Princess Funlayo Bakare Okeowo is MD/CEO of FAE Limited, the largest envelope manufacturer in Nigeria. The business has been established for over 40 years with the mindset of solving security challenges in different areas of concentration.
Despite inheriting the business from her mother, she has done her best to carve a niche for her brand, from ordinary envelope manufacturing to tamper proof, tear resistance security envelope to ATM card protector to mention a few.
She speaks with BL on the journey of the past 40 years and how she has surpassed the challenges.
FAE Limited started precisely 40 years ago and I joined the company about 32 years ago. Initially, the company was into pure merchandizing but I started the manufacturing outfits.
What do you mean by ‘joined the company’?
It’s a family business; I inherited the company from my late mother, Princess Florence Iyabode Adu-Bakare.
What was your mission then?
FAE was doing pure merchandizing in envelopes, cut papers and printing papers but I found out that at the end of the year, we were given either a motorcycle or fridge as the best distributor of the year and I felt that we should start doing it ourselves. I looked at FAE’s balance sheet and saw that we can start producing envelopes on a small scale.
My mother reacted negatively to it then but I had to explain to her that there is beauty in manufacturing and we should give it a trial. She was not up for the risk involved and I told her to consider me a prodigal daughter and give one-third of her capital and see how I will turn it around. I didn’t fail her. When she gave me the money, I decided to invest in manufacturing and importing of raw materials. When the machinery finally came in, although there were setbacks for some years because I lost my mother before the machines arrived and she was at the helm of affairs for several years, I was a young girl trying to find my feet, no experience in anything other than the training given to me by my mother but after that struggling period, this establishment grew to what you see today.
Are you an only child?
Yes I am. I have no brother or sister.
Despite the challenges you faced at the onset, what were your prospects?
All through my life, my mother always taught me to be a strong woman, that what a man can do, a woman can do it better and I should build for myself an empire. Her exit was painful but I felt that the only thing I could do to make her rest is to build FAE and make sure it does not crumble and that has always inspired me to succeed. I look at my balance sheet yearly, monthly, quarterly to make sure every year was better than the last.
What basic activity is still going on in FAE seeing as people rarely use envelopes owing to digital channels like e-mail?
The envelope will always be forever, it depends on what innovations you are creating, what niche you are carving out to make yourself stand out in the industry. There are envelope manufacturers in Europe presently and there was a research done in America where over 200 mails were sent to someone who was the CEO of an establishment and we know they can never read those mails in one day but when you send a letter to someone, the first impression that comes into the CEO’s mind is: ‘This must be a matter of urgency for an individual to take the pain to write’.
Moreover, even as big as Europe and America are, there are still some places with zero internet service; the only means of communication is through sending posts.
How do you get to retirees or other customers outside Lagos? Is there internet in Gbangan or Ikiru?
Even in England, there are some places without internet. Getting optic fibre internet is expensive. There are some people who cannot afford internet; therefore you do not expect them not to have a means of communication. Where do you expect the retirees or shareholders to get their dividends? Therefore, envelope business cannot go into extinction. It might only reduce and that is why an individual needs to create a niche. Part of the niche that FAE has created is tamper-proof, tear-resistant envelope. My company brought this type of envelope to Nigeria. During elections, this type of envelope saves lots of litigations because ballot boxes can be inserted into it, closed and can be carried from one centre to another. It is water and tear-resistant and that is proof to show someone has tampered with it. That is FAE’s newest niche in the industry.
We also have envelope to protect ATM cards. Someone can steal your money three metres away, all they need is to have card reader. Those are FAE’s newest innovation and that is why we are the biggest manufacturer in envelope industry.
The 2023 general election is around the corner, is there collaboration or partnership with INEC in this regard in order to protect the election results and other materials?
We are doing advert and we are talking to them. If the organisation is ready, I am sure they will contact us. I am not a politician. I am an industrialist.
You have been in this industry for more than 32 years, in what capacity are you empowering other women and would you advise anyone to venture into this business especially at this time?
It is advisable to start. Thank God for this year’s International Women’s Day with the theme, BreaktheBias. I believe that we can move mountains as women. I am in support of women taking the bull by the horn. They should start now. Women are the unstoppable train going on now.
Although, the financial commitment is huge now but, it is advisable to start now. Women should stand up for themselves. Even if it means starting a popcorn business, in the next few years, that business will become a multi-million naira business. It is scientifically proven that women are agile in business.
How much did you start with?
I wouldn’t know that because it was my mother that started the business. I only complemented what was on ground. But, you cannot say that this is the starting working capital.
Considering the economic situation of the country, would you advise anyone to venture into this business?
It depends on what you are venturing into. I will always advise that you do a business where it is needed. Several years back, nobody would have thought that bottled water business would thrive in Nigeria but someone started the sachet water and today, bottled water has become a globally acceptable business.
Years back, I do not believe that I would pay anybody to tie my gele (headtie), but today, the people who are into that business charge as much as N20,000, even make up. What that industry has been turned into now, you will be shocked to know that some people charge as much as N100,000. What is important is that you look for solution to a problem and solve it and you are in business. FAE tried to solve a security problem by creating tamper-proof envelopes.
Who are your target audience?
It is a global business because we are addressing areas of need including security, ATM cards.
What are you doing to empower women and girl-children?
As much as it is important to empower women and girls, my area of concentration is to empower both men and women.
On my 60th birthday, I wanted to do something significant at least to give back to the society. While I was driving towards Akute, I saw children swimming in the flood around a school and demanded to know the head teacher and to know what was happening. I saw children sitting inside water in a classroom and as a mother, I wondered how a child could study in that environment and assimilate. I felt the need to bring all the children back to school so that they would not become hoodlums on the street. I had to talk to the principal and after getting an approval from Ogun State Government, I did the project worth millions of naira and today, the children are studying under a conducive atmosphere.
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