Otunba Olufemi Okenla was formerly based in the United Kingdom where he thrived as a lawyer cum real estate. Though, he was not known by many in the country before the birth of his gigantic hotel structure, Ibis that has its location on Toyin Street Ikeja, he was well known in the UK where he spent almost 25 years before returning to his motherland.
Good looking Otunba Femi Okenla is indeed a man of many parts; aside being a lawyer and property developer and real estate player, he is also an author. The very articulate businessman wrote a book recently “Power Of Thoughts” to celebrate his 50th birthday which he said the purpose is to motivate and inspire the younger generation. This and many more was what the Ijebu, Ogun State born Otunba shed light on in this chat. Read on….
For the purpose of those who will be reading about you for the first time, let us into your formative years
I’m Olufemi Okenla. I was born nearly 50 years ago into the prominent family of Okenla in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State. My father was a well known lawyer and hotelier. I had my education in Ijebu, Abeokuta and Lagos State. In 1989, I travelled to England.
Tell us about your transformation to the present time that you are able to achieve this lot in a relatively short time?
As you know now that I clocked the age of 50 on earth, which means I have spent almost half of my life in London because I left the shores of this country in 1989 before returning few years back. While in Nigeria, I qualified as a lawyer and got involved with some enterprises; and when I crossed over to the UK, I continued with my Law profession and I also started my Real Estate business among other businesses which I basically transported back to the country since 2009 when I came back. So, I have always been very hardworking as a lawyer, hotelier, businessman and entrepreneur.
We also learnt you are an author; tell us about that part of you
Yes, that’s true, I published a book on my 50th birthday, The Power of Thought. I have flair for writing, the book was meant for people to learn from my experience because I believe the book is very powerful. It tells people a lot about my metamorphosis and it’s a tool for the young generation.
How was your growth like in the business world; life at 20, at 30, at 40 and now that you are 50?
Life at the age of 20 was interesting even though naïve. I went to law school till 1987; I got married the year I left law school, I was 24years then and that was when I had my first child too. So I was faced with lots of responsibilities at that age; and in my 30s especially when I turned 33, I had already finished with my family business. I became a hustler very early in life because I couldn’t afford to fail my family; and that made me to be focused. I had to move my hustling to England. When I got there, I did a lot of work before settling into my law practice; from there I moved to Real Estate; I have a lot of properties that I developed; I later relocated some of my assets back to Nigeria, that’s the product of the hotel you are seeing today.
While this edifice was under construction, lots of people were hoping to know the man behind the huge project because many felt you sauntered into their consciousness out of the blues, how do you see this?
It’s logical, like I said, I left this country in 1989 and came back in 2009, though I come home like four times every year, the hotel being a very big one that has international name has somehow brought my name out, I would have preferred being in a corner. Even there have been lots of insinuation that am fronting for people, it’s normal. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody, people who know me well can tell you all about me.
How were you able to source for funds to start the project?
I have a lot of assets in the UK, most are real estate; what I did was to swop it for funds; it stands at 50% for the project and Skye Bank funded the remaining; so the issue of laundering money did not occur. The assets are verifiable; these are assets I put together for 26 years.
Have you done any business in Nigeria related to hospitality before you left for UK that made you go into this?
I’m an investor; I will do anything that will give me money legitimately. I started showing interest 10 years ago when my wife had her 40th birthday, it was done in the UK at IBIS Hotel; it was at that hotel that I conceived the idea that I would bring this down to Nigeria; a lot of people came from Nigeria then and they were all wowed at what they saw. I started a conscious effort searching for land and good location. Prior to this, I have been importing car spare parts, chemicals, trucks and other things even as a lawyer in the UK. But on Ibis, it took us some time to get land and that was in 2009 and it took us as well as 40 months to build. It opened my eyes to the fact that there is a gap in estate development in Nigeria, it was like my first major business project. Before it, I had built my country home in ijebu-Ode and my house in Magodo area of Lagos but the Ibis structure was quite different. We’ll soon be handing over 144 blocks of flats to Lagos State at Agbowa resettlement in Ikorodu, which we did with our Homes Deal Company; we have done commercial development and offices for people.
How soon will that be?
