Chief Benjamin Uba (Ozonma Isuofia) is the Chairman BEN-FLO Group with subsidiaries in transportation, oil and gas, hotels and property holding. One of the subsidiaries of the company, ANIDS/BEN-FLO Transport LTD won the Anambra Transport Company of the Year 2020 award. In this interview, he talks about business in Nigeria amongst other issues. Excerpts:
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE BUSINESS WORLD?
Immediately after my National Youth Service, I joined the family business. My father, Chief Ozonma Uba, God bless his memory was into general merchandise and property holding. He was also a major distributor to so many big companies.
I decided to take charge of one of my father’s businesses. He objected to it initially but eventually allowed me to take charge of one of the arms of his numerous businesses, the importation of lubricants, KLEEN FLO Canada. I became a representative of the company in Nigeria under Ben-Flo and operated my transport business as well. The company is building a new Hotel in Lekki named De Benjamin Hotels Ltd and a Lubricant factory at Onitsha Harbour Industrial Estate, Ben Flo Oil & Gas Ltd, for the blending of the lubricants as a way the company can participate in growing the economy through job creation. The factory is supposed to be opened but the construction of the second Niger bridge disrupted our activities and affected the access road to our factory.
COMING FROM A VERY INFLUENTIAL FAMILY, YOU COULD HAVE GONE INTO ANY PROFESSION OF YOUR CHOICE. WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO RUNNING A BUSINESS?
I like the hustle and the uncertainty of it all. I can’t really describe the joy I derive from making profits, no matter how small. When I was in secondary school, Peter Obi, now former governor of Anambra State, was two years ahead of me and was already selling kerosene in bottles and later sold eggs; he would follow me to one of my father’s shops at Affa Street, off old market road, Onitsha. We used to help offload cartons of beer from trucks. After working, we received payment for the day and, when we got back to school, I derived joy and satisfaction from buying things with the money I had earned.
I also started visiting the workshop where my father’s trucks were repaired at Owerri Road, and in a week I made about 5 Naira. So I liked the fact that I earned the money I spent. I also learnt how to save money and you can only learn that if you can make money by yourself.
PEOPLE BELIEVE THAT ANIDS TRANSPORT WAS ESTABLISHED BY GOVERNMENT. AT WHAT POINT DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THAT BUSINESS?
Regardless of what people say, I am the founder of Ben-Flo Transport Company long before Peter Obi became governor. I approached him and informed him of my intention to use my transport company to market the then Anambra Integrated Development Strategy (ANIDS) with incentives from government. That was how everything started and we marketed the program throughout the nation and it was very effective.
COMPARED TO WHERE YOU WERE FROM THE BEGINNING, HOW FAR HAS THE TRANSPORT BUSINESS GROWN?
I started with a few number of buses and all of them were on lease. But as our operations progressed, we were making payments according to the terms of the lease. In 2008, the economy was relatively okay and I was loading at UNIZIK junction, Awka before I started setting up other terminals. When I finished paying back the lease for the first few buses, the company leased more buses to me. So sometimes I bought those buses, or they leased to me or I got loans from banks to finance their purchase.
Now, I have good number of buses. The bigger the business, the more challenging it is to be managed. Today, because of inflation and exchange rate fluctuations, spare parts bought at N5,000 is now N25,000. But then that is the nature of running a business in a country like Nigeria with no supporting structure and uncertain government policies. You can’t back out because of the challenges because it is not peculiar to you. It is just the nature of the environment we operate in, and there are other businesses that still thrive in this clime.
ARE YOU NOT WORRIED THAT THE TYPE OF TRANSPORTATION YOU OFFER IS BEING PHASED OUT BECAUSE OF THE ADVENT OF OTHER MODERN METHODS?
Human population is on the rise and it is not everybody that can afford to pay for a flight ticket. I remember when we used to pay N25 to enter a luxury bus to Lagos, but today it is N15,000 and some people can still not afford it.
WHAT PROGRAM DO YOU HAVE IN PLACE TO SENSITISE YOUR DRIVERS ON SAFETY?
I organize programs to train and retrain them often on the demands of their job using road safety personnel. That is in addition to holding meetings with them myself. You see all these motorcycle drivers and tricycle drivers, they don’t understand road safety and that’s why they can overtake you from the right side and it is wrong to overtake from the right side in any part of the world. In ANIDS/BEN-FLO, we have our maximum speed limit and once a driver exceeds that and the passengers call to complain, the driver loses the job immediately. All these are measures to keep passengers and the driver safe. We also minimise the number of luggage our buses carry because overload causes accidents. That is why we established the logistics section.
HOW DO YOU THINK GOVERNMENT CAN ENHANCE TRANSPORTATION IN NIGERIA?
First, they should embark on massive road constructions and then cut down the duty paid on new buses so that price of buses will go down, thereby reducing the amount passengers pay. For instance, I bought a bus of N22m last year and that was because of the duty and VAT paid. So how do you think I will charge you when you come to buy a ticket? Again, if the roads are constructed, it will drastically reduce the amount we spend on servicing our vehicles by over eighty percent. So they can help the transport sector by constructing durable roads and also by eradicating road blocks because it prolongs the journey.
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED AS A TRANSPORTER?
I have been involved with transportation since I was a kid and the most important thing I know is, never carry overload, ask your drivers not to over speed, be honest and maintain your buses. You must make sure that your drivers tell you the truth about the state of your buses so that you can service them when due. Again, I have learnt to be very patient and humble in life. For example, my friendship with Peter Obi has lasted for over 40 years but Peter was a very patient and honest businessman. In primary school, he sold kerosene and in secondary school, he sold eggs and most times I would personally drive him to Agbor to purchase eggs. He would always tell me that if he would be able to buy a Volvo and a pickup that would help to convey his crates of beer to customers and rent a flat at Omagba Phase 1, Onitsha, he was okay. He was honest in his business and very patient, that was why God took him far. At 26, Peter had built two houses in UK through selling of commodities and brand management. Peter was wealthy even before he became a governor and he was quiet about it. That is why people have to be patient wherever they find themselves.
YOUR COMPANY WON THE ANAMBRA TRANSPORT COMPANY OF THE YEAR 2020 AWARD. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
To be honest, it was a big shock. To achieve that feat within this short time of our operation is surprising. To be placed in the same category as Chisco, Young Shall Grow, GUO motors and other big transporters is something I least expected. I am still working to improve my company and also make my name a household name in the South East. It means that people are seeing what we are doing and I will try to work harder and do the best I can. I pray that God will give me the wisdom to maintain what we are doing and also help us do better. I thank God for everything.