On Saturday, in a well attended event at 14 Aromire Street, off Allen Avenue, home of Dover Hotels, its newly completed second block officially launched.
An imposing structure with grandly decorated interior, the new Dover is not undeserving of 5-star rating. But the older structure is no less impressive. Now a twin tower of sorts, with combined room of nearly 250, the two blocks of Dover mix style and elegance. Dover already stands out as one of the best in the country, a popular destination for lodgers and seekers of leisure in Lagos and beyond.
But if elegance is the apt word for the hotel, simplicity is much more appropriate for its owner, Jackson Agbai Abbah. It is possible to walk past him and taking him to be one of the numerous employees at the hotel. Indeed, the hotel and its grandiose splash of interior decorations, contrasts with its owner who wore simple, stripe shirt and a pair of plain trousers and walked briskly around to ensure that everything is in order.
“I don’t really like granting interviews,” he says as he sits down to talk – in spite of himself. “I love the quiet life.”
A trained lawyer, former banker, real estate investor, now big into hospitality, Agbai says life is about doing what appeals to you and what gives you satisfaction.
“I’m not sure you move from law to hospitality because once you are a lawyer, you are always a lawyer,” he says. “Yes, I run a hospitality business. In life, you do what appeals to you. The dynamism of life is such that you change your ideas about life.
“Part of my reason is that I felt that the easiest way I can impact on society is to create jobs for people and to ensure that I bring food to the tables of as many people as I can. I felt that the hospitality industry provides me a better opportunity to do that.”
Sitting in the newly built Dover reception hall, it is hard to reconcile the structure with its owner who makes no pretense to complexity. But it’s even more difficult to reconcile his past with his present. Agbai is a man who has seen life in its many forms.
Born into affluence, to a merchant father based in Cameroon, Agbai, as a primary One pupil in 1971, was chauffeur driven to school in a Peugeot 404 saloon car in Douala. A year later in form two, his school car had changed from Peugeot to a Mercedes Benz. Yet, in primary four he was trekking miles to get to school back home in Abia state, Nigeria. Life had taken a sharp turn for the young lad.
“As a result of the downturn in my father’s business, we were forced to come back to Nigeria. We went back to the village, I did primary school again for another year,” he narrates.
“I started school in 1971. I went to secondary school in a place called Mbawsi from 1977 to 1986. I went to Imo State University, now Abia State University in 1986. Part of the lesson I learnt was that everything in life is mutable. In my primary school, I was chauffeur driven to school in a Peugeot 404 saloon car. In my primary two, I was chauffeur driven to school in Mercedes Benz, yet when I was in primary four in the village, I was trekking almost three miles to get to school.
“There was swimming pool in our house in Cameroon. We had everything, but later in life, my father couldn’t even afford a chair in his living room. This was a man who used to change the furniture in his house almost every six months. From 1974, the next furniture that ever came into our house was the one I bought in 1990 when I was already a graduate. So, one of the lessons it taught me is that nothing is permanent in life.”
His father fell victim of Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon’s, long serving president’s high handedness. And the impact was telling.
He had been a big merchant of second hand clothes in Cameroon. Life was all good until suddenly, Ahidjo’s government decided that they were not paying all necessary duties on their imports, slammed them into prison and insisted they must pay 75 million CFA each.
“At that time, he had to pay 75 million CFA,” Agbai recalls. “They said he was going to pay 150 million, but it eventually came down to 75 million. That was a lot of money. At that time, Cameroon was a police state, I don’t know about now.
“What they did was to clamp them down in detention till they paid. After they paid the money, they gave them bail, but banned the main item that they were importing, which was the second hand clothing. So, you have bank loans that you can’t meet, the banks came and you had no liquidity. When he came back to Nigeria, he had nothing. He had not invested in anything. He had plans to invest in properties, but he was still procrastinating.”
It was perhaps, on account of his father being ultimately undone by his inability to diversify his investment that Agbai decided to spread out. He has had his fingers in many pies, yet each, he has made a huge success of.
And listening to him share his ideas about what is possible, what opportunities exist in the Aba textile industry, palm produce, and how to drive the Nigerian economy and rescue it from its current state of disrepair, to a thriving one, with practical examples, you get an idea why he has continued to succeed in what he does.
