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With refined investor series, Okonjo gathers the diaspora

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Udo Okonjo, Chief Executive Officer of Fine and Country WA

Udo Okonjo is the chief executive officer of Fine and Country WA. In this interview with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, she spoke on her foray into real estate industry and the forthcoming Refined Investor Series (RIF) holding in London.

It’s impossible to turn your eyes away from Udo Okonjo: The beauty and intelligence. Her childhood dream was to be like her dad, study law and become a Judge of the Federal High Court. However, as she studied law further, she was exposed to other aspects of the legal profession. She wanted to become a General corporate counsel or in house General Counsel of a multinational firm (preferably oil and gas) like her older brother, Dr. E. Ibe Kachikwu, who was a General Counsel of a leading oil company. She had also thought of studying law to Ph.D level, just like him, and actually did get enrolled, but decided to withdraw at the time.

Those initial dreams, however, took a detour when she stumbled into real estate while practicing law. “The truth is that as a specialised corporate and commercial lawyer, I practiced law actively for more than a decade, including a brief 18 month stint as Special Adviser, Legal and Constitutional Matters to the Senate President. Law remains at my core and directly relevant to my current role as an entrepreneur and real estate advisor to extremely discerning investors, both corporate and high net worth individuals,” she says.

Her initial foray into real estate was more as an investor seeking additional streams of income, which would fast track her path to financial independence.

“I started exploring real estate as an alternative source of income after reading a real estate investment book by Robert Allen, titled, Nothing Down, how to invest in real estate and generate wealth without having a lot of money. Although, quite a few of the principles and approaches were more applicable to the United States, I was able to apply the universal principles and see results, which got me more interested in deepening my knowledge,” she reveals.

According to Okonjo, she started attending real estate investment seminars whenever she could. In addition, she realised that in the Nigerian context, she could add value using her background to conduct financial and legal due diligence, which is a vital component of the country’s real estate, as well as structure negotiation and assist institutional and high net-worth clients.

“I then added real estate acquisition as part of my legal services at the time, but I always had my eyes on the bigger picture, of creating good quality properties to solve the real estate problem in Nigeria. I particularly loved the flexibility that being an investor and an advisor seemed to offer for presenting, positioning and enhancing property value using business, marketing and financing strategies. I was very intrigued by the ability to create unique solutions for real estate investors in especially difficult situations. In any case, law and real estate are inextricably linked, so I’m pleased that I have that unique combination of legal proficiency, real estate investment, marketing, branding and advisory,” she confesses.

Within a short time in the real estate sector, she has driven her firm, Fine and Country to an enviable height. “My strongest driving force was actually the fact that coming from a legal background, having attained a measure of success in my legal education and career, with a master’s degree in corporate and commercial law, being a member of both the Nigerian and New York Bars, I knew I had to operate at the highest professional standards,” she chips in.

Okonjo’s voice is gentle and cultured. Over the years, she has developed the habit of allowing others to pour out their minds, while she listens, though, adding one point or the other, when necessary.

“In my mind, there was only one option, to create a reference point that would separate our company Fine and Country from what is essentially perceived as an all comers industry. Our benchmark was and remains other high-level international advisory, consulting and professional services firms, whether in law, finance, strategy, marketing etc. We operate essentially as a consulting and advisory firm focused on providing high level real estate and wealth solutions. This helps to inspire confidence in clients who then reward you with more business.”

Using the words of James Weldon Johnson, the glory of the day was in Okonjo’s face, and the breath of the night was in her eyes, as she talks about her success in a male dominated territory. “It’s honestly never occurred to me that I’m a female operating in a male dominated field. As a lawyer, I didn’t think I was a female lawyer, although it helped that there was specifically a ‘Best Female Law Student Prize Category’ at the Law school, which I was fortunate to win in 1991. So, while there are benefits to being a woman, and I recognise that generally women have had challenges in society and the economy generally, I do believe that the principles for success are universally applicable. I like to talk about the three Ds of success whenever I speak with young professionals, unshakable (desire), unstoppable (determination) and uncompromising (diligence). If you can get clear about what you want to achieve, with clarity of vision, comes a drive, which has to be banked up with a can do, never give up and put in the hard work attitude. These are timeless fail proof principles that anyone can use to succeed, man or woman.”

Despite her aversion to gender differentiation, Okonjo says female participation in real estate is strong in the top professional circle where she operates, “some of the most reputable real estate projects and brands have women leading, Eko Atlantic Development Ltd has an incredibly talented lady, Ibiene Ogolo as MD, Uzo Oshogwe a well-respected professional leads Afriland, Yinka Ogunsulire leads Orange Island Development, and even the professional services firms, quite a few females have distinguished themselves and we have the Real Estates Leaders Network to connect and share experiences.”

