• Saturday, July 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

Ify Umunnakwe-Okeke, her midas touch gives the winning edge

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Ify Umunnakwe-Okeke is the Founder/Executive Chair of Lexon Capital, a company she founded to provide infrastructure and real estate advisory services to businesses and institutions. Lexon Capital opened its doors for business in 2009 by securing investment in the proposed Bauchi State Power project.

In over a decade, Lexon Capital has worked with investment companies, developers, private equity firms and co-operatives including UACN Property Development Company Plc, Elalan, Nahman Construction, Africa Capital Alliance, Cachez, Bilaad, NNPC Properties Limited, and many other institutions.

Lexon Capital has an extensive client base of companies, developers, domestic and international investors seeking opportunities in sub–Saharan Africa and Europe. Since inception, Lexon Capital has participated in transactions worth over N100 billion, with a consistent strong and healthy deal flow.

As the Chief Strategist of the company, Ify drives strategic change, growth, and innovation within Lexon Capital. With over 23 years’ experience in law, investment banking and project financing, she has a diversified outlook to business and development strategies.

After acquiring an MSc Finance, Regulation and Risk Management in 1999 from ISMA Business School, University of Reading, she commenced work at Rakisons Solicitors, a top City of London law firm which later merged with Steptoe & Johnson LLP, an international law firm with its headquarters in Washington DC.

There, she qualified as a solicitor with a focus on corporate law and Mergers & Acquisition. She returned to Nigeria to work with Nigeria’s foremost investment bank, IBTC. Five years later, she joined BGL Private Equity to set up its Private Equity Offshore Funds. Lexon Capital was founded after her stint at BGL Private Equity.

Ify is a member of the Institute of Directors and an independent director at Veritas Glanvills Pension Fund (‘VG Pension Fund’), one of the highly respected PFAs in the country. She is chair of the Board Committee on Risk Management and Corporate Strategy at VG Pension Fund. Ify is also a board member of the Africa International Housing Show, Baze University Teaching Hospital and a director at IGM Developers Limited, a real estate development company in the United Kingdom.

What memory of childhood and influences would you want to share?

I grew up in a very close-knit family of parents, two brothers and two sisters. Our parents taught us to be inquisitive, content, grateful, kind and prayerful. These characteristics describe me. Although I am ambitious, being a very content person has kept me out of a lot of trouble.

We went off to boarding schools at a very young age. My sister, immediate younger brother and I went off to boarding schools in Nigeria at the ages of 9 – 10 while our much younger siblings went to boarding schools in England at the ages of 6 and 10 years old. My brother and I later joined them in England for our A’ Levels. Boarding school, especially in the UK teaches independence and I have been independent in my thinking and ambitions from a very young age. I also learnt to travel the world with friends from a young age, this built my confidence and made me appreciative of different cultures, traditions and cuisines. I have a very diverse network of friends and associates from school, work and travels.

Tell us about founding Lexon Capital and why?

I was working as a corporate lawyer in the City of London at the time I decided to move back to Nigeria. In 2003, the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo was traveling the world on investment roadshows. During this period, there was also a lot of literature encouraging people in diaspora to return to Nigeria. I took the bait. I definitely knew I didn’t want to practice law in Nigeria. I had always admired the investment bankers in the City of London while closing complex transactions with them, so relocating was also an opportunity to reinvent my career. Also, having an MSC in Finance made it easier for me to consider this option.

The work culture in the Nigerian banking system in 2003 was really very different then than it is now. Commercial banking was of no interest to me. Fortunately, I was advised to apply to IBTC which was the only Investment Bank of its kind in those days and had a similar internal culture like those in the big global investment banks like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Merril Lynch and so on. I loved my time at IBTC because I learnt a lot about doing business the right way. IBTC was a highly ethical and structured company. After I moved on from IBTC, I worked in BGL Private Equity for a year, and I felt confident enough to start up Lexon Capital.

BGL had an entrepreneurial vibe at the time, so it really was a quick transformation for me. Although Lexon Capital’s first transaction, the Bauchi Power Project, didn’t close, we were fortunate to commence a relationship with UACN Property Development Company and this relationship continues to this day. This started our journey into the real estate sector. I believe the most important principles in business are relationships and capacity. We have built a very solid book of clients and have fantastic relationships with them – corporate and individual clients.

What is your view on real estate in Nigeria today in comparison to times past?

The Nigerian real estate market is lacking robust financing options for developers and easy access to end user financing. Despite these restraints, the industry continues to evolve. Purchasers and investors are demanding better designs, functionality, finishing and value. Developers are expected to be more innovative about funding mechanisms and expected to create financial products to attract retail and wholesale investors. These products will be regulated by the relevant regulatory agencies like SEC and PENCOM. Recently, PENCOM released guidelines on residential mortgage financing from retirement savings. This policy will provide liquidity for potential homeowners and deepen the market by increasing demand for residential real estate.

Now, reputable developers have better access to funding because their track record speaks for them. Other developers are expected to improve their standards and delivery.

The real estate industry is all about trust and reputation.

In recent times, the sector has become more inclusive. In the past, it was a male dominated industry. This is changing and women are taking up positions within the industry.

Share with us on doing business with international investors seeking opportunities in sub–Saharan Africa and Europe, including experience and observations

Europe is a great place to invest. In the UK, London is fantastic for excellent returns and super capital gains. Cities with large student population like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool have also shown tremendous growth.

International investors invest in their local currencies or the US dollar. They also expect to repatriate their investment and returns the same way they brought them in. Too many restrictions in Nigerian foreign exchange policy makes investment in Nigeria unattractive for foreign investors. Also, the volatility in our exchange rate and the rapid decline in the value of naira erodes the return on investment (ROI). Investors have been able to secure value in countries like Cote d’lviore and Sierra Leone.

