Architect Benson Ezem, an extraordinary entrepreneur with an expanding multibillion-naira business empire, Cosmo Base, is a lesson in vision and honesty. Ezem, who is founder of Lively Hope Outreach, recalls in this Interview with Senator Iroegbu, how the grim reality of his father’s retirement after 37 years in the civil service changed his view about life and work. As an enterprising young man, he became a successful entrepreneur while still in school and shares his wealth of experience on how to make millions without breaking the bank
How is hospitality business in Abuja, especially in this period of economic recession?
The hospitality business in Abuja has not been too wonderful because it is a business that relies heavily on the economy. This is because if the economy is doing well, people will get to travel a lot. Unfortunately, for the past two years, we’ve been in a recession. People are not travelling as frequently as they would want to; there are no idle funds to play around with anymore. People don’t travel for leisure again but only when it is necessary. What brings people to Abuja such as contracts and government jobs are no longer available. Right now we are only doing 25 to 30 per cent, which is one-third of what we were doing when we started. The whole hospitality sector is affected. But we still retain our high standard because people make us hotel of choice because of the standard. In order to sustain this, we do more adverts at a very high cost to keep reminding people that we are still there. We also reduced our rates to attract more patronage at a very high cost to us. We want to create jobs because it is a thing of joy and that is what has kept me going as an entrepreneur.
What measures do you think can be taken to mitigate the current challenges?
Firstly, the people must have enough money to spend. And how do you have enough money? The economy is what the government has to look into and how do you look into this economy? What is happening right now is good when you look at it in a larger spectrum; there is no free lunch and there is no free money going around. But if the government can inject more money into the economy then the people who are supposed to use these facilities will have money to invest. Another way is to reduce tariff if possible and make power available because we pay a lot to buy diesel. The government should look into multiple taxations; we pay for practically everything in the FCT.
What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
This will be the best time for any young Nigerian to go into business. For you to be an entrepreneur you must be vision-oriented, have passion for what you want to do. So if you decide here to be a block moulder and want to be an entrepreneur, you have to keep aside your certificate because what you read in school may not be what you want to pursue. You must be ready to take up the challenges. I am not saying to be an entrepreneur is an easy thing but you must be prepared to go down and pick up the mess. For instance, if you decide to be blocks moulder, first of all you must get the right equipment, you must know your market and you must know your source of materials. Once you are knowledgeable about these requirements, then you must have passion for it because maybe in the first three months, you may not have patronage but you shouldn’t pack up.
Tell us your story as an entrepreneur.
There is no success without hard work. There is no success without a vision. Right from secondary school, I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur because I grew up to see my father as a civil servant working for NEPA and after 3.30pm, he was back home reading his newspapers. Later, he would take us out and that’s it. It was okay for him, because of his level as a senior civil servant. We lived in the best areas. When my father retired, he was like a fish out of water and then we realised that everything that was in the house was owned by NEPA. So I asked what have we achieved these 37 years? NEPA property and NEPA gave us two weeks to leave the GRA. There was no plan; there was no house.
That situation ignited something inside of me. I said if I am going to live in this life I am going to live in my own house. That was what triggered my desire and passion to live on my own. So I entered the university with that mindset and vowed not to work for anybody, staying in a rented house or in a government house and at the end of the day they will ask me to move. So, from day one in the university my heart was focused to start a business that would be able to give me accommodation in any part of the town that I want to live. While in my second year, I started my own company (Cosmo Base). Eventually, a small business came to me and I was running around doing it. You know as a young man, I was excited doing something I didn’t know it was going to become big.
Can you tell us about Cosmo Base?
I started part two (200-Level) Architecture in doing designs, running around and I had to hire some of those who had already finished to partner with me in that pursuit. We did some jobs for people through referrals. People were now referring us to those in government and then my big break came in Katsina State through somebody that I have worked for. We were asked to design the Katsina Polytechnic’s 18 workshops and the design came out very well and we went on to do other projects. You know business was good and then I had my own house, an office complex and I people working for me and from that time we didn’t look back and that was in the 1980’s until now we moved into higher level of consultancy. What happens to a lot of entrepreneurs is that when they make their initial money, they want to buy big cars and tell the world that they have arrived. You don’t need to do that.
