Chief Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma, (Alas Innoson) is treading where many ordinary businessmen feared to tread and he is blazing a trail. Though not many gave him any chance of success in the highly capital intensive, sensitive, technical and technology-driven automobile industry, but he stayed steadfast to his dream. Today, his company is the flagship of indigenous auto manufacturing companies in the country. Perhaps, all of these would never have been but for the hand of fate that intervened to save his life. From the day he mysteriously “resurrected from dead” at the age of six after a ghastly motor accident, having been knocked down by a Morris Minor car and left for dead for over three hours, waiting to be buried. But, he suddenly regained consciousness on hearing a ‘’loud noise’’, to the relief of a distraught father. ‘He is still alive,’ came the shout of relief. Ever since, this child of destiny has continued to make louder noise through his entrepreneurial efforts. In this no holds barred interview, the indigenous auto king bared his mind on all issues raised. “Ask me any question, and I will answer you.” And he did, from the silly, the not so stupid amidst jokes in this exclusive interview with Kasie Abone
What does your recognition by the federal government as one if three distinguished Nigerians to be honoured with “Accomplished Contemporary Entrepreneurs” Award mean to you and your company given that there are myriads of other entrepreneurs that dot the land?
I feel very happy that my little efforts at industrialization have brought me such Honour and acclaim. I didn’t know that people are watching what I am doing in the villages towards economic growth and development of our country to the extent that the federal government has deemed me fit to be among those to be so honoured. It is a thing of great joy and we give God all the glory.
Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Limited (IVM) plant at Nnewi is a marvel, one is even more surprised that Innoson Technical Company, Enugu that such level of production activities are going on, could you share with us the Innoson Group story?
As you have visited our factories, I don’t have much to tell you because you have seen things yourself. You have seen us, interviewed us one by one, I feel you now know better than what anybody would tell you.
But for the interest of our readers, what is Innoson Group all about?
We are into motorcycle assembly, plastic manufacturing, we are into tyre manufacturing, motor component parts manufacturing; we have five factories all together and we have 7,200 people in our employ.
How did the Innoson story begin?
I started with trading on motorcycle spare parts at Nnewi. In 1984, due to difficulties associated with importation of spare parts, we were forced to source our products from china and Taiwan. When it became very expensive to import, I made enquiries from other importers and I found out that they were importing motorcycles in crates. Each crate contained 40 pieces of motorcycles in one container. By a careful study I found out that if I can dismantle the motorcycles, I can import more. So, with the experience gained from spare parts trading I was convinced I can assemble them. So, I packed 200 pieces in one container and automatically the freight charges dropped. This also brought down the cost of new motorcycle by 40 percent. At the time, demand for used motorcycle was in high as the cost of new ones was also out of reach. The first container took about three months to sell. The reason was that people were afraid that because they were assembled in Nigeria, they were of inferior quality. But by the time I brought in the second consignment of ten containers, we have customers confidence, in less than a month the stock sold out. The demand for new motorcycles soared while that for tokunbo continues to fall. Then I imported twenty containers, before the goods arrived, people had paid for them. I was the sole marketer of motorcycles at that time at Nnewi. Others were Boulous And CFAO. as the business progressed, I later established a plastic plant to support the motorcycle business. I discovered that motorcycle has many plastic components. That further reduced the price of motorcycles and made it more affordable. Others later joined me and the price reduced further. That is why today the price of new motorcycle range from between N50,000and N60,000.
It was the same inspiration to give our people opportunity to drive new cars instead of used ones that motivated me to go into auto making. Across the world, you will find out that Nigeria patronize used cars more than any other countries. When these western world finished using their vehicles, they dump them in Nigeria because there is market for them. Because of the revolution that I caused that changed the demand pattern of Nigerians in favour of new motorcycle, I believed that with the local manufacture of vehicles in Nigeria, soon tokunbo vehicles will become a thing of the past.
