Avant-garde, debonair, futuristic, and innovative is among the traits that describe the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Sujimoto Construction Limited, Sijibomi Ogundele. In an interview with Arise TV, the young vibrant real estate magnate opens a window into his life, grit, greatness, vision, and hope for Nigerian youths in national development and transformation. He also talks about his ongoing projects and future investments. Bayo Akinloye presents the excerpts:
A stone’s throw from the Giuliano, Sujimoto is building what’s been dubbed the tallest residential building in Banana Island: ‘The LeonardoBySujimoto.’ When completed, the 13-story glass-reinforced concrete façade building will house a private IMAX cinema for its residents, a standard crèche, and indoor virtual golf, a swimming pool in the sky, full automation, a private interactive lobby, and other exciting features. As the Agege boy, who built a $400 million-dollar company, can we meet you, please?
Thanks for having me and let me use this opportunity to send my condolence to the over one million people who lost their loved ones and over 10,000 in Nigeria: may their gentle souls rest in peace. I grew up in the corners of Agege. I also spent some time in Kaduna. But when you look at my story, I think when I look at myself; I think I won an ovarian lottery. I was brought up by a very strong woman. She is a high school dropout but today she is also one of the top five distributors for Nestle. A woman, who I can describe as a ‘professor’ of entrepreneurship; because anytime I go to her she always has one or two advice to give to me. She always says: ‘Sijibomi, if you cannot hire 10 people, hire five.’ She will tell me not to struggle to build 10 houses for people if I can afford to build only five; that for me is corporate integrity. So, when you have a strong woman like that it sets a precedent and a foundation for you. When people look at Sujimoto today, or when you mention our name Sujimoto, they will not know the kind of woman I feel so lucky to have, Adebukola, as a mother, because she has been the backbone of who we are at Sujimoto, and has been the backbone of who I am as a person.
Most important, she taught me two fundamental things that I have used to set the path for Sujimoto. The first is integrity. The second is quality. Integrity in person, integrity in an association, integrity setting yourself and I believe that is what has set us very different from others. We also believe that the foundation of every success from the times of MKO, even way back to the times of King Solomon, the foundation of every success has remained integrity. The integrity of what you say: you say what you mean and mean what you say, especially when you promise to deliver. So, that is what has made us what we are today.
Integrity is considered very scarce in the world today. Is it with the benefit of hindsight that you can say to yourself that ‘I learned all of this integrity and keeping to my word from your mom’? Tell us a little more about her. Who is she?
She’s this great woman from Ijebu-Igbo; an astute businesswoman. The trajectory of her success is an interesting one. She grew from being a lady that was just selling from a tray to becoming a market woman that own warehouses. She’s someone that just has practical knowledge of doing what is right and when it is right and she’s also very particular about being ‘a woman of your word’ and she believes that if you can use the collateral of integrity to build anything, you are doing even the integrity of the relationship, the integrity of the people you associate yourself with. So integrity does not only go with the quality of what you are offering but also knowing that if you don’t want to go far in life then integrity is not essential. But if you want to build success, a name, a business that will stand the test of time and be remembered like the MKOs, the Warren Buffets, then you must work so fast and hard putting forward your currency of integrity.
There’s no better time to hear this coming from a young man like you, who has achieved so much. A lot of young people out there believe that money just happens; most just want to make it very fast. Am sure a lot of young people look at you and think I want to be like Sujimoto: he has made so much money. I don’t know how he made it but I want to make it as quickly as he has done. What do you have to say to the Nigerian youth?
I have a philosophy that when you negotiate the cost of greatness, you will pay the full price from mediocrity. The foundation for the cost of greatness is in integrity, in quality; it’s in patience. When we started Sujimoto, people never believed in us. We never had any money; not a rich uncle or powerful aunty. They said: ‘Who is Ogundele? Where did he come from? Who is your father? Who is bankrolling you?’ Our only bankroll was in perseverance and dedication and never giving up and an annoying sense of believing in what you want to become in life. So, it’s in those things. I think one of the biggest problems we have as a generation is that sense of entitlement as if somebody owes you something. Nobody owes you anything, not even the nation. Political policies are just aspirations to get politicians to where they want to be.
