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Fit-out, Joinery businesses continue to grow amid new hotels and apartments – Arubayi

Mejire Arubayi is the Contract manager, Woodstyles Limited, a Joinery and Fit-out company that aims for perfection in designing and producing quality woodwork suitable for a variety of luxury products. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, he speaks on the place of interior designing and the designers in Nigeria as well as how the industry can contribute maximally to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), amongst other issues. Excerpts:

How long have you been in the business of designs?

I have been into design in the past 12 to 15 years and interior designs for hotels, offices, and private homes amongst others. I worked on several projects in Nigeria before I joined Woodstyles Limited as a contract manager based on my experience. Because Woodstyles are into the kind of designs I do; very high-end finishing, luxurious finishing, detailed finishing and best spoke finishing; this was one of the reasons I joined Woodstyles Limited to work with them.

What is your educational background?

My first degree was in Economics, and then I did an MBA from the University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom with a Master’s in Business Administration. While there, I went into IT Project Management. I came back to Nigeria and started doing project management IT as well. After a few years, I got tired because I needed a new challenge and I went into Interior design, hotel development and private residence. These are what I have been doing in the last 12 to 15 years.

Why the switch to interior design and hotel development?

I was engaged first of all as a project manager in charge of hotel development and I happen to be involved in meetings for designs and I fell in love with designs. I started taking sessions, lessons, and courses. I worked with one of the topmost interior designers in South Africa, France, and in Dubai based on the hotel development projects I was working on at the time. This is where I developed the passion and the skill which launched me into this fit-out industry.

From your experience, where do you think is the place for interior designing and designers in Nigeria?

Initially, we used to think it was a green field but it is no longer a green field. We had all of these people but we did not give them a name. Now there are names like interior designers and interior design architects amongst others. So, everyone is beginning to realise the importance of having an interior designer on your project. In Woodstyles, we don’t sell furniture off the shelf. We are not a furniture company. We are a fit-out bespoke company. Come up with anything, so long as it is made with wood and metal. We do this based on a design done by an interior architect or an interior designer. Over the years, interior designers have grown. We have had the privilege of working with the likes of Microsoft, and BBC, to name but a few. Our most recent residential project was done by the interior designer that did Burj Al Arab in Dubai. They had intricate details which we had to work with. There were doubts about whether we could deliver but we have done that and handed over the project. We are currently working with an interior designer designing one of the biggest 5-star hotel brands in the world in Nigeria for a project which we are producing.

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There was a time in the country and even till this time, some people feel they have to import to get good luxury products. Do you think this has changed?

This will take time to change; however, the curve is beginning to tilt towards our side. Government policies have begun to help. But notwithstanding, it is expensive because we have to compete with imported goods. We will not say because a product is made in Nigeria, it has to have that mediocre standard. We want to compete with international brands and we are succeeding in doing that. So, it is like we are bringing international standards to local brands and this is done by Nigeria in Nigeria for Nigerians. So, we understand the Nigerian market and the advantage we also have is that a lot of people import furniture items without taking our weather into consideration. We have extremely harsh weather. We have the harmattan and the rainy season. This is why you see that some houses have doors and during the rainy season, the doors will close but during dry seasons, the doors will not close. This is because the door is bending during the dry season and will shrink during the rainy season. There are tables that will twist after some time and chairs that will make some sounds. So, we understand the market and the kind of wood and raw materials to use in this market. In Lagos, we are very close to the sea, there is a lot of salt water and this affects your door handles. This is not produced in Nigeria but we use the ones that are produced to a specific high-quality specification.

Do you have raw materials or do you still have to import them?

We still have to import some of our raw materials. The Nigerian industry has not developed to the extent where they can produce the accessories, the metalwork, the handles, the locks etc. We are getting there. We have started developing some of these accessories which are just commercial large-scale projects. But the kind of market that we are in is a very high-end one. We want luxurious door handles etc. So, for now, we are importing and we are hoping that in the next five years, Nigerians will set up industries to produce all of these things.

