Today, a man, who was warned against coming to Nigeria as a result of the negative perception about the country in the foreign media, narrates how he ignored such warning and found himself in Nigeria where he turned fears into wealth. In discussing his Nigerian story, Michael Tawadrous, Chairman Executive Officer of Vava Furniture (a leading global furniture manufacturing company) re-echoes the importance of obeying ones’ instincts.
By CHARLES KUMOLU
I was born and brought up in Upper Egypt. I had an ordinary childhood. But what was different about me was that I loved trading since my childhood. Buying and selling were running in my veins. Any money I laid my hands upon, I looked for opportunities to increase it by investing. I opened a boutique and was working seven days in a week.
I was enjoying what I was doing. It was not that someone was forcing me but I was feeling happy working. I was just interested in investing and making profit. I got admmited into the university and studied commerce. Immediately I graduated from the university at the age of 21, I got an offer to come and work in Nigeria in one of the furniture companies as a Showroom Manager.
Pursuing my dreams
While I was working, I was furthering my studies to be a good source of information to myself and to people around me. I studied International Relations at the University of Liverpool. I also attended 6th October University in Egypt. Also, I obtained an MBA from Lagos Business School. After working as a Showroom Manager, I wanted to contribute my quota in Nigeria and decided to set up my own business, which has grown beyond my imaginations.
Right from my childhood, I never wanted to be an employee. That was why I pursued that dream by establishing my own company. I worked till I gathered some money. I approached a company to acquire their franchise and they agreed but after some years things were not moving that fast for me because my dream was bigger. That was why I decided to establish Vava, which has become a big name in Nigeria. It is my brand.
A furniture company invited me as an expatriate to Nigeria. Family and friends back home in Egypt advised me about the terrain I was about moving into. I heard Nigeria was unsafe, undeveloped and poor, that was the wrong image given through the media about Nigeria in other countries.
Unlike what I was expecting Nigeria to be, the moment I arrived I saw a different picture. I fell in love with Nigeria instantly. It did not take weeks to realise that this is where I am meant to be. They cautioned me against coming to Nigeria because they felt its image in Africa was not that friendly. But I was not convinced by their discouraging words. I took the bold step and came to Nigeria. Since then I found out that it was a wrong perception. I have been here and I have been succeeding. I came to Nigeria as an expatriate to manage a furniture outlet in Lagos in 2007. It was a company that is a major player in the industry. While working with this organisation, I realised that there was more to the way we were doing the business than what was obtainable as at that time.
I did my best to improve our mode of operation, but I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted, owing to the fact that I was only a manager, not a shareholder.
Later, I began to think of what to do. I realised that I have a passion for the job. I simply developed the passion for furniture business while I was working as an employee in Nigeria.
There is no particular landmark event actually that could be called a turning point for me. There are events that come my way every day. And that is the dynamic thing about life. They have all helped me to become who I am today. For instance, coming to Nigeria despite the warnings from family and friends was an important decision in my life that has paid off. Taking a decision when I found out that I was not doing the bigger thing of my dream was a good decision. It resulted in having my own franchise. Till date, Vava is one of my landmark decisions that made me who I am.
Mentorship is a big responsibility especially when one is leading and mentoring a lot of people. People look up to you and learn from whatever impact you make in their lives. The impacts will affect their outputs in all directions of life. That is why we have to be very careful about the kind of impact we make in the lives of those, who look up to us. As a mentor, it is proper to be giving attention to those who are in need of mentorship. A mentor should realise that he is creating life-changers.
Therefore, people should be made to understand that there is no success without successful people. I always tell those, who look up to me to dream big dreams and work hard to achieve their dreams. Dream a bigger dream and work harder to achieve it. That is my strength.
Also, let the primary aim always be to change peoples’ lives. People should build themselves to become leaders and they should not stop there. Succesful people should build leaders among those around them. I do have mentors but they keep changing as I grow. I have even become a mentor to some, who I took as mentors.For now, my mentor is Alhaji Aliko Dangote. Following him and studying him from afar have impacted my life. And I really love his ways of managing business and people around him. He is a blessing to any economy he is involved in, and I wish to be like him someday.
My turning point
Vava started like a dream and here we are on our way to achieve bigger dreams. My dream before was to establish a retail company. I started going deep into the business and thought of expansion. That was how we expanded beyond retailing. I also looked deeper and asked myself why I was not producing. I also asked myself why I source and buy from other producers.
These key questions I asked myself marked the turning point in my business. After those questions, I started producing. I started with a small factory in Ajah. When I started making profit, I was able to acquire more land. Today, we have grown bigger. It was my dream to be a great furniture retailer, but like every dreamer, once your dream is gradually becoming a reality, you pick up greater dreams. Today, we manufacture for Vava Furniture, and it is my dream that we manufacture for other large furniture retailers around the world. Currently, Vava Furniture is in 10 different outlets in Nigeria, and we have factories that service each location.
Jobs of Nigerians
I absolutely do not think that foreigners take the job of Nigerians. At Vava Furniture, we have more than 300 personnel, most of who are carpenters. I am not here to take jobs. I am here to create jobs. We give carpenters access to industrial machine, we increase and improve their carpentry skills, and we upgrade their professionalism and expertise. Some of them leave us to start their own business and employ other carpenters.
Truckload of dollars
That sounds like development to me, I feel very proud and happy when I meet people that worked with us bidding for same jobs with us. The tax and levy policies of Nigeria and its states make everyone (whether foreigner or a national) equal in the commercial realm. There is no law that says because a company is not solely owned by a Nigerian; the company should pay more than others. But some individuals working in certain agencies believe that foreign-owned companies have a truckload of dollars coming into the system, and they try so hard to get a share from a cake that does not exist.
Tax is a challenge we face in business. Imagine a factory like ours, the Local Government will come and request for payment of Radio and Television permit. We also pay such kind of taxes outside Nigeria. But if I do not have a Radio or Television in any of my outlets, I should not pay that tax. But whether you have it or not they must collect it from you.
Love is more powerful
Each time I hear that expatriates treat Nigerian workers unfairly, I feel devastated. We cannot ignore that a lot of staff are not treated as they should be in Nigeria, but it is not an issue of nationality. In my opinion, no industry treats staff as bad as the banks do, and 95 percent of the banks are solely indigenous. I cannot speak for other foreigners, but at Vava Furniture, we are all like a family. We don’t only have respect for each other, we love each other. If your workers are afraid of you, they would do the right things when you are around, but if they love you and love the company, they would do the right things even when you are not around.
Love is more powerful than fear
Local carpenters are working as hard as they can to earn a living, and we can only but encourage them to do better. But the expertise, the revenue, research and development we put into manufacturing our products make a clear difference. If your hand can build it, your hand can break it. We upgrade machinery at our factory every18 months, using only the best raw materials. We have expatriates that help with design and quality control. At the moment, it would be tough for them to match up with this level of commitment.
Sell off my assets
I am a very optimistic person. I never looked at Nigeria as a country that can fall and never stand because of recession. At a time that most of my expatriate business friends were selling off their assets thinking that the country will not recover, I was busy expanding my business. I did my calculations very well. Some people don’t know that recession occurs periodically in Nigeria, and it normally takes 10 years. Nigeria is one of the fastest growing countries in the world and it was one of those to recover from recession quickly. I did my study very well and based on that, I took my decision as said no that I am not going to leave my investment in this country or sell off.