Sam Ohuabunwa: The Things That Make A Great Company


You cannot compile an authentic list of Nigeria’s most respected and renowned pharmacists without a mention of Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, MON, OFR and NPON.

Currently the president of Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Ohuabunwa, before  he wholeheartedly embraced retirement, and now politics, was the president/chairman, Neimeth Pharmaceuticals plc, one of the leaders in their sector.

Well versed in the corporate world and highly regarded in community affairs, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, spent a fruitful afternoon with the great Nigerian from Arochukwu, Abia State at his Shonibare Estate home, in Ikeja, Lagos.

Ever eloquent and interesting to be with, he shared his thoughts on what it takes to run a great company, how to enjoy your retirement and so many other issues. Excerpts…


Mazi, why do most people feel reluctant to set-up businesses of their own?

Well, several reasons. First is majorly fear of the known. They know that setting up businesses come with risks. If you are working somewhere and every 30 days they pay you salary, 24th of the month, like a civil servant, you get alert, you can plan your life. You will say okay, N10 for feeding, N20 for housing, children N5, man no be wood N10 (laughter)… So, there’s certainty, there’s predictability. So, you better manage. Because you can go into business, today you have money, tomorrow you don’t have, next week you don’t have. So, some people don’t like that type of life. And I think a few; they are afraid of the unknown, fear of the unknown. They want regularity, they are risk-averse. The other reason is also lack of understanding of what it takes to do business, because sometimes you fear what you don’t know. If they had a better understanding or went through some training, maybe their confidence will be boosted, but because of lack of confidence and lack of training and understanding, that is also a part of it.

So, when is the best time to move from being an employee to an employer?

The best time is according to your own design. When I went into Pfizer in 1978, I planned to stay for five years. My uncle wanted us to do business, he had money. Immediately I finished my youth service, did internship, he said there’s money, let’s go into pharmaceuticals, let’s start importing, I have warehouses. Very attractive for a young man! But God gave me the wisdom, I said sir, you know this school, half of it is theory, we need to learn how these things are done first. So, I need to go and work in a company and get an idea, proper, practical understanding of how this business is organized. The man said good idea; how long do you need? I said like three to five years. He said take three! But I went on to take five, and by the time I was finishing my fifth year, I got caught up. I had to change, I decided not to go again. So, the issue is you decide.


Who is a good employee?

A good employee is an employee that gives the employer returns, the best return on investment. A good employee is the person that gives his employer the best or good returns on the investment made on him. Because that’s what employment is all about. I employ you, I make investment in you in different forms and I want you to generate a return. Now, some don’t generate enough. I mean, there are those who are just consuming resources, there are those who are creating the resources. So, a good employee is defined that way – anybody who can return better value; if he can do better than the man projected, then you are a wonderful employee. That’s a very simple way of defining it. But, of course, you can have subsets – employee that is obedient, employee that is trustworthy, employee that is hardworking. Those are subsets. But the major thing is not really whether you are trustworthy or not, trustless or trustful, the important thing is are you making returns on my investment?


Alright! Who is a good employer?

A good employer is an employer who understands that the human being is not a robot, but a bundle of emotions and characters; who understands that the headmaster was once a pupil, who understands that, that thing that he needs, his employee also needs it. So, he must be able to empathise, and to be able to do that means that you must be sure you are doing things to let the person grow and realise his potential and importantly, to feel good about his contribution. That’s what we call motivation. A good employer, if you look for another word, is someone who motivates his staff to perform extraordinarily. That’s a good employer.


What makes a good or great company?

A good or great company is a company that consistently meets the expectations of its stakeholders, its general and different stakeholders; that meets their expectations on a consistent basis. Not who makes profit, not the one who pays the best salary, but who meets the expectations of its stakeholders. You know there are different constituencies and stakeholders. So, it’s meeting the expectations of the shareholders, meeting the expectations of the financiers, meeting the expectations of the employees, meeting the expectations of the community, meeting the expectations of some governments and their agencies. These are some of the stakeholder groups. When a company is meeting those expectations in a consistent manner, it’s a great company.


To play in the corporate world and succeed, what must one do?

