Africa: Onyishi, from bus conductor to transport mogul
Humility and simplicity defined his personality as he walked down the staircase into the hotel’s reception this evening. Sam Onyishi, the CEO of Peace Mass Transit Limited could easily be passed for some regular guy. But hey, this is a business mogul, a millionaire, who built his empire from the scratch
Born in Nsukka, Enugu State, in November 1963, Sam is the first son in a family of nine. His father was a bricklayer at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, who eventually slumped and died on the last day of February 1977. Sam had his primary school education at the Enugu Road Primary School, Nsukka between 1971-1976 and was admitted into Bubendorf Grammar School, Adazi, in the present day Anambra State.
Right from his childhood, young Sam had always wanted to become a successful lawyer. With the University of Nigeria just around the corner, it looked very possible. Unfortunately, the death of his father, who was fending for the family before his death, shattered that dream. And with a housewife mother, enrolling for university education became mission impossible.
“I was the first out of seven children; my mother was just a housewife. After my father’s death, I became a husband and farther at the age of 13; I was in my first year in secondary when he died. So, everything was lost. There was so much poverty around; the only thing that we had was the air that we breathe. You don’t pay for it; that’s the only reason we had it,” he recalled.
In the midst of hardship, the family turned to God as their last hope.
“We ran to the church and became so prayerful; I started fasting early in life. Everyday, it was fasting and prayer, fasting and prayer; that was how we grew up. Sometimes, I begin to think whether we actually needed those fasting or my mother was dodging from providing us with food. But I thank God that it worked out,” he said jokingly.
For lack of financial support, young Sam was withdrawn from his previous school and moved to Community Secondary School, Mbu in Isi-Uzo Local Council of Enugu State. Yet, he barely managed to survive in school with only one pair of white khaki shorts and a white shirt as a school uniform, as against two recommended by the school.
“At that time, I only washed my school uniform on Saturdays, wear it clean to school on Monday to Wednesday and avoided morning assembly on Thursdays and Fridays because my uniform was too dirty. I used to report to school early those two days, but I would go and hide somewhere until the assembly was over. Of course, I was always punished for coming late. That was not all. I climbed all the mango and cashew trees around our school to pluck their fruits for food and for sale to supplement what my mother was giving me as pocket and feeding money.”
After his Class 3, he could no longer cope with the financial demands and subsequently transferred to St. Theresa’s College, Nsukka, where he felt a lot more relieved at the school in his hometown.
As at the time he left secondary school, the government was recruiting auxiliary teachers in his state and the minimum qualification was five credits in one sitting.
“I applied because I had that qualification. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job because I didn’t have N2 to bribe a messenger to allow me enter the zonal commissioner’s office to collect my appointment letter. What pained me more was that some applicants, who did not have up to five credits at one sitting, got the job. I couldn’t explain what could have happened. That was my first encounter with what they call the ‘Nigerian Factor’. “
He continued: “I was so fed up with education that I contemplated tearing my school certificate to pieces so as to forget all about academics. On a second thought, however, I remembered the sufferings and the sacrifices my mother went through for me to go to school. I decided to handover the certificate to her and leave to search for what to do with my life.”
With paltry N200 from his mother, which was the bride price of one of his sisters, Sam moved to Enugu in search of greener pastures but that venture failed. Upon return to Nsukka, he tried his hands in different things. At a time, he was a barrow-pusher and a bus conductor. Later, he went into learning a trade after which he could not still go into the business because there was no money. He then went into music as a songwriter and singer. Unfortunately, his producer went into political detention before his record was released. Out of frustration, he resolved to leave southeast.
“I traveled to the North, Kaduna State, to serve as a labourer at a place called Ikara, but I left my employers in 1984 because my salary wasn’t paid in full,” he said.
For the second time, he returned back to Nsukka. Fortunately for him, it was about the time the university of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) was paying the host community compensation for their lands.
