Tinkering with His Brain and Hammer

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An ambitious real estate company seeks to take the gains of its record-breaking successes several rungs up the ladder with a revolutionary and game-changing initiative to build a Brains and Hammers City. Nseobong Okon-Ekong recently had an encounter with its Managing Director, Umar Abdullahi

Abdullahi

Despite his meteoric rise in business in a few years, Umar Abdullahi continues to work at break-neck speed like one driven to prove a point. Still under 40 years, he is one of the few young Nigerians who are changing the narrative of his generation. Belonging to a peer group that is often linked to indolence, the Managing Director of Brains and Hammers Limited is a shining light that cannot be covered, simply on the face of overwhelming evidence of accomplishments.

A former banker, Abdullahi was smart enough to recognise a potential rewarding prospect. As his duties at the bank exposed him to a vista of investment chances, he was open to being led by his guts to zero in on the one that would give him the best break. When the time for a perfect match came; and his vigorous idea met with a waiting opportunity, the result has been a runaway success that has left many wondering.

Abdullahi may not be the only investor who realised that there was a rise in the number of middle class in Nigeria. The development was an acknowledged trend around the world: Middle income earners drive the economy. What he simply leveraged on was to start building houses that will fit into their lifestyle and budget of the Nigerian middle class.

But Brains and Hammers which entered the market from Abuja in 2011 was not the only real estate development company in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). What gave it an edge was to fall back to the time-tested principle of guaranteeing trust. Once the company established a reputation for delivery of world-class houses marked with wonderful aesthetics and style, its status simply soared.

Averagely, it takes about 20 years for a company to build its brand name, but Brains and Hammers has become a household name in the real estate sector in less than five years. To achieve this feat, the company set a deliberate policy to create estates that can be compared to an oasis of peace, security, functional infrastructure and contemporary design – it is like living in a mini city within a city. The beauty of the product recommended itself and Abdullahi did not need a soothsayer to tell him that people will go for it. This is what led to the phenomenal rise of the company.

Abdullahi and the board of directors of Brains and Hammers understand the Nigerian society and operating environment. Long before the economy nose-dived, they were prepared. They predicted correctly that the serious quest by the United States of America for other sources of oil would ultimately crash the price of oil. And they knew the impact this would have on a mono product economy like Nigeria.

While other real estate companies continued to build on presumptions, his company changed their portfolio to affordable products that are ready to be taken based on real demand and not on speculative investment. The biggest demonstration of this strategy is its game changing establishment of ‘a city’ with various description of houses between one bedroom studio apartment and five bedrooms that will accommodate 5000 families at Life Camp along Kaduna Expressway.

Interestingly, Abdullahi believes that the economic downturn is a perception. “It is not that people don’t have money. Of course, the income of the average Nigerian has dropped, but there are people who have money and have real demand for houses. However, in a recession, the confidence they have in investing has been eroded. They have to be careful where they invest their money.

“With companies like Brains and Hammers, they know that we have good return on investment and we have what it takes to weather the storm during the recession. The public still has this confidence in us. That is what is spurring us to go into this massive housing city. Just to show you the confidence people have in us, we have sold 20 per cent from introducing it into the market, even before we move to site. The city is for everybody.

“We have houses for as low as N5.5 million, that is for a one-bedroom studio apartment. We have a two bedroom which goes for less than N10 million, four bedroom is going for N18 million. The payment is staggered. You can pay between 12 and 24 months. This is the concept we used in our premium housing and it worked. You don’t change a winning formula. The response we are getting from the market is really encouraging.”

Having worked in the banking industry, Abdullahi understands the dynamics of the Nigerian economy; so he can thump his chest confidently as he stressed the point that the only sector of the Nigerian economy that investors can get a good Return on Investment (RoI) is in real estate. He went back in time to buttress his argument.

“How much were houses sold in 2000?” he asked rhetorically. “Houses that were bought at N25 million are now going for N55 million. Those who bought their houses at N30 million, it is now going for N80 million just to show you that it is difficult to point out any industry in Nigeria that you can get this unprecedented RoI. For now the real estate sector is still the number one choice for a lot of wise investors.”