From the investment angle however, “though we’ve seen increasing interest from women, I believe that more women need encouragement to take bolder steps towards investing in real estate. There are no legal barriers stopping us from investing, only limiting beliefs, and a lack of knowledge. It’s for those reasons that the Finer Wealth Series was conceived to help female investors gain access to good quality insight, and market intelligence, more importantly a community like-minded investors who can boost each other’s confidence through shared experiences and professional guidance. I’m also finalizing a book targeted at helping more women climb the property ladder, which is due shortly. I look forward to discussing it in more details as soon as it’s published.”

What does she consider inimical towards the nation’s march to housing and opportunities for housing in Nigeria?
With a cackle that seems to lift out of the pages showing her smiling face, Okonjo says, “I’ll restrict my comments to opportunities for mid-level to prime real estate in residential and office market in a severely contracted market. Fine and Country’s main business is in the upper quartile, and we are very familiar with recessionary markets, considering our launch in 2008, the height of the market crash. We have, however, always maintained that astute investors understand that every market not only has cycles, but that within each cycle, real investors don’t look for last season’s opportunities. Astute investors engage a creative and intelligent process to unlock opportunities irrespective of the market cycle.”

On the card for Okonjo and her team is Refined Investor Series (RIF). It is a two-day event. She pauses, then adds what seems a full stop: “It is an exclusive independence celebration dinner themed, I.L.E.A.D — Industry Leadership, Entrepreneurship Attitudes & Development” — which will be held on October 6, Friday evening at the Landmark Hotel, London. We will be celebrating Nigeria’s 57th independence, visionary leadership in projects and financial institutions shaping the Nigerian real estate sector while encouraging networking with private wealth clients and leaders in Diaspora. The full day Premium but Free Access Investor Series and exhibition will hold on Saturday, October 7 in the same location. The exhibition and seminar will feature an extensive exhibition from all our partners and stakeholders providing direct engagement with diaspora and international investors.”

Okonjo adds, “our key objective and mission through the RIS has always been to ‘inspire confidence’ in the Nigerian real estate market, through providing a platform for good quality information, insight, and intelligence. As a company, we are on a quest to raise the standards in the real estate sector to international levels so that we become an attractive destination for our own citizens wherever they live, as well as international investors.”

The vision, she says, “is to help investors invest more intelligently and confidently as a result of the Refined Investor Series There’s so much that is positive about Nigeria while there’s a lot that still requires correction leaving room for growth and in some cases radical change. Our governance structures are a weak link and one that organizations such as ANAP Foundation and many other Non-Governmental Institutions are focused on building. That’s a good thing when we have private sector leaders who have no desire to play the ostrich just because they are not in full-time public service. They realize that the business climate and economy play a major role in their long-term financial and corporate wellbeing, but more importantly for the future generation.”

During the event, attention will be drawn to, as well as celebrate leadership, both in the private and public sector. “We will highlight the fact that there are good leaders in Nigeria, have been and will continue to be. In addition, by drawing attention to various leading corporate brands not just in Real Estate, but home grown institutions, whether it’s Access Bank, Stanbic, First Bank, Seplat, Platform, Famfa Oil, South Energyx, Landmark, Crown Ltd and numerous others, we demonstrate that the story of Nigeria cannot be told without the private sector. It’s the leading brands, the selfless and visionary leaders in various sectors, and the innovative and astute real estate companies that champion change that we want to celebrate. We have to remember that most sectors of the economy interact with real estate and we have a story to tell about the real estate companies setting the pace and blazing trails even within the difficult terrain.”

Speaking with much passion, Okonjo says, “with mid to prime residential, we believe that the top executives, midlevel professionals and High Net worth Diaspora investors present a unique opportunity for residential developers. Twenty five per cent of our clients in the last year have come from Nigerians based overseas. The main reason is the currency advantage that came as a result of the Naira devaluation. This is a largely untapped and confusing market for most Nigerian developers who tend to go after them sporadically without a well -articulated and coordinated strategy for not just exposing their projects but creating the right narrative that resonates with their target market.”

The Fine and Country boss believes that real estate is usually an accurate reflection of an economy. She says, “it mirrors the situation in the economy, it’s affected by reduced purchasing power, increased interest rate, volatile exchange rates and political and regulatory stability. It has witnessed significantly reduced numbers of transactions across all segments, from mid to upper market, residential to offices, hospitality, and even infrastructure. “However, astute investors understand that markets come in cycles and that each cycle has the right strategy.”

The lady believes there are still opportunities for ultra-luxury residential; however, she adds a caveat, “if you have staying power, meaning long term funds, patient or legacy capital as I prefer to call it. The true luxury market will never really disappear, as luxury is a reward for extreme hard work and having attained a certain height in life.”

According to Okonjo, you can invest in this segment only if you can afford to outride the market, while of course taking on board market feedback and ensuring you provide real luxury. “The low to mid- price point residential, office and retail segments remain the highest growth potential, but it’s a game of numbers and a race to slimmer margins that will benefit from higher efficiency in construction and customer service delivery. This market believe it or not is still anyone’s game and not yet dominated by any player. There’s an opportunity for an existing luxury developer to pivot in this direction with economies of scale and dominate specific locations. I could go on, but hopefully, you can see there are still opportunities,” she says.



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