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Olorogun (Dr.) Michael Christopher Onajirevbe Ibru, OFR

Chairman, Michael & Cecilia Foundation (MCF)

 

Uncommon Pioneer

OLOROGUN (DR.) MICHAEL CHRISTOPHER ONAJIREVBE IBRU, OFR, is an entrepreneur of no mean feat. At the age of 24, he took the bold step to register Laibru, a trading company which he formed in partnership with Jimmy Large, an expatriate he met in the course of his duties at UAC. Within a short period, Laibru grew to become a conglomerate of about 25 companies, reportedly the largest indigenous conglomerate in Africa. This is the story of an Octogenarian, who after seven years of withdrawing from active business, lives on to relish the labour of his youthful age.

 

He is the patriarch of the IBRU family and first among seven children of the late Pa EPETE IBRU, a missionary worker, who also was a Nursing Superintendent at Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital and late Madam JANET OMOTOGOR IBRU, a fish trader who traversed the creeks of the Niger Delta to transact business just to make ends meet for her family.


Childhood

OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU, once described by his children and grandchildren as a pillar of strength, a visionary guiding hand, a moulder of character, an educator, a lover of children especially the family, a humanitarian per excellence, a philanthropist without recompense, a grassroots organiser and community leader, and a true patriot without equal, was also described by one among his Urhobo clan, a poet-musician, as the Mungo Park who opened channels of riches and investment for Africans. MICHAEL IBRU, who some close allies believe was born great, truly began to exhibit signs of greatness from his childhood days. Going by a story told about him by his immediate younger brother, theSenator FELIX IBRU, the first civilian governor of Delta State and also one time senator representing Delta Central senatorial district in the National Assembly, OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU was obviously destined for greatness, given his inborn tendencies to want to find out everything about anything. late Felix recalled with amusement, a peculiar childhood experience he had with MICHAEL in the company of his mother, when a wealthy maternal uncle, Ovedje Osadjere, asked his young nephews whatever they would want him to do for them. MICHAEL, Felix disclosed, rushed forward, and rather than ask for material gifts that would be of immediate help to the struggling family then, he simply took permission from his uncle to pluck some cocoa pods from his farm. The purpose for the request according to Felix was for MICHAEL to carry out an experiment with the liquid from the pods to see if he could brew some drink from them. Ovedje was stunned by the request and granted his nephew’s request but MICHAEL’s mother who stood transfixed was not amused at all by her first child’s request. Such curiosity pushed MICHAEL IBRU to uncommon heights.


Education and Career / Work Experience

MICHAEL IBRU  Olorogun Mid Age attended the famous Igbobi College, Lagos between 1948 and 1951. During the period, he not only distinguished himself in academics, he also excelled in extracurricular activities such that in his last year in school, he was appointed the senior prefect, a position usually reserved for the best students with leadership traits. The ingenuity of OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU manifested itself for the first time at Igbobi College in 1948 when he moved up meteorically to Secondary Class II straight from the Elementary School without the usual preamble. In 1951, his fourth year, on a study that normally lasted six years, he passed the Cambridge School Certificate Examination with resounding distinction in Division One.

 

Following the same rare path that is meant only for exceptional people, MICHAEL IBRU, directly after leaving Igbobi College, secured a job in the United African Company (now UACN), as a manager- in training. There again, this gifted man, MICHAEL IBRU, set another pace for his peers, for he was one of the very few fresh school leavers to be so appointed to posts of responsibility by the UACN. Between 1951 and 1956 when he worked with the United Africa Company, a trading consortium that once bore the name of Royal Niger Company, IBRU had an intense internship that effectively prepared him for the bigger world of entrepreneurship.

 

 

Decision of Destiny: Giant Stride

In 1956, a few years after joining U.A.C, he resigned from the company and at the age of 24, the young MICHAEL formed Laibru, in partnership with an expatriate, Jimmy Large, whom they both worked at UAC. After engaging in successful general trading, in 1957, MICHAEL IBRU discovered that the frozen fish market was a fertile market with the potential to deliver returns above the market rate. However, it was a tough market to penetrate, at that time, as many expatriate firms and Nigerian traders were lacking and some were not interested in the market.


