Michael Onajirhevbe Ibru (1930-2016)
As the late patriarch of the illustrious Ibru clan and businessman extra-ordinaire, Olorogun Michael Christopher Onajirhevbe Ibru, embarks on his journey to eternity, Nigerians from all walks of life are mourning not just another Ibru, but are sure to be ruminating on the lessons learnt from the life and times of one of Nigeria’s most illustrious entrepreneurs, a generous spirit, builder of bridges and a unifying force. He was the wealthy who made his wealth serve more than himself. He was a leader but a servant from the front-line. He was simply a great man.
The late Olorogun Ibru, 86, died in the early hours of September 6, 2016 in Maryland, in the United States of America, barely five weeks after the demise of one of his younger brothers, Felix Ibru, the first civilian governor of Delta State. Michael Ibru’s death was shocking the more because he had fully recovered from his prolonged illness and was expected to return home when he passed on that fateful day.
In a remarkable odyssey in business and industry that spanned over six decades, Ibru was a businessman par excellence, a model of entrepreneurship, a resolute pathfinder and pioneer of various scales of industries and an uncommon philanthropist. Fondly referred to as a ‘humble fisherman’ for a radical career shift from a white-collar colonial business manager to a roving fish merchant with an incredible grassroots outreach. Ibru was the man who slowly but steadily made frozen fish a business brand and a household delicacy in Nigeria. Armed with a strong determination to succeed and to make a positive difference, he unleashed his ideas on the public with so much conviction that they not only turned foreigners’ monopoly of fish importation into a flourishing indigenous concern, but also became the nucleus of the chains of companies that eventually made up the expansive Ibru business empire.
Born in 1930, Michael Ibru, who would have clocked 86 this Christmas, was the first of seven children of the late Pa Peter Epete Ibru, a mission worker and Nursing Superintendent at the Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital, and his wife, the late Madam Janet Omotogor Ibru, a fish trader. He attended the famous Igbobi College, Lagos between 1948 and 1951 during which he distinguished himself in his studies and extra-curricular activities. A child prodigy with extra-ordinary leadership qualities, Ibru was admitted into Second Year in college straight from Elementary School, and passed his Cambridge School Certificate Examination with Distinction in his fourth year of the six-year programme.
Upon leaving Igbobi College, where he was Senior Prefect, he got a job with the United Africa Company (UAC) as manager-in-training. Ibru remained in UAC for the next five years, gaining the experience that later prepared him for entrepreneurship. Having resigned in 1956 at 25, he formed Laibru in partnership with an expatriate with whom he worked at UAC. After a successful adventure in general trading, Michael Ibru embarked on the intractable but fertile frozen fish business. By aggressively but confidently venturing into this tough, unpopular, foreigner-dominated business, he pioneered the indigenous production, marketing and distribution of frozen fish to the point of phenomenal success.
It is on record that Michael Ibru single-handedly overturned the bad publicity which frozen fish had in Nigeria, by “waging a vigorous campaign that successfully persuaded the whole nation that frozen fish was good, and thereafter establishing over 350 depots throughout Nigeria.” Thus, before the frozen food business became a household enterprise, Ibru had set the pace that would lead to economic empowerment of the average Nigerian.
By this leap of conviction, Ibru ignited a business brand IBRU that became synonymous not only with frozen fish but also with honest business, tenacity and forthrightness. The aftermath of this success was a chain of companies and business concerns: Ibru Sea Foods, Ibru Organisation, Rutam Motors, Osadere Fishing Company, Aden Farms, Mitchell Farms, amongst others. Aviation, oil and gas, banking and real estate were other capital-intensive areas in which he also excelled.
Besides business, Ibru was a champion of economic empowerment for his Urhobo kindred and other Nigerians around the reach of his outstanding philanthropy. He established foundations, built schools, offered his wealth of experience to national cause. In recognition of his uncommon pioneering business prowess and philanthropy, he received awards and accolades, among which are: Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) in 1981, Outstanding Businessman Award of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1983; Zik Prize for Leadership, the Prestigious Dr. Kwame Nkrumah Excellence in Entreprise Award in 2005. He was also honoured with Honorary Doctor of Laws (Hon. LL.D) of the University of Benin (1978), University of Ibadan (1978), and Doctor of Agriculture (Honoris Causa) University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, 2004.
In his lifetime, Michael Ibru impressed it on his followers that there were invaluable lessons to be learnt from his business life, if one is to grow from grass to grace. As primers in business schools teach, Ibru harped on the importance of opportunity. For every successful business he led, “there was an opportunity that was not allowed to slip by.” Recalling the precautious situation at the time and how he scaled through after an initial setback, Ibru was once quoted thus: “I reappraised the whole situation and decide to concentrate my efforts in two areas: those items least popular among the merchants of the time and those things giving certain sociological or health benefits for the people. That’s how I came into the fishing business.” According to him: “It was underdeveloped, complicated, of messy nature, and offered little or no attraction to the then giant European trading houses nor did it attract the Nigerian merchant. So it met my first criterion.”
Another lesson to be learnt is the inevitability of practical virtues such as hardwork and diligence, firm resolve and conviction, perseverance and a strong determination to succeed.
As Nigeria faces economic recession and people agonise in searing hardship and hopelessness amidst untapped potentials, the invaluable lessons drawn from the life and times of Olorogun Michael Ibru become handy primers. If Nigerians could take time to study the annals of people like Ibru, they would locate in them sparks of practical wisdom that can jolt them from despair to hope, from stagnation to progress, from mental poverty and aridity to material satisfaction and sufficiency, and from the grass of deprivation to the grace of prosperity.