Folorunso Alakija – Building a legacy
It’s been one long journey to the top. Although, today, she is described by Forbes as the richest woman in Nigeria, second richest woman in Africa, richest woman of African descent, the journey to becoming the Vice Chair of Famfa Oil began with buying and selling of clothes and jewellery while still working at a bank. Focused on building an enduring business and guided by the principles of hard work and honesty, she soon established her first business, Supreme Stitches. On becoming a CEO, she diversified from fashion to printing and now oil.
Her life is not all about making money; she also gives and supports widows and orphans through her foundation, the Rose of Sharon.
The native of Ikorodu who, in March this year, became the first female Chancellor of Osun State University recently celebrated her 65th. The event which was three-pronged also marked her 40th wedding anniversary and the launch of a collection of inspirational books authored by her.
In this encounter, Mrs. Folorunso Alakija talks candidly about her foray into business and gives tips on how to build an enduring business.
On your way to success, you have done many kinds of businesses. Which one would you consider as your “days of little beginning”?
My days of little beginnings go way back to when I was working in the bank. At weekends, I would travel abroad to buy jewellery which I would sell to my friends. I would buy suitcases of scarves which I would sell at whole sale prices to people in the market. The more suitcases you brought in, the more profit for you. I remember that there were rings and ear rings that I was selling for N180 at that time. You can’t buy such jewellery now for N10,000 or N20,000. I was doing this in my spare time and making money on the side. I had two shops; one at Ikeja and one at Iponri. I hired staff to man them but would stop by to check on them now and again. So, those were days of little beginnings and that was long before, I started my fashion business.
How did you recruit your first staff?
When I set up my fashion business fully, my first staff was a tailor. I had automatically absorbed the staff that used to man my shops. She was my right hand person in terms of customer service and attending to clients. That gave me room to focus on the technical side of the business.
When you became a CEO, how did you feel on your first day at work?
I felt like this is my space and therefore, I was willing to do everything and put in my best to make it work. I felt very determined and hopeful that this was the beginning of great things to come. And, each time I got back home, if I had any issue, I discussed it with my husband and he advised me and supported me.
It’s been a long journey to where you are now. What are the principles that guided you in business?
The principles that guided me were some of the principles I learnt from my father. One of them is honesty – with oneself and the business. Make sure that somebody else’s money doesn’t get mixed up in your own money. Simply put, be honest in all your dealings. For example, if in business you get over paid, you should return the difference. You should charge the right fee for all and sundry and not charge one higher because such a person can afford it. I laid down ground rules. Initially, I was accepting people’s orders without asking for deposits. As a result, there were debts that I had to write off. After that, I had to put systems and policies in place whereby I would ask for a 70% deposit or the clothe would not be sewn.
Later, my clients accepted and imbibed it and ran with it. Those who were not willing to accept this, I made sure we did not make their clothes because once they are made and they don’t come back to take it, we have wasted time, manpower and resources because those clothes will sit in the showroom waiting for the owner to come collect it. It’s a wrong way to do business.
Not many women do well in business as you have done. As a woman, how did you play the boardroom game?
Well, honestly, it is not every one that is cut out for business. Some people go into business with their eyes closed, thinking that because such and such a person excelled in business, business is for everybody. Business is not for everybody. I want to establish that fact. Some get into business and get their fingers burnt because they don’t have the talent for business. They think that business is easy.
A lot is involved to make a business succeed. To succeed in the boardroom, as a woman, you have to know your onions, you have to know what it is about. You have to have the knowledge and not be ignorant. If you come with ignorance, you will be left out and become an observer. That doesn’t help you at all. You have to be able to interact and interact sensibly in a way that would add value to the growth of the business and move it forward.
You need to know when to throw light on a matter that is getting sticky. You may need to be the one that will pacify and cool people down when tempers are rising so that you can have a successful meeting because when you sit in a meeting that does not have head or tail, everybody has wasted their time. So, you need to know what you want to get out of that board meeting, make your point, hit the nail on the head and get people to see your point of view; sway them to your side. Everybody is expected to be wise, so the wisest will carry the day.
Is this where women get it wrong?
I won’t say that women get it wrong. Women have the brains to get it right. What they need to do is to fight their way up, get to the boardroom (and) prove that they can do it. To be able to achieve that, they have to put in three times as much as the men do. The thing for women is not to chicken out or take ‘no’ for an answer. Stand your ground, be firm, be focused. You have to acquire the skill, be able to communicate and know what the business is about. We are not talking about cooking lessons here. You have to have the knowledge. Once they see that you have the knowledge, they listen to you. You make your point and they will show you respect for it.
