Saturday, April 1, 2017 12:58 pm
By Reuben Abati
When the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) was established in 1971, Chief Adeola Odutola, the late Ogbeni-Oja of Ijebu Ode was unanimously proposed as its first president. This was a measure of the pre-eminence that the late Odutola had acquired as an industrialist, entrepreneur and employer. In his hometown of Ijebu Ode, the reigning monarch and the council of chiefs also implored him for many years to accept a chieftaincy title, but he was not so enthusiastic. When he eventually agreed, his kinsmen nicknamed him O-ja-ja-gba (he has accepted at last). Odutola was that kind of man. He loved to serve his community and fellow men but he did not go out of his way to seek public acclaim. The public however, sought him to give him honours and awards in acknowledgement of his achievements as one of the most resourceful entrepreneurs in 20th century Nigeria. In 1948, King George VI honoured him with the Order of the British Empire. In 1960, the University of Ibadan awarded him an Honorary LL.D. in 1966, the Federal Government made him a member of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) and in 1982 Commander of the Order of Niger (CON). Many organisations made him their life patron. He was a sponsor of many philanthropic causes.
For over eight decades, he remained a luminous presence in business, trade, politics and education. Together with Dantata and Sir Louis Ojukwu, father of the former Biafran rebel leader, Odutola belonged to the first generation of Nigerian industrialists. His business empire was vast and he lived long enough to have been part of all the significant moments in Nigerian history in the 20th century. He was a pathfinder, a product of his time – and a marvelous product at that. He had what could be called old money. Old money is different from that kind of wealth that is acquired overnight through fraud or crime, as is the fashion these days among the nouveaux riche; it is that kind of wealth that is acquired from hard work, self-determination and commitment. When it is supported by a sense of social responsibility and the fear of God, old money invariably acquires a value that is greater than the mere possession of wealth. The latter day generation of Nigerian capitalists speaks of capitalism as if it is an end in itself and hence they rob capitalism of its human face. Odutola’s distinction lay in the manner in which he constantly bridged the gap between trade and society, between capitalism and philanthrophy. He sought a community of kingship that went beyond business and the making of money, as it were.
When he turned 90, in 1992, Ibrahim Babangida, then president of Nigeria described him in a letter as “a nationalist” who played a ‘part in laying the foundation for our country’s independence.’ And as a distinguished educationist who in addition played a role in Nigeria’s industrial development, “Nigeria” Babangida added “will always remember your pioneering role in this capacity especially in respect of development in this country. With your great achievement in this area, you can be rightly called the Grandfather of Nigerian Industry. Indeed, contemporary Nigerian history must acknowledge your immense contribution to the political and industrial development of the country.”
Born in Ijebu Ode on 16 June 1902m Odutola distinguished himself in four main areas: I propose to describe the manner and extent of this distinction in turn.
Business: His foray into business was almost incidental. The subsisting fable that Ijebu have trade in their veins could be assumed to have been true in his case. Following his father’s death in 1915, his educational career was more or less truncated, despite the fact that his mother and maternal uncles tried their best to keep him in school. He dropped out of primary school to learn tailoring and then returned to complete his primary education. For a brief period, he also attended Ijebu Ode Grammar School but again dropped out. It could well be said that he was a restless young man, driven by the urge to make something concrete out of his life within a short time. In 1921, he left Ijebu Ode for Lagos in search of employment and better fortunes. Again, things didn’t work out. After having worked as a clerk in the Treasury and Audit Department of the Nigerian Secretariat, he was suddenly promoted to the Minna office. Minna in the 1920s only six years after the creation of Nigeria would naturally appear to a young Nigerian from another part of the country like the back of beyond. Odutola did not bother to argue with his employers. He simply resigned and returned to Ijebu Ode.
The human preference for the familiar and the fear of the unknown is a natural human instinct. Back in Ijebu Ode, Odutola worked as a tax collector and later as a court clerk. In his spare time he dabbled into trading. He began on a small scale, importing damask, silk clothes, fishing nets and gas lamps from Europe. He found a large market for the gas lamps. The churches in the Ijebu Province were his main customers and eventually he became their major supplier. When the profits that were beginning to pour in increasing the demands on his trade and energy, being a court clerk was no longer attractive. He had no difficulty resigning.
