Professor Chris Ogbechie earned a first class in Engineering at the University of Manchester where he studied on a Shell scholarship. He obtained a PhD in Business Administration from Brunel Business School in the United Kingdom. Professor Ogbechie was Chairman, Board of Directors, Diamond Bank Plc and is on the board of several private and public companies including; Red Star Express Plc (FedEx), National Salt Company of Nigeria Plc. (NASCON), Health Partners and Palton Morgan Holdings.
He is the author of “Strategic Marketing of Financial Services in Nigeria” and “Re-engineering the Nigerian Society through Social Marketing.” He the founding Director of the LBS Sustainability Centre and has been a visiting Professor at Strathmore Business School in Nairobi, Kenya and the University of Kigali, Kigali, Rwanda. He has advised many Nigerian, Ghanaian and Kenyan firms on marketing, strategy and corporate governance over the years and has been involved in building several start-ups.
I read Mechanical Engineering at the University of Manchester on a Shell Scholarship. Shell used to go all over the country identifying brilliant science students. They sent them abroad to study engineering courses and employed many of them after they returned to the country. I got the scholarship as I was finishing at Loyola College Ibadan. But I did not go to work for Shell. I moved on to Manchester Business School to do a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) right after my first degree.
What’s the biggest lesson you left university with?
Hard work never kills. If you want to succeed you have to work for it. If you want to make a first-class, you work for it. Yes, I know natural talent and intelligence matter, yet you still have to work hard to make the best of these gifts. Even if you are an intelligent person and you sleep all day and loaf around, you are not going to make a first-class. Hard work never kills.
Who was the biggest influence on you, your dad or mum?
My dad. He made me feel I could achieve whatever I set my sight on, that I should never give up. He did not go to university. He stopped after primary school and became a technician. He didn’t have the opportunity to go beyond that and he felt that we should aspire to be better than him, that his children should have the opportunity he didn’t have.
When did you leave home for good and what was the biggest lesson you took away into the world?
I left home for my A Levels and I never went back. I was in boarding school and when I got the Shell scholarship, they asked us to work for them while waiting to go to the university in England. I was living on my own while working for Shell at Freeman House Marina Lagos. The two things I took away from home are self-discipline and focus. You need self-discipline to thrive when you are no longer under the control or oversight of parents. You have to figure out the kind of life you have to live to get to where you are aspiring to. You also have to learn to stay the course, that is not to allow anything steer you away from what you want to achieve.
The Shell job was not really a job. It was more of keeping us busy before we left for England. We were attached to engineers who would ask us to do very minor things. I was fascinated nonetheless. What do these guys do? What have they learnt that has made them be in the position they were? I worked with a guy who was very good at engineering drawing. At that time nobody was using computers. It was in 1971. You got a lot of people using slide rules to do calculations. It was easy to say I am going to the university, I am only whiling away time here but I was curious and eager to learn. So I learnt never to give up any opportunity to learn new things or immerse myself in new experiences.
What influenced you to move from Engineering to study business administration?
The Engineering course in Manchester University was three years. We had a course advisor every year. In my first year I was very fortunate to have this Professor who really took an interest in me as course advisor. He arranged for me to do an internship with different engineering companies during every Easter break and the summer holiday. Right from my first year. By my second year, I had worked in five different companies. I was spending my holiday in the sixth company, the state-owned electricity monopoly, equivalent of Nigeria’s former National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) when something occurred to me. I looked at the people who ran these companies and realised they were not the engineers. Only one of the companies had an engineer as the managing director. The highest position the engineers attained was Chief Engineer and they were the oldest people in the management team. Why are the younger people who were not engineers at the helm of affairs? I decided to go to business school and learn about managing businesses.
“I looked at the people who ran these companies and realised they were not the engineers. Only one of the companies had an engineer as the managing director. The highest position the engineers attained was Chief Engineer and they were the oldest people in the management team”.
What was your experience of race relations studying and working in Britain in the 1970s?
