On the 15th anniversary of Elizabeth R, a leading events management company founded when she was in her 20s, former beauty queen and philanthropist, Ibidunni Ighodalo tells Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha that she is as surprised as everybody else at the giant strides recorded by the company

Having studied Applied Chemistry, he was supposed to work in the Nigerian arm of a global household cleaning product and consumer chemicals company where he served the mandatory one-year youth service. But an older brother thought otherwise and offered him a life-changing opportunity in a completely unrelated field. It is 11 years on and Nurudeen Lawal is forever grateful to the man who influenced the change in his career path. He also congratulates himself for the courage to chart a new course. The year was 2007 when he joined the Elizabeth R, one of Nigeria’s leading events management companies as Project Officer. Today, he is the General Manager, junior in service year only to his benefactor, Mr. Oseni and Mr. Bayo who joined the company before him.

Oseni worked devotedly with Mrs. Ibidunni Ighodalo, CEO of the company from inception in 2003; so it was easy for her to depend on his recommendation of Lawal. “Looking at the prospect I saw at Elizabeth R and the promise that it will make me know more people and move from one location to another unlike working for a company that you will just be repeating the same thing over and over, I decided to take the job,” Lawal said to the reporters at the company’s cosy headquarters on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi-Lagos. He was fiddling with a pen and smiling at two other colleagues who were being interviewed as well.

“What kept me in Elizabeth R is the vision and the creativity of our boss. She doesn’t repeat the same thing. She imagines a lot and brings her imagination to life. That makes me want to be with her at all time,” Lawal said while explaining his sustained interest in events management. “From the way she trained me, I developed a passion for the industry in my first year.” Wasiu Ibrahim Alado, a driver who was employed in 2008 claimed to have learnt other skills at Elizabeth R. “I learnt decoration and how to buy and sell decorative items.” We were on the top floor in a growing arm of the company which focuses on bridal items like tiara, rings and gowns. This part of the Elizabeth R enterprise called Avant Garde inspires Alado. “I have learnt how to sell wedding gowns. If I have the money, I know where to start from. I have learnt a lot from Elizabeth R and I would like to put the knowledge to work.”

Already, there is a growing number of former employees of Elizabeth R who have set up shop and are doing very well. According to Ighodalo, they remain very close. She told the reporters, “It is as if they are still with us. The field is very big and there is enough jobs for everybody. There are jobs that we cannot take. I am happy to recommend them for it. They come to me for guidance.” There has never been a time when Ighodalo worried over the possibility of her former employees upstaging her. She attends trainings abroad to keep abreast of current trends in events management and decoration. The future she anticipates is not hers alone. She carries her staff along. At one of the interview sessions, she excused herself to give specific instructions to two staff going to Dubai to buy flowers and other gift items. One of them was travelling out of the country for the first time. Her momentary excitement seemed to be dampened by the challenge of not having a travel document like an international passport. Ighodalo understood her unspoken anxiety and addressed it. “Don’t worry, there is enough time to apply for a passport.” That instance, her enthusiasm returned on a more visible scale. “Thank you, Ma,” she said, genuflecting.

Elizabeth R is a company built on mutual respect and love. This configuration of reverence permeates all levels of relationship within the company-whether between staff and management or between the team and clients. Named after her father who she describes as her ‘first love’, the company is chaired by her husband, Ituah Ighodalo, an accountant and clergy. Intentionally, clients, be they individuals, corporate bodies, MDAs or state governments are effectively given an experience of a lifetime. Her intention is to deliver a bespoke event all the time. In the past, the Elizabeth R signature was on the Redeemed Christian Church of God programmes. One of its most admired work in the public space is the year end decoration of Ajose Adeogun Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, which is made possible by Zenith Bank.

The beneficiaries of these beautiful decorations, whether indoor or outdoor, have no idea of the amount of work required to deliver that ‘wow’ standard. “Two emotions come to mind,” said Damilola Akinloye, Ighodalo’s PA and Head of Human Resources of the company. “It is challenging and it is fun. There is a fun part of working with her and then it can be challenging. She is someone who is a perfectionist. It can be challenging when you are to get a task done and you can’t find a way out but you know your boss doesn’t take no for an answer so you just have to find a way to get things done. She is very energetic. We can be having events, and at 12 midnight or 1 O’clock in the night, we are still on site. By 3 O’clock she will say let’s rest and by 5 O’clock in the morning, we are up again. That can be very challenging and intense but it can be fun.”

Even if it does not appear defined sometimes, Akinloye understands her role. She told the reporters, “I work as her PA. I also double as a HR manager. That’s a much defined role. I may fill in for her when she is not available. It’s a bit defined if you ask me but can also be undefined. I was familiar with Elizabeth R and what they do. I had seen some of their events. I wasn’t too familiar with the production and how things are done. You just see their finished work live or in pictures. That was really the extent I knew about Elizabeth R before I started working here in 2015.”

So far, Akinloye is happy that her understanding of her boss is growing. For instance, she knows that Ighodalo knows how to bottle her emotions; particularly, when she is angry. “All hell is not let loose immediately. My boss is the kind of person that you can’t really tell immediately when she is upset or angry with you because she tries not to flare up and waits till things are a bit calm. You might know that you messed up a bit. She won’t say anything. She may just bring it up even if you are in a joking mood with her. At times she may flare up. I have seen her do that a few times, but it is very rare. But like I said when you personally know you’ve made a mistake, she may not say anything. There are times she just brings it up at a later date.”

