Dr. Sam Maduka Onyishi, CEO of Peace Mass Transit Limited (PMT) has said although he aspired, on three occasions, to be governor of his home state of Enugu, he will no longer take the job even if asked to do free of charge because he has realised he never needed it.
Onyishi who spoke in this interview with Business Hallmark’s OBINNA EZUGWU, also talked about the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Nigeria, concluding that the country, despite its challenges, presents tremendous opportunities.
You turned 56 last week. How does it feel to be 56?
I will say that 56 is largely middle age. If you are in the civil service, it would be time to start thinking about retirement. But in business, at 56, if God has blessed you and you have done well, you can retire at 56 or 60. But overall, it’s an age that you attain and you begin to think about when you are going to retire. So, I will say that at 56, it’s time to prepare for retirement.
Are you now preparing for retirement?
I started preparing for retirement since I turned 50. In fact, I was prepared to retire at 50. So, if I decide to retire tomorrow, I have nothing stopping me. I run a very stressful business. My body has suffered a lot and I should be able to retire early so I can compensate my body for all the hard work.
Retiring early means that you are going to put another person in charge: Do you trust anyone to be able to run the business the way you are doing?
Of course! But if I can’t find someone I trust I can sell it. I created the business and I can as well sell it. However, it is my wish to allow other people to manage it. Still, if nobody is interested, then why won’t I sell it? I didn’t create the business to kill me; I did so to serve God, serve my people and retire in peace when I feel that I have done enough. Like I said earlier, transport business is very stressful. It’s not a business you do until you are very old. I did business for 25 years before going on holiday for the first time. And that was when I was about 45 years. I started business when I was about 18 or 20 years of age, I went for my first holiday at about 45 years. Until that time, I never took a rest, not even for a day. I have worked every day of my life.
Does that explain why you have succeeded this much?
No. It doesn’t.
What explains it?
The point is that only hard work does not ensure success, to the level that we have attained, although it contributes. But to say that it’s hard work that made me what I am is to say what I know not to be true. It’s favour, the special grace of God. If you don’t get the opportunities, you won’t go far. But when God provides you the opportunities and helps you to put them to use, you will leap forward. The opportunity comes, you are prepared to use it and then success follows. But if the opportunity doesn’t come you won’t achieve much. However, you will never go hungry if you are hard working, but without such opportunities, you will never become as wealthy. You will not be rich to the point that people will hear about you outside your state. But if you are hard working, you will never go hungry.
Peace Mass Transit has come a long way…?
Yes, it’s 25 years. We have been active 365 days for 25 years. There has been no dull moment, no slow down. That’s PMT for you; no dull moments. Even on election days, after voting, we still go to work. On sanitation days, after 10:am, we go to work. On Christmas days, we are on the field bringing people home. And I have never slept in a hospital in those 25 years. That is why I tell you that it’s favour. I know someone who has less than 10 percent of the vehicles I have and he is looking for someone to take over his business. He says he is done.
Mind you, he is not older than myself. So, like I said, it’s favour to be honest. One is the strength, the health, then the determination to succeed despite all odds. Challenges come. Sometimes it’s difficult to pay workers salaries, but you will insist that you must pay, and eventually you pay and they keep on working and things will eventually turn around.
How did you conceive the idea of Peace Mass Transit and when?
Well, it was, I should say, a child of necessity. My father died when I was very young. I was in class one in secondary school. I was the first of seven children. So, it was hardship all the way. After my secondary school, I became a bus conductor. At a point, I became a bus driver. Later I went into sale of second-hand clothes and shoes before I eventually found myself selling motor spare parts. After that I returned to school, that was 13 years after I left secondary school. I did my degree programme in the University of Nigeria and graduated in 1999. It was when I came back to study in Nsukka that I found out that as a student, I had enough spare time. And the only thing I could do was to use my savings of N260,000 to buy two vehicles.
