‘It’s better to venture when you are still young’

Femi Adeboyejo

Right from childhood, Femi Adeboyejo has always nursed the ambition of playing in the construction industry. In fact, that passion led him to enroll at the Civil Engineering department of the University of Makurdi, though he eventually graduated as a Soil Scientists from the same institution. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the Ogu State native and co founder of Brand Aluminum, shared the story of his humble beginning, as well as tips for young entrepreneurs, who wish to succeed in the business environment.

You are the co-founder of Brand Aluminum Company today, has that always been your dream?

As a young man, I’ve always had this passion for construction. My father’s friend had a construction company, so, I always went there to sit with workers on site.

In fact, that was what informed my decision enter for Civil Engineering in the first place.

But since I missed that opportunity, I just kept being around that environment all through my university days.

Then, when I graduated, I joined an aluminum company in Lagos where I worked for five years before I teamed up with my partner to start Brand Aluminum in 2004.

How has it been operating in this industry?

Well, we’ve evolved over the years; from a small office in Surulere with one centre table that we bought at Itire and two plastic chairs… it’s been exciting.

Actually, we got an office from somebody, who was leaving the country and wanted us to help him finish his rent; so, we didn’t have to pay rent immediately.

But the interesting thing about our startup was that I left where I was working; my partner was working as an accountant in a construction company.

We had already agreed that we were going to work together.

I used to come from Ikorodu, pick his car and then go round looking for clients.

After, I will return the car to his office and go home; that was how we started. And 14 years after, we are still here.

Leaving a paid job for self-employment is usually not an easy decision. How did you arrive at making that move?

It was a tough decision to quit my job. But there’s what I call critical question that every young man must ask himself when you are in your 20s.

What are my plans? When you are married and you are the leader of your family, everybody depends on you.

You must sit down and ask yourself, ‘what I’m doing now, can it take me and my family somewhere?’ If yes, you can stay. But if not, don’t waste your energy.

At the time I was working, my salary was N20,000 and I had an official pickup van I was using.

I sat down and asked myself, ‘if this man starts adding 20 per cent to my salary every year, in 10 years, I will still be earning about N100,000, which is nothing.’

What it means is that, it’s either I steal to meet up or I won’t be able to buy a car; I won’t be able to afford to move out of the kind of house that I was living at the time.

I won’t be able to afford the kind of schools that I want my children to go to. I had a picture in my mind of how I want to live my life and I knew that what I was doing then wouldn’t take me anywhere.

A lot of young people are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, but most time, taking that decision is always a challenge?

It boils down to you as individual. I do training for people on entrepreneurship and I tell them, there are three factors to consider in doing business: the You Factor, the Business Factor and the God Factor.

It’s you first, then the business, before God will intervene.

The bible said, ‘I will bless the work of your hand.’ If you are unable to take decisions, there’s nothing for God to bless really.

Honestly, it’s better to venture when you are still young than when you have dependants; take the sufferings at that time.

There’s no business you start without challenges; it will come, but it’s better when the demands are less.

If I want to take that decision it took then now, it will be impossible because of the dependents.

A lot of people are having issues today because, decisions they should have taken years ago, they didn’t take it.

Somebody has worked in a bank for 15 years and one day, he is sacked; he becomes confused because there was no plan B.

Your plan B should have started while still at work; you don’t wait till you are sacked to make a move.

It seems you were prepared to take a tough route to success?

Look, my youth service, I did it with the Lagos State Ministry of Tourism and when I finished, they begged me to stay.

But I sat down with my HOD then and said, ‘Ma, I cannot work in this environment; you people don’t do anything, you just collect salary.

So, all of you are either fighting each other or buying things on credit; that lifestyle is different from anything I can imagine.’

So, told her I cannot stay; I rather go and look for something better. There are people, who can exist in that kind of environment, but not for someone like me; I knew where I wanted to go.

Looking at your humble beginning as an entrepreneur, how does that make you feel today?

It’s been an interesting journey; we started like every other startup. Calling people and telling them about our services and whatever they give you, you take.

Did you borrow money to start?

