Much has been written about the former Executive Governor of Abia State, His Excellency, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu. But the question remains why is everybody – for good or ill – writing or talking about Kalu?
It is no news that at the age of 26, he became the youngest Nigerian to be given a National Merit Award (MON) by President Ibrahim Babagida in 1986, nor is it any news that at the age of 28, he became the youngest Chairman of a bank, Co-Operative and Commerce Bank. But it certainly becomes news to learn that he was a one-time celebrity reporter for Weekend Concord and had the rare and unique privilege of interviewing great statesmen like former President Frederick De Klerk of South Africa and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations. Born on April 21, 1960 in Aba, he attended Christ The King College (CKC) Aba, had a brief stint at Eziama High School, before moving to Government College, Umuahia. He attended Barewa College, Zaria, on an exchange programme between the then lmo State government and Kaduna State government. It was at Barewa College that some of Kalu’s northern roots started. With his charming personality, he made friends with many students, many of whom later became prominent citizens of the north. It was at Barewa College that Kalu got close to Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s family, through his relationship with one of Shagari’s sons. The friends he made during his stint at the elite northern school influenced his decision to attend the University of Maiduguri. He commenced his programme to read Political Science, but was later to be suspended in the ‘Ali Must Go” riot. Though the university senate decided to re-admit some of the students, including Kalu, he turned it down and decided to trade to earn a living. Kalu, drawing from his experience in his secondary school days as the football team manager, knows that the cardinal rule of belonging to a team is never to betray your colleagues.
In his words, “All of us in the students’ union leadership collectively agreed to embark on the demonstration against the university authorities. When the crises went out of control, the university senate decided to rusticate all of us. Some students went to court to contest the rustication, but I preferred to start trading while waiting for general reprieve for everybody. But in a classical divide-and-rule tactics, the authorities decided to pardon some of us who didn’t go to court and left out some of the others. This was unacceptable to me because it smacked of betrayal of the colleagues in the students’ leadership if I accepted the offer. So, I rejected the pardon or the offer on principle.” Though he later completed his degree programme at the Abia State University, he has a Certificate in Business Administration from the Harvard University, USA. He also holds Honorary Decorate Degree from the University of Maiduguri and Abia State University respectively.
Dr. Kalu, as earlier stated, started trading while waiting to be called back to school. This he did with a capital of N5, 000. 00, raised by his mother, which he used to buy palm oil from the east and took to Maiduguri for sale. There he discovered that there was no good furniture around. Those who needed good furniture usually imported from abroad, at exorbitant prices. Knowing he could get good but cheap furniture at Aba, he started bringing furniture that was as good as those from abroad to Maiduguri. That became his breakthrough as many began to order. Soon he stopped trading in palm oil and concentrated on furniture.
After sometime, he decided to set up his own furniture making company in Maiduguri. It was while supplying furniture to the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) that he discovered that the uniforms used by Corp members were made from Hong Kong and South Korea. He threw a challenge to NYSC director then, Major General Edet Akpan, for the uniforms to be made in Nigeria. General Akpan decided to try him and that’s how he became the first Nigerian to manufacture and sew the uniforms locally.
From this humble beginning, his business grew into Slok Group of Companies (Ojialex Furniture Company, Slok Nigeria Limited, Slok United Kingdom Limited, Adamawa Publishers Limited, Slok Vegetable Oil, Aba, Slok Paper Factory, Aba, Slok United States Incorporated, Slok Ghana, Togo, Cotonou, Guinea, South Africa, Liberia, Botswana, Slok Korea, Supreme Oil Limited, Slok Airlines and The Sun Publishing Limited, The First International Bank Limited, Banjul, The Gambia, etc). His growth was as a result of putting the end user of any of his services first. According to Michael and Timothy Mescon, “Be it furniture, cloths, or health care, many industries today are marketing nothing more than commodities – no more, no less. What will make the difference in the long run is the care and feelings of customers.”
