One man, many graces best describes Abiodun Odewale, a seasoned businessman, a civil engineer by profession and an architect by passion. He is the chief executive officer/creative director of Cemex Portals, a full service construction firm that deals in architectural design, structural design, interior design, and project management. Biodun, as he is called, started his entrepreneurial pursuit while he was still a student at the Polytechnic Ibadan, where he studied civil engineering. He pioneered the sale of self-designed and manufactured notebooks on campus. He evolved into a gadget salesman, shuttling China and Ibadan. In 2013, he decided to focus on his first love, civil engineering, and after years of practising and successfully executing building projects, he invested in his architectural passion. In this interview with DANIEL ANAZIA, he bares his thoughts about doing business in Nigeria, the challenges and the benefits.
What is Cemex Portals all about, as people will at first think it’s an information and communication technology (ICT) outfit?
I’m actually a civil engineer. The name Cemex Portals emanated from structural elements. In civil engineering there is something called a portal frame in the designing of steel works. So that is where the word portal came from. On the other hand Cemex is a funkified word from cement. So that is how the name came about.
How long has Cemex Portal been in existence?
Cemex Portals has been in existence since 2015, and we have been doing one or two things.
What are the core objectives of Cemex Portal as an entity?
What was in mind was to create a household name in the construction industry, particularly in civil engineering; a brand that can last from generation to generation. What we do majorly is from architectural design to construction of the design, interior works, which makes it like a turnkey company. So it’s like a one-stop company, once you engage us we can do everything from the beginning to end. This includes the interior.
There are lots of construction companies across the country, particularly in Lagos where your business operations are carried out. What makes Cemex Portals different from other firms?
What makes us different is our designs and approach to construction; they are quite unique. So it’s like paying for one thing but you are getting three-four things at the same time. For instance, if we are creating an architectural design for you, we think with the mind of the interior person when we are creating a normal floor plan. We take into consideration all the constraints that you will have during construction. So, all of this kind of stands us out and gives us the needed edge that we have as a company.
How do you balance the client’s needs and their lean budget, especially with the current state of the economy and inflation rate?
The way design works, the client is the ultimate most of the time. We can guide them based on our own professional expertise but what is important is to make sure that the vision, conception or what the client has in mind for the project to come to life. The client’s desire is key and we strive to make sure that it happens the way they want it but we can bring in our own professional concept into what the client wants so that there will be a balance. In Cemex Portals, we don’t enforce our own concept, design, construction methodology on the client; we try finding a balance and still achieving the kind of lifestyle or luxury that the client wants.
The upsurge in building collapse in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos has raised great concerns. In your view, who is to be blamed; is it the government, the property owner/developer or the industry professionals?
Everybody has a role to play. The problem actually emanates from the client – the property owner/developer. They don’t value the intellectuality of the professionals they seldom engage, and that is where the government needs to come in to regulate some of these things. There is no way you will be carrying out a construction without involving a professional, particularly in the area of supervision. But you know, in Nigeria, there is what I call the ‘Baba Lati’ methodology or approach. Baba Lati are individuals who do not have the technical know-how. Most clients like doing the Baba Lati approach because they feel it’s cheaper, and once they hear engineer, architect, they feel you are just there to take their money. So that is where the problem is. It is because they are trying to cut costs. They feel that as professionals, we are there to reap them off. They are quick to tell their friend did the same project with N10,000,000, why are you telling them it’s N25,000,000. The fact remains that your friend may have gotten away with that, it doesn’t mean that he or she has done the right thing. So the problem like I said emanates from the client, the government needs to come in to regulate and enforce the standards. These regulations are there but the problem is that they are not being enforced. This is why you see a lot of civil engineers, architects not making money. For instance, the doctor will tell you, do not do this, and if you go against it you will die. Again, if a doctor says you have cancer and you have five years to live, will say no, he does not know what he is saying? So why is it that a civil engineer will tell you cannot put one pillar here, this is the size of the column that you need to put here, this is the size of the beam you need to put here, and you said it too much, it is a waste of your money. For me, everything cuts across. The government needs to do their own part; we the professionals need to also do our part by not compromising the standards. The problem is that we needed money; we needed to put food on our families’ table and all that. So we tend to compromise by saying ok, just bring it; let’s manage these two irons that are not of required strength or gauge. My counsel is that we should all play our role.
What are factors you consider when handling interior briefs from clients, especially the female? Do you use the same measure or considerations for both?
