ANTHONY AIHIE is the Chief Executive Officer of Design Union. In this interview held with the MoneyCentral team of Charles Odum and Azarat Haruna, AIHIE speaks on the growth of the company from architecture to construction and Real Estate development.
AIHIE touches on some of the iconic projects his firm has undertaken and why his Residences and Apartments are the go to location for the savvy executive and traveler.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell our readers what design union is all about, how it started and how you are here now?
Design union started as an architectural firm. From there, we did architectural engineering and then we started doing construction. From construction, we started doing real estate development and as a result of real estate development, we started running some of our properties that we have actually developed, so we got into hospitality. It is not as if it is one business plan waiting to be rolled out, it was the market and the economic conditions and just trying to solve problems both around the business and for our clients and the market that got the business to respond. So, at Design Union, we say that our vision is solving living conditions of our people in Africa. That is the heart of what we do.
Can you share with us the kind of products that you have and the kind of projects that you have executed in the market please?
Whether housing, hospitality, offices, commercial ventures or spaces that you need, we provide solutions to those conditions (local conditions). We have done airports, schools, hospitals, both as a consultant and as a developer; we have done estates, luxury towers so it is about solving these problems, that is what we have at heart.
We execute projects as architects, engineers, some as contractors, some as developers where we actually buy the land and own the project, we cover the spectrum.
Let me tell you about some projects that we have done and you might be familiar with. You know the Oando stations with canopies; we designed that and rolled them out about 20 years ago.
Then we did a few standard chartered banks. In the early days, when you enter one of them, it feels like you are entering a living room. We have done many airports like the Benin and Owerri airports, the air peace terminal in Lagos airport; we did thirteen airport projects at one time and so on.
All the projects we have done, it is like we go in, solve it and then we allow others to roll it out. There is a project we have done that I am very proud of; we were called by the vice-president to solve the IDP housing problem in Maiduguri.
What happened is that they called us, because they have had 50,000 children that have not been to school for the past six years, no parents or home to go to, many of them sexually exposed, traumatized through war situations. They didn’t know how to resettle them nor what to do with them. So, the VP asked them to invite us to look at the problem; we went in there and spent some days in the camps where they were and we looked at the conditions.
So we came up with what we call an IDP sanctuary; in the sanctuary the children never go home because there is no home to go to so we have a classroom on the campus. We created farms where the children grow their own vegetables, they have their own cows, then we created hostels and we made it in such a way that the teachers live in the hostels with their family.
The younger kids live with teachers and that becomes their home because there is nowhere to go. Then we created vocational areas where as they get older they learn a trade within the campus and there is a market attachment to those trades so traders from the town like the shoe makers, barbers and so on, would come in and run some of those classes and the kids will apprentice with them so there was a way to transition them back out. It is a very interesting campus and we designed it with local materials so they could build it easily.
So within nine months, they were able to settle about 1500 children and then it became like a community of its own. It has taken on a life of its own now where the locals now own it. The kids are even entering universities from there and that is about four years ago. That is a project that we are very proud of.
Covid affected a number of businesses, so how were you able to survive that period in terms of patronage?
The way our business is now, we have the consulting business we still do, which is the architecture and engineering, it is like the heart of what we still do and the construction business you know we build big buildings and some of them will take three years to build, the life cycle of a construction project is four years.
We have the real estate development business which is we own land, we build and then we sell; and then we have hospitality.
That is four distinct businesses, the good thing about it is that they are all related but they are all different.
During Covid, hospitality had to shut down because nobody was using hotels so there was not much hospitality business; the real estate business, we were selling and building; construction contracts, we were on site building, we have never stopped building.
In terms of operations, what are the major issues in your business?
The major issue operating a business in Nigeria is the unpredictability of the environment, you can wake up and anything can happen.
