When Ruth Obih was denied a visa to travel to the UK for a Masters degree in Oil & Gas Law, her life was being redirected for greatness through another path. She would later pass the British test to practice Law, start a Real Estate company, venture into fashion and become a versatile entrepreneur. When she returned home in 2007, started 3Invest Ltd., a Real Estate company specialized in providing acquisition and investment service for private clients and funds looking to invest in Nigeria’s most coveted real estate. In the wake of the global financial meltdown and plummeting real estate value, Ruth found innovative ways to remain relevant in the industry. Thus, in January 2011, she started “3Invest Intelligence”, an innovative division of the company focused on real estate media and advocacy. Through this division, several thousand Nigerians and real estate investors have been empowered with useful and relevant information to make wise investment decisions, via the platform, 3investonline.com. Her hard work and determination to make impact in the industry has even caught the attention of Forbes Africa, which recently profiled her. In this exclusive interview with Gbenga Awomodu, Ruth, who anchors the bi-weekly radio programme, Real Estate ON AIR, talks about entrepreneurship, her journey from the Law school to success the real estate business, and planning the first edition of her brain child, the Real Estate UNITE Conference, Exhibition and Awards 2012 holding this month.
Tell us a bit about yourself – growing up, education and career?
I am a lawyer. I studied Law at the Imo State University and the Nigerian Law School, Lagos. Afterwards, I was exposed to some UK education, did some short courses and returned to Nigeria. I also did an entrepreneurship course at the Pan-African University. I started 3invest in 2007 and since then we’ve been on. Our major milestone has been our radio programme which is Real Estate On-Air on Classic FM and Beat FM.
Could you tell us more about 3Invest – when, why and how you started the company?
3Invest is a real estate company – we do acquisitions and marketing; we work with private investors and organizations. We basically work for the buyer. We don’t stock properties, but we have plans of developing in the near future, but in terms of real estate acquisition, it’s an investment company. That’s all we do; then.
When the downturn happened in 2009, I had the option of either going back to get a job or staying in the industry. My passion for what I do now had grown over the last two years, so I decided to remain in the industry, only I had to stay back in a way that nothing would easily shake me out. I was not just going to be an agent selling property and helping people buy property; that is why I set up 3Invest Intelligence, which is the media advocacy platform that handles the radio, the online portal and our events. We have the online portal for sharing Real Estate information at www.3investonline.com.
In January 2011, we started the 3Invest Intelligence which is a department on its own. Its workings are independent of 3Invest Real Estate works. We have a team of estate surveyors and estate managers working in the Real Estate works department.
What is the size of the team?
For the Real Estate department, we have a team of four and for the advocacy platform we have a team of five.
Do they work from a single location?
We have a virtual office and a physical office on Victoria Island.
Before you returned from the UK, you started one there right?
We started 3invest in the UK, and it ran for a year before I came back to Nigeria to start the same company by myself. I had two partners in London.
Is the one domiciled in the UK still in existence?
No, after a year when I moved back to Nigeria, we just wound it up. So it’s just one 3Invest in the world.
What gave you the confidence to start a real estate company?
I am not a fearful person and I try to put up courage in whatever I do. I just try to make a way, even if it seems very challenging. With real estate, I actually didn’t foresee what I am doing now. I did not see it as a passion when I started. I started it as a way of just making money and being in the industry. Then, I realized the many challenges associated with succeeding in the industry and began to think more passionately about real estate. For example, that is how I came about the advocacy platform, which has exposed me a little bit to media.
Could you describe you regular day and week at the office?
It is hectic. I try my best to have them not put me out all the time by having a day or two working inside the office. My week starts on Sunday when I write my script and prepare for the radio programme. I wake up very early on Mondays to do the news – the Real Estate news comes out on Mondays. I then go to the studio – the radio programme airs on Mondays and Wednesdays. The radio programme involves a lot; from researching and getting the guests for interviews on the show to marketing and all the works, there is so much to do. From the studio on Monday, I start having my meetings. Everything we do is scheduled. Our online news comes out at 9AM on Mondays while the Newsletter has to go out before noon every Tuesday. We have an in-house technical department that does the graphics. This is asides meetings and evaluations/inspections which I might have scheduled for the week. The regular week is a very busy one.
Do you have a print publication as well, or you plan to have one in the near future?
Everything we are doing for now is online. Plans are on the way for rolling out print publications soon.
How much of preliminary research did you do prior to returning to Nigeria in 2007 to start 3Invest?
Before I came back, I set up the company. That was the time when the Real Estate business was experiencing what I’d call “the boom” – I don’t like using that term because those were the days when ignorant people thought they were investing wisely, but I’m sure most people had issues, whereby they bought so much real estate at high prices such that there was no equity. In some cases, there was minus equity on their property. At the time it was sort of booming and you could sell property like every other day; the funding system in Nigeria was still working well, unlike what we are experiencing now… lenders would have to check the pair of shoes you have on before they lend you money.
Which companies were your key competitors when you came in at the time?
My competitors were actually my clients. Reason being that potential buyers who should be my clients, would rather carry out the service themselves. My fellow real estate operators weren’t necessarily my competitors because we were in the same business. Which is why we try to position ourselves in a situation whereby no matter what happens, we are very relevant in the industry.
How would you link your education to what you’re doing now?