Don’t forget in the 1970s we found ourselves being just a hand full of blacks in the university. In my set the only black people in the University of Manchester were the Shell scholars. There were four of us who came in at the same time and three people who had arrived ahead of us, one in the second year and two in the third year. We were all Nigerians. There were no black British or black people from other African countries. People were looking at us as if we were from a different planet. My first experience of discrimination was going to church and finding out I was the only one sitting in the pew. Nobody came to sit near me. But we turned this into fun. We would occupy the best seats and be left alone. It became a laughing matter for us. It was very easy to bear because we formed a close-knit group. The racism was subtle but it was there and we could see it. It was in the air and you could feel it and smell it. But also, sometimes, people were going out of there way to please us so they would not be seen as racist.
Who is your best boss ever?
My best boss ever is the guy who recruited me in Nestle. I was in Zerox as a product manager. I did not apply. We met somewhere and during the conversation he invited me to join Nestle. His name is Andreas Sheva, he was the marketing manager of Nestle then. The first thing he told me was that he was giving me a blank cheque-I want you to manage my number one brand Maggi, be innovative, be creative and move us to the next level. Maggi Cooking Cubes accounted for 60% of Nestle’s revenue at that time. Can you imagine a young manager being given that kind of opportunity to think and to do things? I worked with him for three years and it was an interesting relationship. It was not a boss-subordinate relationship; he related with me like a manager on the same level with him. He readily asked for my advice and took suggestions from me even for products I was not managing. He was responsible for other products but I was given the responsibility of managing the most important. He arranged for me to go to Malaysia in 1981 and work for two years as part of my development.
“When I went to Malaysia the American Dollar was worth less than the Naira. You got one Dollar for 60 Kobo. So my salary in Nigeria was by far more than the salary I was to be earning in Malaysia”.
Could you see anything in Malaysia then that showed you Malaysia was 0n the right development path compared to Nigeria?
I saw a lot. Plenty. When I went to Malaysia the American Dollar was worth less than the Naira. You got one Dollar for 60 Kobo. So my salary in Nigeria was by far more than the salary I was to be earning in Malaysia. Of course, they did not want to reduce my salary so half of it was being paid in Nigeria, the other half was being given to me in Malaysia. I was intrigued by Malaysia’s approach to economic policy and development. I could see a government being run by technocrats that went to the best schools in the world. This was a conscious effort of the then political leadership of Malaysia to send their best people to the best schools in the world and bring them back to work in the public sector. They had a clear plan for development which they rigorously pursued. For instance, to expand decent accommodation to more and more people, the government provided land and built the infrastructure modern communities required to thrive. The government then invited developers to build large estates. The government worked using mostly market discipline to create a system where banks provided workers long term mortgage loans to buy houses in these estates. So the developers were able to start repaying the banks the loans they got to build the estates once the houses were sold and moved to develop new estates. With this approach, Malaysia was able to provide modern housing for its people within a very short period. The country also had large shopping malls far back then. This broad-based, continuous progress is the result of visionary leadership and long-term planning.
“Emotional intelligence is very important. We want students to have communications skills, an aptitude for creative thinking and for strategic thinking. These skills are very important to success no matter the profession or business people are in.”
Can you name two or three things that you have learnt in your career that they don’t teach on MBA courses?
When I did my MBA things like ethics and emotional intelligence were not taught. Today, you get a heavy dose of business ethics if you come to the Lagos Business School for almost any programme. Having responsible managers is critical for sustainability. They also did not teach me resilience, the ability to take shocks, distrupion and bounce back. Emotional intelligence is very important. We want students to have communications skills, an aptitude for creative thinking and for strategic thinking. These skills are very important to success no matter the profession or business people are in.
What are the two things you prize the most when you are hiring people?
Good moral values and a good attitude. These are two important things I look for when interviewing people. A first class degree will open doors and get you a seat at interviews. But being someone who can do the work well and contribute to the longterm progress of an organisation calls for more. An highly educated and very brilliant person that has no values is a big problem for society; you may have produced only a highly sophisticated and intelligent crook.
Could you briefly compare the quality of Nigerian managerial talent now with what we had in the 1980s or the 1970s?
