Saturday, March 25, 2017 1:21 pm
By Dotun Adekanmbi
The history of Nigeria’s organized private sector would be incomplete without mentioning the role of High Chief Henry Oloyede Fajemirokun. During the seventies, Fajemirokun was one of the biggest fish in the widening ponds of big time entrepreneurs. His credentials were like an awesome investment catalogue under the name of Henry Stephens Group of Companies.
Remarkably, Fajemirokun did not have the advantage of starting out anywhere near the upper rungs of the business ladder. His point of entry was as a trader in commodities, cocoa beans, groundnuts and cattle bones for export to Europe under the name of Henry Stephens and Sons Limited, Lagos. Perhaps, something in his background suggested correctly to him the business direction to take when he started out. Fajemirokun made a huge success of the export business. It was only a matter of time before his nimble mind fashioned out opportunities in other sectors of the economy. Suddenly, the theatre of the export and commodity trading concerns became too small for his huge business talents and a business conglomerate was in the making.
Intrepidly but shrewdly, Fajemirokun horned in on a new target. He established Henry Stephens Shipping Company which owned the Nigerian Far East Line and the Nigerian South American Line. The company owned three Nigerian flag vessels and operated a number of chartered vessels while maintaining regular line services between ports in the West African sub region, the far-east and south American ports.
Fajemirokun’s business interests further yield the Nigeria Maritime Services Limited (NMS) whose operations run the gamut of clearing and forwarding, sea and air freighting, as well as free and bonded warehousing. The company also undertook packaging and removal activities with a specialization in door-to-door movement of goods. At its peak, the NMS was described as the foremost removal company in Nigeria.
Monumental success followed swiftly and Fajemirokun’s Henry Stephens Group spread to every sector of the economy. There was GILCO (Nigeria) Limited which handled sophisticated electrical equipment and machinery, electrical and mechanical power transmissions, marine radar as well as navigational and radio communication devices. Fajemirokun widened GILCO’s operations to include serving as agents, stockists and main distributors for the products of many foreign electrical equipment manufacturing firms. These included Hawker Siddeley Electric Export Limited (Brush Swithgear Ltd) Brash Transformers Limited, Hawker Siddely Power Transmissions Limited, Crompton Cables Limited, Chloride Group of Companies and Doulton Insulators Limited. Others were GEC (lamps and Lightings) Ltd, GEC (Street Lighting Limited), manufacturers of fluorescent, flood and industrial lighting fittings, Hampson Automation Limited, manufacturers of power generating sets, D. Nagata, Midland Electric Manufacturing Company Limited , Aluminum Wire and Cable Company Limited, Sperry Marine Systems, Horstman Gear Company Limited, Safety Products Limited, Gandy Limited and CRC Limited.
Described as a practical businessman and excellent manager of both human and material resources, Fajemirokun possessed an uncanny eye for opportunities. This is obvious from his establishment of Henry Stephens Engineering Company Limited one of his many companies. The company was established obviously not as a hunch but at a time when there was an upsurge in construction activities all over the country.
Munificently funded by proceeds from the petroleum sector, the upsurge in construction was phenomenal. Fajemirokun cashed in on this. Henry Stephens Engineering dealt in construction machinery and equipment. It also served as a distributor for many British, American, Swedish and Indian companies. Shoals of construction equipment were sold for companies like Winget Construction Limited UK, Brown Lennox Limited UK, Dynapac Maskin AB of Sweden and Stenberg Flygt AB of Sweden among others.
Another of his companies executed a ceaseless flow of contracts of all types of building materials throughout the country. There was also a transport and haulage arm including foreign travels and ticketing.
As his businesses grew, so did his statue in the business community. Fajemiroukn held many positions in various Chambers of Commerce. By 1966, he was an executive council member of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry. At about the same time, he was president of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Other honours followed . These included vice president, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (1970), president Nigeria Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Mines (1972), first president, Federation of West African Chamber of Commerce (1972) and vice president Federation of Commonwealth Chambers of Commerce (1978). Fajemirokun can certainly be described as a business mogul.
In his 52 years of life, he virtually turned the Nigeria corporate terrain into a mosaic of his foot prints. Aside from more than ten companies in his stable, he also sat on the boards of several up market companies both within and outside the country. Some of these include Oil Exploratory Company Limited, Marine and General Assurance Company Limited, Schiffarts and Handelgesellschaft mbh, Hamburgh Germany. He was also a director, First Bank Nigeria Limited, director Nigeria Krafts Bags Limited, director Nigeria Sewing Machine Manufacturing Company Limited, deputy chairman Johnson Wax Nigeria Limited, chairman Rank Xeros (Nigeria) Limited and chairman National Bank of Nigeria Limited.
Unlike his lowly beginning in the world of business, Fajemirokun’s roots in Ile Oluji was Brahminic. Fajemirokun was born a blue blood on 14 July 1926. He started his primary education in 1932 at St Peter’s School, Ile Oluji and left in 1936. After a years break in his schooling, he continued at St Lukes School in the neighbouring town of Oke Igbo where he completed his elementary education. A year after completing his primary education in 1940, Fajemirokun gained admission into the prestigious CMS Grammar School Lagos where he spent a year. Then he crossed over to Ondo Boys’ High School where he spent two years. He left the school in1955 to enlist in the old Royal West African Frontier Force.
One year after enlistment he was posted to India to join the 82nd West African Division. He served with distinction at the General Headquarters of the 2nd Echelon. Thansi, of the then United Province India. Fajemirokun’s romance with the military profession lasted for only two years. He returned home in 1946 and joined the Posts and Telegraph Department (P&T) where he developed an interest in trade unionism. His commitment to workers’ welfare culminated in his election as the president general of the Nigerian Civil Service Union in 1957.
As an entrepreneur of towering stature, the appreciation of Fajemirokun’s worth transcended the confines of the corporate environment. His numerous philanthropic gestures were recognised through the conferment of many chieftancy titles on him. In 1968 he was conferred with the title of Yegbata of Ile-Oluji, Asiwaju of Oke-Igbo (1971), Lijoka of Ondo (1973), High Chief Orunta of Ifewara (1974) and the Obaloro of Ado Ekiti (1977). The University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University Ile Ife also conferred on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science in Business Administration in 1972.
Perhaps the only known area where Chief Henry Fajemirokun did not record any success was his desire to move into publishing. His bid to take over controlling shares in the Daily Times Group in 1975 was checkmated by then management of the newspaper which felt that Fajemirokun would have too much power at his disposal if his bid succeeded.
On 15 February 1978, the candescent career of Fajemirokun was suddenly extinguished in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire, while leading a trade mission. In 1983, that is, five years after his death, the Federal Government honoured him with a posthumous national award of the Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON). By then, Fajemirokun had strolled into his well earned place in the pantheon of entrepreneurial giants.
Originally entitled “Henry Fajemirokun: ahead of his Time,” By Dotun Adekanmbi contributed this article to People in TheNEWS, 1900-2000, a special publication of this medium in year 2000