When Michael Ibru began the production and the marketing of frozen fish in Nigeria in 1957, many thought it was a ridiculous business idea. There was no appetite for the product then, and even earlier attempts by Europeans to introduce a similar venture had failed. But a daring Ibru, who had then just entered the world of commerce and only in his mid-20s, presented frozen fish before Nigerians even while they mockingly labeled his product ‘mortuary fish’.
A man with an entrepreneurial spirit and a creative genius right from birth, Ibru wanted to move away from the business of ready-made products that other Nigerian businessmen were engaged in at the time. And with a robust campaign, he was able to successfully convince Nigeria that frozen fish was good.
Setting up distribution depots throughout the country, Ibru prospered, moving beyond his original frozen fish business into other ventures with his trading company Laibru, which would become one of the largest indigenous conglomerates in Africa.
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Ibru’s immediate younger brother, Felix Ibru, has always been happy but not surprised at his brother’s feat, considering how curious he was growing up. The first of seven children, Ibru was born in 1930 into the family of Epete Ibru, a missionary worker and a former nursing superintendent. Ibru’s mother, Janet Omotogor Ibru, sold fish in the creeks of Niger Delta to help manage the home at a period many were finding it difficult to come to terms with the new colonial world.
Ibru, while in school, did not only excel in academics but in extracurricular activities as well. By 1948, he had moved straight from Elementary School to Secondary Class 2, later passing the Cambridge School Certificate Examination with Distinction, according to his biography.
From school, he joined the United African Company (now UACN) in 1951 as manager-in-training, and this was where he met Englishman Jimmy Large, who helped him create Laibru. The trading company subsequently ventured into the frozen fish market where others dared not penetrate — and it succeeded.
With demand for seafood at the time surpassing fresh catches, Ibru knew that there was a gap that needed to be filled. So defying all odds, he rolled out his frozen fish business idea with full support from his family and market women from his ethnic group Urhobo, who were the first Nigerians to embrace his frozen fish.
Soon, the wider population followed, and by the mid-1960s, Ibru had become a millionaire from fish trading. In fact, Ibru Sea Foods, an importing company he later founded, eventually held about 60 percent of Nigeria’s emerging frozen fish market, raking in 90 million naira (now about 235,000 dollars) annually by the 1970s.
By this period, enterprising businessman Ibru had become the owner of Aden Farm, a large palm oil, citrus and pineapple plantation as well as Mitchell Farm, which he purchased in 1973 from its American owners, Alizar. The farm became the largest supplier of day-old chicks and processed poultry in West Africa.
That wasn’t all for Ibru. The business giant also established Rutam, a transportation arm of his business that marketed and distributed Mazda, Jeep, Saviem, and Tata brands of automobiles. Then there was Nigerian Hardwoods — logging, sawmilling, and wood processing company he acquired in 1974.
Ibru also expanded into the following ventures: petroleum oil and storage (Ibafon Oil Limited); banking (Oceanic Bank); aviation (Aero Contractors); publishing (The Guardian); beer brewing (in his home town, Agbarha-Otor); hospitality (Ikeja Hotels Plc – Lagos Sheraton and Federal Palace Hotels); and insurance (Minet Nigeria Ltd), cited in his Obituary in 2016.
Today, though he is no more, his Ibru Organization, which has continued to grow through acquisitions and joint ventures in diverse businesses, “remains unequaled in the quality and types of products that it offers to the public,” writes Urhobo Historical Society.
But many agree that his business success wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous contributions of his immediate family. Apart from his younger brother, Felix, serving as a part-time clerk for Laibru, Ibru’s father was “the company’s bank” — ensuring that Ibru’s monies were safeguarded in a vault and watching over it. Ibru’s mother, who sold fish, helped in the pricing of her son’s frozen fish once it entered the market.
Along the way, Ibru’s other siblings, children, wives, and fellow Urhobo men and women including Nigerians from other ethnicities would come on board to see his businesses flourish.
Among the many awards for Ibru was the Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), Outstanding Businessman Award of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the prestigious Dr. Kwame Nkrumah Excellence in Enterprise Award and the Chief Mukoro Mowoe Service Award presented to him by the Urhobo nation in 2004.
That Chief Mukoro Mowoe Service Award, according to his biography, was for his “peerless performance in pioneering commerce and industry; trusting and employing large numbers of Urhobos; supporting and participating in Urhobo causes and traditions; and generally uplifting the image and name of Urhobo.”