First is that you must, as I said earlier on, have a vision of where you are going. It’s critical. Secondly is that you must have a fundamental value system, because many people have come to the corporate world, had pyrrhic success and they failed. And why they failed was because they didn’t have proper value that drove the company. They wanna make money without understanding that in making money; money should not be made for the sake of making money; money is made to solve problems. It’s not to put one billion in the bank and it’s adding no value. So, if you pursue just money-making, you’ll fail. So, you must have the right value that will drive you. The other thing is the issue of good corporate governance, which is an underlining, underpinning structure that sustains the company in terms of ensuring that it has a good image, and that it satisfies these constituent groups I’m speaking about. It also has to be a company that practices corporate philanthropy, or what’s called CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility. Because that’s also a way of giving to the community, because greatness, how good you are is not really measured by you. It’s the people that you deal with. You can say that you are a good man, but when 90 percent of us say you are a bad man, that’s who you are. It’s not the good man you call yourself.


You are one of the few septuagenarians that I know who are enjoying their retirement. Why are most people not enjoying their retirement?

First is that they gave up too early. You know there is this wrong belief that we are supposed to live for 70 years. Wrong theology! Ah 70! That’s the age God gave. Which God told you He gave you 70 to live? So, they are already tired by self-imposition of old age. Go and read Genesis 6:3, the Bible says my spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh; his days shall be 120 years. It’s 120 years! Otherwise, those who are living 90,100, are they disobeying God’s rule? You know what happens is people who don’t read Bible…If you go to Psalm 90, where David said but the years of man is three scores plus ten… Go and read Psalm 89, that precedes Psalm 90. You will see that the man was in a distress, he was talking about his time – all the problems he was facing, the persecutions. So, given that kind of circumstances; just like what I said when I was 25 – I said if I live 50, God, you have done well for me. That’s what my friend, David was saying and people just keep saying God said, God said…God didn’t say that. What did God say? God’s own word – 120. So, some people, when they are 50, they announce that they are old and with that they have a negative feedback. The Bible says as a man thinketh in his heart, so he is. So, part of the problem is that people impose old age on themselves. And you know word of month, when you tell your leg the leg is old, the leg starts aging. So, one, they just impose old age on themselves. No.2 is that they had no vision, they had no plan for retirement. When I was about to retire, three years before my retirement, I had planned for my retirement, I had began to set-up businesses – I set-up in 2009, Sam Ohuabunwa Foundation for Economic Empowerment. My retirement was 2011, I set-up a foundation in 2009. I was still working and I had begun to set-up businesses, plan what I should do next, how I can occupy my day. Masters Services Limited, I set it up while still working. I looked at my areas of flairs – I know I could organise. So, I started my event management company. Because I didn’t want to get into businesses that will task me. After running a pharmaceutical manufacturing company which could have killed me and God saved me, I didn’t want to go that way. You know, when you are working, sometimes you just do what will make things work, to balance budget, train children and all that. But after retirement, you now do what you have flair for, what your skill and talents are. There are the kind of things you do even if nobody pays you. But if it finds a way to pay you, then you are on. So, sometimes people don’t have that plan, sometimes they decide to go and do what will cause them more strain and maybe when they don’t have that same energy as they used to,  they get frustrated and so, either things fall apart or they get frustrated. The other factor is also if they are not healthy. I mean, that may not be their fault – if they become sick. That will make them not to really enjoy. Those are the factors – not planning, telling yourself you are too old, getting into businesses that create more problems for you instead of solving. You need to do recreational things, and  they don’t again have purpose. The purpose of life is not to come and live and die. If all you crave is to come to the world, live and die, so why did you come? You have come, you have to accomplish your objective. God brings you, do the work He has given you. Until you do the work, you can’t rest o! It’s like you are going to Calabar, you start from Lagos, assuming you are on foot, will you stop in Sagamu? You look for a place to sleep in Sagamu, day time, you continue…Till you get to Calabar. The day you arrive Calabar; do you know what you do? You exhale (demonstrates it). Then, you are ready to die.

How does one begin to prepare for retirement and again, when is the best time for one to begin preparing?

