While many Nigerians in Diaspora would prefer to remain abroad in search of greener pasture, Stephen Lanre Ojo, a patriotic Nigerian, decided to come back home to start a business after living and working in the United Kingdom. In this interview with FinIntell, Mr. Ojo, the founder and Managing Director of T&T Labims Concepts Nigeria Limited, a laundry business, explained why he chose laundry as a career and the challenges he had to overcome in running a business in Nigeria.
Why did you decide to go into laundry business?
I developed interest in laundry business while living abroad. I had the opportunity of travelling to the United Kingdom (UK). I was living in a council flat with a friend then. In that council flat, we had a laundry department where residents come in to launder their clothes. When I first came to the UK, I had problem operating the washing machines in the laundry room because you need to buy a token which you will slot inside the machine before you can do your laundry. But due to my curiosity on how the machine works, one day I bought some tokens and approached someone who later taught me how to operate the machine. Although I wasted some money in the learning process but it was worth the spending.
From that day I started developing interest in laundry business. I then thought that it would be better coming back to Nigeria to start the business. So to prepare myself, I went in search of knowledge on how to run the business. I went to libraries and also surf the Internet to know more about laundry business. I also approached a laundry company in the neighbourhood for employment. Although the company couldn’t offer me employment because I had no experience, they however offered to train me for some months. I paid some amount of money for the training.
I returned to Nigeria shortly after the training. But when I got to Nigeria, I discovered that the way laundry business runs in the UK is different from how it is operated here. For instance: the UK laundry soap is different from ours; the starch they use is also different from the one we use here. So I couldn’t start the business in Nigeria immediately; I had to enrol in another laundry company here to understand how the business is done locally. The learning process really prepared and motivated me for the business.
How has the journey been so far in running a laundry business in Nigeria?
T&T Labims Concepts Nigeria Limited is an organisation which started five years ago. Although we have faced a lot of challenges, but God has been faithful to us.
In any business, there are three stages to growth –the starting, challenging and achievement stages. The starting stage is the excitement stage when you just setup a business. You feel so excited about the business; you tell everyone, especially your friends that you are now on your own.
The second stage is the challenging stage, and you know people don’t want to hear about challenges. But there is no way you can pray away challenges throughout your lifetime. The challenging stage is the period when your mind sometime tells you to continue or discontinue the business. Most times what you hear is: “you can’t survive in this business.”
However, the truth is that before you become successful in life, you must definitely face a lot of challenges. The determination to stay focus in business is what makes you successful. If during challenges you start thinking of another alternative, you will definitely fail. Many people before they start a business already have alternatives –if this business fails what else can I do? But when you make up your mind to succeed, no matter what comes your way you will surely breakthrough. Since I don’t want an alternative, I got encouraged to be more committed to the business until I become a positive reference point for others.
I am very tenacious in whatever I do. I don’t care about the challenges that come my way; I always believe I will walk over them. I always prepare ahead for challenges because it is the sure way to growth. So when challenges come, I don’t think about them. Instead, I think about the solutions –how to quickly get over the problems.
For T&T Labims Concepts, we are just about entering the achievement stage. For some years now, we have walked through the challenging stage. One of the issues we are gradually overcoming in the challenging stage is electricity. The main problem killing businesses in Nigeria is power. We run our business using diesel generator; and this is really affecting the business. The overhead cost is too much. The cost of purchasing a standard generator for the business and the high cost of diesel took away nearly all the profits that we are suppose to be making. At the end of the day, you find it difficult to even meet up with other expenses. However, we have re-strategised our way into profit making; overcoming the major problem that is killing businesses.
How would you compare doing laundry business in Nigeria and in the UK?
Over there in the UK, most of the operations are done electronically, while in Nigeria the operations are done manually. Also, there is stable power supply there when compared to Nigeria where you have to generate your own power as a business. We all know that electricity supply has never been stable in Nigeria.
In laundry business in UK, you don’t even need to stress yourself like the way we do here. A lot of things are available for businesses to grow, including the fund to start the business. You don’t need to have your own capital to start business in the UK. All you need is just the business idea, and the banks or venture capitalists would be ready to give you full support. The case is not the same here. Banks are not ready to support small businesses in Nigeria. In business, the more access you have to fund the more you can expand. But if you don’t have access to fund, no matter your idea you will be limited. T&T Labims is making progress today because I was prepared to face all the challenges confronting businesses in Nigeria.
