‘My greatest desire now is to please God in every area of my life’

Felix Omoikhoje

The modesty of his office virtually explains how humble he is and how simple he takes things of the world. But speaking to him reveals how serious he takes the things of God. Clocking 80 on January 18, boardroom guru and technocrat, Felix Omoikhoje Aizobeoje Ohiwerei, needs little introduction, except to say that he worked and served as managing director/vice chairman and later chairman of Nigerian Breweries Plc, which he gave his working life, and is on the Board of several companies requiring his wisdom and experience, some of which he chairs. He speaks glowingly about his wife, Janet, who according to his biography, Winning by His Grace, written by Prof Emmanuel Emenyonu, Ohiwerei met in Benin City, the Edo State capital. Ohiwerei spoke to GODWIN IJEDIOGOR at his Victoria Island, Lagos office on growing up, working with Nigerian Breweries, and in the vineyard

At 80, what do you wish for? What do you aspire for again?
My greatest desire in life now is just to please God in every area of my life, in my thoughts, in my words and in my deeds.

Apart from pleasing God, is there any other thing that occupies your mind?
By nature, I am very busy; I have a lot of things on my hands-secular and spiritual. I am quite busy, which is good. It is better to be busy than to be idle.But I have determined to slow down, and I would do it. In fact, I have started doing it.

If you are not busy, how do you relax? How do you unwind?
(Laughs) I do a bit of aerobics to keep my body fit. I don’t even have enough time to fellowship; I wish I had more time to fellowship more, because I enjoy fellowships.

No social clubs?
Not now, not any more. I used to in those days. In those days, I belonged to virtually every club that was important in Lagos, because of the nature of my work. I had, as it were, a free ticket into all those places.But, those were those days. Now I don’t go to such places any more.My focus and interest have changed from where they clink the glasses/bottles to where they clap the hands and dance for God.

Some people believe both can be done at the same venue. Is it easy to combine both?
Of course, life is a composite. You can’t just say that you are going to isolate yourself. But I don’t have to go to the clubs to do what I want to do with them. There are other platforms on which we can do it.As managing director/vice chairman of Nigerian Breweries Plc, in the marketing world, you represented the face of the brand. On the other hand, you were a born-again Christian.

How were you able to marry the two? Were you taking a little alcohol?
I have never been a heavy drinker, but, yes, there was a time I drank alcohol. Nobody who worked with me will tell you there was one day he or she knew I was drunk.

That said, when I decided to follow Jesus, I went the whole hog. I became more conscious of the dos and don’ts. Nobody told me to stop drinking. No pastor told me to stop drinking. I decided to give it up when I found out and I realised that it was interfering with my spiritual inclinations.In any case, let me say this to you that the breweries don’t produce beers to get people drunk. They only want to refresh you. But many people don’t know how far they should go and stop.

The breweries themselves are very much against drunkenness, and if you were caught drunk on duty, you were fired.Even after I decided to quit drinking completely, it did not affect my job or relationship with my employers.

My employers never one day asked me why I was no longer drinking. They took note of the fact that I had stopped drinking alcohol and whenever we wanted to have big meetings outside the country or wherever, they took the steps to make sure that they provided for my needs.

In any case, I was not the first person who worked for Nigerian Breweries, for instance, at a senior level, that didn’t drink. One of the very first Nigerian directors we had never touched beer one day.

Was he a good marketer?
Well, he wasn’t on the marketing side. But the point is, here was a company that produces a range of products, the choice is yours.The ones that you can cope with, take by all means.

Do you have a social life?
Yes, of course. I do have a social life. One of the things I feared after taking that decision to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour and to stop drinking alcohol was how it was going to affect my social life.

By the way, I found out from experience that nobody really cares what you do at social gatherings. They are there to enjoy themselves. Ok, you are there to talk and discuss with them, and they are interested in that sort of thing, but whether you are drinking or eating or not is not of major interest to most of them.One of my worries then was what of when I was fasting and how I would go to lunch or things like that. The first time it happened that I went to lunch while fasting, I just had a glass of water. The men on my left and right were eating and we were chatting.

