A former UK-based chartered accountant, real Estate guru, and Chairman of Suru Group, Mr. Edward Akinlade, plans to trek from Lagos to Ibadan, not in protest, but for the sake of charity. In this interview, Akinlade bares his mind to Mary Nnah on the reasons for the proposed walk and his passion for the underprivileged.
Let’s talk about your proposed walk from Lagos to Ibadan, what’s it all about?
I want to walk from Lagos to Ibadan for two reasons. One is to raise money to support the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria; secondly to support the families of former Super Eagles superstars. We have a lot of the superstars that have died and the families are thrown into abject poverty and even some of them still alive, have their families suffering. This planned walk is just to encourage the former Super Eagles superstars and families, telling them: ‘look, you played for us; we will be there for you.’ Suru Group will donate the sum of N10million to open a purse for that purposes. So as I walk to from Lagos to Ibadan, (Ibadan is about 100 miles from Lagos), we will do 10 miles per day for 10 days. The walk will commence on October 1, and will last for 10 days. We will start at 6am to 6pm each day. I am sure by the time we get to Ibadan; Nigeria will be a new country because everybody will win. I will personally win because it will transform my old status, in terms of publicity. We want the whole of Nigeria to support this walk. We have a couple of months to prepare and of course, who and how to join as well as the necessary infrastructural support for this walk, will be communicated to the public soon. The walk will be streamed live on Facebook and some TV stations.
Can you actually walk from Lagos to Ibadan?
I believe I can, since I’m going to stop at every 10 miles. Every day we will start in the 6am and end the walk by 6pm and then we would find a hotel at each locality to rest for the night and those who want will be massaged to get their energy back, then the next day we’d continue.
Apart from the planned walk, how else has Suru Group impacted on the lives of Nigerians?
One of the avenues that we have affected the lives of Nigerians is through the Suru Foundation. Everyone that works at Suru Group gives two per cent of his/her salary to the foundation’s account. We are one of the earliest companies in Nigeria that distributed helmets for motorcyclists. We must have distributed nothing less than 10,000 helmets. If you go on our website, you would see all that we have done but one of the main things that we do now is that we select three widows every month, which we support monthly with a token of N20, 000. We also support Bales of Mercy Orphanage, Gbagada on a monthly basis. We also support individuals with health issues if it is something that falls within our jurisdiction. That is what we have been doing in terms of giving back to society.
Tell us about Suru Group?
Suru Group has been in Nigeria for over 10 years. We focus on two business core areas, which are Real Estate and Hotels. In real estate we have done so many developments here in Lagos and we also own a number of hotels all around Lagos; we own the Suru Express Hotel and Best Western Hotel. In homes we have done development in Ikorodu, Surulere, and Ebute Meta. We are one of the first companies that did major terrace construction in Ikeja GRA. About 10 years ago, we built 56 terrace houses; we sold part of it and still own 30 of the in Ikeja GRA, which we are renting. So, we have two separate divisions, which are Suru Homes Limited that deals with homes and then the Suru Suits and Hotels Limited, which deals with Hotels. Currently, Suru Homes is involved in projects with a number of partners. At the moment we are doing development in Ikorodu, where we are developing about 40 flats, which we hope to complete by December this year. We are selling on easy payment terms, so that whatever the price is, we are asking the buyers to pay just half, and we are giving them up to two years to pay the balance. We are also doing same in Ebute Meta, Ketu and Surulere. Suru Homes at the moment is doing Silicon Mall in Ajao Road, IIkeja. Our target for the mall is those in hi-tech. We want them to use the mall, so that if you want any hi-tech item, you can go there and do your shopping. That project is probably going to take another one year to do. So Suru Homes is actively at the front of real estate in Lagos, in terms of what we are doing. I think the total project size of what we have to do in real estate, is in the region of about N15billion at the moment. In hotel, we are at every level – affordable level, budget hotel, middle level hotel and in luxury hotel. In order to provide facility for that we have people dotted all around our organisation, security, maintenance and human resource.
How has your journey into real estate and hospitality been?
