He is famous in his own right, but definitely not as much as his better known namesake, the Professor of International Relations who once manned Nigeria’s Ministry of External Affairs. However, their common name may be where the similarity ends: There is Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, the erudite scholar. And there is Bolaji Akinyemi, the engineer turned lifestyle product connoisseur whose journey to relative fame is highlighted by how he swam against the high tide of crushing debt to financial independence. Vanessa Obioha reports
Sharing a name with a famous person doesn’t always bring good tidings. It could also smell trouble. The latter seemed to be the case for Bolaji Akinyemi who coincidentally bears same names with the former Minister of External Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi.
It was during the Gen. Sani Abacha regime that Akinyemi experienced the ugly side of fame. The scholar at the time was on self-exile like many pro-democracy advocates who were being hunted by the government in power. Unfortunately, Akinyemi was returning to the country from the UK during that period. He was accosted by immigration officers when he presented his passport.
“Of course, they knew I was not the man they were looking for but they assumed I was a relative. Probably a son. I told them that I don’t even know the man. It took the interference of well-meaning Nigerians who thought a son should not pay for the sins of his father before they could let me go. I also realised that the man was not married to a woman from his tribe. So it helped clear my name. People ask me a lot, if I’m related to him. I’m not. I haven’t even met him,” he said.
Akinyemi didn’t set out to be a businessman or a jeweller. In fact, he mapped out his future at an early age. Fascinated by the amount of research and development some Japanese engineers did in a documentary on TV, he was convinced that engineering was his true calling. So, there was no dithering when he applied for a university course. He confidently studied Mechanical Engineering and graduated with flying colours from Obafemi Awolowo University.
The sky seemed brighter for Akinyemi until he worked at the Nigeria Bottling Company. He was among the third set of engineers trained by the company. This was in 1995. Their goal was to uccupy the coveted position of a Plant Manager. It was a vey competitive terrain, nevertheless he was undaunted.
But working in a factory had its side effects. He worked round the clock, hardly taking a break to rest his tiring body. There were no public holidays for him. A scar on his right hand epitomises those years of hard work in the factory. The tedious routine should have been a perfect excuse to exit the job, yet he stayed until he keenly examined the life of his superior whose shoes he would be in if he worked harder in five years. The picture was not a beautiful one.
He realised that despite the strenuous tasks they performed in the factory, it also deprived them from spending quality time with their family. That sudden realisation was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He resigned after three years of hard work.
His best option after his resignation was to become an entrepreneur. For Akinyemi, the childhood lure of engineering had lost its appeal since what was obtainable in the field in Nigeria was maintenance management.
Banking on his engineering skills and his large network of friends, Akinyemi forayed into servicing of generator sets. That too, didn’t last. His engineering skills were limited to supervisory roles. He could easily identify the fault in a generator set through sounds, but could not fix it. It required him to employ extra hands to do the dirty work. But his employees lacked the value of excellence. They did shoddy work which inadvertently resulted in further breakdown and loss of trust for Akinyemi.
Again, he tried his hands on selling safety and security equipment but was discouraged by the politics of the business. His breakthrough however came when an in-law of his returned with a fancy umbrella from Italy. He was intrigued by the unique design.
“The umbrella had a small plastic cover which when pulled down, folds the umbrella and when pulled up, spreads the umbrella like a small car. I thought it was nice. They are still around.”
He did a little research and discovered that it was manufactured in China. He tried sealing a deal with some manufacturers to import the umbrellas but they wanted a 40ft container. Where was he going to get the money from? “At this time, I had been doing business for a year and spent all my savings,” he laughed as we sat in his office in Ikeja. “I needed about a million naira. This was far back in 2000.”
Pushing aside the story of how he raised the fund for another day, he talked about his ordeal when the merchandise finally arrived his doorstep.
“My initial plan was to sell the umbrellas. I had already been to a street called Tom Jones in Lagos Island. That’s where people who sell umbrellas stay. I had bargained with the traders and they assured me they would patronise me when my goods arrived.”
It never happened that way. By the time he returned with his umbrellas, the traders sang a different tune to him. They argued on the price. “The initial cost price was N320. I intended to sell it for N500 which they agreed on. But when I came back with the umbrellas, they told me times have changed unless I wanted to sell it at the rate of N120. I nearly had a heart attack. I pleaded with them to take it for N400 but they were adamant. It was either N120 or I leave with my goods. They said another marketer offered them at N140, unless I give them a cheaper rate. It was all a lie. I started crying on the road. People thought I was lost or something. How was I going to repay all the monies I borrowed?”
Fortunately for him, a stroke of luck was already on the way to rescue him from his dilemma. As he dangerously drove the streets of Victoria Island to a friend’s office for solace, he stumbled on a gift store: Aquarius Gifts. He was urged by the Holy Spirit to go there. Pretending to be a potential customer, his eyes scanned the items on display and surprisingly, found the umbrella, perched beautifully in a corner. The owner had only four pieces.
“I found out that the owner was into corporate and promotional gifts supply. So when I told him I liked his umbrella, he grumbled as if there were no more in stock. Then I shocked him by telling him I had them. He looked at me unbelievably and asked for the price. So I told him I will sell between the range of N470 to N500. He was still not convinced I had them so I brought one from the car and showed him.
