BusinessDay

Ichechi Okonkwo has an unswerving passion for real estate business

Ichechi Chinarhu Okonkwo is the CEO of Victoria Crest Homes, Deputy Managing Director Nedcomoaks Ltd, a leading player in the real estate industry in Nigeria providing affordable luxury home developments for over a decade.

Victoria Crest Homes (VCH) is a real estate company, passionate about delivering excellence and providing affordable housing solutions that exceeds their client’s expectation. At VCH, they believe a great home is the ultimate reward of success and as such, they see every home that they deliver as a crown of success, so they go the extra mile to ensure that it fits the taste of the new owner perfectly.

Ichechi is a member of the Real Estate Developers Association of Nigeria and has been recognised with several awards including; Most Innovative Enterprising Real Estate Company, Inside Business Africa Corporate Excellence Award 2016, Best Enterprise, Best Managers Socrates Oxford UK Award 2017, Nigeria Entrepreneurs Award Real Estate Company of the Year 2016, Distinguished Customer Award Fidelity Bank 2015 amongst others.

She is the MD/CEO of Laundry King; a leading laundry and dry cleaning company with its headquarters located in Lekki Lagos Nigeria. The company was awarded the Most Enterprising Organisation of the year 2017 by the Nigeria Entrepreneurs Award.

She worked at Guaranty Trust Bank Plc at the E- Business and Cards Services Group and then Systems and Control Group as an Internal Auditor for several years before her resignation. She’s experienced in all aspects of business formation, process, structure, operation, management and sustainability.

Okonkwo is an accomplished business woman who has attended diverse management courses within and outside the country in entrepreneurship, sustainability, business strategy including Metropolitan School of Business and Management United Kingdom, Special Executive Master’s Programme in Global Business Strategy and Women on Boards IE Business School, Madrid Spain. She is an associate member of Women in Management Business & Public Service (WIMBIZ).

Ichechi is a graduate of Igbinedion University Okada where she acquired a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Chemistry.

She is happily married to Kennedy Okonkwo and a mother of Nicole, Ryan and Ivan Okonkwo.

Share your childhood experience and how it has inspired you till today

As the first child, I was and still am expected to be the role model for everybody. My dad didn’t spare anything in terms of discipline and trying to make sure I turn out right. Because I understood the need for not letting my parents down and also those that look up to me, that mentality has stayed with me even in business. The mentality of trying to satisfy the expectations that people have of me, my clients, parents, siblings and whoever comes my way. Once I understand that there is an expectation that I need to meet, I go out of my way to meet them. At every point in time, I try to aim for higher, raise the bar, take up new challenges and not just settle for whatever life throws at me.

When and why did you go into real estate?

I set up my Laundry & dry-cleaning business, an industry dominated by men with no mentorship at the time, just before I left my bank. After sometime, because the laundry had a structure and I had a good team, I wanted to do more, my business was no longer as challenging as I thought it would be and I had a target for what I wanted to achieve, I just didn’t want to see myself as just a successful drycleaner.

I wanted to do some other things, I wanted more, but then, when I presented my plans and went to my “Oga” aka Dr Ned (my husband) to vet the business ideas, each time he would dissect and scrutinise it, going to him was like meeting your lecturer for your project defence.

I decided to re-strategise, I took up one of the subsidiaries of the Group. I took up Dream Estate Lekki limited which is a sales and marketing company under the Nedcomoaks group and I ran it in the background, employed people, bought the first set of cars for the company and we ran for a couple of years, and of course another male dominated industry, and so the pressure was there, you have to do the extra and as I ran it, I became more integrated into the system and into the core of everything the company was doing and the industry, there wasn’t anything I wasn’t interested in. I was interested in the actual construction processes, getting into the technical was getting myself ready, the core engineering work, in fact I go to site only to see and point out the errors in the houses and on-going work, I wear my customer’s hat to be sure what I was going to give at the end of the day is what’s acceptable to and by me. I was never bothered or intimidated by the male dominance, I was ready to learn and earn my place. I related with everyone cordially and professionally and I demanded same.

Most importantly, I also began to seek more knowledge, read about project management, construction, finance and marketing. Every day I raised my bar of excellence, I persistently developed myself.