It took quite some time before one of them realised it and said, “ah Felix, you are not eating.” They were busy doing their own things. So, I told them I was on a liquid lunch, and that was the end. Nobody bothered again.

I went to a friend’s birthday shortly afterwards and people were eating and drinking and whatever it was. I was fasting and my friend knew I was fasting, so he didn’t put pressure on me to eat, but nobody else bothered. We were just chatting and everybody was doing his own thing.I have discovered that the world is too busy to note or focus attention on you.

Who led you to Jesus Christ and how did it happen?
(Takes a deep breathe) It is interesting. The first thing that actually happened to me, I remember clearly, was that I just had this burning desire to read the Bible. Those were the days when Lagos used to have terrible traffic jams.I had the Bible in my car and I read it while in the traffic. That was how I went through the New Testament.

Then people started inviting me to Full Gospel activities. Unfortunately, each time they invited me, I couldn’t make it because I had to travel to one place or the other in the course of my job. They were “chasing” me to and fro for about two years and nothing happened.

Then I traveled again and on my return, they resumed “chasing” me, this time with a difference. A very close family friend with his expatriate wife, who were living not far from us in Apapa, Lagos invited my wife and I to a gospel breakfast, which turned out to be the morning after my return from a foreign trip.

In the morning of the breakfast, at about 6:00 am, Ekpeyong Effiong called me to find out if I was back and to remind me of the breakfast. He said he had got the tickets and he and his wife would be waiting for my wife and I at the door.

And he just put down the phone. He didn’t give me a chance to say anything or make excuses. So, I was upset and just told my wife I was not going anywhere, went back to bed and wrapped myself up again.

But I couldn’t sleep. So, grudgingly, I got up from the bed, had a bath and we went to the place. Truly as he said, he and his wife were actually waiting at the door for us. So we went in.

The band was beating, they were singing and clapping and jumping up and down. Coming from a very sedate Anglican Church, I was wondering what was going on.

Many people I knew were also there, so it was not an uncomfortable atmosphere, except for the noise and clapping of hands.The preacher focused on the Doubting Thomas, as if he were speaking to me. He struck the right note on me and when he made the Altar Call, I was one of the first to go out there.I was sure my wife and friends had been praying in their hearts for this to happen. And that was it.

So, how has it been in the Lord?
Wonderful! Wonderful! All my fears were gone. I thought I was enjoying life on the other side, but I have found out that real life is on this side. You miss nothing; you gain a lot.

Have you been able to win souls to God?
Well, I would have preferred that somebody else would answer that question, not me.But I know that that is the heartbeat of God- winning souls. So, if I know that to be the heartbeat of God, and I know that people prayed to get me in, I think I know what to do to increase that population of God’s kingdom. It is one of the primary duties of every Christian.

How was growing up like and what were the major challenges you faced then and how were you able to overcome?
I started life in the village, Uzebba in Owan Local Government Area of Edo State. My father was a Catechist, so I was virtually born into the church. He was very strict, so we had a very strict upbringing. My parents put the fear of God in us and that helped to put us on the straight and narrow path.

My father was so strict that in those days when children were playing in the moonlight, even in front of our house, he would tell us to go and read our books. And we thought he was unnecessarily harsh.But he was very keen on education and doing the right things and in any case, if you were unwise to do the wrong things, you knew what awaited you. So, you ran away from doing the wrong things; you avoided the wrong things.From that type of strict upbringing, I went to very disciplined secondary schools- Government School, and then Government Secondary School, both in Owerri, the Imo State capital.

How come you schooled in Owerri?
My eldest brother, Joel, who was living there, came home and saw the type of life I was living in the village, that being the youngest of my mother’s children, she was petting me too much and was going to spoil me, so he took me away.