As a minister and a business person, how do you bring the God factor to the work place?
I am totally against all those who say, “This is not about God. Take God out of it”. I tell them straight up that business itself is God’s business. It’s all about Him; without Him, you can’t excel and there are those who would argue that what about those who don’t know God and yet are excelling in business? I tell them that if and when they do know God, they will excel the more because God knows what you can do, the decisions you can take that will make you make more money in a week than you can make in a year or ten years. He can drop ideas in your spirit just because you said, “Father, this business is your business. Come and be the chairman that I do not see in the physical; come and lead, direct me, speak to me. Show me the way I should go, favour me”. And then, the doors begin to open. As long as you are opening your heart to him, He will begin to make a way for you. So, business is God’s business.
There are those who believe where they are working is where they should be making extra money on the side by cheating the company. Some are using the company’s photo-copying machine and paper to run their own personal businesses. It’s stealing and cheating. Some are using the company’s time; when they should go marketing, they are busy marketing their own business, using the company’s car, using the company’s telephone. Such people have taken God out of it.
There are those who sit on the telephone for hours using company’s time and money to pay for calls that are unrelated to the business of the day. There are those who believe they should set up business to rob others and they still call it business. This happens every day in the work place. It’s for the owners of the business to train their staff so that God will open their eyes so that they can say ‘no’ to temptations or else, all these will come back to hunt them in future. It may be when they set up their own businesses that it will come to hunt them, others will do what they did to them.
There are Nigerians who established businesses, made money but were unable to sustain them. How does one have enduring riches that can span generations?
You will notice that it is those who start the business that are more passionate about the business. If they don’t get their children involved early enough and they die, the business may die after them. Their children may not necessarily like that business; some may just sell off the business or struggle with it for a while and give up. But if they are brought into the business on time and grow with it, even as their parents are growing and aging, their parents can begin to correct them early enough, showing them the way and the children become comfortable running the business while the parents can begin to withdraw gradually.
They too should do likewise to their own children. If you see the Indians, that is how they run their businesses. They bring their children in early. The Jews do the same. It’s very clear with Indians and Jews that they start with the children early. As they are finishing off in school, they get them to come into the business to see how it’s being run; even if it’s for a couple of hours a day. They begin to develop the interest.
You have to teach the children Godly principles and how business is supposed to work. Teach them how to interact with fellow human beings and respect your staff. If you respect your staff and your children don’t, the staff can rebel and not want to be loyal to your children. If you do the right thing at the right time, even if you are gone, the staff will still stay with your children and you’d find those who are willing to return there.
How does it feel to be referred to as the richest woman in Africa?
The reference has not changed me or my family members in the way we behave, talk, live and interact with others. We are still the way those who have known us for years know us to act and behave. We have not developed chips on our shoulders. We are down to earth. We thank God for the comforts of life and we do not spend it foolishly. We buy the things that will give us a bit more comfort and are necessary. We are not frivolous spenders.
Is your life today a reflection of your childhood dream?
My childhood dream has always been to be a business woman because I was born into a family of business people. From the time I knew my mom, she had always been a business woman until she died at the age of 92. She always sold one thing or the other, no matter how small. My father, I had always known him to be a businessman until he died at 95. My step mothers were always in business; most of them in the textile business. So, it was inevitable that I would also do business.
At 65, what do you look forward to now?
I look forward to being able to fulfil my destiny – whatever it is that God has called me to do. I desire to please Him. That will be my ultimate joy; if my father and my God pats me on the back and says, “Well done, my daughter “.
When you are not working, how do you relax?
I wish I can relax. I’d love to be able to watch movies but I don’t have time anymore. I try to catch up on the news daily if and when I can. Now and again, I create time to read to my grandchildren. We love playing hide and seek and I love shopping although shopping can be tiring.
Where is your favourite travel destination?
Dubai! Apart from my country, Nigeria, Dubai is my favourite city. I like the weather. I like the stores and recreation places. There are many places you can take the grandchildren to and it’s safe.
As a designer yourself, what other designers do you admire and would love to wear their clothes?
I am not a designer freak. I patronise a lot of designers for different kinds of clothing. I don’t want to mention names because there are so many of them and if I miss any one out, they will get offended. Don’t forget that I am a trustee of a fashion body. I patronize some of them for handbags, some for jewellery, some for hats, some for clothes and some for embroidery for my head ties. I really don’t care about labels. Anything that is nice and if it fits me, I would buy.
By Jemi Ekunkunbor