“I started life as a practising lawyer in Aba. From there I went to work in a bank. I was secretary and legal adviser to a bank for ten years. Then after that, I went into real estate business. From there I felt that the hospitality industry is an extension of the real estate business,” he narrates.
“It’s just that it helps you to provide employment for people. It helps you to see the faces of people when they are happy. Whether they sleep in a decent environment or have breakfast in a serene environment, or they have their conferences in your place, that happiness is what brings joy to my heart.”
Bringing joy to other people’s life, Agbai notes, is his primary motivation.
“My key motivation has always been my belief that God created us and gave us different talents and I have always believed that if you are strong, you must help the weak. So, my motivation has always been to be in a position where I can help those who are less privileged; whether in terms of helping the indigent to go to school, whether in terms of helping those who cannot pay their house rents to be able to pay, or whether in terms of helping people to start businesses at whatever level they I can.
“For me, I see man as the centre of being. Human beings, by nature, in my estimation, are good people. The environment could make some people bad sometimes, but people without opportunities can’t do much.”
Dover currently has branches in Ikeja and Lekki and employs nearly 400 people. But Agbai is not just bringing smiles on people’s faces by paying them well enough to be able to cater to themselves and their households; he has also seen many through university education, being himself, a beneficiary of another’s benevolence.
“I left secondary school in June 1982, and in September I was already in the University. Not because my father was in a position to pay my school fees, but because I had an uncle, my mother’s second cousin, who was interested in ensuring that I went to school,” he says.
“We have a culture in Abiriba where I come from in which we try to help others. That’s why when you come to Abiriba you see gigantic strides, whether in terms of education or in terms of structures or businesses. It is because someone is always willing to lift up the next person.
“I had friends in secondary school who I cannot say I’m more brilliant than, but today they don’t have university education. And they are still struggling because they never had the kind of opportunities that I have had. I believe that society is better off when people try to help others.”
And helping others is what he has devoted his life to, albeit without making a noise about it; “I don’t really think that it’s necessary to have a foundation because by my nature, I try to be anonymous. I think that you can impact on society without people knowing you. So far, I have trained more than 48 people in the university. I did that without a foundation. I’ve done a lot in terms of training people in secondary schools and all that. When you have a foundation, for me it’s like you are announcing it to the world that you are doing something. That’s just not my style.”
Asked what the key factor of his success story is, he said dream and determination.
“I don’t think there is any single factor that determines success, it’s a combination of factors. But I think there are basic ones. You must dream that you want to succeed. As you dream, you must be able to do things that will help you to succeed.
“For example, when I wanted to go to the university, I had no money. Then it was N10, but I didn’t have anybody to give it to me. It was only this uncle of mine who was in Douala at the time. So, in those days, I would leave my school in Mbawsi and enter train to Aba looking for my uncle to give me N10. I had to go to Aba 16 times before I could meet him in Aba.
“He was then able to give me N10. So, if I had given up I might not have had the opportunity to go to school. That was the chance I had. I took JAMB that year and passed. So, you must take steps. So, first you must have a dream; a vision. But I think that it’s equally important that if you want to be an entrepreneur, savings is critical.
“Another important thing one must learn is to be prudent in resource management. When you no longer have anything, you will realise that it’s a lonely world.”
But even with life seeming good and everything appearing to be falling in line, Agbai admits he has not always achieved all he ever wanted to, but remains grateful for the ones he has managed to achieve.
“There is nobody who achieves everything he wants to achieve in life. But there is an Igbo saying that “Nkemjika” (the one I have is greater). That’s what I apply to my life all the time.
“So, instead of bothering about things I didn’t achieve, I am always appreciative of the little I have been able to achieve. I have two life ambitions, one is to do business. I had this intention at a very young age because my father’s wealth finished so early and I was desperate to succeed, even as a young man in primary school.
“But with time, my ambition changed. I wanted to be a judge. I dreamt that one day I would see myself in a court of appeal. That time, we all admired people like Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Kayode Esan and so on. But I won’t say because I never became a judge, I’m not a happy person? I’m a happy person and I’m grateful to God for all he has done in my life.”