Ashiru: We Will Rebrand Odua Group, Focus on Training

The new Chairman, Odua Investment Company Limited, Bimbo Ashiru, in this interview with Gilbert Ekugbe, emphasised the need to build human capacities to take the Odua Group to its desired level. He also has his sight on writing all its board members’ name on platinum. Excerpts

Give us an overview of the economy and how you are going to navigate through current challenges, turn them into opportunities to give shareholders better returns?

Thank you for having me. I always believe in one thing, which is making the best out of a bad situation. Economic challenge is all over the world, but people will still navigate and get things done properly. I will give you a good example, which is COVID-19. The COVID-19 epidemic, look at what happened and look at how people become billionaires. I did not say became millionaires because people are still making billions. I know what people are making in America and I know how many people made money in Nigeria. Some people sat down, thought out of the box on how to make the best out of it. What did they do, they started logistics and they become billionaires overnight. I remember growing up Odua was a conglomerate that was actually competing with the likes of the UAC of this world, but what happened? Odua had a property in England at number 51 Kensington Gardens and many more. What I am saying is that the founders of Odua had vision, they had mission and they were probably in their 30s and their 40s. The likes of the Chief Obafemi Awolowo and others built the Cocoa house which was the tallest building in Africa, the first television station and the university of Ife was built through the funds raised from cocoa and that was why they named the house cocoa house because they were saying that it was the funding they go from cocoa that they used to build up the cocoa house. Some people came to Nigeria to take our palm oil and palm kernel in the 80s to Kuala Lumpur, they went as far as using those palm kernel to make chewing gum. So you think out of the box. Economic challenges will not make us die. If there is fire here today, we must look for a way of getting out of this place. So that is my own vision and my own point is that I do not think anything is difficult. It is just making the best out of it.

So the parameter of challenges of economy and what we have done so far, we made about 150 per cent progress and do not forget that all of us came in on the 7th of in May 2020. I was part of it and I commend the governors for picking the right caliber of people, people with pedigree, unblemished track record. We have people that have worked in different industries as board members. I was in banking for almost 30 years before I went to serve as a commissioner in Ogun State for eight years and the records are there. My records are there in the banking industry. Dr Aina, outgoing chairman was a banker and he left as a Managing Director while I left as a director in the bank. So we have things we are doing. We have a consultant, Accenture, who is doing its own thing. We have a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), we have a medical doctor who became a politician but still a professional and we have an accountant who became a commissioner. My own point is that how do we make the best out of it? First of all, you have to have commitment then secondly, issue of integrity. Integrity is when you are doing the right thing when nobody is watching. We come to Odua with a good mind, we want to serve people, we want to make a name for ourselves, we will do it and that is the only way forward. You cannot sit down and say there is a problem with the economy and say there is no way. So I do not want to sit with GDP figures, parameters and so on. Lets look at what our forefathers were unable to do that we have done.

We have been able to get our oil license and the marginal fields and we paid for it fully. We have 42.86 per cent and it is called Beta Marginal Field. We have our license and we have started seeing people who are willing to partner with technical partners and from what we have seen Chevron is on that plate. We should be able to do a minimum of between 4000 and 5000 barrels per day and there is gas there too. It is in Ondo and I mentioned it to the governor that we would need his help so that when we start working there, people do not come there to disturb us. Our hospitality business will witness a major turnaround soon. I have good news for you, Premier Hotel, Ibadan is as good as sorted out. We are doing a joint venture with a company, which I don’t want to name now. They are spending over N10 billion to turn Premier hotel to another five star hotel and that is what we are looking out for. We have started talking to other investors because we know sitting on a gold mine. I used to tell people that Nigeria has no business being an import dependent economy. We are blessed with lots of natural resources. Why should we take food out of this country raw and bring it back processed? Normally, when you go to the market, it is the seller that we determine the price of goods, but now the buyers are the ones dictating the price. Odua is a gold mine. Gold mine in the sense that we have the resources and with the caliber of people we have here we can do so many things.

Are you going to run with the old gamut of the process you met on ground?

Let me tell you, the old gamut that we met on ground, you will be surprised that they are useful and it is a system and let me tell you that an average Nigerian, when he goes to London, he follows the rules or regulations there. I have traveled with so many Nigerians and we all follow the queue, but once we land in Murtale airport, you will be wondering if this is not the same person that was obedient in London. One of the things I am going to focus on is training. We will spend a lot of money on training our people and those people you call old gamut, we can blend them. In the banking industry I started with Chartered Bank in those days in 1989 and after some years in the banking industry, I left to another bank with the old people we were saying that we had to downsize, but I said no, we cannot sack them, but train them. If you give people right education, right training, they will understand and we cannot do things the same way and expect results. The only change in life is change. So what I am saying is that I personally will not encourage that old people should be sent packing. When you give the people the right kind of training like for example, I believe that our group as a whole including our subsidiaries, they must have a training programmes and the Managing Director of each of the organization, I will encourage them to ensure that they identify their successes and I am not going to be an arm chair Chairman, I am going to visit all our subsidiaries. I want to see what they have on ground and like I was telling someone, if I am a governor or the President of the country, I am not going to announce when I am coming to your State. I will arrive and I will say let us pass through this route and you are not going to take me through the best route and when I was a commissioner I blended with my people, because I have an open door policy, there was no appointment, when you come in if you ask me for something and I cannot do it, I will tell you I am sorry I can’t. I pick my calls, if anybody calls me. So the point is that we have this orientation in this country where you take up a new position and you sack everybody, the people you are sacking maybe one of the best brains there.