Real estate helps me make more impact, being able to help people live their dream and in their dream homes is fulfilling. The minimum criteria to even have a dream my GMD says is a good roof over your head and holding your hands through this process is what I love to do.

When did you realize it was time to say goodbye to banking?

Let’s just say I became very uncomfortable in my comfort zone and I had a business which was still in its infant stage that needed my attention.

What are the challenges in your sector and how are you surmounting them?

Just like in any other sector, prospective customers evaluate real estate providers based on their credibility and authority. They want to ensure they’re making a good choice, selecting someone who won’t waste their time or money.

I’ve built my business on communication, dedication, and transparency. This recipe has helped me rise to the top 5% of real estate players nationwide by volume.

How can people identify authentic real estate agents so they don’t fall victims of scammers?

Always check track record, they don’t lie. Ask questions, it’s not a very inaccessible space, even other agents can give feedback on their credibility. People who often fall prey to fake agents most times just don’t do their due diligence. Work with trusted people who have more to lose should they try to be shady in their dealings.

What is the importance of real estate investment?

I’ll answer that by quoting Armstrong Williams- “Real estate provides the highest returns, the greatest values and the least risk”. I always tell people that real estate is not only the best way, but the safest way to invest. Buying a home not only provides you financial affluence, but emotional security, that feeling that comes with owning something that belongs to you and you are right, it’s not going anywhere.

Read also: Adesuwa, entrepreneur, listed among ‘Top 40 Black Women in Asset Management’ globally

The beautiful thing about investing in real estate is that you have plenty of options to choose from. You can purchase a home, rent it out and collect monthly rent checks while waiting for its value to rise high enough to generate a big profit when you sell.

In summary, real estate provides a steady cash flow, great returns, long term security, passive income, protection against inflation and much more. There is this fulfilment and control you get owning investment properties which aren’t only financial. You become your own boss and let your money work for you, plus you can make a difference delivering dream homes to your clients, and one of the most rewarding feelings is putting smiles on their faces. Story of my life!

Why is it important for women to have their own?

You see, more women are becoming independent and straying from the classic stereotypical expectation of only getting married and taking care of children. It is important to consider how investing in real estate will help them achieve their personal finance goals. That’s the whole reason why people invest in real estate in the first place! So why should women be left out?

Let me ask these rhetorical questions:

•Do I want to have enough money to stay at home with my kids without the fear of my partner losing his job?

•Do I want to own a business and grow my money at the same time?

•Do I want to live a comfortable retirement lifestyle without having to depend on my children?

•Do I want to have a way to make money, so I have more cash to spend on other life’s desires including vacations/experiences?

•Do I want to be able to give my family the best in support of my partner and even will real estate to my children? Who says a woman cannot do that?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you should start considering investing in real estate

In what ways are you encouraging women to be empowered and how are you empowering them?

I am of a strong opinion that by helping women in your team/ organisation you are strengthening your organisation by encouraging a merit- based culture and challenging gender- bias. Women are natural multi-taskers and are capable of nurturing a dream to its full potential. Which is why at Victoria Crest Homes, we create a culture that promotes equity in an open environment. We also recruit based on talent to avoid dender discrimination.

How am I empowering ladies in my own way? Does having more women than men in my team answer that question? Well if you know me, then you’ll know that one of my key priorities is establishing mentorship for females in my organisation and at large. I have curated a talk show that seeks to establish that, where I invite guests to share their real authentic stories, their challenges, experience and how they have grown without having to compromise on their values.

In a couple of weeks I would also be launching an initiative whose vision is to inspire, build, nature, elevate the network of strong female professionals in the Real Estate industry, thereby galvanising women to transform the industry and develop the national economy. This we would do through various capacities including mentorship programs and events.

My skillset as a home-builder, entrepreneur and a career woman has built me to hold my position firmly in the world of real estate fiercely dominated by men, and I will continue to do this audaciously with my tribe of women.

What should people look out for before buying any land or property?

It helps to have a real estate expert with a lot of integrity and track records, who not only know the nooks and crannies, but is also familiar with the ebbs and flows of the real estate market. At Victoria Crest Homes, our sharp knowledge of the local market has enabled us help over 3000 families in Lagos find their dream home and lifestyle.

What makes Victoria Crest Homes tick?

