Ifeyinwa Ighodalo: Excelling In A Man’s Turf
By Yemisi Suleiman
Ifeyinwa Ighodalo is the acclaimed owner of DO.11, a furniture manufacturing company committed to producing stylish and modern furniture for discerning clients.
Motivated by the need to add significant value in the industrial sector, DO.11 connects the local and international markets with the goal of promoting self-sufficiency and advancing national development.
Ighodalo is well-known for her commercial acumen and sense of style. She started her fascinating journey into the male-dominated profession more than 25 years ago under the brand name Design Options.
Through this endeavour, Ighodalo has consistently supplied locally made furniture for a variety of projects over the years, in addition to satisfying the aesthetic requirements of design.
Allure had a conversation with her, in her recently opened Ikeja showroom to find out more about her work experience thus far, the decline in artisans- ‘japa’ syndrome, her favourite fashion and beauty secret and much more.
How did your journey to furniture manufacturing begin?
I have always harbored a deep desire to contribute to Nigeria’s progress. Even from a young age, I aspired to empower people, generate employment, and create substantial value. It was crystal clear to me that this was my calling. In the initial stages, I contemplated venturing into interior decoration. However, when people mistakenly label me as an interior designer, I correct them promptly: I am, in fact, a furniture manufacturer.
Upon exploring interior design, I pursued a formal education in the field. During this time, a crucial realisation struck me: even if I crafted exquisite designs for various spaces, a fundamental question lingered, where would the furniture come from? Importing for every office project was not a sustainable solution. Consequently, I pivoted my focus and resolved to dive into the realm of furniture manufacturing.
What first inspired you to pursue the furniture-making industry, given the dearth of women in this field, particularly in the year you began?
Firstly, being a woman in this industry is noteworthy and I often start my interviews by emphasising that aspect. I am the eldest of three children; the first girl with two younger brothers. In the Igbo culture, I am known as Ada Ada, signifying the leader’s daughter, or the daughter’s daughter, as I am the first grandchild on both my father’s and mother’s sides. Interestingly, when I was born, my father, expecting a boy, was surprised to find out I was a girl. He raised me not strictly as a girl but as his first child, imparting business knowledge to me. My mother, with a firm hand, instilled discipline and resilience.
So your growing up and family background are influential to your career journey?
Yes, I grew up in a family with a furniture company and I witnessed the challenges they faced with both imported and locally made products. One notable instance was when I addressed issues with the tailor-making curtains for the company. After working with them for a while, I expressed my desire to study interior design abroad, but upon my return, I shifted my focus to furniture manufacturing. Despite my father’s initial skepticism, he supported my decision. Moving to Lagos to start my business, he insisted I get a job first, which I did for about a year before founding Design Options with a partner. My determination and ability to navigate challenges have been crucial to my journey. While the manufacturing aspect of the industry is more male-dominated, particularly in the manufacturing sector, interior designing sees a higher representation of females. However, for me, it was the manufacturing side that captured my interest and passion.
What motivated your decision to establish your own business?
Upon relocating to Lagos from the East, where my parents and I resided, I secured employment at a furniture company. At the age of 25 or 26, after just a year in that role, I made the pivotal decision to venture out on my own. Despite my father’s reservations and constant admonitions, I persevered, and today, I stand here, a testament to God’s grace with a compelling narrative to share. I co-founded Design Options with a partner, and through dedication and hard work, we transformed it into a household brand, synonymous with locally manufactured furniture of exceptionally high global standards. Our clientele included major banks, corporations, and even individuals, with a foundation built on serving expatriates. The expatriate market, demanding high standards, played a crucial role in elevating our craftsmanship; a standard we have maintained by the grace of God.
Following the liquidation of Design Options, from the ashes emerged DO.11, symbolising the second coming of Design Options. This journey is not just about furniture; it’s a testament to resilience, growth and the unwavering commitment to maintaining and exceeding the high standards set from the beginning.
What kept you going despite all the challenges?
Passion is the driving force behind what I do. Between Design Options and DO.11, what kept me going during the liquidation phase was my commitment to my people. At the point of liquidation, we had nearly a hundred employees. Instead of taking a break for myself, I thought about their families and responsibilities. Even during the challenging period of liquidation, I ensured their last salaries were paid and I provided stipends for training sessions. Divine intervention and the determination to restart guided us through this tough time.
