Joseph Ogundu: I Have the Capacity to Turn Nigeria’s Automobile Industry Around


Versatile, vivacious and vision-driven, Joseph Ogundu, is an extraordinary man in terms of goals and missions. Success-driven and development-oriented, he is a Nigerian who is passionate about moving his country forward. A leader of men and motivator for many years, Ogundu smacks of readiness and desire to support a crumbling economy and society he left in 1982 for the United States of America. Leading and making things happen for him is a natural inclination. Rising above the odds of racism, at the age of 24, he became United States’ Ford Motor production supervisor. From there he moved on to General Motors Corporation, and later to Chrysler Corporation where he developed and launched a $1.3bn new vehicle-manufacturing facility in Toledo, Ohio – which led to his being promoted to senior operations specialist responsible for new process and product integration and was eventually appointed a senior manager. Always passionate and seeking new grounds to break, Ogundu left Chrysler for Country Coach Inc., to become a director. He was later made the company’s vice president of manufacturing. After 34 years in the US, Ogundu is back home to help his fatherland to develop and in this interview with Adedayo Adejobi talks about how Nigeria’s government spurned an opportunity to buy a part of General Motors. He also talks about how he’s working to improve the efficiency of the Nigeria Air Force

For how long have you lived in the United States of America?
I have lived in the United States for 34 years. I left Nigeria in April of 1982, approximately one year and 10 months after graduating from Government Comprehensive Secondary School, Port-Harcourt in Rivers State.

Having lived in the US for many years, how will you describe the experience and what lessons have shaped your sojourn there?
United States as a nation has its bad and good, but for me, the good outweighs the bad. For the most part, my experiences in the US have been positive. Some of the key lessons that shaped my experiences that I learned living in the US are that: if you work hard and keep your nose clean, your chances of success will be high. The society may not treat everybody equally, but people are treated more fairly than in any nation. United States is a society where the playing field between the rich and the poor are more balanced than in any nation I have experienced. It is a society where leaders actually care about their subjects for the most part. To succeed in anything in the society, you must be assertive and direct with both leaders and peers. The educational system is open and opportunities to succeed are easier if you are educated and work hard in your chosen field of endeavour. It is a society that epitomises patriotism. The leaders are patriotic to the nation which engenders patriotism on the part of the citizens.

There is racial discrimination, but racism is no longer a limiting factor to personal and professional growth. It may delay you, but it will not stop you. I was able to work in engineering, middle management and executive ranks in corporations. I had the opportunity to lead major projects at Chrysler Corporation, Daimler Chrysler and Country Coach. Like most foreigners, I experienced racism both at work, school and in general society, but as long as you are a hard worker with integrity and honesty, the people will always welcome you in their fold. For me, I felt welcomed by both the African-American community and the White community. I had no boundaries and have been helped by individuals from both communities. In 1983, as a young student at Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors Corporation, I was elected as one of the two Presidents of Pontiac Tech Club, a student organisation created by the company. At the time, less than 2 per cent of the students were black and I was the only African in that group of students.

At the University of Tennessee where I obtained my first degree in Chemical and Industrial Engineering, I was a member of the Student Senate. After school, I was elected in 1995 as the Vice President of Institute of Industrial Engineers South Eastern Michigan/Toledo Chapter. Also, I was the publicity secretary, Society of Black Engineers, UT student Chapter. I was board member of Chrysler African American Network; vice chairman of board of directors – River State Foundation Inc; secretary, River State Heritage Foundation Michigan; and I served on the board of companies like: Finer Cabinetry and Woodwork Inc., Bend Oregon, Axis Manufacturing Inc., Imlay City Michigan, and Citation Plastics LLC

You have worked with GM, Ford and Daimler Chrysler in senior positions. Tell us about your experiences?
I worked at Ford Motor as production supervisor at the age of 24 with 65 employees in my organisation; senior process/facilities engineer and plant project manager in the 1995 Ford Mustang Programme; at General Motors Corporation as a coop student engineer, and senior product engineer. I left General Motors to join Chrysler Corporation as a senior process engineer; I was promoted to process manager and managed 16 engineers with a budget of over $10 million. I was given the opportunity to become one of the leaders to develop and launch a $1.3 billion new vehicle manufacturing facility in Toledo, Ohio. At the end of the project, I was promoted to senior operations specialist responsible for new process and product integration. When my boss retired, I was appointed acting senior manager. I was recruited as a country coach as director of lean/manufacturing engineering to Country Coach Inc., in Eugene, Oregon, after 15-month nationwide search for an experienced leader to help to start a new manufacturing engineering, lean manufacturing and quality management. I was promoted to vice president of manufacturing. I left the company to start Engineering Services and Technical group Inc. (now Emerald Global Consulting Inc.).

Why do you think that Nigerians are finding it difficult developing a viable automotive industry?
Nigeria as a nation is finding it difficult in the areas of automotive manufacturing because most of the people developing the country’s automotive policies have none or limited experience in the area of leading automotive organisations. Some of them have never worked in the automotive industry. Due to their limited knowledge of the industry, they propose policies that actually help established foreign companies as opposed to policies that encourage home-grown automotive companies to spring up. The country needs to invest in the industry through helping experienced individuals to acquire established foreign companies that are interested in selling some of their divisions to raise cash. The current Nigerian auto policy that concentrated on completely knocked down (CKD) operations as the key to developing a viable auto industry in the country is wrong-headed and it is the wrong direction.

