Benson Ezem: Life is a Process… You Don’t Get to the Mountain Top without Climbing a Ladder

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Reverend Benson Ezem is a chartered architect, infrastructural development consultant and a fellow of the Nigeria Institute of Architects. He is the Group President of the Cosmo Base Group, which he has nurtured into a multi-billion naira conglomerate with diverse interests ranging from consultancy, construction, infrastructural development, manufacturing, and hospitality business.  The Cosmo Base Group boss also runs Lively Hope Foundation with his wife. Ezem shares the story of his life with Emmanuel Ugwu

You have built a flourishing business conglomerate, were you born with a silver spoon and just needed little or no push to soar?

I was born into an average family. My father was a senior civil servant at ECN then, later NEPA. He was a district accountant. So I will say that we had all the necessities of life, we lived at good places, GRA. I never lived in any other place except GRA. So I don’t know whether it’s golden or silver spoon. I thank God for that. But one thing is that all the people who were competing with me then, we became very close. When I visit them I come home and appreciate and thank God for what level he has placed me under my father because I see them (friends) growing up maybe in one room but one thing about them was that they were very intelligent. When we come to school they made their A grades and I had to compete with them and we became very close. I think that was the beginning of mission to do something in people’s lives not withstanding your financial background; to help these people knowing that good things can come out of poverty with some assistance.

How was your life shaped?

My father was a disciplined man because then, when you see the children of civil servants, they observed time for every activity such as breakfast. When he came home at about four o’clock, he would read the newspapers brought to him, and he would have his siesta. And you dare not wake him when he was having his siesta.  He would wake up in the evening and would take me to Kano Club (I grew up in Kano) and we had just one hour to spare. My father was not into alcohol and I had always known my father to chair the bazaar of St Stephens Anglican Church, he was always the chairman. Another thing I knew about my father is that people were always saying that he was very strict about giving out money to people.  He was very prudent in managing money and he would always say this is ECN money, not JBO (John Bassey Onyenonu) Ezem. He would always say that he was only a custodian of that money and he could not spend it as his own. ‘O bu ego ndi ozo’(it’s other people’s money) he always said. I would say that he was incorruptible because the contractors would always come out to say that he would die poor because this man would not take money from them. They nicknamed him Alhaji mai kwudi, that is the man who owns the money but the money is not his own. He was the custodian of money.  Because he was not ready to allow people free access to public funds, they would taunt him that he would leave this job and the money would still be there.

So, how in concrete terms did your father’s experience as a public servant affect you?

When I had a new rethink about my life was when my father left NEPA. Government just came in one fell swoop and retired everybody in the 1980s. Do you know that my father retired with all the comforts we had and NEPA gave him just two weeks to pack out from our GRA home. I was in secondary school then, getting ready to go to the university. They gave him two weeks to leave NEPA quarters in GRA. My mum was always complaining that everything in that house was NEPA – furniture NEPA, air conditioner NEPA, television NEPA. So when my mother was trying to pack our things my father told her there was nothing to pack, just your box. My mother told me that she started crying and said ‘so we have worked useless life and this people couldn’t even allow us to get a decent place before throwing us out.’ My father hadn’t a house then. So this was what made me to decide that I was not going to work for any man. That was what made me to start the business. This Cosmo Base you hear today was actually started when I was in the university and by the grace of God, by the time I came out of the university, I had a house of my own at the age of 24, built by myself. And as people would say, I was blessed as a millionaire at that time and they were not far from the truth. I was not married by then.

What role did your mother play in making you who you are today?

My mother (May her soul rest in peace), was the woman who mentored me in business. She went through all these things with my father (when he was retired and thrown out of his official residence) and she would tell me I don’t want you to be like your father who worked for government and at the end of it all had nothing to show for it. My mother was into business, sewing and distributing products. She would wake up in the morning and tell me: chowa ewu oji mgbe chi ejibeghi (make haste while the sun shines). She would tell me that big men always wake up early, so why should I be sleeping; don’t I want to be a big man. This woman was harassing my life telling me that big men don’t sleep later than six in the morning. She would say that big men go out in the morning to make money and would ask me to follow her to recover money from her debtors. So she would wake me up by 5.30am as I was the only one around. All my brothers were sent to America even my sister but in my own case they said they won’t like to lose me. I was third to the last child but by virtue of my being around I was the closest to my parents. In fact my father believed that I was reincarnation of his own father and that’s why they call me Nnamdi. My elder brother is the patriarch of the family now. They tell me that my grandfather was the richest Ubakala man while he lived.