If I thought my father was strict, I didn’t know what was waiting for me, because my eldest brother was very strict. I was a raw boy from the village, and he polished me up.With that type of background, I went into a very strict and disciplined secondary school. I always tell people that that school helped to mould and make us realise the important things in life.

The motto of the school was direct- “Work Hard, Play Hard. Keep Straight. When Wealth is lost, nothing is lost. When Health is lost, something is lost. When Character is lost, all is lost.” The culture of the school played out in the motto of the school.

So, you were actually encouraged to be good, to do the right things, and you were punished if you ever did the wrong things.
Were you ever punished?
Oh, don’t even mention it! Of course, I was ‘in detention’ ever so often in those days for disturbing or making a noise in class and for crossing the lawn.

Were there memorable moments?
Sure there were, quite a number of them. I remember in those days being punished for reading after ‘light out.’All those were pranks and we enjoyed them. We just thought that the prefects were a bit wicked, that was all.But it was part of growing up, because you knew what you were doing was wrong and that you will be punished if caught, so there was nothing to complain about.

Were there role models or mentors?
Oh yes, some of our teachers. I remember we had very good teachers in secondary school that actually impacted positively on us, including the Principal, Mr. R. F. Jumbo.

How did you start climbing the corporate ladder?
When I left the university, I had job offers from NTC (Nigeria Tobacco Company), Mobil, Nigerian Breweries and Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) while I was teaching at Methodist Secondary School, Ibadan and was actually offered a job by the then NBC, but I chose to go to the Breweries.The first one I got was NTC, and it was quite interesting. It was a two-day (two nights) interview. I didn’t smoke cigarettes and never smoked all my life.

All through the period, they would be giving me cigarettes to smoke and I refused till the very last moment, which was an interview with a panel, headed by Mr. Jellings, who was head of the personnel department. We were in his office and they then offered me, again, a stick (of cigarette).

I said to myself that if I didn’t take it, I would lose the job. So, I took it and they lit it for me. They were firing questions at me and I was busy answering the questions.

It was a very active session going on and none of them took note of what was happening, because the cigarette in my hand was actually resting on the man’s table.

But before I knew what was happening, the cigarette burnt his table. At a point during the interview, the man raised his head and said, “Felix, what are you doing to my table?” I said “nothing,” but looked and added, “oh, I am very sorry.” It was one of those very nice tables at that time.

I felt sorry and apologised and told them I was not used to it, especially doing two things at the same time. I had to pay more attention to the questions than the cigarette. So, they laughed and I thought I blew it.

On the contrary, do you know that my employment letter was hand-delivered to the house by their Industrial Relations manager? I couldn’t believe it. I was teaching then at Methodist High School in Ibadan. It was a very attractive offer.

But other offers started coming and in the end, I opted for Nigerian Breweries and resumed on April 2, 1962, because I felt more comfortable with them, as they had soft drinks and beers.

Somehow, I knew right from the beginning that it was competitive and I had to put in my best, which I did. Somehow, too, by the grace of God, things were happening quite fast. My promotions were very rapid.

I got unto the Board as an Alternate Director 12 years after joining the company and became a full Director in my own rights, 15 years after I joined the company. To God be the glory.

Of course, you didn’t know you were on the fast track. It was later on I got to know how the whole thing worked out. You stayed there as long as you were doing as they expected you to do.

Such opportunities are few and far between these days for young graduates?
It still happens; people still get good jobs. Good enough, they are on the fast track.

How can young graduates get such opportunities these days?
The knowledge of what you are employed to do is very important. You have to acquire the knowledge by doing and reading.In any case, I was very fortunate, I must say. I was trained, very well trained, in fact, I would say over-trained. I went to all sorts of courses at home and abroad. Although I was in Marketing, but I was being sent to courses on personal and administration, accounting, etc.

I was just wondering why they were sending me to these courses, but I guessed they were just preparing me for greater heights. There was a very well-structured development scheme, and it was fun.

Did I ever have frustrations? Yes, I did. One time while on training, I was asked to relieve a sale representative in Surulere and Ajegunle. I had been there for just two weeks when my Supervising Manager, Mr. George Pudney, decided to accompany me on a field visit.

