His name is Chris. That is what his business associates and friends call him. But his brand name is Chris Aire. He has decked necklines, wrists, fingers and accessorized the big, the bold and the beautiful in Hollywood and sport scenes in the United States of America from just a very small beginning. His gradual return to his fatherland started when he honoured an invitation by the Nigerian government to its people, and foreigners, to take advantage of investment opportunities in Nigeria’s solid minerals sector. His decision to heed the call changed his story. He accepted the invitation, brought himself back to Nigeria and refused to seek government sponsorship for his ‘trade missions’ while spending his hard- earned income to expand the frontiers of business for his fatherland.
Today, Christopher Airemiokhai Iluobe, popularly known as Chris Aire, who jettisoned the lure of oil business, which his father, the late, Chief Joseph Agimenlen Iluobe, one of the founding pioneers oil marketers, had introduced him to, and moved to make a name for himself in the United States, where he had to contend against daily existential odds, has found himself living, working and impacting society in such a manner that his instincts now tell him it’s time to take the plunge and make Nigeria, or a segment of it, better.
His sojourn in America, which spanned close to three decades, was not as rosy as many would want to believe. Only raw grit and determination to excel pushed him through the barriers. In one of his many interviews, he said: “(America) wasn’t as I had imagined when I arrived, partly because I went to Memphis, Tennessee, in the south, which was still pretty segregated. It was not what I expected and I told myself that I would rather return home than stay there”. But rather than return home, he took another risk and moved to California where he had no one to fall back on. He was all to himself in a world that did not reckon with either his skin or accent.
Why did he do that? “Determination”, he would say. He was determined to survive and he worked hard at it. “I started by flipping burgers to put myself through college. I met other Nigerians who told me that the best jobs Nigerians could get were guard jobs or fast food jobs”, he said. Did he accept to do any of those? “That was how I started working in a fast food restaurant”, he said, adding “but I soon decided it was not for me and that I could do better”. He moved on. The enterprising spirit of the Ishan in him, did not let him fall back on where many Nigerians had ended.
His decision to push on made him struggle through the challenges of living in a society alien to his culture, to eventually earn his first academic degree. Back home in Nigeria, Aire had attended Immaculate Conception College, Benin where he graduated with distinction. His father had drawn his attention to his oil business. He worked in his father’s company, Iluobe Oil for more than a year after leaving college. During this time, he had about 100 trailer trucks, transporting diesel a, kerosene and petrol, to manage. But the desire to do much more overwhelmed him. Talking about his father, Aire says “he gave me my first lessons in business”.
Chris however said his refusal to live under his father’s shadow paved the way for him to become who is today. Aire has become a name that most world entertainment superstars and the international business community respect, and appreciate. He created his own business learning from those who did it better. His interest in the jewelry business developed out of his creative abilities and his love for the magic and beauty of gold and gemstones. But his interest was drawn to Hollywood. He was deeply interested. The vagaries of getting involved in the sector pushed
him towards other quests. For this, he settled for music.
“When I finished college, it was impossible for me to go into acting. If you were not connected you could not get into the acting business at the time and I was not connected”, he said. But he was not discouraged. He continued “when I realized that I could not break into it, I put a group together and started making music”.
That decision to break even saw him creating his own music group. It was called Raw Silk. “We did that
for a few years and then broke up and I went solo and started doing my own thing. One of my songs got up to number eight on the American street chart once and had a music video on BET”. But for a young man who wanted to make significant impact and positively affect lives, number eight on American street chart was not inspiring enough. The lure of jewelry was stronger. “I talked to a friend of mine about my interest in the jewelry business and his father happened to be a jeweler. This was during my foray into music. One day his father called me and asked me if I was really serious about pursuing a career in music because it was not taking me anywhere and I wasn’t getting any younger. He invited me to come and learn about the jewelry business since I was always yapping about investing in one. He said at least I would have a job and be earning some money while waiting for my big break”. The idea clicked and Aire’s transformation began.
He was quick to learn and added value to his master’s job by creating exquisite designs that earned more money for his boss. The job he had learnt tasked his creative abilities and that distinguished him in the trade. Aire stared out with $5000 which he saved working for his boss. With that, he rented an office space “where I was my own secretary, designer, salesman, manufacturer and everything rolled into one”, he said adding that “I started in 1996 with that small amount of money but the goodwill I had built was what pushed me over the edge”.
Reflecting on his journey into becoming a jeweler, Aire said: “that amount in starting a jewelry company was absolutely nothing. But what happened in those six years (of apprenticeship) was that I met a lot of high networth individuals within the jewelry community…we all go to the same shows, hang out together. So, working for my boss gave me a platform, which catapulted me into the game. Unbeknownst to me, they had watched me for six years and had an insight into my character. They knew I could be trusted and that I was a serious minded person. This made it easier for them to take a chance on me”.
Aire sold his designs directly and struggled to satisfy his clients with exotic designs. For this, his big break came when a celebrity basketball player, Gary Paton, then of Seattle Supersonics, handed him a $50,000 pay pack for jewelry. “It was unbelievable”, he said. But it further stirred his resolve. He was becoming a success story. Soon, Aire’s designs became known all over the entertainment and sporting communities in the US. And the orders poured in. With the order came the need for him to expand his supply base. He looked all around the world for the best of precious stones to enhance his business chain. He sought for blood-free diamonds and got them. His business grew exponentially and he started getting orders in six figures. Aire had bounced in.
He would diversify and included wrist watches in his designs. As he said: “I created my own brand of wrist watches and put it out and it sold out within two weeks and people were sending me their Rolex watches to trade for Chris Aire watches”.
Despite these, Chris Aire is not satisfied. There is still in him, the hunger to make change happen in his home environment. He sees a whole lot of possibilities in Nigeria. Having refused to succumb where other did, he believes that Nigeria holds a lot of promise with millions of budding entrepreneurs waiting to be nurtured. He also believes that the best is yet to come out of Nigeria. For this reason, he thinks home deeply.
“As I got older, I started rethinking because most of the raw materials I use come from Africa and most Africans are exploited and never really given opportunity to add value to our raw materials. I decided it would be good to come back and set up something that would start to change that”, he said. For this, he had been to Sierra Leone, Guinea and back to Nigeria in the bid to “share the knowledge I had accumulated in the United States”.
Knowledge is a liberating force. Aire wants to share that liberating knowledge that had lifted him from poverty circles. He wants to get involved and have direct impact on the people. Described in many circles as an African pride, Aire is also a Nigerian patriot who has positively hoisted Nigeria’s name and flag globally. He is known for adding value to lives, a feat that has propelled him. While his peers took to other forms to eke a living, Aire burnt candles and even kept his degree aside to become an apprentice. With his skills, he attracted Hollywood to Nigeria and brought Nigeria’s music star, D’Banj into a collaborative duet with Snoop Dog. He had also opened doors for music partnerships for a horde of other Nigerian acts. Always looking for ways to share his wealth with the underprivileged and vulnerable persons in the society, Aire built a computer classroom to improve the quality of education for under privileged primary school children and donates his time to orphanages to support and inspire motherless and fatherless children. All these he does on philanthropy.
Today, the international jewelry business community reckons with him as a man of integrity who delivers on whatever he promises. He has a lot of goodwill that would help attract investments for Nigeria and Africa, even if only in the solid mineral sector. The country would be the winner when the benefits start pouring in. There is no doubt that Aire has worked out a name for himself -a name that Nigeria can tap from.
Knowledge is a liberating force. Aire wants to share that liberating knowledge that had lifted him from poverty circles. He wants to get involved and have direct impact on the people
– Ahmed Yusuf