Thursday, 3 January 2008

Tribute to Felix Ohiwerei

By Mac Ovbiagele

BARELY three weeks ago, Nigeria's foremost drinks conglomerate, Nigerian Breweries Plc, sent off its Chairman, Felix O. A. Ohiwerei, in a lavish reception at The Civic Centre on Victoria Island, Lagos. In what the company tagged a Celebration of Excellence, speaker after speaker, whether through ad-libs or prepared text, extolled the virtues of this manager per excellence, who packed in 45 memorable years of meritorious service into Nigerian Breweries.

Visiting Heineken Director for Africa and the Middle East, personable Frank de Man, could not have put it any better when he described FOA as a key enabler of the company's success over the years and suggested the man was a compelling subject of study and research, in frontline universities with faculties of Business Administration and Management.

That was one evening, in which the many speeches had a reverberating resonance, more of truth than just compliance with protocol and convention. Even stand-up Orator, Ali Baba, let FOA go free, without scratches in the face. From the MD/CEO Mikiel Hermiij, whose welcome address blossomed into a full-blown toast of a visionary leader, to Professor Jadesola Akande, who announced the company's gift package of a grant to the Lagos Business School, Pan African University and the establishment of a Vocational Centre in Lagos, all at FOA's behest. Then add the contribution of another non-executive director, Ishmael Yamson's stimulating account, which will be remembered a long time, for both its poetic beauty and inspired delivery.

This writer first met FOA when he came calling as a member of Nigerian Breweries team, at a formal presentation in 1969. Then the biggest and arguably the most professional advertising agency at the time, was unveiling a new all-media subject for a lager beer. As such outings go, we had done our homework like mad, only just managing to contain our excitement about a campaign we thought would leave consumers die-hard loyalists of Star beer, for life.

With the creative work completed, Lintas then proceeded to field its first team - Norman Foreman, Tony French, Ifeanyi Moemeke, Olu Falomo, Erhabor Emokpae of blessed memory, Ted Mukoro and Creative Director, Hugh Andrews; all of them veterans of countless and I should add successful, high-profile pitches. This writer was there, as "Johny just come" Trainee Client Service Executive, strictly to be seen, not heard.

The moment arrived soon enough for the big masquarade to dance. Hugh turned it on, piping hot. A delicate frame, slightly bent it would seem, by a disproportionate weightload of wisdom, a re-assuring crown of grey hair, which in a way accentuated the deeper hue of grey matter inside, from which the ad agency had profited, in many a campaign. He was truly in his elements. Then bingo! Time for Client's reaction, which any honest agency professional will tell you, is always guaranteed to offer either joy or tears, hardly both.

Step by step, through logic and copious explanations from someone who knew his onions and had considered not just both, but all sides. FOA, in a manner of speaking, broke down our premises and ripped the campaign apart, in minutes. His final comment on that fateful day, still rings clear in my ears - ", this campaign platform cannot bear the weight of the product promise on offer." After a critical and dispassionate re-appraisal in-house, we found he was apparently right.

It must be said that many of us were comforted, and in later years impressed, that FOA had and even to this day, still demonstrates the courage of conviction, even if it is against the grain of popular or majority opinion.

As I had no speaking role during the entire presentation, I lapped up the reward of spare time, to soak it all in. To confess,I was bowled over by FOA's decency of language, his humility, a pleasing civilization I later discovered, derives from a nobility of birth. He left me with no choice that day, but to go scampering to register, as a fan.

FOA also contributed so much to the development of the Advertising industry. He was a strong advocate of meaningful and enhanced remuneration for the advertising effort in the success of brands. The Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria gave due recognition to this fact when the body conferred Fellowship on him in 1994.

Quite a number of us, were multiple beneficiaries of FOA's admonition, if not veiled threat to Agency management, that personnel servicing their brands be deep-fried and well-seasoned, through regular quality training both here and abroad. That way, he reckoned, personnel on both the Client and Agency teams would sing from the same sheet and reap the fullest dividends of a tune, that is amplified by the unitary harmony of the various parts.

As he rose in response to Henry Nzekwu's summons to thank the gathering, he let all know in characteristic modesty, that it is to God and Him alone, that the success of his tenure was directly traceable. FOA claims to have trusted an unknown future to a known God. First, it was Nigerian Breweries he chose, from the stack of competitive openings at the time in 1962 and had the good fortune of earning his pips from tough but supportive bosses. Then the good luck of having a team that responded to him positively, on the ready. But above all, he celebrates God's gift of his sweetheart, one and only Janet Alero Ohiwerei, his wife of 40 years plus, with whom he lives in conjugal bliss; a union that has begotten bright, front-running offsprings. A family friend once summed up his family life in this sound-byte:- "....Felix is very family".

It is people like FOA that that Management scientist, Andrall Peason had in mind, when he cast an intense focus on what he called "sustained superior performance". Local and international business community will continue to respect this man as a valiant crusader for the highest possible standard of ethics in business, an unrepentant campaigner of due diligence, passionate apostle of integrity, a talented manager of men, material and matters, an exemplar of virtue.
So, there he goes, Felix Omoikhoje Aizobeoje Ohiwerei, OFR, loaded to the kilt as it were, with so rich a reputation, even the best supermarkets in the world do not stock. I have not ceased to wonder just why God blessed one man, so much. What a man!

Ovbiagele is a company executive in Lagos

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