The story of the rise, fall and rebirth of Chief Emmanuel Ojo is a veritable material for the best of the motivational speaker. He is the Phoenix, the mythological bird that lived, burned itself to death on a pyre and rose from its ashes as another Mother-Phoenix.
Chief Ojo is arguably one of the biggest hospitality business baron in the North Central part of the country. Although he schooled as a marketer and eventually engaged in marketing and distribution business, his accidental foray into the hospitality and tourism business has given birth to brands that have become household names in Kwara State and beyond. He is the proprietor and owner of several hotels and relaxation centers that include Ratem Hotel, Spring Hotel, Dolphin, Waterview, Phoenix Hotels, e-Phoenix Hotel, the defunct Broadway and lately a 70-room edifice that is ongoing in a part of Ilorin, Kwara State. Chief Ojo in this interview tells the story of his rise and fall in business
You were known to be a buying and selling person but today in tourism business with a conglomerate of hotels. Can we know who Chief Ojo is?
Thank you so much. My name is Chief Ojo Emmanuel Adebisi. I was born on 16th February, 1943, which means I would be 77 years next February by the special grace of God. I am still growing stronger day by day. Glory be to God. I schooled and married in Ghana. Shortly after my primary education I went to Teachers college as well as University of Legon in Ghana where I read marketing.
After my tertiary education there at Ghana, I secured a job at Nestle Ghana Limited as a marketing officer and worked in so many other places like the Ashanti Field Mines at the Work-study department, the Ghana workers Brigade, where I had the opportunity of working with the then Ghana President, Edward Akufo-Addo, My first home is Ghana because I speak the language fluently and my son is still there.
I came back to Nigeria long ago. I was a marketer when I came to Nigeria after what they called the Alien Compliance Order in Ghana when the then government made a proclamation for non-Ghanaians who were not gainfully employed to leave the country. It especially affected our fathers who were into buying and selling among others. I was in Ghana for two years at that particular moment working with Ashanti Gold Feeds Corporation. I was a senior staff of the organization. Then, we had a scarcity of commodity in the whole of the nation. But the senior staff had a shop where they used to buy anything they want. We knew each other, even by name. Because I have a Nigeria name which they used to call me, I discovered that they were always talking about me based on the sanctions anytime we went to work.
It was actually a humiliation on my part. That was how I decided to leave Ghana for Nigeria. When I came back to Nigeria, I secured a job at Nigeria Bottling Company (NBC) as a sales representative.
After working with the company for sometimes, I met a woman whose husband was a staff of another company called Brian Munroe, a marketing company which had about 160 different products) She said she wanted me to work at that organization as a manager which I did. I was made manager of some branches, particularly, Benin, Kano and so on.
As I said, I was a marketer while my wife was a trader. I didn't want to live in an environment where there would be no rest of mind such as we had in Benin. There, I discovered that the activities of cultism and other related offences were on the high side, so I had to resign, despite series of promises by the organization.
When I resigned, I decided to stay at Kano doing distributive business and, fortunately, Brian Munroe gave me its products to sell and gave me a van fully knowing my worth.
I left Kano to Ilorin where I stayed with the Agunbiade family from Offa I knew them because they used to come to Kano through Alhaji Kanmi Arowosaiye, former principal of Offa Grammar School. I lived in their residence for a couple of months. Along the line, there was a calamity that brought me down to zero level. It was a surgical operation I had when I got an accident. So, after the surgical operation, I invited my brother who was a teacher to later join me. Reluctantly, he came but died in an accident while conveying goods from Lagos to Ilorin. While we were still on the process of his burial, all my goods at the scene of the accident were carted away by some ungodly people.
Could that be the reason for the name Phoenix?
That wasn't the reason, but it is correlated. I don't believe nothing is impossible like the scripture says in Ecclesiastic 11:6 (Sow your seed in the morning and don't stop sowing because you never can tell which one can succeed). That is the spirit I have in me; that is why I still keep going on at 77 years. I don't know, but what I know I take seriously in my life is health. I don't play with my health. For example, I don't rush while leaving my house. It has to be 11am. The moment I put on my phone exercise commences, especially now that I have a bigger project that I am working on.
I am always very busy. You must have a vision and try to drive it effectively no matter how good or bad it is. Actually, things will change so when you are in a dark condition, don't give up. Keep on trying your best.
You talked about calamity?
That means you lost everything completely-money, goods and so on. How did you bounce back?
Thank you so much. That was why I said you never give up in whatever you're doing. You see, at that time, this place was not in place (e-Phoenix). In fact, none of my hotels were in place as at that time. How did I come back? Integrity, honesty, hard work among others were put in place.
If you could remember, I said I was into distributive business. I had a lot of principals (people who gave me goods to sell) I had to go back to them, because I had nothing again and I begged for assistance. Some requested I sign a post-dated cheque before getting their goods and I did. On occasions where I can't meet up with payment, I will call them ahead to inform them to give me more time and I would make sure none of my cheques bounced. I kept on going to Lagos to get goods with hard work, honesty, vision etc. Meanwhile, I was able to bounce back gradually.
What took me out of distributive trade was personal to me. No matter how bright the sky is, there is always a black spot. The black spot in my life was that I had to divorce my wife due to one reason or the other.
But, talking about mentorship, because that’s the reason for this interview. I should tell what I have gone through in life. I married another woman who I have two kids with and they are both in the university. The first child is reading Law while the second one is studying Mass Communication.
There was a Ratem Distributorship Company and then Ratem Hotel. That seems to be the cross-over. Is it?
Ratem is a trademark and I still use it. It is my company name and I tried not to have any blemish on the company's name. E-Phoenix and co are just subsidiary under Ratem.
