Ade Ojo: I’m not ashamed to say my parents were poor


At over 79 years, Chief Michael Ade Ojo, OON, FNIMN, has not slowed down on his very busy schedules. He moves from one management and board meeting to another. He has to his credit several thriving organizations including a new generation university, Elizade University, located in  Ilara Mokin (Ondo State). A foremost businessman and philanthropist, Chief Ade Ojo is the founder, executive chairman and director of several companies such as Elizade Nigeria and Toyota Nigeria Limited. In this chat with Nigeria Auto Journal, Chief Ade Ojo spoke like never before on his upbringing, education, exploits in business and the state of automotive sector in Nigeria.  Excerpts. 


 How was your growing up like?

You have not read my book? Well, what I can say is that it was tough, very tough and I’m never ashamed to say that I was born to poor parents. My mother was a farmer and she was trading, mostly in food stuff, especially beans, rice, and dry fish which she used to buy at Lokoja for sale in my town. My father was a farmer. He combined farming with hunting and carpentry.

I was not supposed to go to school but as luck would have it, somebody perceived me as a very handsome boy and appealed to my mother to send me to school. My father had a policy. He had three wives and felt that if he could train one child from each wife, then he would have done well enough and the first born of my mother took our turn. So, we were not to go to school. There was a native policeman living in my uncle’s house who asked my mother: ‘Look at this your fine boy, send him to school.’

My mother said there was no money. He advised my mother to try, and she agreed. That was how I started schooling, and then in my final year, I gained admission to Imade College, Owo. That’s Papa Ajasin’s School. It wasn’t easy paying my fees but she managed. Then I went to School of Agriculture, Akure for one and a half years. That was in 1959 and 1960. In 1961, I gained admission to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and I graduated with Second Class Upper Division, Business Administration in 1965. We were the first graduates of Business Administration in the school. 


Tell us about your breakthroughs in the auto industry

I was in the British Petroleum (BP) where I became the best salesman. Then, I was asked to relieve somebody in Benin. I spent three months and within the three months, I increased their sales by 25 per cent and came back to Lagos. About a month after returning to Lagos the fellow I went to relieve was made my immediate boss. That actually enraged me. So, I decided that I won’t cooperate with him and anytime he sent any memo to me, immediately I would say no comment please and I would return the paper to him. I was rebelling, but after one week, I decided to leave.

When I finished school, I first worked with CFAO. I was in their Motor Department. I did well.  I was the Assistant Sales Manager. So, what I did was to go to RT Briscoe who was then sole distributors of Toyota. I asked if they wouldn’t mind if I sold their products for a commission and they made it clear that if I was on commission, it was purely commission, no salary and I said I welcomed the idea.

So, I returned to my office and asked for a leave and they granted it and within the four weeks I went to sell the cars. I sold 40 cars, and for these 40 cars, I calculated my expected commission. To my surprise, it was more than my one year salary at the BP. Two weeks after my resumption from leave, I resigned and they thought I was going to join another oil company. They called me.  I explained to them that I was going to be on my own and that’s how I found myself in the auto industry. 

Why did you go into business at a time people’s dream was to become doctors and lawyers. Didn’t you consider those areas?

I did. I didn’t mean to be a business man but somebody from my town who was in the army and retired as a general, gave me a piece of advice. Actually, when I was passing out of school, the address on all my notebooks was Dr. Ade Ojo. That was what I wrote on all my notebooks. I wanted to be a doctor but unfortunately there was no proper counselling. If they had warned me that without Physics I couldn’t be a doctor, I would have learnt Physics by force because what I actually wanted to be was a doctor. So, I left school. I studied Chemistry and Biology and thought that with those two subjects I could be a doctor. But they said without Physics I couldn’t. I was going to school in the evening; an evening school, studying Zoology and Botany. So, this gentleman in the army, then he wasn’t yet in the arm; he was in the University of Ibadan. He advised me to do something that is business-like, accountancy, law or something like that. 