I am a chartered accountant by profession. I left the United Kingdom in 2006 to relocate to Nigeria. But before then, I was into real estate in London, so it was the money that I made in London that I brought back home to continue in the real estate business. While I was in London, I used to buy properties at auctions, refurbish them and sell them to make huge money. I did that in UK for over five years. But around 2001 I was in full time employment in the UK as a chartered accountant. I left the UK in 2006 to Nigeria and within two years of my return, the Nigerian economy collapsed and most Nigerians have not recovered ever since.
So why did you abandon your banking job for the real estate business?
I believe that nobody makes money by working for somebody all his life. If you want to be independent and self-sufficient, you need to work for yourself but then you need experience. So from the age of 20 to 35, work for other people and gain experience, after that period, set up your own business. So being an accountant has helped me to be able to look at any business proposal with figures. So as an accountant, I can fit in anywhere. But for me, my calling is real estate. I have been successful at it in the UK and that moves me to do it in Nigeria too.
But do you think the environment here may not allow people who desire to start their businesses at 35 do so?
If you have God by your side everything is possible. And going into business involves taking risk. Some people don’t want to take risk. If you set yourself a target of ten years, to leave a job set up your own business, it can be possible. And if you set yourself a ten years target and then save your salary, even if it is five per cent of it every month, you would have something to start your business in ten years. And if you work for ten years and you still can’t save enough money, come up with a business idea and call all your family members to a meeting and tell them that you need some amount of money to start a business and if you can convince them, they would give you money. What I am saying in essence is that there are so many ways of raising money but the problem is that people don’t want to take risks. Some people are just contented with their salaries and those types of people can’t make money except through corruption.
What was your first attraction to the real estate and hospitality businesses?
When I arrived in 2006, Nigerian Airways was selling all its assets in GRA Ikeja and nobody was prepared to buy them. That was the attraction. And so we bought properties spread over 22 hectares of land. I knew from time that it was going to be a reservation area. What I did was to buy large portions of land and then cut it into bits, so that people who could not buy hectares could buy plots. So all I did then was to buy and wait and it has proved a huge success for me. And then the hospitality business came because when I arrived here, I realised that there was only one or two hotels in Ikeja GRA, in fact there were only five hotels in the whole of Ikeja. That was like 12 years ago and then we started investing in hotel business and today, in GRA alone, we have counted more than 35 hotels. Suru Group at the moment has just three and we intend to expand to more as time goes.
What is it is like doing business in Nigeria?
We have had issues here and there but for me, the biggest challenge we have ever faced, has been government’s multiple taxations from local, state and federal governments and then we pay VAT tax as well as Lagos hotel consumption tax, all of that is massive. And then the cost of borrowing in Nigeria is another huge challenge. In the UK I can borrow for two per cent interest for a whole year but in Nigeria, hardly can you borrow for 20 per cent in a year. For example, if I borrow N1billion, I will pay N200 million in one year as interest. What business I am doing to make such money. If it were in the UK, I will pay N20million as interest. And also to find the right staff that will remain honest and is another challenge and that is the effect of corruption. So to find staff that is not corrupt is very hard in Nigeria. But we have come up with a way to tackle that. We keep every of our staff here on six months’ probation and if we don’t like you, we get rid of you.
How were you able to remain at the top of your game, in spite of the country’s economic downturn at the time you arrived in Nigeria?
For me, I think I have had God on my side and I thank Him for that. People who we had come back from London together no longer have their business running. The other thing is to be patient and that reflects on the name of our company, Suru, which is a Yoruba word for patience. Patience to me means, do not react negatively when you find yourself in difficult situation, rather seek the inspiration from God and He will lead you in the right path.
Do you have any regret in life?
I don’t have any regret in life because I believe God has a hand in whatever I am today. Yes, I have taken decisions that if I have to re-live this life, I will reverse such decisions. But whatever mistakes I have made in the past, God has helped to correct them and put me back on the right track. Again, I wish I could do more for Nigerians than I have done. For example, if I establish hotels in each of the states in Nigeria, that means more people will be employed but right now I can’t do that much with the present high interest rate on loans.