What are the kinds of designs you put out there?

We do everything wood, from flooring to walls, to doors, to furniture; everything wood; so long as they are interior. A client comes to us and says I have a house and nine out of 10 times, some of the clients do not have the designs. This is the benefit we at Woodstyle have over other fit-out companies. We sit down with the clients and design the space for them. We choose the kind of wood, accessories etc and this will be based on sessions we have had with the clients. We discuss with the client the kind of house they want. For instance, is it modern, classical, a mix of them, etc? This also depends on the age of the client. A client in their early 30s, a lot of them wants some high-end products. A lot of people in their 50s and 60s want contemporary items. So, we need to know what they want and give this to them. We also advise them. We also work with people’s budgets. As an ISO company, we cannot afford to come below standard because it will affect our certification. We also give clients a warranty, so we cannot give them a substandard product. We always give clients options that will last the test of time.

What are the challenges you face as a brand operating in Nigeria?

In the country, we face quite a lot of challenges like power issues. We have a very sophisticated modern factory in Nigeria where all our equipment needs a constant power supply. We always have to run our factory on generation sets because we cannot afford machines going on and off. They are all computerised. Also, we have the challenge of getting staff with the right skill set in Nigeria. We spend quite a lot on local staff because we believe in local content rather than bringing in expatriates. So, getting the right people with the right frame of mind who are ready to work has been a challenge. So we keep training. Raw material sourcing is also a challenge. In the industry where we are, we cannot afford to make a mistake. If someone orders wardrobes and doors and you buy the wrong raw materials and you produce and it looks good but three months down the line, termites start to eat the doors and the wardrobes, you can’t tell clients to move out of the house so you can replace them.

Where do you see the brand in the next five to 10 years?

Woodstyles is six years old going to seven years. We have pioneered a lot of innovations in the Fit-out industry. We are right now rising to the top, we hope to be the foremost Joinery company in West Africa doing all sorts of bespoke items. We keep researching and innovating and working with global brands to ensure we get to the top as soon as possible.

During and after Covid-19, occupancies for hotels dropped. How is this affecting your business?

Does this work both ways? When occupancy drops, where are the occupants going to stay? Airbnb. They stay in Airbnb apartments and Woodstyles come in and fits-out these apartments. These clients are staying in hotels, and they have the minimum level of quality that they want, whether they are staying in a hotel, Airbnb or any kind of residential property. You will never rule out a standard traditional hotel. Not everyone wants to cook; some people want to check in. Not everyone wants to make their beds. So, we are catering for all markets irrespective.

Do you think interior design has the potential to contribute maximally to Nigeria’s GDP?

As much as we are not an interior design company, we are a Joinery and Fit-out company and we collaborate with interior designers. Clients are beginning to complain that they get a wood person to do the kitchen, wardrobes and doors. They get another contractor to do the tiles, and then another to do the ceiling. Our next strategy is that clients can now come to Woodstyles and we fit out their houses for them. If it’s a building, give it to us and we do all the tiling, the paintings, designs and doors every other thing. We do everything and hand over the keys to the client. This is where the connection between interior designs and the Joinery and Fit-out comes into play. If you don’t have a design you cannot build. But even if you don’t have a design, we can design it for you.

In addition to the GDP, for the fact that Nigerians locally are beginning to get very good interior designs and Nigerians are beginning to trust Nigerians to do interior designs. We have quite a lot of leading interior designers now in Nigeria. So, the income that should have gone to a foreign company would come to Nigerians. This means they earn more, they pay more tax and the GDP increases. The turnaround time is faster. If we buy furniture abroad and everything is made abroad, this means we would be losing foreign exchange and the naira would be dropping. Now we do it in Nigeria and we are local, turnaround time is shorter, and after-sales service is better. Our reach-out time to clients is 24 hours. These are the advantages of us being local. All of these have multiplier effects on the economy which then goes back to the GDP. So, we may just be a small fraction but with the way we are going, in the next couple of years, interior design and furniture will become a huge contributor to Nigeria’s GDP.