- Says “I Was Determined To Make It In Life”
When the news filtered out few weeks ago that real estate guru, Otunba Yemi Lawal was going to be 50, we knew we had to pin him down for an interview. This is because in just 50 years, this Ijebu businessman has accomplished a lot.
Though he is an Accountant (an FCA), former banker, a financial consultant amongst the several areas he has played in, many know him as a property developer. This is because Yemi, who is the MD/CEO of Seagle Properties has spent the last 10 years building quality houses for sale. Since he started, he has built about 80 projects across Lagos from Mainland to the Island. And he has a huge number of projects and estates in Oniru.
What drives this energetic businessman who works round the clock? What has kept him going for the past 10 years? How did he survive the last stock market crash in which he lost a lot of money, which got him so depressed that he landed in the hospital? How has he also been able to sustain his 25 year marriage to Ayo who works with him in his real estate business?
These and many more were the questions City People Publisher, Seye Kehinde was eager to ask this brilliant construction giant, who has done a lot in that industry, when they met few days ago. What are his success secrets in business? What are the lessons 10 years in real estate taught him? It was a no holds barred interview.
Many people don’t know that Otunba Yemi Saheed Lawal has had 18 years commercial banking experience in Audit, Treasury, Branch Management, Regional Management and corporate banking majoring in corporate and Project Finance.
Only few know that he left the banking industry in 2005 as a Regional Manager to join Eagleways Investment Group.
This stylish businessman holds a BSc degree in Economics from Delta State University and MBA (Management) and MSc (Finance, both from University of Lagos. He is a Fellow of Institute of Chartered Accountant of Nigeria (INCAN), as well as Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria. Not only does he play in Real Estate, he is big in Oil and Gas. He is the Chairman of Seagle Oil Limited and SPDC Facility Management Limited. In the midst of all these, he constantly jets out abroad to attend short courses in Oil and Gas, Banking, Finance, and General Management. He has attended the Credit Risk Management 11 at the Citibank School of Banking, New York, USA; Leadership, Innovation and Entrepreneurial Skills, at the London Management Centre. He has also done Real Estate and Capital Market Programme at the Kennedy School of Architecture, Harvard University, USA.
He also did a 6 month General Management Programme (TGMP17) as well as the Ownership Management Program OPM, both at the Harvard Business School, Boston, USA.
Lawal is an alumni of Lagos Business School, London Business School and Harvard Business School. He has an interesting story to tell. Read on.
You will be 50 in a few days time. How do you feel hitting the golden age?
I thank God for keeping me alive till now and for all the blessing, protection, support and guidance. I really can’t feel anything. I don’t feel old. I am still my normal self. I believe age is in the mind. But I take my new age 50 as the beginning of a new thing in my life. Now that I am 50, I want to contribute more to human development support, and also assist people around me and my environment, especially the poor and upcoming. The truth is that a lot of people are suffering in this country. When I look at the past I give God the glory for all the things He has done and the only way I can appreciate all these is to start supporting the needy.
In the last 50 years, you have been so many things- an Accountant, Bank, Financial Consultant, real estate practitioner, Oil and Gas player – all rolled into one. How have you balanced out, all these roles?
I think the basic thing is just to thank God. It is not by my power or my might. It wasn’t planned. One thing led to another. I am a very adventurous person. And I try to take advantage of opportunities around me.
You won’t believe this. Initially, I wanted to be a lawyer, when I was still in school but my mathematics was very, very poor. I had to look at those ahead of me in the family, like my brothers, my siblings. I have a brother who has a very strong impact on what I have achieved now because he studied Engineering in UNILAG then. We all looked up to him. He kept telling me there is no way you can run away from Mathematics. At the end of the day when I did my school certificate exams I failed Mathematics. I had to start all over again when I tried the exam again I had A2 in Maths then. While I was relating my exams then, I also started to read on my own for Accounting. That is how my interest in Accounting started.
I read Economics and I started working in the banking sector in 1986. From there, I started ICAN and all that. And then God said it was time to leave banking in 2005.