No, we don’t. The reason why we cannot have the same measure is that they both tend to have different briefs. As you know, women don’t joke with the wardrobe and kitchen. For the men it could be the bathroom, sit-out lounge and their sitting room. Most clients want attention in these areas. As an entity, we take care of each client’s needs based on their brief. Once we know a woman is actively involved in the brief being handed to us, we try to give them a luxurious kitchen and make sure that their wardrobe is topnotch.
What is Cemex Portals currently working on?
At the moment we have some projects we are driving in Lagos state and outside Lagos. We are working on mall construction at Chevron Drive, Lekki; we have a luxurious mansion ongoing at Anambra. You know the Igbo people build, especially Anambra. When they want to come, they come very hard. There is also a project we are working on in Surulere, and tons of architectural designs that we are doing now.
What is your assessment of the Nigerian business environment? How has it impacted your business?
I think Nigeria is one of the best places in the world to actually do business. Apart from infrastructures, which is a major concern; climate wise it is the best place to do business if you know your way and know how to take advantage of the environment itself. Yes, the economy is down but I think it is because of our mentality. If you travel to other climes/countries, you will discover that what we get free or at a cheaper price here, people pay through their nose to have what they have. So if we can do the same thing, we will get the same result or have the same infrastructures they have. Oil is expensive everywhere; PMS or petrol like we call it here is expensive everywhere in the whole world; they are even paying higher. Agreed, we might have made our own mistake as an oil producing nation by not having a functioning refinery and this leaves us to import our petroleum product needs, which puts stress on our currency because we have to pay through the approved transactional currency, which is dollar.
There are challenges, but I don’t think it is really extremely bad doing business in Nigeria if you know your way. Yes there is politics, bureaucracy and all of that; some people monopolise some industry or sector just to make money. I believe if there is balance, Nigeria is a good place for business because we have the population. We see a lot of investors trying to come into Nigeria. For instance, Elon Musk is trying to get into cyber space. There must be something that they have seen. If organisations like MTN, MultiChoice (DStv) can come from South Africa and they don’t want to leave then it is a good place to do business but the government needs to try and structure and infrastructure in place.
Every young Nigerian wants to ‘japa’ (leave the country) on the premise that things are working out fine here. What is your counsel to them?
I won’t tell anybody that want to japa not to do so. I believe everyone has their dreams, aims and aspiration, tolerance level and all that. So, if they think japa will help them to survive because really it is not easy out there. The fact is that 80 percent of the people that want to leave this country, some of them have not even been to Abuja before. The people that have travelled out the shores of this country know that it is not easy. What most people that have money do is move their family abroad but remain in Nigeria and be making their money. This is what most people do now because they want some level of quality of life for the children, not them; they are used to the system and can find their way around it. They don’t want their children to grow up with a certain mentality, so that is why they tend to move them abroad. For people of such caliber to make such a decision, then you should know that there must be something good about the country that makes them stay back. A lot of people don’t pay tax here, and even when we pay, how much do we pay compared to people that are paying 30 percent over there. I will say that it is easy to make money in Nigeria if you have your way. Let me say that a lot of people do not think in Nigeria.
Why do you say that?
Yes, they don’t think, because if we can think, we will be able to make something out of a bad situation. That is why here at Cemex Portals, we say, “No box…just think”. I think we need to think more in the education sector, perhaps in psychological and entrepreneurial courses. Right thinking is very important at this stage of our nationhood; it will help the society as a whole.
There has been persistent advocacy for skill acquisition side by side with education. Do you think this will help bring the needed solution to the myriads of problems faced by many Nigerians, especially the youths?
Yes, we all need skills acquisition. Education is not four walls of a classroom alone; it cut across many things. My father has a friend, who we call ‘Baba Complete’. He was a rich man in Ibadan, Oyo State. I wouldn’t say he went to school but he is very intelligent and smart. I think some of these old men learn by observation, not by going to school alone. His mode of dressing earned him the nickname – Baba Complete. So education should not only be limited to the four walls of the classroom; People can learn street wise, through vocational centres by building skills, which go back to thinking. If we all know how to think, things will get better in Nigeria, even for politics and all that. A lot affecting us as a country goes back to the way we think. Most leaving the country want that life of orderliness for the children and that is why see them taking the japa option. Orderliness is part of life education but it is not being taught here in the four walls of the classroom.