The CEO of Haven Homes, Tayo Sonuga, rose from being a dish washer and security guard in the UK to becoming a versatile real estate developer in Nigeria. A graduate of Accountancy from the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, Ogun State, he speaks to Franktalknow.com on the power of vision and focus in attaining his goal of becoming an entrepreneur.
You attended a public secondary school, Maryland Comprehensive Secondary School in Lagos, and had your tertiary education in a public institution, what was growing up like for you?
Well, growing up was interesting, my parents were both teachers, my Dad was a principal so we grew up in an educational environment. I am the first of five children, I have three other brothers and one sister and I have always learnt growing up to be a good ambassador. It appeared back then that a lot of responsibility was placed on the first child to represent the family well. My dad also being the local school principal, all the students knew me then and there was always the chance that news of any mis-behaviour by me would arrive home to my dad before I do. But in all, growing up was fun and it was a great experience.
You had your education in Nigeria, why did you decide to relocate to the UK?
My attraction to the UK started during an initial two-week holiday visit to the country. At that time, being my first experience of travel, I struggled to get a Nigerian passport. I had to go from Lagos to Abeokuta; my uncle who still lives in Abeokuta had to assist me and called somebody he knew. It was like a nightmare. Eventually, I got the passport and I travelled. I had always thought to struggle for what you’re rightfully entitled to (like a passport) is normal until I got to the UK and saw a different system. While shopping for some electronics to bring back with me to Lagos, my uncle in the UK whom I stayed with advised me to keep all my receipts and show them to the VAT officials at the airport on my departure and that some percentage of what I bought would be returned to me. I was sceptical especially seeing that I would be leaving the country and would not be able to go and ‘fight’ for my refund. But to my amazement, within two weeks of my arrival back in Nigeria, my uncle in the UK called me and said that I had a cheque sent to me from the VAT office as my refund. That got me thinking that this is a system that I did not have to go and lobby anybody. I didn’t know where the VAT office was, all I did was to fill a form, and they sent me money. I compared my struggle to getting a Nigerian Passport in Nigeria and my VAT Refund experience in the UK and concluded that one system was far better than the other and that was why I left for the UK immediately after my service year in 1990.
You left Nigeria as a graduate and ended up washing dishes in the UK. What was the experience like?
After my arrival in the UK, I started by doing several menial jobs. I used to clean offices, wash toilets after the workers and eventually I got promoted to become a security guard in one of the companies I used to work for. During this period, I just kept telling myself all this is temporary. There was a goal in my sight. Even though I was doing the cleaning job and got promoted to be a security guard, I saw myself more as an entrepreneur, who was in a system to understand the system and make the best of it. During that period, I also got trained to work on computers and I later got a temporary job as a Data Input Clerk with one of the foreign banks in London, it was a Brazilian bank with Head Office in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The Manager I worked with then liked me so much, he sent message to the head office in Brazil that there was one ‘black boy’ that the company had to employ because I was the only black person in that whole company. I was employed permanently as a Data Entry Clerk. Again I didn’t see myself as a clerk but rather had my goal ahead of me and began doing professional courses in Computing and at a time, I also stayed behind at work to learn Portuguese just out of interest.
After about two years in the bank, I had learnt computing enough to apply it to the job I was doing at that time and to the entire company’s amazement, I developed a computer program that facilitated one of the routine manual tasks I was given. I was then promoted to work in the Computer Dept. of the bank. By God’s faithfulness and providence, my transfer to the Computer Dept. came at a time when the Head Office in Brazil needed a Computer Operator who also could speak Portuguese, I was chosen to fit in that role and I was promoted once again to join the International team to implement a new Network technology in the entire bank worldwide. That was before the Internet became what it is now.
My first trip to the United States was through the company as they sponsored me for training in New York, California and Rio De Janeiro. That was how I entered into computing and eventually became a Computer consultant after passing a few professional exams. This was just also around 1998 and 1999, just before the Year 2000 when the ‘Y2K’ (millennium) bug became a panic. Professionals in the computing industry at this time became so well sought after to the extent that they were paying us per hour to do the work. The computing profession became so lucrative that some jobs were paying professionals at that time up to £600 (Six Hundred Pounds) per day, just for showing up at work.
Why the interest in Property development and how did Haven Homes start?
In spite of the windfall and bonanza in my profession then, I didn’t get carried away to start buying expensive cars and ‘living large’. Instead, I was investing in properties in London. During my banking experience, I took the time to understand the mortgage system. How it worked. I started using the understanding of that system as leverage to invest in properties. My wife and I eventually built up a huge portfolio of properties in the UK but somewhere along the line, the General Overseer of the Church I still attend, New Covenant Church, Rev. Paul Jinadu, a vast man, gave me an advice that ‘’Rich men don’t keep assets, they rather turn them over’’ and that I should start selling my properties. I was intrigued and taken aback because it went against what my investment sense had taught me but thank God I heeded and I started selling my UK properties not knowing that God was leading me to come back to Nigeria. Shortly after the sale of the UK properties, there was the global bust in the Properties and Financial markets around 2005 and 2006. That was when I returned to Nigeria and formed Haven Homes. We started building and completed our first property in Magodo, Lagos State in 2007.