We went and he saw a number of errors and in reviewing the work at the end of the day, he was so hard on me. And I told him I had only been there for two weeks and had not even had time to go round every spot. He said he didn’t care, that I was in charge and that was all he cared about and I should have gone round, even at weekends, to put things right.

He said: “I know that we are one day going to leave this work in the hands of Nigerians and we want to leave it in the hands of capable Nigerians.”

I was so angry and told him there were capable Nigerians that could do the work better than he was doing, if he gave them a chance.

So, he reported me to our boss, the Regional Manager, Mr. Puddy Kelso, who called me and added his own to it. By that time, I was quite upset and prepared to go. But I made up my mind that I was going to prove to him that I could do a better job.

But there was one man from Kaduna, a northerner, who came to Lagos on relieve duty, who saw I was upset and feared what I was going to do next.He called me, took me out for a drink and counseled me. After that counseling, I made up my mind that I was going to show these people that I could do the job, even better than they ever imagined.

So, I went to rectify the whole thing and when the man came on a second visit (he chose where he wanted to go) and everything turned out right, the same man went and reported to the regional manager again what he found.I then realised that the man was being fair and actually what he did was to bring out the best in me.A very dramatic thing happened much later. We used to have what we called Merchandising Blitz Programme, where all the representatives came together and worked as a team in a particular area. It was at Yaba area of Lagos and we ended up at Bobby Benson’s place.

We were there and I was doing my work, standing on something and putting something somewhere when the regional manager (Kelso) came and said, ‘Felix, stop that thing you are doing. Please, come down.’ I said to myself, ‘what have I done again?’
So, I came down and he took me through various places in the hotel and then we ended up in what we called the cool room, the best part of the nightclub. He ordered a beer and filled two glasses, gave me one and he took one.He said “cheers” and I replied. He said, “I have been watching you. You have proven that you are more than a sales rep. From now on, you are on this side of the house. You have earned your position as manager in the Sales Force.” And that was it; I became a manager.Later on in life, I thank God that I went through such a rigorous training, because there was nothing a rep could tell me that I didn’t know. They were tough, but they were fair.

As a matter of fact, when I became marketing director, this same regional manager was then the general sales manager, so I was his boss.The first national sales meeting I would attend as marketing director, the regional sales manager made his welcome address and he called me up and said he was happy I was in their midst.

He said to the whole team, to my surprise, that his greatest joy in working for Nigeria Breweries, was the fact that he had a hand in training this young man, who is now his boss. It was a very sobering experience for me.He told them that, “he had carried the bag as any of them. I give him my unflinching support and I can speak on your behalf, that you too will do the same.” There was loud applause in the whole place, and I was very humbled.

That taught me a lesson too, that as a manager, one of the best things that can happen to you is to bring up people who would be as good or even better than yourself.So, I have taken a lot of interest in bringing up young people and my joy is seeing them succeed in life.I like to have intelligent young people around me, mentoring them, and I have tremendous success in doing that. Many of them are doing exceptionally well in their chosen careers.

So, when I have young people working for me say they had secured better offers somewhere, I never stop them. I look at the offers and encourage them, because I know they would be ambassadors of the business and would not forget what they learned from us.
Your generation of boardroom gurus is fast retiring. Do you think there are capable hands to take over?

Oh yes, there are. We are not missing the very best. These people who are young and we think are not capable are good, if only they are told and tutored properly and given the chance to perform, they will be better than those of us.

But unfortunately, the value system in this country has changed. In our time, our value system and the things that made or pushed us to greater heights are very different from the things people look for these days.

My dream was to be a very successful technocrat, get to the top and retire gracefully and gloriously, and God gave me that. I never planned to be rich or a wealthy man; I just wanted to be a comfortable man, because in those days, wealth was not to be so desired so much, especially bearing in mind my secondary school’s motto.