But what I found out is that the reason most Nigerians still patronize used cars is because imported ones are expensive due to high cost of import duties. That is why I started local manufacture of vehicles with the Innoson Vehicles Manufacturing Limited (IVM), Nnewi. With IVC, we want to replicate what we did in the motorcycle sector. I believe that with local manufacture of vehicles, the prices of new ones will be more affordable in Nigeria than used ones. With the implementation of the newly introduced federal government policy on the auto industry, I can assure you that in the near future, Nigeria will control auto business not only in Nigeria but the whole of Africa. I am confident that we will surpass expectations because whatever obtains overseas, we can replicate it here. So, local manufacture will be immensely beneficial to the generality of our people especially the common man because we will make the prices of these vehicles affordable and highly competitive. The quality will be such that can compare with global standards. Over all, there will be improvement in the economy as more jobs will be created to cater for the teeming unemployed Nigerian youths who roam the streets daily in search of non existent job openings. By April (2014) we will introduce a new range of vehicles into the market that will cater for the interest of the common man, the low income group. It will come in the model of Toyota Camry.
Unlike the products of other assembly plants, IVM is a totally Nigerian brand. What gave you the confidence it will succeed in a market notorious for its huge appetite for anything foreign irrespective of any quality considerations?
I believe that anything one does, as far as you do it very well, Nigerians will patronize you. What works for us at IVM is that I ensure that the quality of our vehicles is top of the line. Those who purchased our vehicles in the first year of its debut, were the ones who spread the good news to other customers. That is why IVM brand is the success story it is today. It is our customers that drive our business.
How old is IVM?
We started about five years ago with 14 seater buses. We later introduced 18 seater, 26 seater, 43 and city bus. Today, we manufacture SUV, Pick-Up; on April, we will be launching IVM Sedan cars into the market. The cars are currently undergoing test running. So, by April, it will be ready for the market. Everybody that buys it will surely enjoy it. It is the first car we are building and we want to make it a delight for every body in terms of affordability and durability. The cars come in two models. Both of them would be launched the same time.
Some people are of the view that IVM brand of vehicles are substandard and so can’t compare in terms of quality with foreign brands in terms of design and quality. Has anybody ever told you that? If yes, how do you respond to such insinuations?
The people who say this, do they use IVM vehicles? Before you criticize any product, you must have put it to test. It’s only the people that drive our vehicles that can tell you about them. IVM vehicles are manufactured to global standard, they are comparable to any other competing brands in quality and design. We don’t produce engines. We buy our engines from where others buy theirs; we buy flash sheets and other components from the same place others source their own and we use the same equipment to assemble them. Is it because IVM is made by a black man that it is not good? We go for training where others are trained. So, we have the same standard.
What percentage components of your inputs are locally sourced?
As of now, I am sure we source about 60 percent of our materials locally. Gradually we will improve on that. It can’t be automatic. Every year the amount if imported components continues to drop. Any one we can source locally, as far as it passes set standard, we don’t hesitate to do.
IVM vehicles seems more popular in the east than other parts of Nigeria, what is the brands level of patronage and acceptance? How much awareness have you created around the brand?
Nigerians have given IVM very good patronage. We receive orders from different parts of the country. And our customers are happy with what they are getting. Nigerians are happy and proud that such products are coming out of Nigeria and they are driving them. IVM markets also spreads beyond the shores of Nigeria into west coast countries like Ghana and other African countries. I have seen companies in Lagos that are using my vehicles to ply West coast routes. We started with producing 300 vehicles monthly. Due to increased demand, today we do 600 with a projection of 1,200 by year end.
With the new auto policy, do you think the local auto industry has the capacity to meet local demand as well as maintain affordable price regime?
I told you we started with 300 vehicles per month. It is as a result if the new auto policy that the demand for our vehicles has pushed up production to double what we used to produce currently and by end of the year we will hit 1,200. We have installed capacity to produce 5,000 vehicles monthly but we will get there gradually as more Nigerians continue to buy our vehicles. If we can produce 5,000 units of vehicles per month, and other companies do the same, we will definitely be able to satisfy local demands.
When eventually your Sedan cars are unveiled into the market, how competitive will the price be given that an average tokunbo car sakes for as low as one million Naira?
Those ones will challenge tokunbo cars. Instead of you buying tokunbo you will be compelled to buy IVM brand of sedan because they will be very affordable. The price difference won’t be much.
Why should I buy IVM vehicle?
Because it is from your country; you should be proud of what your country is producing. IVM brands are truly made in Nigerian brands. And this proudly Nigerian vehicles can challenge competition design for design, quality for quality and most importantly, they give you value for your money. You should be happy and proud to buy made in Nigeria.