Transport business was the only thing I knew how to do. I was a spare parts dealer, bus conductor, professional driver. So, what else should I do apart from buying vehicles for transport business? Again, that was the only kind of business I could do with my spare time. That was how I became an accidental transporter. The time I was doing bus conductor, driving and the rest of them, it’s like I was in school but I didn’t know. God was preparing me for the transport business. I thought I was suffering, trying to find money to support my mother and take care of my siblings. But I didn’t know that God was only grooming me to be a great transporter.
Eventually, when I joined transport full-time, it manifested. It was not difficult for me to push ahead and I have been able to sustain it till today. I will say that apart from the growing insecurity in Nigeria, I can even expand the business further. But the security situation doesn’t allow for that. I have stopped growing the business for over six years now. I set up new terminals but I don’t increase my vehicles.
But you change them?
Yes, I change the vehicles. Once they get old, I change them. But for over six years now, I have not increased the number. I’m no longer interested. I think I have paid my dues.
So, the next for you is retirement?
Not quite. I’m building a private university for instance. That’s where I was when you called me. Apart from that, I’m doing other businesses. I’m fully engaged.
The university, what about it?
Well, it’s not a business per say. It’s just an avenue for giving back to society. I think God has been very fair to me. And I made a promise to him in 1993, I told him that if he blesses me, I was going to serve him and serve his people. One way of doing that is to set up a university, a hospital and give affordable service so that the less privileged can benefit. That’s the only way I can feel satisfied that I’m fulfilling that promise I made to God. It’s a promise I made and I have to keep it. It’s not actually for money, if it were, I won’t touch it, not even with a long spoon. It doesn’t even make sense to set up a university as a profit making business. You are competing with the federal government and the federal government doesn’t charge much fees, so how are you going to survive?
But there are some that have survived and are doing well, like Babcock, Afe Babalola and so on?
Yeah, but what is the percentage? What percentage of private universities is doing great? Education sector in Nigeria is not what you decide to go into to make profit. It’s not for profit, I’m not going into the sector to make money; it’s far from that. However, I would like it to sustain itself. It’s my savings that I’m putting in there. I expect to stop putting money at a particular time. So, it should be able to run on its own. But to say that one day it will give me money to repair my house or change my car, it’s not realistic.
You made the point about rising insecurity in the country. Are you worried about the way things are going in Nigeria?
Yes, of course it’s worrisome. But as a business man, and from the perspective of business, the country’s situation is also an opportunity. All the inadequacies in Nigeria are opportunities to make money. If Nigeria becomes like the U.S. or U.K, then profit margin in business cannot be more than three percent or five percent. But here, you can start a business and you are making 20 percent profit margin. And that’s why people can contemplate borrowing at interest rate of 20 percent or more. That can only happen in a country like this. That’s why the Chinese are coming to this place in their numbers. This is a virgin land. There are opportunities here, people make money.
However, the other side of it, as it concerns insecurity, is that you are going to end up spending so much on security. We spend a lot on security and it’s a major source of stress. Can you imagine your bus conveying passengers to a destination; then suddenly kidnappers emerge from the bush, hijack the bus and kidnap all the passengers? They steal all that the passengers have and start demanding ransom from their parents or family members. If you are the owner of the bus in question how will you sleep that night knowing that your passengers – maybe 15 of them, young men and women, old men and women, are inside the bush? It is killing.
And of course, one night you don’t sleep takes a toll on your health. So, really insecurity is a very serious problem. And it affects everyone, including the big men. You can’t find a big man outside without police men following him around and that’s like being in prison. You find out that you are actually poor. If you have all the money but you can’t go out freely, you can’t jog, you can’t take fresh air … nothing, that’s poverty. Regardless, I still encourage our young people to stay back here and set up businesses because they have more opportunities here than any other place. There is no place better than this place in terms of opportunities.
The growing insecurity is one consequence of failure of leadership.
You once tried but later pulled back. What happened?
Yes, I tried to run for governor in Enugu here three times. But God never allowed me. But now I can tell you that if you give me that office for free I will not take it.
What has changed?