Thereafter, he went into business partnership with his brother Jimoh Odutola and together, they began to diversify into mining, under the auspices of a company called Odutola Brothers. The partnership was short lived. The two brothers quarreled and parted ways. Students of business will perhaps, one day investigate how blood relationship does not necessarily eliminate the risks of business partnership but this is one subject that the Odutolas and their descendants rarely want to talk about. In any caseAdeola Odutola as the sole proprietor of several companies continued to expand. He went into farming and manufacturing. It was in the manufacturing sector however, that he would properly, speaking become one of the first heavy weights in Nigerian business. Between 1950 and 1968, he set up a number of companies and factories, either alone or in collaboration with AG Leventis, his dear friend. His businesses included,,tyre retreading, tyre manufacturing, biscuits, a brewery, a supermarket and pharmaceuticals. He also acquired shares in many ventures including Bayer Pharmaceutical; Unichem Nig. Ltd and Alcatel Kabelmetal.
Invariably, Adeola Odunola prospered. He established contacts in nearly every part of the world. Critics of his methods have remarked, cynically, that he was a brutal businessman, over competitive and not a very good business enemy. Nevertheless, what has survived after eight decades, is Odutola’s starling contributions to the growth of business and industry in Nigeria.
First, he was able to demonstrate by his personal example, that success in whatever one chooses to do is realizable. “Over the years”, he once remarked “I have known too many people who are not terribly intelligent but who somehow get things done slowly and perhaps not imaginatively, but they get there. Yet too many able people who understand much better and see much more clearly and talk muchclearly never get things done. I have observed that effectiveness is neither a talent nor an ability. It is a practice, a habit.”
Odutola was a child of habit. He cultivated the habit of achievement, throughout his career he maintained the same set of habits. He slept late and woke up early. He employed able assistant to help manage his various companies, but he was personally involved in everyone of them, providing the rest of the team with the guiding philosophy and vision behind the Odutola Group of Companies. As it were, business grows from a particular vision which other shareholders then translate into action. Odutola was equally a great networker. He kept track of his contracts. He was however in many ways conservative. He expected his workers to do the job for which they were paid, he expected younger ones to respect their elders and everyone to live by certain established mores. He avoided alcoholic drinks and the attraction of a dissolute life.
Second, by venturing into manufacturing Odutola charted the path for succeeding generation of Nigerian manufacturers. By sourcing raw materials from his own plantations, he also succeeded to showing that ‘back-ward’ integration was achievable.
Third, the strength of the Odutola Empire was in its diversification. At a stage, Odutola adopted the motto Aitanko koi le kile which literally means “the refuse dung does not discriminate”. This could be interpreted in terms of the open door policy which Odutola maintained in his dealings with other members of society, bothpriviledged and under privileged but is equally a pointed summation of his catholicity of his business interest.
Fourth, Odutola’s career as a businessman proved one point, that is, those who are involved in business must necessarily take more than a passing interest in the prevailing public policies and the economic environment. He was, for example a vocal and active member of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Mines and eventually he became president and life president of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria. He was a staunch advocate of friendly economic policies to strengthen indigenous entrepreneurs and to promote small scale industries as well. In 1978 he as the representative of the private sector in the constituent assembly which fashioned Nigeria’s 1979 constitution. As president of MAN, Odutola issued public statements and position papers on the need to support made in Nigeria goods. In so doing he seemed to have set an agenda for the future generations of the local industrialists.
Odutola’s preeminence in business naturally meant that his immediate community, institution and organisations would seek to turn him into an ally, or an advocate of their causes. He was a man of little education who became a giant because he found his true calling and dreamt dreams and worked hard enough to turn those dreams into reality. Foreign companies seeking to set up in Nigeria routinely invited Odutola to be a consultant and often made him a partner. That was how his business empire expanded gradually, such that by 1978 Odutola had become almost omni present in the private sector. His kinsmen at Ijebu Ode also got him interested in politics. He went into politics out of an urge to serve. The same motivation that informed his forays into education, religion and philanthropy.