I was at IVM Nnewi and from what u witnessed in the town, Nnewi seems to be home to industrialization and entrepreneurship. What is the magic about Nnewi people?
We, Nnewi started early to think about how to up our game. We are not just comfortable with just trading on products. Every Nnewi man thinks about how he can become a producer if that product he trades on, that is what drives the industry you see every where in the town. We want to take our businesses to the next level and localize them.
Was there any time you entertained fears that this your IVM project would not succeed?
Not at all. I had no fear at all. I have not done any business that failed. I do my research thoroughly before I go into any new venture.
What is your vision for the auto business?
My vision is for IVM to take over the auto business in not just Nigeria but Africa. We have the capacity to do it. We have the expertise to deliver a locally made but globally competitive auto brands. And we are working hard to make sure it happens. With the support and acceptance our brands enjoy so far in Nigerian market, we are confident we will lead African auto market.
How do you handle infrastructural challenges? How do they impact on your productive activities?
Infrastructure do not pose much challenges any more in Nigeria. When we started manufacturing the energy situation in the country was very poor. But today, the situation has drastically improved and it gets better each passing day. Thanks to president Goodluck Jonathan’s transformation agenda, the energy situation is improving. At Nnewi, the present government of governor Peter Obi is giving tremendous support to local businesses. For instance, the road leading to our factory is tarred. So also other access roads, that is why businesses are thriving in the state. He has also assured us that the road to our proposed site would be constructed to make assess to the factory easy. So, infrastructure is no longer a major problem.
What is the most uncomplimentary comment you have ever heard anybody make about your vehicle? How did you handle it?
Some people in the past expressed reservation over the quality of our vehicles because of their scepticism generally associated with made in Nigeria products. but the only assurance I gave to such people was to try and see things for themselves. The taste of the pudding is in the eating. It’s only when you sample a product that you can better assess that product. So far, the feedback has been overwhelming and we are encouraged. These positive endorsements have translated to higher demand for IVM vehicles.
Let’s talk about the man behind these success stories. Who is Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma?
My father was Mr. Godwin Chukwuma. My mother is Mrs. Martina Chukwuma. I am from Urum village, Nnewi. I have lived all my lives at Nnewi. I do my business at Nnewi. I have not left Nnewi for any other place. Up till now, Nnewi is still the headquarter of my chains of businesses. I started my business at Nnewi. I grew my business to what it is today at Nnewi. I came to Enugu because of the factory that I sited here. Nnewi remains my main base.
What was your parents background? We’re they business men too? Did inherit any wealth from them or you built this business empire by dint of hard work and self effort?
My father was a junior civil servant. My mother, a house wife. I did apprenticeship with one of my brothers. After acquiring enough business skills, my brother supported me to start my own business. He is my back bone till today.
What was your childhood fantasy, did you set out to be a business man?
We had dreams when we were students. While some of my classmates wanted to be lawyers or doctors, I fancied engineering. But when you fail to score the cut off mark for qualification for your course of choice, you have no option than to go do something else. So, I was unable to go to school and pursue my childhood dream of becoming an engineer. So, I ended up becoming a business man but today providence has taken me back to engineering through IVM.
At what point did you realize you had turned the corner in business
Success is a relative word. Up till today, I don’t see myself as a successful person because I have not attained my target yet. We are still working hard and by the grace of God, we will get there.
With all these awards you still have not seen yourself as a successful man? Ok, at what point did it dawn on you that you are no longer a poor man?
I believe that anybody who works hard would not be poor. If you are lazy, you will remain poor.
Tell us about pranks you played as a child. How many times were you caught in the act?
As a child my father loved me so much. He didn’t allow me do so many things other children did. When I was about six years old I was involved in a ghastly motor accident that nearly claimed my life. Because of that incident my father became over protective of me so that I don’t fall into harm again. The incident happened when one of my elder brothers held my hand and wanted to cross the road. Unfortunately, my toy wrist watch fell on the road. I immediately disengaged my hand and ran unto the road to pick it. At that instant, a Morris Minor car drove past and ran over me. The incident was so bad that I was taken for dead. I was covered with leaves and every other thing the sympathisers could lay their hands on. While my brother cried home to report the incident to my parents, the driver ran away. You know in those days the intervals between when two vehicles drive past was too long. After a long time, another vehicle, belonging to my father’s friend drove past. When he saw that I was “dead” he didn’t bother to take me to hospital. Instead, he went after the hit-and-run driver. When my father arrived the scene, he was persuaded to take me to the hospital for autopsy since it was a police case. But he refused and said he didn’t want trouble with anybody and that he would not allow them cut my body at the hospital. My father’s friend later cut up with the driver right at the spot where I have my office today at Nnewi. He took him to the police and got him locked up.
