Dr. Kennedy Onyekachi Okonkwo is the MD/CEO of Nedcom Oaks, a property development company. The successful young entrepreneur, who clocked 39 recently, shared his experience, challenges and the important decision that led to his success. He spoke with Anayo Okolie
• How I Became Successful at 39
You clocked 39 recently. How do you feel at 39?
I don’t feel any different. My feelings are like that of a young adult Nigerian, hopeful of a better tomorrow and thanking God for how far we have gone. My faith in Nigeria as a country is resolute and it has never been shaken for one moment because I believe Nigeria is going to get better. It may take a bit of time but with the conscious effort of our leaders, our people and our generation changing on how we do things; Nigeria will come out of whatever it is going through as a country. I am proud to be a Nigerian more than anything. I always tell people that I am more proud to say I am Nigerian than to say I am an Igbo man because if all of us can count ourselves as Nigerians, Nigeria would be a better place.
Do you have any regrets and or are there things you feel you would have done in life that you have not achieved?
When I look back to when I came out of school to where I am today, I have no cause to regret. But I feel there are things that have not been done. What I wish I could do more is empowering the young people. I wish to invest much more money than I have done at the moment in creating more employment for other people because if we are able to empower our youth, we will be stronger as a nation and for me, I will happier because I won’t have to worry about who to pay rent for and who to pay school fees for their children. All my concern will be how we transform the lives of these people for them to become better businessmen and entrepreneurs, so that they can further create wealth for other people. That I am doing as my capacity can carry at the moment. So, those are the areas I think one can improve at the moment.
What was your growing up like?
I was born in a family of eight and I am the fifth child. I was raised on the street of Alagomeji in Yaba, Lagos. I moved to Ikeja at some point in my life and went to Mobolaji High School. I moved on to the University of Ibadan, where I studied Psychology and had my masters at Lagos State University.
What events shaped your upbringing?
What shaped my upbringing started from the point where I lost my father because loosing my dad was a shocker to me. My father ensured all he had to make sure our school fees were complete and he could tell me then that he wasn’t gonna make money for anybody that all he will help us have is our certificate that if you are educated, you are empowered, so I don’t forget his speeches. Another point in time was when I came out of school. Before I came out of school they threw my mother out of the shop that we called our home. I went to school knowing that my family was squatting under the Ikeja Bridge and the church took us. We lived in the church compound while I was in the university. I was sponsored at school by Chief Sylvester Okonkwo. I knew at that point that coming out of school; I wasn’t going to be like every other guy. From day one, I had my straight target that my family was relocated and moved in to a good home at least if not befitting, a respectable kind of house that we know this is where we put our head and call a roof over our head. But I think the major turning point of my life was when I left paid employment where I was working as the Strategy Advisory to the MD/CEO of a big company. I knew at that point that if I can channel my energy to what I was doing that time, I was going to make a lot of money and make a lot of impact on the society and the society was going to benefit more. I think these were the landmark turning point of my life.
Do you think the society has really benefited from you?
Yes! The society is benefiting. For a company that employs directly and indirectly over 2,000 people, the society is benefiting. Through our charity programmes, we have done a lot for people. There are lot of people that we have paid their school fees, there are number of people we have empowered and there are families that have benefited from the fact that our company is running. The society is really benefiting.
I will give you a small story, sometime in my life, I was ill and needed to travel out of the country for treatment I went to each of the major sites, met with his foreman and they had a meeting on their own and I told them that I am going to stop all our projects because I don’t need to be signing cheques and signing transaction instructions while I was on my sick bed. But they met and came to me to say that “Oga if you will permit, it is better for us that we are working and we have hope that money will come when you come back than for us to go back because some of us are from Ibadan, Osun and Abeokuta. We cannot go and stay with our wives for six to seven weeks; that it doesn’t speak good.” They said that if only I will permit that they will be working that only if we don’t pay, they will rather know that money is there.
I shared this story with my wife and that day and she said we shouldn’t shut down sites. I added my wife to the signatories of the company. But that story I just told you opened our eyes to business. Work is going on at both sides, their families are benefiting from it and I tell people, we do not owe salaries despite the economic situation of the country.
