31-year-old Oluwatobi Ajayi is the CEO of Nord Automobile, a fast-growing Nigerian automobile assembly company. He started his career at Mercedes-Benz Nigeria where he became the Head of division (Commercial vans) at 24. Last year, he was listed by Forbes as one of the most outstanding young entrepreneurs in Africa. In this interview, he shares how the game of Monopoly, the military schools he attended and the experience he acquired during his National Youth Service Corp, NYSC, service year were instrumental to his success.
I am the first child in my family. I had to grow up quickly to be the man of the house and support my mum because my Dad was not always around. I attended Nigeria Navy Primary School, Mobil Road; Nigeria Navy Secondary School, Abeokuta and Olabisi Onabanjo University. I will be through with my MBA at the Lagos Business School in about two months. My military school upbringing in my formative years is largely responsible for a lot of who I am today.
Memorable childhood experience
One of my memorable childhood experiences was in my final year in secondary school. After I finished WAEC exams and was waiting for NECO, I had free time, so my friends and I decided to play Monopoly. I played the game practically every day and it changed my perception of life. I realized then, that just saving money cannot provide financial freedom and comfort. The game taught me that money is a very important instrument but is useless if not invested. I learnt that money should be invested to earn more money because if you just save, those that invest will return to take all the money you have been saving, and you will continue to live for the next game round, which is like the next payday in real life. Playing Monopoly at that age made me know the difference between barely surviving and existing versus thriving in business and life by investing strategically and smartly. Because of that experience, immediately I got into the University, I started investing in virtually everything. I invested in relationships, my appearance, books and self-education. My friend Ajise Samuel and I even invested in a local restaurant in our final year.
Challenges growing up
As the first child, I didn’t have someone in my age group to look up to. I had to do a lot of experimentations. I made many mistakes. I had no one to persuade my parents to provide me with some of the basic things that would have made life easier for me even when they could afford it. For instance, my parents would give me two pairs of socks for half-term in secondary school when the average most students had, was about four or five pairs. Some of my classmates had more than ten pairs of socks for half-term. They wanted the best for me and my siblings so they believed that the best way to ensure that was to deprive us of those things that would make us look like ‘children of the rich’. Their intention was good but in reality, it only made me an easy target for some of my school mates who poke fun at me. Looking back now, I am happy I was strong enough at that young age to bid my time and wait to do things the right way when the time was right.
Biggest Life lessons
Life has thought me that a good name is more important that silver or gold. We are the architect of our future and perspective of life. Regardless of what happens to you, you can control what it means and what you do with it. I have also learnt that we are responsible for our statements, actions and reactions. I engage in positive interactions, encourage people and be with people who encourage me. I have also learnt to use negative feedback as propellers to fire me to greatness and not excuses to give-up or act badly.
What has been largely responsible for my success is education. By education, I don’t necessarily mean schooling but how I have been able to self-educate myself, get knowledge and the ability to apply the acquired knowledge efficiently. Another factor that has contributed to my success is the trust that my former bosses had in me to saddle me with responsibility which made me grow quickly in business and build my reputation. I think being a reliable person is key. They noticed that I am reliable and can deliver on set goals. This made them trust me with key responsibilities and in return made me an astute businessman.
I started at Mercedes-Benz Nigeria in 2012 where I did my National Youth Service Corp. After service, I was retained, promoted and given the responsibility to control the Mercedes-Benz van division in Nigeria. Within two years, I was able to take the market share of Mercedes-Benz vans from less than 1% to 7%. We won the Mercedes-Benz Best Sales Performance for Africa for 2013.
In 2015, together with some investors, I started Jetvan Automobiles Limited to take the Mercedes-Benz vans sales and after-sales to the next level. I was at Jetvan as CEO until April 2018 when I resigned my position to enable me focus on building the Nord brand and company structure. After me trip to Mercedes-Benz factories in Europe and Asia, I realized that with hard work and focus, we can build our own Nigerian global and reliable auto brand.
I resigned from the Mercedes-Benz family to start a new Nigerian auto brand because I want the world to know that Africans can do things efficiently and at world-class level too. We now assemble our own elegant, reliable, durable, and cost-efficient vehicles that are as good as any vehicle in the world. It’s a dream that is now a reality and I am happy for that. According to the last valuation, we are approximately worth a little over N4.2 billion. We are presently planning to champion the use of electric vehicles in Nigeria with the building of our own designated charging structure with a wide network nationwide.
The major one is finance. I am not talking about the availability of finance but the cost of it. Our business model is very interesting and some banks are currently working with us. They have been very supportive but the cost of finance is high. This has limited the rate at which we can grow slightly. We are currently working with other entities to find solutions to that and I am sure our cost of capital will be significantly reduced soon. Another challenge is the source of auto parts. When we started, we wanted our vehicles to have at least 50 per cent local Nigerian components. That has been a bit difficult because the Nigerian market cannot provide most of the vehicle components at competitive quality and price. We currently source less than five per cent of our parts from the Nigerian market. The major components come from OEMs in Asia and Europe.
Advice for youths
Don’t lose hope. Do not give your birth-right to other people. Look around you, the Indians, Chinese, Lebanese, Americans and Europeans are coming into the country to set up businesses especially in the SME and tech spaces. Nigeria with all its challenges still provides businesses with one of the highest gross and net profit margin anywhere in the world. We can also generate volume because of our population. Nigeria will be great soon and it will happen by our actions. Build yourself intellectually and improve your network.
I have mentors who have provided justification to some of my principles in life and how I run my business. Alhaji Aliko Dangote has shown me that you can start a new Nigerian brand and become a global player and winner with hard work, integrity. Mr. Tony Elumelu also inspires me. I actually believe we think in the same way, because I realized I can do most of the things he does and in the manner he does them. He is strategic and invests his time and resources in networking and being impactful to the society. These are some of the things I also do.