I remember approaching some banks to get loan some years back. What they requested from me was beyond my capacity. Even the microfinance banks cannot help because they barely have enough to give. Funding is a big challenge to doing business in Nigeria.
Laundry equipment in particular are very expensive. Many people just want to start laundry business neglecting the fact that the business is beyond washing of clothing. There is a single washing machine worth over ₦5 million. There is also a pressing iron that is worth more than ₦1 million. So to raise capital in this kind of environment for such equipment is a serious challenge. In UK for instance, you can get the equipment free for a start and pay gradually after a year and as the business progresses.
As an entrepreneur, what are your expectations from the Nigerian government?
What Nigerians are asking for is not much. Nigerians want electricity. If the problem of electricity is solved, about 85% of the problems in this country would have been solved. In November last year, we wanted to open another collection centre around Lagos after recording some profits, but our generator developed a major fault. I had no choice than to use the money to buy a new and bigger generator because without generator the business cannot run. That singular event limited our expansion dream for that year. Assuming we were able to open that outlet, I would have been able to employ additional four people. But the lack of electricity killed that dream.
Another challenge is in the area of finance as mentioned earlier. The Bank Of Industry (BOI) that should help the medium scale enterprises don’t give loans to ordinary citizens doing business. They know those who are getting the money; mostly people who don’t need the money. A colleague and I have been applying for loan in the BOI for sometimes now and no positive response so far. I also know people who have been applying for the past three years now with no positive response.
When I was doing research in the UK for the laundry business, I met a store manager who was so excited that I plan to start a business. The man gave me some files which contained the names and contacts of financial institutions that would be ready to support the business. He said I don’t need to have money to start the business. The man was however discouraged when I told him I was going back to my country to start the business. That was a white man offering me free consultancy. An average black man will not do that for you.
(Interjects) For returning to Nigeria, you must be a patriotic citizen?
Yes, I believe I am. Apart from the fact that I have family here in Nigeria, it has always been my dream to be an entrepreneur and setup a business in Nigeria. I only went abroad to make some money so I could establish a business locally. Unfortunately, the country is not encouraging the growth of businesses. The environment is not business friendly.
What are your guiding principles as an entrepreneur?
My main guiding principle is discipline. I believe one must be a disciplined person to achieve success in business. You must have the ability to balance being tough and being nice. For instance, your staff must know that you don’t take your business for granted. With that they won’t take the business for granted too. While you make them understand that you don’t entertain unethical attitudes, you must let them know that you are very caring.
In terms of principle also, you must know what to eat in business and what not to eat. Some businesses don’t grow because the owners prefer to be seen than the business. They spend whatever comes in from the business on themselves rather than on the growth and expansion of the business. Businesses die through such means. Despite being the owner of this venture, I still collect salary. I don’t dip my hand into the company’s purse because I own the business. Some of my friends that we started laundry business together are no more in the business because they spent the first profits on themselves.
Contentment is another principle. I am happy with what I have. I don’t compete with anybody. I only compete with my future and my goals. I have a clear understanding of where I am going. How to get there is what I think about and work towards.
How would you rate your staff performance?
The performance of our staff has been good. I have some staff that have spent over three years in this organisation because they have ownership mentality. You don’t have to see me before you work. There is no eye-service here. When I am not around, they always surprise me by working harder. I take those working with me as part of my family. I like to inspire my staff because leadership is the ability to influence others. I study people to understand who they are so that I can relate with them accordingly.
Although, there are some that don’t want to work; what they want is just salary. But I always make them understand that life is not laid in that way. I talk to them in a matured manner. I make them feel important and have a sense of belonging because they are important to me.
What advice would you give those who want to start business but are still looking for capital?
If the capital is not available, you have to start with what you have. If you wait for all the light in the house to turn green, you will wait forever. One should not wait to get all the needed capital before starting a business. People are overly afraid to venture into business. They fear of the unknown. Many are afraid of the risk in business. But the truth is that risk is everywhere. You don’t need to have all the capital before you start. I started very small and today God has increased my business with branches in some suburbs of Lagos.