It is in the fear of God for a man to promise and deliver. As a citizen, you must not wait for the government to give you what you want or you desire: be your government. MKO defeated the philosophy of death (kashimawo) and became an inspiration for so many generations after him and today he is Christ-like, an icon of our generation. So, did MKO depend on the government then? He sold coal to educate himself. We must draw inspiration from those types of people and discover different opportunities around us. The Lebanese man, the Italian man, and the Indians in Nigeria today are billionaires. They didn’t come to watch the national theatre or the third mainland bridge. They came to identify specific opportunities lying around us. There are opportunities everywhere around us.
How will you describe the typical Nigerian youth? They have been described as lazy, coming from our president; that Nigerian youths are lazy. Do you believe that?
I sincerely believe what the president meant by that concept but I disagree with that. I think that one of the greatest assets we have as a nation is in our people. I have been to different universities, to different schools and spoken with these young guys: there’s a hunger for innovation. What we lack as a nation is not in creativity. What we lack as a nation is more in leadership, not only presidential but community and family leadership, or someone to push them and provide opportunities in different sectors. Nations like America, China, and other places have identified that true asset is in their young people. They have created systems that will support people in education, health care, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure.
How have COVID-19 affected businesses, especially real estate?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of hardship and difficulties, especially to families and countries. Businesses are not left out. My deepest condolence goes to the families of the people who died in Nigeria and nearly two million who have died globally as a result of the pandemic. I commend Mr. President for his response to the pandemic and also the governors of Ogun and Lagos states for their exemplary work and leadership. As a business, we will continue to strive and thrive through all times, good or bad. But I must tell you that this pandemic has allowed us to turn our calamities into opportunities. We have developed many projects and increased 10 times our client base than ever before.
Why did you choose real estate and how did it start?
Sujimoto started with two staff; now we have about 179 local and international staff. We have over 1,000 artisans annually. You can’t desire success with the mindset of lack. That is the word of MKO, Kashimawo. The journey into entrepreneurship is like that of Joseph in the Bible, filled with tempestuous moments but keeping in mind the great principles of Assets vs. liabilities (financial and human truths). I strongly believe that life gave me little chance for success, and I declared war against poverty because there is no nobility in poverty. Growing up in Agege, I always dreamed of living in Ikoyi. I left Nigeria at 16 and returned at 33. I contemplated different options. I had worked with the largest family office in Saudi and Paris as a venture capitalist and real estate financing had been the center of my portfolio. I have lived in the richest space in the world; triangle D’or Paris, Ginza Toyo Japan. So when I decided to move to Nigeria, moving to Ikoyi was logical for me. I had to understudy Caldwell to Cappa D’Alberto to Elalan and several others. When I started Sujimoto, we had no capital.
We had no name, and people wondered: ‘Who is this Ogundele?’ Even when we wanted to acquire our first land from –now mentor– Alhaji Saro, I didn’t have the full amount. I only had N100 million. But, I knew that when you put your leg and start, the finishing will be handled by the almighty. We worked hard, tried all sorts of things to raise money. We were close to bankruptcy. But an off-taker showed up and today its history. I will never forget that morning I had only N17,000 in my account. But I acted as if I had N170 million. On the Lorenzo project, it was one of the best projects that are on hold for now. We invested all we had; invested off-takers’ money so when the economy went down and the project had to be shut down, no investor lost a kobo of their money. We refunded almost N500 million to off-takers. Some of them followed us back to the GuillianoBySujimoto Banana Island project. That project today has doubled in value.
What’s been the biggest challenge doing business in real estate?
As you may well know, real estate is tightly linked to the state of the economy, as it has to do with raising funds, capital, and the attendant high-interest rates. However, we are relying on creativity in the absence of capital. Forex volatility — US dollar was at N160 in 2015 now N460 in 2020. For me, that is an N300 million deficit on every $1 million. Nigerian banks had little appetite for real estate in the beginning. We used to chase banks. But today, banks chase us so we are very optimistic about the future. I have hope for Nigeria. The Dangote and Adenugas got over 98 percent of their money and opportunities from this great nation Nigeria. Nigeria has something for me too.
With the growing rate at which the new generation is calling for new leaders to emerge to lead the country politically, do you have any political ambition?