You’ve not told us how you came into hospitality business.
During the problem, I was just completing a building in Gaa Akanbi to live in- a four-bedroom bungalow. Because I couldn't continue and I didn't want to abandon the building, as a salesman and marketer, I turned off into a guest house manager. It was quite in an obscured place as at the time. No road around the area but I believed that I would pull market there. So, I always go to supermarkets, shops and several other places to paste my handbills, posters etc. in order to attract customers. That was Spring Hotel. It gradually increased from four-bedroom bungalow to seven bedroom apartments. It takes courage, resilience to be able to continue in business. Every of your staff would want to steal from you. So, you have to be up and doing. This is how I came into hospitality business.
Did you envision that it will grow this big?
Of course, I had a vision that definitely it will be big but how it was going to happen I didn't know. One thing I know is anything I venture in, I will succeed because I will not leave it and that is what also brought about the name Phoenix. So, I had all the belief that it was going to grow.
How did you get that name e-Phoenix? It sounds more like one for the digital age
Phoenix is a proverbial bird; a bird that flies. It came to life and died, but it also came back to life at another time and said I have come back not to die again. The Phoenix close to Shoprite was the first Phoenix I bought. I bought it from a receiver (Bacita Sugar Company) I had the opportunity of renting the place, then I bought it.
Previous owners will buy and sell and it became a tradition but when I bought it I said to myself ‘that Phoenix hotel will not die again’. This is how the name came into existence.
While in the process of registering the name, I discovered that there was an existing company called Phoenix, so I could not register the name again. What did I do? I added the "E" which stand for Ever-Phoenix and accidentally, I am Emmanuel. Therefore, Ever-Phoenix. Phoenix that will never die.
Most businesses die after the owner dies. What is your plan in this respect. Are you involving your siblings in the business?
Exactly. A successful man without a good succession plan is not successful. When you are successful, you must have your succession plan.
From Spring, you had Ratem, Dolphin and Waterview, then came Broadway etc. What strategy worked for you in managing all?
The spirit of never die. Like I said, I don't leave my business in the hand of anybody. I can only see you as my subordinate. Many people have approached me to lease one or two of my companies to them but I said no, because the moment you lease them to them, they might run them in a way you won't appreciate them by the time it is time to bring them back.
You have gone thus far. Do you have any regret?
So many but I never blame myself for whatever mistake I make. If you should try something and it does not work, maybe your time has not reached or your strategy is not enough, so apply another method. I Thank God for His blessings.
How do you source for money?
That's a very good one. There was a time when I will go to bank for loan, they won't answer, so the little I had I will make good use of it. But banks are chasing me now (laugh). Zenith Bank, Access Bank are calling me now but there was a time I was the one after them.
Was there any challenge throughout?
There are a lot of challenges. Even financial challenge was a big one. There was a time I couldn't raise 20 thousand Naira. I went to the banks and I lost a business in the process. There was another business I lost. Those are my regrets.
How do you spend your leisure time?
I relax so much with my friends, I have old friends and I don't forget my old friends. Sometimes we offend each other. I belong to one or two associations in the church. Then on my own, I make sure I relax, even though I know I need more relaxation.
What has been your most important leadership value?
Chief Ojo mentoring young entrepreneurs
The most important leadership value is honesty. As a leader, you must be honest.
I went into politics, I became the state chairman of the party. Later, I became chairman, Civil Service Commission, Osun state. I can tell you I did not take a kobo bribe from anybody. I will always keep my Bible in front of me and open it to where it says whoever suffers the poor to make more his own riches will become poor''.
Sir, you’re from Osun State. Do you have investments in there?
Not really (laughs). You see, as a capitalist or entrepreneur, you don't just site your business where you know it might not survive, just because want to say oh! it is my village or city. Let me just put something there. If you want to assist the village or city then you can build a manufacturing company to help people there. If I put my hotel in my town, who will patronise it.
Why not in Osogbo?
I will produce there. My main customers will not be from that place but maybe as time goes on, I might do something in my state.
How do you relate with your workers?
Very, very cordial. You saw it the way I play and talk with my staff. But they know it deep down their heart that I can play but when you do anything that I don't want, I will not spare them o. They know that. But in terms of relationship, you will think they are my girlfriends. But then I will not do that. I doubt if any lady in my employment would say anything bad about me.
How do you manage your business and family?
Like I said earlier, I have a very good wife. I have time for them. Though I don't really have much time, I give affection to my wife, children and relations. The little moments we have, we make good use of it.
Was there a time when you felt there was a need for you to retrace your steps and try something else?
Yes. But I wouldn't call it retracing my steps. I went into politics but kept thinking about my business. You see, most politicians, not all though, don't have something they fall back on, and that is why there's a lot of bribery and corruption and so on. I diversified into agriculture. I had a poultry farm which was in my country home
What is your advice to young people who are conscious of their age and trying to make it in life?
No time is too late. You see somebody will leave the university at the age of 19-20 and may be jobless for 6-7 years. But somebody can leave the University at the age of 30 and get a job immediately. Somebody becomes the head of a company at 27 and dies at 55 and another becomes the head at 40 and lives up to 80 years. So everybody has his time. All you have to do is make sure you don't take things too trivial, work when you need to work, relax when you need to relax, everybody can't become Dangote or Chief Ojo but whatever one becomes, contentment is one of the basic thing needed in life. Keep on working hard and remain honest.
How do you manage your competitors?
I see them as good partners but I always find a way of outsmarting them. If you have a particular product, I make sure I improve mine over and above yours. Nobody has ever come and complain about our service. I have received ministers, governors and sundry dignitaries here. If you have good products, you can outsmart your competitors.
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