Chief Michael Ade Ojo

You must by now be familiar with the run-of-the-mill, rags-to-riches stories of a good number of rich men and women. Such stories serve as inspiration to those who may find themselves in no-to-so-comfortable situations today, who may be frustrated enough to think that life has come to an end. They serve as a reminder that where you end is not necessarily determined by where you begin.

Chief Michael Ade Ojo’s story of fame and fortune is not really a rags-to-riches narrative. But it is a study in risk-taking, focus and determination, three of the attributes anybody who hopes to succeed in the uncertain world of business must have.

As a young man in a promising job, he demonstrated willingness and ability to stroll where others would normally fear to tread, even if it meant calling the bluff of his employers and walking out of the job in a dramatic manner that caused consternation among family and friends. But that is the stuff he is made of, and that is the character trait that has propelled his rise to prominence.

Ojo wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, which was why, like most kids of his time (as it is today), he hawked on the streets, selling charcoal, firewood and food to contribute to the family income.

His determination to break barriers and overcome adverse circumstances has accounted for his meteoric rise to the top echelon of the Nigerian society, such that today, his name rings a bell as an entrepreneur of great repute and an educationist, within and outside the country – with a national honour, to boot.

Early days

Ojo was born on June 14, 1938 to the family of Chief Solomon Ojo of the Lamilohun Lisa Chieftaincy House and Chief (Mrs.) Beatrice Ademolawe Ojo, at Ilara-Mokin, in Ondo State.

When he secured admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to study Business Administration, life in the business world was the farthest thing from his mind. In those days business was considered the only vocation for school drop-outs, since the understanding then, highly flawed, though, was that one did not need education to succeed in business. People sought university education in order to work in the civil service or multinational corporations such as UAC, Lever Brothers, John Holt, Shell, British Petroleum (BP), Mobil, etc, which explained why university graduates were so much in demand they got appointment letters even before writing their final degree examinations.

For Ojo, the certainty of a promising career in a multinational organization lay in the fact that the last two years of his university education were sponsored by CFAO, a notable name in the sale of motor vehicles. That was where he worked after graduation in 1965 learning, for two years, the ropes in auto sales. The employment was on a contract basis, and at the expiration of the contract, he decided to look elsewhere, rather than renew it.

The decision to leave CFAO was a product of circumstance, and brought out in him a man that does not suffer injustice. In a single transaction, he had sold 20 trucks to the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, but watched in utter dismay as his manager took credit for the sale.

He joined the Federal Inland Revenue Service as a tax inspector upon leaving CFAO, a job that made him feel like a fish out of water, since he couldn’t cope with the boredom of having to stay in the office to treat one or two files in a whole day.

But every disappointment is a blessing, as the time-worn adage says. As a tax inspector, he interacted with officials who were insured through their tax returns. This enabled him to know executives that were not insured, a development that ignited in him an interest in insurance. All he did was copy their names and go after them, to talk to them on the need to take up insurance policies. That signaled his brief foray into insurance.

Ojo later joined BP as a sales representative, and performed so well he caught the attention of his superiors in no time. But another act he considered an injustice, which reminded him of his experience at CFAO, forced him to do a rethink about paid employment.

He had been sent to Benin in 1970 to relieve somebody who was away on official duty for a period of three months. Ojo acquitted himself creditably, even better than the man he relieved, so much that the staff at the Benin depot and petrol dealers petitioned the company’s headquarters in Lagos to allow him remain there on a permanent basis. The petition didn’t yield the desired result, as he was asked to return to Lagos upon assumption of the substantive representative.

Three months later, the man in Benin who joined the company with a secondary school certificate but rose through the ranks, was promoted and made Ojo’s boss, much to the latter’s discomfiture and anger, considering his superiority in educational attainment and job performance. He made up his mind it was time to leave.

The big break came for Ojo during his vacation, when R. T. Briscoe, the sole distributor of Toyota cars Nigeria, hired him as a freelance salesman. He sold 40 cars in four weeks, serving notice that a new kid had, indeed, arrived at the block. He outperformed the rest of the sales team, thanks to his educational qualification that gave him the boldness to enter offices that his school certificate colleagues were afraid to go near. He could even look permanent secretaries and other top government officials in the eye to discuss business, something his colleagues, who mingled mostly with junior staff, could not do.

