A business director and development expert, Obiageli Bernadette Ajaero is the Managing Director of Somkolch Nigeria, Ltd, a marketing and trading company that provides auto accessories and services.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from the Imo State University, Owerri and spent a better part of her career in the banking industry, with a brief stint as a visa officer at the Consulate General of France, before taking on entrepreneurship.
In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, Ajaero who has undergone training in Risk Assessment, Emotional Intelligence, Loan Recovery, Credit Management, Customer Relationship Management and Project Management shares her entrepreneurial journey, while encouraging women to follow and fulfil their passion.
How did it all start for you, especially with the line of business you have chosen?
PEOPLE always ask me why I work in a man’s field and they would expect that I should be into beauty. Well, I used to be in the banking industry, but at some point, I was itching for more. So, when I incorporated the company in 2011, I didn’t know what I wanted to use it for.
After I resigned from my job in May 2012, it gave me time to decide what I wanted to do with the company and I realised that what I have done basically in my career was marketing. So, I said we will make it a marketing company. Also, when you have a dream, you bring in like minds together; hence I got in investors. I left banking at a point the business terrain was still very good and flourishing, so pulling in investors was a bit easier than it is today.
Another thing is, if you work hard, preserve, have high endurance level and push hard, people around you know who you are, they know if you are a reliable and resilient person. These qualities are key in business and when you present a proposal to people or what you want to do, your character traits come in. So, when I decided on marketing, I started looking for unique products that are a solution to the day-to-day problems we have.
So, I started researching and found a product – a fuel purifier, which serves as preventive and maintenance for the fuel line. When I brought the product, I used it in my 27kva generator and it was fantastic. Prior to then, my generator will get serviced every now and then, and this was reduced. So, I knew I had found the right product to start out with, which was a diesel, injector and fuel cure. So, it has always been at the back of our minds to add value and create solutions. We were also amongst the first to import the tyre sealant, which can be used to pump your tyre and is more suitable for women and men as well.
Having come from a banking background, how has it helped you in your business?
Being a relationship manager in the banking sector teaches you teamwork and resilience. You have a dashboard where you look at your income, and expenses and you are trying to make it afloat; all of these are seen running a business and that gives some level of experience. However, there are other things you learn on the job and through training, but nothing teaches you better than the reality of running the business day to day.
How has it been running your business in the last 10 years?
When we started in 2012, it was purely on products, but as we went along, we delved into different multinationals and corporate parastatals, other opportunities started cropping up, so we went into projects. We started with fuel purifiers and about five years ago, we diversified and increased our product line to about 15.
We started majorly with engine maintenance products, including brake fluid, carbon choke cleaners, and anti-rust and break cleaners, subsequently, we added home maintenance products like furniture polish and all-purpose cleaners. Basically, it has been an interesting journey. The business terrain is not an easy one, especially in Nigeria.
When we started our fuel purifiers, the market was not ready for it; they didn’t understand the technology and it was different from what they had seen. What we did was to go out and create the demand; we spoke to corporate organisations directly and so when we succeeded, what we now have is an imitation of our products and when this happens you now have the market loose. However, it has been a tough 10 years; we have survived and continued to champion forward.
How has the Nigerian market embraced your products and services?
First off, things are difficult; hence the common man sets up his priority list, which is food, shelter and clothing. So, when that is done, you find that people start to settle for less quality and that is the challenge we face. One thing we have said is that we are not dropping our quality. When you go into the market, they tell you they don’t care about quality; they are also looking at how to maximise profit, and so they can sell off at a higher price.
Hence, we continuously have a team of experts that try to reach the target audience that cares about the quality of what they use. And over time, we have built a supply chain network that we serve nationwide. There is no time in the market you will say you have conquered, so it is continuous re-strategising to stay afloat and do well.
Are you worried about substandard products in the market; is that a challenge for people like you?
At every point, there is a market for every standard. Just like you have a handbag, one costs N5000, another can cost over a million naira. It is about what you want for yourself and what you want to serve yourself. One time I was in a taxi in Abuja and I got talking with the driver, he started telling me about an injector cleaner he used that worked so well for him, but haven’t seen it for a while in the market. I requested the name and description of the pack and when he did, I told him my company distributes it, and he didn’t believe it as he gave me the look of a regular fine ‘sisi’ in a taxi.
He said he had introduced the product to his friends too; at that time, there was scarcity, so I told him to look out for it. This kind of testimonial keeps me going; we are who we are and we are not changing. It takes time for people to recognise and when they do, you have the market. The truth in the retail business is that they are only after the profit they make. You can find injector cleaners from companies supplied at N700, N1000 and N1500, they can choose to sell them all at N2000. So, when he sells the products of N700 and makes N1300, he is happy and not quite happy to push your products because the profit is low. You even find situations where prices are stuck in the body, the retailers still sell, as they want and this is very common today in most products.
Ten years running this business, what lessons have you learnt?
How critical it is to work with the right people team because if you work with the wrong team, you feel as if you are hitting your head against the wall – you are not going anywhere, they pull you back. Even if you have so much energy, at some point, you deplete and need others to motivate you.
Another is the quality of available employees in the job market; the standards are not excellent and a lot of people come in and you train, no values, stealing – it is a major problem. Over a period of time, we found systems and processes that nipped stealing in our warehouse and distributions. It is a tough battle. Our regulatory system makes life very unbearable for us too.
The first time I cried in my business was at a FIRS office; the first year we broke even, these people came and brought in figures that came from space to frustrate us. After the interview, one of them called me to say, ‘Madam, it’s as if you are from abroad, you must leave something for them to find,’ it is a tough system.
Beyond the challenges, what keeps you going?
Those people and customers who have been with me for a very long time; sometimes, I get calls from customers who say they haven’t seen a particular product in the market for a while and want to find out why. Those little things give me joy and it means that somewhere, people recognise that we are doing the right thing and we are pushing out products that are of great quality and they want to use it.
What inspires you?
I want something that goes beyond today; even if my kids are not interested in this line of business, I want the brand to stand the test of time and outlive me. That keeps me going through the rocky period.
As a mum and business owner, how do you manage you different parts and be at your best? What tips do you have for other women?
An important training everyone should do is Emotional Intelligence, so even when you are talking to your kids, it helps you manage your emotions. So, as a rule, when I am at home, I shut down for work and when I am in the office, I try to stay focused on work and if my kids need anything, they tell me ahead so I can schedule in my plans for the day.
Another thing important for the success of a business is separating business and personal funds. If you mix both, you cannot succeed in business.
What should women do differently to sit at the same table with you?
It all starts with a dream, and then they should take it beyond procrastination. Where we are today is not where we were 10 years ago. I am not one that likes to say it can’t be done, I don’t have that kind of mindset; I will rather say, how can we do it?
So, never limit yourself, because the mindset is powerful. The world is more spiritual than physical, so what you believe in the spirit manifest in the physical. I have a mindset that there is no hill too high to climb. Self believe is key, because if you don’t believe in yourself, you don’t have that confidence when you talk to people. If you have a clear dream that is viable, put it on paper and have people of like minds invest and start no matter how small.
What is your life mantra?
Know who you are, and things move better.