“My mother received N1200 as her own share and she handed over the whole money to me because she trusted me. With that money, I returned to Ikara and went into Okirika business and later moved to Kano in 1987. By 1989, I had saved up to N12000. With that, I went to learn motor spare parts business for 24 days and then set up my ownshop.”
By 1994, Onyishi had saved up to N260,000. At that point, his love for education came calling once again.
“I now decided to come back home and read; I couldn’t do my degree because my father died early. I finished secondary school in 1981 and went back to school 13 years after. I studied Social Work and Community Development; it was a five-year programme.”
As expected, his decision to go back to school didn’t go down well with some of his friends, who thought it was a wrong move.
“Some of my friends were saying, ‘Ah, Sammy nwa Nsukka, are you going back to school? This Nsukka people, they too like education. People who have gone to school, what are they doing? You are leaving your business to go and study.’ Indeed, my business was doing very well at the time, but I left it in the hands of my apprentices in pursuit of a degree.”
Asked why he opted to go back to school as an adult, he explained: “Because I wanted to be a graduate; I was a brilliant guy in school. People that were copying from me in primary and secondary school were already graduates and then me that was the baba taking first and second in school was now a school certificate holder. My mates in school were already academic doctors when I went back to read, but I said I must get my degree. If my father were to be alive, I would have been a SAN before the age of 30. Throughout my primary school days, I wanted to be a lawyer but the death of my father changed everything,” he lamented.
In 1995, while still a student of UNN, Onyishi used part of his savings from spare parts business to buy two buses. While he personally drove the first bus, he engaged a driver to handle the second one.
“When I came back to Nsukka to school, I found out that as a student I had a lot of time to do other things; there was so much time. I couldn’t just go to lecture and then come back home to do nothing. So, I had to use my savings to buy those buses and keep myself busy. I go to lecture, after lecture I drive my bus. Sometimes we had lectures in the evening, sometime in the morning, but I had enough time to drive my bus.
“From the money I made coupled with what my shop in Kano was making, I bought more buses and added to the business. I eventually stopped driving in 1998 when I had 15 buses; that was in my third year. I graduated in 1999 and focused fully on my transport business. By the time I was leaving the university, I had 45 buses,” he recalled.
As for comments from his fellow students, he said, “for me, I knew where I was going; I was paying my school fees. I was taking care of my daughter and my wife; I didn’t need to listen to any student or lecturer. If they are doing their thing, I’m doing my own. So, I know what I was there for; what they say is not important because I left my business and family in Kano to come and read. I never knew I was working towards becoming a big transport operator, but I just knew I was working to take care of myself while in school. But sometimes when you make your own plan, God has His own plans for you. That’s why I always tell people that what I am in transport is just God’s decision.”
Though now his full time business, becoming a transporter was never in the agenda of Onyishi. A far as he was concerned, it was just another means to sustain himself in school, as well as take care of his family.
“I wasn’t really thinking of making money; I was only thinking of supporting myself in school with the proceeds. Besides, I was already married with a daughter at the time; there was no need going to Kano to take money from my family when I can invest and make money as a student. I juts didn’t want to be lazying around, besides I was too old to be moving around the campus with young boys and girls. I had so many responsibilities waiting for me, so, I was working to ensure I didn’t lose,” he said.
Realising that his investment in Nsukka had outgrown his spare parts business in Kano, Onyishi took a decision to close the shop and focus fully on the transport business.
“I had two shops with some apprentices in my shops in Kano. I decided to use the shops to settle my apprentices; I didn’t go back to Kano again. That was when I knew I had become a transporter. All the while, I was thinking that after university, I would go back to Kano. But when I graduated, I discovered that my investment in Nsukka was already more than what I had in Kano. So, it’s not like I planned to be a transporter,” he hinted.
Initially, Onyishi named his company Nsukka Mass Transit; that was when he had a working agreement with the Local Council.
