12 Jul 2013
Business: How Dr Obiora Anthony Chukwuka started as an apprentice and became a CEO
Born to a school teacher father who also doubled as the Catechist, in their local church, the family income was quite modest and barely enough to take care of everyone. Going through secondary school was really difficult. His later day academic accomplishments served as testaments to his quest for knowledge and also assuaged him for the early educational deprivation that he suffered on account of financial incapacitation. As he turns 50 years next Thursday, he shares with Esther Onyegbula, his challenges, aspirations and long journey to success.
Considering your poor background, how did you cope going to school?
Aware that my family’s lean financial resources will not be able to take me through higher institution, I made up my mind while in form four, to start a business soon after secondary school. I remained focused on this vision and did not succumb to series of peer pressure that could have distracted me and possibly made me add to the financial woes of my family. In 1980, at age 17, after the completion of my secondary education, I traveled down to Lagos to join my maternal cousin as his apprentice selling ladies shoes at Idumota market.
How did you feel, when you were 17 and your peers were preparing to write jamb and you couldn’t because of financial constraint?
It wasn’t easy at all. Even completing my standard six at that time was a huge struggle. There were times in-laws had to be called to contribute to pay my fees to enable me complete my secondary education. Although my classmates advised me to take the exams, I felt it was of no use, knowing fully well that if I passed I won’t be able to attend because of lack of fund. I realized my predicament on time and decided to take responsibility at a very young age.
So what happened when you couldn’t proceed beyond secondary education?
As mentioned earlier, I traveled down to Lagos to join my maternal cousin as his apprentice. In 1983, my cousin then set me up in my own business also selling ladies shoes. In 1984, with the then Buhari/Idiagbon military government demolishing all illegal shops at Idumota, my fledging business came to an abrupt end as all my wares went with the demolition.
How did you cope with this set back?
The huge blow and a terrible setback, offered me the leeway to determine my future business course. I must confess that I never really liked the ladies shoes business but was stuck to it due to the influence that my master in the trade had over me. With a little capital at my disposal, it did not take me much time to decide on pharmaceuticals as my new line of business because of my previous experience as an active member of the Red Cross Society in secondary school. After a brief training in drug business, I started trade in 1985 at Idumota with the name Leton Medical Stores. This was to metamorphose to Caleb Pharmaceuticals and later in 1995, was incorporated as Greenlife Pharmaceuticals Ltd.
After you became a successful entrepreneur did you later go back to school?
Yes I did but much later. I got admission into the University of Lagos where I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration in 2008. I went further to study at the Leeds Metropolitan University in England where I obtained a Master of Science degree in Corporate Governance and also a Post Graduate Diploma in Management Consultancy from the same university. I am also a recipient of an honorary doctorate conferred on me by Commonwealth University Belize, Central America, in collaboration with the London Graduate School, England.
Would you say that acquiring a university education has helped enhance you as an entrepreneur?
Yes of course. When I was in Idumota, my business was growing but it lacked the corporate identity that I yearned for. I knew that there was no way I could efficiently and effectively administer a corporate business without actually acquiring the necessary skills required. So immediately, I moved my corporate office to Ilupeju. Don’t forget that I have never worked in an office before. I needed administrative skills. So I went back to school and believe me, it really paid off. I noticed that people no longer referred to me as a money-miss-road businessman. I didn’t just end with a Bachelors degree, I went ahead to do my masters. And this has helped me to become an authority in the industry as a trained administrator.
With all you have been able to achieve in the pharmaceuticals, real estate, hospitality, oil and gas sector, what are you doing to give back to the society?
In recognition of the fact that all I have today is God given, I live with the consciousness of seeking to give back through selfless services to God and humanity. This I have done through the auspices of EZIAFAKEGO FOUNDATION which was founded in the year 2003, to improve the quality of human life especially in the rural communities. The foundation provides youth and women empowerment; free healthcare services; provision of shelter and other basic needs for the less privileged in the society. We also give educational scholarships up to tertiary level.
At fifty do you feel fulfilled?
Honestly, I don’t know how to express myself because I am more than fulfilled. My greatest fulfillment is being able to touch lives. In Greenlife, we have about 500 members of staff in both industries. These people also have their own dependants, so I am happy that I am able to do that. Most times, over staff on purpose just help more people. For my birthday celebration, I will be visiting five welfare homes and orphanages in Lagos to celebrate with them just as God showed me love.
What is your word to young Nigerians?
My word to young Nigerians is that there are no shortcuts to success, once you are born into this world it is your right to succeed. But if you misuse a single opportunity, you might have to live with that decision for ever or never be able to correct in one life time. Young Nigerians should learn to plan their lives well; if they do they will enjoy their lives to the end.