Over the last ten years, Funke Bucknor-Obruthe has become a household name alongside Zapphaire Events, her flagship events consulting, planning, marketing and management company which she started after stints in Law and Advertising. Fresh out of Law school in 2000, Funke endured practising in a Law firm for three weeks before following her love for Public Relations into an advertising firm, where she eventually found the real deal: events planning! Her resilient entrepreneurial drive led Funke to turn her passion for organising events for other people into a business, and by 2006, she had earned herself the “Entrepreneur of the Year” award at The Future Awards, Nigeria’s most prestigious youth recognition platform. A year later, she was announced the Wedding Planner Magazine’s “Wedding Planner of the Year“. Four more years later, in August 2011, event planner extraordinaire Funke’s work in planning a Nigerian royal wedding was highlighted on CNN International’s Inside Africa. In this exclusive interview with Gbenga Awomodu, Funke talks passionately about her journey to amazing business success, the making of the Nigerian events planning industry, and lots more. Enjoy!
Tell us about yourself – education and childhood memories?
I am Funke Bucknor-Obruthe and I studied Law at the University of Lagos and the Nigerian Law School. Growing up was fun with all my cousins and my sister, Tosyn Bucknor and my parents, Mr. And Mrs. Olusegun Bucknor. My dad is very very intelligent. He helped us with our homework, took us to examination centres, got extra pens and papers, and did revision with us. He used to be a musician, worked for a while at Xerox, then as the Chairman, Lagos Mainland Local Government Area. After that, he still went back to his music. My mum has been a businesswoman for as long as I can remember. She had a tailoring outfit. If you want to organize anything just call her. Their lifestyle influenced me a bit, till today. Even my sister Tosyn [Bucknor] is in entertainment. Tosyn writes, Tosyn sings, Tosyn blogs, all kinds of things.
When and why did you start Zapphaire Events?
Zapphaire Events started in 2001, but officially started in 2002. I just loved planning events for my friends, especially weddings. A few friends advised that I do it for a living.
What is the origin of the word “Zapphaire” in your company name?
(Laughs) It was just like a joke. I got inspired by sapphire (the stone) and I changed the “S” to “Z” to make it different.
How did you transition from Law into Event Planning?
I never liked Law from my first year in UNILAG. Everybody kept telling me that when I got into the next year I would like it better, so I got into Year 2, even into Law school, I hated it, though I still passed very well. I thought if I went to work at maybe I might like it a bit, but for three weeks I was frustrated. I left to work at Tie Communications, an advertising agency, during my Youth Service year. I liked PR, but the advertising agency didn’t specialize in PR. They were more into core advertising, which wasn’t what I really wanted. It was while I was there that I started planning a few people’s weddings and realized that this was what I wanted to do. The experience taught me about discipline and has really helped in running my business today. I spoke with a few business minded people who helped and advised me on how to develop it further. Then I went to Fate Foundation and did an entrepreneurial course there.
When you started out, who were the key global leaders and your role models in the industry?
We had people like Preston Bailey, Colin Cowie, Mindy Weiss and David Tutera. Those were people I respected and looked up to internationally. I’d been hearing about them. Most of them had been in business for over twenty years. In Nigeria, there wasn’t really anybody. It was just one or two of us: Lara Akande of Just Weddings, who started a little bit before me and Mrs. Yewande Zaccheaus, who started the same year.
What is the size of your team at Zapphaire Events and what qualities do you look out for when hiring new staff?
Our team of co-ordinators is made up of eighteen staff while our support staff are eleven. I look out for drive, passion, creativity etc., depending on the role the person is assuming.
How would you describe your target clients?
Our target clients are the everyday bride, corporate organisations, etc. generally, people who want value for money.
Could you share highlights from your experience working on international events?
I worked with one or two people on a wedding in Dubai. In a place like Dubai, you already know that at your event maybe you just have about 400 or 300 people, but it’s well laid out and you have a lot of waiters and other of service providers at your beck and call. To do that in Nigeria, you have to have a lot of money, and people are not ready to do that. A peculiarity with our events here is that they are usually very large. I saw that the standard was very high in Dubai, but when I did an event in Accra, it was the opposite, really. I just felt that they were too slow-paced and not close to the level of excellence that we usually had. I felt Nigeria was far better. We imbibed a level of excellence in planning the event and everybody thought the event was very good, like “for Ghana? This was really good!”.