“I fell out with them because they violated our agreement by allowing another operator to use a similar name as mine. The new person called his own Nsukka Urban Mass Transit. I had to change my name to Peace Mass Transit; I applied for a private park and it was granted. So, I owned the first mini-bus private park in Nsukka, Enugu, Onitsha, Aba, Abakaliki, Owerri, Abuja etc. Then, it was almost impossible, but God was with me.”
From that humble beginning, Peace Mass Transit (PMT) has today blossomed into not only the foremost road transport business in Nigeria. With over 3000 buses, the investment has now grown into what is known as the Peace Group of Companies, comprising Peace Quick Response Insurance Brokers; Peace Petroleum Limited; Peace Micro-finance Bank; Peace Express Service Limited; Peace Capital Market Limited (Stock Brokers); Dealers and Investment Advisers; Maduka Commercial and Futon International Limited, the sole importers of Peace Hiace Brand of vehicles; Peace Bureau de Change; Peace Aviation Services and PMT Beijing Trade Limited China.
“This is a Divine project and that’s why we use the buses for evangelism. It’s one of the promises I made to God when I was starting in 1993. I told God that if He blesses my business that I was going to use it to serve Him. So, one of the ways to serve Him is to talk about His goodness; He doesn’t eat yam, he doesn’t eat potatoes. The only thing that God wants is for you to testify that He did it so that those, who do not know will know that God also can bless,” he said.
For Onyishi, hardwork remains the only sure way to success.
“There are too many excuses to give; there are too many reasons to give for failing. When you are a lazy man, you are a lazy man. If you continue to give excuses, nobody is interested in your excuses; people want to identify with success. If you keep giving excuses and refuse to go and work or learn handwork to help yourself to grow, at the end of the day, you will eat from an empty pot because you were preparing an empty pot. You must prepare for tomorrow because you are not young forever,” he admonished.
From buying buses abroad, Peace Mass Transit has today set up an assembly plan in Emene, Enugu, which will likely go commercial in future.
“Because I buy so much volume and since my volume can sustain assembly plan, I felt ‘why not set up a plant?’ For now, I assemble for my own use, but maybe in future, we will go commercial. When I started engine oil factory, I did the same thing; I was using my oil for a year and six months before I started selling to the public.”
On the challenges facing transport business in Nigeria, he said, “The challenge in road transport has just changed. The number one is bad road; it’s killing our business. If things continue the way it is, in the next two years, so many of us will close shop. The cost of spare parts is becoming too high and the roads are not helping; the vehicles are getting old quicker. That’s why a lot of people are calling for increase in fare. Again, we have to put into consideration that rail transport is coming back.”
On the safety measures in place for the company, Onyishi said, “When you talk about safety, I will say that Peace Mass Transit is one of the transport companies in Nigeria that is very safety conscious. We have our quarterly training by the road safety for our drivers; they also train our trainers from time to time. We have a clinic where we check the blood pressure of our drivers regularly; we also do eye tests for them in-house. There are lots of things we do in terms of roadworthiness like use of brand new tyres and changing them before they are worn out. Making sure that our lubricants are the best to avoid break failures; changing vehicles before they get old to avoid frequent breakdown. We also employ qualified and experienced drivers. There are so many things we are doing for safety reasons; we have patrolmen on the road. Today, other people are copying us. Of course, this small bus business, we made it popular; I’m a pacesetter in this business,” he boasted.
Meanwhile, ever before the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) made it compulsory for commercial vehicles to use speed limiter, the company had experimented with the device as far back as 2009.
“I was the person that introduced it to Nigerian in 2009; I introduced it to the Road Safety. I personally drove the vehicle that did the testing; the Corps Marshal then, Osita Chidoka, sent his technical crew to inspect it on my car. I drove them round Abuja and they saw how it works. They went back and wrote their report and the FRSC approved of it. I then brought in the first 200 units of buses with factory fitted speed limiter and Chidoka came to Emene, Enugu to launch the first set of buses with speed limiter in Nigeria. Since then, we’ve not gone back; all our buses come with speed limiter. I’m happy that FRSC has finally achieved this feat in Nigeria; the benefit of speed limiter cannot be overemphasized,” he noted.