In your formative years, were you tempted in any way to rebel against the strict discipline of your father?

Well, the only time I would say I was rebellious to my father, if that is what being a rebel means doing not what your father wanted you to do, is that he wanted me to be a medical doctor but I refused. By the grace of God I had all the qualifications to accomplish my father’s wish because I made aggregate 16 in my WAEC exams. I had read about architects and I had known some medical doctors that my father took me to when I had malaria. My father was in charge of paying medical bills of NEPA staff to the hospitals and would be negotiating to save money for NEPA. My father wanted me to be a medical doctor. So when it was time for me to choose a career I told my father I did not want to rebel against you, that I was going to read medicine to satisfy you but I would give you the certificate so you can work as a medical doctor. Then he called my mother (Rosanna Nwugo Ezem) and told her what I had said. That day he changed his mind and said, ‘son, do what you want to do’. By then I had read about people like Architect Alex Ekwueme (may his soul rest in peace) and what he was doing, that he designed the school I went to, (federal government college). I read about how he was going around in chartered aircraft supervising the works he was doing. I also read about other great architects and I wanted to be an architect because I was good in art work. So, that is the only time I did not do what my father wanted me to do. I thank God today that I did not only become an architect but a fellow of my institute. I have today about 10 architects under my supervision and I’ve mentored no fewer than 20 architects in my lifetime.

Looking back, do you have any regrets in life or something you could have done differently if you had another opportunity?

I don’t regret being an architect and as for my dad I think I learnt a lot from him.  My father had a large heart. At one point in time there was no one that worked under him in NEPA from Abia State and beyond that I will meet and he won’t say to me, your father helped me in NEPA or my son, your father was very benevolent to us. I think this is what I picked;  I just say if this man had been able to help people with the meager resources he had and when they see me they begin to ask me ‘are you the son of Ezem the one that worked at ECN’? That is where a man makes an impact.  He didn’t leave houses and other properties but he left legacies in the lives of people, a name that is still ringing bell. Those people that he helped may not have been able to pay him back but in people’s lives God rewards you on other ways. That was why I said, if I have an opportunity I will replicate in large scale what my dad did in helping people. And God gave me a wife that has that same desire to help people and loves God. If you say that you love God he would love you.  You cannot love God if you don’t love the people around you because that is what he said in gospel of Matthew, have you clothed those around you, have you fed those around you.  If you say you love me take care of this people. So no one can say he loves people without loving God. Only politicians can say they love people without loving God because when they want something they love you and when they get it and there is no God to love they begin to love power and when it’s time again they begin to love you.

You speak glowingly of your wife, how did you meet her?

Ha! My brother I was scared of marriage. I was blessed at a very young age – a man who started his business at 19 and at 22 I had architects working for me. I was blessed very young, I mean really blessed. I had my own house, my own office, everything. The only thing that scared me then was marriage. This is because by virtue of my business, the families I had encountered were families that were always quarreling and fighting – the husband pursuing the wife, the wife pursuing the husband. I began to wonder how could I go now and begin to bring a woman that would break my head after coming home at the end of the day’s work. I said instead let me stay without a wife. But thank God there was no alternative to marriage then. My mother, who was my mentor was always there to advise me and she said now you need a wife and we started searching from east to west, north to south. I was not getting the satisfaction I wanted until I did the final search here at Ubakala. They wanted me to marry from my home town, someone who is of the same culture, who understands our language. We were not coming home regularly because I was northern brought up. But God loves me and when the hand of God is upon a man he becomes his guide in everything he does including marriage. I gave my life to Christ in 1986 and I met my wife in December of that year. That was at a gathering, the annual Ubakala Day. I’m a kind of person that doesn’t waste time in gatherings; anything that will not give me value I don’t waste time in it. But on that day, because it was holidays no business man would be waiting for me and I just said let me walk down to this place – the market square at Apumiri. Lo and behold, there was this beautiful damsel like an angel from heaven. I saw her from a distance and my heart started beating fast. Not knowing that this same girl was the person some of the young men, my colleagues at Owerri were talking about that they didn’t like the woman because as a born again Christian she was not in their circle. Immediately you are talking to her she would turn it into the word of God. Before I met her God had told me that that girl they were talking about is my wife. That girl that all the boys don’t like, that one is my wife. Because she was not a party person, they didn’t like her. I proposed to her the same day I saw her. The rest is history.