The politics of business is bigger than the business of politics itself. No businessman can ignore the role of politics in the 21st-century business. Nigeria is often described as a nation of potentials since 1960. Indonesia, Singapore, and South Korea are all converted to great countries through quality leadership both in politics and in business. We must refuse to remain a nation of idealists and thinkers. Nigeria needs leaders who are realists and doers. Visionary leaders put the state before self. Great leaders look beyond the next four years but focus on the development of the next 40 years. I must not forget to commend the current administration for the positive moves they are making on policy and infrastructure. But I must also remind them that a lot remains to be done.
Can you tell us more about Sujimoto’s current projects?
One of our core philosophies is ‘To be second is to be last!’ ‘If people in their 30’s are building 5,000 units annually in Asia, 75 units shouldn’t scare you.’ During the lockdown as a result of COVID-19, the real estate sector was ranked second worst-hit industry in the world, after tourism and hospitality. But for us, the COVID-19 disaster was turned into an opportunity. Projects that can take five years to achieve funding, we did in five months. For instance, aside from the ongoing Lucrezia project on Banana Island, our Leonardo project raised over N2 billion. The project coming up soon are Queen Amina in Abuja, the Sujimoto plazas in Ikoyi, and the hotel in Ikoyi, a total project portfolio of over N62 billion. Recently, the government of Tanzania asked us to bid for the construction project of a new airport. Even if we did not win this project, it is a vote of confidence in the integrity of Sujimoto. But we intend to win!
How do you describe Sujimoto’s future?
We are focusing on ‘Thinking Big.’ We have five major projects going on right now. These are Lucrezia, Leonardo, Adebukola, Ooni, Queen Amina in Abuja, and Sujimoto plazas in Lagos and Abuja. The ‘S’ Hotel is an African-cultured boutique hotel, with the character and services of a Four Seasons Facility. We are covering all six zones, Ghana, Ethiopia, and South Africa. We are also focusing on the government’s partnership. For example, the Ogun State government’s offices, facilities, etc. We aim to remain the one and only; the new leaders in real estate. Don’t be surprised when you see Sujimoto luxury in Shanghai or the ‘S’ in downtown Dubai. We are confident in the collateral of integrity, as the down payment, we made over five years ago. We’re local but our dreams are global.
In light of the ongoing conversation on the youth revolution, what word do you have for young people?
I want our young people to know that ‘Success is not served a la carte. It’s a buffet! You have to go for it!’ Youths should bury any sense of entitlement. The likes of Linda Ikeji, Davido have worked hard and are ripping the reward for their dedication. Our youths must know that there is no nobility in poverty; to achieve success today in Nigeria, you must be ready to lose friends, be misunderstood, and be unreasonable in your visions. Nigerians have stopped following leaders who are ‘complaining and murmuring’ leaders. Young people must learn to reject the ordinary and risk the unusual. We need to know that Nigeria is a land of opportunities; find these opportunities. The likes of MKO, Ojukwu, Mai Deribe, and others started from their youth days. So, as young people, we have to prepare a ‘don’t do list,’ as much as you prepare a to-do list.
What informed your decision to study Law?
I didn’t want to be a victim of corporate negligence or pure ignorance, especially when doing business in Nigeria. Corporate blunders and legal exposures account for some of the most damaging events for most businesses, especially in real estate.
What do you have to say to people who look up to you, especially young people?
It is important to bear in mind that lack of vision is proof of mental bankruptcy. The bar for integrity can’t be set low. We must all desire and intend to be judged by the quality of what we finish, not what we start. It is important to always note that to be second is to be last. Also, the collateral of integrity can never be exhausted. I don’t wait for opportunities to come to me. I visualize them and I go for them so should you, don’t wait. And for those who are looking to grow bigger, you must know that if you are in downtown Ikorodu today, you can own a house in Uptown Ikoyi tomorrow, if you work and dream hard enough.
Also, readers are leaders; reading two hours a day is 730 hours a year; 1,460 hours in two years! That’s almost equivalent to earning a PhD and there’s no billionaire by mistake in the world. If you see someone doing exceptionally well in any industry, invest your envy in studying him, not bringing him down. And don’t forget that the only person that can determine your tomorrow is the almighty God, so don’t give in. Do not underestimate or overestimate. In all that you do, know that if your neighbor is hungry, your chicken is not safe. Therefore, always stretch a helping hand to the needy.