Jimoh Ibrahim: Even if Branson gives me the Virgin brand free, I will not take it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim
The Group Managing Director, NICON Group, Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim, is the new owner of Virgin Nigeria, the controversial airline formed in a partnership between the British businessman, Richard Branson, and some Nigerian investors. Ibrahim, at a press conference last week, spoke on his plans for the nation‘s flag carrier. OYETUNJI ABIOYE was there. Excerpts:

Are you coming up with a merger arrangement between NICON Airways and your new airline, Virgin Nigeria?

In fairness, the deal for Virgin Nigeria had been on since 2009, but you know it is not every deal that you put on the pages of newspapers when you are yet to conclude. In that very year 2009, if I had wanted to make NICON Airways to be flying with all the aircraft, we would have done so. We felt that let us quickly look at this deal, and we can have a merger later and then we can move on. 

But if I had made up my mind and say we don‘t want Virgin Nigeria, and use the money for NICON Airways, maybe that would have been a different thing, may be also we would not have issues with NICON Airways. The Virgin deal started in 2009 and it went from back and forth until it closed in 2010, sometimes in April. Two things are very key in the Virgin Nigeria deal. First, we as a nation must continue to show the capacity that we can do it. 

Agreed that Richard Branson came with this brand to Nigeria and things were going bad and Branson walked out with the managing director, the chief executive officer, and the chief finance officer and technical officers in a day. Is it that we don‘t have the personnel, entrepreneur that can do it? This is why I said we should conclude once and for all this matter. Coming to my major plan, my immediate plan is to stabilise the airline with seven aircraft and we will achieve this very shortly. What we want to do is actually stabilise it at seven and from there move to 17 and after that we start the international route. Our immediate plan is to get the local market right, get the regional market right and then from there, we move on to the international routes. Our long term plan is to make it good and take it back to Nigerians who are the owners, just like all our companies that we have acquired in the past and then take it to the stock exchange and make Nigerians to be proud owners of a good airline.

Are you planning to change the name of the airline?
Well, of course, there will be a name change, that can never be ruled out. There will be a name change and the name change will reflect the integrity of our nation. I am not too far away from the name change and I am sure in a matter of days, we will have another meeting with you where I will present document to show you that a name change has happened. I will probably place advertorial in the newspapers. Be prepared for a name change.

What name do you have in mind?
Wait till that time when I call you for a name change. We will have a meeting where we will plot the new name.

With the state of uncertainty around NICON Airways, there are fears that Virgin Nigeria may go the same way? 
I don‘t think anybody should have any fear; that fear is your own fear, your own created fear. If anybody has run any company well in this country, I think by the Grace of God, I am number one and this is not the first company we have bought. We have never had a company that died in our hands. First, we took NICON, it survived, and it is now in Sao Tome and Principe . We picked Nigerian rail, you didn‘t know that Nigerian rail was taken away by the National Assembly Act. Today, it is surviving. We picked Le Meridien hotel, where we had snakes and cobras staying in. They were using snake powder to bring them out, today; we have American Embassy having office inside Le Meridien hotels that shows you how far we have gone in turning it around. We picked 110 petrol stations that we bought for people; we never built them; all the fuel stations are selling fuel today. 

We picked up VGC from the former HSC owners, it has been turned around. Today, the hotel is there today running very well. The industry there where they produce chairs, today they are made by our factory. We picked this building from NDIC. All the area boys of Marina were living here before, but you can see how it looks now. We have been turning around corporations. One of the areas where we have respect among the youth is the ability to turn around companies. 

Let me tell you, some interesting companies; I don‘t want to mention their names had even been talking to us to see how we can rescue them in management plan. So, what is in Virgin Nigeria to turn around for us? I don‘t see anybody expressing fears, rather from the report I got yesterday, all flights were fully booked. Infact on Sunday, they were double booked. So, I want to thank Nigerians for the tremendous support that they are giving to us. They believe in our capacity above all. If it was when Virgin Nigeria was being run by Richard Branson, can you have an interview like this with him?