The commission he earned from selling 40 cars for R. T. Briscoe, at two and half per cent per car, was more than his annual salary at BP, and was enough impetus for him to quit the job. He told his flummoxed employers that he was quitting to serve himself, without telling them how. The decision to leave an otherwise well paid job for the uncertainty of self employment left even his wife and friends wondering what had taken hold of him. But Ojo was focused. He saw what others could not see.

Enter Elizade

Ojo had registered a company called Elizade Trading Stores (a name coined from the first three letters of his wife’s name, Elizabeth and his name, Ade), as far back as 1968 while still in employment. The company came in handy when the opportunity to enter the world of business beckoned.

He started out as a freelance salesman for R. T. Briscoe, on a commission basis. In an effort to expand the business, he approached a bank for a loan of 600 pounds, but could not pursue it further when the bank asked for collateral in the same amount. If he had the money in the first place, there would be no need for the loan, he told the bank. He said he had his brain, but the bank told him it did not accept brain as collateral. Ojo was eventually bailed out by a cousin who offered him the loan, which he was able to repay within three months.

Ojo was able to raise 2,000 pounds from earnings and savings to pay for a flat at 71 Awolowo Way, Ikeja, which served as his office and residence. With the issue of accommodation settled, the next challenge was how to raise money to buy the first car for display in his showroom.

He secured another job to freelance for a branch of CFAO that dealt in heavy-duty trucks, in addition to working for R. T. Briscoe. And with the money he made from the two companies, he was able to buy two cars for display in his showroom.

Spurred by his phenomenal success in the car business, Ojo acquired the license to import Toyota cars into Nigeria, under the name of the company, Toyota Nigeria Limited. Indeed, he is credited with singlehandedly popularizing the Toyota brand in Nigeria, such that he was given the sobriquet of “Mr. Toyota”.

He went on to acquire controlling shares in R. T. Briscoe, with 74 per cent stake.

Today, Elizade Trading Stores that commenced operations with one staff in 1971 and is today known as Elizade Nigeria Limited, has grown into an octopus with tentacles in many sectors, with companies such as Toyota Nigeria Limited, R. T. Briscoe Nigeria, Crown and Gold Shipping Company Limited, Odua Creations Limited, Crown Motors Nigeria Limited, Classic Motors Nigeria Limited and Okin Travels Limited, among others.

Ojo sits on the boards of several blue chip companies that include First Monument Bank Plc, Ecobank, SMT Nigeria Limited (official distributors of Mack and Volvo trucks, as well as Volvo Construction Equipment), Eterna Oil and Gas Plc; chairman of Baun Limited, Imperial Telecommunications Limited, Crown Drinks Limited, Courtville Investments Plc, Custodian and Allied Insurance Plc, as well as Moorhouse Sofitel Company Limited.

Foray into education

Ojo understands the value of education in today’s world. Looking back at the innumerable doors education opened for after graduation, he has spent enormous resources to ensure others receive education. He set up the Ade Ojo Scholarship Scheme in 1991 for students in the university. At the last count, more than 100 students have benefitted from the scheme.

But in spite of his phenomenal success in the world of business, one achievement Ojo considers his most outstanding is the establishment of Elizade University in his home town of Ilara-Mokin, in Ondo State. The university is a student-centred institution, with emphasis on best practices in the delivery of teaching and community services.

He had initially conceived the idea to establish a polytechnic to the address the dearth of skilled manpower and entrepreneurial skills in the country, but changed his mind due to the federal government’s ambivalence on the status of polytechnic graduates in the country.

The establishment of Elizade University is a fulfillment of Ojo’s lifelong dream to offer as many people as possible access to quality education that would make them competitive in any part of the world.

Personal education

For the Ilara-Mokin chief who is also a knight, education is a lifelong endeavour that shouldn’t have age limitations. This explains his continuous search for education, even as a septuagenarian. Despite his success in business, he creates time to return to the classroom to update his knowledge on contemporary world issues, especially those that would enable him to expand his frontiers. He has attended the IESE/LBS Executive Seminar on Competitive Strategy and Value Creation in Barcelona, Spain, as well as the Chief Executive Programme of the Lagos Business School.

