Sell something and make a profit. It sounds simple, but that’s the basis for business. While many study the myriad nuances of business, it all boils down to selling something to a customer and making a profit.
Growing up in Nigeria, Michael Obi
learned that lesson early. “Here in America, people talk about business as if it is such an elusive and complex vocation,” he says. “In the less industrialized nations like Nigeria, it is simple: Buy something for $1 and sell it for $1.20 and you just made a profit. Congratulations, you are a businessman.”
Michael came to the U.S. as a teenager to attend college. He followed in the footsteps of two older brothers at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He attended the Coggin School of Business at the university, receiving a more formal business education that added to the basics he learned out of necessity in Nigeria.
“Here in America, some people will call themselves an entrepreneur for five years with lots of ideas and inventions but have never sold anything. People in places I grew up in do not have that luxury. In a nutshell, my experience is one of survival to sell something and make a profit.”
As a child in Nigeria, Michael grew up around business people. “Some people wanted to become doctors, lawyers and other fancy things,” he recalls. “As for me, I only wanted to be a businessman. When I was seven years old, I sold cold, home-bottled water to people working outside in the hot Nigerian climate.”
He became a banker right after business school and worked for SunTrust, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. KeyBank offered him an executive-level opportunity and after 13 years in Florida, “I was ready to spread my wings and explore. I relocated to the great city of Cleveland in January of 1998.”
Obi launched Spectrum Global Solutions in 2003 and serves as chairman and CEO. Spectrum brings a variety (Spectrum) of ideas and resources from anywhere in the universe (Global) to solve a problem (Solutions). He employs more than 30 people across his multiple businesses here in Cleveland and several others in West Africa.
Spectrum currently has investment portfolios in renewable energy, quick-serve restaurants, consumable goods and manufacturing. It is a “global executions company” that, while based in Cleveland, “leverages the globe in all we do.” Obi shares a phrase from his friend and fellow entrepreneur Ratanjit Sondhe, who says that “the universe is my playground.”
Compare that global mind-set to many NEO businesses. Obi says, “Some people are stuck on the East Side or West Side of Cleveland. They never visit the opposite side to see what goes on over there. We look at opportunities everywhere and leverage diverse talents from around the world. We can have dinner in Lagos, breakfast in Atlanta the next morning and lunch in Cleveland. This is how flat the world is now.”
One of his businesses distributes consumer products in Nigeria. This evolved from a company that Obi’s father started in Nigeria in the 1950s that focused on automobile parts. Obi says, “This is where I learned the skills of buying and selling.” Today they are also distributors of beverages from Italy and serve as purchasing agent for products in China. All from right here in Northeast Ohio.
Spectrum invested in a renewable energy company called Power 360 Degrees. The two-year-old solar energy business aims to solve the shortage of electricity problem in parts of Africa. The North Coast may not have 12 months of sunshine, but as Obi says, “Africa has abundant sun.”
Obi and Spectrum could be based anywhere. “But I really love our region. It has so much to offer. Unfortunately, some of us who relocated to the Cleveland area are more excited about the possibilities than many people who are indigenous.”
Obi recalls that when he was planning the move to Cleveland, a former colleague who grew up in the Cleveland area “was very negative and told me that he left and was never going back. Thank God that I did not allow him to influence me. The Northeast Ohio region has great infrastructure, schools, low-cost commercial real estate, access to nearby cities and ports.”
His major complaint with the region is shared by many in Northeast Ohio – the inconvenience of air travel abroad. Obi hopes for direct flights to major commercial cities in Asia, Africa and Europe.
His long-term vision is to create a manufacturing facility in the Cleveland area. “I see all these old and vacant buildings that used to be factories and warehouses. I would love to transform these facilities into a manufacturing complex and create jobs.”
Obi is an active part of the Urban League’s Entrepreneur Center, which he calls “one of the best-kept secrets and a jewel for entrepreneurs.” He was asked to help build the strategic plan in 2003. The Center opened in 2004 and continues to thrive. The Center has won many awards for helping create and sustain hundreds of businesses in Cleveland.
He is passionate about empowering others through knowledge sharing and is a frequent presenter, coach and seminar leader. This stems from his favorite quote: “One should be ashamed to die without impacting humanity.”
Obi runs his businesses with a sense of urgency. “I have learned that the time we have on the earth is very brief. We must maximize every waking hour.” He was disappointed at the pace when he was an employee in corporate America. “Now that I run my own companies, I make sure that speed is the foundation in everything that we deliver.”
Spectrum’s values statement – “Value is the personality of an organization. It needs to be experienced, not to be told. It needs to be felt in the heart, not to be sold or pitched” – came to Obi as he was working on how to differentiate his business from others. When you meet someone, within a few minutes of interaction you can often size up some of their attributes and style. Obi feels this holds true for a place of business as well, so “it is important to pay attention to every aspect of customer interactions with your staff.”
When you meet Michael Obi, you will size him up as a passionate entrepreneur who lives his mantra: “Let’s wake up each day and make a difference in the world around us.”