By the time he was through with the police and returned to the scene of the incident, it was well past three hours. With my father having his way to go and bury me without any incident, he then lifted me up to carry me home. It was at that moment that I made a very loud noise. I was alive. I was then rushed to the hospital where I remained for about five months. Because of the fatality of the accident, my whole body has stitches. Look at the one on my check (pointing at a big scare by the side of his mouth), the whole of my head and body is stitched. Because of that incident, my father thought that I was very fragile and should be protected. My teachers didn’t beat me in school because my father always got them to do his bidding by not beating me in school. My brothers too. Before my father passed on, he gathered my siblings and told them that the only thing they would do for him was to take good care of me. As soon as he finished giving them that charge, he breathed his last. That us why even my brothers today are also very protective of me. They would not allow me lack anything or get angry.
What about your mother?
She is still alive.
Does she also protect you?
Yes but not as much as my father.
You mean because of your fathers protection, you never did anything funny?
Yes. Because whatever my father told me, I listened and obeyed.
How did you meet your wife? Was it after you had become successful? Was it love at first sight?
When I decided to marry, I just saw her and decided she was ok for me. I approached her, approached her family and later married her.
What was the experience like being a father?
You know, I married very early. I married at the age of 24. That is why if you see my son today, he looks like my brother. I decided to marry early because I saw that life journey is very long. So, I decided to marry so that I can be focused, have a stable home and continue with what I was doing. Again I did not want to waste my youth.
You started business in 1981 ( cuts in)
Yes. And I married in 1984.
And you are the last child of your parents? I don’t get it. That was unlike a young man of your age.
Yes, I just decided.
Does it mean you didn’t like women or that women didn’t like you?
If I didn’t like women, how could I have married.
Young men in their prime like you then usually like to explore.
I know. I did not want to waste my youth, because of the type of advice my father gave me. I did not want to waste my youth. Wasting your youth is the worst that can happen to anybody.
Were your elder brothers married at the time?
Yes, all of them married early.
What type of people do you want around you? What do you value most in people?
I like people who are real and true to themselves and others. I like people who are who they say they are, transparent and honest.
What guides your daily actions and decisions?
I believe that whatever any man sows in life he will reap. If you do good, good will follow you. If you do bad, don’t expect to reap good. I am guided by the fact that there is an all seeing God who watches our every action.
Do like sports which do you play?
Yes, I play lawn tennis at least three times weekly.
How do you unwind and socialise?
I meet with people. I socialise. I do everything normal people do.
What makes you happy?
What makes me happy mostly now, is when I come out in the morning, I go to my factory and I see that everything is working well, that the workers are happy, I feel happy. I can then retire to my office to attend to other things.
What do you fear most?
Fear? I don’t fear anything.
What motivates you?
That was what I told you earlier. That I don’t even see myself as a successful person because I have not got to where I want to get in life. There are still many things I want to do that I have not done. Now, I am into auto making; when I am able to produce all the components that I need for my plants.
Given another chance to start all over again, tell us what would you change in the way you have lived your life?
That first decision I took about the way I have lived my life, to marry early, was the best thing that happened to me. I did not waste my youth. I started early in life to work hard. There is nothing to change about my life if I ever lived with my life.
How do you handle success and harem of women who are attracted to successful men
It depends on what you want. Women are women. If you want to follow a woman to her house and leave your business it’s up to you. There is time for women and there is time for business. The choice is yours. And of course, you are married; you don’t have to exert energy on such distractions to your business.
Have you ever been duped or swindled in a business transaction?
