Nigeria's Furniture King honoured by Oxford University
Oxford Honours Nigeria’s Diligent Carpenter
Tony Ohifeme Ezekiel
For his success in business and charity, the Chairman/CEO of ITEX Furniture Ltd, Tony Ohifeme Ezekiel will have a seminar room named after him on May 17, 2013, by the Said Business School, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and thus becoming the first African to be so honoured by the prestigious institution in almost 1000 years of its existence, writes Tokunbo Adedoja
Tony Ohifeme Ezekiel may not be a regular face people see on posters like celebrities, but his works are. In homes and key government offices across the country, his works provide all kinds of supports and convenience for human activities, both in quality and style.
But from May 17, 2013, that name would begin to reverberate thousands of kilometers away from the shores of Nigeria. That would be the day when the Tony Ohifeme Ezekiel Seminar Room would be unveiled at the Said Business School, University of Oxford, United Kingdom. Remarkably, that would be the first time such would be named in honour of an African in the over 900 years of this academic institution of repute.
Ezekiel is the chairman and chief executive officer of ITEX Furniture Ltd, an indigenous company that has made tremendous impact in about two decades of its existence. He is not only a perfect example of what diligence and hardwork could achieve, his story is a testimonial to the fact that excellence is the reward for the pursuit of knowledge.
As chairman and chief executive officer of Nigeria's fastest growing indigenous furniture company, Ezekiel sits atop a multibillion naira business enterprise. But he did not begin as an employer of labour, he was once an employee.
At Babin Nigeria Ltd, the construction company where he worked, he rose to the position of site manager during which he single-handedly supervised the construction of a local government secretariat in Gwagwalada, and the mini-stadium in Garki, Abuja. In 1988, however, he registered his own company, Tontine Investment Ltd.
Like every seasoned entrepreneur, Ezekiel identified a societal need that must be met. He observed that locally made furniture was of low standard and could not meet the increasing demands of both government and affluent Nigerians for a world-class furniture, both in quality and style. That was the period when massive importation of furniture was in vogue. Although he trained as a mathematician at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Ezekiel, driven by the spirit of enterprise, embarked on a voyage to Germany where he acquired carpentry and furniture-making skills. And with the birth of ITEX Furniture Ltd in 1991, a revolution began in the Nigerian furniture industry.
Operating from a small garage, Ezekiel built a company that grew rapidly, both in size and topnotch clientele. He assembled a team of professionals saddled with the task of designing and producing quality and stylish furniture and other support staff that handle the day-to-day running of the company. By 2003, the company had cut for itself, a chunk of Nigerian furniture market share, competing favourably against foreign companies. Today, he has been able to place ITEX on the same pedestal with foreign furniture companies. His company currently sources over 80 per cent of its materials locally, 20 per cent above its local content a decade ago.
A combination of Ezekiel's entrepreneurial skills and business acumen, and ITEX's innovative designs and high quality products fetched the company huge furniture jobs across the country, including designing and furnishing Central Bank of Nigeria headquarters Complex in Abuja and the bank's Learning Center in Lagos, Federal Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters building, Rivers State Government Secretariat, Bureau of Public Enterprise headquarters, Benue State Secretariat, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, Federal Court of Appeal, High Court of Justice Abuja, and commercial banks, among others.
Beyond Nigerian shores, ITEX is making inroads into West African furniture market. The company designed and furnished the Presidential Conference Room of Republic of Sao Tome and Principe. It is also working towards achieving greater market share in the sub-region.
To satisfy his clients' taste for innovation and style, Ezekiel would go to any length. For the Central Bank of Nigeria headquarters, where ITEX installed auditorium chairs with rail track mechanism, Ezekiel visited the United Nations headquarters, the German Bundestag and the European Parliament, where such are in use, for the design of these chairs.
He has also played key roles in helping improve business climate for local manufacturers in Nigeria. In the past 10 years, for instance, he led the team responsible for government's initiative to ban importation of finished furniture as a way of encouraging indigenous manufacturers. Ezekiel, who shuttles Nigeria, United Kingdom, United States, South Africa and United Arab Emirates, is also a philanthropist, silently supporting local projects and paying tuition fees of several students and medical bills of the sick.
Though, blessed with a thriving business and a life of comfort, these would not stop him from the pursuit of knowledge. That quest for learning has continued to propel Ezekiel to enroll for programmes that have helped with the development of his entrepreneurial skills and improved the output of his business enterprise. Such include courses in furnishing and interiors and the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme. In the past one and half years alone, Oxford University had almost become his abode. This 55-year-old son of a former senior postmaster, is currently studying Global Business at the Said Business School, Oxford University.
His recognition by the prestigious institution is a combination of factors - the wealth of experience he brought back to school, the organic growth of his business from a humble beginnings to a company that has become the fastest growing in the furniture industry in Nigeria, and his contribution to education, particularly his financial support for African students in the institution.
Since the news of his recognition broke, accolades have continued to pour in from within and outside the country. Mr. Bashir Wali, one of his colleagues in the institution, described him as "a true gentleman, patriot and philanthropist.” Tomothy C. Warren, head of international and director Formuesforvaltning, SKAGEN Funds said he is "one of the energetic and successful business leaders driving the African renaissance". To Warren, Ezekiel's achievement is not a selfish success.
In his testimonial, the former Minister of Information, Frank Nweke (II) said Ezekiel's achievements manifest the resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Nweke, who described him as an "emerging global citizen" also noted that "he may not have been privileged much earlier, but he enjoyed the privilege of having strong ambitions anchored on a deep sense of self worth which helped him to recognise that he could rise above his early circumstances and be what he wants to be."
Ezekiel would proudly admit that his quest for knowledge played a greater role in the success of ITEX. But more importantly, he believes the secret of his success lies in his love and passion for his chosen field; dint of hardwork, perseverance and taking pride in what he does. Interestingly, this Nigerian who had impacted his chosen industry so much and who has now been recognised by a global academic institution of repute is not on the Nigerian list of merit award.
For this humble carpenter and resolute entrepreneur, the naming of a Seminar Room in his honour at the Said Business School, Oxford University is an honour well-deserved.