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‘Nigerian Banks are not wired to support SMEs’

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On the fifth anniversary of Indoor Design and Concept Limited (IDCLng), a 360-degree production company, which has in its short existence ideated and handled some of the biggest red carpet events in Nigeria among other landmark projects, the CEO, Mr Kingsley James, looks back on the company’s trajectory, how it has survived the devastating disruption of COVID-19 and why he believes that the issue of unemployment would not be as widespread in Nigeria as it currently is if only Nigerian banks believe more strongly in supporting SMEs. 

How would you describe IDCL’s journey five years since it was created?
It has been fantastic. We have looked at the brighter side of the business; we’ve grown and expanded. We started as a two-man entity, now we’ve grown to direct staff strength of over 50 and we have indirect staff strength of over 150. We’ve grown from just a printing firm to a company that is now involved in five or six different kinds of businesses. So, as an organisation, we have grown vertically and horizontally. We have also experienced tumultuous times; we are happy that we survived them all. Indeed, we even survived the latest one that is global, which is the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we are here to God be the glory. It has been a fantastic journey.

You trained as a lawyer and an accountant. At what point did you decide to go into the branding and printing business?
When I graduated from the University of Jos, I actually wanted to be a businessman. I started my first job at a commercial bank, which my father ‘bullied’ me into accepting. It was at that time the banking industry was trying to be sophisticated by recruiting young ladies and guys with sharp suits. But when I resumed, I wore Timberland boots and didn’t tuck in my shirt and my boss then told me I didn’t belong there.

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In four months, I left. I then went to an Information Technology company and started learning how business is done. I was there for two years before moving to Lagos to join Paul Usoro and Co, which was the leading law firm in the telecoms sector then. I was there for about nine years because the job was paying well. I was being exposed to big businesses and opportunities for the company, but all along, my business kicks did not go down.

Later on, I saw an opportunity at Digiprints (a company involved in advertising and branding) at a time that digital printing wasn’t popular in Nigeria. I worked there from 2002 to 2015. Even though some of the boys under me were leaving and starting their own thing, I promised the owner of the company that I would serve him as a matter of principle because I am a man who also wants to be served. 

What were the challenges you faced when you started your company?
I had a very tough beginning; the business is very capital intensive. I had a proposal of almost one billion naira for what I needed for the business. I was confident that there wouldn’t be any problem because I believed I had the market in my hands, despite the little competition at the time. I was optimistic that people would invest heavily in the idea.

I went to banks and individuals, but not a single person supported the idea or me. So, I went to a microfinance bank and took a loan at 11 per cent interest per month to buy my first machine, but that loan did not pay for the machine. I went to a gentleman called Akin Oduwole, who gave me the machine on half payment. So, I used the rest of the loan to pay for a small office space to start something.

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For the first two years, I was servicing loans. Another microfinance bank said it could offer me a loan at an eight per cent interest rate, so I quickly closed my loan with the previous bank. I also moved to another microfinance bank that gave us a five per cent interest rate per month. That was how we kept running at the beginning until we were able to pay back the loans. We started growing and then we opted out of the microfinance bank.

Then we moved to commercial banks and we had a bit of a problem with them too. They told me that I didn’t have an account with them or they did not know me or my business, so they couldn’t give us loans. Those are the things that kill businesses in Nigeria. However, the market trusted us and we started growing. I think our banks are not wired to support businesses and it saddens me. A lot of dreams are dying not because they are not good ideas or viable but because the banks’ position today starts with a question – what if the idea fails? The bank doesn’t come with the position of what if the idea succeeds. And those two positions are very strong. 

You said Nigerian banks are not wired to support SMEs, can you elaborate on that, please?
Based on the scenario I just painted; if you see the cup as half empty or half full, your reaction will be modelled by that. I heard the bankers out and I said to them that I am coming from a company called Digiprint; that at the time when we started, we faced the same disappointments until Rev. (Segun) Agbetuyi of (defunct) Omega Bank came to our rescue even though he also said ‘I don’t believe in you too, but it is my bank and I will give you a loan of N10m.’ The last time we closed our Digiprint Omega Bank account, we were doing over N90million a month for a business that the banks were reluctant to support. That is the confidence that keeps propelling me and I have told them that they would see it; they haven’t seen it yet, but it is still far better than where we are coming from.

We are now having constructive conversations; they are seeing our clients and are now considering taking a leap of faith. But the question is, if one of my boys started his own business now; except he has somebody funding him, he can’t go far. Importantly, my business is one that after agriculture, can employ faster in Nigeria because for each machine that you buy, you need at least six to seven people to handle it; you don’t have a choice but to employ. 

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As a business owner, what were the hardest decisions you had to take because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
One of our strong pillars is event management and coordination. That died 100 per cent because we can’t meet or socialise; we can’t even have corporate engagements. It was just in the last 60 days or so that we started to engage – even though there are zoom activations with elements of physical meetings within 20 to 50 people. So, we were engaging in the digital space. The earlier three months or two were a dead end. If we were only an events management company, we would have been dead because, there would have been no income. The other side is in recouping your funds because we had made sales before that and our payment cycle runs between 90 and 150days. So, for somebody who booked a job in January for instance and was meant to pay us in March, we couldn’t find him because his office was shut, understandably. So, we had to find a way to keep the business alive.

