C apt. (Dr.) Idahosa Wells Okunbo (JP), Group Chairman, Ocean Marine Solution (OMS, OMT, SAA, and PPPFM. With unusual determination, he retired as a commercial airline pilot at a young age of 30 years after qualifying as Captain. Like the proverbial palm tree planted by the river side, he has weathered the Nigerian business storm to conquer challenges in all spheres — air, sea and land. Today, his business conglomerate covers agriculture and agro-allied industries, aviation, shipping, hospitality, entertainment and security. Captain Okunbo comes with a uniquely humble lifestyle that is shaped by philanthropy. He is a caregiver to numerous people who have found him as God’s help. The axiom: charity begins at home is depicted by Captain’s respect for cultural values. He is a proud son of Benin Kingdom.
Can we start this conversation with an opening statement from you?
Like you all know, the business environment in the last few years has been challenging and of course, there is recession right now in our country. When it is challenging like that in business, you have to think of innovative ways and creativity in your business to be able to survive in a very harsh environment and of course, that is what some of us are trying to do. Moreover, in every recession there is also some positivity in it; that is when you actually start to separate the boys from the men in business. Yes, it is a challenging time and as a businessman, you have to face the challenges and become more creative in creating values to be able to make gains for your establishment.
There is this feeling that the recession in Nigeria is a blessing in disguise, what does that mean?
Nigerians have been spoilt over the years in the way we do business. We do not manufacture anything, and as a result, we import almost everything, including staple food. That trend somehow needed to change, and you know, with any change there is always going to be a reaction. Added to this, the falling price of oil that we depend so much on has affected our foreign exchange base, and unfortunately, that is the benchmark used for our imports. Therefore, when the oil price is unstable, the economy takes a beating and that is why government is beginning to think now of the mining industry, the agriculture and agro industry where we can also export to earn the same foreign exchange. The way out is for people to think of how they can create more value for themselves. Nevertheless, on a general note, there are advantages and disadvantages.
You’ve operated in the Nigerian business environment for many years now, what issues exist in our business environment from your own point of view?
One thing I have noticed as a businessman is that there is hardly anywhere in the world where the government does not support businesses. What has happened in Nigeria over the years is that the government has not been able to identify the genuine businessmen who are adding serious values to the wellbeing of the country. Everybody claims to be in business. What business are you in? What value are you creating? How are you supporting the economy to grow? What kind of business are you doing? How many people are you employing? These are all the indices. Government should identify such people as catalysts for growth because they are the ones who drive the economy, because I have been in private business since I stopped flying as a commercial pilot almost 30 years ago, and I can attest to the contributions of genuine businessmen to the Nigerian economy. My guiding principle has always been that, in whatever I do or in whatever business I embark on, I create values for others in order to earn income and sustain quality living. Where I am not creating values for others for profit, then something is wrong. That is my ideal business philosophy. Business is about creating values for others or creating values for the public. But how many people today are actually creating values for others in order to make money?
How did you achieve the transition from an airline pilot working for somebody, to an entrepreneur, an investor who is now employing others?
I am a pilot and I am not a new generation pilot. In my time, we flew airplanes; these days pilots fly computers and in flying aeroplanes those days, the profession taught us many virtues — like patience, discipline, perseverance and ability to take decisions. When you are in an aircraft as the captain and everybody is going crazy amidst bad weather, you are the only one that is expected to be calm, thinking of how you can bring everybody down to safety. I went into that profession at a very young age, so I was exposed to the training and discipline at a very young age in one of the best flying schools in the world then, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Training Centre, Zaria. Therefore, my transition from commercial pilot to business was very easy at that time. I was captain at the age of 25 years and by the time, I was 30 years, I had enough hours and the best I could be in life is to be a captain. With this understanding, I took the chance. Added to this, flying had become too boring, so I needed to go out there because then, I saw some of my professional idols and I never wanted to end up like them frustrated.
Which airlines did you fly for?
Aero Contractors trained me. And when I saw the way professionals were ending up and I was only 30 years old, so I asked myself if I really wanted to end up like these guys I looked up to. Then I decided to go into business that was basically procurement. While at Aero Contractors, I flew an aircraft called 5N-AVG, it was a Twin Otter. The Twin Otter was the aircraft that carried all the NNPC staff to Warri and Port Harcourt, so I had the privilege of interacting with the oil and gas industry at that very young age and by the time I retired from flying, I actually knew where I wanted to go. Flying taught me the importance of discipline and business is all about discipline, patience, steadfastness and commitment. When you have these qualities, I think you will go places.
How do your wealth and achievement come back to you?
Never, rather, I am very normal in everything. I am a down-to-earth person from a very humble beginning. I always remember where I am coming from and when you remember where you are coming from in life, you will learn how to be humble, respect people and how not to be carried away by whatever you think you have because whatever you own comes from God. The blessings of God is not due to your smartness, rather, I believe God blesses somebody just by His Grace and Mercy because it is not how hard you work.
Given your background in the aviation sector, what is your take on the state of the aviation industry in Nigeria today? Do you think we should bring back a national carrier and how can government achieve that?