Why add the burden of Virgin Nigeria to NICON Airways in view of the sensitivity of the airline business in Nigeria?
I am used to putting my head in trouble waters. Don‘t worry about it. Let me correct one thing, NICON Airways is not the same thing as Virgin Nigeria because Virgin Nigeria has all the structures, has a lot of connectivity and a lot of things to build and they are far from each other, but nevertheless, we used to do an unusual thing to get an unusual result. When this house was put for sale, it was there for almost three years, nobody applied, but today, if I put it for sale, everybody will be here because it has been turned around. I appreciate your sympathy, you can be sure Virgin Nigeria will survive. Again, it is not about profit again, if you know that at this level, I go for something that is exciting. I have run close to about 16 companies. We have eight hotels, 210 petrol stations etc. What do you think I will be doing? The total debt I owe is just N2.4 bn, that is what is left over. What do you think I should be doing at my age if I don‘t put my head in Virgin Nigeria? So, it is an exciting moment.

What airline did you really buy, is it Virgin Nigeria or Nigerian Eagle?
We bought Virgin Nigeria, there was nothing called Nigeria Eagle that we bought. Am I so stupid? I am a lawyer, common give that to me. I am Harvard and University of Ife trained. Am I going to buy Nigeria Eagle, I bought Virgin Nigeria (brandishing a certified true copy of the certificate) and I got original shares certificate of Virgin Nigeria. So, I don‘t know what Virgin is talking about. We are not paying any thing to anybody to have the Virgin brand. Is Virgin Nigeria a brand (general laughter of disapproval)? I don‘t have issues with Virgin Nigeria; you know me critically, if I buy any foreign company, forget about brand or no brand, whatever the brand, I will change it to reflect Nigerian name. So that is me. Even if Virgin gives me their brand for free, I will not take it, I will still use my local name.

What plans do you have for this airline and the workers?
Thanks for your concern and we appreciate it. Don‘t worry, we will survive. I don‘t think there will be problem at all. I am aware running an airline is very expensive. I know what it is; I have enough of experience to turn around the airline quickly. Normally, turn around takes two years and I implore all of you to join in the turn around, so that you can see things and educate yourself. In the case of Virgin Nigeria; from the diagnosis I have seen, may be in less than one year, we would have been through with the turn around.

What is the future of workers in the airline?
If you are a fraudulent staff, you better start running. If you are not, enjoy yourself and expect your promotion. Let me tell you, its not all turn around that require people to be sacked. Le Meridien was turned around; we never sacked one single staff of Le Meridien. We are increasing the fleet, why are the workers afraid? If you sack them and increase your fleet, who are the people that will come and do the job? An aircraft must have a marginal number of people that will work with it. So, where will you get the people from? What you will do is to restructure them to training. Let me tell you, our turn-around is only limited. Virgin Nigeria is not technically sick, it is financially sick; so the turn around will be directed to finance.

Why did Captain Dapo Olumide resigned as the airline‘s managing director and what is your relationship with Lufthansa Technik and Ethiopian Airways?
This people are doing their job and I don‘t want to interfere with their job because of safety standard. Like I told you Virgin is not technically sick, but financially sick, and we don‘t want the financial sickness to affect technical matters, so that it does not spread. That is why some of you should be careful with your report. I have no issue with Captain Olumide. You people are the ones that removed him from the place. We woke up in the morning and read that he has resigned. 

He was with me here and waited till 6pm. By 10pm, I called him to ask for some data and he gave me. He was going into some details and I said Olu, why don‘t you go and take your rest, let us see tomorrow and he said good night and the following morning when I woke up, I saw newspapers to say that he has resigned. I called his line, it was not going through and we were going to have a staff meeting the same day. When I asked whether he has letter for me, my secretary said he did not have any letter from Dapo, so what do you want me to do as somebody who has just invested that type of money in the place, to just be waiting? I don‘t have issues with him. He is some of the people I have a lot of respect and confidence in. May be somebody misadvised him and he did not look at it very well and he took a wrong action. His career must be managed. If I had wanted to be funny yesterday, I would have said we dismissed him because we did not see his resignation letter.

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