Chairman and Chief Executive of Winco Group of Companies, Chief Dr. Godwin Ifeanyichukwu Okafor, in this interview, said the country would get out of poor if the federal government would seriously deepen investment in agriculture, petroleum and manufacturing. Okafor, however, suggested ways the government can adequately boost the businesses of entrepreneurs so as to reduce the escalating rate of insecurity among the youth. He, also, spoke on how he started his business from the scratch with little capital.
How did you start Winco Group of Companies?
Well, as God may have it, I started my business in 1977, after spending about seven years of apprenticeship. We were dealing with beds and mattresses. During the course of my apprenticeship, I visited factories and I noticed how they run their factories. We bought beds and mattresses from them. After seven years of service and apprenticeship, I started my own business. I was using a similar business structure of selling beds and mattresses until I deviated. I decided to go beyond selling beds and mattresses to producing them firsthand. Remember, I talked about my frequent visits to mattress production factories during my apprenticeship, and I also studied administration during my school days. I utilized both my administrative prowess and experience in organizing and setting up my own venture. I would visit factories to buy cut-off foams and bring them down to my shop at Mushin, Lagos. I was buying the foam from Teju foam industries. I started selling the flat foams to furniture makers. I made a move to start using the pieces of foam to make cushions. In no time, furniture makers began to buy it. I went further to cover them as mattresses. Unfortunately, I discovered that it wasn’t meeting the desired aim, so I stopped. I decided to start buying what we call foam blocks. I utilized the knowledge of the industry that I already have, coupled with the vision for the business to find a way of slicing the blocks into sheets, and that is how I started. I was able to convince the factory that I was buying foam blocks from to keep supplying to me. Good enough for me, they accepted my offer. I got my first block in 1977 and started off cutting the foam into mattress sizes and sheeting for chairs.
What challenges did you face as a starter?
As a starter, it was a challenge convincing people to buy mattresses from me. Although, foam wasn’t common at that time, so I had an advantage. For the furniture makers, they found it an advantage to buy from me. I started employing people to coordinate slicing the foam blocks into mattresses. I took the finished products to mattress sellers, and they were buying, bit by bit, the venture continued expanding to where we are now. I would give the mattresses to sell and they would pay later.
Did you receive any financial support while growing your business?
As the business grew, I knew that I needed more machinery to make production easier and faster. A friend introduced me to a machine representative in Denmark. I saw the machine and loved it. I borrowed money from friends to buy the machine. Upon arrival, we had nowhere to keep the machine. So I went to Ketu, Lagos, got a piece of land and set up a building to house the machine. I was able to put in my administrative knowledge and experiences in keeping the business afloat. It was key for the evolving nature of business. I went ahead to put up a small factory after purchasing the machine. I also employed more hands to help with the work. I made more money using the new system. At that time, there was fewer companies who were involved in mattress production. I was able to create a healthy competition to Vitafoam and Mouka foam. In 1990, the business faced a major challenge when the factory got flooded, which forced us to vacate the factory in search for another. Upon getting into a new factory, we experienced another blow in the year 2000, when the factory experienced a bomb blast that caused us to rebuild again. Some years ago, I wrote a book titled “A man who started his business with 500 Naira”. My master paid me off after my apprenticeship with 500 Naira. This 500 Naira has blossomed into three (3) fully operational factories in Anambra, Lagos and Abuja. I follow the Nigerian mattress market trend consistently while making company decisions and polices.
Did you have any mentor or helper?
Not really. Although there was a man who helped me at the beginning stage of my business. His name is Mr. Adejumo. He helped me in setting up my business. He was a friend to my master. He supported me greatly. I have always been uncompromising on quality. I understand how important trust is to the customer. This is why we have stuck to churning out products that will build trusts between us and our customers. For no reason did I give up on the truth in business.
What do you think of the popular quote that says “Do not despise the days of little beginnings”.
You have said it all. I earlier mentioned during this interview that any successful person must start from a small beginning. The way you handle your master, if you are under apprenticeship, must be honest and trustworthy. He or she must have integrity keeping in mind that one day they would have some persons under them. I also share this principle with my children, and this has remained a principle of work.
The Nigerian economy as far back as the 90s cannot be compared with today’s structure. What do you have to say?
Obviously, it did. From 1970 to 1990, the economy wasn’t as bad as it is today. In my line of business, I have encountered many challenges. A particular head of state took power and there was a huge scarcity of foreign exchange. However, through my ingenuity I found a way of pulling the business through the rough tide. I kept on going and moving towards results. Every year I spend 30 days in China doing research of better machineries that would help with the flow of my business. I pay attention to research a lot. I seek for the best equipment that can give more products and less waste.
Where do you see your company in 10years?
Well, we have set a pace for the company. As a company, we believe that in 5 – 10 years’ time, one of our factories will equal or better still surpass the supply and capacity of three factories put together. I learnt this interfacing with global leaders in business.
What do you think the government can do to encourage entrepreneurs?
The government should provide better infrastructures, road, and electricity. They should also provide good policies for the people and industrialists. In the course of my travels, I have understood that there is so much power and economy stability in manufacturing countries. It helps grow the GDP. There are three industries across the world that holds high potentials, and they are the agriculture industry, Iron and steel industry and the petrochemical industry. Good enough, we have it all as a country. Nigeria is so blessed with the natural resources. What stops Nigeria from investing hugely in manufacturing? What stops Nigeria from growing small refineries? Refineries that could cater for a state. I believe Nigeria has great access to material and human resources, but we need to do better with leadership.
What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs?
Be courageous. You will definitely meet challenges, but keep picking up courage as you go on your journey. Keep looking out for ways to overcome challenges. Encourage yourself consistently. Try listening to the right people around you. Do not stop for any reason