I was born in, what is today, Delta State on the 5th April 1959 to a Nigerian mother and a Lebanese father of the Hajaig family. My mother was a teenager when she had me, she was about 16 years old at the time. In July 1959, I was brought to Ibadan where I have spent the greater part of my childhood. I was born a love child – my father never married my mother; and though I lived with my mother, away from my father; I had the best of two families, the best of two worlds. My mother, though a single parent, got me the best of everything. She never spared any expense in getting us the best available education. In what she lacked, she made sure we had abundance.
I grew up having a nanny who took good care of me and showered me with excess love. Her name was Aunty Titi. I still pleasantly recall how Aunty Titi would carefully position me on my chair and move my cute little table closer when it’s lunch time. As a love child, I was cared for and pampered, therefore I was so used to having my way in all things. My mom scolded me from time to time but more often than not, I had my way. As a child, I never understood why I couldn’t have my way.
I attended Bodija International School, which at the time, was a new private school in Bodija. My School had no uniform at that time because we were the very first set of students so Leventis Stores became my trade post of choice for school dresses.
One day when I was about 6 years old, my mother dressed me up that day and took me to Lebanon Street, Old Gbagi, Ibadan. She pointed to a shop next to Exquire and then instructed me to go in there and ask for Ahmed. She said once he saw me, he would recognize me as his daughter. My mother was right! My father hugged me and began to cry when he saw me. I recall that he called the attention of everyone there and introduced me to them as his daughter. That was how I met my father for the first time.
Sometime in 1967, my mother got married and had to leave the country with her new husband. I couldn’t leave with them at the time and in order not to cause a break in the flow of my education, my mother made an alternative arrangement with the proprietress of Bodija International School, Mrs. Eso, to take me into the boarding house as a student. The hostel was a set-apart bungalow, in the official quarters of the then Justice Kayode Eso’s family at Iyaganku. My mother returned to Nigeria in 1969 but settled in Lagos with her new family; and since I was doing pretty well in Ibadan, she took the decision to leave me in Ibadan with Mrs. Eso.
Mama Eso, the proprietress of the Bodija International School, showed me so much love and affection. She gave me, in full dose, all the affection and love I couldn’t get from my mom who was far away in London. Her love was not material; she didn’t buy me things as I didn’t lack in material things – my fees and needs were taken care of by my parents. It was the motherly love which I needed to blossom and flourish that Mama Eso provided me and she did so overwhelmingly. It was at the Eso’s home that I learnt what it meant to be a part of a nuclear family.
In 1969, having passed the entrance examination into secondary school, I was posted to Our Lady of Apostles, Odo-Ona, Apata. It was there that I had my first two years of secondary school education. By 1971, my mother believed it would be best for me to reunite with her and the family so I left Ibadan and relocated to Lagos. I continued my secondary school education at The Apostolic Church Secondary School, Orisigun, Ketu and in 1975, I completed my studies.
The structure of the academic calendar was different in 1975; examinations were concluded mid-year around June while results were released in January of the following year. While waiting for my result to be released after I had graduated from secondary school, I took up a job at the Federal Ministry of Water located on Kofo Abayomi Street, Victoria Island at the time. I had taken to reading almost anything in text and so even though I was originally attached to a commissioner named Prof. Osisiogwu, I was moved to the Library as a Clerical Officer.
My admission letter to study English Language at the University of Ibadan was delivered to me by my mother. My friends advised me that if I studied English, I’d end up being a teacher, I didn’t want that. While working at the Ministry, I gathered that to make big money in life, you had to be a top-flight secretary. This piece of information would make me put a preference over a career in Secretarial Management. The new challenge now was how to tell my mother that I wanted to forfeit the admission in the University of Ibadan.
I applied for Secretarial Studies at the Ibadan Polytechnic and when I got admitted, I left Lagos for Ibadan from work to finalize the admission. As you may have guessed, my mother had no clue what I was up to. She wanted me to study English at the University of Ibadan; I wanted to take a degree in Secretarial Management. The trip was a day trip. From work, straight down to Ibadan and once all the payments were done, I returned to Lagos but there was a snag – I got home very late.
My mom is a strict woman and so she was waiting to pounce on me for returning home late from work. I lied to her that my admission to the University of Ibadan had lapsed and that I got another offer at the Polytechnic Ibadan to study Secretarial Studies. She expressed her reservation about me not making it into the University of Ibadan but she remained glad for me that my educational progress wasn’t getting stunted; this was how I got admitted into the OND program at the Polytechnic Ibadan.