After I left banking, I began to trade in stocks with the support of some banks. In the course of doing that, I assisted a friend, gave him money, he couldn’t pay back, he had to give me his property to sell. About 40 people came for that same property, and that was how I moved into real estate. I suddenly realized that there was a high demand for properties. I saw the gap in housing and I saw that there was a lot of opportunities in that area.
Besides that, my father was into the business. He was in Costain for 30 years. He was the one that supervised the construction of NITEL. Whilst I was young, I was always with h im, when I was on holiday. He likes to take me around with him. From there the interest started. When I noticed that there was opportunity in the real estate business, I moved into it. I also have some investments in Oil and Gas. But it is not as serious as in Real Estate.
Overall, one needs to give God the glory. I have come to learn a few lessons. It is not all about smartness, or whether you are hardworking. Yes, if you are an entrepreneur you have to be very hardworking. You have to work 24/7, especially when you have interest in it. But basically, whatever one wants to do in life, you should have strong interest in it. Don’t just do what other businesses are doing. That is why most businesses are failing. You must have vision and passion for whatever you are doing. There are challenges you have to face here and there. I thank God that we have been able to surmount those challenges. Life is also full of challenges. And from challenges comes opportunities. Overall, it is just the grace of God that has made me succeed, if not I won’t be where I am today because I lost so much money in the stock market. And what I lost is enough to finish somebody. But I took it in good faith.
At that time you lost money, what went through your mind? Were you depressed? What was the feeling like?
I lost a lot of money in the stock market. Quite a lot. In fact, AMCON took over some of the loans I had then. I lost my personal money, my proceed, my gains, my profit, my everything was wiped out. Towards the tail end of the collapse of the capital market, I diversified into real estate. That really helped me to really get back on my feet. Like you asked me, truly I was depressed. I didn’t go out for about a mo nth. I was in Reddington Hospital for 2 weeks because my blood pressure shot up. It went as high as over 230. It was just the grace of God. In the course of doing that, I read a lot of books on motivation, leadership, and co. That also helped me. One of the books I read is from Brian Tracy. It is titled Face Your Fears. It is on how to challenge your fears. The day I realized that I didn’t come to this world with anything and one would not go with anything. And everything is all vanity, and the fact that my achievement in life has been with the support of God.
The day I realized that, I faced my fears. That was the day I came out of depression and the following week everything started moving on fine. What made me depressed the more then was we did a project of 15 flats. And we could not get to sell it. That affected me because that was my last hope. Overall, we came out of it and from then on we never looked back.
But, really, how do you juggle all the roles you have to play, almost 6 to 7 roles and you still look calm?
One, you must have passion for whatever you do. Succeeding in real estate is not an easy task. But for me now, I have put in 10 years so it is pretty straightforward. It has always been about passion, providing homes for people. It is not about money. How much am I going to spend in a day. The joy I have is growing the business, building structures from zero level to what you see and you feel fulfilled. Again, I travel a lot. I have seen a lot of structures. I travel minimum once a month. In a year, I attend 2 courses on real estate. I have a strong passion for real estate. It is in my blood. I sleep and wake up dreaming of real estate. And we have not really done anything by the grace of God. We are still going to do a lot. Passion is key.
But now that I am 50, I want to slow down and give my family enough time. My children have grown up. I want to spend more time with my wife.
So, what has helped me is one, Grace of God. Two, a strong passion that I have for it. Once you he passion for something you won’t get tired. You won’t get exhausted. That will give you the push to more ahead.
You have been in real estate for the past 10 years. When you look back to the many projects you have completed within these years, how do you feel?
I feel happy. I am so happy. Today in Nigeria, I can beat my chest and say I am an employer of labour. I have more than 200 people in our employ. We are creating value. We have created jobs for some people.
We are building homes for people. It’s a team’s work. I can’t do it all alone. I thank my suppliers, my clients, my contractors, everybody is happy. Both my workers and the houses from us are happy. So, when I look back I am happy that I can also say I am contributing to the development of the economy in Nigeria and the GDP of the country.