I will say to you that on the positive side, we didn’t fire a single soul all through the pandemic. We promised our team that together, we would go through the pandemic, except, of course, an employee does something illegal. That was a major decision I took. For us, the first thing we did was to check where our revenue would come from. We realised that the revenue of our core clients was actually on the increase. So, pharmaceuticals, dairy companies, beverage companies, food companies, and telecom companies were making money. So, we immediately innovated within ourselves. We asked what the first thing everybody wanted and realised that everybody wanted to protect themselves. So, we came up with the first idea of producing the hand-wash mechanism. We ideated and produced 100 percent locally the hand-wash mechanism. And because of the demands for the mechanism, we were not off the market at any point during the lockdown. Our core products were not selling but the innovative aspect of our business kicked in and saved the day. So, there really was no hard decision to take because as long as there was income, we were able to sort out our staff as best as we could. Once you can keep your human capacity, and you already have the machinery paid for; you may not grow, but you will really not go down.

IDCLng was established in 2015 at about the same time Nigeria was plunging into a recession, did you not fear for the survival of your young company then?
I am a serial entrepreneur and a compelling risk-taker and when you have that as second nature, fear is never the word ; it is just you making up your mind on which direction to take. I have invested in several small companies that I would not like to mention here. I left a business when it was completely down. I’d worked at Digiprints and moved to the level of the Managing Director before I left. I stayed at home for almost one year just to strategise on what next to do. When I decided that I needed to go back into the same business, I sat back and tried to figure out what exactly the competitors were doing and what I needed to do differently before entering the market.

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My business is very capital-intensive in buying the equipment and software. Then, you need to also spend on human capital for you to find the right mix of staff. So, when I came in at that time, there was still a need but your eyes need to be completely open to see how to fit in. What did I do differently? My initial company was 100 per cent a printing company; we don’t do anything else. As of that time, we had a backlog of jobs that could cover production for 45 days. We were very busy. But I knew four years earlier that printing, as we knew it, was going to go down.

Four years earlier, there was a clamour for paperless companies and we knew that was going to affect the number of prints that would be churned out. All those thoughts were what I carried into my business. We opened up four new areas. We started a fabricating line and ventured into event management and production. We also decided to take the branding aspect of our business a notch higher. With these, we rebranded our business in the market space, not as a printing company but as a production company ; we went corporate.

We started planning annual general meetings, award ceremonies, and end-of-year parties, not weddings. Our printing press is still intact. 40 percent of our prints are direct jobs, while 60 per cent are filling the gaps for the other services. For example, if you want to set up an office, you would need signages, letterheads, call cards, branded t-shirts for your workers, and probably even brand your offices; 40 per cent of which is printing, which is done directly by us. So, the printing part of our business was not suffering even though we were not getting direct print jobs from our clients. What also gives us a bit of an edge in that regard is that we respond faster, we control quality and we control price.

You noted that your father persuaded you to join the banking industry against your wish. What else can you say about your family background?
I have got one of the best fathers ever. He is not a Femi Otedola or a Dangote, but he is a man who protects his name. My father didn’t have enough, so he suffered a lot to get us to where we are today.

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We lived in Jos at a point and my father told me to accompany him to go and collect a debt after staying two days without food. We trekked from Jos town to Bukuru. But when we got to the debtor’s house, the man was not there. So, we trekked back to Jos. When we got home we collected bread and tea from one Mama Mary on credit for two days ; he went back to that woman to ask for another set of food on credit. That was the first time I saw my father cry and I told myself that if it was up to me, he would never cry again. I told myself that I will never be poor if it is up to me. It pushed me to become what I have become.

How did you meet your current wife?
My current was one of the ‘boys’. She was a producer and rolled with all of us when boys go out. She was one of the female-male that rolled with us, so we didn’t think we would get married to each other at all. I was married before, but lost my wife. So, there was no thought anywhere that I was going to marry my current wife. I am a weakling for beautiful and intelligent women and my wife is both ; she is very arresting. We started a conversation again. It lasted for about two years and we decided to get married five years ago, the same year IDCL started.

We have a kid together, but I had other kids before that time. I was jobless but she decided to marry me in spite of that. People who know my wife know she is completely sophisticated. She wasn’t brought up in this country. How she ended up with me, I can’t even fathom. Each time I look at her, I just wonder and say, ‘God, thank you.’ I’m just grateful for the grace that God gave me to have her around.

How does it feel being married to the daughter of a popular veteran broadcaster, Mrs Bimbo Oloyede?
My mother-in-law, Bimbo Oloyede, and I have gone almost everywhere, including the house of a former president. The Oloyedes brought up their children in a manner that makes them understand that everything is transient and that they should build themselves and not ride on their parents’ achievements. They don’t see themselves as superstars. But you can’t play down the hard work that earned them that name.

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When she left Channels TV and a party was organised for her, her boss, Mr John Momoh, said she was the only broadcaster he knew that had no single scandal. That might have meant nothing to her, but it meant a lot to me because, in the eyes of the public, it is very rare. 

How do you like to relax when you are not busy?
What I like to do is to visit the beachside in Epe (Lagos) or Seychelles. I’m very much into myself, though the perception is that I am a man of the people. What I do is to find my friends where they are and meet with them, discuss sports and politics, and then spend more time with my wife and children and hear them out too. Interestingly, I have this belief that Nigerians don’t unwind; we only respond to the dictates of our bodies. The things that bother us daily don’t allow us to unwind.

What fond memories do you have of your mum?
My mum is late ; she was a perfect complement to my dad. She was the type who would whip one in line almost immediately. I remember my father beat me only twice, but my mother beat me regularly because I was stubborn. However, she loved her children and died for us almost 10 years ago ; a year after my first wife passed on.

She wanted to get some things to assist us, so she went looking for funds from the people that owed her. Meanwhile, she had high blood pressure but didn’t check it. She alighted from a bus, had a stroke, and didn’t recover. It touches me sometimes when I realise that she didn’t wait long enough to enjoy the fruits of her labour and see what her children had become.

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