Ighodalo’s fame as an events manager is legendary. A former beauty queen, she deploys an amazing precision and attention to detail that results in the complete transformation of any space into a spectacular setting. Over the years, the company has positioned itself to provide total events management services-from start to finish; including logistics, decoration, media coverage, entertainment and catering. As a testimony to her astuteness, there is The Dorchester, a 3000 capacity event hall in Oniru area of Lagos.

A pacesetter with a penchant for excellence, the Elizabeth R headquarters has become one of the most beautiful landmarks on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi. It is impossible to pass by and not give it a long stare. The exterior which is done in marble accentuates the design and architecture. On the ground floor is the recently opened gift shop which made an impressive showing during the last Valentine season. Because it offered rare and very attractive pieces, it sold out to the surprise of Ighodalo. The First Floor houses the different departments in the company, a conference room and the office of the CEO. As many do not go beyond the welcome-and-greeting area, the eye-pleasing, soft-furnishing there combines with the artistic presentation of a bowing mannequin to convey a strong message of warmth and willingness to serve. The top floor is dedicated to the bridal store called Avant Garde, which stocks some of the most exquisite designs for a most memorable wedding.

Ighodalo hinted at the possibility of an official opening of the building which is taking a new lease of life. “That is why we moved it to the present location in its 15thanniversary. I was in my 20s when we started this company. I knew what I wanted, but I could not guess we would come this far and make such an impact in the industry and in the lives of many people. I am very happy to see the number of people who used to work here but have since moved on to do their own thing. That, undoubtedly, is our greatest achievement in 15 years. Add the fact that we still keep a warm relationship with all of them. We are like a family. We plan on being here for a long time. It would be nice to have an official opening, but it has to be well done and at a time all my valued guests and clients can attend. That is the challenge. Again, we are very busy.”

Certain things remain the same in the events management equation. This is particularly so for Elizabeth R. Ighodalo likes to think that if its logo and other marks of identity are completely removed from a decorated space, many will still guess correctly whose job it is.
Akinloye told her interviewers that she has learnt a couple of profound things working with her boss: “Acceptance of people is number one. I’m a very impatient person. I can be very hurried when I meet people. I can give a funny impression. But with her, she can give people a billion chances and then you begin to see that people can actually become what it is she has seen in them. I’m like ‘wow, I would have dismissed this person’. I will say patience and acceptance of people and realizing that everybody has different strengths and you can’t expect people to be like you or think like you. That’s one of the greatest things I have learnt. And her generosity. I have been a beneficiary of her generosity. Even before I started working with her. We attend the same church. She might just see you and say, ‘I have this for you, take this’. She is extremely generous to a fault. Sometimes I’m like ‘Ma, why do you keep giving me or people, take care of yourself. You will need something and you are denying yourself to help other people.’”

If her bias for working well with Akinloye may tie in with worshipping in the same church, we turned to Alado, her driver of over 10 years who is a Moslem. Elizabeth R’s general manager, Lawal is of the Islamic faith, as well. The testimony was no less heart-warming. “She has not forced me to church. When we are at an event, she will want us to say both Christian and Moslem prayers because we have both Christians and Muslims among us. In fact, when we are fasting, she will call the Muslims among us and give us food and money. I’ve learnt a lot in this company. Whether you are a driver or a cleaner, she doesn’t care. She wants everyone around to learn from her own experience. She used to be angry with me a lot. I know when she is angry and when she is happy with me. When I have offend her, I don’t wait for her to tell me before I apologize and she easily forgives me.”

According to Akinloye, Elizabeth R which currently has another office and a warehouse in Apapa employs 18 persons on full-time. Its temporary staff can swell up to 50 depending on the size of the job at hand. Lawal said Ighodalo’s willingness to delegate and openness to suggestions enhances a conducive work environment. “She gives room for your own concept. She then comes around and corrects whatever is not well done. She gives you that freedom. She is very open to suggestions. I’ve had cases at an event when we finished our decoration, she will call you aside to ask your perception of what we have done. After asking you, she will call another person and ask his or her opinion. Whatever correction you have proffered, she will do it the way you suggested and if it’s okay, we all accept it that way. She doesn’t leave you at work. She stays with you all through the night. What surprises a lot of us is that until she announces herself as the boss, you won’t know. She sweeps, does virtually everything that you can’t even imagine. She acts as a member of the team, not the head of the team.”

Lawal does not imagine any other job that could have given him the opportunity to travel to all the states in Nigeria. He didn’t really like the question on whether he feels bad about other colleagues who met him on the job have since moved on. However, he had a brilliant response. “We all have different destinies. I can’t say because someone has left, I should also leave. The other person may believe he has learnt enough to stand on his own. I don’t want to start an events company. I have other plans. The event industry is not all about decoration. There are several aspects to it. There is the logistics aspect and proposal development. I have picked interest in those.”
Over the last 15 years, Ighodalo has dominated the events management and decoration business in Nigeria. Her entry into that space changed the headlines. For instance, everyone is still talking about the 15 amazing days of great discounts and wonderful giveaways she instituted to push the boat out at that landmark.