During my NYSC, I served in my firm as an architect. I bought a 504 car in 1986. One thing I noted is that any young man that is dedicated and committed to what he is doing, people will want to patronise him. People will want to give him an opportunity. I was given such opportunity by a lot of people to do their designs. And before I knew what was happening, people I worked for introduced me to the state government and one commissioner of works. He told me to meet him by 8am in Katsina. I was living in Kano then. I was to design some workshops for Katsina Polytechnic. When the rector of the institution saw me, he was surprised and asked, 2Where is your boss?’ and I said, ‘Sir, by the grace of God, I am the boss.’ But by the time he asked me questions and gave me designs of workshop, I went back, wrote one page analysis and he summoned the board to meet me. As a young man in his 20s my head was hot, and by the time I was done with my presentation, I was quickly commissioned to do the job. By the time the project was completed in 1988, I got N200,000 as fee; an equivalent of 200,000 pounds.
How do you mentor aspiring entrepreneurs?
One thing we do in (Cosmo Base`), is talking to workers. I motivate and mentor them. Right now we have architects we have trained. We have people we have mentored in the business line. We try to tell them that there is time for everything. There are decisions you will take today that will cause your success or failure tomorrow. So at any point in time you must take the right decisions. As a Christian, I tell them to prayerfully take the right decisions.
While you mentor people, do you also extend that to your children bearing in mind that privileged children tend to waste their inheritance?
There are three different ways of making money in this country. There are people who have not worked for the money but made it through the positions they have occupied and went on to establish one or two businesses. If you go to those businesses you will find out that they are being sustained by the presence of their founders not the business itself. They are not entrepreneurs. That is one. Secondly, there are entrepreneurs who have built an empire during the years and they want to sit on that empire they have built. They sit on it and want to protect it. They don’t even want their children to come near it because they still see them as children who are not experienced. There are also, some that seemingly built an empire, and are entrepreneurs but there are some clandestine methods they use but don’t want their children to know those secrets. They protect those secrets so much that before they know it, they are in their 70s and 80s. When they now want these children to take over, they have moved on and already on their own.
Every man has their own vision, and it’s left for you to decide whether to activate the vision God has given you or you want it to die. Consequently, these children will follow their vision. So I have studied these scenarios and have seen where this takes every one of them to. For the first scenario; those businesses are not going to get anywhere because they have been founded on a very wrong foundation. The second one that the person is so protective and all that, by the time they know it they are old. I know a man in Aba he is so rich but now the business is gone and the man is gone and his children cannot keep the business. So I now said, what is the best way to do it? The third and best way, is first of all be an entrepreneur, and then have a good foundation for your business. What is the good foundation? Be honest; bring integrity to your business, be truthful about your business and earnings so that you will be free to discuss it. You are not cheating anybody or doing any underhand thing and then let your children know that you are making genuine money. My children get involved in my business early as they are five years old. I would often take them to office, and made them perform simple tasks. This is important, they know that paper is important and they are growing and you are talking to them about it. They are seeing you work. In any of my houses, I have a study and an office. Accordingly, when they come to the office they will see you, either it is the time I am studying my Bible; they can quip in, ‘Daddy, are you still studying?’ They know how you are getting the money. I tutor them; make sure their lessons are okay. My wife is doing the same.
What does Cosmo Base group do?
We initially started as a consultancy firm which we are still doing and now we are into oil and gas. This is mainly gas, LPG plants in different areas. Also, we have gone into hospitality business; we have the Jades Hotels. It has its own line. We are also into aluminium roofing sheets. We are into the industrial sector because we are trying to develop a line of industry, where you have pipes, conduits, and by the time we have all these products in the group, we will be able to reduce the cost of building. Now we are trying to set up the pipes, PVC pipes and all the drainage pipes but we are having it a bit difficult getting lands from the state government.