There are 144 flats. What we did was to show government that we could bring down the cost of houses. So we achieved bringing down the cost of a flat for four million naira. We will deliver because we signed that contract in 2012 and the whole idea was that we can build cheap and quality houses by some methods. We adopted a lot of methods that is different from what they do in Nigeria. For instance, we used plaster board for internal partition. We cut off a lot of process from the routine conventional building process in Nigeria and that is why we were able to achieve it. So we are looking forward to working with the federal government and actually the project was awarded by BRF when he was a governor, so we still hope to sell that project at the federal level.
Has Nigeria business climate been favourable to you?
I used to tell people you do not need to wait until you believe all is rosy for the country before you start something, it’s about business, there are times it’s going to be positive and there are times it will be negative, it’s been a very difficult environment for us to work considering how much we have expended on the project but we are sure the future is bright. We will be starting Ibis Hotel in Nigeria soon hopefully, so we are in business for future and not immediate gain. What we spend on energy is huge, about 10mllion naira a month, in England you won’t spend half of it; it’s a difficult terrain. The security issue is there, multiple taxation is another big issue that is confronting businesses in this country.
Have you been able to pay back the loan from Skye Bank and do you think the target you set for Ibis is being met?
The loan was given out at 19.5%; that’s a lot of money, the cost of funding is too high, it’s unreasonable and not sustainable for business so we are still paying. Again, we came with the mindset that we wanted to build 10 hotels in 15 years. It’s over two years now, we just wanted to begin our second project, we are off the track. One of the things that has affected us and the country generally is the issue of Boko Haram, Chibok girls’ kidnap, Ibis is an international brand and many of the foreigners who are aware of this told the people not to come to Nigeria, it impacted on us. Also, the issue of Ebola affected us, it slows down the business because people are not coming to the country due to ebola fear. Just after that, the election period came in, similarly it affected us.
Your father was an hotelier, does that influence you into doing this?
I will say yes, because we are influenced by what we see around us, he was a lawyer, hotelier, though his hotel was of the small scale but was very successful in it.
Were you able to garner any experience from him in terms of managing a successful hotel?
I will say no, my dad died when I was 17years old, my consciousness in the business came while I was around 40 or 42 years but I learnt a bit from him, he has small hotels in parts of the state but I have a big one, 165rooms in a good location.
Outside Real Estate and Hospitality, what else do you do?
Basically, it’s Hospitality and Real estate but I am still a lawyer. My Law firm is not far away from my hotel. We have a law firm office in England and the Nigeria branch is also here now.
How are you able to contain some distraction that comes with this work, women, people seeking for assistance and lots more?
There are lots of distractions but as a professional and businessman, you have to be focused, we try to assist people as much as we can. As a corporate entity, we do our corporate social responsibility; we constructed about 110 meter drainage system on Toyin Street, Ikeja. We also intend to decorate the roundabout on Toyin Street, approval has been granted. In principle, we are just waiting for Lagos State government.
Do you believe your foreign clients get the kind of services they get in other Ibis abroad here?
Yes, we operate in a very difficult environment but I can tell you they get 99.5 percent of what they get abroad here, it’s difficult but we make sure we give it. There are some standard you cannot compromise, it’s an international brand.
What puts you off in people?
I like people with integrity, what puts me off is dishonesty.
You have a very lovely and supportive wife, was it love at first sight and did you envisage you were going to get married when you met?
Yes, I will say, it was funny, the first time I met her as a naive 13-year old boy, what I first told her was that, will you be my future partner?
If you are to restart the business, what are those things you will do differently?
I will say we won’t do 165 rooms, maybe we would have done 120 rooms.
How do you handle complaints from your clients even when it’s unreasonable?
We learn from it, we try as much as possible not to have complaints, it’s the complaint that makes you better even when they are unreasonable.
Do you have a particular age you want to stop active work?
When I celebrated my 50th birthday, my family complained that I work too much, I told them I will slow down but I don’t know if I have slowed down or still on the same pace. I believe you have to work as long as your health permits.
What profession did you dream of doing while growing up?
I wanted to be an engineer but ended up as a Lawyer, entrepreneur, estate developer and hotelier.
How have you been able to handle family life and being with your wife since you work almost 24 hours?
It’s not been easy, I share the same office with my wife while in England, even here we work together. She has been extremely supportive, a pillar. My children are in the UK but we are also trying to see how they can come back to take up businesses though it’s been hard.
Are you looking at going into politics?
I am interested in what happens politically but not to contest, the country is not ripe for honest people to contest.
Life is full of ups and down, have you experienced the down as well?
Yes, when I got to England, I had to do menial jobs to survive like working in a sawmill, as a dish washer and security guard.