I took his word and changed my subjects to Economics and Literature. I was doing that when the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was born and I decided to apply. After taking the exam, I was taken. I entered the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. When I asked for Business Administration, I was banking on the advice that I got from that army general. So, this was what happened. You remember I told you how I sold 40 cars in four weeks. Before I went into that I never knew I could get the money to start this business. What I did was that since God gave me the selling prowess, I decided to use what I had to get what I wanted. I used my art of salesmanship and in one month I was into serious selling like I was drugged to sell. I sold 40 cars and discovered that though oil companies were the highest paying then, I could make more than my one year salary in four weeks. So, to me, God paved the way and I took it. 

Did you regret not reading medicine?

I did not regret but I made sure my immediate younger brother became a doctor. He was in school where science was not being taught then. I took him from that school to Olivet High School, Oyo and I was telling him ‘You have to be a medical doctor because I could not be one’. And he qualified as a doctor in 1972. 

At what age did you buy your first car and what brand and model was it?

I had my first car when I was in CFAO Motors in 1965, precisely December 1965; and the number was LM 1721 and it was a Morris 1100. I bought it at the cost of 700 pounds. 

What was your feeling the first day you bought your car and did you bring your parents to see it?

I bought it four days before Christmas and it’s not that I bought it but I was entitled to the car. They gave me the car and I was paying for it. I was taking it home happily but you can’t believe it that this car developed a problem in Sagamu. I could not get home; a brand new car that had a factory fault. It ruined my Christmas that year. I was working for that company. So, they had to come and tow it and it spoilt my joy badly. Anyway, I was the assistant sales manager. They took it and repaired it and I was able to go home in the New Year. 

Could you compare the auto industry then and the business now?

I have always said that we don’t have an auto industry. What we have is motor business. What part of the car do you manufacture? These are the things you people should bother about. I have said it several times that we’re marketing vehicles. We have not been manufacturing vehicles until now. We are only marketing or selling vehicles. You have been to my assembly plant; can you tell me any of the parts that are made in Nigeria? 

What do you think can be done to accelerate the development of the auto policy?

First of all, the way they started (the auto policy) was wrong. I said look, you can’t bring somebody to your parlour (living room) and you make him give you rosy things. I said they should advertise this thing for everybody to apply but they didn’t do it like that. They drew this man to themselves, pretended that they were going to manufacture. We are assembling, but it is not the real auto industry. We are not there yet. Even Innoson (Vehicle Manufacturing) that is making all this noise, he’s only putting things that have been manufactured together; that is what he is doing. But for the buses, yes, you cut the plates and weld them but it’s not a serious matter. So, I told them we should face the areas in which we have comparative advantage. 

 What really can be done to put things right?

 Let us start with commercial vehicles and this is why we proposed bus. Our factory is for bus, pickup and then car. We did it for the Hiace bus and Hilux pickup. But we could use the same land for pickup to assemble car. So, in our assembling, we can actually do those three categories of vehicles.  You know that the cars assembled here are costlier than the ones over there because the other one, for instance, Toyota, produces every car half a minute; every half a minute a car jumps out of the plant. So, how can we compete? 

In the ’80s, PAN and VON were the pride of Nigeria. They were doing very well in producing vehicles locally for the people. What went wrong?

The greatest year of vehicle importation into Nigeria was 1981. That year, Elizade sold 6,000 units. Go and check it.  Toyota sold 52,000; Nissan sold 100,000 and Peugeot sold 250,000 units that year. But we overdid it because Gowon said money was not our problem but how to spend it. This was where the problem started. We were importing. And you know oil money had come then. We all neglected farming. We became lazy and that was how Buhari government came into power; took over from the then President Shehu Shagari. It’s a pity. We misused our money. Then, people were stealing; they were doing all sorts of things. The stealing has been long, not now. 

Who is your role model?

My role model is Christopher Kolade.  

Why is he your role model?

I like his management style. This man was a journalist and he became a manager. He managed Cadbury very well. I love his managerial skills. He is one of the role models. Then, I have Sam Adedoyin. In 1968, I was living in Adedoyin’s house in Surulere. This man was stupendously rich. At that time he told me his houses in Lagos were 32 and I had not built a room then. So, I was wondering how I could become like him? I lived in one of his houses. I took a flat and we became friends. He taught me to be thrifty, to save. One of the things I did when I started was to make very good use of my money. I did not waste money and still today, I won’t waste any money and this is where many people get it wrong.

