Sir Emmanuel Frank Okafor is a serial entrepreneur. Aside being a key player in the real estate sector and hospitality industry, his factory produces diaper brand that become a household name in the country. In an interview with Sunday Sun, the Chairman of Marcopolo Hotel and Suites and Marcopolo Properties limited, he went down memory lane and recalled his foray into business and revealed how he has fared. A native of Ojoto in Idemili South of Anambra state, Okafor has touched lives in his community. He is a recipient of diverse chieftaincy titles in recognition of his service to humanity.
What was it like growing up? Did you inherit this huge business from your parents?
I came from an average home. But what I achieved today happened by God’s grace and my hard work. When I left secondary school, I joined the family business in Onitsha main market. My parents were selling baby items. All my life, I have believed in greatness. So, I left the family business and came to Lagos. I squatted with my friends. In the course of starting the business, I also squatted in my friend’s office at idumota. After a while, I started my own business, to sell electronics.
Back then, I sold portable radios and cell phones. I started on Oroyin Street. From there, I began going to Cotonou to buy things and later extended to Ghana. I kept working hard, in smart way. That is why I say today that the combination of hard work and being smart would give you good results, not just working hard. I traveled by road because I didn’t have money for airfare. I used to spend two days on the road. Then, I was bringing in water bottles and food flask for school children. Before embarking on any journey, we would do market survey to identify the things that people wanted but which were scarce in Lagos and then bring those items into the market. Through this, I was able to make enough money to go to Dubai. My trips to Dubai opened my eyes to lots of things and I knew that Nigeria as a nation should sit up. When I started visiting Dubai in the early 90’s there was nothing to cherish about Dubai. Dubai was dried up. All the high rise buildings wwer not there, and it was not a tourist destination at all. That shows you that if Dubai could do it, Nigeria could do the same. Lagos was more beautiful than Dubai but today Dubai is the centre of the whole world. From Dubai I began going to Hong Kong and China. In those days, when we went to Hong Kong and China, about 10 of us would collaborate to fill one container with the goods we purchased. When the goods arrive Nigeria, we share and everyone gets his money. I kept building my business this way until it got to a point where I could afford a container of goods. I did not relent. I started dealing in other products: like traveling bags, TV, radio and other household needs. I kept building the business till I got to where I am today.
What business goal do you want to achieve in the next five years?
Our goal is to be the best real estate company in Nigeria. We believe we can do it because it’s something I have great passion for. I see housing as being important because everyone needs where they will retire at the end of the day and have rest to start work the following day. I have not regretted doing it. Take my hotel project for example. It is a three-star hotel, which was opened five years ago but you probably think we are few months old because of our standard and neatness. Continuity is important to us. Our customers are all over the world. For us to have Chevron and other big companies as our prime customers is a plus. We are trying to expand our teddy bear business; we have not been in the market but we are coming out soon. I believe in working hard and smart.
What would you say about people who travel abroad for greener pastures?
There is no place like home. Nobody can build this country except Nigerians. Hard work and commitment are what you need to survive in this country. When you think of owning a house think of us, housing is one important aspect of living. We look at quality affordable prices. We are 20 years in business and we are a household name to reckon with in property development. I have traveled far and wide and I have realized there’s no place like home. We need to work hard and we need to work smartly. I believe once you work hard, success is your portion. I’m a Nigerian and I believe in this country. I have lived all my life in Nigeria and all my investments are in Nigeria. Do you know the richest man in Africa is a Nigerian? He has lived all his life in Nigeria. If he’s the richest man in Africa that means we have great opportunities in Nigeria and he is my role model. Aliko Dangote is my role model. I have seen how he started and where he is today. His zeal for hard work and tenacity got him to where he is today. I have noticed the calmness in him.
What lesson has life taught you as a person?
The bible says there will be temptation but if you hold fast you will come out strong. For me, life has been so good because those things that people call problems are things I refer as challenges. I have gone through ups and downs in business but I have never believed any challenge could not be overcome. I believe that I don’t own my life; God gave me this life. Each day, I wake up I always thank God for the day and for the gift of life. My approach to life is simple: I take life easy. Generally, life is good. It all depends on how we understand it because being alive is by His grace. So, I live life as if today is the end of it. I don’t hold any grudges. I try as much as I can to move on, no matter the problem. I see problems as challenges because they would come and go. There is no challenge that God will not give me grace to overcome. My wish is that my children will be greater than me in life. They will be a symbol of me when I’m no longer here. I have been bestowed with several awards from all nooks and crannies. Last October and November, I was also given an award for entrepreneurship. There are other awards from Ohaneze Ndigbo. These things signify that people appreciate my contribution.
What challenges do you face in doing business in Nigeria?
Infrastructure is the biggest challenge. Without good infrastructures it is difficult. Multiple taxation is another burden. Taxes are welcome, but this issue of multiple taxes should not exist because it is anti-business. I believe the issue of taxes in Nigeria will get better someday.
What advice would you give upcoming entrepreneurs?
Success is something you have to work for. You need to be hardworking. You need to be passionate about your job and you need to work smart. One thing I need to say is that working hard without smartness cannot bring success. These are things I tell people that look up to me as a role model. You need to be honest and consistent. Without these, it won’t be easy for you to get it right. There is no point traveling out of the country in search of greener pastures.
Any memorable experience?
I would say every day is memorable. I wake up each day to thank God and tell Him it’s a happy and special day. When I had my first baby that was a phase of life. Each of my children came with a bundle of joy and I’m grateful to God. Each of my children is doing well and it could only be God.
Any regrets in life?
I had some challenges but God saw me through. I was building a hotel years back and close to the roofing stage, the whole building collapsed. God’s grace kept me; otherwise, I would have been long dead. That was about 14 years ago. If God could preserve my life, why should I be unhappy about it? Today, I have a hotel that is bigger than the building that collapsed. My outlook on life is that we don’t have control over anything.
How do you demonstrate social responsibility?
I believe in giving back to the society. That is why my foundation is trying so much to give back to Ojoto, my community. I have a scholarship scheme for people going back to school. I have a different one for skill acquisition. We sank borehole, built an asphalt road that connected with a major road. I have done rural electrification in my village. I’m someone that believes so much in God. My hope and trust is in God and I believe that he is the one that made me who I am today. His grace is upon my household and me. All we have is from God.
What is style to you as a person?
Dressing up is one thing I have loved as a person right from the onset. I would say white is my favorite colour. It takes a neat and proper person to choose white. I love white because it’s clean and it incorporates what I have in mind. Each time you wear white people appreciate it.
Which countries are your favourite travel destinations?
I travel often to the United Kingdom, United States, Dubai and sometimes some countries in Africa. But I travel more to the United States to spend my holidays. Each time I travel to the US, I feel relaxed and at home. My favourite US cities are Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta. I have great friends there and I feel at home.
How do you relax?
I close late. After work, I love to hang out with friends. I love playing table tennis