By FRED IWENJORA
D R. CHIKE OBIDIGBO is an industrialist whose manufacturing concern Hardis and Dromedas has touched many lives producing over 27 household products.
After over 40 years of running the company, employing over 600 staffers and 7 expatriates, the very highly cerebral marketer and human development expert with distinction answered the call by notable Anambra people to come lead the state in 2014.
He lost in that bid to be governor to former governor Willie Obiano and had since returned to his factory, vowing never to try again.
In this chat with FRED IWENJORA, Dr. Obidigbo traces the history of his industrial revolution, his involvement in politics and leadership and sets an agenda for the newly inaugurated government of Prof Charles Soludo.
Enjoy this breezy chat.
A new government has started running in Anambra state; as a stakeholder, whats your reaction?
Governance is about coming and going of leadership. When a new government comes, after trying its best for a length of time, it gives way for another to try. We expect that the new government should bring in new ideas, new strength and vigour to help move the state forward beyond where it has been. So I am very happy about the change in baton. It is a normal thing and it comes at a stipulated time.
Do you sometimes feel so sad that it should have been you handing over because you tried to be governor?
Naturally yes. Sometimes you think about it but the most important thing is to realise that what God does no will does not happen and that whatever God wills must surely happen. That’s my philosophy.
Could you try setting agenda for the new governor?
Well, the person that has just been sworn in Prof Charles Soludo is some one I have known for a long time. I don’t mean just knowing but we have interacted a number of times. There are certain things I can conveniently say about him. One is that he has intention to bring about development. He has the intention of improving the quality of governance in Anambra state. What I want him to know is that Anambra state is in a very serious mess at the moment.
I trust he knows and feels that way. We need a lot of work and I believe he is very equal to the task ahead. He needs a lot of brain storming, a lot of will and courage to put things right. The easiest and best way to carry out this task is to first of all understand that there are many people in Anambra state who are anxious to see the return of economic growth in Anambra state. But unfortunately such people are not on the front row.
They are behind the scenes. They are not among the people moving around everywhere and on the streets. They are on their own scattered around the corner. They are just around the corner watching how criminals have cordoned off a lot of positions in Anambra state. When criminals cordon off places they will do everything to see that they retain their places in the system. It is not unusual for a government that is serious to go searching for such distinguished people and not the criminals for advice and suggestions. So my agenda for Soludo is that he needs a lot of brains working together in a collegiate think tank that will always assist him. He cannot do it alone. He needs to bring in people who can assist him in doing things so he could withstand the pressure governance of Anambra state will present. Anambra state is in a mess and every one knows that.
Could you pin point areas where we can feel the mess? A little appraisal would do here.
No no no..it is of general knowledge. Every one knows that so much damage has been done to the state. Anambra needs a lot of repairs if we have to get back on course. We have been operating off course for a very long time.
Industrialisation must be part of it and this has been your main mantra..what ways should this be done?
I have talked about a think tank. Industrialisation and the rest of productive sectors of the Anambra economy must be made to function. We have a massive unemployment rate in Anamba state which is the worst in the entire country. Our youths return from the Universities, waste a year serving the country and when they return home, no job for them.
And as long as this remains like this, we cannot create jobs and we cannot do anything else. We need jobs to fight insecurity. Some one without a job goes to steal and if he is not caught, he repeats it and if he is caught and jailed and he still has nothing else to do, he returns to the game. It is the only thing he knows.
The new administration must pay attention to the productive sector of the economy. We are very low in agriculture; manufacturing and we are zero in tourism. All these sectors that can generate income for government we have neglected but we have encouraged touts all over the place. If you go to the market to buy something some people accost you to pay one thing or the other.
This depresses the economy in grave ways. It causes massive movement of capital to neighbouring Delta state and Edo. Anambra state business men are leaving in droves running away from Anambra state. They are taking their money away from Anambra. They are taking away their wisdom and intellect. We are driving away our customers in the trading which we know how to do better than many countries. Many of our importers have left Anambra to pitch tent in Lagos. They import their goods and sell off in Lagos and traders in Onitsha now go to Lagos to buy. So there is so much to be done by the governor. I am happy he has started by saying Agboro must go. I pray this order is enforced because it is a good start. Soludo has a clear head.
What other policies should new government put in place?
The biggest problem we have as industrialists in this part of the world is that government does not recognise the fact that it is its responsibility to provide employment for the employable members of the society. People in government tend to overlook a lot of things. Soludo has to realise that he has to do this in relationship with the organised private sector and that is those who know how and love to do this.
Years ago I picked up a factory job in the UK during a holiday. A day after, the director said he was closing down because he had no money to pay the workers and still run the business. A few days later he called us back saying he spoke with the government about the closure but the government would take none of such.
The government told him not to close since he was an employer of people. They supported him with more funds, wrote off his debts and encouraged him to continue. But here in Nigeria, no one cares about you and the people you employ. Some will laugh at you for closing down. So the problem of industrialisation is much and government does absolutely nothing about it. In the past eight years, manufacturers in Anambra state have never held a meeting with government. The government did not just wish to see you or meet with you.
If you invited them to your meetings or event, no one showed up. They only saw you as ordinary business man doing his business. If you lose workers it does not bother any one. Any time you see government people coming to your factory it is to collect revenue and other so called bills. Soludo should look into this. If every one has a job, it improves revenue as workers pay tax.