Also, my father told us that although wealth is important, but a good name will take you where money cannot reach. All these probably informed why I didn’t go chasing money or wealth. I was more interested in having a good character. And I can tell you it has paid off.

But people would want to believe you are a wealthy man? Are you not wealthy?
Well, it is perception. I am comfortable and thankful to God for that. God has been wonderful to my family and I; I have never lacked, and that is the point.

Now we see some who find themselves at the top enriching themselves. Why?
That is why I said the value system has changed. The things that were our anchor are very different from the things that these younger people take as their anchor. Money is their anchor, while the grace of God is my anchor.

Do you feel let down?
Do you know what? Most of the people I had a hand in training and worked with are doing so well wherever they are, and I thank God for that. Have there been failures? Yes, there are, but most have been successful.

Before you judge, you have to look at the background of the person. We are where we are as a nation because we have taken God out of the centre and replaced Him with money and power.

Until we go back to God, make Him our focus and get our directions from Him, things may not be what they should be.
But we have more men of God now than in the past? Does it mean they are not showing the right way?
What are they preaching? Only God knows those who are His. But I am optimistic of the future, because when I see young people come to Christ, running to answer the Altar Calls, I tell myself there is a future for this nation.However, these people need to be mentored and guided.

But we also find some of these men of God engage in corrupt and immoral activities. Are you worried about this?
That is why I asked, what are they teaching? Many people wear the garb, but the garb doesn’t make the monk. It is what is inside, your relationship with God. And that is where we must go.

So, we are talking about change in Nigeria, but the first and most important change we need is a change of heart. Take away the carnal aspect of our lives, take away the heart of stone and replace it with the heart of flesh, one that looks up to God, that seeks to please Him, knowing that He is the Creator, the only one who can guide us and that all good things come from Him.

When we develop that kind of heart, our value system will change again and the Holy Spirit will be our guide. You will have chaos and crises when you take God out of a situation and put man in His place, as we are going through in Nigeria today.

But how do you say this to a Muslim?
Exactly as I am saying it to you, because if we are not tired of the rottenness we are in, then we are not being fair to ourselves. And if we are tired of the rottenness, as I seem to think people have come to realise, we need a change of heart; hence they tried to embrace change.

But what change are they embracing? The first change is a change of heart; to have the mind of God. I always pray to God to give me the mind of Jesus Christ, so I can please Him. If you have that type of mind, then all the ills we are talking about now would be anathema to us.

At 80, do you feel fulfilled, and are there things that given another opportunity, you would do differently?
God has been wonderful to me and put me through the bad and good days. I am what I am today by His grace. So, I am thankful and grateful to Him.Sometimes I tell myself I don’t even deserve all these things He has done through me.

Do you have any regrets?
Yes, I do. For instance, I wish I had known the Word much earlier in my life. So, when I see young men of 17 or 18 come to Jesus Christ, I tell myself that if I were this fervent then when I was their age, I probably would be a different, much better person and would have a lot more for Christ than I have done now. Now, I am trying to do so much at my age. There is so much to be done in the Kingdom of God.A man of God said to me something that made me realise that once you achieve a milestone, there is a higher one waiting for you. When we were discussing his achievements, he said to me that he hadn’t even started yet.

As an elder in the church, do you feel the Church (as a body of Christ) is headed in the right direction?
Hmmmm! The basis of Christianity is heading for the right direction. Those who call themselves Christians, I cannot say that many are heading in the right direction, because of the human flaws you find here and there.But the church itself, the doctrines and teachings in the Bible, point all of us in the right direction. As long as we follow and we are obedient, we will all move in the right direction.

That is why Jesus Christ talked about the wide road and the narrow road. The one that leads to life is straight and narrow, but few find it. Every Christian should strive to be on that straight and narrow road.

Some of the followers are not being led aright?
But the Word of God is there. For instance, my spiritual father and role model, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, good as he is living the type of life he is living and we can all see him as being Christ-filled, preaching holiness the way it should be preached, says to us that it is not him, but Jesus Christ.He takes no credit for what God is using him to do; he gives all the credit to God. He points you to the Word and talks to you about obedience and holiness.

