Jimoh Ibrahim: I’ve enough experience to turn around Virgin Nigeria

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim
Written by Shola Adeola
Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim is a well known name in business circles as a successful young man who has carved a niche for himself in areas he has ventured into. Recently, he acquired Virgin Nigeria which was established in 2004 under former President Olusegun Obasanjo to replace the defunct national carrier, Nigeria Airways. Virgin Nigeria, which was floated on behalf of the Federal Government by Virgin Atlantic as a core technical partner, was owned 51 per cent  by Nigerian core investors while the remaining 49 per cent went to the Virgin Group. Despite the mixed reactions that have greeted the take over of the airline, Ibrahim, in this interview,  allays such fears even as he spoke with Shola Adekola on his plans to reposition the flag carrier and make it financially viable. Excerpts.

Why did you acquire Virgin Nigeria?
I must thank you very much for your question. Let me say one thing in fairness, the deal for Virgin Nigeria had been on since 2009, but you know it’s 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 to be flying with all the aircraft, we would have done so. We felt that let us quickly look at this deal, and then we can have a merger later and we can then move on. But if I had made up my mind and said  we don’t want Virgin Nigeria, let me use the money for NICON Airways, may be that would have been a different thing, may be also we would not have issues with NICON. The Virgin deal started in 2009, and it went from back and forth till it closed in 2010, some time in April, last Friday.

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 are going back and Branson walked out with the MD, the CEO, and the CFO 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 aircrafts,  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 the 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  going  to  change  the name  of Virgin Nigeria?
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 its in a matter of days.

Where are we now as regards NICON Airways and the fear that Virgin Nigeria may go the way of NICON?
I don’t think anybody should have any fear, that fear is your own fear, your self-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, its now in Sao Tome and Principe. We picked Nigerian rail, and 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 the American Embassy 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 from 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, and 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 could 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, could you have an interview like this with him?

On the issue of Virgin brand and the controversy that trailed the use which reportedly cost the airline N1 billion annually for using the brand. This led to name change to Nigerian Eagle, what airline did you actually buy?
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 its brand for free, I will not take it, I will still use my local name.

What plans do you have in place for repositioning this airline and its survival and workers future?
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 that the airline is much on highly 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.

Considering the sensitivity of aviation industry, why could you not  achieve your aim with NICON Airways rather than Virgin 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 unusual things to get an unusual results. 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 billion, 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.

On workers’ future 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.

Source: www.tribune.com.ng

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