Mrs. Ibukun Awosika is a multiple award winning entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of the Chair Centre Group. She is the first female and youngest chairman of First bank Nigeria. She also chairs the House of Tara board and serves on several boards including Cadbury Nigeria and The Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority.
The first time I met Mrs. Awosika was at a board meeting. I was 27 years old and I had just been nominated to serve on the board of House of Tara. Although I was confident about the skills I brought to the table, I had zero board experience at the time and was intimidated by the combined experience of the people in that boardroom, especially Mrs. Awosika. In fact I was convinced they were all thinking ‘who is this small rat?’ LOL. So when we were asked to introduce ourselves and say a few words about our vision for the company and what we hoped to achieve, I ended my little speech by saying, I know I’m the youngest but I’m looking forward to learning from the wealth of experience in this room. Mrs. Awosika turned to me and said something that has stuck with me she told me that I needed to leave my age at the door and own my position, to stop underestimating myself because I’ve earned my place at the table and would bring a perspective that others could learn from. Working with her on the board of House of Tara has been an amazing experience. Every board meeting with her feels like an extended MBA because she’s a fountain of knowledge and I’m in awe of the way her mind works. It’s no wonder she has added value to so many companies.
Here are some life and money lessons she had to share
There is a lot of excitement around your nomination as Chairperson of First bank Nigeria. It is one of the oldest banks and has never had a female chairperson and certainly no one as young as you. How did you react to the news?
I was in England at the time, it was my son’s 21st birthday and we were having a party in our country home in Canterbury. We were setting up and I was walking from the marquee to the main house when I got the call. It was a surprise but I was very calm. I walked back to the Marquee to tell my husband and sons the good news. They were so ‘tripped’ but I immediately walked back to the house, went to the dining area and lay on the ground and started praying because I had to give it to God. It was exciting news but it was important to me not to get carried away.
It’s evident that a support system is important to you. You have managed to build a successful business, sit on several boards while being a wife and mother to 3 boys. What advice do you have for young women who are inspired by your career but are finding it difficult to balance it all?
My husband is my gift. He is my support system and takes absolute pride in everything I do. So the life partner you choose is extremely important. I think these days young women get carried away by how handsome or rich a man is and money shouldn’t be a measurement when choosing a husband.
I think that before picking a husband, you have to know yourself first.
Women need to realize that they come first and should spend more time nurturing their vision and ambitions. Every life has an assignment and you are accountable to God to carry out that assignment and when choosing a life partner you want look for someone that has been assigned to help you fulfill your purpose.
Many people have great business ideas and are often great when it comes to marketing and sales but they often run away from understanding the financials of the business because they do not like numbers. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs with a non-finance background?
As you go along in business, it would be foolish if you don’t have an understanding of the numbers that underpin your business. You don’t have to become an accountant you can hire someone to put the numbers together for you. However, your accountant keeps your books and stores the information but YOU have to know how to interpret those figures because numbers speak and you cant make any concrete decisions without knowing what the numbers are saying.
Entrepreneurs need to learn not to be scared of what they don’t know. Just by virtue of how our university degrees are designed, you can be skilled in one area but there’s still so much you don’t know. So it’s important to keep an open mind to receive knowledge. When I was going to Lagos Business School for the CEO’s program they offered ‘Accounting for non-accountants’ but you had to come a few weeks ahead to take the course because it was optional but because I knew it was something that would help me in my business, I took the time out.
You don’t have to get an MBA, you can get your friend who is an accountant to help you, take one or two day training courses at LBS, get an audit trainee to explain it to you or use university of Google to find pricing models or valuation models. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know just ask. Its ok not to know just make it your business to learn what you don’t know.
Women are often accused of having kitchen table ideas and not dreaming big enough and in order for them to build businesses that have any significant impact they have to build scalable businesses. However in this environment scaling a business is difficult. What would you say are the most important factors that contribute to scaling a business?
Any business is scalable but proof of concept is required. You must evaluate the market potential for the business you are going into. If there is market potential then you have scalability.
I believe in starting small and testing your idea using a focus group that is made up of your target audience because there is a difference between what you think the market wants and what the market really needs. For example, we saw a gap in the market for affordable furniture for middle class people. So we created a focus group made up of my 24 year old son and his friends who had just moved back to Nigeria, had just started working and couldn’t possibly afford furniture in the millions of naira. You may not really get all the answers from the focus group, so you have to keep checking that information, establish trends and keep challenging your processes.
To be scalable you also have to have the patience to move in stages. For example, Sweet Kiwi the yoghurt place has two branches but the first store would have given her learnings that she would use for the second store. You could also consider having two business models within the same business. Hans and Rene has one location that sells out on the weekend but also have carts that are moveable so you have a new income stream being mobile on the days that are slow.
You are a founding member of WIMBIZ (Women in Business Management and Public service) and a past chairperson of the organizations Board of Trustees. One of the major goals for WIMBIZ is to get more women on boards and in leadership positions. What advice do you have for young female entrepreneurs on how to position themselves for board nominations? When they do get nominated what skills do they need to acquire to stay relevant and make an impact?
There’s no real way to position yourself for board nominations. You just have to focus on being competent at what you do, your value system is major and to be quite honest your character will be placed above your competence. It is people that recommend other people for board positions, so just focus on working hard and doing your very best because you never know who is watching and people are always watching. Focus on mastering your skills, becoming a master in that area and leaving a positive mark wherever you work. Also you have to focus on building your profile and invest in programs that develop you because the first thing they ask for when you are being nominated for a board seat is your cv.