Well, maybe at some point in the business, but not from the beginning. In fact, let me tell you one interesting thing that happened.

The very first job we got was a nightclub on Allen Avenue, Lagos; they were doing some renovation and the owner invited us. He wanted the job done quick and we came and measured the whole place.

He told us to give him the cost that he wants to pay immediately.

We didn’t have a factory or a workshop, but I had already called the guys that help us with production, so, we did the calculations and he paid us cash.

We took out money and gave to the guy that was going to buy the materials and do the fabrication and we had N90,000 left as profit.

We then took out N60,000 out of that money to register the company; that was out first job.

In the end, we had N30,000 left. My partner took N10,000, I took N10,000 and the remaining N10,000, we decided to use it to run the office.

We left Allen and I dropped at Maryland, took a bus to Ikorodu. Later, my partner called me and said, ‘did you take that N10,000?’ I told him, ‘no, you were the one that distributed the money.’

We just kept arguing, but along the line, we said to ourselves, this is devil’s work. So, we decided to forget it.

But you know what, that would have been the end of that partnership.

You were new in the business at the time, how did you convince people to trust you with their money?

People didn’t trust us; they didn’t know us. So, anybody that wanted to give you a job, he will give you something small.

A man will build a house, give it to another company and then they call you to do the gatehouse.

But the idea was, anything you ask us to do, no matter how small it is, we will put all our energy into it.

So, if you do a gatehouse and he likes it, next time, he will give you the Boys’ Quarter.

If you do it well, he will call you to do the main house. Before long, you have become his customer. So, that was how we got to where we are today.

What’s your take about the aluminum industry in Nigeria?

The industry today is saturated; there are lots of people, who don’t care about standards.

If you go to the Aluminum Village in Dopemu Lagos, almost 80 per cent of aluminum works that happen in Nigeria comes from there.

Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t care about standards.

It got to a point where people now begin to classify you as, ‘all you aluminum people!’ So, what we did was to insist on a particular standard.

And to do that, you have to invest in equipment. Today, the first N1million to N5million young people make, they go and buy a big cars.

For us, it was about investing in the business. We moved to a bigger place where we now have an office and the factory and we got all the equipment we needed.

At what point did your breakthrough come?

I will say, maybe about five years ago. Usually, people call you to come and do one or two houses.

But the moment people can entrust you to do 60 to 70 buildings for them, then you know that you’ve arrived.

Usually, Nigerian question is, ‘what have you done before?

So, I will tell you I’ve done this estate, I’ve done that estate…then, they will talk to you. So, they need you to have experience; they don’t want you to use them to do experiment.

What do you consider the most important in this line of business?

Here, we are more interested in living up to our name; it was a conscious decision to take that name Brand Aluminum because we believe that we have to build a brand.

There are some big players in this industry who are making billions, yet they don’t advertise because, they’ve built a name over time.

We once went for a bid in a church, but we didn’t get the job. Not because, we are not good, but because they felt we didn’t have a name.

In fact, what they did was to take my solution, gave it to another big company to execute.

So, leaving the place that day, I resolved that we must work hard to build a name.

So, for us, we’ve built a brand over the years and that’s what we are living on today.

How big is the aluminum business in Nigeria?

It’s underestimated; the government is not looking at it. Because they don’t understand it, they are not looking at it, but it’s huge!

If the government can regulate this industry, the amount of money they will be making out of it, they will be surprised.

The amount of importation that comes in only to our industry is very high; practically all the accessories are imported.

Even the people that produce aluminum here, they bring their raw materials from abroad.

Does that mean we can’t source them locally?

We can, but nobody is paying attention to the industry.

They are only concerned about a house not coming down, but they are not interested in other things that make up the house.

Now, they keep lowering the standard because of competition; they have to survive.

I go to Dubai a lot for business, they have standards; there are some things you can’t do.

For example, you can’t just wake up and start Aluminum Company; you must be licensed.

Here, there’s no regulation; people bring in anything.

Go to some housing estates and you find that people can’t even open their windows because of fake materials.

Government must step in to push for standards.

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