I started the program in 1976; at the age of 17 years old. At that time, the standard at the Polytechnic Ibadan was very high – the minimum attainable score for the first year was 96%, anything below that earned you a repeat while anything below 93% meant that you’d have to withdraw from the school. I opted for the Pittman option in the Secretarial Studies based on the information I had gathered on the relevance of the program. In my first year, I scored a 95.3% and so I had to repeat. This was hard for me, and even though my mother was a strict a woman, she gave me all the support I needed to pull through that phase and surely I did.
While I was still at the Polytechnic of Ibadan, I took a cue from my mother and I began trading. That was the start of my foray into the business-trade journey. I would take fabrics from my mother and take them to school; you know, just to make extra cash. I’d tell my mother that I had friends who might be interested in buying fabrics and so she’d give me the fabrics at her selling price. I would go to school, add a few amount of money on top. I’d return the cost price to my mother and I’d pocket the profit I made on the sales. That was how it all began.
In 1979, I completed my OND program, finishing as one of the best five students in my class. Before my program was over, the insurance brokerage firm of Femi Johnson requested for the top five students in the department to work with them. We were interviewed by the firm and we got employed even before we wrote our final papers. I finished my examinations on a Friday and resumed work the following Monday.
Because I had given a Lagos address in the details I provided to the firm, I was posted to the Marina Street office of the organization, located in the Royal Exchange Assurance building in Lagos. At the time of my graduation, I hadn’t even turned 20 years old. As a 19 year old girl who was earning good money from Femi Johnson and still receiving pocket money from my parents because they still considered me young and had no clue how much I earned. While going to work, they’d drop me off and still pick me up at the close of work. At that young age, I began to save my salary for the sole purpose of trading.
I never paused the business for work. While I kept getting supplies from my mother, I began getting goods from a friend too. My business was doing so well that at some point, I began to purchase my own fabric by myself. I’d leave Lagos for London on a Friday night, get to London on Saturday morning’ buy whatever I want to buy all through Saturday and I get on a night flight back to Lagos on Sunday. I touchdown in Lagos on Monday morning and I go straight to work. I did this for over two years.
“I got married to my husband, Abiola in 1980 and in 1982, my husband decided to register a company and called it Grandex Nigeria Ltd. He explained that the “Grand” was for his grandmother – he actually really loved his grandmother and so he said the “Grand” was for her, then he just added the suffix “-ex” to it and that’s how “Grandex” was coined.
The first Grandex store was a structure behind our house on Femi Ayantuga Street in Lagos in 1983. I had just pulled out of paid employment because raising 3 toddlers while being on a full time job was herculean. I had always enjoyed designing and drawing so I took a bold step of getting the contract to supply children’s clothes to the Leventis chain of retail stores. I stocked the small office behind the house with machines and recruited tailors and stylists who worked with me to deliver the clothes to Leventis stores.
In 1983, my husband was transferred from Lagos to Ibadan. We had moved to Ibadan from Lagos and we lived in the house on Awosika Street. The house was a bungalow and it had a boy’s quarters made up of two rooms. I couldn’t just stay home doing nothing, I was too restless to be idle and so in the summer of 1984, I converted the boy’s quarters into what would become the first Grandex store in Ibadan.
In February 1988, my husband was posted back to Lagos and so we moved but I continued to monitor and grow the business. In July 1988, I had up-scaled the business and we had begun to do wholesale imports of gift items and clothing from the UK, Thailand and Bangkok. This was what gave birth to the Grandex Stores on Adelabu Street in Surulere. The store is still there till today as our legacy gift store.
I have been running the Grandex on Adelabu Street since 1988 and interestingly I have lived on Adelabu Street since 1969 and the house which I lived in in 1969 was the space I bought in 2008 and converted to Grandex Store. Right now as we speak, there’s Grandex Bus-stop on Adelabu Street in Lagos.
In the year 2000 I began a postgraduate Diploma at the University of Port Harcourt Distant Learning Centre. The program ran from 2000-2002. As we were rounding off the program, the government cancelled such programs and the study centres were scrapped. The only option left was to go all the way to Port Harcourt which, at that time, was a luxury I couldn’t afford. The good thing was that I was given my transcript by the institution. In June 2003, I enrolled for a course in Strategic Program for Negotiation and Leadership at Harvard School of Business and this program revived my hitherto lull sojourn in academics.
June 2014, I attended a 5-day program on Strategic Leadership and Change at the London School of Business. In the course of the program my mentor – Emanuella Giangregorio was instrumental to my pushing for a full time Masters in Business Administration (MBA). With my diploma transcript from University of Port Harcourt and the years I had clerked in in business, a lot of waivers were granted and I got admitted for my MBA at the London School of Business.
