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Date Published: 05/13/10

Frank Nneji: Salute to Excellence By Uche Ohia

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If there is any man in the challenging Nigerian private sector that deserves to be celebrated on his birthday, it is Frank Uzoawuotu Nneji (OON) who turned 50 on April 30. This man of vision single handedly founded Associated Bus Company (ABC) Transport PLC, built it into a pace-setting flagship of the passenger transport industry and took it to the stock market in a move uncommon with Igbo entrepreneurs. By this achievement, he symbolizes the Nigerian Dream.

Born in Kaduna, Frank Nneji studied Biological Sciences at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) from where he graduated in 1982. Apart from a short stint as Director of Transport in the Students’ Union Government at UNN, little marked him out as the international road transportation revolutionary that he has turned out to become. His father, a retired soldier and his mother, a nurse who hailed from Ezuhu Nguru in Aboh Mbaise Local Government Council of Imo State must have grappled with the challenge of bringing up their nine children of which Frank was one. But then, such large families were popular in that area at the time and monogamous families with eleven or more biological children were common place. Three more children and his mother would have qualified for the fertility feast known in local parlance as “igbu eghu ukwu”.

The first time I met this soft spoken innovator was in 1993. I had been elected into the Management Committee of Aba Sports Club as Grill Secretary and I was shopping for a particular notice board for the club kitchen to replace the obsolete one in use at the time. My search took me to Rapido Ventures Limited located in a flat in a busy block on Wetheral Road, Owerri. As the young man I met was showing me the interesting range of audio visual products on display, another young man came in. I only found out who was the boss when I pushed for a discount. I did not get the discount but I did secure a money-back guarantee – if I was not satisfied with the product. I did return to Rapido Ventures a few more times afterwards not to get my money back but to order more products!

The next time I met the visionary again was in 2004 when he had broken into the big league. This time, the meeting took place in his comfy office at the Corporate Headquarters of Rapido Group along MCC/Uratta Road in Owerri, Imo State which doubled as the command centre of his ABC Transport. He had been nominated for a Vocational Service Award by the Rotary Club of Owerri and his investiture was being planned as part of my installation as President of the club. The secretary had dispatched the notification letter to “Chief Frank Nneji” and the letter was returned to sender. Armed with another letter properly addressed to “Mr. Frank Nneji”, I took it upon myself to deliver it personally.

When I was ushered into his office, he was browsing on a laptop. “Why does your club want to honour me?” he asked immediately after welcome formalities. “Because…” I began as we gazed steadily at each other across his uncluttered desk “…you have revolutionized luxury bus transportation in Nigeria. ABC Transport is a trail-blazer. Your company has become the benchmark in the passenger transport industry. And you have consistently maintained high ethical standards in your operations. You deserve every honour: you deserve to be celebrated” He smiled and picked up the letter to read. I wondered what was going through his mind.

The story of Frank Nneji and ABC Transport is a vintage Nigerian success story. Here is one man that has displayed the right mixture of vision, resilience, discipline and dogged determination. Only those who did not experience long distance travel by bus before the arrival of ABC Transport in 1993 would fail to understand the need to clink glasses in celebration of this great leading light. Before ABC Transport, travelling in the typical “luxury bus” was a nightmare. The industry was dominated by pioneers and second generation operators like Ekenedilichukwu, Ifesinachi, We-We, Chisco, Promoter, The Young Shall Grow, E. Ekesons, etc. Apart from Ekenedilichukwu that tried to deck out it’s staff in blue uniforms and to organize it’s terminals, the industry was generally characterized by disorder, touting, rude and noisy workers. Overloading and reckless driving were the rule rather than the exception and itinerant vendors of cure-all remedies were a pestilence in every bus. Any passenger that tried to caution the driver or his conductor ran the risk of physical assault. And if any bus broke down in the course of the journey as they frequently did, the crew disappeared and passengers were left to face untold risks. It was one such personal experience at Ore that reportedly spurred Frank Nneji to seek a solution to the menace.

The situation changed dramatically when ABC Transport was born. From the outset, ABC Transport was set up to cater for discerning passengers comprising mainly of the middle class. With toilet facilities, air conditioning, on board entertainment, uniformed drivers and attendants, and modern terminals, passengers were given an unprecedented experience of comfort, safety, and courtesy. The industry was standardized through the introduction of speed control, safety monitoring, staff training, recruitment of graduates, etc. Rapid cash transfer (before integrated banking), parcel and cargo express delivery services, budget accommodation, passenger insurance, customer reward schemes, online booking platforms, Coach West Africa, intercity shuttles, etc were thrown into the bargain.

It takes a lot of passion and hard, excruciating work for any idea no matter how good to be transformed into reality in a country like Nigeria. Few private sector players have positively influenced their industry as Frank Nneji has done. And this despite the colossal challenges of insecurity, dilapidated roads, lack of infrastructure, etc. Few men have pursued their vision with such tenacity or shown such consistent high standards of corporate governance and innovation. He deserves to be celebrated. Shall we drink to that?  uchebush@yahoo.com; 0805 1090 050

 

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