We organised training sessions for both white-collar and blue-collar staff, securing a space on the island. Our first job after the setback was a library project for Lagos Prep School in Ikoyi. Despite not having a physical company, we managed to pay salaries and secure additional projects. Years later, a client in Abuja entrusted us with furnishing a block of flats. With renewed momentum, we acquired a new factory, and from there, we continued to grow. During the liquidation, strategic decisions were made, and although we did not have a showroom initially, we eventually secured one in January. Our journey involved starting from scratch and carving out a small space in the factory for photoshoots. By February, prayers were being offered, and despite a modest start, we steadily progressed. Today, we have outgrown our previous location, showcasing the resilience and progress of DO.11 to the glory of God.
Managing artisans or blue-collar staff can present challenges. Could you share insights into how you handle this aspect of your workforce?
The primary issue we are facing with staff, and it is a nationwide concern, is the ‘Japa Syndrome’. This phenomenon affects the availability of skilled blue-collar workers. Production levels have seen a decline because apprentices require extensive training and supervision, unlike skilled artisans who can complete tasks efficiently. To address this, I am considering the establishment of a training school once the situation stabilises.
Our country possesses intelligent and capable individuals, akin to diamonds in the rough. Refining and educating our workforce will be essential to unlocking their full potential. The prevailing focus on money over value creation needs to shift. Dealing with blue-collar staff is undeniably tough, but we have dedicated individuals in our team. Two ladies handle critical aspects—one oversees the blue-collar staff, while the other manages sales and projects. The showroom we have set up stands as a testament to the effectiveness of our training approach. One of our team members, trained by one of these ladies, independently established the showroom.
As a successful business leader, which character traits do you think is most instrumental to your success?
My approach to leadership involves addressing both white-collar and blue-collar challenges. I have built a strong support system, ensuring that issues are tackled efficiently at all levels. As a leader, I expect my team to approach me when necessary, even if I am not physically present. This helps prevent problems from escalating.
Additionally, mentoring plays a crucial role in my professional life. I have been a mentor to individuals, both paid and unpaid, and have actively participated in mentoring initiatives like the Faith Foundation and WIMBIZ (Women in Management, Business, and Public Service). It brings me immense satisfaction to see mentees excel and contribute positively to their respective fields.
With the exchange rate and everything, this year has been difficult. How does the current state of the nation impact business today?
The current situation affects us across the board; our component input, raw materials, and the exchange rate are all impacted. Initially, I resisted changing prices, asserting that we wouldn’t want to increase them. However, we reached a point where I received frequent emails notifying me of rising costs for various materials like foam and spray materials for wooden products. These increases, sometimes by 100% or 200%, have been consistent for every single material. I have conveyed to my team the necessity of adjusting prices to reflect these changes, but there is hesitation, with reluctance to raise prices beyond 10% or 15%.
The reality is that we are often selling at a loss, even with the advantage of a rush of customers who can no longer afford imported finished goods. Despite this, the purchasing power in Nigeria, especially in Lagos, is nearly non-existent. Basic needs like water, food, and rent take precedence over non-essential items like furniture. However, I remain hopeful that, by God’s grace, this challenging period is leading us somewhere positive. The resilience of our team and the loyalty of our customers are key factors that keep us moving forward.
At 60 how do you maintain your looks and stay healthy?
I maintain a healthy diet, waking up between 6 and 6:30 am, and allowing an hour for exercise before starting my day.
On a good day, I leave the office around 5:30-6 pm, but this can extend to 7:30-9 pm on busier days with meetings or projects. Previously responsible for driving, my current focus is on overseeing finer details and ensuring everything is in order. My day varies, and early mornings provide a time for clear thinking and strategic planning without external interruptions.
What is your work-life balance like?
At a WIMBIZ conference, the keynote speaker aptly expressed that the concept of work-life balance is a fallacy; something inevitably has to be sacrificed. This resonated with me. True success, I believe, lies in the ability to navigate both spheres, even if the balance is not perfect.
One of the driving forces behind starting my own business was the aspiration to have control over my time. However, the reality is that there are occasions when one’s time is not entirely one’s own. Despite these challenges, my family has always been my priority, and I am fortunate to have an extremely supportive husband.
The truly successful individuals are those who manage to succeed both in their home lives and careers, showcasing the importance of aligning priorities for a fulfilling life.