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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

ENTREPRENEURSHIP: CHAIR CENTRE GROUP START-UP & SUCCESS STORY BY MRS IBIKUN AWOSIKA, CEO & FOUNDER - PART 1


Mrs. Ibukun Awosika is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Chair Centre Group, a group of companies involved in furniture manufacturing, retail and bank-way security systems services.

She is a multiple award-winning entrepreneur, and the First Nigerian recipient of the prestigious International Women Entrepreneurial Challenge Award (IWEC). She sits on several high profile corporate and non-profit boards including First Bank, Cadbury and WIMBIZ. She shares her remarkable story to finding and pursuing her destiny.
 
Choosing Direction: The Twists and Turns
In preparing for University, I initially wanted to become a medical doctor. However, I found out from a friend’s brother who was a medical student, that they actually use real corpses for some of their experiments.

This completely put me off and made me abandon the idea. I then aspired to work as an architect because I loved drawing and designing, even though I was a science student, I really loved Fine Art. I however ended up being admitted for Chemistry at the University of Ife.
 
Although I had an excellent academic background, at Methodist Girls High School and even won the Dotun Okubanjo prize for the most outstanding student; I got the shocker of my life when I failed a course in my first year at the university. I couldn’t reconcile what went wrong, so I decided to change my course to Law.

 As a result, I went to the office of the Dean and after waiting for many hours without giving up, he finally agreed to see me. He turned out to be an elderly professor and wondered what this young lady he had never seen before wanted that made her wait endlessly for him.
 
And I just blurted out “I want to change to Law.” The man looked at me for some time, smiled and finally said, “You know what? I like your courage. If I’m going to take anybody from another department into Law next session, it will be you!”

However, he gave me a condition that I must pass very well in my department courses before he could take me in for Law. And this put me in a dilemma because if I passed well, my department would not want to release me, and Law would not take me in if I didn’t do well.
 
At the end of that session, I didn’t want to study Law anymore. And at a time, I became so confused about it all, and later resolved to become an accountant. So I began to take electives in Accountancy and Administration to complete my units and to prepare myself for a career as an accountant. Funny enough, I performed much better in these electives courses than in my department courses.
 
After graduation I naturally proceeded for my NYSC which was in Kano State. I was initially posted to a school to teach chemistry as my primary assignment, but I didn’t want to teach. Rather, I wanted to use my service year to prepare for a career as an accountant by taking ICAN exams.

I returned to the NYSC zonal office and asked to be posted to an accounting firm. The zonal officer did not agree at first, but when I sat at the front of the office of the panel in charge of posting for three days from morning till evening, they finally decided to send me to the Kano office of Akintola Williams & Co. which was what I wanted all along.    

Sadly enough, at the end of the day I realized that I did not want to work as an accountant anymore. From the way I saw it then, the life of an auditor does not allow much room for creativity and use of initiative. Even though I had started ICAN exams, I gave up my ambition to become an accountant and returned to Lagos at the end of my service year with the intentions of getting a job in a bank.

I did not want to sit at home doing nothing while awaiting the bank job. The first job I could get whilst waiting for the bank job was in a furniture company. I had gone to see Fola Adeola, one of my adopted big brothers, who gave me a note to the MD of the company, and after being interviewed, I was offered a job at the Ikoyi showroom of the company.
 
The Path to Destiny
I am grateful to Fola Adeola for being the vessel through whom God used to set me on the path to my destiny. I didn’t know about the furniture business then, neither did I have any desire to start a furniture manufacturing business, but that singular act of sending me to this company for employment, which was the biggest and most beautiful furniture company around then, was a destiny-definer for me.

 As it turned out, I only lasted three and half months in this furniture company. But during this period I discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed the process of changing space by using furniture and furniture accessories. I also derived so much pleasure in advising and counseling people on how to go about it.


One day while at work, a gentleman, brother of a friend of mine who was an architect walked into the showroom to make enquiries about some furniture he needed for a project he was working on. Later, we sat together to talk and I shared with him my dream to start a furniture manufacturing business of my own with a different structure and values, then he told me he was interested in the business idea, and I should contact him whenever I was ready.
 
Going into Furniture Manufacturing
Eventually when I felt that I had enough experience and was going to start out on my own, with absolutely no money, I called him and asked if he was still interested in us working as partners. I thought we would be the perfect duo in business terms, with him being an architect and I selling the furniture.

We started the business using the name Quebees Limited, a company he’d registered. The partnership took off with me working in one room office in his office in Oyingbo. I hired a carpenter who in turn helped me to hire the other members of the team of seven that I started with. Our first upholstery job was for the family of a friend of my youngest sister.

We did the job at the back of our house then at Aguda, using my mother’s sewing machine. After this job, we got another job given to us by a new bank through Tayo Aderinokun, where we initially made samples of paper trays and computer tables. Later on, other referrals from many of the bank staff got us all sorts of other jobs for their home furniture.

From an uncompleted house next to my carpenter’s house in Ejigbo, we moved to an abandoned building at Papa Ajao which belonged to my partner’s father, so we rented it from him and raised a shed there which we divided into different sections of our operations.

Gradually we started buying tools from the profit we were making, and since then we never looked back, transforming into The Chair Centre Limited in 1989 and Sokoa Chair Centre Limited in 2005, a joint venture with Sokoa SA of France.

Finding Opportunities in Challenges
Sokoa came from a response to the ban on importation of furniture by the Nigerian government in January 2004. By this time, our business model was based on producing our CKD components outside for assembling in Nigeria. For some, the option was to resort to smuggling as a means of staying in business, but because of whom we are and our core values, smuggling was not an option.
 
However, with God-induced boldness, I went to Sokoa SA of France and discussed with them on the need to come to Nigeria with me. They laughed at first, because as a company which did not have any investment outside of the shores of France at the time, Nigeria was the least attractive place they would have considered if they had wanted to start a foreign investment, considering all the things that have been said about us, but I was undeterred.

We held series of meetings for two days, and then I left. A few weeks later, they sent me a memorandum of understanding stating their intention to come into the venture with technical support and very little investment which I accepted, knowing that God would do the rest. I continued working with my financial advisers, Frontier Capital, on the project and later on, Sokoa SA agreed to increase their investment in the Nigerian project to 21%.

With their full participation guarantee, we had the confidence to approach the banks for their participation under the SMEIS scheme. Guaranty Trust Bank bought into the venture with a 32% shareholding, two of my friends hold 5% each, while I hold 37%.

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