At VCH, we pride ourselves with our success rates, our people and creating unique housing solutions through: Innovation, Integrity, Excellence, Succinct location, Modern Architecture, Impeccable Craftsmanship, Attention to details, Timely Delivery, After sales services, Hands-on property management…I could go on and on. We have built over 20 estates and counting in the last five years in the heart of Lagos with a resident capacity of more than 3000.

And we are just getting warmed up.

People prefer places where development is already in existence. What is it about buying land or building in places not already developed but has prospects that people need to know?

There is what is called the strategy of a good location, we also have the advantage of speculation and banking. Location is key to valuable real estate. Homes in cities that have little room for expansion tend to be more valuable than those in cities that have plenty of room. Consider the accessibility, appearance, and amenities of a neighborhood as well as plans for development, makes a property very attractive. Lack of good infrastructure and access to other places of interest may make a property less desirable.

When buying a land or building in certain places, there are certain things to look out for such as: Title documents, proximity to places of interest, land size, neighbourhood, infrastructure and development, amenities and so on. These determine whether your investment will be a good one or a bad one.

Are there enough women in the real estate sector?

Quite honestly, I don’t know how many women are in the sector but I’ve taken it upon myself to encourage women to join the sector.
Through my personal initiative- earlier mentioned where I plan to mentor more women, I hope to grow the numbers. It’s a sector that has been characterised by little or lack of mentorship, especially for women.

What are the challenges women face in the real estate sector?

In every career/industry, as a woman, you most likely will contend with unique challenges as well as barriers in climbing the ladder of success. The real estate industry is not left out and it’s interesting to know that a lot of women are dominating the space. Given the increasing trend of women in real estate, one of the challenges common to us are limited leadership roles.

Even when we work harder, put in more hours, and generally doing more, women are often overlooked for executive roles in the real estate industry.

Another major challenge I would say is Lack of mentorship. Finding a mentor can also be a challenge. Most top performers credit their success in large part to a mentor early in their career that provided them crucial guidance and accountability.

What is Victoria Crest looking forward to do?

We look forward to being a complete, innovative and strong household name. The preferred real estate company in Nigeria. When people think of real estate, Victoria crest homes should come to mind.

What project is in your front burner?

Citadel Views Estate is our latest and largest portfolio. It was launched around September 2021, and. It is a sustainable mini city with premium inbuilt infrastructure including sustainable solar energy solutions, modern social amenities to elevate the subscriber’s living experience.

It is an estate structured to satisfy all your real estate needs and equipped to accommodate everyone, I mean everyone. It comprises of all the house types (1-4 bedrooms).

Structured in two phases, first phase is located just behind the Lagos Business School at Sangotedo, while the second phase with the exact prototype is located along the popular Abraham Adesanya Road, Ajah.

Whether you are a first or second time home buyer or an investor, Citadel Views estate is perfect for you. We definitely look forward to making aspirational and sustainable living affordable.

How are you balancing work and family?

It’s hard to understand the struggles and demands of the real estate industry when you are outside of it. Most of our work happens in the off-hours and weekends because you most likely have a client base of 9-5 workers who only have time to schedule an inspection during holidays or on Sundays after church.

Nonetheless, I find it very crucial to integrate all aspects of my work and my family life and get the necessary support that I require to run both simultaneously because, if I don’t, then I will tend to even experience more stress and anxiety which I will unconsciously pass on to my loved ones. So, what I do is I try not to miss important events and milestones, Oh yes! I take my children’s academics, birthdays, school activities very seriously and then, as much as possible, I take time away from work with my family to rest, this helps boost my productivity.

Never to be forgotten
I think that would be the day I made up my mind to change my course in the university without the knowledge of my parents. That decision shaped the entire trajectory of my life and it has indeed paid off. My parents had their own dreams for me, but I had mine as well and I definitely didn’t want to end up with the pain of regret eventually. I am grateful I did that.

Final words

Real estate helps me make more impact, being able to help people live their dream, in their dream homes is fulfilling. The minimum criteria to even have a dream our Founder Dr Kennedy Okonkwo says is a good roof over your head and holding your hands through this process is what I love to do.

People recognize and want to be associated with value when they see it, this is what I always strive to achieve and I believe everyone in the real estate space should do same.

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