He pleaded with me not to sell it, that he would buy from me. While we were there a staff member of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) walked in and priced the umbrella. Before my very eyes, he told her it costs N980, the lady in turn went back to her office and told them it costs N1400. The owner later called and like a doubting Thomas wanted to be sure I had the supply. He said he needed 100 pieces and in less than 24 hours of crying, he paid me N50,000 for the umbrellas.”
As much as he wanted to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams, Akinyemi was aware of the need for a family. It was in 2006 that he finally decided to assume the role of a husband. Back then, he only had a BMW car and an apartment. His only prized possessions were a bed and a dining set. It was a typical bachelor’s house.
Recalling those giddy days, Akinyemi conceded that he brought his wife to a house and not to a home. Yet, he knew the importance of providing comfort for his newly wedded wife. The first thing he did was to make a solemn promise to buy a car for her.
However, things did not go as planned. As the saying goes, ‘man proposes, but God disposes’. Twice, he thought he had all wrapped, like water, it slipped through his clenched fist. Akinyemi’s promise was washed away by unforeseen contingencies. He was forced to give the car away. In humiliation, he watched his wife mount commercial motorcycle to take his son to school.
The following year, he made another promise. Again, he was forced to choose between buying a car for his wife and to invest in his corporate and promotion gifts business.
Like a supportive wife, she urged him to do the latter. “There was never a time she complained or threw tantrums about our situation. She has always been supportive. Fortunately for her, she got a job in a big pharmaceutical company and the job came with a car.”
Being an honourable man, Adeyemi, nonetheless fulfilled his promise. The couple is happily married with two children. By this time, the umbrella trade had yielded more customers for Akinyemi. From selling umbrellas, he veered into corporate and promotional gifts. Like previous businesses, it had its limitations. Nonetheless, it created an opportunity for him in the lifestyle business. Having sold all manner of items, he was intrigued by the Swiss Army Penknives. It was through that link that he ventured into the wristwatch business.
Admitting, that he is no lover of watches, he nevertheless found a viable market there. The only problem was that he needed to be a retailer in the business. After much consultation and a one year litmus test, he became a retail distributor of Swiss Army watches in Nigeria and his company Timekeepers was launched. Today, he has eight outlets across the country with the intention to open another by the end of the year.
From being a major distributor of Swiss Army wristwatch collection, he also distributes for Police, Cerruti 1881, Sekonda, French Connection, Roamer of Switzerland, Jacques Farel and hopefully by the third quarter of the year, add Guess to its growing list of collection.
Like previous businesses, the wristwatch business was riddled with challenges. One of which was having a geographical spread which he has cushioned by allowing customers to make an order on the company’s website. Another was the test of integrity. Usually, the watches came with a one or two year warranty. His ability to repair or replace a faulty watch with a new one for free, earned him respect from his customers. The need for variety also posed a problem. He unashamedly admitted that he didn’t know he was operating a business without a business plan until he went to Pan-Atlantic University for an Entrepreneur Management programme.
Prior to the expansion of his collection, he usually referred customers to other retail outlets to get affordable watches since his collection was on the high side. But with the knowledge gathered at the business school, he carried out a SWOT analysis. The result was the expansion of his collection.
Undoubtedly, Timekeepers stands out from other watch retailers in any of its outlets. For instance, in Ikeja City Mall, it is the only store with various designers clearly separated from one another by a shelf. This strategy according to him differentiates him from the average watch retail seller.
“We are actually brand managers for specific brands and our functions include maintaining the brands image and reputation by positioning the brands in such a way that they enjoy same public perception that they command in their home country as well as creating unique consumer experience.”
Perhaps, the most outstanding knowledge he has gathered so far in the business is the remarkable importance of the time piece to a man’s style. “People see wristwatches as a luxury item that they can do without. But that’s wrong. We have gone past the era when the function of the wristwatch is primarily to tell time. We have mobile phones and other devices achieving that purpose. Today’s wristwatches speak a lot about one’s personality. Usually, you can tell if a person is flamboyant or conservative from their watch. You can also tell if a person is cheap or perhaps lives above his means, or a careless person.
“Unfortunately, most of us don’t pay attention to the watch we wear since we don’t really understand how much it communicates about us. We need to remember that a wristwatch has moved from a gadget for telling time to a proper accessory. You are better off not wearing a wristwatch than wearing rubbish or wearing one improperly.
He continued: “Also, the days of having one watch are long gone. You should have a different watch for different occasions or situation. If you must have only one watch, a black leather strapped watch with a white face would be ideal as this can be worn formally or casually.”
Akinyemi further shed light on what constitutes style in wristwatches. “It all depends on the perception of the buyer. It has nothing to do with cost or aesthetics. There is a fashion brand and a traditional brand. The fashion brands are the popular names we know today. They do not manufacture watches. But the traditional brands are those who actually manufacture wristwatches. You can have different brands made by same manufacturer but with different prices. Obviously, the fashion brand will be more expensive and appealing to the buyer than the unknown traditional brand. But both are manufactured by the same company.”