We create value and we would continue to improve to be able to provide houses for the people in Lagos State. We thank God that we are part of those people adding to the development of homes and housing in Lagos. When I look back, I am happy that I have done something.
How many projects have you done in the last 10 years?
In the last 10 years we have done more than 80 projects. Basically in Oniru, at Ikoyi, we have even executed projects in the Mainland. We are more present on the Island. The vision now is to go to Ikoyi and Victoria Island.
One thing is that you keep going on as if you are running a long distance race. You are not showing down at all. What has kept you going?
If you look at it, I did stock. I wanted to play there. I realised that it was too risky for me. I don’t like going into a business, I don’t know anything about. It is not done the way it is done abroad.
The movement in the capital market as far as I am concerned, in Nigeria, does not rely on any fundamentals. The economy is not even stable. You can’t even plan. There are certain things that will happen in normal setting elsewhere that will make the price of shares to crash. But in Nigeria it does not work like that. So, when I lost the money. When I lost my investment in the stock exchange, I had to sit down and look at it all over again.
Is it a place I can put my money or resources into? But real estate is real. That is why it is called Real Estate. You can see it. It is real. The value creation is real.
What has kept me going is the fact that we are able to serve people. The fact that patrons are happy. And the fact that we are growing and the fact that we have passion for what we are doing. When you have passion for something, you will keep moving on. That is one. Then two, Real Estate requires a much capital. And funding in Nigeria is very tough.
So, basically, I am an Accountant and an Economist. So we do more or less cash flow management and we are not too greedy. Funding of real estate business by financial institution in Nigeria is not really there. Nigerian banks short-term investments that will make them to easily recoup their profit. They are not really funding long term projects. So that has really affected the growth of the business loss of fund is also there.
By the grace of God, we have been able to manage that because of the strategy of cash flow management that we opted for as I said, we are not too greedy. We don’t go beyond our capacity that we may not be able to cope with because if you are doing projects more than you can cope with, it would affect deliverables. It will also affect the quality of projects we are doing. We are planning to partner with some companies outside Nigeria that can put some finishing touches to our work. The level of finishing we want is high and we are not there yet and we plan to be there.
Our area of concentration is the middle class level. Later we plan to play in the lower level because there are much fund there. We have plans for the lower cadre. We are already talking to the Lagos State government to give us land at Epe axis to build large-scale small-scale or low-cost houses for the masses.
The Grace of God and a passion for what we are doing have helped us.
Let me take you back to your growing up years. Where were you born?
I was born December 18th, 1966. I was born at Mushin, but I grew up at Oshodi. During our own time, the economy was far, far, better than this. I can eat in any home. The owner of the next building can scold me. We didn’t have the kind of freedom that kids of today have.
You could go out then, nobody was afraid of anything. The kind of risks that we are exposed to now were not there then. In the whole street then you could only see one, TV station. I remember then, we were the only house on our street that had a television. So, everybody would come to our house to watch television.
We didn’t sit on the chair, we sat on the floor. There was so much respect and discipline then. And for somebody to discipline you, the person does not need to be your father. Teachers were more focused unlike now. Schools were well regulated. In our primary school then at Mushin Town Council Primary School, it was Oshodi, later it became Oshodi-Isolo Local Government Primary School. They used to give us meals in school.
They gave us what we used to call SAMCO. After meal we have fruits. I was able to move from Oshodi to Lagos Island where I live now. My father used to send me on errands. Things have really changed. It was more fun then. Oshodi was so free. Water Corporation was working, ECN was working, everything was working then. Life was fun.
How come you didn’t allow living in Oshodi to slow you down from achieving your dreams.
Hmmm! Let me say this. Your background should not slow you down, or take you back. It should be a challenge to you and in the challenge are opportunities that will push you to greater heights.
My father wasn’t a poor man. My father has two houses in Lagos then. We lived alone in a storey building. We lived in the upper part and we had tenants on the ground floor.
But then, we still wanted to live better than the way we were brought up because we had some friends then, whose parents were rich and they were brought to school in cars.