Again, for me, with benefit of hindsight, you should start the day you start work. That day! And that’s because of this vision. I keep saying vision. Vision is what you think about the future. I mean, if I say I want to stay for five years, assuming that five years is the retirement age, it means I will start preparing for five years. And what is worse? You know in my book, Wired To Lead, I wrote about it. I said to avoid lack, employ multiple streams of income and I gave a testimony of how I started my first business in 1983/84. I mean, I set up a company, even though it was being run by someone. But I invested. I was a sales manager in 1983 and this Buhari and all their problem and Nigeria and economy and all that, trouble came. Companies were downsizing, no money to import, import license wahala. Okay, no business to do, no import license, reduce staff. So, they asked me, sales manager, reduce your staff. No, they just said you have to downsize. So, they told all heads of departments, you have to downsize. So, I went and sat down, looked at all the NFAs (No Future Ambition) that were in my team, put them together and submitted the list. Then, after a while, the people came back to me and said no, this is not enough, you need to do more. I said how? I mean, I’ve done all I can. So, they said okay, you reduce your staff by 1/3 . 33 . 3 percent! Heeeee! That pained me o! Because all of a sudden, the good guys, I had to put their names on the list, just to satisfy their requirement. It still hurts me, because I thought that the only thing that can make you lose your job is that you are not working hard. As if that was a small lesson, there was a personnel manager who was co-ordinating all the departments. Do you know the first day they started implementing the downsizing, the first announcement was the man being sacked! The personnel manager! I said waaaoooh! What happened? This nice guy, and then I was told that in the company, we had two main divisions then – animal health and pharmaceutical. So, because of the downturn in economy, the business was shrinking and the two divisions were now being merged. And that means one director will have no more job. What do you do? Throw the director away? It’s not easy to throw a director away. So, where will they put him? Personnel manager! They put him as personnel manager. Threw the personnel manager away! For no crime! Not that he didn’t know what to do. Just because that’s what’s convenient for the company. Men! I came back and told my wife, I said it could have been me o! I had thought that your assurance against losing your job is hardwork. Because my own was that I was not only working hard, I was exceeding expectations. If you asked me for one, I will try and give you two and if I failed I will try and give you one and a half. So, I mean, I could just lose my job also. I said God, it will not happen. The next day I looked for some of my friends… Of course, when you are going to do business, you start from known to unknown. What business do I know? Pharmacy. So, I said let’s set-up a retail pharmacy. I called a friend of mine, we put money together, employed one pharmacist, set-up the business. I was chairman, non-executive, got someone as MD, he was the superintending pharmacist and we set-up a pharmacy. In the evenings, or over the weekends, I go there. So, I told my wife, any day they say work has finished here, I take my briefcase, I end there. I won’t come home directly. If they say work has finished, I go there. When I finish work, I come home so that I can tell you the story. So, that is the way to plan your retirement and you need to be sure that you have a focus, what to do and don’t wait till you are sacked; don’t wait till you are sick, don’t wait till you are aged. When I was 35-years-old, I wrote my first Will. My wife was scandalised. She said, do you want to die? I said no. There’s no such plan. So, why are you writing your Will? I said they killed Dele Giwa, who was about, I think, 40. They just killed him. So, did Dele Giwa know he will die? My dear, I’m not praying to die, but let me write my Will. Because, one, I come from a large family, 12 children, from two mothers, you know, e no dey hard, e come hard. So, my wife and children, make dem no drive them away. So, I wrote my Will. I’ve revised my Will. I just did the third revisal at 70 and I’m not dying yet, by the grace of God. But you just must be prepared. I learnt this as a Boy’s Scout – be prepared! God is the ruler of heaven and earth, but He has given us sense, He has given us will, He’s given us wisdom. You know, it’s an act of arrogance to say nothing can happen to me. Ah! Who are you?


What are the best ways for one to preserve his reputation? That is one fundamental thing that any serious-minded person must guard jealously…

Absolutely! Absolutely!! The question is what are the components of reputation? What are the things that make you reputable? First is the quality of your offering – your service, your product. I used offering because every human offers something – either you are a teacher, you are a seller, you are a singer, you are a dancer, you are a wrestler, it’s offering. So, I don’t want to say quality of your service. What you deliver, what’s the quality? Quality can kill you, can destroy your reputation. No. 2, what is your moral standard? Moral! What is your moral standard? Because something that can kill you and your reputation is moral. You went to sleep with another person’s wife, you stole money, you are involved in fraud, those are moral issues. To steal, cheat, deceive people, fraud. All these are captured under moral. The third, to keep your reputation, is your relationship with your environment, your general stakeholder group. I use the environment to cover it. If you have good morality, and you have a good relationship with your stakeholder group, you will have no problem with your reputation.


When can a man be said to have truly succeeded?

I go back to that word – a man has truly succeeded if he believes he has accomplished his mission. However, in a general way of speaking, again, I’m now talking like a Christian – success starts with discovering your purpose and then accomplishing it or achieving it. First, is that you’ve achieved a measure of success. It’s like saying diagnosis is 50 percent of the solution. When somebody is sick, and they are trying to find out, what is wrong with this guy, everybody is worried, they do this test, they do that test, one day they say he has arthritis, the person breathes down. That’s a measure of success. At least, I know what I’m suffering from. So, the moment you know your purpose in life, you are on your way to success. When you now accomplish it, that’s when there’s full success. Success is a continuum and it changes. It’s a continuum because what is success today, may not be tomorrow. But I like to stick finally to the one that my friend, I think it’s St. Paul or Peter calls good success. I think it’s Paul, when he wrote to Titus or so. He called it good success. Can you imagine? Good success. What does that mean? Of course, that there’s bad success also. So, let’s go for good success.

