Enduring business ethics Michael Ibru taught the world
The transition, yesterday, of Olorogun Michael Christopher Onajirevbe Ibru at the ripe age of 85 has certainly created a big vacuum, but his footprints especially in business world will continue to serve as source of inspiration for many years to come. He would have clocked 86 by December 25, 2016.
As the patriarch of the Ibru dynasty, the late Ibru, through his entrepreneurial skill and engagement, popularized the concept of ‘social good’ what is today known, in business world, as corporate social responsibility.
Indeed, this concept became the secret behind the phenomenal transformation of Ibru Organisation from a small sole-trade undertaking to the enviable status of the renowned international conglomerate. Established in 1956, the orgnisation maintains, till date, its conglomerate status with diverse areas of business engagements.
This mission of contract with society became synonym with the organisation early in its formation, and by the time it clocked 25 in 1981, its significant contribution to public good became raison d etre for the silver-jubilee celebration.
In a newspaper advertorial published on December 10, 1981, the company had said, “Quite early in its formation, IBRU recognized the fact that Nigerian society needed more from business enterprises than solely business. To this end, the Organisation deliberately sets out objectives the realization of which had to reckon with society as the centerpiece of the Organisation’s total efforts. Thus, rather than market the more familiar and fashionable goods of its time, IBRU painstakingly scanned its environment for areas of real social need and deprivation. Protein deficiency, arising out of the prevalent short-supply of protein foods and their resultant high prices, offered an irresistible opportunity for blending a burning business urge with a gasping social void.
“And, so, the frozen fish industry was introduced into Nigeria with neither infrastructural support nor local manpower experienced in frozen food marketing. Yet the missionary zeal to contribute to the advancement of the Nigerian society and the personal commitment of Chief Michael Ibru to social cause enable the Organisation to persist.
“Making extensive use of its adaptive capacity, the Organisation opted to many traditional selling techniques with modern cold food merchandising. The result was a unique ‘market women’ system which had since come to stay not only in IBRU but in the entire frozen fish industry. The immediate outcome of that innovation was the creation of gainful employment opportunities for women in Lagos and other parts of the country. Today, the organization can rightly derive joy for not only pioneering the frozen fish industry in the country but also, and more importantly, for contributing in no little measure to meeting the protein requirements of this nation….”
Seven years later, on August 14, 1988 precisely, also in a newspaper interview, the brainbox of the organization, Michael Ibru unearthed how the story began:
“Way back in 1956, I set out an adventure which, looking back now I can only describe as an urge, perhaps even a calling. A calling because at that time I had a good job, good money and bright prospects with one of the largest multinational companies around.
“My first foray into the business world was to engage in general merchandise: import and export. After one year in the business world, I took stock. I had lost almost all my capital. In return for this I gained – experience – a greater fighting spirit – and friends who believed in me.
“I reappraised the whole situation and decided to concentrate my efforts in two areas: (1) those items least popular among the merchants of the time. (2) Those things giving certain sociological or health benefits for the people. That’s how I came into the fishing business.
“It was underdeveloped, complicated, of messy nature, and offered little or no attraction to the then giant European trading houses nor did it attract the Nigerian merchant; so it met my first criterion.
“There was a large number of Nigerian children who lacked the appropriate quantity of protein in their diets and you know how that manifests itself. And so I thought of a way to combat this. Fish was a source of cheap animal protein but fish sold at the average price of the equivalent of 4 shillings (say 42 U.S. cents) per pound at that time.
“Bear in mind that the average daily worker earned 4 shillings 8 pence (say 50 U.S. cents) per day then. Meat was even expensive than fish. It meant that the average daily worker could not afford a pound of wholesome protein for his family.
“So the thing to do was to harvest the fish from the sea and get the fish to the people at the cheapest possible price. With God’s guidance and men’s counsel, I examined several ways to bring my vision to realization.
“I derived considerable strength from the conviction that I had found the right slot and was determined to get into it. I examined all kinds of ways of bringing fish cheaply to the people. That was the key phrase: ‘Cheaply to the people.’ We examined canning but that was no good – too expensive. Drying (chemical and mechanical) all ended up too expensive. So, we settled for the ordinary freezing process – wholesome and cheap.
“We pegged our idea at about eight American cents per pound i.e. no more than 20 per cent of a worker’s daily wage. The price was not the only problem to overcome; our problems had just started. The Nigerian society is a rather conservative one in many respects. Frozen fish must of necessity be stored in cold stores; but there were hardly any cold stores around.
“The average Nigerian at that time associated cold stores with mortuaries and by extension regarded frozen fish as fish coming out of the mortuaries. You can imagine the surprise on the faces of onlookers when on opening a carton of fish from the cold store, there was a huge ‘cloud of steam’. Actually, it was not steam but the result of condensation although the average person thought that it was steam; and so frozen fish was taboo.
“As can be imagined, meat sellers whose business appeared to be threatened jumped on the bandwagon and helped to propagate very negative things about frozen fish. They nicknamed it ‘Oku eko’ and rumoured that it sucked human blood. Of course, we had to fight against this vicious propaganda by embarking upon a mass education programme.
“We countered the ugly comments. We demonstrated. We held processions. We advertised with such catchy slogans as ‘Soko yo koto, Eja Ibru’. We taught people how to smoke fish. We went to market-places. We were up at four in the morning distributing fish among market women who smoked them and we put on a bit of salt and oil. There was beginning to be a slight positive reaction.
“Meanwhile, we had to review carefully all the forces available to us for mounting a successful crusade; for a crusade it had to become. We found a vital and formidable rallying force in Nigerian market women. We mobilized that group.
“Gradually, we succeeded not only in dismantling the ugly and detrimental propaganda, but in popularising frozen fish which helped in no small measure reducing the animal deficiency which the various majority of Nigerians were suffering from.
The struggle continues however, although the battle is now being fought on a higher plane.
“What ingredients for thought can we find in this story? Firstly, there was an opportunity that was not allowed to slip by. Secondly, there was hard work, and diligence; there was a firm resolve and conviction; there was perseverance and a strong determination to succeed…”
Indeed, all these points have, so far, been propounded by business schools as management principles of growing businesses from grass to grace.