When I was going back to school to get my MBA all my friends thought I was crazy because the money I spent was what people used to buy houses about 130,000 euros in 18 months.
With regards to skills in the boardroom, it’s really about learning to listen and relate with people because you must all work together.
In order for a business to build capacity it needs to be able to develop a team. However, hiring in Nigeria is probably one of the top 3 problems sited by entrepreneurs. How have you been able to navigate that and what advice do you have for entrepreneurs on the issue of hiring?
Hiring can be really challenging because the quality of graduates that our universities churn out these days can be sub optimal. Which is why we set up AGDC (Afterschool Graduate Centre) a facility that helps to address youth employability and enterprise issues in Nigeria. However, you have to learn to develop people because you didn’t learn everything in one day, so you have to invest in building people, give them time and opportunity to learn.
I have had some serious challenges with hiring in the past in fact I have even fired an entire factory before. We had given our word to a client that their office furniture would be ready by the weekend for an event they were having then we discovered that there was a Muslim holiday, so there wouldn’t be enough time to complete the work unless we worked through the weekend. It is extremely important for me to keep my word to my customers and not give excuses, so I went to the factory to plead with my workers and offered to pay them extra if we could work through the weekend to complete the job. They planned amongst themselves that they all weren’t going to show up because they figured she can’t possibly fire the whole factory. So I did! I fired them all and spent the next couple of days getting carpenters from wherever I could to get the work done. So when they came to work on Monday I had termination letters waiting for each of them. They got upset and locked me in the factory. At the time I was in my 20s and pregnant with my first child but I stood my ground. We eventually rehired some of them but they had to reapply for their positions.
In order to develop your staff effectively you also have to be able to measure performance. Set KPIs (Key performance indicators) and review their performance based on the set KPIs every month, so when they are not performing and you fire them they know why.
There will always be challenges but you can’t give up on developing and training your staff. Nigerians are more trainable than you know. For example, when we were setting up the SOKOA chair center business in 2005 which is owned by myself, the SOKOA SA of France, Gtbank and some local investors we had to send 5 of our staff to France for training. The French guys who were training said it would take at least 3 months to cover the basic curriculum and about 9 months to learn the full curriculum. It took our guys 6-7 weeks to learn the entire 9-month curriculum.
We need to create jobs in this country and the only way to do that is to create businesses. My major drive is to empower people how will create a million new businesses that can scale and create at least 2 million new jobs.
What has been your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
I don’t like to use the word failure. Failure is an attitude and it doesn’t exist in my world because failure shuts you down and makes you think you should give up and I don’t believe in giving up. I prefer to use the word challenges because challenges say I am at war and I’m not going to give up plus it doesn’t give room for any situation to crystalize. In fact every time my business has experienced major growth it has been on the back of trouble because when you are facing challenges it forces you to be creative.
For example, in 1994 when we only made Furniture, Tayo Aderiokun, the former MD of Gtbank told me they needed security doors for the bank and asked me to make enquiries on their behalf. I went to Italy to get the information they required but the Italian manufacturers said they did not have a policy of selling directly to end users. Then it hit me that I should do it! So I bought the rights to distribute in West Africa.
This was in 94 when the power situation was even more abysmal than it is now so many people told me I was making a mistake because the intermittent power supply would not allow the security doors to work the way they do abroad and at first they were right because the doors became problematic. I remember a period when I would wake up to pray every morning and say “God please let the doors in Aba be working today’. Although we were the first to bring the security doors to Nigeria, more people entered the market and were supplying the security doors. I realized that the people who would stay in business would be those who could keep those doors working, so I decided to invest in flying a maintenance crew of engineers from Italy. Eventually a lot of the other companies went out of business because they were not able to deal with maintenance. It was hard but we persevered and people even started saying’ if its not the chair center one, I don’t want it’.
Years later, even the factory in Italy was going out of business and Chair center bought the rights and the factory in Italy and started manufacturing in Italy (with a Nigerian Flag) not just for the Nigerian market but began producing for other countries as well.
There is no one that is at the top legally and has any substance that can say they haven’t faced any challenges. The challenges of your life are your business and the things that help build your character. You will face challenges but don’t let them overcome you.
What tips do you have for young entrepreneurs to achieve financial success?
You have to be able to prioritize investing in yourself and your business. When you are starting out you can afford to delay some purchases, bags, cars etc. The first few years of my business my friends would call me ‘Ijebu’ because I refused to buy a car for a long time, I would take taxis everywhere. This was because I knew I had to put my business first. I had committed to a capital-intensive business so a new machine was more important to me at that point than a new car.
Also, its important to identify your knowledge gaps, what you know and what you don’t know. Then invest in programs that help you close those gaps. Instead of one designer bag, invest in a designer program.
Even if everybody else deceives you don’t deceive yourself because the knowledge you have s your power and nobody can take it away from you.
Surround yourself with people who are also on a quest. I see myself as someone who is made up of Assets and liabilities. My Assets are my strengths and my liabilities are my weaknesses. So I generally don’t do things I can’t do well. I’ll find people who have more skill in that area so I can focus on the things that I am good at and can do well. I find people who have assets in my liabilities that can contribute to my success. Everybody in your life has a value they bring. You can never pay anyone enough for them to give you what you want; they can only give you what they want to give. The way you manage those relationships is important because the things they do I cannot do for myself.
This woman is just awesome…this is what it looks like when you are living for a purpose that is bigger than you…from all the boards she serves on, to her missionary work, the ignite program and her passion for entrepreneurship, it’s clear that she lives to drive impact!