Let me tell you this before I continue, Odua had over 40 per cent of Lafarge? We had permanent sit for two directors and the present Chairman of Lafarge today is a director and representative of Odua, but what happened, they sold those shares and where are they today. We also had Odua Telecoms and we spent N10 billion on that venture. I was the chairman of the committee set up to look into it. We have told them to behave because and I spoke to the Lebanese and said we would deal with them; they are dealing with governments of six states of the South West. They have started coming back now, once you do not compromise yourself, you can talk to them in a nice way and they know that we mean business. By God’s grace our next four years, we are going to change so many things and we will go to individual subsidiaries giving one day notice.

Do you have any specific plan for investments in agriculture over the duration of your tenure?

My focus even as a commissioner was agriculture that would lead to Industrialisatio. I will tell you this, the first ethanol factory in Nigeria, I happen to be one of the people that commissioned it and there is a farm in Ososa and the farm was producing over 250 tonnes per day and they were rotting away and immediately they started that those guys about 500 tonnes per day and the farm started smiling to the bank and it created jobs for 15,000 farmers. So I told SwagCo to take advantage of the opportunities. Our focus is that we want Swagco to go back to what Chief Awolowo and co did to get results. We have given them seed money and we do not need to have 100 per cent of Swagco. They can bring in investors and there are so many private equity firms that are ready to invest and they are working on that. Now to what the governor said, we will go to each state and look at areas where they have comparative and competitive advantage when it comes to agricultural products. So dairy farming he was talking about at the Odua AGM, be rest assured that soon it will be done. So Swagco is doing very well in Ogun State in terms of cassava, I think they are also doing well in Oyo state and in Osun State, they mine gold there and we are going to partner with them towards mining. So we are going to take advantage of the commission and ensure that we do the agriculture we are talking about and focus on that, but you cannot achieve a lot in agriculture if you do not have access to infrastructure. So now that we have those tips, we will encourage them to do the rural roads where those rural dwellers will be able to bring in those goods and we are trying to see if they can get some funds from the CBN anchor borrowers programme, which is cheap funds and I know that they are talking with some banks to get some funds. So in that area of agriculture, you need to invest more, we need to get proper infrastructure in place. Those are the things we are going to focus on and I am happy that our State governors are now supporting. We are also looking at Information Technology (IT), it is the way to go in this world and we are looking at all strategic places and Odua has invested so much in IT infrastructure. However, despite the fact that we want to encourage the youths in technology, we do not want to encourage them to be doing online fraudsters. Those guys are brilliant, what we are trying to do is to use their brilliancy instead of using it to defraud, but use it to create opportunities for youths. I will be honest with you because integrity matters a lot to me even when I was in the bank and government, I will tell you what I can do and make sure that we achieve a lot. It is a continuum.

You are planning to create new businesses, are you also thinking of revamping the existing ones?

You see people get it wrong because some of these companies do not belong to Odua’s anymore. Don’t forget that they have gone to the bank to borrow money and banks have acquired them. However, those that were sold fraudulently we will recover them, an example the Epe plywood. 

We are looking for people that are going to invest and I have spoken to about two different people and for us to revamp anything now and like someone was asking about government and businesses. You see government has no business in business, what they need to do is create the necessary environment. That is why they have given us that power to be able to do so many things. The marginal field thing is an example of what we can do. We were the only ones that actually bided for it, we were asked to pay $6 million, we did it. Going back to your question, we are going to revamp them if it is worthwhile and if it is not, we sell them off. We are very active in stock exchange and everything. You see it is a focus and like the question you asked about what we are doing in building our people, those are the things we need to do so that by the time I am leaving in four years time, Odua should be a roller coaster thing where things would have changed and we would have created a better orientation. Probably I am sure that the people here now, we have increased their salaries and our focus is to become a world class organisation.

What will you like to be remembered for after your time as chairman of Odua Group?

I want all the board members’ names to be written in platinum and not in gold. To say when Bimbo Ashiru was the Chairman, we started producing crude oil and Odua has created that environment whereby agriculture has now led to industrialization, Odua has created a high tech hub for our youths and all the States in the South-west. We also want people to say that while we were there, this is the amount of jobs we created and these are the things we have left and by the time I leave, I pray that the Airport Hotel would have started a joint venture and Premier Hotel by God’s grace in the next few months we would have signed off and we will see the notice that we are closing down the place to revamp the place. When Baba Awolowo and co were the ones that did Western house, the cocoa house and all the Odua assets, so somebody had the vision and they did it. General Gowon when he was Head of State, he built the national theatre, so people can do it, it is just for you to have the focus, be committed and have the vision and we will achieve and you can be rest assured that when I am leaving, I want my name to be written in platinum and for people to say when I was Chairman, Odua’s profits improved drastically and the shareholders were getting billions of naira and not millions. I want people to say I distributed billions,  which all the six states benefitted from. Those are the things I want to be remembered for

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