The white building wore a sombre look. Both visitors and the hosts spoke in low tones. The atmosphere at No. 20, Queens drive, Ikoyi, the residence of the late Michael Olorogun Ibru which overlooks the Lagos Lagoon was thick with a sense of loss. One of the late patriach’s dogs, a Rottweiler, renowned for its ferocity, was very calm, moving around the compound without even a growl not to talk of a bark. It was obvious it missed Papa. Though the expansive water surged occasionally, the beautiful trees and flowers that surround the well landscaped compound refused to dance to the breeze. And visitors kept trooping in to pay their condolence visits until around 7pm whenThe New Diplomat left.
To his family, Pa Michael Ibru, was a loving and caring father, husband uncle and brother. To some, he was the King Solomon of our time, full of wisdom and wealth.
But there is this virtue of humility that stood him out among his fellow rich men in the country and in the world. Very few rich men show his level of humility. Rich men of his class are rather seen with the garment of pride in this clime. They rarely identify with the lower class, let alone the poor.
But the late Ibru’s perception of life was rare a one. He was a man of character, integrity and he was generous to a fault.
These were the testimony of those in his employ.
Though he grew to be a doyen of business in Nigeria; Michael Ibru’s achievements didn’t come on a platter of gold. They came through dint of hardwork. He delved into frozen fish business at age 24. And it was no surprise that he succeeded exceedingly in his business with a staggering $1.1 billion net worth before his passage.
According to the deceased in one of the interviews he granted in 1988: “Way back in 1956, I set out on an adventure which, looking back now, I can only describe as an urge, perhaps even a calling. A calling because at that time I had a good job, good money and bright prospects with one of the largest multinational companies around.”
That large multinational company was United African Company (now UACN).
Ibru teamed up with Jimmy Large, an expatriate, and his massive frozen fish conglomerate was born.
He was the pioneer indigenous frozen fish merchant who rented cold-storage facilities and began trading at the Apapa Wharf from the back of a Land Rover.
By the mid ’60s, Ibru’s fishing business had become the cash cow for the dynasty. He crashed the price of fish in Nigeria and in a way, helped liberalize the sector.
Hear him again in another interview:
“I examined all kinds of ways of bringing fish cheaply to the people. That was the key phrase: Cheaply to the people.
“We examined canning but that was no good — too expensive. Drying (chemical and mechanical) all ended up too expensive. So, we settled for the ordinary freezing process—wholesome and cheap.
“We pegged our idea at about eight American cents per pound i.e no more than 20 percent of a worker’s daily wage. The price was not the only problem to overcome, our problems had just started. The Nigerian society is a rather conservative one in many respects. Frozen
fish must of necessity be stored in cold stores; but there were hardly any cold stores around.”
Ibru had to also scale the hurdle of the frozen fish stereotype in his country.
“The average Nigerian at that time associated cold stores with the m mortuaries and by extension regarded frozen fish as fish coming out of the mortuaries,” he said.
But Michael Ibru’s “Can Do” spirit surmounted it all.