Chairman of John Holt Plc and founder, Christopher University, Ogun State, Mr. Christopher Ezeh, has said the nation’s economy cannot perform in isolation and needs to stop borrowing for capital expenditure.
In this interview Ezeh, who is today receiving an award on leadership, also talks about bottlenecks in the Nigerian economy as well as solutions.
What are the major highlights in your journey of life?
I was born in Omoku, Rivers State, where I did my primary school and then did my secondary school in Onitsha. After secondary school, I joined Shell BP as a clerk and worked there until 1967. While working with Shell BP, I was already driven by the desire to become an accountant and so I started studying the courses of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and started taking the exams.
Out of the five parts in the examination, I passed three while working with Shell BP, by private study, before I went to the UK to complete the two remaining parts – the final path to Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. I finished the examination and I was actually the best student and was awarded the S. Lawrence Gill Prize for the best student in the Part 5 final exam. I then worked for some time in the UK with Chrysler Motors and, after four years with Chrysler Motors, I considered exploring other opportunities. It was then I decided to go to Zambia.
In Zambia I resumed my working relationship with Shell and also worked in other companies, ending up as the chief accountant of the only refinery they had (Indeni Petroleum Refinery) until I decided to move back to Nigeria in 1976.
I joined John Holt Plc, from 1977 to 1997, where I steadily climbed the career ladder, moving from senior accountant to chief accountant, Holt Engineering, group chief accountant, director, group accounts, deputy managing director and finally got to the top as group managing director, from 1986 to 1997. I thereafter became the executive chairman, before becoming the chairman, from 2001 to date. I was involved in the various changes and transitions, which the conglomerate has been through because I had joined John Holt at a time the firm was consolidating several interests into divisions, and became the CEO (in 1986) at the beginning of the Structural Adjustment Programme during which time I refocused the conglomerate from a purely trading concern to a diversified company with interests spanning boat manufacturing, board packaging, production of cosmetics and toiletries, motorcycle assembly and distribution of boat engines, generators, motor vehicles and pharmaceuticals. In 1996, in line with changing trends in the economy, I had to restructure the company along three core areas, namely, technical operations, motor sales/leasing and trade services. In effect, for a large part of my tenure as CEO and chairman, the company operated in a rather harsh business climate and was involved in continuous restructuring and transformation. So, in a strategic move to maintain an indelible imprint in the company, I had to deftly organize a successful MBO (management buy-out) through which we emerged the chairman of the conglomerate since 2001.
What values have helped you to achieve success?
I think the first and most important thing is commitment. Whatever you are doing, you have to be totally committed to it. Of course, with commitment comes loyalty and hard work. With commitment comes all the various aspects of leadership that will enable an organisation to thrive.
If you are the leader, you have to plan for the organisation. You must have a vision and must be able to relate to the people you are working with. You have to treat them as equals, not as servants. You have to have a good plan for the organisation, the objectives you want to achieve and you have to be transparent in all you do, select the right people to do the job because no leader does the work alone. So, in every organisation that I work with, that commitment must be there, that hard work must be there.
What motivated you in establishing Christopher University?
It is not an extraordinary act for an accountant to establish a university or any other enterprise. You know the old thinking about accountants is that they were nothing but individuals counting figures, they were very miserly, but that is all in the past.
The modern accountant is far away from that thinking because accountants are very well trained now in all aspects of learning. As regards the university, I have been exposed to different universities and educational institutions. I have passed through some of them myself. I have worked in industry and I know the problems that industry has.
I was one of the people who helped to establish the Lagos Business School, which became Pan Atlantic University and, of course, I have worked as the chairman of ESUT Business School for over 15 years. You know, education has been one of my top priorities in whatever I do and, even as an employer, I have seen the problems that graduates have in getting jobs.
They are not very well equipped with the practical aspects of working in industry. Most of them just have knowledge for theory and low skills on practical things.
In those days, I was involved in interviewing applicants for employment and understood their major difficulties, the difficulty of exposure, the difficulty of knowing what industry was about. So, I decided that establishing a university for industry would be a good thing because then we could get them to interact, get the students at an early stage to interact with industry to know what they are going to face when they get out of school and to prepare them for those challenges. That was the main reason why Christopher University was founded, so that we can bring the university and industry together to talk like one and to train students who can cope with those challenges.
How can Nigeria compete with other developed nations?
Nigerians will not leave Nigeria for other countries if they can find rewarding jobs to do. The reason they are leaving is because we are not creating enough jobs, because planning on the part of government has been faulty. We are not facing the things we should face. We just keep talking about them at seminars and workshops, but nothing seems to be done. We have been talking about creating an enabling environment since the 1970s, when we even had the Enabling Environment Society talking to federal, state and local governments about how to create the environment for industries to thrive. We keep talking about infrastructure; everybody knows that we are deficient in infrastructure but what are we doing about infrastructure? What are we doing about power? Look at the problems that industries have, look at the problems that entrepreneurs have.
You are not only setting up an industry, you have to set up the infrastructure to enable you to compete and when we talk about how to retain our people at the same level as those overseas, we also have to produce at the same unit cost as the people out there. In this global economy, we cannot say to ourselves, because we produce in Nigeria, you have to pay more for it, which is not reasonable because there are countries around us that can produce at cheaper prices.
People complain about all our doctors leaving the country but in truth what do you want the doctors to do? They want to operate at the same efficiency as doctors outside Nigeria, so all we need to do is provide the hospitals where we have the equipment, where there is research, where we can do all the things that people do overseas and then you will have doctors coming in rather than doctors going out.
How can the Nigerian economy be strengthened?
The Nigerian economy is based mainly on government who is in control of most aspects of the economy and I should start by saying that what we need is good leadership, good political leadership, good leadership from the top that will think more about the masses rather than more about themselves.
The Nigerian economy cannot perform in isolation. We are in competition with all other economies that are struggling like us for growth and to attract investment.
When we look for investors, we are competing with all other countries that want investors to come in. So, what do you do? You get the right environment for investors to come in. Investors are very discerning people. They have their money to invest, they have various areas, various organisations, and various countries where they can put their money. You have to convince them that Nigeria is the best place for them to come and invest.
And when we think of our economy, the Nigerian economy is not just a local economy. With globalisation, we are not relying on only Nigerians to invest.
What can you say about the work Centre for Values in Leadership is doing?
I think it is a welcome initiative. We need to reorientate our youths, tell them what the right values are. Most of them have grown up in this generation where impunity seems to thrive, a generation where money is worshipped, a generation where people are now withdrawing from hard work and waiting for manna in order to make money. This is not what we are used to.
So, we are happy that CVL is teaching people the values that, first, you have to learn about leadership. Second, what does it involve? How should you get on in life? All the commitments to hard work. Let the youths know the right way to go. Let them know that money is not everything; those values should be inculcated in our youths.
So, I thank the CVL for embarking on this long journey.