That MBA was the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life. Ah, it was tough! My husband was going for governorship re-election and the school would not accept half measures. Group work, up-front reading and even research fied work greatly tasked my mental capabilities. My lecturers mad sure of it that I put in enough hours for each diet and they told me off whenever I committed blunders.
I am grateful to God for the native intelligence and business experience which I had garnered over the years; they came in handy and helped me pull through. I almost gave up several times but my husband, mother and others kept nudging me on. There were no corners to cut at all so that when I was done, I was thoroughly exhausted.
One of the biggest impacts of the MBA on my business was the transformation in organizational administration of Grandex; it took a radical turn. I had taken courses on Systems Administration and Management, Strategic Management, Accounting and Capacity Expansion. Bringing all of that knowledge to bear on Grandex led to a complete turnaround and the company has been better for it since then.
Over the years, I expanded our retail outlets to Ofin at Isale Eko, Edgarton on a lease from National Bank at Iponri and Elpina Plaza on Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. We once had an outlet at Unilag but it is defunct now. I have done the same business for 32 years and consistently sourced my goods from the same organization for 28 years such that now, they call me for product testing and trials. They have given me credit lines for more than 10 straight years.
I have never had a time in business when I felt like throwing in the towel, no. Every enterprise has its ups and downs as well as challenging moments but when you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll never want to give. Even when the economy is down, I have never been discouraged. Rather than be discouraged, I’ll charge myself up and rise to the occasion as much as I can. For example, there was a time when there was a ban on importation. That came with a new challenge – we had to source for locally made goods that had top-notch quality and my turnover was high.
There was a time when I chose to not make purchases directly but to buy from other people who had travelled to buy things. I did that for a few years but then I realized that there were anomalies in that system of trading – I couldn’t vouch for the quality of products these suppliers were bringing in unlike if I had gone to make the purchases directly by myself. So I had to revert to sourcing for my products by myself and ensuring that I could vouch for all products in any Grandex store.
Let me give you another example, at the time when my husband and I were getting into politics, I was managing 8 Grandex Stores but in the early years of our advent into politics, I had to close down 3 of the 8 stores because I couldn’t manage 8 stores like I ordinarily would. At the time, my kids weren’t around to take reins of the business so the wisest thing to do was to cut down on the number of stores in order to give premium value to our customers. It was when the children returned and began to manage the business that we began to grow new outlets again.
A lot of people don’t know my story and I am not accountable to anyone. You see, if you try to be accountable to people, you will end up displeasing yourself and you’re going to be stagnant because you will spend all your time thinking of what people would say and how you’d impress them. As long as I am happy with myself and I can see progress in my business, I don’t feel like I owe anyone any explanation about how my business started.
At 61, my business gives me so much joy; as you can see, I am just coming from one of them. After all these years, there’s already a system at Grandex and so they really don’t need me to do anything but I cannot just sit back and fold my arms. If I don’t go to my stores, I feel like I am missing out on something. My happiest moments are when I am in the stores – ask my husband and my kids, they’d tell you that.
For me, I look at everything that we have accomplished and I have God and my husband to thank for it. He initiated it, he supported it and even as we speak right now, he still provides robust support for the business. Now, Grandex has grown to be a family business and all my kids are involved. One of my kids runs the stores, another runs the warehouse, one of them runs the bakery and another runs the logistics arm of the Grandex business.
The biggest lesson I have learned in business is that there is no trick to success – the only trick that I have seen, that I have known is HARD WORK. I am a workaholic. I’d tell anyone venturing into business, ‘don’t leave your business for others to run for you.’ I may have handed over the control of the business now but in the formative years of the business when I needed to be on ground, I was there.
In fact when I was living in Ibadan, I’d go to my Lagos stores three times in a week – Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. I did this every week. I’d leave home 6:45am and I’d be in Lagos by 9am; at that time traffic wasn’t as crazy as we have it today. By 4pm, I’ll leave the store and by 7pm I am back home in Ibadan.
There is a time for everything in life – the time when I had to put everything into the business, I did. Hard work, perseverance etc, I put them all into the business. Now, my kids run the business now, they bring in new ideas, innovation that I am sometimes not even familiar with. Social media, for example, I never really knew much about it but it has been doing a lot of wonders for the business. I know that sometimes it can be negative but for business it is the best.
Now that I am no longer the first Lady I have more time for the business but the business does not need me anymore. The business has, over time, developed a system that allows it to run on its own and so without me, the business is fine. Now I go to the stores to fulfill all righteousness, not because the stores really need me to come in.