BY JOSEPHINE AGBONKHESE
While Milewood has become one of the fastest-selling Ankara fabrics in the country, not many are familiar with the brain behind the brand, Mrs Mary Olufunke Oladele, who weathered gigantic storms to reach the zenith of the business into which she was born. She is Chief Executive Officer, Milestone Mega Company, manufacturers of Milewood range of fabrics and dealer in a variety of fabrics at the popular Balogun Market in Lagos, where she operates over three different multi-million naira shops.
This trade seems like second nature to you…
(Cuts in) Yes, I was actually born into the fabric business. I grew up in Ibadan but my mum started the business in the north, as far back as the 60s. When we relocated to Ibadan in the 70s, she continued at the popular Gbagi Market.
In fact, my mum traded in textiles throughout her entire life, starting with children wears until she switched to laces and silk fabrics. She eventually switched to Ankara. I helped her in the trade right from childhood and even while studying at the Ogun State College of Education in Ijebu-Ode, where I finished from the Department of Business Administration in 1994. I got married same year and moved to Lagos with my husband.
Lagos is different from Ibadan; why did you still decide to adopt your mum’s trade?
Because I had been in the clothing business, when I relocated to Lagos, I didn’t want to take up any corporate job as opposed to what my husband suggested. Already, I knew the nitty-gritty of the business as it concerns Lagos. That was because back then in Ibadan, we usually came to buy goods at Idumota, Balogun and then Central Mosque in Lagos.
I was, therefore, not new to Lagos market. But starting a business in Lagos, however, proved to be an entirely different ball game because shop rents were outrageously high. Penetrating the market seemed also very difficult.
So, how did you eventually break in?
I didn’t just break in. I started by selling in offices with people paying in instalments. I was buying fabrics from Idumota. My husband too was very supportive as he sometimes helped me deliver to clients with his car. It started really small but soon, people began referring clients to me. Some would tell me the exact fabric they wanted and I would get it at Idumota and then sell to them. I was doing this for 10 years until my customer-base became too wide to be efficiently managed. Consequently, money was hanging outside as I was no longer able to go round easily to collect money.
I also got a lot of aso-ebi contracts. Soon, I began going to Cotonou to buy fabrics. The style of business in Ibadan was different because we had a shop and people simply came, bought and paid on the spot.
I decided to get a shop at Balogun because it was similar to the Gbagi Market.
Through a friend, I eventually got a mini kiosk(like a small table) and then a collectively-owned store house at Balogun Market, when all efforts at acquiring one of the big shops proved abortive due to their exorbitant prices. That small space I got was over N200,000 at that time, while the big shops where over a million naira. But having a small table to display my wares made a lot of difference because people could no longer patronize me on credit.
But with plenty of competitors in the market I’m sure your sales depreciated…
Not at all. I stocked on Mondays and before Fridays, I was already out of stock. At that time, Nigeria was the only market feeding the whole of West Africa with Ankara. So, people came from Ghana and all to buy from us; we were dealing in strictly Nigerian wax and the trade was lucrative because there was no competition.
Sadly, the demand for Nigerian prints diminished as Ghana started producing flashy, colourful fabrics. A lot of us soon began going to Ghana to buy fabrics. The unfortunate part of it all was that our indigenous textile industry tried but could not measure up to the style and kind of fabrics that the Ghanaians were producing. With this boom, soon I was able to move to one of the bigger shops in the market.
At what point did you decide to own your own label and what was the inspiration?
It got to a stage where, as a distributor, the onus was on me to advise manufacturers on designs and colours. But it soon occurred to me that apart from using our ideas, they also relied on our capital because sometimes we had to pay upfront for products we. So, I felt it was better to own my own label instead of selling my ideas. That way, I am able to change with the dynamics of time.
That was how the Milewood range of fabrics came about in 2005. Today, we have Milewood Classic, Platinum, Deluxe and Galaxy. The latest is the Milewood Ewa which comes with sequins and stones on them. So, now we have Ankara with lace and stones, already attached. Milewood is simply focused on making Ankara with a difference. Lately, we’ve branched into head-ties.
Nigerians can be very sensitive to new products. How did you cope with patronage when the label was first launched?
Very discouraging. Unlike the ease with which clients patronized known labels I was also marketing. Getting them to buy into the Milewood brand was a serious challenge. I, however, persevered and beefed up marketing strategies.
I started with Classic, which was a bit costlier than the usual Nigerian wax. Later on, to catch the low income earners, I came up with Platinum and have had many other grades since then.
What marketing strategies worked the most for you?
The advantage I had was the fact that I had three shops in different locations of the market. Also, we started advertising and also distributing fliers at events.
Above all, our strongest selling point was the quantity we could supply with regards to aso-ebi. Being the manufacturer, we are able to supply thousands of our fabrics on demand. We, therefore, kept getting referrals for aso-ebi.
Cast your mind to 10 years ago when you wanted to produce the first set of Milewood; what was your biggest fear?
My biggest fear was Nigerians’ attitude toward new products; you know we can be very sensitive to change.
Capital was another major fear. The bank, like you know, are never there to support until you’ve become successful. When they come now, I ask them: “Where were you when I was crawling?”
I am, however, grateful to God for the pillars he gave me; my husband and even my mum, until her demise