Businesses

Where other older Nigerian commercial capitalists were faithful to ready-made products, principally importing industrial goods from the United Kingdom, IBRU was far more daring in prospecting for new products to sell. His greatest commercial innovation was the production and marketing of frozen fish. hence IBRU ventured where no other Nigerian had dared. In the 1950s, frozen fish (once unsuccessfully pushed by the foreign-owned West African Fisheries and Cold Stores) had a poor reputation in Nigeria. When IBRU introduced frozen fish in 1957, its detractors, including meat sellers, labelled it “mortuary” fish. He waged a vigorous campaign that successfully persuaded the whole nation that frozen fish was good, establishing over 350 distribution depots throughout Nigeria.

Indeed, in the early 50s, the Commonwealth Development Corporation, had attempted to establish a fishing venture in the Nigerian waters with cold-storage facilities and a distribution operation through the West African Fisheries and Cold Store but failed because fish stocks were reportedly insufficient off Port-Harcourt and the boats were inappropriate, coupled with marketing and distribution challenges.
Noticing that fish held little attraction for the European trading houses but despite the challenges, MICHAEL IBRU felt he could put extra effort communicating with general traders, who played key roles in products acceptance. His early involvement with the Swiss and Liberian partners was unsuccessful. But determined to succeed in this business, MICHAEL formed the IBRU Sea Foods, an importing company solely owned by himself. He rented cold-storage facilities at the Ijora Wharf in Lagos from the UAC, using the facility at night and traded from the back of a Land Rover. Later, he built his cold storage facilities first at 33 Creek Road, Apapa. By the mid-1960s, fish trading had become the traditional money maker for the IBRU organization. Though he had other profitable interests such as transportation and construction, fish trading helped him secure financing and other forms of capital to engage in large scale trading.


Philanthropic Deeds and Educational Support

Out of his love for knowledge, OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU donated a college – Abraham College which was later re-named IBRU College, to his people. Besides, the trail blazer of the IBRU dynasty, MICHAEL, at different times, donated classroom blocks, vehicles and money to various educational institutions and charity organisations; awarded several scholarships to deserving Nigerian students in secondOlorogun: Distinguished Enterpreneurary schools and institutions of higher learning both in Nigeria and abroad, and sponsored various sporting activities in order to ensure an even development of the mind, soul and body. Besides education, Olorogun MICHAEL is touted among his people to be a major pillar in the economic empowerment of the Urhobo nation. This is how a very familiar source who wants to be anonymous described MICHAEL’s contribution in this vital aspect of human existence. “Urhobo men and women have profited at many levels since the rise of the IBRU brand in the second half of the 1950s. First, Urhobo market women were among the first batch of Nigerians to embrace the “IBRU” frozen fish. Many of them rose from relative poverty to higher economic brackets because they participated in the new IBRU ventures from market stalls”.

Among the educated, he mentored professionals that rose to become financially independent in their chosen fields of endeavour. Incidentally, most of these Urhobo indigenes at one time or the other worked within the vast conglomerate of the OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU. “There were more direct beneficiaries from MICHAEL IBRU’s openness to his Urhobo people. These were the many Urhobo professionals who joined the IBRU organization. Many of them left the IBRU organization to pursue their own independent dreams constructed with the aid of ambitions conceived in the IBRU organization. A full list of Urhobo professionals who worked and prospered in the IBRU organization will fill many pages. Notable among them are Robin Imishue, Sam Okudu (half-Ijaw, half-Urhobo), Albert Egoh, Patrick Okitiakpe, Wilson Nakpodia, etc. Perhaps another effective way of representing the scope of these benefits is to say that all twentytwo sub-cultures of Urhoboland were (and still are) represented in the IBRU organization”, our source disclosed.

Meanwhile, investigations carried out by Business Courage on the impact of MICHAEL IBRU on his people reveal that the Urhobo have a more particular reason for admiring MICHAEL IBRU. This is because well up to the 1950s, the image of the Urhobo was not among the best in the Nigerian nation. With the accomplishments and competence of MICHAEL IBRU especially, as well as the achievements of other giants of Nigerian commerce and economics as David Dafinone and Gamaliel Onosode, the Urhobo image has been strengthened in many ways. For that, the Urhobo have embraced MICHAEL IBRU as a historic figure.

There is more in the love bonds between the Urhobo people and MICHAEL IBRUMICHAEL IBRU himself embraced the Urhobo culture and Urhobo cultural organizations, especially Urhobo Progress Union, in a manner that pleases the Urhobo people. It is MICHAEL IBRU who popularized the use of the title “Olorogun” in place of “Chief.” There is however an attribute that has been widely linked to MICHAEL IBRU’s multifarious successes. It is the abundance of his trust in his parents, siblings, children, wives, fellow Urhobo men and women, and indeed fellow Nigerians. This, indeed, is a rare attribute in an environment where many successful businessmen and women are deemed self-centred and are fearful of including others – even in their families – in their business plans. What is fascinating and remarkable about MICHAEL IBRU is that he was never afraid to share successes with others. His faith in others enabled him to bring in trusted siblings and others to share in running major segments of the IBRU organization.


