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I have never been a mediocre — Folake Oyemade

By Yemisi SULEIMAN

Folake Oyemade, 47, is the founder of Sam N Sera an indigenous uniform design company that started out as Uniform Collection in 1986 and has continued to grow since then.

For a business that began as one of the pioneer retailers of trendy clothes with about five shops nationwide, excellence has remained the driving force of Oyemade’s approach to business over the years. This has been achieved through driving for excellence in products and services and ensuring that her team works together to provide best solutions to clients’ needs.

She has, against all odds, built a business empire that is today a leading national supplier of premium work apparel to a wide range of industries and schools. Please read on.

Why did you decide to do corporate uniforms?

Like I said earlier, we were the pioneers of trendy clothing in Nigeria before I relocated to America. I was there for a short while; by the time I came back, I wanted to go back to my own line of business. I discovered that the fashion clothing business was out-dated in the sense that any and everybody was in the industry. None of them could be said to compete with us in terms of quality, in terms of knowing what and where to get the right stock.

It became a business for everybody; anybody that had maybe one thousand dollars will jump on the plane to Dubai and pick some funny looking things and say “I sell clothings”.

If you go to Balogun Market, it is filled with all kinds of funny styles. If you go to Oshodi, it is the same. It was the same thing everywhere and I felt that it just wasn’t the thing for me anymore.

What I intended to do with the business was actually to have my label like they have at Topshop or Zara. That is what I wanted to do. I have never been a mediocre. Anything I want to do, I want to take it to the highest level. I am somewhat a perfectionist and I don’t like to do things on a small level anyway.

When I saw that I didn’t have the inspiration to continue anymore and fortunately, at about that time, my children were starting school and I needed to buy them uniforms when they were in Nigeria. When I saw the prices they were selling them, I felt we shouldn’t pay so much for high quality uniforms. I saw a need there; I saw a market there. The quality was such that I could match and even surpass at a much lower price.

That was what inspired me into doing the business. The moment I started with uniforms, it didn’t take me time to realise that corporate organisations also needed somebody who could do proper uniforms for them. That was how we started and grew successfully. It hurts to know that in Nigeria, we don’t have clean professionals for pattern making and little details that are involved in the manufacturing of high quality garments; especially when you want to mass produce. Nigerians don’t have that kind of training and that is where we started from.

Is your company the only indigenous company into production of uniforms?

Actually, there have been some companies before us but nobody has done it to the level and magnitude that we have gone. There are other people who did similar things even before us, but they did it at a much smaller level. Majority of them are not into manufacturing; they were more like importing and selling.

I would say that we are the pioneer company to do it very high quality, mass produced and to combine both schools and corporate organization; in the past, it was either of the two. It was either they had people who were doing for schools or for corporate organizations; there were no properly established set-ups like ours.

What were the challenges you had building the brand?

It was very difficult and it is unfortunate that up till now, quite a lot of Nigerians have the European mentality. I call it the European mentality because people believe that things have to be imported to be of high quality; which is a very big misconception.

Initially, when we started, we started by importing the uniforms before the ban; we ran into a lot of murky waters. When you have given these people specifications, they will not follow the specifications you have given them. Sometimes, the stitching and the finishing is not just good enough and I knew that if I had my factory I would be able to control what happens. That was one of the reasons we opened the factory here so that I can oversee my production.

Another challenge was that of fabrics because most of the textile companies in Nigeria don’t even produce what we use. For the few that do, their delivery style is just not appropriate with us to meet up with clients’ demands. Sometimes, what you need them to do in quantity they say they need yards and the yards have to be imported. There are so many excuses and at the end of the day, when they disappoint you, it translates to you disappointing your clients.

A lot of times, these clients fail to realize that we only stitch; we don’t make fabrics to be able to fulfill our obligations. Sometimes, the quality is not good enough and sometimes the fabric is very good but at other times it is not good enough and you have to return it to them to make something else.

These are challenges that we are still facing till now. What is even most disheartening is that a lot of the fabrics we use are not being manufactured here, even now.

What are the three things that helped your business to pull through in spite of the economy crunch?

I don’t want to sound religious but my number one help has been God. From my own personal perspective and effort, I am a very focused person; like I said to you earlier, I do not believe in mediocrity. Anything I want to do, I want to do it at the best level. Anything I put my hand into, I want to take it to the highest level I can.