We are a team of young people; young dynamic people. If you check the oldest staff in my establishment, he is about 35 years old because these people; the youth are the future of our country. We are the future of our society and the only way they can take it is if we the employers give them the opportunity so that they can showcase their capacity.
Looking at your story and at your age, it is inspirational to many people. What are the things that you will tell young people for them to draw lessons from you?
The problem of Africa is free food. If you remove free food from Africa’s problem, it will be solved. And I always tell people, opportunities abound everywhere, it is just for us to open our mind to that opportunity so that when we see them, we can take advantage of them. I don’t believe in the fact that my uncle or my brother can do this for me. I believe in what can make me start my day with what I can be doing for myself. When you go on the street, before you move from one street to another, you will see dirt in the gutters, when you go home, write a proposal to that street association, dear sir/ma, proposal to clean your drainage. Entrepreneurship starts from there. If you wake up and see a bush that constitute a security risk to your environment, it’s an opportunity for somebody to make some naira because when you write, can I come and cut this grass? You don’t have to do it because you don’t have the energy. There are some labourers who do not even have the courage to tell your uncle that they want to cut the grass in his compound but you can walk up to your uncle that your land need to be weeded. I tell people all the time that you can only be successful if you sell value to people and how do you sell value?
Our society is bound with problem and everyday people are looking for solution to this problem and if you are a problem solver what you get is what lawyers call valuable consideration. If only I can create value because for me to take your money, I must know how to polish your shoe. They once said that the story of washing feet at the Mile 12 Market in Lagos started with a woman and now there are thousands of people washing feet at Mile 12 market. Many have passed that route and don’t understand that big madam come to this side. Do you know that at some market, people hire rain boot to enter the market. The man hiring the rain boot, is it not business? It is for you to understand the problem that a society has and how to look for a solution to that problem and in turn somebody gives you something which you make money out of. Money doesn’t come from heaven.
Do you think government is doing enough to help people in entrepreneurship because going into business, you must have capital?
When you say for you to go into business you must to have capital, at times. I will say no because your brain is capital but how to use it matters. Somebody sits down and know that there is a man who builds houses and he walk up to the man and say, I know the people who sell sand, let me bring them here to be selling sand to you does he need money to do that? And I bring people who sell sand and I link them up and I said each trip is N500 and they did 100 trips; that is N100,000 and I am contented with it. And I am looking for the next person to supply that my uncle that has my ear sometimes. So as the society may be, at times we come up with wild elephant dream. At first we have to understand where we are and know our limitations. So when you tell me lack of capital, if I were to wait for capital, I will never had gone off the ground. I worked in companies upon companies and while I was working, I was sacrificing my salary to build and at some point, I will go and borrow from my General Manager and say okay please lend me money. One day I walked up to my boss and said I am building a house, he was shocked that I need N500,000 loan when my salary was N84,000. When I told him, he looked at me and opened his mouth. I said let me go and show you the house I am building. He saw the place, he lent me that money and I paid back in record time. So our brain is an intellectual capital and we should understand it that somebody God has gifted with brain and also has the opportunity to go to school, school also broadens your horizon. School will not put money in to your pocket but education will broaden your horizon.
You are from Anambra State and many businessmen from the state have ventured into politics. Do you plan to venture into politics?
I do not have any iota of political inclination. I tell you this with all sincerity and all openness; I don’t have to get into any political position to solve my people’s problem. If they say a governor controls a billion naira, maybe before a governor becomes a governor, go and check he would not have done what we have done to our society. They will say a local government chairman, he comes and leaves. It is only successful businessmen like Peter Obi, that can finish serving his state, steer it well and steer it to profitability. But the truth is that not all of us are inclined towards politics. I sit down where I sit and look that we can be involved in politics without even contesting. We can be involved in selection process of who will feel is credible enough to impact positively on our society; someone who has done more for our society even before they hold that political position because your antecedents must speak for you. For me as a person, my philanthropic gesture in my own town and in Lagos are what I do because I have benefited from the society and the society must also benefit from me. I always tell people that I see myself more as a Nigerian than even an Igbo man because I am sure that if I am to contest election at Chevron area in Eti Osa Local Government Area, I will win because I am more popular in Lagos than in my village. I am more popular in my locality than in my state. In my state, they might not have seen me but my people in my locality where I do business see me everyday, I play football with them; we gist together so, they know me.
