Former chairman of First Bank Nigeria, Ibukun Awosika, is 60 years old today.
Ibukun Awosika is one of the few female billionaires in our country.
A billionaire who earned the bragging right of building from scratch, from a modest background to the thriving business that she runs today.
She actually runs a furniture company, which is unarguably one of the biggest indegenious furniture companies in the whole country.
The furniture company has evolved into what is today known as The Chair Centre Group, an indegenious multi-billion naira conglomerate that is an umbrella for several companies: The Chair Centre Limited, SOKOA Chair Centre Limited, Furniture Manufacturers Mart, TCC Security Systems, and Cubes and Boxes Limited. All of these firms have earned a place in the highly competitive global industry.
This morning, I spent over three hours on YouTube watching the 30th anniversary ceremony of her business, The Chair Center Group, and it was a worthy investment.
Walk with me as I share with you the takeaway that I picked from the YouTube video.
What is known today as The Chair Centre Group was established by Mrs. Ibukun as Quebees Limited in 1989 when she was 25 years old.
Themed “The Entrepreneur, Her Business, Her Country, Her Future,” there was so much to learn from the event as well as the company’s story. These are a few of the lessons.
The Power of Relationships:
Mrs. Awosika said “the story of Chair Center Group is the story of people, opportunities, and support.” The keynote speaker was Mr. Fola Adeola (co-founder and pioneer MD of GTBank), and I learned the most from his speech.
He first met Mrs. Awosika in Kano in 1987, while she was undergoing her mandatory youth service at the Kano office of leading accounting firm Akintola Williams & Co. His friend and colleague at Continental Merchant Bank, Mr. Tayo Aderinokun, introduced her to him. (Incidentally, both men would later partner to set up GTBank in 1990.) At that time, Mrs. Awosika was still a spinster and known as Bilkisu Adekola, and she met Mr. Aderinokun through his wife, with whom she went to the gym regularly. She calls Mr. Adeola and Mr. Aderinokun her “adopted big brothers.” They were all young. She was in her early twenties, while they were in their early thirties.
After her NYSC, she returned to Lagos but did not want to work in accounting anymore and was open to exploring something else. Fola Adeola gave her a note to the MD of Alibert (a furniture company), and she was interviewed and offered a job at the Awolowo Road Ikoyi showroom of the company. She worked there for only 3 months and decided that she wanted to be a furniture manufacturer, so she quit and set up her own company. She credits Fola Adeola for being the “vessel that God used to set her on the path to destiny.” It was therefore fitting that Mr. Fola Adeola would be the keynote speaker at the company’s anniversary celebration, 30 years later.
Mr. Tayo Aderinokun has passed on, but Mrs. Awosika spoke glowingly about him. In the early days of the company, there were projects that she did not have the capital to execute; Mr. Aderinokun would lend her money from his personal account to execute the projects. Later on, he set up a finance house, First Marina Trust Limited, from which she got loans because her company was “too small” for banks to support.
In response to a 2004 Federal Government policy that banned the importation of furniture into Nigeria, Mrs. Awosika approached Sokoa SA, a French company that manufactured furniture on her company’s behalf in France, to set up a factory in Nigeria.
She did not have the resources to go it alone. Sokoa agreed to partner with her by investing for a 21% stake in the new company Sokoa Chair Center, while the bank set up by her adopted big brothers, GTBank, invested to get a 32% stake with Mr. Tayo Aderinokun, who became the Chairman of the Board of the company.
I had to pause and ponder these questions. Who am I supporting? Who is supporting me? What relationships am I building, and what stories will we be telling in a few decades?
Mrs. Awosika started her business by recruiting one carpenter, who went on to recruit six other people.
She could not afford any machines, so she used the tools the carpenters already had.
They operated out of an unfinished building next to her carpenter’s house in Ejigbo, which could only be accessed by Molues.
She tried to open an account with a bank, but their response was that her company was “too small to have an account with them.” Nonetheless, she was not deterred.
She said, “We were the smallest furniture company, but with dedication, we were able to get the biggest projects.”
Within six months of setting up, she got a contract with Texaco.
The payment for this project enabled her to buy a few second-hand machines from furniture manufacturing companies in Nigeria.
Chief Adeojo and Chairman Elizade both commented at the event that people should not be afraid to start small.
Is it not ironic that the former Chairman of the Board of the oldest bank in the country today was once perceived as running a business too small to operate a corporate bank account?
Persistence and Focus:
Almost every speaker at the event I watched attested to the fact that Mrs. Awosika is a very focused and persistent entrepreneur.
Fola Adeola said, “You will want to help her.” You won’t be able to help it. You won’t want to not help. She does not take “no” for an answer. “She does not give up.”
Since its inception in 1989, Chair Center has only focused on the manufacture of office furniture.
The company has had many challenging moments, and there were times when they could simply have gone under or quit. However, both she and the company faced them and simply grew through them.
Faith in God and the Right Perspective
The Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Jide Sanwoolu, shared an interesting encounter with Mrs. Awosika that challenged him.
He said a parish of the RCCG (King’s Court) was having a program, and she was one of the speakers. Unfortunately, her son was involved in a ghastly motor accident that day. He said the expectation was that she would not attend, and they would understand and pray for her and her son.
However, she turned up and still spoke and blessed lives. She said nothing would stop her from being in God’s presence and with his people.
It reminded me of the Platform Young Professionals Bootcamp, where she said that when horrible things happen to her, she says, “Iwo wahala yi, ise mi ni o n se” (this problem or challenge, you are working for me or in my favor).
At the anniversary event, she said every time problems arise, she prays and says, “God keep me calm, grant me grace and wisdom.” “Please show the opportunity or way out of this challenge.”
Fola Adeola asked a profound question, “Who are the Chair Center’s products, and not just what are its products?”
. In other words, Mrs. Awosika’s legacy has got to go beyond building outstanding furniture that stands the test of time and also building great people so that the business can outlive her.
She seems to be on that path already.
It was truly inspiring to watch the anniversary ceremony, and it defines the woman celebrating her 60th birthday today.
An inspiration to my generation of entrepreneurs
A woman who is not afraid to share her love for
God, and it is infectious to watch.
Happy birthday to you, madam