Earlier this year, you launched “The Essential Bridal Handbook”, one-of-a-kind in this clime. What was the motivation behind that project, how long did it take you to compile the materials for the book, and what has the reception been like in the market?
I have been in the industry for quite a long time, and I saw the need and cravings of a lot of brides for a handbook which would serve as a guide to planning a flawless event; a journal, a resource book, where you can also get tips on planning your budget. The Essential Bridal Handbook is packed with all that and much more. It contains tips from different service providers and it’s just a book you want to recommend for every bride. It took about two years to compile, because we had to put a lot of effort into researching and publishing. The reception in the market has been quite impressive.
You easily impress me as a very energetic and highly entrepreneurial person. How have you developed your business savvy over time, and how do you constantly ensure that you are growing and improving in your profession?
(laughs) Very energetic and highly entrepreneurial, and I put all my energy into my work. My business savvy comes from a lot of experience, business seminars and from my mentors. I’ve done a few short courses, seminars and workshops. There’s a resource book called FabJob Guide to Become an Events Planner. I go for courses in America at least twice a year where they teach the rudiments of event planning, new technologies, new ideas, marketing ideas, and new trends. You meet all the top international planners. I’m also starting the Preston Bailey Design Course soon, which I should have done way back. No knowledge is lost. I just finished a course at the Lagos Business School, Pan African University, where the EDC [Enterprise Development Centre] is organizing an Events Planning workshop/training which I’m facilitating next week.
What notable challenges have you had to tackle in your business?
I’m not sure I had so many other notable challenges aside staff retention, because of the type of industry we’re in. It’s very new, and I think people think that, “you know what, if I stay here for ten years, what am I going to be doing?” That’s a bit of a challenge because people come in to the office, they’re green horns, you train them, they work with you for a year or two, you are used to working with them, then next thing they’ve gone to start their own. You have to constantly keep on training people. I think that because of the industry, it’s something we can’t avoid right now and then I’m trying to change that and I’m working on something that everybody would see in the future.
For those who want to be the boss, what are the essential attributes that they can imbibe and the pitfalls to avoid in becoming event planners?
I have. I have two of them; two people who did very well. Debola [Lewis, of Yvent Couture] was one of them. I encouraged him to start doing what he was doing, and when I saw that where he was working was stifling him a bit, I felt that he could do better and said to him, “Debola, I can see this is what you need to do. I think you need to leave.”
I think that people are afraid. To me, the sky is really big and Debola today is like my brother. I can call him up for anything. He’s like my brother. I mean, we are competitors o, but he’s still someone I respect, because he’s good at what he does. You must give honour to whom honour is due; that’s how I am. There is someone else as well: Niyi NYBD [Niyi Badmus]. He is very good with drinks. He started doing drinks, icing and serving of drinks, and I encouraged him and he is doing it now; he’s doing very well.
From about 3, ten years ago, we now have over 500 planners in the industry. Events are now technology-based and decor has changed. Event planning was very basic. Even down from the décor, we used satin chair covers; satin that would be making people fall down. It was a novelty then, but if you use it for the chair cover now, people will laugh at you. Five years ago, we were not using mood lights for our décor; we were using the Fairy Lights, the Christmas light, but now if you don’t use the mood light or LED, it’s like your wedding is not great. We now use Plasma screens and do documentaries as well; videographers have also evolved. Back then, the late Jaiye Aboderin’s band was the only band that was fantastic and they were so expensive. Now, there are so many music bands. Even the MCs, the way they deliver their jokes has changed. Until recently, hostesses were just drab, but now you’ve made the hostesses so elegant, and everybody copies that. Competition opens up the market and also allows people to see the quality of service you deliver.
Ah! Wow! Yes, very recently that happened; we put a lot of efforts, but the outcome wasn’t as good as we would have wanted it. The client was trying a new concept which had never been done in Nigeria. Every aspect of the event went smoothly except that aspect.