Abdullahi emphasised the advantage of buying into an estate like Brains and Hammers, instead of executing individual building projects. According to him, there are a lot of processes to follow through like the perfection of the title, land acquisition and dealing with the regulatory authorities.

“The processes are time consuming. If you are a very busy person, you don’t have time to do all that. There is also the economy of scale. If you are building your own house alone, you have to buy all the building materials but in an estate you buy the building materials in volumes and all the approvals are handled by our legal department, we have a market survey department and a R and D department, they all come together to form what you call Brains and Hammers.

“Each department is a collection of experts on that field who give their best to contribute to the pool of ideas. A lot of stress that individuals go through while building their own house is taken care of. These days a lot of people prefer to live in an estate simply because if you build your own house you need to hire your security guard, you need to buy and fuel a generator, you need to plant flowers, manage your waste and hire a gardener. In an estate like Brains and Hammers, you don’t need all that because it is a shared community. You have a club house. There is security. You pay a service charge which is insignificant.

“It is a lot cheaper to live in an estate. If you live alone, when you travel for two or three weeks you will wonder about what is happening in the house you have to call somebody to go and check. In an estate, you can travel for two or three months without really bothering yourself as to what is happening because you know you are secured. Your home is within a gated community where there is security.”

With the huge success recorded in its construction arm, the company has since upgraded two vital departments into a full-fledged company. They are Brains and Hammers Facility Management Limited and Brains and Hammers Horticulture Limited. “For now, they are strictly for our mother company, but in future they will take on other assignments because we are getting requests from other companies. That is the plan. We are the pace setters.

“There are these small pockets of companies that are trying to be us. As a company, we think ahead. The competition out there is very stiff yet we remain afloat. Because we actually know what the clients want. We are one of the largest employers of labour in Nigeria. We have over 2,000 employees working for us, directly and indirectly, apart from our other compliments, sister companies and all that.

“We are helping to fulfill the agenda of this administration to create jobs for Nigerians. That is what we are doing. Another plan of ours is to work with the present administration, in terms of infrastructure. We have started a full-fledged sister company on infrastructure and it has already started working with government agencies, at federal and state level.”

Sounding a note of caution and concern on the frequent incidence of collapsed buildings in the country, Abdullahi reiterated that his company has not recorded such unfortunate incident in over 2,000 houses built since 2011. “In every industry, there are those who are sincere. You are talking about a building, it is just like an aircraft; all the safety measures have to be in place. We don’t joke with quality. All real estate developers should be sincere in their undertakings and also pay attention to the fact that building houses is not just about the aesthetics.

“Safety should be their number one concern. We take it very seriously. Without safety, every other thing means nothing. The issue of collapsed building is entirely hinged on safety. If the right safety measures are taken, you adhere to standards and you don’t try to cut corners in terms of the right materials in the right proportions, then you can’t have any problem. In trying to save money or to boost their profit, a lot of developers compromise on quality. This is really dangerous. This puts many lives at risk.”

Having largely succeeded in developing residential projects within Lagos and Abuja, at various sites including Life Camp, Galadimawa, Gwarimpa, Apo I, Apo II, Apo III, Apo IV, Apo V, all in Abuja and along the Lekki corridor in Lagos, Brains and Hammers is perfecting a plan to go Plc.

The bigger plan in the future is to grow organically by extending its tentacles into the West African sub region, first, before planting its foothold in the entire continent and possibly have a presence in Europe. This plan for expansion outside the shores of Nigeria is anchored on the demand for its services by Nigerians in the Diaspora.

An outstanding factor that sets the company above its peers is its strict Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) regime. “Access roads leading into most of our estate, sometimes for up to 10 kilometres, are constructed to the best standard. We also construct drainage and install street light in those communities. Invariably the value of land in the vicinity appreciates and the land-owners get good return on their investments.”