Read also: Chioma Nwokedi-Momah – Lead Consultant at Lydia & Sam’s Consults

Nigeria is still a great place to invest, especially for prime real estate assets that appreciate rapidly over time. In Lagos, places like Banana Island, Old Ikoyi have appreciated significantly too as real estate in Maitama, Wuse 2, Asokoro and Jabi in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.

In my opinion, we will see a lot of growth in the Nigerian real estate industry if the state and federal governments review the bottlenecks in the interpretation of the Land Use Act and internal regulations around duplication of oversight functions, fees and charges. Uniformity in the standard of land registries across the 36 states will benefit the industry. In all of these, there can be no social development without affordable housing. Providing better access to affordable mortgages for prospective homeowners and funding for reputable developers will create a more efficient and dynamic industry.

Having participated in transactions worth over N100 billion since inception, how does this make you feel? What are you doing to raise the bar?

I thank God. In all our successes, God has been involved. The Nigerian business environment can be highly volatile and unpredictable, so we need faith and hard work to succeed. We also never take clients, people and our work for granted. We continue to raise the bar by being focused, determined, client centric and appreciative of every opportunity we are given. Building, nurturing and sustaining business relationships is definitely good business.

23 years’ experience in law, investment banking and project financing, what have you learnt?

My background in law is the foundation I draw my skills from. I usually pay attention to the fine print and pay attention to the details. As lawyers, we are also trained to be analytical and this has been of great importance in my work execution. Investment banking and project financing can test your numerical, negotiation and deal closing skills. All these have made me a much better entrepreneur.

Share with us on being chair of the Board Committee on Risk Management and Corporate Strategy at VG Pension Fund. How has the experience been and what are your responsibilities?

Being on the board of Veritas Glanvill Pension Fund is absolutely wonderful. I chair the Risk Management and Corporate Strategy Board Committee at VG PFA. We have a very dynamic board which is led by our Chairman, Farouk Yola who is a highly experienced and admirable person. He is a man of great wisdom and insight.

I will not talk too much about board activities at VG Pension. However, I can say we have a very dynamic board and executive management. I have learnt so much and continue to do so. The pension industry is highly regulated and important. We take our duties very seriously.

I also sit on other boards including, Baze University Teaching Hospital and the Africa International Housing Show.

The knowledge and insight I get sitting on the various boards has also helped me when making decisions for business.

You are on the board of a real estate development company in Nigeria and the UK, what are the differences and observations?

The UK real estate market is more developed and structured. There is also better access to funding and infrastructure is a lot better. Nigeria is still playing catch up but we will get there. The UK also has a very strong commercial real estate sector and the players in this sector are family offices, Sovereign Wealth Funds, and investment companies. Ultra-high net worth individuals also play in this sector. Hedging options also allow for mitigation of risk and opportunities to restructure assets.

The value and supply chain mechanisms in developed countries are more advanced and efficient. For example, in Nigeria we don’t manufacture fittings and fixtures and if we do, they are rarely of good quality. The most challenging aspect of residential real estate is the finishing of the homes. This is also the most expensive aspect of construction in Nigeria where the fixtures and fittings are imported at exorbitant costs.

In what ways are you promoting SMEs, social development, skills acquisition, child education and protection?

I provide advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and people who wish to leave 9-5 jobs to take up the challenge of entrepreneurship. I am on WIMBIZ’s mentorship programme and have mentored dynamic women over the years.

Regarding child education, we provide scholarship programmes to support schemes for vulnerable and eligible students. Lexon Capital also has a scholarship programme at Wavecrest School of Hospitality.

I am passionate about raising the next generation of female leaders and entrepreneurs.

Tell us about your sponsorship programme at Wavecrest and why?

Wavecrest is very important to us. Over many years, they have provided the hospitality industry with a highly skilled workforce. They are very organised, professional and innovative. Wavecrest is also a highly ethical institution that continues to contribute to the education of young women.

When you compare when you started and where you are today, what are your grateful and hopeful for?

I always thought at best I’d end up a partner in a law firm in England. I never thought I’d be courageous enough to be an entrepreneur in a highly volatile economy and patriarchal society like Nigeria. A lot has changed in the country’s business culture and I expect to see more changes over time.

I have always been a focused person and less amenable to idle chatter. I always seek growth in knowledge and skills. I am grateful that I have imbibed the principles my parents taught me; equity, integrity, hardwork and contentment.

I look forward to many more successes and a more equitable and thriving Nigeria for all its people.

What are your personal and professional challenges?

There is a tendency to undermine and underestimate women in the private and public sectors. Things are getting better.

As a woman, it can be challenging finding a work and family life balance. While I am passionate about work, being a wife and mother are my priorities. Nothing comes before my love for God and family. My faith is important to me.

What day is never to be forgotten by you and why?
The day I realised God loves me more than I can ever love myself. The day I realised this, I stopped beating myself up for things I felt I should have done or deals I lost because I felt I didn’t work hard enough to get them.

I never forget my mistakes, but I have learnt never to regret. I keep moving forward, learning from the mistakes I might have made along the way.

What is it about real estate in Nigeria that everyone must know?

It is a great sector for getting good returns. Location and title matter a lot so potential investors should do their research before entering the market.

Never buy a home because you are overwhelmed by the marketing tactics of real estate agents.

What can be done to increase the number of women on boards?

Companies have to be intentional about this. There are many highly skilled women even within corporate bodies like the Institute of Directors (IOD), Association of Corporate Governance Professionals of Nigeria and WIMBIZ.

Concluding words

The struggle you are in today, is developing the strength you need tomorrow. -Robert Tew.