A lot of people believe the main problem of Nigeria has to do with leadership. Do you agree with that position and how can it redressed?
Yes, I quite agree. It is not a thing you can make happen overnight by just talking about it; you have to do something about it.
Every child’s first experience in learning is at home. All our leaders, past and present, come from a home. So, what we are seeing displayed in them is what they brought from home or what they gathered along the way.

My parents spent a lot of time with us, their children. How much time do we spend with our children today?
What many of us are doing is unconsciously breeding a generation that is left in the hands of houseboys and house girls most of the time, in the hands of teachers part of the time and in the hands of their parents very little of the time.Who is best placed to bring up a child, if not the parents? So, we have to go back to basics. Parents must have time for their family and bring up the children the way they should go. But do parents, these days, actually know which way they should go or the right things?

If they are taught the way they should go, the way and fear of the Lord, right from childhood, then we will produce a good society and good leaders, who would work according to the principle of God.

But parents have to go out and strive very hard to cater for their children these days. How do we balance it?
They have a choice. You either leave your children in the hands of nannies and cooks and they develop nanny and cook mentality, or you spend time with them and bring them up the way they should go.

The problem with man is that man tries to do things his own way; man likes to strive, to put in efforts. But God has always given man a simple and better way. He says we should first seek his kingdom and righteousness and every other thing will be added unto us.

Do all these make you pessimistic about the country’s future?
I know, having gone through it myself, that you can combine both. That was one of the challenges I had when I was growing up in the early working days, that is, balancing the needs of my family and work.God, in His own wonderful and mysterious way, helped me very early in life to realise that my family needed me.As a young man, one day I came back from work, went to have a bath, changed my clothes, picked up the car key and was about to go to the Island Club that day to meet some friends.

As I was passing through the sitting room, I tried to carry the baby, but he won’t allow me carry him. I tried the first time, the second time and the third time, but he won’t allow me touch him. I said, ‘what’s wrong with you?’
And one of the children answered, saying, ‘Daddy, if you spend more time at home, he will know you and will allow you to carry him.’The key fell from my hand and I just sank into the nearest chair. I was then in my mid-30s, fortunately. I couldn’t go out again that day.That taught me that I needed to spend time with them, that they needed me at home. I was leaving everything to my wife then, but I now found that my presence was needed.

I then made up my mind that I would take them to school in the morning, pick them from school at lunch time, have lunch with them and go back to work (of course, the school was not too far from home). It taught me a lesson and taught them how to eat.Then I got to know a lot of what was happening in their school. My mind had been telling me about this, ‘go to their school and know what is happening,’ and I would say, ‘no, no, you can do that.’ But that experience changed my life and brought me close to my family. And it is never too late for any parent, no matter how old, to get closer to the children or even grandchildren.

So, talk about being busy, it is not a reason at all. If we don’t take care of our families, society is going to decay more and more. We must pay attention to our families, to our children.Any nation that neglects its children is destroying its future. That is a fact of life.

What advice do you have for our national leaders, to make life better for the average Nigerian?
Once they get the value system, attitude correct and God takes the centre stage, we would produce Godly leaders and things would become better for us. Today, nobody is too old or too young to change his/her ways, and the best way to do so is go back to the Creator.

What is your favourite food?
(Long pause) Simply put, I like to swallow.

Do you like any particular soup?
Hmmm! I have my favourites, but let us not talk about that. My generation likes to swallow, so I am a swallow man. (Long pause) Err, my wife cooks my soup very well (laughter). She cooks very well, and I eat whatever she gives me. She knows what to give me.

What is your favourite music?
Of course, gospel music; worship and praise songs.

What is your typical Sunday like?
My Sunday is busier than any working day. We go to church early, for the Workers’ meeting at 7a.m. and come back home late, depending on other activities, including meetings lined up for the day.

In this article:
Felix Omoikhoje
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