCE while in Class Four and passed all my papers.
Even as a university undergraduate, I never enjoyed any holiday. I had to in Lagos to look after my sister and hubby’s business in order to earn some pay to support my brother’s effort for the next academic session.

However, I look back today with gratitude to my siblings for giving me that opportunity to learn to be strong. From that experience, I have learnt that you can ‘achieve in spite of’ and not ‘fail because of’. It is a philosophy that has lived with me and now guides my life. These experiences influenced my decision right from my youth service days that I wasn’t going to work for anybody. As a corper in Ibadan, I would go to Nigerian Breweries and apply for wholesale products on behalf of fellow corpers, thereby making some money.

You described some of your political assignments as sabbatical. What was the experience like as a Commissioner in Imo State?
It remains one of my most exciting experiences. I assumed duty at a period there was a strong desire to put Imo State governments image in proper perspectives in view of its landmark performances. So it was like a rescue mission for me for the 11 months it lasted. By the grace of God and the support of my principal, Governor Rochas Okorocha, it was a memorable and successful experience. It was like obtaining an MPPA (Masters in Practical Public Administration) within 11 months.

You were the Director of Planning and Monitoring for the Presidential Election for the All Progressives Congress in the 2015. How did that experience impact your views about political assignments?
My job was to plan and monitor the elections in about 155,000 polling units across the country including the training of the agents in those units to ensure that APC wins. I also had the responsibility of feeling the pulse of Nigerians through our National Control (and Poll) Centre. It was a rewarding experience that enabled one to have a deep glimpse of the sentiments and emotions of Nigerians of different persuasions and the socio-political conflagration therefrom. It was a meeting point between practice and theory.

You have recently been involved in a non-governmental organisation, UniPeace. What prompted that?
The United Nigeria Initiative is an independent platform for people to discuss the Nigerian project without fear or intimidation. We believe that Nigeria can be discussed but that in doing so the idea of a particular people should not drown that of others who may have opposing ideas. The level of violence in the regions is suggestive of a tribal throwback. We are appealing to people to put their agitations in proper perspectives that guarantee peace and prosperity for our collective prosperity.

Do you ever have the time to pamper yourself and enjoy life with your family?
Yes, I do, but it all depends on what you define to be relaxation. Relaxation to me is anything that you do that soothes your heart and soul without stress. Most of my relaxations are work-related, provided I undertake them in a state of conviviality and cool mood.

Where are your favourite holiday destinations?
My native town, Imerienwe, is the best holiday destination for me. I have been to different parts of the world but I have come to realise that there is no place like home. The exchange of banters with childhood friends and the opportunity to savour nature’s free gifts is soothing. Fortunately, my native home is still very virgin and free from the assault of civilisation. Even then as a High Chief of my Local Government, Ugo Eji Ejemba (Worthy Ambassador) of Ngor Okpala, I cannot play too far away from home.

How and at what point did you meet your wife?
My wife is a divine gift from God. I met her by faith and made up my mind to marry her without seeing her. I stayed long in bachelorhood before getting married around the age of 38 even though I commenced the search as early as 28. One day I ran into a friend who wondered why I was not married and I explained to her it was simply because I had not seen the dream lady. She challenged me to describe this dream woman after which she linked me up to a banker in Warri. I shed tears when I finally met her in Warri and to her surprise and shock, I proposed immediately. It sounded unreal and scary; it maybe why it took me three years of intensive wooing to win her over. It is a divine gift with the icing of four children – two boys and two girls.

Any regrets not marrying early?
At some moments you are tempted to feel that if you had done it earlier you would have been through with at least all the children’s primary education by now. But as you ponder deeply, you shudder at the rate of crashed marriages, the trauma of many couples today living as mere neighbours with no love lost between them and childless couples who will give up anything of the past or present to hear the cries of babies in their homes. On reflection therefore, it does not really matter to you anymore whether you married late or early. What matters most is the present state of your marriage. Perhaps, God allowed me to wait that long just to meet the right woman and I am eternally grateful to Him for the conjugal tranquillity we enjoy.