No. I have a specialized line of business that I am engaged in. I am into manufacturing of motor components, plastic products, tyres, motor vehicles. You cannot see my name in any other business outside these lines of businesses. Nobody can dupe you in an area you are versed in. You can only dupe me if I leave my line of business for an unfamiliar terrain. I know about what I do more than anybody else. What can you tell me about it to convince me to part with money? Except if I want to go into journalism, for instance. If you lead me into the ocean, I will enter because I have no expertise there. But in this my field? No way.
With these huge investments, how do you juggle work and family and still look so unruffled?
I have 7,200 people working for me. These workers are busier than I am. They do most of the work. They are very competent, committed, trusted and passionate about the work they do. My job is simply to supervise. It is only when there are challenges or certain issues that need my attention that I get involved.
You have received several honorary awards which one of these awards do you treasure more than the others?
I am always overwhelmed with surprise each time I receive these awards. The day I won African Business Man of the Year in London in 2012, I didn’t even know that I won. I was here in Nigeria and people were calling me from all over. I bought my ticket that day and travelled to London same day. I arrived London by 4 pm and the ceremony was by 6 pm. When I was called to make a speech I told them I was surprised I was not expecting such an honour. That I was surprised that my little efforts at industrialization is generating such global acclaim. I was not even prepared to deliver any speech. You see, when people recognise what you are doing and honour you like I have been honoured, you are encouraged to do more. I believe my best is yet to come.
Did it ever occur to you that the son of a lowly civil servant and house wife would some day dine and wine with presidents and who is who in the society?
Well, even the day we were with the president (Goodluck Jonathan) he said as far as he was able to get to where he is today, anybody can be whatever he aspires to become, that that position was prepared for him by God. So, it is God that did it for me. It was not by my own efforts. It was not my little efforts that made Innoson a household name in Nigeria today. It is not by my making. It is God. I can’t even know when I got to this level.
Innoson has grown into a very big brand but the man behind all the successes is hardly huge in stature instead we see a very simple jokes cracking unassuming personality. Are people always surprised encountering you for the first time?
I am very unassuming. Most people who have done businesses with Innoson don’t know me in person. Most people don’t know I am Innoson most places that I visit. Except there is an introduction or I make a speech you probably wont spot me in a crowd.
If you are found in a position of authority, what critical decision would you take that would affect you as a person and secondly as a business man?
If I have an opportunity to be involved in decision making, my policy thrust would favour the common man more because the poor man has nothing. Except if government formulates policies that would favour them, they probably would not live a good life. And when they don’t live a good life, the society would be worst for it. So, if quality health facilities are available and affordable, if their children can have access to free quality education the problem of this country would be half solved. The reason is that if these children are educated they would not be vulnerable to be used to commit all these atrocities against humanity. They would be empowered with enough knowledge to resist what is bad and the society will be safer, healthier and better for it. Last week, I received a call from SURE-P that they want to employ some people to work in my factories and that they will pay them. That was fantastic idea by the federal government. If they do that, it won’t take long, these people would acquire skills. Even if they stop paying their salaries, because they have acquired skill, we can absorb them.
Most of the workers at IVM Nnewi, Enugu, and your plastic factory, are local people, don’t you have expatriates?
When I started the IVM factory, I brought in experts to train our local staff. They are still undergoing training even now. We started with 70 foreigners. But today, 40 of them have gone remaining only 30. What has happened here is a transfer of technology to our people. I believe that in the near future, foreigners won’t be there anymore. Anything our people can do, we wont employ expatriates to do them. Our people are gradually displacing them as they acquire new skills.
Forecast for me where you want to take IVM in the next five years?
At IVM, we are building a globally competitive brand locally. Our vision is to become the leading auto brand in Africa. We have the expertise, the passion and all it takes to take over African market leadership.
How do you give back to society?
I do a lot for communities. There was an erosion menace that threatened to displace a lot of our people at Nnewi. We had to intervene without waiting for government. I spent huge sums of money to control the erosion. Though I did not have the fund at the time, I obtained credit facility from the bank. We have since paid off. I also built a faculty building at University of Nigeria, Enugu campus (UNEC). We built another one for Enugu State University of Technology (ESUTH), Anambra State University and Oko Polytechnic. Our philosophy is to contribute our quota in building Nigeria’s future leaders.
What advice would you give to potential entrepreneurs?
Work hard, be focused, be passionate about your goal. If you are true to your dream, you will succeed. There is no short cut to success. The key to unlock your potentials lies in hard work. THISDAY