You see in business, you have to be disciplined, discipline is the first principle. In fact, in life, you have to be disciplined in whatever you do. If you throw away discipline, it will be difficult. And you must be determined and diligent. The last one is that you must be dedicated. You need those four principles to be successful in anything you’re doing. When you make your first million, what do you do with it? You must be careful what you do with it. You see, I describe money as a caged bird. The bird is in a cage and you must feed it, then it will develop. But you must be careful that it doesn’t escape because if it goes out, you may never find it again.

Again, I describe business as seeking an opportunity and seizing it and making use of it. So you must carry out your studies and make sure that what you want to do is the right thing in every aspect; you now need the four ‘Ds’ to be able to handle it. So, whatever money you make you must make sure you don’t allow it to ‘fly’ away by your extravagance or drinking too much beer. So, that is where discipline comes. You must believe in what you are doing and that is dedication. But most important is to ask God to support all your aspirations and that puts a lot of responsibility on you.

You can’t be friend with God when you are a thief and if you are doing bad things. So, if you put all these things together, by the grace of God, you’re hard working and you believe in what you are doing, you’ll make it. For the first five years, my late wife and I didn’t take one penny from our business. We were only eating, taking food money, paying children’s school fees and giving them clothes. I was stingy at that time. I didn’t waste money. I may have just five shirts but they will be neat, but no waste at all.   


Your competitors say Toyota is overpriced today, yet it is the most popular on the road. What is your reaction to that?

 Pricing is a function of demand and supply. Let me tell you something. In 1985, I sold 25 cars for the whole year, yet in 1981, four years earlier, I sold 6,000 units. The government banned the importation of vehicles. It was a total ban. So, in 1985, I sold only 25 units and I still made profit. You have to be correct in the head to do business. Then, in a day, prices changed three to four times. You come in the morning, I give you a price and you’ll be saying the price is too high and you go, the next person will come I will increase the price and he may or may not buy it, but I don’t have any hope of getting another one. If I sell this, I’ll be left with nothing. What do you want me to do and I have to pay salary? So, when the third person comes, I’ll add some money on top because there is nothing coming from anywhere.   

Meanwhile, these 25 units I sold were a mixture of Toyota, Bedford and Peugeot. Maybe that year, I think I only got two units of Peugeot from PAN because I also became a PAN dealer but I got only two vehicles for the whole year. You want me to quickly sell them when I know I cannot get another one in the next one month. So, the price of the car will be increasing per day for me to remain in business. I would not be anxious to sell them because the showroom would be empty and you’ll still pay salary. So, you see demand and supply determine prices. It’s either you buy it or you go away because I’m not anxious to sell the vehicles.

Although the car may be available, there is no dollar to buy it. So, what happened was that we didn’t have these things. Did you not read that we reduced the price of Corolla and Hilux because the exchange rate came down? Everything came down and then we reduced the prices. This is what you call business because the difference between the cost and what you sell the car is what you call profit. That’s gross profit before you begin to take away your cost of petrol, diesel, salaries, and so on. A business man must strive to increase the bottom line. There is no deception.         

How many brands did you sell then?

In addition to Toyota, I sold Peugeot and Volkswagen. The company selling our Peugeot was Classic Motors while the one selling Volkswagen was Crown Motors.  

Out of all the models you have sold, which one are you emotionally attached to?

 When there was Celica, I loved Celica because I loved driving. Land Cruiser is a fantastic car, very fantastic. I think Corolla is wonderful. We have so many models that are fantastic. 

 How do you relax?

 I do my exercise every day. I still play golf and I walk just to keep the bones together. 

 Do you think the coming of electric vehicles will change the face of auto industry especially in the Nigerian market as it is today? 

Well, it’s likely to take over but there are problems because even now you’ve a combination of electric and fuel vehicle which they call hybrid. So, electric vehicles are going to be expensive. First of all, they will be very expensive and so many people will not be able to afford them. Most people will want to use what is affordable but technology is not simple it is developing every day until they can find the right answer. We will get there one day. But it will take some time before electric vehicles can be popular here in Nigeria.