Because my eyes have opened! I have realised that I don’t need it. Listen, if I were a governor for four or eight years, and today I’m building a private university, EFCC would have been chasing me up and down. And nobody would ever believe I raised the money to do it, they will say it’s their money that I stole. If I give people scholarships, they would say it’s the money I stole from office. But today, nobody will say I stole money from government. When I give people money, they are very happy because they know it’s my sweat, and that gives me joy. But if I were a former governor, if I give somebody N100,000, they will say, ‘so this is what he is giving me from all the money he packed?
It’s not as if all those in government are thieves; that’s not the case. We still have good people in government; very good people. But even though I have never been in government, I know that the pressure there is too much. I had a close friend who was once a governor; he was a director in my company. He told me that, ‘my friend, don’t go there oo!’ He said, ‘man you can’t do this thing, I know you. You will use your money and work, but nobody will believe you.’
It’s not as if everyone who is in government is bad. But when you get into it, you discover that it’s a different ball game. First of all, it’s a democracy. In the states, you have the house of assembly. And in politics, when they say that you are not carrying people along, it means that you are not sharing money. So, when you are not sharing money, nobody is interested in the work you are doing. For those who call themselves stakeholders, what matters to them is what comes to them. If the stakeholders are satisfied with what you are giving them they will say you are doing well. But if after four or eight years you have nothing to show for the time you spent in government, it is you the people will castigate. So it’s not easy.
The point, however, is that if you are determined, you can still work. But to do that, you must make up your mind to do four years if that will be the case. If you start with doing eight years in mind, it means you will spend four years settling stakeholders, at the end of which you will achieve little or nothing. And you will take all the blames. I love politics, but at this stage, it’s a No-no for me. I have a new direction. I want to serve my people and my God. And I have found out that I can do it better as a private individual. Being a governor is at most eight years.
But the area I’m going into is what I’m going to do for a lifetime. If I become a governor, how many people am I going to employ? Perhaps if one thousand people retire from the civil service, I replace them with another one thousand. People may say I have employed that much people, but the truth is that I didn’t create any job. I only replaced those that retired. However, in business, as you are growing, and you are expanding, you are employing more people, creating more opportunities for people and helping them to earn a living.
You were in the news sometime ago for returning N2 billion ($7m) wrongly paid into your bank account. How did you feel after doing that?
I started sleeping well. Before then I could not sleep well because I knew that there was money in my account which didn’t belong to me. I was very happy after I returned it. However, the money actually waited because the bank confused me. When they said that the money they paid to me was my money, for two weeks, I was looking for where this money came from. I was checking all my accounts. I printed my account statements, read through all of them, yet I couldn’t find where the money came from. After two weeks, I sent another email to the bank.
They said the person who would do the reconciliation was on her way to Port Harcourt. I waited for another two weeks before deciding that these people don’t have any information about this money. The account where that money was supposed to be coming from was not debited. So, there was no way to find out where the money was coming from. It was supposed to be coming from my account in bank A, and going to my account in bank B. But my account in bank A was not debited and my account in bank B was credited in excess.
When they eventually found out, probably after your press conference, what did they say to you?
They didn’t find out anything. When I gave them the cheque, the manager was asking what the money was for. I said, ‘take the cheque and keep it. When you find the owner of this money, give it to the person. If it’s my own, bring it back and explain to me how it is my own. I needed to know, if it’s my own, where it came from and where it had been kept. You don’t just put money in my account and expect me to keep quiet.
Have they gotten back to you since then?
Nobody has; nobody has told me anything, but I’m not interested. What I know is that I have given them the cheque. Whoever owns it should take it. I’m not interested.
You are building a university, you have a foundation in the University of Nigeria. These days we have seen wealthy individuals like Bill Gates retire to focus on philanthropy. Are you looking in that direction?
I don’t have to be a Bill Gates, or to do what Bill Gates is doing. Everybody knows what makes him happy. I have opened businesses for people, although more than 80 percent of them don’t even remember me. These are people I gave my money free, they were never my apprentice. But more than 80 percent of them don’t even remember to call or text me to wish me happy birthday or happy Christmas, not to talk of bringing Christmas card. However, those I have given scholarships, more than 90 percent of them send text messages to me to wish me happy New Month, Happy Easter, Happy Christmas and so on. And anywhere I go to, they surround me.