The CKD operations that are established by both Asian and European auto companies are mainly for them to sell their vehicles and it will not lead to actual growth of the country’s auto industry. These companies use the policy as ploy to import vehicles into the country because of a few CKD vehicles they assemble in the country. There are many Nigerians in the US, especially in the Detroit area that can lead the effort to develop the proper automotive industry development and growth policy. Though others outside the industry will participate but the core team members must be those that have leadership experience in the industry. As it stands today, the only company in Nigeria that is a vehicle-manufacturing company is Innoson Motors. The rest are CKD operations. If Nigerian leaders want this industry to grow, investment should be made to support Innoson Motors as well as help others with investment capital to start the design and development of vehicle components and vehicle manufacturing in the country. All governments from the local to federal should purchase vehicles with at least 80 per cent Nigerian content.

This will spur other suppliers to partner with Nigerians to design and manufacture vehicle components in the country. Also, Nigerian leaders should be ready to invest in the auto industry. There are many small models of ‘Keke’-styled vehicles that Nigerian kids developed, but due to lack of good policy for the industry, no one will invest in producing those vehicles as the nation continues to import the same vehicles from India. Leadership from both state and federal government is what is needed to achieve development and growth. If the nation’s leaders are interested in developing this industry, they could have copied the Chinese model which is leveraging the population and going into joint ventures with vehicle manufacturers that are willing to design, process and manufacture components and vehicles in the country.

Have you personally tried to engage Nigerian government on this?
In 2007 and 2008, I and other Nigerians could not get the audience from Nigerian leaders to buy any of the following vehicle companies that General Motors was selling: Pontiac Motors, Hummer and Saturn. The country could have picked up these companies for less than $4 billion. GM would have continued to build these vehicles for five to 10 years while the country gradually moves the manufacturing plants to Nigerian cities. Moving these plants from Mexico, the US and other countries could have started the push for the nation to become a major player worldwide in the industry. In my opinion, developing the auto industry will help spur the development of other related industries like Shipbuilding, boats, aircraft, military hardware, military vehicles etc. As an individual that participated in developing prototype military vehicles, I am surprised that Nigeria is still importing military vehicles and other hardware and gears required for the nation’s security. These things are doable but they need investments and focus to make it happen.

When you say you are leading change through application of lean business principles, can you throw more light on this?
Change is inevitable in life. Change equally requires a paradigm shift. Applying change in any organisation is simply about eliminating waste from business process using lean management tools. The key is to look at lean as a philosophy of constantly optimizing business processes through standardisation that leads to doing things right the first time. To change an organisation means that everybody has to change their old ways of doing things and adopt the new paradigm of continuous improvement, efficiency improvement and productivity improvement. Both the leaders and the employees or citizens must sacrifice for change to take place. In industries where change takes place, both the leaders and the employees go through training anchored in lean principles with specific tools used to optimize the business. The goal is to do more with less – less resources, less material, less waste and less time. If you want change, you must change your old habits and philosophies and adopt new ones. Lean principles are a structured methodology of improving organisational performance for the purpose of satisfying the customer. For nations that are wasteful in everything they do, implementation of lean principles will include all agencies of government as well as the presidency, legislature, state governments, local governments, judiciary, etc. My organisation, Emerald Global Consulting Inc., has done work in development, training, coaching and implementation of lean in some of the following areas in automotive industry; service industry; oil and gas; government agencies (lean government); hospital organisations (lean healthcare) among others.

What brings you home?
I am in Nigeria on the invitation of a friend who is thinking about restructuring some areas of an organisation that he is heading in the government. He wants to inculcate the concept of lean in the organisation for the purpose of continuous improvement and eliminating waste. As I indicated to him this will help free up some of the money he needs to create more opportunities for the organisation and those that benefits from it. We are at the formative stage of assessing the organisation and then we will come up with a plan of action he needs to follow to kick off the journey.

What is the nature of training you offer to companies and more specifically what exactly are you offering the Nigeria Air Force?
At this time, we are in the initial stage of reviewing what the specific organisation within the Air force needs. But since we are still in the assessment stage, they do not want it to be made public until we complete the assessment and agree on the training that they need.

How many of this kind of training are you involved in with Nigerian companies and security services?
I have not worked with any Nigerian company or government agencies.

When you say you are helping your client to achieve operations excellence, what exactly ddi you mean?
This means that we help them to anchor what they do in their processes because an organisation’s competitive advantage lies in its processes. Without an excellent process, you cannot have an excellent product. We work with them to develop standardised and optimized processes based on their unit culture for delivering excellent customer satisfaction and improved profitability and viability.

Is there a specific experience that triggered your interest in this area?
Yes. When I was working at Ford as a process engineer, I noticed that different manufacturing facilities that I supported utilised different processes for building the same products. Each facility has different time or customer demand rate and even in the same plant, if you put different operators on the same job, they use different processes. This leads to different cycle times and waste in the system. When the company started a new group for delivering products on time bases, they asked for volunteers, and I volunteered to go into that group because I saw opportunities for using the group to standardise and improve the processes that I was responsible for. This was in 1991. Since then my interest in lean started. My doctoral dissertation was in this area and my first book – ‘The relationship between waste and operating performance measures – which was published by Lambert in 2012 was in this area of study.

Quality manpower development is a major challenge here. How do you think corporate bodies and security firms can improve this aspect to optimise value?
The key to obtaining quality manpower is for leaders to decide that providing training to employees is the key to improving productivity and efficiency. Once you hire employees, find a way to provide the resources and hire consultants to give them the needed training. The money you spent on an employee training is not a waste even if the employee resigns shortly after the training. In my consulting activities in the US, my advice to clients is that they should provide constant training and development for their staff regardless of their level in the organisation. In fact, I sincerely believe that every employee in an organisation should receive leadership and communication training. An organisation where everyone can communicate effectively and can lead a projects, that organisation is in a position to do better in the market than an organisation where employees have a hard time communicating and leading projects.