By Remmy Diagbare
Chief Razak Akanni Okoya, last week, celebrated his seventieth birthday with a series of events. Family and friends came out in droves to identify with the chief whom many have described as kind, generous and humble.
In thisÂ interview with Allure in his palatial home at Lekki-Ajah, the ever-smiling chief took us through his journey to financial freedom; an interesting story that began when he joined his late fatherâ€™s tailoring business as an apprentice. Interestingly, he disclosed what many will describe as the X- factor that made all the difference as he rode the waves to become immensely successful. Enjoy!
How did you start and grow your business with the initial 70 pounds (sterling) you began with?
I was working with my father who had a tailoring business. He also sold tailoring accessories. After working with my dad for a while, I began to do a few things on the side.Â I used to amend shirts and trousers for a fee. For instance, I could turn long sleeves to short sleeves or trousers to shorts.Â I saved every penny I made.
When I had saved about twenty pounds, I wanted to go into trading.Â Back then, ordering for goods directly from the manufacturers wasnâ€™t popular; most people bought goods imported into Lagos. But I got hold of the catalogue of a manufacturing business in Japan. I liked the goods but I needed seventy pounds to be able to order and ship to Lagos.Â I approached my mother for the money.
I told her what I wanted to do. She advised me to get my fatherâ€™s permission first, which I did. Then, she gave me the 50 pounds I needed. By the time my goods arrived, they were not only of better quality, they were also cheaper than what was available in the market. Of course, I sold out quickly and ordered more. That was how it all began.Â As the business grew, I went into other things. I later branched out into manufacturing.
How did you go from trading to manufacturing?
As my business started expanding, I travelled far and wide and saw how different things were manufactured. I always felt that we could do as good, if not better (than what I saw).
By this time, I had married my first wife. She would bring jewellery that cost so much.Â I used to be baffled at how much she said they cost. I felt it was ridiculous. These were metals that I felt we could design and at a cheaper price; especially as we had the metals available here (Nigeria). I saw the way women loved to wear jewellery. Challenged by what I felt was a healthy demand, I travelled abroad, bought the machines and came with some experts.
That marked the birth of Eleganza Jewellery. The success was phenomenal. We could not keep up with the demand because, the products were beautiful, durable and cheap. They were instant best sellers.
We were manufacturing and selling Eleganza buttons and jewellery. Then, I began to import shoes in large quantities. I will pay the factory to manufacture and import to Nigeria. On one of these occasions, after paying, the goods were not delivered. I waited a while and travelled to Italy to see the manufacturer. I arrived there and discovered that they had used my money to settle their bills.
I was so angry that I decided there and then to begin manufacturing my own shoes and that is what I did. I imported all the machines and brought in some experts who trained my workers. And that was how we began making shoes.
What was it that motivated you when you first started at age 14?
My father was a very good tailor and we were selling tailoring materials. We didnâ€™t wait for people to bring materials; we were making clothes and sewing everything to sell. From shirts to trousers to bicycle seats. My father was very industrious and enterprising. That gave me some inspiration.
I am from Cow Lane in Lagos. I looked forward, then, to becoming somebody in life. By the standards of those days, my father was comfortable. He owned a car, a Chrysler. Then, I used to with him in his car to his clientâ€™s who were living in Ikoyi and its environs â€“ people like Chief Ojukwu, the father of Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
I used to tell myself that one day I was going to live in one of those mansions.Â My main motivation was that I wanted to be rich and I knew I had to work very hard to get there.
The story of Eleganza has changed from the early years when you started. What will you say is X-factor that brought about the phenomenal success?
I like creating things. I like challenges. I started with buttons; then came seats, shoes, jewellery, plastics, coolers and now properties. I always keep busy, looking for new opportunities. Nigeria is a very big country and we have a lot of business opportunities.
There is a huge market. You just need to be focussed and know what you want.Â And, more importantly, you have to work really hard to realise your dream.
Why did you go into making coolers, for instance?
At that time, my senior wife had coolers that people were coming to rent. Because, they were imported and very expensive, most people couldnâ€™t afford to buy their own. She could not keep up with the demand. So, I thought, wait a minute – â€˜this is a very hot businessâ€™.
I decided to start producing it. I brought in the equipments, the experts and began to produce.Â One thing I made sure of was that the quality was of the highest standard and it was cheap. We sold out.
What should be done to encourage production?
I think they should establish more technical schools. Most graduates leave school and go to work for other people. But, if you are trained as an electrical person, a designer or a carpenter, you will like to set up your own business and work for yourself.
So, I think government should encourage more technical schools so that we can get more independent people who are not waiting for government. We need to go into (more) production. That is the backbone of development. We should stop all these importations and encourage local industries to produce. One of the ways to do this is to fix the electricity power problem; if not, we are wasting our time.
Even if you encourage local production, there is an inherent issue of quality with Nigerian goods. The quality is very poor.
Quality is very important. Personally, I make sure the quality of my goods is excellent. My coolers, for instance, can compete with any in the world. And, I can tell you that my coolers are better. This is because I put our environment into consideration. So, you find that mine lasts longer. It preserves food longer than any imported one.
People say it is extremely difficult to do business in Nigeria. Do you agree?
Today, electricity power is a very big problem. Once the problem of electricity is solved, things will be better; especially for businesses. For example, we employed over 3,000 people five years ago. But due to epileptic power supply, it wasnâ€™t possible to retain all of them.
Once this is solved, 50% of the unemployed will get jobs. No amount of money you pump into manufacturing will help if that problem is not solved!
How do you feel turning 70?
I feel very happy, having worked so hard. As you know, I made every block in Eleganza. You have no rest, working day and night; running all these businesses. I used to work till way past midnight. I thank God for this period in my life because, my schedule could have had an adverse effect on me. I am happy today. I have my children around me. I am hail and hearty.Â I take life very easy now; very quiet.
What lessons have you learnt about life?
That a lot of people are in a hurry; as a result, one has to be very careful. The way some people think leaves a lot to question. However, there are still some who are okay.
With all the activities around you, how do you maintain stability?
I keep to myself. I do not look at other people. I am content with myself. I do not look for cheap money. I am not interested in contracts and I do not expose myself to intrigues and politics.
My life is industry. I am very happy being an industrialist. When I manufacture something and people love it, that gives me joy. Everything about my life is production. This is what I think this country needs.
China, Japan and the other Asian Tigers are where they are today because they encouraged industry.
How will you describe yourself?
I am a self-made man who likes to look out for himself. Every year, I leave the country for four months. I have a house in London and another in Las Vegas. I stay there when I go for medical checks. Las Vegas is a place I enjoy going toÂ Â because they have a vibrant night life. And, I like to enjoy myself.
You look very fit for a man of 70. How do you keep fit?
I go to the gym and I also swim. Maintaining good health is very important to me. I take good care of myself. I watch what I eat and make sure I go for regular medical check-up.
Fitness is very important and regular medical check up is a must do.
What about your children? How do you relate with them?
I am friendly with those of them who understand my tongue.Â Some children like to do things their way. I let them be.
What is your routine like now that you are older?
These days, I take life very easy. I play with my children and attend some important functions. I am more or less retired. My staff call my attention only if there is something very important.
Is there anything you still want to achieve?
Absolutely nothing. Coming from the background of a tailor and getting to where I am today, I give glory to God.