Nothing as good as working for yourself – Oluwafunmilayo Okeowo, MD, FAE Envelopes
By Oge Okafor
NOT satisfied with being the best distributor of the year, Princess Oluwafunmilayo Bakare Okeowo, Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of FAE Limited, the largest manufacturer of envelopes in Nigeria, researched and found out it was possible not only to merchandize but also manufacture envelopes. Armed with this knowledge, she went ahead, bought the equipment and despite being a woman in a male-dominated business world, she didn’t rest on her oars. She rose to become a major player in the business. Today, she can boast of local and foreign clients and even dreams of FAE outliving her.
In this interview, she speaks more about the business and her experience so far.
What does FAE stand for?
FAE is an envelope manufacturing company. We manufacture brown and white plain, peal &seal annual reports envelopes; dividend warrants envelopes, window and customized envelopes. We are the largest envelope manufacturer in Nigeria today and no customer is too small. FAE Limited means Funmilayo Adebo Enterprises Limited but we changed the name about 20 years ago when we discovered that a lot of people personalize the name. Funmilayo is my first name, Adebo is my mother’s name and I am dreaming big for FAE, I want it to live after me. I want it to grow after me because here, we do corporate governance; the business moves without Princess Okeowo and that’s the way it should be in any establishment.
You manage the largest envelope manufacturing company in Nigeria. As the managing director, can you share the origin of FAE envelopes?
Well, we started manufacturing FAE envelopes about 40 years ago. Then, it was Funmilayo Adebo Enterprises Limited and we were selling just paper. The company was actually established by my late mother, Princess Florence Iyabo Adebowale Adu Bakare. I joined the company when I left school and discovered that we only won a fan and fridge as the best distributor of the year from companies like Wiggins Teap and Apex Mills. So, I looked at our balance sheet and since I studied in England, I did investigation on how we could manufacture envelopes and if we could still afford to buy equipment. We bought the equipment and started production before my mother died. Today, we produce about 600,000 envelopes of different sizes daily.
What’s the staying power in the business?
Quality is just it. It’s quality and honesty, because in Nigeria now, we are more sophisticated. Everybody loves good things and if you produce and the quality isn’t good, people will not buy but if your quality is right, you are honest and with good corporate governance, the sky is your limit. It’s not as if we were not affected by economic recession, but because we have been steadfast, we are still in business and growing.
What are your challenges in the envelope manufacturing business?
Life is full of ups and downs. For example, if you look at what is happening in Nigeria today, we are still there and we are doing well, only that the profit margin is shrinking because of infrastructural problems especially power because we run on generator all week. There is also the challenge of roads and funds too. So, the cost of doing business in Nigeria is very high but I know we will smile eventually. Government is looking towards the right direction now, because they are encouraging manufacturers. We still want more; they are not there yet, we can understand they also have their own problems. At least when we talk they listen.
What’s the percentage of local raw materials you use for production and how do you source them?
For now, I think we should look into backward integration, which is very important. At FAE, we’ve started buying our craft from Nigeria Paper Mill in Jebba and about 80 percent of our raw materials are locally sourced. Several years ago, India insisted that inputs shouldn’t be imported but produced within, which is what our government should help us sing louder. Buy Nigeria, use Nigeria, and encourage manufacturers.
To what extent has the economic recession affected your business?
It’s only recently that we started getting dollars and that’s why I said government is trying because few months back, nothing was moving, everything was at a standstill. Most importantly, government should try and bring interest rate down to one single digit. The issue of ETLS (ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme) i.e. trading with our partners in Ghana, Liberia, Cote d’ Ivoire needs to be fine-tuned. Although, I can see recently that a taskforce was set up to look into the matter but they should look at it as a serious matter. If brothers and sisters within the ECOWAS region cannot trade with each other, it’s very bad. The impression is that Nigerians are rogues and government should try and change this perception. They do not need to necessarily go to China to buy merchandise. There are numerous issues we want government to tackle, but they should start from power; whatever problem is plaguing the power sector needs to be resolved. Then security and road infrastructure also need improvement.
Aside the aforementioned, what other challenges did you encounter when you started this business?
I had to grapple with being a woman in business. We are in Africa and being a woman doing business in a man’s world is a challenge. The average African man looks down on a woman but we have proven that we can move mountains, we are better managers and a lot of us are up there.
How did you surmount that challenge?
I developed my confidence and I didn’t allow men to intimidate me. I don’t see myself as a second-class citizen and I believe I can do anything with or without the support of a man even in a man’s world.
So, how has the domestic environment affected your business?
I don’t have any regret because we are one big happy family. They are my friends and I am their friend, we don’t fight or quarrel but it’s not as if we don’t have any misunderstanding at times; but we talk, dialogue and move on. Provided you are not selfish and lacking in your corporate social responsibility; you employ them and they are gaining from you. When they know that their children eat from the company, they won’t destroy you. At least to God be the glory, 80 percent of my staff are from this neighbourhood. I consider applicants from my immediate environment first before others because they’re not stressed coming to work and even if they work late, they won’t see it as a problem, because they are just walking home and psychologically, they are happy.
What’s your advice to budding entrepreneurs and people who want to come into this line of business?
My advice is that they should, because there is nothing as good as working for yourself. You are your own boss, the Managing Director of yourself. Nobody can sack you; you call the shots. Secondly, most countries in Europe and other parts of the world are doing well because they are industrialized. In China for instance, a small room as this is a factory and one can now see that they are one of the super powers in the world. So, let’s start from one room to another and let’s turn all our rooms to small factories; make anything even if the quality is low. I am not encouraging mediocrity, don’t misunderstand me, but you will improve and learn from your mistakes and you will get there one day and be producing quality goods.
How have you been able to manage growth over the years?
It still boils down to quality; improve on your quality daily. There are times managers in the factory might not want to listen to their subordinates. For that reason, I have a suggestion box where their subordinates drop helpful comments. When I open the suggestion box I don’t hold meetings. I want to be criticized to know what it is I am not doing right. With the suggestions, I can make improvement and handle my minuses. I don’t take it personal with them; in fact, I asked them not to include their names. It’s the person I know that I am going to fight. Apart from that, I bring in foreign engineers three times annually to evaluate us and see what we are not doing right. When they service our machines, we learn from them and ask questions in the difficult areas that we don’t understand. They also tell us the newest innovation in the industry. Moreover, I learn when I attend trade fairs and seminars.
What’s your Unique Selling Point?
Products at its best price. Our products are not expensive. It’s one thing for them to be expensive but of high quality and another thing for them to be cheap and of good quality. If you take a look at our envelopes, the quality is different from others in the market. So, quality at the right price is my unique selling point.
With technology evolving by the minute, how has it impacted the envelope manufacturing business?
Technology has helped a lot, if not, there will not be improvement. For example, the adhesive we were using few years back is different from what we use now. This is the benefit of technology. The one we are using now has more viscosity such that it’s potent for a long time.
So, what are the dos and don’ts of investing in this business?
The dos include corporate governance and continuous investment in technology, which will enhance quality. Conversely, dishonesty is always dysfunctional. Don’t cheat your customers; sell at the right price and make sure you deliver in good time, because your customer has a choice. They have the right to buy elsewhere because you are not the only one in the business. That’s why you have to treat your customers like kings.
Is there a peak season in this business?
Well, our business is all year round, because when it comes to window envelopes, they only sell when companies are paying dividends. So, there are some months window envelopes won’t sell but when it comes to other sizes, people buy always.