Also, perseverance is another thing that has helped me because we did have real challenges getting people to accept the brand; getting people to have confidence in us initially. However, because of my persistence, courage and my vision and panting for perfection, we have been able to get to where we are today. By the grace of God, we have opened our New York office; we are already rendering services there.

You will agree with me that if the quality is not good enough, America will not buy. These attributes of mine have stood me up.

What is you clientele list like?

I won’t say they are very high-earning clients, in terms of their requirement. They are mainly corporate organisations and some top schools. Our clientele cuts across the high, the medium and the low. Anyone with a penchant for perfection because we are very affordable.

What does style mean to you?

Style is something that comes naturally; it is not what you can acquire. You can build up your style but you can’t really acquire it. If it doesn’t come naturally, you will always be needing people to tell you this is when you need to wear this or this is how you need to wear this. That is why celebrities abroad employ style consultants and some even have wardrobe consultants. They ask you what your occupation is and advice you on things that would suit you and what you should wear.

So, when you don’t naturally have style in you, you use such professionals. I would say that whatever I do comes naturally. I used to be very big; the reason why I decided to lose all the excess fat is that I was very slim inside but outside, I was very big. So, the two were not going together. I began eating right and exercising a lot. Eating right is very important.

How would you describe the fashion industry in Nigeria now, compared to what it was when you started?

There aren’t too many people making clothes anymore. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any fashion industry. What we have, if you have noticed, is that most people that are making clothes are making Ankara. That seems to be the in-thing now but we have only a few designers who are into clothing. And, those few are not into mass production. They just do a few. So, we do not have big factories in Nigeria making clothes.

Of course, we do have the Aba people, but they are not a very organised sector. So, in Nigeria at the moment, I don’t believe we have really gone anywhere. The real people who can do the fashion thing are people like Odua, people like Tiffany Amber, but they are not into mass production. I used to make clothes with Odua when she was really making fashionable pieces and her clothing is usually more expensive than the others.

They are not into mass production; they are into couture. Maybe, the problem a lot of them might have or why they are not into mass production is because of manpower and that is why they are into couture; because, there aren’t many people who are skilled in that area.

To be able to haul a high fashion factory, you need a lot of such people. In our own factory, we have our own way of dealing with that because my production manager and a few other people, who are expatriates, have been trained to mass produce. So, they know how to make the best of what we have on ground.

What is your philosophy of life?

Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. Whatever you want to do, do it well.

What is a typical day like for you?

I look forward to everyday. I am naturally a very happy person and everyday I wake up, I thank God for the gift of life. To his glory, he always makes everyday very beautiful. My typical day, like I said, when I wake up I pray, I exercise and do my beauty routine. I get dressed come to work. I try to close at 4pm in the evening so that I don’t stress myself. I go back home and relax I watch television.

So, how are you able to joggle business, being a mother and a wife?

Actually, it has been very easy for me because I have just two children though they are not really adults. They are fourteen years old. They are no longer babies so they really can take good care of themselves. I don’t have to get home and start shouting don’t do this, don’t do that. I don’t have much to do that wise.

The bit I have to do is to plan for them and ask them questions about their studies and other issues; which is so easy for me to cope with. Being a wife also, my husband makes it very easy. He is not a demanding person. He doesn’t eat too much, because I really wonder what else you have to do as a woman; because, if you have a husband who doesn’t eat three meals a day and he is not too demanding, then you have all the time to yourself.

What was growing up like for you?

Growing up was fun; it was beautiful. I have always had everything I wanted and I thank God for that. Even as a child, whatever my wants were, my parents were able to cope with them. Growing up was quite enjoyable. I grew up in Lagos State. I had all my education here in Lagos. The only time I went out of Lagos was during my NYSC and I served in Ibadan. I was practically living in Lagos and serving in Ibadan.

My mother set me up in business after graduation and because I had a lot of time on my hands. I went into the civil service and I worked there for some time before I went into private business.

So, what would you say to young women out there who look up to you for inspiration?

They have to be focused. The number one thing in life is that you need to have vision and if you say they want to be like me, that is already the vision. They have to be hard working, because if you are focused and you can’t plan well… When I say hard working, it doesn’t necessary mean physical work).

Most of the work I do is in my brain. When I say I close at 4 p.m. and I go home and watch television, sometimes I am watching television and I am no longer concentrating because a thought comes to my head and I am already developing it in my head. One has to be hard working.


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