I could walk into an office in Abuja and someone would run to me and say, ‘Oga, what are you looking for?’ After, he would say, ‘I was in UNN, I benefitted from your scholarship.’ That has been the case, I see them everywhere. If I enter a bank in Lagos, someone might just approach me and say, ‘Ah! Oga, you came to our bank, do you remember me? I was this and that.’ The University of Nigeria has really produced a lot of people. Some may not even have benefitted from my scholarship, but perhaps just those who were using my transport service when they were in school. But people that I gave my money, perhaps N6 million, N5 million and so on, find it difficult to send text messages to me.
Is it that they have probably made money and now believe they are too big to bother?
No. Let me tell you, the reason is simple. If you open businesses for ten people, eight will collapse, only two will succeed.
So, why do they collapse?
That’s business for you. If all businesses succeed, then everyone would be rich. But it’s only about 20 percent of businesses that will survive.
Why then do some businesses collapse and some survive?
It’s natural law. You are going to compete, but everyone is not equally gifted. So, it’s only about 20 percent that would be smart enough to sustain their business and grow it 10 years or 20 years down the road.
So, what is the critical factor or factors of success in business?
One is discipline. If you are disciplined, even if you don’t know a lot, you will devote your time to learn. But you should also have competence. You have to be flexible, keep learning. You must have an open mind. You must have integrity so that when people do business with you today, they will come back tomorrow.
There are many reasons why people don’t do well in business and when they don’t do well, they will hardly blame themselves for it. They will find someone else to put the blame on his head.
However, when you sponsor the education of 100 people, 99 will graduate. They will get their certificates and they won’t forget you. But those you have given money to do business, if they fail, they will blame you and won’t say anything good about you. The 20 percent that might succeed won’t have time. They would be busy running their businesses. So, there is nobody to defend you.
You once told the story about a certain person who told you at a village meeting, that you should not talk when he was talking because you haven’t gone to school, which prompted you to quit business and continue with your education…?
Yes, I came home one of those days, a guy whose Senior School Certificate Examination was written for him by someone else, told me that I was below his scope of reasoning because he had become an undergraduate. And this is somebody who is older than me, but I actually finished secondary school before he did, only that I could not continue for financial reasons. He never saw my back in academics then, but now he was telling me that I could not argue with him because my scope of reasoning was below his, for the fact that he was an undergraduate. I told myself that I must also get this degree and that was why I returned to school.
Have you come across him ever since?
Vengeance belongs to God. As I speak to you, this morning I paid some money into his account because he is doing a job for me. I give him contracts to execute. I have nothing against him. In fact, I will say that God used him to promote me. It was the angels who spoke to me through him. He is not my enemy, he is my friend. God used him to challenge me. If you are not challenged, you won’t excel, you will just be sleeping thinking that all is well.
Finally, there was this garage you bought at Ojota in Lagos, but you are no longer there. We hear there is a dispute?
Yes, some government officials decided that how can they allow someone to come all the way from Enugu and buy this big place. They said they would not allow it. The commissioner for transport that time connived with the National Union of Road Transport Workers in the state. They broke my fence and the national union came into my park and drove away my workers.
But the story we hear is that the land is in dispute between two families?
No. That’s not the case. The two families came together and agreed to share the place. I bought from one family and the national union became tenants to the other family. But because my own was more strategic, they used the commissioner to take over my park.
However, I know I will defeat them in court. And to tell you how government works even though the commissioner did that, the state still registered the land in my name because it’s my land. The land is registered in my company name by the Lagos State Government. I knew the commissioner was doing that on his volition. He was not doing it for the state government. We were sure, and that was why, when we were going to court, we didn’t sue the government. It was the national union that brought the government in to say that the government gave them the place. But how can government give you the place and still register it in our name? The place is not under government acquisition. That’s the kind of things you see in Nigeria.