Also, there is no long term money in Nigeria; the only long term is real estate which is great but it is not flowing into real estate, it is not flowing into mortgages. I am selling houses of 20-80 million naira and I am telling people to come and pay 50 million in one year to buy a house? So the market is small because of the constraints. It is an expensive thing people don’t really have cash to buy a house unless you are doing extraordinary things.
If you have the opportunity to interact with the government, what two things would you say you need from the government to aid the ease of doing business?
The truth is that governance is common sense. It is not difficult to govern; it is not difficult to know what is good for any business man.
What is good for the bureaucrats, the bankers are also good for us. So first of all, we need security in the country, let people not be afraid to come in; give us physical stability, stabilize the currency, if it is going to be N1000 – $1, keep it like that, let everyone know that this is the official exchange rate.
Stop this business of the official exchange rate and parallel market, it does not make sense. You have the privileged few people that are getting $l at N410. If I am a bank and I am getting $1 at N410 and selling to you at N500 for $1, not adding any value, why should I loan you money?
The government has done very well in lowering the treasury bill, bond rate and so on because what that does is that it is unattractive now so banks can look at the real sector to lend to, but still the conditions are not ideal for banks to lend because they can still make easy money through foreign exchange.
Why would someone coming into town, looking for a place to lodge, choose your business to come to?
The number one reason is privacy; it is very private and exclusive. We have been very deliberate in creating our own cuisine; so when you eat our Nigerian dishes, they are made to appeal to an international audience and when you eat our international dishes, they are made to appeal to Nigerians.
For example, we have salmon egusi; it is not egusi soup, it is just egusi that is crusted on a salted salmon. We have a beef tornado with iru sauce; that is marsh potato with steak (meat) but it comes with that iru sauce (dawadawa). There is a zobo poached pear that comes with ice cream.
These are international dishes but we have used our local vibe to make it our own. They are things that you cannot taste anywhere; we created them here. So if you have foreign guests, it is a nice place to bring them; they will enjoy Nigerian dishes here.
What kind of security measures are placed for those that use your facility?
The first thing about security is information; the less information people have about the place, the more secure it is. Information wise, we are very private; that is why top private people like to use our facility.
Many executives do not pay attention to their health. As a busy executive, you are managing so many business concerns, how have you been attending to your personal health?
The truth is that I am not as busy as you think a CEO of this complexity of business should be. The first thing is, we have a strong structure; we have six general managers who run the division … autonomously so I am like a consultant to them. I do not operate the business; I have people that operate the business.
All the sites, we have so many people in charge of construction, project managers and I am a consultant to them. I am not a micro-manager and I do not carry the business burdens.
Also, because of my faith, I am not as attached to the business as one would expect. So that is on the stress side. On the lifestyle side, I try to balance things, so I am very active sports wise, nutrition wise also. I do not eat meat, I am mostly a vegetarian, and mostly I eat vegetables. I run, play football, play golf, every week so I have a very active lifestyle. And I spend quite a bit of time in spiritual engagement, probably more than I work.
What are the two qualities you look out for in people when hiring?
When I am hiring, the first thing I look out for is character. Character is one of the most important things in business; it is who you are when things go wrong. I have seen that that is what sustains a business. The second thing I look out for is intelligence (basic intelligence). So if you have good character and intelligence, you can do any job.
Where do you see Design Union in the next five years?
We are fortunate to have a pipeline of projects. The projects we will be doing in the next five years; we know what it looks like in our pipeline; they are already lined up.
It is not as esoteric as you think. This building for example, hopefully, before five years’ time, the debt on it would have been paid off.
The developments we are doing; we should be finishing before then as well. We have a few projects that are coming up, in five years’ time, hopefully those ones will have been finished so we are hoping we can predict what will happen in the environment in five years. I am more concerned about what will happen in the environment than what will happen … cause if the environment is stable and it grows, the company will grow. If there is an issue, people will not just continue to buy houses and eat. You need a good environment to be able to do business so I am hoping that the environment stays stable.