You’ll fail if you’re in hurry to make billions in business, says Okoya
Tell us about yourself, growing up and how you found yourself the business
My name is Rasaki Akanni Okoya. I was born in Lagos on January 12, 1940, to Chief Tiamiyu Ayinde Okoya, a famous master-tailor in Lagos of old and Alhaja ldiatu Okoya, Onile-Aje of Lagos Central Mosque, both of blessed memory. In 1946, I began my primary education at the premier Muslim school in Lagos Island, Ansar-Ud-Deen School, Okepopo, Lagos, where many eminent Nigerian intellectuals, professionals and businessmen were moulded.
As it was a common practice in those days, I had to double schooling with a practical apprenticeship in my father’s trade, tailoring, and allied businesses.
By the end of my primary education, it was soon clear that I was cut out more for trading than for formal western education. As an apprentice tailor, I began to save pennies and shillings earned from odd tailoring jobs I undertook privately after my father had a closed business for the day. By the age of 15, I had been sufficiently motivated to decide to quit formal schooling and entered fully into the fiercely competitive pre-independence world of the private sector of our national economy.
I started showing a fascination for business as a vocation and venture. That fascination blossomed and I established myself indisputably as a pioneer plastics manufacturer, a trailblazer, and a highly regarded businessman.
Having saved up the sum of £7 by the time I was 17 years, I made my first concrete incursion into trading and ordered ancillary tailoring materials such as buttons, ribbons and zip fasteners from Japan under the trade name: Okoya Button Stores. This first attempt that resulted in an unexpected huge profit opened the floodgates of fortune and marked the beginning of the great business empire that we have today. From tailoring materials, I graduated into the importation of shoes and clothing from Spain and imitation jewelry from all over the world.
How did you get the idea of going into business? What made you chose that type of business?
My father usually sent me to Dosunmu market to buy buttons, zips and other tailoring materials that we normally sold. So, I got attracted, and at that time, we had mostly Japanese companies, who are like the Chinese of today; everything in the market was all about Japan and things were also cheap in Japan. So, I wrote them a letter, and from there, I discovered that the price we got was 20 per cent cheaper. I told my father and he said he was not interested, so, that was how the idea came about and I started importing.
What was your mission at that time, was it to make money and go into other business or raise money to go to school?
When I was young, I saw the kind of shirts teachers wore, and they were always looking tattered. When my father sent me to Dosunmu, I saw businessmen dressed in big agbada, looking nice and rich. Then, when you find any man on the suit in that area, he probably came to rent an apartment. At that time, all the houses in Surulere, Ojuelegba were owned by people from Kwara and they got there by importing. I was always going late to school because my father wouldn’t release me until he came back. I told myself that I had to choose between my teachers and the men at Dosunmu with big agbada. I said I like to become a landlord, so, I decided to emulate the people in the Dosunmu market, that was why I choose money.
Decades ago, you became the wealthy man you dreamt to be at the age of 17, but when the success finally came, how did you handle it and how do you still handle it?
When you are in the industry and employ people, there is discipline. You think about how to pay workers’ salaries monthly, how to sell your product. So, by the time you do that, then the next month is already staring at you so, you have to be disciplined to carry on. I am happy that I have been on the high side.
To what do you attribute your success?
At that time, there were not many cars on the road and all my friends went to Europe to study. Some opted to be lawyers while others chose to be doctors. All I wanted was just to become a landlord and an industrialist as I am today. I am happy because for the past 60 years, this is what I have been doing and I want my children to emulate me. My success came as a result of following my dream.
You must have failed at a point, how did you handle failure and how do you still tackle what you don’t like?
To be honest, I’ve been very successful all my life buying and selling. I have never failed in my business except with the factory at Oregun, Ikeja, when one of my children said he was not interested in production. I felt so bad in my life and I stopped production for three years and started property business but at a time, I considered resuming production and I decided to acquire 35 hectares of land at Ibeju-Lekki, which has now been fully developed and we are producing household products. But at 80, it’s not an easy task but I am blessed. I have a younger wife, Sade, who is interested. She leaves home at 7:00 a.m and comes back home at 7:00 p.m straight to the kitchen. So, she’s highly interested in the business.
We produce 85 per cent on a generator and we spend a lot of money buying diesel. We survive, hopefully, there will be constant electricity and things will change.
You started with how many employees? Was there anything you looked for in those employees and was education part of the requirement?
At that time, we did not care much about educational qualifications. I don’t have, neither did I know the way to secondary school let alone university. At that time, as a graduate, you get employed, immediately, so, what we had is completely different from what we have today.
Rumour has it that, at a point, the Lagos State government was afraid to sell land to you because you were everywhere, how true was it?
I bought my land from the Lagos State government. I paid almost a billion naira for my industrial city. Lagos State is not giving me any land free or cheap. The only thing I enjoyed was when the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola was the governor, he was kind enough to give me a little discount of about five per cent and yet I still have a situation on the land and I have to settle a lot of families on the land.
You sacrificed a lot of things getting here, you decided not to go to school and stay back when your mates were travelling abroad, what are other risks you make at the beginning?
When I wanted to start earlier, my father discouraged me, and he said I must be with him in his shop for almost three years because I was in charge of everything in his shop. I know how to sow cloth and after three years, he released me.
Why do you stay out of Nigeria politics?
I don’t know anything about politics. You do the business you understand. If you want me to teach you how to sell or how to produce, I will be your lecturer but I don’t know the game of politics. I have a lot of them as friends but it’s a game you have to know. If you go into it without knowing, you will mess yourself up.
What is unique about your business?
I like the word ‘Eleganza’. I was travelling to London on a cruise boat and I saw a magazine with a big shirt and they wrote Eleganza and then I told my wife that ‘this is a very good name, I like to bear this name’ and luckily on that trip, I bought a British coin and turned it into jewellery and when I came back, I decided to name my shop Eleganza and since then I have been Eleganza all the way.
What is your greatest strength?
Production, buying and selling.
What is your weakness?
I don’t like to be deceived. Don’t tell me lies. If you tell me lies, I get weak and upset.
At 80, what are your aspirations?
I am happy. I have managed to get what I want, all I’m looking for now is to put my factory in a solid position, where it can be remembered forever and that is where I want Eleganza to be forever.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Mr. Eleganza, the man that produces, a job creator. I want Eleganza to be forever. But I want to do this until 82 and retire. By that time, I hope Eleganza would have been solid by the grace of God
How do you handle the pressure?
The time I started my business was a favourable period. There were a few people going into importation then. When you import, you make a lot of money, you sold at a good price. There was less pressure then. Customers had already paid before the arrival of your goods and the government policies were business-friendly. Most of the policies in place today were not there then. You could get your foreign exchange easily.
Do you still swim?
I still swim with my children. I love swimming.
If you had a piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
In business today, you have to be patient. If you are in a hurry to make billions, you will fail.
When we started, we make a good profit. You can even make 100 per cent profit, but today, you cannot. you have to work very hard, you must be honest. No hanking panking in business, if you do, you cut yourself by the neck.
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