Have you ever failed in any business endeavour and how comfortable are you sharing about them?
I’ll just say I have made mistakes which I have been able to learn from and overcome. I believe we learn from our mistakes. Life is a rollercoaster, it’s up and down. When the client is not happy about an event, for me I consider that a bit of a failure on our own part and sometimes, it could be circumstances beyond your control. At the end of the day, it is all about client satisfaction.
In what ways would you say that your legal education has been a plus?
In terms of realizing that I need contracts and some legal issues that come up, I can handle them. People I met and friends I made at the university and Law School are sustaining me now. If probably I had studied something else, I have a feeling that I might not have had that strong network I have now. For me, the legal education, that network, fantastic! Right now, I can call any lawyer and they help me do anything because they’re all my friends.
Zapphaire is gradually establishing itself as a house of brands. Could you tell us a bit about Furtullah, the new arm of your company that focuses on décor?
In a bid to expand, we set up a décor company called Furtullah Concept and Design, which is solely run by a lady called Ayobami Ojerinola. She is the COO; I’m just a Director. Furtullah does most of our decor now, and in fact they do décor on their own. We saw that there was a need in the industry when/where people wanted us to do décor, and were wondering, “why are you not doing décor?” So we have Furtullah, the Essential Bridal Handbook, the training school, and a few other things we’re going to be coming up with in the future.
Yes, we have a training school where we train event planners, usually twice a year. We have a lot of people coming to us saying they want to be event planners. If somebody was going to do this, we might as well train them to do things properly. We show them the standard – how it is done internationally and in Nigeria based on our experience and books. The classes run for like a month, then followed by a practical, on-the-job training which lasts for about two months. The classes hold like three times a week, five hours each.
I have trained quite a lot of event planners. In fact, I can say Zapphaire Events has produced the most number of event planners. I am a member of Fate Foundation where I’ve facilitated a few classes and shared my experience from running my business. I’m an associate member of WIMBIZ [Women in Management and Business], where as part of a mentoring programme I mentor young women going into the business. We do that for even Hafsat Abiola’s KIND and my church, Joshua Ville where we also mentor a lot of young people. I give talks at seminars; did one at the Lipton Tea Party recently. We support several charities, including the UKF Foundation, sickle cell foundation, “These Genes”, and cancer foundations.
How do you effectively manage business alongside the home, and what are some of your thoughts on family?
Well, God has been good and my husband has been really supportive; my sister and my parents as well. Family isn’t just about being married to someone or having kids for someone; the ability to love each and every member of your family regardless, is what makes you a family. A family that prays together stays together.
I see that your family is a Manchester United family. Who initiated the other into football?
My husband. I’m a Man U Fan. My husband is the Man U fan (laughs). Man U for life! My husband loves football; he breathes football, eats football. We have a Man U flag in my house.
How does he find time to do all that?
Wednesday night, Saturday morning, Sunday evening. He works in a Telecoms company, but just loves football.
And you’re not jealous that football takes him from you sometimes?
I even love it. Let him love football, please. Is it not better? I like the fact that he loves football, so it gives me time to be free too now. I work at the weekends, so he’s watching football – premiership – while I’m working; there’s no demand, so it’s even balanced.
Do you sometimes watch football matches with him?
I sleep off. But I sit down with him and watch (laughs).
What qualities do you like in people, and which traits put you off when dealing with people?
I like smart and proactive people who can think on their feet. Laziness puts me off, so I don’t get along well with lazy people who think life should just hand them everything.
Could you tell us a bit about your normal daily routine and how do you de-stress after a rather busy day or week?
I get up in the morning, attend to the home, my children, get to work early (9am), meet with clients, talk about deadlines, go over events, go to church for meetings. Just about that. In my spare time, I watch TV, read magazines, and hang out with friends.
Who is your favourite Nigerian designer, and why?
Grey. Her clothes are versatile and easy to wear.
Where is your favourite travel destination?
I really don’t have, but will say Cape Town.
If you had the opportunity to wish for anything and it would happen instantly, what would it be?
That I make Heaven!
Thanks for your time!