Wednesday, 8 April 2020

I USED TO HAWK SOUVENIRS ON THE STREETS OF FRANCE, SAYS REAL ESTATE BILLIONAIRE, SIJIBOMI OGUNDELE

Sijibomi Ogundele, CEO, Sujimoto Construction Limited
A real estate billionaire and Chief Executive Officer of Sujimoto Construction Limited, Sijibomi Ogundele, is a great man we admire so much. In this interview with him, he speaks about his career, the real estate industry and other issues. This is a very educative, eye-opening and very informative interview. Sit back and enjoy it.

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What can you recall of your background?
I am a Nigerian by birth, African by blood and entrepreneur at heart. I was born into a corporately dynamic family where my father had a nine-to-five job as a manager and my mother was an entrepreneur. I grew up in a bi-religious home. My mum is a Muslim while my father is a Christian. I consider myself a multi-tribal Nigerian. I grew up on the streets of Agege (Lagos) and went to school in the ancient city of Kaduna because my mother was a trader. I was nurtured within the premises of a market, filled with enterprising Igbo traders—and that influenced my passion for business. I am multilingual. I speak Hausa, Yoruba, French, Spanish, a little bit of Arabic and Japanese. I am a pan-African and a global citizen.

Many people think I just came from nowhere but they don’t know what I am made of. From the ages of eight to 12, I grew from owning one motorcycle (okada) to having six; and helping my mother in the market. Would you believe that I even hawked souvenirs on the streets of France?

When did you have a breakthrough in your business?
The Holy Bible says that, ‘A diligent man will stand before kings and not ordinary men’. I have been doing real estate since 1998 when I lived in the South of France as a common agent with no licence. I worked for a Saudi Arabian family that championed me to broker deals, so we did a lot of assets acquisition and distressed deals, mostly in real estate, project financing and so on. Every year, we did about three deals and as a broker, I got some commission. One of my first major breaks in project execution was in 2011, when I bought an apartment in Paris and decided to remodel it. My friends thought I was crazy and lavish. But after I finished the renovation, I organised a party and a friend of mine got interested (in it).  I sold it in less than two months to my friend from Qatar for double the price. The investment flip in such short time re-ignited my interest in real estate and changed my career path forever.

When I finally decided to move back to Nigeria in 2014, I had a vision to ‘liberate’ the Nigerian luxury real estate market and bring true value to customers who are not only tired of architectural mediocrity but also frustrated by value depreciation.

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What drives you?
Poverty drives me. From young age, I have always known that there is no nobility in poverty.  At the tender age of five, my mother would wake us up very early in the morning while my mates were sleeping and she would say to me that ‘Hard work is the cure for poverty.’ Those words have been my driving force.

Also, value creation, innovation, exceptional service and a ‘never give-up’ attitude are my biggest motivations. Nobody likes anybody they don’t get value from. If you are my brother and you are not adding value to me, then I am not ready to do business with you. I have sold crap and I’m now selling luxury and I can tell from experience that it is easier to sell luxury than crap. When you sell luxury, you sell peace of mind and you can afford to go to bed at night, knowing that your clients will be fine for years to come. However, when you sell crap, you are always on the run, because you cannot tell when that client would come calling for your head.

What challenges did you face while carving a niche for yourself?
I must say that our critics are our biggest motivation. Without them, we would not have come this far. I started Sujimoto five years ago and those have been the most difficult years of my life and the economy. Also, because I was doing business in an environment where I didn’t grow up, people didn’t know who Ogundele was, so I had to prove myself by working three times harder.

2016 and 2017 were probably the most difficult and challenging periods of my life. I had conceived and developed the biggest project in my life– over $90m to build the tallest residential building in Sub-Saharan Africa. I invested all my money, time and passion into the project.

Unfortunately for me, the government policies and the economy made my Saudi investors to pull out. The economy was so bad and things became very rough that I had to refund hundreds of millions of naira to the ‘offtakers’ and let go of some of my best hands. However, on the verge of almost giving up, I reassessed my plans, reviewed all my decisions, identified my pain-point and made the much-needed adjustment which included letting go of the land for something much better in Banana Island.

Riding on the wings of criticism and media backlash that followed, I conceived another project in Banana Island. 20 months after, it has metamorphosed from a proof of concept into a proof of product.

