By Tosin Adeoti
When the news of Frank Nneji’s retirement as the founder of ABC Transport reached me on June 30, 2023, it didn’t evoke the expected reaction. As a critic of Nigeria’s entrepreneurial landscape, I was indifferent. However, after delving into the story of a Kaduna-born transport man, I realized he deserves celebration.
Let’s return to a captivating anecdote from Nneji’s childhood when his entrepreneurial spirit began to sprout. At age five, his family’s small table clock mysteriously vanished. Since he was just a kid, nobody bothered to ask him about the whereabouts of the watch. The family searched high and low, their efforts in vain. However, a glimmer of curiosity emerged when someone noticed Nneji frequently pouring water onto the same spot behind the house. Intrigued, they decided to investigate, and to their astonishment, they unearthed the missing clock buried in the ground. It turned out that Nneji had mistakenly believed that watering the watch would make it grow. Though the clock didn’t thrive, this incident unknowingly planted the seed of entrepreneurship in him. Nneji would later discover that multiplication occurs in various forms, is not always literal, and depends on the right conditions.
During his teenage years, Nneji experienced firsthand the concept of multiplication in a practical sense. Observing his schoolmates’ passion for watching football matches and participating in debating competitions, he recognized an opportunity. Instead of individuals or groups making their way to the parks for these events, Nneji proposed arranging for Mammy Wagon drivers to pick them up and drop them off. His idea resonated, and he successfully organized the transportation, collecting payments from his fellow students and keeping a portion as profit.
One might assume that this early entrepreneurial venture naturally led Nneji to establish ABC Transport. However, reality took a different path. While pursuing his studies in biological sciences at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nneji immersed himself in academia, with minor business ventures such as repackaging past questions for resale. It wasn’t until after completing his university education that he found his breakthrough. His exposure to the demand for laboratory and scientific tools during his studies led him to establish Rapido Ventures. From 1984 to 1992, this business thrived and became a major supplier of educational materials across Nigeria and West Africa.
The defining idea that would shape Nneji’s legacy dawned on him during a bus journey from the Southeast to Lagos in 1991. Squeezed uncomfortably beside a woman carrying a crying baby, Nneji couldn’t ignore the woeful state of the road transportation sector. The overcrowded bus continued picking up more passengers until it eventually broke down. This ordeal sparked Nneji’s vision of creating a bus company that prioritized punctuality, passenger comfort, and safety, and even provided refreshments.
With unwavering determination and a clear opportunity, Nneji crafted a comprehensive business plan in 1991 and approached Diamond Bank for a loan. Securing a credit facility of 1.5 million Naira, he leased five HiAce buses, marking the birth of Associated Bus Company (ABC). By February 1993, the distinct reindeer-emblazoned buses hit the roads, initially with a limited number of passengers. However, Nneji remained resolute in his commitment to punctuality.
As the saying goes, every crisis presents an opportunity. On June 12, 1993, when the IBB-led federal government annulled the general election, tension gripped the nation. ABC Transport unexpectedly found itself inundated with passengers seeking reliable transportation amidst the turmoil. Nneji rose to the occasion, expanding the fleet by four buses and equipping the 55-seater Volvo luxury buses with TV and video entertainment systems. To reassure passengers, he also provided accident insurance for each traveller.
ABC Transport continued to expand, solidifying its position as one of Nigeria’s leading transport companies. Nneji introduced advertisements on the back of bus tickets, generating additional monthly income. He broke away from the prevailing practice of employing illiterate drivers by hiring graduates and providing them with intelligent uniforms.
Over time, ABC Transport became the trailblazer, successfully venturing into the West African Coast. The fascinating story of Nneji’s diplomatic engagements with ECOWAS to facilitate cross-border journeys to Accra, Lome, and Porto-Novo unfolded. Thanks to Nneji’s efforts, Nigerians could enjoy comfortable rides to these destinations.
Today, ABC Transport is a multimillion-dollar business that is prominent in Nigeria’s road transportation industry. With a workforce of over 1,200 individuals, the company achieved another milestone by becoming the first to be listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE).
Through a strategic partnership with Shaanxi, China, Nneji’s Transit Support Services revitalized the defunct Anambra Auto Manufacturing Company (ANAMMCO) and commenced the assembly of Shacman Trucks in Nigeria. In 2017 alone, approximately one thousand trucks were assembled, with the Dangote Group emerging as a significant customer.
Furthermore, Nneji’s documentation of the deplorable state of Nigerian roads led to the creation of FERMA (Federal Road Maintenance Agency) under the leadership of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Frank Nneji’s achievements did not go unnoticed, earning him several prestigious awards. He received the Officer of the Order of The Niger (OON) and the 2005 Award of Excellence in Transport Management from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN). The Aba Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines, and Agriculture (ACCIMA) also recognized him as the most outstanding business personality in 2005.
As Frank Nneji embarks on his well-deserved retirement, we can only anticipate the seamless transition of the N1 billion company to his brother, Jude, and the continued progress and success of ABC Transport.