In road transport business, accident is inevitable. And indeed, Peace Mass Transit has had its own share of misfortunes on the road.
“You see, when you are talking about road crash, it’s not something you can stop, but you can minimize it. That’s why we have all these safety measures to minimize the occurrence of road mishaps. If you use bad drivers, they will keep on killing people for you and destroying your investments. But if you use trained drivers, accidents won’t be very frequent. I thank God for what He’s doing, but we want to do our own too.”
He continued: “In terms of accident, the policy is that each time there’s a road crash, we have a patrol team for quick intervention. Of course, in all the roads we operate, if an accident happens, before three or four vehicles pass, one of our buses will be there. So, we always get quick response; any vehicle that comes will drop and pick casualties to a nearby hospital for treatment. The company will ensure that anybody that has wounds starts receiving treatment before their family members come. We as a company, we are their immediate family members; they are our customers. It’s our duty to take care of them.”
As for treatment of passenger in case of accident, “We have passengers welfare scheme in-house, which takes care of such situation. When something happens, we don’t wait for the insurance company to come; they might come when the victim is dead. If such thing happens, we take action immediately; it has always helped us. Most of the hospitals know us, so, they are rest assured that they will get their money. Even if we are not going to pay for all of them, we work with the family to save the life first.”
Looking back to his humble beginning and his achievements so far, Onyishi said, “Of course, I appreciate what God has done. But for me, I’m not relaxing. I ask myself, ‘what actually does God want from me?’ I believe there’s a reason He made it so, not just to eat and drink. I’m not a big eater or drinker; I tend to ask why has God done all these. Honestly, I don’t deserve them; I don’t know what I have done to merit this. I’ve not achieved much, but I think I’m satisfied; I’m not complaining at all.”
To Nigerian youths, he said, “The major problem I have with this country is the fact that some people make money without working; I don’t like it, it makes me angry. It makes those of us working hard to look foolish. So, when people want to use Internet to make quick money in six months, that’s magic; I’m not a magician. I’m a long time planner; most of the things I’m doing today, I planned them five years ago.”
He continued: “Young people of today want things quick and the system is not helping out. Like those who go into politics, people are coming around and they want you to give them money. Nobody is asking where you are getting the money. Tomorrow, you complain that government is not doing anything. In both private and public sector, one must have discipline; you need it to survive and sustain whatever you are doing. You must know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no.’ Hardwork pays; a worker deserves his wage. God has not given us hands for fancy or as a toy; he gave us hands and brain to use it to think, plan and act.”
Though the Nigerian economy is not at its best, Onyishi believe it’s an opportunity to have a rethink.
“I believe that the economy today is going to sharpen our heads; it’s going to make us to become more responsible and patriotic citizens. We’ve been very careless; a consumption oriented people. Very wasteful people; we know how to eat but we don’t know how to produce. A country that imports toothpick, it’s a shame! We are importing tissue paper, importing all manner of things. So, how can the country survive,” he quizzed.
To the leaders, he said, “Our leadership didn’t help matters; they stole all our money and put them in foreign accounts for their children and children’s children. So, here we are borrowing money at 18 per cent, while people are keeping our money abroad at 1 per cent. Today, the same oyibo will take that money at 1 per cent and come back to lend us at 5, 6 per cent and we will be clapping for them that their fund is cheap? It’s our money; the money they said they are bringing back as foreign investment is our money. Which oyibo will bring his money here? It’s out people, who stole our money that will use the oyibo as a front to bring the money back and do business. No oyibo is bringing one naira here; those monies belong to Nigerians,” he alleged.
By Chuks Nwanne