Chief Ebere Goodwill Uzozie is an industrialist and CEO of G.U. Industries Ltd. In this interview in Abuja with Obas Esiedesa and Ignatius Okorocha, he speaks on what young entrepreneurs can do to get their business up and running, as well as challenges of operating a factory in Nigeria. Excerpt:
How it all started
For most us from the East, we arrived Abuja with almost nothing. In 1996, I got admission to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka but at point of going to school, I could not. In my family, we are nine children, and I am the second born. My sister was at the University of Calabar studying medicine and I was to study economics at UNN. I was at the verge of going to school when my father told me that I need to go into business so that I will be able to assist him. He said if he used the resource he had to fund my university education, he will have nothing to train my siblings. He reasoned that since I already had secondary school education, I need to go into business to assist him.
It was not an easy decision to accept but the Bible said one should obey their father, we see our fathers as lords. So I had to agree. That is how I did not have the opportunity then to go the university. In January 1996, my father sold his car then for N120,000 and gave me N70,000 to go start a business. I had neither destination nor plan. My father only asked me to go into business.
I met my late uncle, John, who lived in Madala, close to Abuja, and I explained to him my dilemma and he asked me to follow him to Abuja the next day, which was on the 5th. I lived with him and had to decide on the line of business I could engage in.
I stayed with him for over a month and he took me to his friend that sold building materials at Dei-Dei. I joined him to learn the trade. At that time, the Dei-Dei International Building Material Market was been commissioned and I had the opportunity of owning a shop in the market. But then I felt that if I paid for the shop from the N70,000, how will I stock the shop? It means I will wonder about and that is one thing I didn’t like doing.
After the market took off, I rented half-shop with N15,000 and used the balance to buy goods from Onitsha. I stocked the shop with things like head pan, potty fillers, union keys and the rest. I did something that really helped. I came to the shop very early like7am each day. At that time, the trucks that brought goods from Onitsha, the owners will move around the market for those who need what they have. Also, that early, those who have building sites come to the market early to buy materials for their workers because they might have ran out of it the previous evening. In that way I had a lot of customers and it was not possible for me not to make any sales each day.
For example, if someone came to the market and asked for shovels, I will tell the person I have it, even though I didn’t. But the good thing is I already know someone who had it, so I will take it from the trader and sell at a commission. That was how we were making money and improving our capital. When we have raised enough capital, we took night bus to Onitsha, made purchases and returned the next night. I diversified into selling flushed doors after been encouraged by a friend of mine, Mike, who supported me. I had truck loads of flushed doors. I was the lead seller. I am really a restless person and didn’t want to stay at one place. I was going to building sites to look for supply opportunities. But I was not really satisfied because at times it took long before you get offer to make supplies.
During the construction of CITEC in Gwarimpa, they needed a particular ceiling board, four by four. I everybody was looking for that ceiling in Abuja. One day, one of clients, gave me a sample and paid me to bring it to him. I agreed to bring it. I went to Lagos by night bus. After searching everywhere for it, I was told at Nigerite that it was no longer produced again but there was a man who bought a very large quantity of it. I finally tracked the man and saw he had in 2000sqm warehouse, filled. So I bought it for my client, and I told everyone that I had the ceiling board. That is where I made my first money. I started bringing trailer loads from Lagos. I was the first to do that in Dei-Dei. Normally, traders brought trucks from Onitsha but Onitsha people bought from Lagos. So, bringing trailer loads of plywood from Lagos directly meant that plywood traders were also buying from me because it was cheaper. I was bringing doors and plywood on same trucks. I quit the plywood business for year because it was too stressful and people owed a lot.
I got an introduction which led to me to supplying building materials to big companies. I then started importation from China but China was buying their materials from Europe. I knew I could not continue for long. There was a time I was struggling to make sales. Then I had a vision that I should build a factory. I had gone round all the factories and I felt I could do better than most them.
I started building this factory January, 2012, and by October we started operation. When I had the idea of opening the factory, I went to a factory that had the best production manager in Nigeria. I discussed with man and what he wanted most was to bring his family to Nigeria because where he was they didn’t allow him. We agreed and he brought his family.
Currently, what do you produce?
We produce anything woodwork, doors, kitchen cabinet, office cabinets, wardrobes, hotel furniture and anything woodwork.
We saw lots of beautiful products in the showroom as we were coming in, how much of your of products are made in Nigeria and many people do employ?
Everything you saw in the showroom, all the furniture you are seeing in my office is made in this factory 100 percent. It is the raw material you have like 60 percent from abroad and 40 percent locally sourced in Nigeria. Our furniture has more quality than Italian furniture because we combine the best material from abroad and the best materials you can find in Nigeria to make our products.