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What does it take to build a successful business empire?
Firstly, integrity is the currency of my business. And if one doesn’t have passion for a particular business, one might just go back home. But for me, the most important ingredient of success is being a man of one’s word. Let your word be your bond.

Many people say you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket, but I practice what I call ‘buffetology’.  I do business like I play poker– I go all in. I put all my eggs in one or maximum of two baskets. We think of our customers first, employees second and myself third. I tell my people that the customer is king, because without the customers, we would be out of business.

Do you have any regrets for going into this line of business, or have you ever felt like doing other businesses?
Regrets? None. I see every event in my life as an opportunity for learning and improvement. However, there was a time I almost gave up. In the heat of the 2016/17 economic recession, when the pressure was weighing down heavily on me, I visited my friend’s water factory in Abeokuta and thought about venturing into the water packaging business.

I even went back to Ijebu Igbo (Ogun State) and visited some farms because it seemed agriculture had become the new oil. Some people began convincing me to leave everything and switch to agriculture and farming – something I knew nothing about.

It was a very tough time for me and lots of entrepreneurs in the country but I remembered that my present situation should not determine my destination. I knew in my heart that running away wouldn’t reflect the ‘motomatics’ philosophy I had created. I have never been a runaway loser.

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Will the middle class have access to the luxury services that you provide?
We plan to go into commercial real estate. Our intention is to transform Lekki and Ikeja with contemporary plazas where everyone can shop. It is true that the focus, for us at Sujimoto, is on luxury residential real estate but we have a design and build service that also takes into consideration one’s budget, especially for the middle class family that wants a taste of luxury.

We realised that not everyone wants to buy a ready-made property. Some people have their land and want a bespoke condominium. We can help create breathtaking and contemporary designs, get approval and build it, and transform their dream into a reality, with high-quality fittings and finishing.

What are some of the challenges facing the real estate industry?
When you negotiate the price of greatness, you pay the full price for mediocrity. Our major challenge is a challenge of the mind. There is a need to revamp the old ways of doing things and start replacing our immediate gratification mindset with that of value creation.

The potential of the Nigerian real estate industry has no match and its possibilities and capacity to grow are unbeatable. The shelter demand of the Nigerian real estate industry has not reached even 10 per cent of its potential. If you look at the international marketplace and compare our resources and our potential, you would realise we are still behind in quality real estate.

Many Nigerian developers lack the currency of patience. Their quest for immediate gratification supersedes the need for value creation. We need to develop the real estate sector and move from the ‘quick fix-quick gain’ syndrome, which will continue to leave us in the backwaters of world-class real estate development.

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Does the Nigerian economy favour businesses or frustrate them?
Doing business in Nigeria takes guts and lots of courage. On its own, it is a business school. If you can survive doing business in Nigeria, you will become a king in other seemingly saner climes. Our institutions are not well equipped to support building businesses, let alone finance innovation.  In saner climes, innovative ideas and businesses get adequate support from the government through established institutions.

If Steve Jobs was in Nigeria, he might have ended up in the Computer Village. The Apple brand is a success today not because Steve Jobs and his partner were from wealthy homes, but because they had the necessary support from established institutions. As a business owner, you have to source for funding yourself, generate power, provide basic infrastructure for your business and still pay tax at the end of the day. Indeed, if you are looking for a superman, look no further than the next Nigerian entrepreneur you come across.

What would you describe as your most memorable experience?
There are two days that are memorable in my life. The first was when, at the age of seven, I left Zaria (Kaduna State) and came to Lagos because I was missing my mum. My dad almost killed me. The second was the day I left Nigeria in search of greener pastures. I was only 16 years old. I have always had an adventurous life.

What advice do you have for the youths and struggling entrepreneurs?
Permit me to say that the biggest issue with this generation is the ‘entitlement’ mentality.  No one owes us anything but ourselves. And if we don’t make a sacrifice for whatever we want in life, what we want will become the sacrifice.

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I have travelled all over the world and trust me when I say that Nigeria is the biggest ground for uncommon opportunities. This same opportunity is what brings foreigners to our land and makes them billionaires. Nigeria is the only land where the Lebanese man starts off as a trader and becomes an industrialist; or the Indian starts as a storekeeper and becomes a manufacturer.

What are your hobbies?
I love making deals.

What sports do you like and do you engage in any?
I love playing monopoly and chess.

How do you spend your leisure time?
I like playing chess and having a great time with friends. (Punch)

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