I’m a lawyer, so that’s the blessing of being a lawyer – it gives you a broad scope. Advocacy is what we do. Advocating is not a new job to me. Lawyers talk for people. Talking is not a problem because by profession, I am supposed to know how to talk. If you have to go through Law school, you can ask anyone, it’s hectic, so what I do when it comes to leases and agreement, is still Law. The best thing that happened to me is still being a lawyer. I have the choice today to open my eyes and I see myself in one penthouse office running a big law firm and still calling the shots at 3Invest.
As an entrepreneur, what is the place of a Post-graduate degree; would you rather do short courses as opposed to a Masters programme?
I had the opportunity to go for my Masters in the UK, but I was refused visa and I thank the British Embassy for refusing me visa at the time. The best thing that happened to me was being refused visa to go and study for Masters at Dundee. I had gotten the admission to go and study Oil & Gas (Law) which was what my mates were doing at the time. When I was not given a visa, I felt so humiliated, but I turned that into an opportunity to start doing business. That was in 2005. Between 2005 and 2011, trust me; I don’t regret any bit of it. I probably need an MBA now.
When I eventually went to the UK, I passed the Qualified Lawyers Transfer test, but then I founded the Real Estate company, and did some short courses in fashion. I have a fashion line, but fashion is a part-time gig for me. I stock in Designer’s club and the rest of them, as well as private clients who order when they want anything. I also did a Certificate course in Entrepreneurial Management at the Pan African University, Lagos, in 2009.
I’m not saying don’t enroll for an M.Sc. programme or don’t do any MBA. If you have the opportunity to, please do. However you have to realize that doing an MBA or Masters does not make you successful in business, okay? It only gives you awareness; knowledge, which you can get right now wherever you look at. There’s knowledge everywhere. There are certain things they don’t teach you in business school. Success is not about whether you have a PhD or not. A post-graduate degree is in line with what I want to do, but it is not a priority because any sort of information that I need, I could buy a book or go online and read up on.
What key lessons have you learnt starting up business in Nigeria? You can talk about the challenges too.
To me, every challenge is an opportunity. I mean, it is not easy. Prayer is all one needs to work in Nigeria… I mean, when I get on the plane and I leave Nigeria, it’s like I forget my prayers, God forgive me. What you need in this Nigeria is prayers every day. First, to wake up you need to pray; to sleep, you need to pray. When you have that in mind, next thing you need so much is courage because in the midst of difficulty, the only thing that can keep your head up is courage; you just need to pray that you have opportunities and chances and access. You just need lots of access and networks to get where you want to be in Nigeria. If you don’t find for yourself, no one is going to help you out.
Can you mention some specific challenges that you had to surmount?
I don’t dwell on the negative. I try not to remind myself of all that. There are myriads of challenges that we face from getting up today, I’ll give you countless challenges that I’ve faced. From starting 3invest in 2006 to now, I’ll give you countless challenges; it’s as if every client turns into an enemy because it’s a business whereby we try to impress people a lot and when the time to pay comes, money becomes an issue and you can’t be in a business without getting paid. So you see that Nigeria is a place where people want something that they sometime don’t want to pay for. Sometimes you just have to put your leg down and when you do that you also have to remember that customer is always right. These factors and more make running business in Nigeria a lot challenging, especially when your business requires you to relate with people. It’s not easy but it’s also an opportunity.
What steps did you take to ensure that you could recover more of your funds?
If people owe you, they will pay; when they don’t pay you, you write. In business, there are two ways to try getting your money – it is either you write it off or you go the legal way. As a lawyer, I don’t take people to court, not because I don’t believe in the legal system, but because I don’t see a reason for having to put myself through so much trouble. We make sure that contracts are signed, but we have also had cases whereby we signed contracts and people still didn’t pay. We just write them and tell them whatever it is. What we do is; we try to find out what happened, and how we’re going to prevent it in the future.
You are currently putting together a major programme – Real Estate Unite Conference and Wards 2012. Could you tell us a bit about the conference – its target audience, your sponsors, partners, supporters, and other important details?
It is going to be the most prestigious real estate event in Nigeria. That’s where we are now. It will from September 13th to 14th, 2012. It is a capacity building event and it’s a paid event as well. If we don’t get people to pay for the event, we will probably not be able to host that kind of event subsequently. What we are trying to do is look for a means whereby we can also have trainings for upcoming real estate students; even if they have to pay, at a subsidized rate, so we have them learn the etiquette of doing business; things that would motivate them to build the industry. We believe that the future of Nigeria is in the future of the youth.
What are your projections for 3invest in the next five to ten years?
3Invest is going to be five in December 2012. We try to make sure that in as much as we’ve juggled a lot of things at the same time – doing the radio and all the things I had to do; the next five to ten years, we’re trying to actualize the vision of 3Invest as real estate investment company, having built credibility in the industry through advocacy platforms right now. We believe that 3invest will be a company whose achievements people would be proud of. First of all we believe in building a better tomorrow which is what we are doing in-house. With the vision of being an emerging commercial real estate company in Nigeria, we are trying to make sure that we provide a better livelihood for Nigerians.
Which people in and outside the real estate industry do you look up to as your role models and mentors?
Roland Igbinobia and Barrack Obama.
Thanks for your time!
Pleasure is all mine!
Gbenga Awomodu is an Editorial Assistant at Bainstone Ltd./BellaNaija.com. When he is not reading or writing, Gbenga is listening to good music or playing the piano. Follow him on Twitter: @gbengaawomodu | Gbenga’s Notebook: www.gbengaawomodu.com | Facebook Page: Gbenga Awomodu