Can you please tell us some of your challenges before you became successful?
You know the challenges are the same challenges everybody face; lack of infrastructure and financing. Because when you start up a business, if you have idea, you will realise that that business is growing faster than you envisage. And you realise that for you to do more, you will need more finance. We are by the day getting better, so as companies begins to you have a need to expand, have a need for more manpower, also need to buy additional land because if you are building four houses, five houses, you will realise you need to think of building hundreds. Taking loan in double digits of about 20 per cent where as in other part of the world, we have such loans at four to five per cent and you will even have four to five years to pay such but it not so in Nigeria.
At 39 you are successful but Nigeria as a nation is 56 and yet is still struggling. How do you see it?
I would tell you at 39, without Nigeria, we are not successful, as unsuccessful as you think Nigeria may be, it has produced more successful men like Otunba Mike Adenuga, Otunba Subomi Balogun, Tony Elumelu. Nigeria has at some point, produce Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Nigeria is facing some challenges just as my organisation is facing but then the people, make a country. The country is not in isolation. We are the making of Nigeria and we should work toward Nigeria of our dreams. So if you tell me Nigeria is unsuccessful, I will also blame the media for their misinformation on who to vote for during election. I want to also commend the leadership of this country. It is not easy to govern a family not talk of a nation. When. You sit down in your house, married to your wife despite that you have paid her bride price you can have divergent opinion. But you have decided to choose her despite all the people you have met in your life. Unfortunately for us, we don’t have a choice over where we were born. We are born Nigerians. The problem of Nigeria is our problem and we that are born inside it must work for her success, because if you leave Nigeria as an empty land, it’s just a geographical space but the people inside, actually make Nigeria. So do you think you are the problem of Nigeria? If you answer those questions you will know that Nigeria is going through the challenges of even organisations and it’s not just Nigeria. I was privileged to be in Togo and I bought bottled water and I realised that maybe it is the problem of Nigeria affecting other West African countries. Because as Nigeria is being hit by recession, you may be underestimating the impact of our economic stability and growth on the West African Coast. If we are not doing well, other African nations suffer it. I think we all need to put our hands on deck and in our Individual space. We all need to change our orientation. The Federal Government launched the change begins with me, so let the change begin with us.
Your performance earned you a doctorate degree recently by foreign university, how do you feel about it?
Even though we have not got universities in Nigeria to honour us, that universities outside Nigeria could be commended for thinking one worthy of such. I thank God for It. Without God, all of it will not have been possible.
How do you feel not being honoured by your country?
Don’t forget that Nigeria is a country that honour people and recognise more like Peter Obi said, if somebody got involved in corruption and stole money and they go on praising them, recognising them, some of our parents, their kids will have done yahoo yahoo and bought car. He doesn’t have a job, he stole and you are happy about this. I will tell you, it is the society we live in and it will take a gradual process and most importantly, whether I am honoured locally or internationally, it doesn’t change who I am. It doesn’t change the fact that God has given me a call to impact on as many as much as I can impact. To do my best as an individual, and that best I will keep doing.
What is your style?
My style is being simple, corporate and casual most times because of the details of my job because I love going to site. I always tell people that there is no money in the office; there is only expenses. When you go out to sites, you can have a look at your assets and projects and how they are coming up. It also helps you appreciate how they are coming up.
How do you intend to celebrate your birthday?
It is a solemn day for me. A day I sit back to thank God for what he has done as my birthday always come. I am not the type that do elaborate celebration but I always want to thank God for my life by going to orphanages and charity homes to support them in my own little way. So, I am not a man that does elaborate parties. And at 39, I am still much in progress.