The greatest disservice to this nation was the abolition of Nigeria Airways. Nations, especially a developing nation such as Nigeria, which is the most populous black nation on earth, should see national airline as a source of pride. Nigeria Airways was our pride and we allowed that pride to be killed. I believed that the properties of Nigeria Airways alone would have been able to bring the company out of their doldrums as at the time that it was unbundled. But one thing I must say is that, an Airline business is not really a profitable business and that is why I am not in that business. This brings me to the issue you mentioned about my private jet. I do not own a private jet for my personal use. I have a charter company called Gyro Air, so we give out our aircraft for charter, and in the process, we also use the aircraft.
As a pilot, I do not see it as a luxury. By the whiskers, I missed the ADC flight out of Port Harcourt to Lagos in 1996; I still have the ticket somewhere. I lost some friends on Sosoliso flight and of course some of my friend’s children.
When Dana crashed and I lost the first son of our then chairman, Admiral Aikhomu and some friends, I sat down with my partners and I said listen, we do a lot of flying; I am not going to lose my life, and we should not leave our lives in the hands of businessmen who are parading themselves as airline operators anymore. I told them, gentlemen, whatever we have to do, let us set up a charter airline so that we know and we are sure about the maintenance and safety of the aircraft – this is what made us buy the HS 125. In doing this, we also thought of the business side of it because we are not going to buy HS 125 and park it, we can as well let people charter it and at the end of the day you might even be surprised that we fly free because people are chartering and we are making money. In creating that value chain, we are sure of our safety. My partners fly into Abuja almost three times in a week and I fly a lot – the benefit is that we have not put our lives in the hands of others. When I used to fly commercial flights locally (which I still do sometimes), I choose the ones I fly. I will not fly some airlines, because as a trained pilot, I will know if anything is wrong, I know when the turbines are grinding. When an aircraft is sick I will know that those engines are not running well. Years after I stopped flying, I am still able to listen to engines and know whether they are sick or not because I flew jet engines for a long time.
The last major event in Benin Kingdom was the coronation of Oba Ewuare II and it is worthy of note. As a proud son of the Kingdom, we would like you to share some experiences with us on your role in the coronation of the Oba of Benin.
I am a full Benin; I love the values and the pride that the kingdom commands. Our kingdom is about the only kingdom in Africa that still has its originality completely intact. We are talking of a generation of rulers of over 800 years. Since I am alive to witness the coronation of another Oba after the event of 1979 that brought the reign of Oba Erediauwa, I seized the opportunity to express my loyalty and believe in our culture and traditions. You can imagine between 1979 and 2016 how many souls passed on, some people have not witnessed any coronation before, but I witnessed 1979 as a young man then and I again witnessed the coronation of an Oba who happens to be a friend and also my father. Above all, I was very glad to have been part of the committee that was set up to actualize the coronation and of course, we all played our parts in that committee and like you, all saw, it was very glorious.
What makes you very happy about Nigeria and what makes you sad about Nigeria?
That is a tricky question. When you love, you love unconditionally, so I love Nigeria and I still do; but what does not make me happy about Nigeria is the fact that the country and the establishment needs to start identifying the people, the genuine businessmen and businesswomen with passion, who are patriotic. I will give you an example; since I retired from flying, I have been in business for almost 30 years and every money I have invested in this country; I have made it in this country, whether it is dollar or Naira. Through hard work, every dime I made I have invested in this country. Today if I didn’t love Nigeria, I would be resting somewhere maybe in Switzerland, London or somewhere with nobody being able to ask me questions. But we have invested that money in Nigeria.
What has been your guiding principle in business?
I will answer it in one word: Integrity. I want to stress one thing here. What drives a business is not money; what you have in business is your integrity and your good will because the business graph is never a straight one but an up and down graph. The only thing that sustains you in business is not the money, because when that graph comes down, it is only your integrity that picks you up and if you do not have it and a good dose of goodwill, you will go down. And don’t forget that is where everybody wants to see you because as far as they are concerned you have burnt many bridges. But in that downward turn of business, your issues are discussed when you are not there, businesses that you want to undertake are discussed when you are not there and it is only your integrity, your honesty and your goodwill that is always able to take you out of that down turn to bring back your business. That is why I will say, I am not afraid of poverty because I believe I have these qualities and that is what has kept me out of scandal since I started business. I am conscious of the need to play by the rule and I am not greedy. I know that a lot of people who are afraid of poverty have become greedy to the point that greed has overtaken them and they begin to keep what they don’t even need in life, denting their image and integrity in the process. It is sad because at the end of the day they lose their core values; and that poverty which they were afraid of, eventually hunts them. I hold my very core values intact.
Who is your role model?
The late Saudana of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. He is my role model because in his lifetime, he never accumulated wealth for himself or his family and that he always reached out to people with whatever he had because he doubted what his children would do with that wealth after his departure — because they did not work for it. What I believe is that a lot of people want to work for their great-grandchildren but what you need for your children is a proper upbringing and sound education for them because that is the only thing you cannot really take away from them. If you leave properties, if you leave wealth and you accumulate wealth for them, they can be robbed of the wealth if they don’t imbibe the core values of life.