By Lekan Bilesanmi
It was a rough beginning for him.He abandoned school after his father died and took to motorcycle spare parts apprenticeship. After finishing and practising the trade for some time, he moved to the motor parts business. Then he dabbled into bulldozer parts business and equipment leasing.
Today, Chief Ben Emeka is the Group Chairman/Managing Director of New Idea Asphalt Plant Limited and Chiben Oil Company, among others. In the course of his business activities, he educated himself to the university level. Emeka’s philanthropy is legendary. He rebuilt a church for the Anglican Communion in his Umuleri community destroyed during their communal war in the 90s. He is also building roads for the community. Emeka tells his rags-to-riches story.
How did it all start?
I finished my primary education in 1973, that was at Saint Gabriel Primary School, Otuocha, Umuleri, but, that same year my father died; so, there was no other person to take care of my education, and I had to stop going to school. In the meantime, I sought the assistance of my immediate brother who was based in the North to learn to trade in motorcycle spare parts. I did that for two years.
Why motorcycle spare parts?
The decision to go into that was taken by my senior brother since our breadwinner, our father, was gone. I had to relocate to Sokoto where he was based to learn the trade under him. It was the only sensible thing to do at that time. If I didn’t want to go hungry, the only option was to run down to Sokoto to learn the trade.
This was what I was doing before I began mine in 1975 and, when God started blessing me, in 1980, I moved from motorcycle spare parts to motor spare parts and learnt the trade for another six months before I started mine. I was dealing in Toyota spare parts and, suddenly, this new venture was booming so fast that I thought I should look for a bigger venture and that was how I ventured into bulldozer spare parts, and, just as other ventures were moving, this bulldozer parts business too was moving for me.
I was still in Sokoto then. But, in 1990, when the religious crisis in the North was becoming serious, I thought it was best to return to Aba . But while I was doing this business in Sokoto, I was also conscious of the desire to further my education, and that was why I attended private coaching lessons so that I could write my GCE.
I passed the GCE at the first sitting. In 1994, I moved down to Port Harcourt where I saw a lot of educational opportunities and that was how I enrolled in the University of Science and Technology for my business administration programme and, after five years, I graduated.
After my graduation, I moved from bulldozer spare parts to bulldozer equipment leasing. But, in the course of the leasing, I discovered that majority of the people I was doing business with were construction companies, so the thought came to my mind to float a construction firm.
That was how New Idea Construction Company came about in 1999. When New Idea came into the construction industry, it was a very turbulent challenge for me. Where ever I went to bid for jobs , the first thing they would ask was, ‘what have you done before?’ Unfortunately I had not done any.
What I did was to start building houses for my friends and a couple for myself; by so doing, I was gradually building up my C.V and finally I was able to break through into the industry by getting a road construction work from Agip Oil Company Nigeria, a two-kilometer road in Aga, Rivers State.
I was given one year to complete the road, but, because of the professionals engineers I hired for the job and the commitment and zeal we showed, we were able to finish it under six months. And the company was very happy about the quality and the pace of the job that they awarded us another contract; that was how I had my breakthrough in the construction industry.
From there, it was no longer a problem of showing what I had done before as I was being asked. New Idea Construction Company today is a name to be reckoned with in the industry. About 60% of the roads in Abia are being handled by New Idea. Some roads in Imo State were also done by New Idea. We have a lot of jobs with Federal Road Maintenance
Agency, FERMA, a federal agency.
Why I married early?
I got married in 1986, the same year I met my wife. I married early unlike many other Ibos. There are so many factors that would make an Ibo man not to marry on time. One of them is economic factor. He would want to have a place he can call his home before he can talk about marriage.
He would want his business to be doing well before bringing a woman into the house. But, in my own case, by 27, I had built a storey building of four flats. By this time, I was already established financially. So there was nothing left that I should be waiting for other than a woman to be my wife.
And I am happy I took that decision to marry early because, by 1988, I already had my first son who is now a graduate of civil engineering from the University of Wales, London. He is currently doing his master’s in France. My second son, born 1989, is a medical student in Hungary.
My daughter, the third child, just finished her youth service. The fourth is studying in the UK. The two other ones who are the babies of the house are schooling here in Nigeria. That is what early marriage has produced for me.
What brought about the idea of building a Cathedral for your church?
You may have heard of the Umuleri and Aguleri communal war in the 90s. There was one in 1995 and, in 1999, there was another. The one in 1999 was so devastating that every house in my community was either burnt or pulled down. In the case of the Cathedral , it was not just burnt, it was also pulled down to its foundation.
And after the war, for three to four years, the Anglican Communion in Umuleri had no place of worship, and it became a painful thing. The vision of doing something about the church came to me one day. God told me in the vision that I should go and build a brand new church and deliver to my people.
So, I went to my bishop and the parish priest about the vision even though I didn’t have the money stached somewhere; both men of God and members of the church prayed for me and then handed over the plan of the building of the church to me.
And as if that was what God was waiting for before He manifested His will on me, the moment the foundation was laid, I started getting jobs everywhere, from state and federal governments. And I never lacked one kobo from the day we laid the foundation of the building up to the time we handed it over to the church; it was blessings galore.
The workers were working day and night, the Cathedral was completed under eleven months because we never stopped work on it even for a day. By 2007, the church was dedicated by the Primate, Church of Nigeria and, today, it is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Niger-West because, when they wanted to create more Dioceses in the Anglican Communion, they found the church as the most suitable to be used as the Cathedral headquarters and all the Cathedral status was given to it.
That should be when I lost my mother in 2003. Her death was particularly sad not because she was my mum but also because the communal war made her death worse for me. My mother died in Port Harcourt. I had to bring her over to Port Harcourt because of the war.
So she died in exile. But, at the time she died, my house in the village was not conducive for her to be buried there because of the fallouts of the war as, shortly after the war, you would see armed robbers, miscreants all over the place. You could not come to this place easily if you were wealthy.
It was a sad moment because there is really nothing more painful than not knowing how to bury your dead. After some months, I had to summon courage, went to the police, they gave me protection, we brought the corpse to the village, the same day, we buried her, and, in the evening of that same day, even with the presence of the police, I had to quickly leave the town because the community was hot at that time.
From my story so far, you can see that I am a blessed man. I am a happy person and that is why it gives me joy to give a helping hand whenever I am opportune. There is really nothing that makes me happy more than putting smiles on peoples faces.