Outstanding Enterpreneur
In 1963, MICHAEL IBRU chartered his first fishing vessel from Taiyo Gyogo of Japan and two years after, in 1965 he founded the Osadjere Fishing Company in partnership with a Japanese Conglomerate, one of the largest fishing companies in the world. The company began with three long-distance freezer trawlers. Taiyo Gyogo held 30 percent of the equity and provided the management for deep sea trawlers and shrimpers. Olorogun Michael: Outstanding Enterpreneur At a point, the company experienced considerable difficulties as at a time, it had to cease operation until 1974, when it was re-organised with a fleet of between eight and 25 trawlers.

By the end of the 1960s, MICHAEL IBRU had branched out fully into other areas of the economy. In 1969, a transportation company, called Rutam was acquired as another major arm of his business as it engaged in marketing and distribution of Mazda, Saviem, Tata and Jeep brands of automobiles. At a time, Rutam was appointed by the Federal Government, as the major distributor of Peugeot brand of vehicles in the country. In 1965, MICHAEL IBRU started a large palm-oil plantation Aden Farm in the old Bendel State as well as a citrus and pine-apple farm on a 800-hectares site, which for some time, supplied the Lafia Cannery in Ibadan, Oyo State. He acquired the Mitchell Farm in 1973 and at the time, the farm was the largest producer of dayold chicks and processed poultry in West Africa. The company was acquired from the American owners Alizar who had established the farm in 1963.

By 1974, MICHAEL IBRU extended his business adventure with the acquisition of Nigerian Hardwoods, a logging and sawmilling and wood processing company Ubiaroku, at a low price from the Lathem Group, UK. The firm was originally established in 1919 and exported hard wood logs. OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU’s early success in business can however be attributed to the assistance he received from his family. Felix himself served as part-time clerk for Laibru, while his mother in her early life was a long-distance trader in the creeks of the Niger Delta where familiarity with fish was a necessity. Her prowess in the pricing of the new “IBRU” frozen fish was invaluable. Perhaps, the unsung hero in the initial push to huge success by the eldest of the IBRU family was their austere father, Epete IBRU, who ensured that MICHAEL’s monies were safeguarded in a vault over which this patriarch kept watch. In the end, the inclusion of MICHAEL IBRU’s siblings, wives, children and associates in the management of the companies of the IBRU organization is seen as a move that has greatly enriched the totality of the IBRU clan.


Awards and Recognition

MICHAEL’s contribution to the well-being of humanity has not gone unnoticed as he has been honoured both locally and internationally. Olorogun Michael: Award In full recognition of his dedicated service to the cause of education and his vast capacity and willingness to continued sponsorship of that cause, the former Midwest State government appointed OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU member of the Provisional Council of the University of Benin in 1975. And for his business enterprise beyond the shores of Nigeria, he was also appointed Member of the Economic Cabinet Committee of the former Midwest State of Nigeria. This was aside from being a member of the African Development Bank President’s Round Table of Businessmen in Africa.

 

Olorogun IBRU was also a member of the Business Advisory Council of the International Finance Corporation (IFC). His exploits in the field of business have also afforded him the opportunity to serve as Council member of the following bodies: Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Nigeria-United States Business Council.
His efforts at developing the economic landscape of Nigeria and stemming the tide of poverty have not gone unnoticed, as he has a deluge of recognitions and awards for his enterprise. Among the awards are: Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) in 1981; Outstanding Businessman Award of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1983; Honorary Doctor of Laws (Hon. LL.D.) of the University of Benin (1978) and University of Ibadan (1978), Doctor of Agriculture (Honoraries Causa), University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, 2004. In addition, Olorogun in 2003 won the Zik Prize in Leadership and in 2005; he received the prestigious Dr. Kwame Nkrumah
Excellence in Enterprise Award

From whichever perspectives one sees OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU, it is glaring that the mogul is indeed a great man with a very large heart. As for the Urhobo, it is fair to say that in their cultural imagination, OLOROGUN MICHAEL IBRU stands alongside Mukoro Mowoe in the pantheon of Urhobo heroes.