Politics: by the time he died in 1995, at the age of 93, not many Nigerians remembered that Odutola was a politician. This is because since 1960, he had chosen to play only the role of a king maker, perhaps more appriopriately the role of a godfather, as a quiet supporter of political parties and politicians, but more specifically, the Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. It could well be said that Chief Odutola made such a choice because he could not stand the violence that characterized the kind of politics that was practiced in the post independent Nigeria. In 1965 for example during the emergency situation in the Western Region, Odutola was detained briefly in Ilesha even though he was no longer actively involved in partisan politics.
Long before Nigerian politics went to the dogs, Odutola had made his contribution as one of the pioneers who helped to shape the future direction of independent Nigeria at local and national levels. He began as an activist of the Produce Buyers Union and the Nigerian Transporters Union. In 1938 he served as chairman of the Nigerian Youth Movement in the Ijebu Division. In 1945 he represented the Ijebu province on the Legislative Council of Nigeria. In 1948 he was part of the Nigerian delegation to the conference of representatives of British territories held in England. Between 1947 and 1959, he served as representative of the Ijebu province in the Western House of Assembly and as chairman of the Ijebu Divisional Council, he was a quiet debater and his points were often very articulate. In his various contributions he sought to improve the relationship between the government and its citizens insisting that the people deserved to be happy and that the business of government is to serve the people and guarantee their happiness.
Education: What Odutola could not gain in terms of formal education he used his resources to make available to generations of Nigerian children from all parts of the country. His love for and support for education is perhaps in retrospect his most enduring legacy. By the time he died in 1995, his business empire had shrunk considerably due to the economic down turn in the country. Contrariwise his imprint on the education sector has not only outlived him, it seems like an eternal legacy, a worthy tribute to Chief Adetola Odutola’s devotion. In 1945 he established a Secondary Commercial School in Ijebu Ode. This was followed by Ola Iwa College in 1948. In 1963 however, these two schools were merged to become Adetola Odutola Comprehensive High School, a model college which provided instruction in a broad range of subjects. Products of Odutola’s schools are today well established in different fields of endeavour.
Every year, during Founders Day, the students remember their founder most affectionately as a father figure whose objectives was to give other people’s children an opportunity in life. Odutola is forever immortalized in the schools anthem. Adetola Odutola College stands as evidence of the kind of worthy service that all men of means can provide their society.
In 1968 Odutola also set up Adeola Odutola Private Nursery and Primary School. In 1989, he endowed a professional chair in Business Administration at the University of Lagos and donated a lecture theatre to Ogun State University. Throughout his life time he awarded scholarships in support of education to children from less priviledged homes.
Religion: A devout Christian. Odutola managed to bring the same passion that he had demonstrated in politics, business and education into religion. He was a man of faith, a firm believer in the omnipresence of God, the Almighty. In 1987 he built a church on the premises of Adeola Odutola College which he donated to the Anglican Communion. To date, the church is administered by the Anglican Church of Nigeria. Chief Odutola died in 1995 and was buried within the church premises. For Adetola Odutola (Anglican) Church is one man’s living testimony to the grace of the Almighty and His undying influence in the affairs of men.
Odutola lived a full and varied life. He had for wives and fathered twenty six children, the Odutola story can however hardly be re-enacted in todays Nigeria where strange things happened daily and the values of old have become today’s vices. The only consolation is that there are still a number of dedicated Nigerians in industry and politics who are amassing wealth but are nevertheless committed to the happiness of the less priviledged. These people are the heirs of Odutola’s legacy. The substance of which is the selfless service which Odutola preferred far beyond the accumulation of riches.
Originally entitled “Mr Industry,” Reuben Abati, (PhD) contributed this article to People in TheNEWS, 1900-2000, a special publication of this medium in year 2000