The bad news came down the telephone to the chair queen of Nigeria. Ibukun Awosika, just home from a business trip to Barcelona, sat on her bed in her Lagos home, working on her computer, when the telephone rang on January 7, 2004—her worst day. On this day her furniture business, that had taken years of suffering to build, hung by a thread.
It was a body blow even for an entrepreneur as feisty and resilient as Awosika. To say Awosika is a formidable woman is a bit like saying Usain Bolt can run. Her company turns out 500 chairs-a-week; if you are reading this in an office in West Africa, there is a very good chance you are sitting on one of them.
“I am not frightened of anybody,” she says during our meeting at her luxury home and you can quite believe her.
This tenacity reaches back to her roots in Ibadan, Oyo state, where she was born on December 24, 1962. Her parents, a food technologist and a fashion designer, worked away, so Awosika was brought up by her grandmother, who ran a salt shop. This was where she learned her first lessons in trading, bargaining and being an entrepreneur.
“I actually didn’t grow up wanting to be an entrepreneur. That was never part of the dream. I wanted to be a doctor when I was in secondary school, later on an architect but I eventually ended up in university graduating with my first degree in chemistry. I also took many free electives in accounting as I had a keen interest in banking,” she says.
A banking job took its time to materialize, so Awosika filled her days by working in sales at a furniture company. The job lasted a mere three months, but the passion for the furniture game has lasted a lifetime. Awosika saw a gap and set up her own operation, the first step on the way to a net worth of more than 3 billion naira ($18.6 million).
“It was called Quebees Limited. We started operations in January 1989 with two carpenters, two sprayers and two upholsterers. We worked from the back of my father’s house, then in an incomplete building next to my chief-carpenter’s house, for a while until we were able to find alternative working space… I had no money to start with. The carpenters came with their own tools, I rented the machines we used to spray. All I needed to do, was find my first job. My first job was from a bank to make wooden paper trays, wooden dustbins and computer stands,” she says.
Awosika needed a big contract to establish her business and took the chance of exhibiting at a furniture show where her chairs caught the eye of Texaco Nigeria Ltd, which was looking for a company to furnish its headquarters. To close the deal, Awosika put on her high heels and headed for the Texaco head office in Lagos.
“I walked into the office of the secretary of the chairman of the executive committee of Texaco on the day we had to sign for the contract. The secretary said to me, ‘We’re waiting for the MD of Quebees furniture’ and I responded ‘Yes, that’s me”. She called her boss and said, ‘the MD of Quebees is here”. He walked in, looked at me with a very surprised expression, ‘You are the MD of Quebees?’ he asked. I said, ‘Yes”. He asked: ‘Are you sure you can do this job?’ I responded, ‘Yes, I can,’ she says.
“I had learnt to be confident as I had always received the same reaction from people, being a young lady who was running her business. I noticed he had a business card on his desk with a familiar surname. I immediately asked if he was related to one of my peers back at school. It turned out he was my mate’s father. Doing that job and delivering on it, opened a lot of new doors and opportunities for us.”
Awosika was on a roll and on the way to a dominant position in the market. The final piece in the jigsaw was a deal with French chair manufacturer, Sokoa, a company with a €10 million ($12.3 million) capitalization, to import furniture raw material into West Africa. It made her a fortune until, she received a phone call one night in January 2004, like a bolt from the blue…
“I got a call from the former manager of Guaranty Trust Bank saying that furniture material importation had been banned. I took a breath, paused for a minute, and then said, ‘It is well”. He responded, ‘It is well? How can it be well? They have just shut your business down!’ I responded, ‘I’m sure, God has me covered, one way or the other,’” she says.
Awosika had to think fast. The government was adamant that the ban on furniture material imports—in the interests of stimulating Nigerian industry—was there to stay. For Awosika, to delay was to risk another manufacturer stepping in to take her hard-won customers.
“It was do-or-die for us… It posed a threat to the manner in which we handled our business, as we either had to resort to smuggling goods into the country, which I was not going to do because of my value system, or change our strategic direction in terms of how our production was done. Hence, we approached the French company to join forces with us in producing and assembling furniture pieces in Nigeria.”
It took months of negotiation to tie up a deal with Sokoa and Guaranty Trust Bank to build a €3 million ($3.7 million) factory in Lagos. Production resumed 11 months after the government had thrown a spanner in the works. The factory, which employs 300 people, made a profit in its second year and is expected to have paid for itself in five.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” she says.
Awosika survived her worst day and has thrown herself into helping other Nigerian entrepreneurs navigate the choppy waters of business.