Here, we don’t sell furniture to people, we make furniture for people. Everything you saw is not for sale. We are just showing people what we are doing. You can bring a picture or sample from any part of the world; we recreate it and even make it stronger. Some products here have 20 years guarantee. We don’t have marketers; it is our job that markets us. Currently, we are doing well. We have 400 Nigerian workers here and four expatriates, presently. At the Dei-Dei factory, which is larger than, where we do servicing. The carpenters go there to have their designs produce while they take it to their shops to assemble. There we have 180 workers and three expatriates.
The Nigerian business environment is tough. For you, as a factory owner, what would say are your biggest challenges?
For me, I used to call it war zone. For example, when we started it was so difficult. In fact if I didn’t have the kind of money I had I wouldn’t have been able to build the factory. The first challenge was when I went for the approval to build the 1,200sqm factory. The Development Control gave me a fee of N9 million to pay. I shouted that I would not be able to build the factory. I eventually paid and commenced building.
The second challenge was the infrastructure. I had buy about 30 electricity polls to bring power to the factory. I bought the transformer too. All these are major challenges and those could have been utilized to do something else. I commend this government because since they came in, we have been having 80 percent of power supply from the public power and 20 percent from our generator. I want to encourage any Nigerian that is interested to start a factory to go ahead and do despite the challenges.
The biggest challenge now is the raw material. Importing them is a big issue although through the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) we have been granted some waiver and we have fast track. We still have the long delays for trailers to get into the ports to pick up the containers. It takes too long and so the purpose of the fast track is defeated.
As a manufacturer, what are your expectations from government to ease the challenges faced by industries?
The Federal Government should ensure conducive environment by providing infrastructural facilities such as road and steady power supply.
It should also make land available for genuine investors without much attachment and provide all necessary documents to back up their allocations.
Personally, I am convinced that the Federal Government means well for Nigerians. For instance, during this pandemic the Federal Government provided Covid-19 soft loan to the tune of N50 billion for willing industrialists and Nigerians wishing to invest in businesses of their choice but most of the people who wanted to access the money didn’t have collateral to take the loan because you have to go through the bank to access the loan and banks would require collateral to give you the loan. As I am talking to you, most of the factories operating in this country don’t have documents from government covering them.
For instance, my factory in Dei Dei, they said it doesn’t have Certificate of Occupancy but if I want to evaluate the factory it is worth N1.2 billion. But then, it is useless for me to go for the loan because I cannot use it as collateral. So, this is where I want government to come in because if I go for the loan, it would not be enough for four manufacturers. My advice to government is that it should give industrialists certain percentage of money to enable them be in business without exorbitant or stringent collateral requirement. I have so many people that are interested in manufacturing one business or another but they don’t have the financial backup to invest in the industry.
I as a manufacturer if I open my doors for employment, I can employ more than 4000 persons but I have to be employing people gradually to enable me finance my projects. However if government can go through Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and find out the challenges faced by manufacturers in the country with a view finding a way to assist them, it would open up more employment opportunities for the teaming unemployed persons in the country.
Again Nigeria cannot be an industrialized nation unless government intensifies efforts in completing and making Ajaokuta Steel factory functional. I want to assure you that if Ajaokuta Steel industry starts operation today, even you will be a manufacturer and so many countries will bring their plants here. If Ajaokuta begins operation it would be easier for us to produce most of the furniture and other products we produce in this factory. Most of the factories in the country today still go through so many challenges to bring raw materials into the country to manufacture their products. We need raw materials from Ajaokuta to produce most of the products we produce here in Nigeria. Our country is blessed with large quantity of mineral resources and if we have major steel companies such as Ajaokuta to assist us in our production we will go places. It is only when we are able to have these kind of steel companies that our country will assume the role of an industrialized nation.
As a tested industrialist what advice do you have for a young Nigerians who has a business idea but lack direction on how to enter the business?
You see, the problem with most of our youths is that they don’t want to enter business with small capital, they want it big and you see, all the big businesses you see today if you go through their life history, their owners started with small capital. My life history should be a typical example of what I am trying to illustrate to you of venturing into business with small capital. You know there must be a starting point in ones business history. When people see my industry as G.U. EBECO Industries Limited, they don’t know the story of my humble beginning. They wouldn’t know that there was a time I trekked from Dei Dei to Madala.
So, my advice to young people wishing to enter business is that he or she has to start with small capital. Remember, I came into business with N70,000 but there were some of my colleagues in business who came into business with practically nothing but today they are billionaires. Young people wishing to enter business ventures should not wait until they have big money and experience before entering into business of their choice.