By Josephine Agbonkhese
Stunning, classy, dogged. Those are three words that best describe Ehi Ogbebor, the CEO of Sayaveth Interiors & Hotels, one of Nigeria’s biggest luxury interior designing firms. In less than nine years in a cut-throat, male-dominated terrain, Ogbebor, who ditched a high-flying insurance career to pursue her dream of beautifying spaces with exotic interior finishing and furniture, has become a household name among the crème de la crème of the society. The Amazon, who branched into the hospitality industry a couple of years ago with the debut of Sayaveth Hotels in Lagos, shares, in this interview, her humble beginning, how she was inspired by her father’s exotic taste, and much more.
How did you attain this altitude in this industry?
We actually started small. Basically, we started with interior finishing; ceiling, flooring, POP casting, door installation, wall painting, etc. We were not doing the furnishing aspect initially because I needed enough fund to start. We progressed gradually into furnishing because bringing into the country luxury furniture pieces actually costs a lot. I’m amazed at how far we’ve come through. I was working in the insurance marketing industry when I decided eight years ago that it was time to pursue my dreams. I simply put together a few good hands and started. My first job was to install curtains for a client in Imo State, and this was in 2011. Since then, clients have just kept coming and the sky is still the limit.
What was the profit from that first job like?
There was almost no profit. This was because after I had supplied the curtains, I was asked to do a particular wall finishing that required me to air-freighting the product needed, and there was a lot of spillage in the process. I actually lost about 40 percent of the product and eventually had to place more orders.
…and that didn’t make you consider giving up?
Not at all! Like I said, beautifying spaces is something I enjoy. It’s also impossible to give up on the business no matter the challenges because there are a lot of people looking up to me. That’s not to say there haven’t been sad and low moments. There was a time two of my containers almost got seized by the Customs and they were in their custody for three months. That has been my lowest moment so far because I needed to do the opening for a new store here in Lagos. It was almost a week to the opening and, yet, we had nothing to display. I remember how I went to the port almost regularly and would leave at 4 am with my brothers. There was a night robbers almost attacked us. But, today, we ship into the country 10 to 15 containers effortlessly. I would say it’s been God all through. I think grace is at work in my life.
Designing spaces requires a lot of creativity; did you learn interior designing at any point?
Honestly, I didn’t. This is actually a passion. I did read a lot about it online because I feel it is very easy to educate yourself once you have the passion and are intelligent. After a while, I went for some courses just to perfect my skills. I’ve so far undergone courses in wall finishing, designing, etc.
You do a lot of importation and that requires huge capital; what has it been like accessing fund from banks?
By the grace of God, I’ve never had to take any loan. I’m sure any bank reading me right now can attest to that. Sayaveth is God’s glory because I knew what I wanted and was patient. I’m the kind of person that hates stress and loves to sleep well at night without worrying about owing a bank. I knew the kind of interior I wanted to sell. I knew I didn’t just want the basic but the luxury interiors; and that I therefore needed to be patient without bank loans.
So would you say access to the loan is overrated in business growth?
It is not overrated. This, however, depends on the sort of trade. With some businesses, even if you’re going to start small, you’ll still need some sort of financial help.
What inspired your obsession with luxury spaces?
My dad; he was a classy man. He loved royal interiors. Growing up, I looked up to him because he was a man of high taste. He might not wear perfume but will buy a couch worth the value of a car. While growing up, I, therefore, learned to beautify spaces no matter how small they were. I always like every space to look exotic. The first time I had the opportunity to rent an apartment, I changed apartments twice in two years without bothering about the advance payment already made, just because the environments weren’t exotic enough for me. I wasn’t into interiors at that time; I was into insurance marketing. In fact, what a lot of people don’t know is that my first break didn’t come from interiors but from insurance. The first house I ever bought seven years ago was from insurance. Even after I resigned my insurance marketing job, I was still brokering businesses because I had a lot of clients. That helped me raise capital for Sayaveth. The client who hired me to fix curtains also trusted me with a house of over 4,000 square meters in which I did the gate, burglary, POP, flooring, etc. That was the major break for me; that client is currently a senator in the National Assembly.
Initially, how certain were you that you would succeed in this line?
I think I’ve just been a very lucky person. Less than a year into my job as an insurance marketer, I remember I was able to buy a brand new car worth almost 8million naira while my bosses were still relying on official cars. I was in the public sector and was bringing in deals from the federal and state governments. So, I knew that if I put in the same passion into my own business, I would definitely succeed since marketing insurance is more difficult.
What strategies have helped?
Consistency and the determination to break the norm. I decided I won’t do the regular furnishing seen in most parts of the country. In fact, Sayaveth was one of the few companies that started finishing to furnishing until others came on board. Now, we have partners abroad that we work with; we specify what we want and they produce. But for commercial furnishing jobs like hotels, restaurants, clubs, saloons, etc., we produce here locally 100 per cent.
Let’s talk about your hotel; what led you into the hospitality industry?
I’m not really passionate about hotels. I just needed to go into it because some clients usually ask to see spaces we’ve beautified and taken them into people’s private properties seemed inappropriate. Sometimes too, they are in need of places to lodge when they come to Lagos to see us. That inspired the decision to venture into the hospitality industry in 2016.