For over a decade now you and your wife have been involved in doing charitable deeds and empowerment of youths through the Lively Hope Foundation. How did this gesture come about?

Like I said earlier, I had a much disciplined upbringing. My father was deeply involved in the church and we were equally carried along. My father fulfilled all the rituals in the church. He taught us the fear of God. He was a giver and he taught us to give. He said, ‘son if you can impact on people that is what will count for you.’ At our 25th wedding anniversary I brought out money, about N4 million and said to my wife let’s go abroad to celebrate our wedding anniversary. My wife rejected it and said instead of taking this money abroad to spend let’s do something for people. That was when we launched the Lively Hope Medical Outreach, the biggest so far in the history of this local government (Umuahia South). In the local government we have three clans – Umuopara, Ubakala, and Olokoro. In each of these places, they treated not less than 2,500 persons. The governor then heard about it and sent the commissioner for health to represent him and offered his commendation. He said I will honour this man who is helping our government to provide health care services to the people. He attended our church service and helped us complete our church building project. The church is one of the best in Abia State and we thank God for it. When a gift is from God, He works out the rest. I prayed for a wife like this and God gave her to me and she has given me not just children but outstanding children in their professions. My son made first class in mechanical engineering from the UK, this one my daughter masters in pharmacy in UK; my daughter is an accountant and is married. The last one …that is what gladdens my heart; I thought none of them was going to take my profession. But he is now studying architecture at Boston, Massachusetts. I call him my junior colleague. So I thank God for that. It is the gift of God. You see, the gift of God comes without sorrow. So if it is not the gift of God something else would come.

You are many things rolled into one, how do you perform the balancing act running your business and working in God’s vineyard?

Beyond every other thing that satisfies me, what gives me joy is serving God. Every other thing is like vapour but if you know God you have life that goes beyond this life. The bible tells you that you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world and the light which is put upon a hill cannot be hidden. So if I’m the light God has showcased me to go forth to shine on others. So that has been my foundation and with the little part I played in politics, I always advised myself that people are looking  onto you as light, in  my profession, people are looking unto you as light. It helps me to come to the level of excellence in anything I do. Those that know me can testify that I go for excellence in anything I do. I don’t go for half measures. People in my profession know that if you meet me in a situation where I have to sign out millions, will know that they must earn it; you must earn your certificate. I’ve had to quarrel with contractors because they wanted something they did not earn and I will say no and I will put my feet down.  Let me tell you why Christians fail in their endeavours in life, it is because they live different life outside the church. But if you bring out who you really are both in the church and outside people will respect you for who you are. There are things that people who know me that I am not going to do no matter the billions you give me. As an architect I tell my staffs don’t collect money from people. Do your job satisfactorily and anybody who wants to appreciate you can appreciate you. I don’t do things that are not in line with my Christian values. We all belong to one religion or the other. If you love God having 200 houses only for yourself is of no value and living in a house where you have 200 rooms is madness and misplacement of values. As a child of God, when you come to power do you have to acquire houses in London that you don’t need, do you have to build houses in New York that you don’t need?

What is your guiding philosophy and advice for youths who would like to make success of their career as you have done?

What I stand for can be captured in absolute fear and trust in God, living a life of integrity. I believe in living a life of integrity, hard work, resilience and personal assessment. What I mean is being accountable to myself, man and God.  For the youths of this nation: I tell them that life is a process. You don’t get to the mountain top without climbing a ladder and you must take the steps of that ladder. Anybody that climbs to the mountain without a ladder would tumble down because you don’t know the steps of the ladder when coming down.