Gabriel Okonkwo is the Chief Executive Officer of Southpaw Integrated Solutions Limited, an industrial and design company that delivers exquisite wall decorations. In this interview with RAHEEMAH AROGUNDADE, the engineer-turned-muralist gives insight into what makes his brand unique
When did you start the business?
Although I studied Polymer Engineering in the university, I started my art and paint production/consultancy businesses as early as my third year in the university. However, I set up my paint production plant, my art career, industrial and design consultancy fully after I left the university and I have been doing that ever since.
What was the motivation to start your business?
What inspired me to start my business is basically curiosity and passion for the art. While in the university, we had practicals in the laboratory, which involved experimenting with small production batches of adhesives, paints, rubber, plastic, fiberglass and other synthetic products. Rather than focusing exclusively on academics, I had already started thinking from that early stage about monetising it on a larger scale. Then when my artistic talents came into play, it started becoming obvious that I could merge my engineering and science knowledge with my artistic talents to bring out something more unique than the conventional. And everything started falling into place from there.
How has the business thrived thus far?
The business has spanned nearly 16 years and has had a lot of ups and downs. But in recent years, we are beginning to find a balance by leveraging on our previous mistakes and perfecting our art. It has been a wonderful ride. No regrets whatsoever. We are riding strong.
What challenges have you encountered since the start of the business?
We have experienced the same challenges most businesses experience in Nigeria, such as lack of infrastructure and power, bad and ever-changing government policies as well as foreign exchange. However, we stay strong by navigating around our challenges and learning from them.
Who are your ideal customers and how do you reach out to them?
Our ideal customers cover many facets, specifically where structural and aesthetic designs are involved, including schools, hospitals, hotels, residences and corporate offices. We usually get our clientele’s attention via social media platforms and referrals. When it comes to referrals, we discovered a long time ago that the most expensive commodity in the market is integrity. Once clients discover your company’s integrity and reliability, word of mouth handles the rest.
How do you drive innovation and creativity?
Curiosity has always been my drive for innovation and creativity. I have always been curious about things and I try to uncover how things work. Through this, I have been able to learn more, and that knowledge has helped to boost my creative ability.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve encountered and how did you resolve it?
The greatest challenge I have encountered was generation of power at a cheaper rate, and since I had no capital from anywhere, I practically built a crude diesel generator from scratch. I learnt, by getting off my high horse and working as a labourer in a block industry, how the diesel power rotator worked. Later, I worked with a generator technician to understand the inner workings of the coil of an electric motor and its capacities. In the end, I was able to build a crude generator with minimal diesel consumption that was able to power my mixing equipment that I also built from scrap metal too.
How would you describe the level of patronage to your business?
Social media has greatly helped us to reach most of our clients. In truth, it has given us broader client coverage.
Who are your mentors?
My mentor is my late father; though a lot of people have inspired me along the way, my greatest mentor remains my dad. I’ve always been his intern and student, and I followed him to practically every business engagement.
Few years down the line, where do you see your business?
Few years from now, we intend to spread our tentacles around Africa for a start and then take it from there. Nigeria is not so favourable towards Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, but we have thrived. I sincerely do not see any of these kinds of barriers holding us back. We’ll just take it in our stride while we achieve our goals.
How well do you think the government supports young entrepreneurs?
ell, I can say that budding entrepreneurs are not getting any sustainable government support. But I think it is a blessing in disguise because many starters are successfully coming up with innovative strategies, despite the lack of government support, and are thriving regardless. Such businesses make the best motivation to the up-and-coming ones.
How would you advise budding entrepreneurs interested in this line of work?
My advice to interested entrepreneurs is that they never stop learning, never stop being creative, follow their instincts, trust the process, kill any entitlement mentality, never put money over wisdom and never bow to peer pressure.
Outside being a muralist, what do you do for fun?
Well, I enjoy drawing and watching cartoons with my children.