It would not be fair to make that comparison because the contexts are so different. The environment matters a lot. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were enormous opportunities, the economy was growing before it crashed with oil prices and we had to do a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). There were still more opportunities during SAP compared to now. Graduates could still get jobs. That’s not the case now. The level of unemployment is so high. Then you had people staying with companies for 20 years but now a manager is lucky to have people work with him or her for five years. Think of the changes that the high level of digitalization has brought to work and the office. The manager of today has to think of ways to manage people working from home, how to motivate and appraise them. The contexts are just so different.
“There is virtually no sphere of life or work today in which you don’t have Nigerians excelling all over the world. So if our economy is growing and we are looking for talents, we have a reserve bank of professionals abroad”.
Let’s assume a sudden all-round improvement in ecomomic policy unleashes a roboust round of sustained growth, would Nigeria find the managerial talent to manage this good fortune?
We experienced this scenario during the Obasanjo era when Okonjo-Iweala was our finance minister. Nigerians in the diaspora were sending cvs home. So many people relocated. There is virtually no sphere of life or work today in which you don’t have Nigerians excelling all over the world. So if our economy is growing and we are looking for talents, we have a reserve bank of professionals abroad. There are more Nigerian doctors outside Nigeria than in Nigeria. Today our biggest export is human capital. Canada, USA, UK Australia are taking our people. If our economy is growing they will comeback. Our biggest asset today is human capital and a big part of the capacity is outside the country. Our professionals are on loan to these countries. Once the economy starts growing strongly again, they will start sending their cvs instead of sending dollars to us. The trend of emigration of professionals will be reversed.
What sort of books do you like reading?
I teach in a business school so I mainly read management books. But I also read autobiographies of successful leaders from either the business world or in the social space or the public sector space.
What book are you reading now?
I am reading two books and an ebook. One is the Handbook of Board Governance, a collection edited by Richard Leblanc. The second book is The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg. It’s about how our habits shape who we are and trigger changes in us. The ebook I am reading is A Promised Land by Barack Obama.
What single biggest change do you think could improve the quality of university education in Nigeria?
Less government interference. There is a world of difference between private schools and public schools and the difference is government interference. When you have governments appointing Vice-Chancellors, they are loyal to the people who appointed them rather than to the university. But if you allow the university system to appoint the the VC, he or she would be accountable to them. If he doesn’t do his job they kick him out. Why do you think CEOs of private companies do well? The possibility of dismissal is an important spur for performance.
At a national level, what is the biggest policy change that could make the masses of Nigerians richer?
Making agriculture more productive. We have 40% more arable land than Thailand but we import rice from them. We need to turn this around, improve the yield per hectare, improve the quality of lives of farmers.
What’s the best use of money there is? Personal, not government funds.
Helping people. How many houses are you going to live in? How many beds are you going to sleep in? The older you become the less you eat. Your appetite shrinks. How can you feel happy going to bed overfed knowing fully well somebody down the road has not eaten something for two days? How can we be our brother’s keeper? The best use of money is definitely not the very expensive wristwatch. By the way, with mobile telephones, who uses a wristwatch to check the time these days?
“You cannot be a Christian on Sunday in church and somebody else on Monday in the office unless you are bipolar”.
Given your experience in life and the ethical values you hold, what is your advice to Nigerians struggling to reconcile their religious faith to how business is done in Nigeria?
Christians should think about why they are called Christians. A Christian is a follower of Christ. It was in Antioch that all those who were following the way of Christ were first called Christians. Being a Christian means you want to live your life the way Christ did. If you want to understand Christ read your bible and if you are going to practise Christianity, you have bring the ways of Christ into whatever you are doing. You cannot be a Christian on Sunday in church and somebody else on Monday in the office unless you are bipolar. That unity of life must be there and your actions must always show the true you. You cannot ask people to become Christians by just telling them. They must see it in you. How you live your life should actually be the bible that they read. Look at the number of churches and then look at the country’s corruption index. We are one of the worst in the world. The Catholic Church has a social doctrine and anybody who calls himself a Catholic and is running a business must apply the doctrine. You cannot have people working for you and pay them a miserable salary. Paying fair wages that enable people live in dignity is being a good Christian.