Awards and honours

The adage that says honour should be given to whom honour is due applies generously to Ade Ojo. He is one prophet that has been deservedly honoured both within and outside his community, up to the national level. The list of his awards and recognitions is reflective of the areas he has distinguished himself in the service to humanity.

His awards in the business sector include Marketing Achievement Award from Toyota Motor Corporation, Japan (1990/1992); Best Parts Improvement Award from Toyota Motor Corporation, Japan (1994); Best Motor Dealer of the Year from Right N. Wheeler (1990/1991); The Four Topmost Awards of Toyota Nigeria Limited (Most Improved Dealer Award, Highest Unit sales Award – Category A, Most Committed Dealer Award and Best After Sales Delivery Award – 2005) and Two Topmost Awards of Toyota Nigeria Limited (Best Dealer in sales Performance and Best Dealer in After Sales Delivery – 2006).

Ojo is a recipient of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Distinction Award for Excellence (1987);  A Lion of High Achievement Award by the University of Nigeria Alumni Association (1993); Distinguished Eminent Lions Award by the UNAA (1996) and the Handicapped Merit Award for the Outstanding Support Towards the Upliftment of the Disabled (1997). Others are Top Award, ACCIMA (1997); Merit Order of Owena Award (1997) and Ideal Family Award by the Board of Trustees of the Ondo State Family Support Programme (1997).

In 2005, the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, awarded Ojo the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).

Funke Ade-Ojo

Funke Ade-Ojo, one of the very prominent children of the Ade Ojo dynasty, has a rather funny, though serious description of herself – from the perspective of others. She acknowledges description of herself by others as “annoyingly detailed, passionate, very hands on and result-oriented”. The description succinctly captures her attitude to work in all the places she has had to put her education and skills to use.

A holder of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of Westminster, London and a Masters in Information Technology from the University of Nottingham, Funke has been the general manager of 3Line Card Management Limited, issuers of the Freedom Card Scheme, a banking solution, since 2012. Her areas of expertise include formulation of, and implementation of business and operational quality control, compliance, B2B modeling, B2C process and training.

Funke began her career as a sales executive at DH Evans London, a multimillion pound business, in 1996, rising to the position of assistant manager responsible for human resources, payroll and training requirements for more than 200 employees.

She joined Accenture at the advent of the internet boom, and gained in-depth experience as a systems support analyst. She was part of the Accenture project team that pioneered the rollout of a network transformation for Sainsbury, the second largest supermarket chain in the United Kingdom, which led to savings of more than 35 million pounds each year for the company. The feat ignited her interest in e-commerce.

Funke joined Auravita Limited, London, an innovative software development company and subsidiary of Healthe Limited, Zurich, Switzerland, in May, 2013, as the B2B manager responsible for managing the company’s online Credit and Payment Market Exchange System. It was the system that integrated into HSBC’s EDI system to facilitate e-procurement and settlement. Her brief at Auravita included management of logistics of Electronic Invoice Presentment and Payment (EIPP); e-procurement modules and coordination of the development of several online B2C portals. The company is still using those portals till date.

Funke’s passion is not just the job that has brought her into prominence. She is equally passionate about social work. She is the secretary of Changing Our World Foundation, a Christian NGO that is working to transform the Obalande area of Ikoyi, from its present slum state into a more environmentally friendly community.

She is happily married with three children.

Demola Ade-Ojo

Demola Ade-Ojo is the managing director of Elizade Nigeria Limited, overseeing the sale of the Toyota brand that his father made popular in the country. Like other children of the patriarch, he is well educated.

Demola is a graduate of Business Administration from the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, with an MBA from Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan,  in the United States. He worked extensively in the United States, with a stint with Toyota Motor Sales, Incorporated (TMSI), Torrance, California, where he served in several capacities as e-business manager, market researcher, customer relations manager, Toyota quality sales process initiator; coordinator, Toyota Product Model Year Review, as well as reviewer of Toyota National Dealership Incentive and Marketing Programmes.