Kalu’s success is as a result of recognizing opportunities around him. Hear him, “A good businessman must have nose for business the same way a journalist has nose for news. Once your eyes, ears, nose, heart and brain are trained on business, you sniff business opportunities everywhere. In places where people see a lot of obstacles, I see a lot of opportunities. At times, there is something instinctive in me that tells me about a business opportunity even at a place where others see nothing. That is what makes me different, maybe unique. A good businessman sees where others don’t see. What I see, you may not see. You cannot see because that is the secret of the business… the entire world is a big market waiting for anybody who knows the rules of the game.”
Kalu got the call to serve when it was obvious that there was so much suffering all around him. His house became a pilgrimage centre of some sort, with people making demands; some money to pay school fees, pay medical bills, defray accumulated tenancy rent, buy the next meal, pay outstanding debts, raise business capitals, et cetera. Even though he doled out thousands of naira daily, the problem was far beyond an individual’s generosity.
Kalu, a sports loving individual, was the only person who has nothing to do with FIFA that was invited by FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, to attend the 54th ordinary session and centenary celebration of the world football body in May 2004 at Zurich. He indeed has shown some indispensable qualities of a great leader. According to Henry Kissinger, “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.”
Kalu, our role model and change master for this week, is a Nigerian to the core and belongs to everyone, irrespective of where they live and, more importantly for him, how they live. In his words, “l can never and will never be a party to anybody’s plot to divide this country – because the corporate existence of this country is important to me. When you look at my face, you see the face of Nigeria. This is a governor who has investment in the South- West, in the North and the East. I was born an lgboman, brought up in the North and lived in Yoruba land.”
He has won many local and international awards, the most prominent ones being the Industrialist of the Year, by the Nigeria Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry; Humanitarian Award, by Humanitarian Club of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Volunteer Award by the International Association of Volunteers and the National Merit Award. Others include Youngest Bank Chairman Award, Special Award by the European Union in Brussels, Belgium; the prestigious Leon Sullivan Award by the World Bank. He is also a visitor of Miami Dave Country in the State of Florida, United States of America.
Dr. Kalu, from all indications, is a man of action. He does not just see opportunities, he acts on them fast. Little wonder ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo called him the Action Governor while Ogala Osoka refers to him as a courageous young man. According to the late nationalist, Chief M.C.K Ajuluchukwu, “He doesn’t seek favour except the favour of God and his people.” In the words of Nigeria’s former military leader, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, “I think he is very brave…He has a mission”
Evangelist Uma Ukpai, “A ‘tomorrow thinker’ in Africa, and a man of great creativity, a man of profound imagination and a man who has leadership qualities.” According to the former Chairman, Neimeth Pharmaceutical Company, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, “I think that Kalu has this disarming humility, you know, when you hear of Orji Kalu, you have a larger than life image of him. But when you get close to him, you see that he is as ordinary as anybody can be. I don’t know whether it is an instrument he uses to disarm people, but I think that he displays humility.” Peter Okocha, a one-time Chairman, African Petroleum, summed it up, “I like his maverick style…He is more result oriented.” With such statements from men of timber and caliber, one does not need to be told that Kalu has come a long way.
Dear reader, many who see or hear about Kalu today will hardly believe that he actually started with as little as a borrowed N5, 000.00. Today, look at where it has taken him. If he had waited to get big money before going into business, I wonder what would’ve been his story. Secondly, we need to open our eyes to opportunities. Kalu has shown that he is a master of discovering opportunities. The idea of transporting palm oil from east to the north, the idea of discovering that we can make quality furniture and the idea of insisting that the nation can save a lot of money by producing NYSC uniform in Nigeria are all indications that long ago he believed in the Nigerian project.
Also, it’s imperative that we on our day-to-day activities maintain an unselfish relationship with others. Many are always thinking of what to get instead of what to give. Investment in people has always paid the greater dividend. Furthermore, it’s important that we are honest in all that we do. Kalu showed the kind of leadership qualities to be expected from him when he insisted that everybody rusticated in the Ali Must Go riot must be called back or he was not going back to the university. And lastly, be humble and extend a hand of fellowship to those who need it.
I don’t know what you or someone you know is going through currently. But I do know that men and women like Kalu have succeeded in telling us that everything is possible in our great country, Nigeria. Yes, if they can make it in Nigeria, you and I can.
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