Michael Owolabi is the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Black Pelican Limited. He had spent the first 10 years of his career in investment banking, treasury, strategy and planning before pursuing founding the company in 2004. Between 2000-2003, he gained experience working in advisory roles at both federal and state government levels in the areas of budgeting and strategy. He currently oversees the Black Pelican Group made up of five subsidiaries. In this interview, he speaks about the performance of the company in the past 18 years. Excerpts:
Black Pelican Group celebrates its 18th anniversary this year, what are some of the challenges your organisation has encountered?
The Black pelican group is 18 years this year and it gives me great pleasure to say thank you to all our customers that has made us successful over the years. The journey has not been a smooth or easy one. We have learnt a lot of lessons along the way but are glad we are thriving 18 years after we started the dream to provide high quality interior fittings to the Nigerian population. Running a business in Nigeria is challenging and one of the most difficult tasks is finding the right team. As we know, that is the challenge most Nigerian entrepreneur’s encounter especially today. As an import-based economy, getting things through the port is also a big challenge and I need not mention the foreign exchange availability and the constant depreciation of the naira. These are the things we must deal with in our company every day, but we carry on.
What makes Black Pelican different?
I think specialisation is very important in any business and this is one of our core strengths. One must be focused, and focus is one of the things I am quite big on as an individual. When we started, we were going to focus on bathrooms and kitchens only. At the time, I wanted to model the company on a business I had seen in South Africa that was focused on bathrooms and kitchens. I bought fittings for my house from them. Just before we started, the ban on furniture including kitchens was announced by the Obasanjo administration. This restricted us to bathrooms until about 2009 when our customers started insisting on more solutions from us and we had to diversify into other solutions like tiles and doors, particularly after we moved into our purpose-built head office in Lekki.
How did the business take a turn to an all-solutions company?
Our growth has been driven largely by customer demand. Most of our customers gave us repeat business and expressed a preference for getting all their solutions from one source. We also realised that it was important that we started our design consultancy from ground up so when the building designs were being done, it was important that we partnered with the clients’ consultants from the design stage, and this made for better installations. We also found that starting early helped to save money because for instance we could design a room such that the tile wastage would be almost zero because we would design a room to fit the specific tile size to be used in that room. We add a lot more value by starting with the clients from ground up.
How did other subsidiaries of the Black Pelican Group come about?
We started as only a product-based company but realised quite quickly that we had to add services to our portfolio of solutions. Customers insisted on installation after buying products from us. This gave birth to our installation company “Bagno Technik”. I was flying Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Lagos, and I looked out the airplane window and I saw “Lufthansa Technik” maintenance wing. This inspired the name “Bagno Technik” a fusion of “Bathroom” and “Technical”. We went into installation because it was the final component of the sales process. Years later we noticed that many clients were not ready to take delivery when their goods arrived in Nigeria and therefore required warehousing solutions. Some of them required freight solutions because they wanted to consolidate goods bought from us with other items. We had extensive experience in logistics, and it was therefore logical to offer it as a service to our clients and that is how “BPL Logistix” was born. In 2015, in the advent of the Buhari administration, Nigeria was plunged into recession and the Naira suffered substantial devaluation. Demand for high end products plummeted and it was time for fresh thinking. We started looking for more affordable solutions especially for our volume driven project clients. So as not to dilute the exclusive “IL Bagno” brand, we founded “Bathrooms Direct” which focused on imports from Turkey rather than our usual import countries of Germany and Italy. We are also fortunate to represent the number one wellness company in the world “Technogym”. We saw this as the final piece in our hospitality and wellness business. We had consulted for and supplied fittings to many hotel projects and handled the spa and wellness areas but didn’t have a solution for gym equipment. Adding Technogym to the group was therefore a perfect fit and to properly segment and position the brand, we set up a new subsidiary to manage our wellness business. This gave birth to “BPL Wellness”. We recently opened a Technogym showroom on Bishop Aboyade Cole Street, Victoria Island and our clients are responding very positively to that.
After 18 years of market leadership, what should we be expecting from Black Pelican Group in the future?
Black Pelican has always been a market leader and reference point in the interior design trade. With a long list of “firsts” …. including being the first to open a purpose built and well-appointed showroom of international standards with the opening of Ebenezer House in Lekki. This location remains a reference point for the business in Nigeria; being the first to position the interior design trade as a properly structured business and today we remain the largest and best structured company in the interior design trade in Nigeria; being the first to open a ‘Design Centre’ in Abuja. This 6,000SQM building is also the largest Interior Design Showroom in Nigeria. We remain the top provider of full interior design solutions in Nigeria and are probably the only company that supports customers from design specification to installation, important and after sales service. Being the first company to set up and maintain a permanent installation and after sales team in the sanitary ware business; being the first to annually take teams of Nigerian consultants to Europe for Continuous Learning programs; being the first to start Continuous Learning and Certification programs for various trades in Nigeria. We organised the first Lighting Design Seminar for MEP consultants in Nigeria. I am very excited about the future and particularly to see where the next generation of staff will take the company. We constituted what we called a “Shadow Board of Directors” comprising the younger members of our team who meet regularly with a mandate to forge future growth strategies. We are developing a strategy to enter the real estate market with something truly special and I think the market should anticipate that initiative from the Black Pelican Group. We are also going to build up on the BPL Logistix brand with the construction of a Logistics Centre in Lagos. I think the next 5years will be very exciting ones indeed.
What do you have to say about the people at Black Pelican Group?
Our business stands on the shoulders of the giants who put in their best every day to build the brand. Our team is well trained and dedicated and are clearly responsible for the success we have achieved today. I cannot thank them enough. From the dispatch men who deliver our mails to the warehouse team who do the delivery to the clients, the team who manage the warehouse, the salespeople that are in the front line for customers; every single member of the team come in every day, and they make their impact felt. Honestly, I couldn’t be more grateful, it is really a team effort. I remember in 2004 we started with three people, my driver, my assistant and one salesperson. Today there are 170 people who come in everyday and bring great results, I couldn’t be more grateful for their contribution. It would be remiss of me if I don’t also mention the vast contribution and assistance that we get from our Board of Directors, led by our able chairman Mr. Mobolaji Osunsanya who was my boss at GT Bank many years ago. He is ably assisted by Mr. Bayo Sanni and Ms. Olusola Adeola and off course my life partner and best friend, Mrs. Adetola Owolabi who is Executive Director and COO. I would also like to thank our shareholder and benefactor, Mr. Fola Adeola for his invaluable support and advise over the years. This is really an occasion to thank all these people that have made Black Pelican Group a success.