Why didn’t you continue with computing when you returned to Nigeria since it is also a lucrative career?
I discovered a quality gap in the properties market way back then. Around 2005, 2006, I discovered that the property market in Nigeria had failed to deliver quality. I used to stay in one of the top hotels whenever I came to visit my family in Lagos and whenever I went to use the bathrooms, I saw the shoddy jobs that were done, the room walls were not straight and there and then, I thought if this was what the bathroom of a major hotel in Nigeria looked like, how would normal houses look like?
I started observing houses I entered from that time and would begin to see things falling apart. The jobs in the residential construction industry were so badly done and the quality of construction was so bad, whereas, these quality matters were just taken for granted in the UK. At this time, I met with an Architect friend of mine who was also living in the UK and he had the same passion and idea. We came together to deliver the concept of building luxury homes with outstanding quality and that will be affordable. We wanted a brand that will build homes of international quality but not at prohibitive prices. We had in mind to build for the average person to live like a king and that was our goal which we persisted with and which is what you are seeing today in our properties.
How do you feel about the success that Havens Homes is recording today?
It will be wrong for me to take the sole credit for growing Havens Homes. The brand is what it is today as a result of the dedication, passion for excellence and the dogged loyalty that I enjoy from the staff that I work with. I have a great team of staff and without my direct or physical presence, they all know what their roles and functions are and they do it with great dedication. With this level of teamwork, I find it easy to give directions and the implementation becomes like clockwork.
What has been your greatest challenge on your way to becoming a successful businessman?
There is one central thing we worked on, delivering quality and excellent customer service. Our greatest challenge so far has been with getting the right skilled workers to build our projects with the right quality outcomes but despite this, we still remain focused. We had to create several layers of supervision, each layer checking the previous layer. We have supervisors checking the contractors, quality assurance managers checking the supervisors and then consultants checking the final outcomes. After delivery to our clients, we still follow up on the projects for the next six months to ensure our clients settle in seamlessly into their new homes. All these come at a cost for us but it is the price we have had to pay and also part of our commitment to quality service delivery.
People complain a lot about how difficult it is to do business in Nigeria, what has been your experience?
Because we focus on quality and excellence, we place a lot of demand on our contractors which requires them to pay a lot of attention to detail. Unfortunately, that is not always the case with most of the contractors due to the limited exposure they possibly have had. The average contractor works to the best of his ability but it’s not usually sufficient enough for what we require, so we end up doing some tasks repeatedly until we get it right. This could sometimes increase the costs of construction and could cause delays to the project. However, we do endeavour to stay focused on our targets and I have since discovered that we get better from project to project.
One expects a businessman like you to run a busy schedule. Do you have time to unwind at all?
In the evenings I like to play Lawn Tennis, that’s my favourite sport. When I get back from work I watch CNN and National Geographic channel, I also watch aviation related programmes as that’s my offside passion. When I was in England, I did some aviation-related training even though I didn’t proceed to get my pilot’s licence. I still hope to get one when I have the time.
What is your greatest fear in life?
I don’t entertain any fear as a Christian. I exercise my faith more so I don’t allow fear to get over me. I’m a very positive person and I remain positive in all situations.
Haven Homes is known as celebrity developer, why did you choose to focus on celebrities?
Haven Homes and celebrities have a lot in common because we’re both passionate about what we do. For a celebrity to become famous in what he/she does there has to be a lot of passion involved and that’s what we do in our trade too. When we build these homes, we make them appealing, not just to celebrities but to others who treasure great ambience, the beauty of the estates and the serenity they provide. Security and privacy are also very important in our planning and all these put together is what our celebrities and other clients of ours who desire comfortably living adore.
What would be your advice to young Nigerian graduates trying to navigate the business world?
Whatever they want to do, they should have a passion for it, love it and enjoy it. Start small and grow big, this will involve a lot of patience and endurance. When I say start small, I mean they should start with the resources they have and avoid borrowing. They should love the people around them and love God.
Good things rarely come cheap. How affordable are your homes?
Our concept of affordability is getting more for less. What this means is that for much less than the price you would have paid for a luxury and contemporary homes, we will deliver a home that matches that quality and lifestyle. Haven Homes was the first developer to build contemporary homes commercially in Nigeria. Before we came to the market, our type of homes were custom built for the mega rich who could afford to fly in architects to build their mansions.
Our entrance into the market changed that dynamics and we started building these lifestyle mansions at the price of the normal traditional houses thereby bringing the luxury lifestyle to the reach of all. Hence we started building ‘affordable luxury’ homes! In other words, if you can afford to buy into any average housing development, then you can easily buy into one of our luxury lifestyle homes without the premium price.
Are you planning to expand your operations to other countries?
Yes, we have just kick started our development in Atlanta (USA); we have also been talking with our contacts in Ghana. We hope to expand operations to other African countries as well where the desire for affordable luxury homes are high. Our vision goes beyond Haven Homes in Nigeria. We have a global mindset, what we will be doing in the next five years will be to spread our operations and have a foothold in many countries. We’re working on doing more work in African countries too.