The employed would have no time to rob and commit crimes. We bought one chemical raw material for production in January but by March, it had quad-rippled in cost. When you ask about the increment, you hear that it is unavailable and your customer reserved only this one for you. Now tell me how would you face the market? That is the reason our market continues to shrink. We have not bothered about backward integration. The Igbo man has proven that he has mastered the art of trading but the government only needs to assist him in backward integration. Selling goods means that you are creating more jobs for the manufacturing countries. When you manufacture you engage many people. Government should know that what you are importing you can produce. We need the environment to produce seamlessly. Today when you mention manufacturing, people tend to run away and complain because there is too much pain and hassles to it. Most of us manufacturing feel trapped and do not know where else to go. How do you get out of the trap? You first consider what would happen to your over 300 workers. It is a very painful decision to take. It is also scary. Yet your business is dropping by the day and eating ito your capital.
Again, all over the world, banks sustain industrialisation. When we started business in the 80s, we could buy a lot of machinery from China with the help of the Industrial Bank of China who gives you loan to pay your suppliers right there in China. It is when you return to Nigeria that you begin to produce and repay the loan. Our local banks stopped this. They gave loans with 35% interests while the Chinese gave you with 1%. Our government does not realise that they owe the youths so much to help them plan a future. When I say government I mean at all levels of local, state and federal. We are raping our youths instead of planning for them and this evil will one day affect us all. It is already showing everyday.
You moved your factory from Enugu; Why?
When we started Hardis in Enugu, our plan was to set up factories across the five states of the South East. We had land in Abakaliki Ebonyi, another in Owerri Imo state near the control post, we also had at Umungasi Aba Abia state and the factory at Umunya, Anambra state my home town. Our business was doing well and the economy was very good. Traders were coming from across the south east and Nigeria to carry our products until when I got involved in Politics of Anambra state. I know I had something to offer and I was willing and ready to serve. I knew I could help Anambra because for the past 40 years I have been in the business of wealth creation which means job creation.
When I got involved in politics my time became divided as politics made a lot of its own demands on my time so I had to move down to Umunya, my home town. When everything ended, we had lost capacity to do much more so we had to sell off a lot to finance the political ambition.
I had a good mind to serve Anambra state and create wealth. Any one who is coming into Anambra state governance, and indeed every leader for that matter, without such mindset will not succeed. It is enormous load and there are several political jobbers every where waiting to kill and share. If I got the job, I knew who and who to invite to help me in the task.
I also know Soludo knows too. Anambra state is easy to govern if the leader knows what to do. People only need to see that the leader is doing the right thing and they will just follow. Just look at the pain we face at the new spare parts and building materials market area on the Enugu-Onitsha express way.
The pain of the traffic lock-jam around that area in the past three years is much. Those people doing business there can afford to do a fly over or overhead bridge if they are motivated to support and they see your honesty showing that you are not just there to amass their wealth and run away. They will start making contributions because it will help their businesses. The incoming government should checkmate this Lagos business outflow from Anambra. The new government should mobilise the populace to join his leadership rather than doing its own thing as was in the past eight years. I trust that Soludo will do well because he has seen it all.
Do you regret joining politics?
It was my ambition to join politics and make a difference but it is not my destiny to rule Anambra state. If it was the will of God, I would have succeeded but It was not. My ambition was to, at least, provide about 10,000 jobs for starters. When Hardis was at its full elements, we had about 674 workers with about 7 expatriates. We were growing and expanding. But when the failure to become governor hit me like thunderstorm, it disorganised everything. If it was the will of God that I would be governor, He would not have allowed me to fail.
Could you trace your involvement into the guber race of 2014?
I had run into Peter Obi at an airport and we started discussing governance. I dropped an idea that he thought was brilliant and really workable. He called me up asking me that since Anambra north would produce the next governor, I should get prepared. He said one only made a difference when he was inside. I got prepared.
There was a meeting at Obi of Onitsha’s palace where the entire Anambra north discussed the matter and all hands pointed at me. I was told to go work towards it. I did. But every thing turned out differently. But like I say it was not the will of God and I regret nothing, period.
Could you trace the origins of Hardis Company?
After I had studied with distinction at Salford University Manchester, UK with a federal government academic scholarship, I also did a master programme in marketing management at the University of Lancaster. I returned to do my NYSC at Federal Polytechnic Nekede as a lecturer. I later went to lecture at IMT and later worked with Marksel Communications, a business management consulting firm as GM. It was at the time I started thinking of manufacturing.
Hardis as a company started very small. But we were very sincere with out plan an objective in mind. Our first product was Crown soap which we produced without cutting corners as quality was our main watchword. Crown soap was a bar soap which no one knew at the time could be produced not by the big multinational companies like Lever Brothers.
I learnt about it, fabricated machines in Nigeria and the products came out beautifully. Customers were coming from all over to even book for their supplies, paying upfront and waited for their turn to carry the orders. There was honesty and sincerity, discipline that there was no delay in delivery of the products. Our word was our bond. In those years, there was no fierce competition. At some point we had about 27 products in different packs and sizes.
Soon more people started manufacturing fake products, taking customers orders and funds and disappearing without delivering. It moved to cash on delivery and then degenerated to the manufacturer sourcing funds, producing, delivering and waiting for weeks and months for the trader to sell before expecting his money.
This is a massive burden on the manufacturer. One can only grow when money is paid for goods manufactured and supplied. Business is not how it used to be. The banks and their loans are like traps. It is like a chain on one’s neck as you keep struggling to meet up and pay back. In fact the banks are so wicked. We have since found out that it is more profitable to fix deposits in a bank as the interest is higher than the profit made from manufacturing. It is because I have interest in manufacturing and entrepreneurship that I am still in it.
A product is like a baby conceived and nurtured to live. And until the government puts interest in what the manufacturers are doing, we can never grow our economy in Nigeria. This is the secret of how eastern Nigeria became the fastest growing economy in the 60s.