Long after he left Toyota in the United States, he is still remembered for developing the company’s business transition model, from the traditional finance to direct online finance through a unique partnership strategy with its dealers.

A well grounded business administrator and financial expert, Demola also worked as a sales consultant and credit analyst with Mel Farr Ford, Oak Park, Michigan, between 1993 and 1994, and licensed financial planner and stockbroker with Tabron Financial Services in Detroit, Michigan, from 1994 to 1997.

Before his sojourn in the United States, Demola had worked with Elizade, where he pioneered the Business Development and Strategic Planning Unit of the company as its head. It was a position that enabled him to contribute substantially to broadening the company’s corporate vision and mission, and also developing its products and business strategies.

A man of very high integrity, Demola is a director and equity shareholder in Toyota Nigeria Limited, 3Line Card Management Limited, The Moorehouse Sofitel and several other companies in the country.

Kunle Ade-Ojo

Kunle Ade-Ojo was appointed to replace Chandrasheker K. Thampy as managing director of Toyota Nigeria Limited in May, 2014, when the latter stepped aside to become a director of the company.

A graduate of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom, Kunle is said to possess “ a vast knowledge of automobile business, having worked extensively with Toyota USA, before returning to assume the position of business strategic development manager at the automobile giant’s Nigerian unit”.

Kunle, who also holds a Master of Science degree in Automotive Product Engineering from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, worked in different operational departments while at Toyota USA. Until his appointment as managing director, he was an executive director at Toyota Nigeria Limited.

Deola Sagoe (Nee Ade-Ojo)

The name, Deola Sagoe, is synonymous with fashion, not just in Nigeria, but also beyond. It’s a name that rings a bell in fashion capitals round the world – in London, Paris, Rome, New York, Johannesburg and, of course, not forgetting Lagos. But not many associate her with the name of Ade Ojo, the Toyota icon, apparently because she acquired fame after her surname changed.

Deola is the Ade Ojo offspring who decided to explore a world different from Toyota or Elizade, a world whose window was opened to her by her late mother, contrary to her father’s wish for her to toe the family line.

Like her other siblings, Deola studied abroad, precisely, at the University of Miami, Florida, the United States, thanks to a father who recognized the value of not just education, but good education, himself having been educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, one of the country’s foremost institutions of higher learning. She developed interest in fashion, even as an undergraduate student of Business Administration in the mid 1980s.

She returned to Nigeria in 1987 after graduation to pursue a Masters degree in Finance at the University of Lagos, with a fatherly advice to look in the direction of Elizade on completion of the programme. Perhaps she would have heeded the advice, but a minor distraction in the form of small tailoring business started by her mother changed all that. The business reignited an interest she developed in fashion while studying in the United States.

The mother had grown the tailoring business into a big fashion label in the country, producing mainly well embroidered traditional menswear. She asked to pitch tent with her in order to take the business a notch higher. Though the father agreed, he insisted she had a hand in Elizade, a sort of straddling between the two callings. It’s obvious today where her heart lay.

It is stating the obvious to say that entrepreneurship is in the Ade Ojo family DNA, if you consider the patriarch’s household name in the Nigerian auto industry, the foray of the late matriarch into fashion and the phenomenal success Deola has made of it.

Her clothing line, Deola, is an international brand that features regularly in fashion weeks across the world. She was the first black woman to participate at Alta Rome, the famous Rome fashion week, in 2004. She has an international clientele that includes big names like Lydia Hearst, top model Alek Wek, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith.

Deola was appointed Nigeria’s representative to the United Nations World Food Programme, ‘Catwork the World: Fashion for Food”, which was aimed at raising money to reduce the number of hungry people in the world, especially children, by 2015. She is a regular participant the Cape Town Fashion Week, and has been a guest at the New York Fashion Week in the past.

The delectable mother of three won the Africa Designs and the MNET/Anglo Gold African Designs 2000 Award, having been nominated by Andre Leon Tally, editor of Vogue, the American fashion magazine. She made a cameo appearance in October 1, Kunle Afolayan’s blockbuster film.