You made your name as a pharmacist. For one to stand out, for one to excel, for one to succeed as a pharmacist and in pharmacy, what must the person do?

To stand out as a pharmacist, first, is that you must be current in pharmaceutical sciences. You must be current, updated in pharmaceutical sciences. That means you cannot be lacking in being at the frontier of knowledge in the profession. Because the reason you are a little bit enjoying this discussion is that maybe I’m saying a few things that make a meaning. If you were asking me questions and I’m not giving you correct answers; beating the drum on the other side, you would have ended this interview. So, you must have that knowledge of your profession. When they ask you questions you answer. I succeeded as a pharmacist, as a rep; you know I joined Pfizer as a rep? Part of the reason God gave me success was that I went outside the standard – the things they were teaching us, go and promote your product, tell the features, sell the benefits, bla, bla, bla… I will go to the hospital, I will go to the ward, check the patients of the doctor, like the consultant I went to see, I will check his patients, see if any of them has issues, what medication are they taking, bla, bla, bla… The nurses will help me, because sometimes that’s the way you do it. Some kind of espionage. So, I will come to the doctor; he takes time to get to see a consultant, not the house officer. House officers, I invite them to my house, organise small party and we are having fun and I’m showing film of my products. On Monday morning, they will prescribe them (my drugs). But I’m talking about the consultants. So, when I get this information, about his patients; maybe I see one patient who has stayed longer, who is not responding (to treatment). I’ll send my card. Pfizer man, what is it? Welcome. I will say sorry sir, I just passed through the ward today, male medical ward, and I found that you have a patient who was supposed to have left hospital since two weeks ago, but he’s still there. Doctor, I hope you don’t mind, what challenges are you facing? The man will say my brother, I don’t know o! I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that, I’m wondering whether it’s this or whether it’s that. And I will tell him, have you considered looking at his drug regimen? I believe that the problem is either he’s not taking the right dose or he has some resistance issues with that medication. Why don’t you think of changing the medication? He will say what do you suggest? I will give him some suggestion, which has nothing to do with my products. Maybe I will mention Stardust product or Glaxo product. When I finish, he’s now the one who will ask me, okay, what did you bring today? What do you want me to do for you? Now that you have solved my own problem, can I solve your own? It’s natural. But some people get there, my product is better than the other one, he says who told you? Where’s the evidence? So, my point is that first, you must be on top of your game. No. 2, you must adopt professional ethic. Professional ethic! Again, it leads to the issue of reputation we spoke about before, because the worst thing that can happen to a man… I mean, somebody came to complain to me yesterday; I’m doing business with him, I’m the chairman of his company, he’s trying to do business with a pharmaceutical company, they rejected certain things he brought and he was complaining about the quality manager as if he doesn’t like him and all that. I said it’s a lie. Quality manager, he does not hate you, the issue is that, that business he’s running, he’s depending on his job, he has no friend. So, don’t go and tell him, do you know Mazi is my chairman? I said no way! What you need to do is improve your quality. Even if he says your quality is not good today, thank God it’s something he sees, it’s a packaged material, he can reject it, but when you bring a better one, he will say it’s okay. So, keep improving, don’t tell me he doesn’t like you. Your quality will speak for you. So, the quality of service, then your ethics. Thirdly, have what I call this penchant for deferred gratification. Don’t sow today and reap tomorrow, otherwise you are going to reap prematurely, an immature crop, and it will neither be sweet nor will it yield the nutrients and you cannot replant it. So, you destroy your wealth. Be at the top of your game, be ethical, and defer gratification. Learn to invest and wait for it to yield. Those things have helped me and I think it helps every professional. Know that what you are about to do is problem-solving. Don’t be part of the problem. So, if I’m a pharmacist, I shouldn’t create problem for my patients, I shouldn’t create problem for my institution, I should always be solving problems. The moment you are solving problems, people will value you and they will recognise your professional contribution. I’ve told my colleagues – pharmacists. I say nobody gets, nobody begs for respect, nobody campaigns for honour, you merit it, you work for it. Of course, there’s grace, unmerited favour, and that’s from God. But for you, if you want people to honour you, to respect you, you must work for it.

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