Chinelo Ikeme is a household name among artificial hair dealers in the country and her company, My Hair Limited, was the official hair sponsor at the just concluded Africa Fashion Week held in Lagos, recently.
In this interview, the Lagos-based, classy entrepreneur speaks about her success story in business, challenges and more.
Are My Hair Limited and Moore Enterprises sister companies?
Not that, per se. Moore Enterprises is actually a family business and we are into the importation of chemicals. The CEO of Moore Enterprises is different from the CEO of My Hair Limited and that is me. I am only the Financial Director of Moore Enterprises. At My Hair Limited, we buy and sell hair and we also do clinical services like treating hair. Some buy hair from us and after a little time, they need to do a little work of cleaning it by washing and rolling it. We also treat hair that has been damaged by use or by chemicals.
What led you into this business?
I have always loved beauty, particularly hair. My mum used to wear a lot of hair extensions when I was a child and that caught my interest that I picked it up. I dropped it after a while when I was in the University of Lagos studying Banking and Finance. After then, I have worked in two banking institutions for six years before I left to go into hair business in particular. I met an Indian man who taught me a little bit of what I know now in the business. When he finally left Nigeria, I continued the business and I am where I am today.
Was it that you considered your banking job less lucrative than business?
Why did you the leave then?
I feel because it was too rigid. I did not have the opportunity to explore my abilities as I would want to. Banking is a bit too uptight because everybody tells you what to do, from top to bottom. Sometimes, you are not even allowed to use your initiatives. I wanted to do something on my own because I come from a family of business people. Moore Enterprises is a business my late dad started from nothing to where it is today. My grandfather and grandmother also did business and I knew that one day, I would grow up leaving the banking sector for full time business. Most bankers have the same dream if you ask them. There is no 9am-5pm worker that won’t say that he doesn’t wish to start his own thing one day. I wanted to use my energy to start my own. I always told myself that I want to use my energy for my own business. I never wanted to retire old and that was how I started early.
Hailing form a business inclined family, how did you start on your own?
I started by saving my salary every month. The Indian man was very generous too. I was at first hesitant because I used to buy from him. He encouraged me to start by selling to my colleagues in the office and I did. My friends always admired what I had on and I would always pay the man with my salary and wait for my colleagues to pay me later. It is important for people to be confident in what you sell and that gives you the opportunity to grow your business. If people know you for good, they will be willing to buy from you and pay you after a while. That was how I started by selling to my colleagues and they began to spread the good word to others. I would say that referrals really built me up in the business. Thanks to my customers.
Can you recall you starting capital then?
(Laughs) About N30,000
So, how did a N30,000 worth business grow to the level it is now?
I started with a lot of credit because I noticed that people who want to buy hair cannot afford what they want. Hair is not cheap. It is luxury. I tell my costumers to buy only what they can afford and not try jump into the lagoon. I started gradually and I said, the Indian man would give me on credit and I would sell to my colleagues who sometimes don’t even pay me. They would just give me words of the mouth until I started building a structure for myself through filling the gap of making people pay by installment. Because I had to deal with bankers, I knew they are people of integrity and when they give me a cheque, the check won’t bounce, although some cheques did bounce. That was how we grew. People would rather patronise the lady who makes you pay by instalments. For now, we have slowed down on cheques because we just want to avoid cheques that would bounce.
Apart from making your customers pay by instalment, how else do you try to satisfy them?
Customer service and relationship management is very important in business. Some customers can be very erratic in their behaviour and you must just know how to manage such people. I learnt that from banking and you have to manage people with all their excesses and tantrums. You also have to sing their praises. I taught my staff to treat customers with a lot of courtesy that you have to always sir and ma them. No matter what they do to them, even when you feel the customer is wrong, you have to treat them like kings and queens, as the case may be.
Is there anything special worth knowing about this line of fashion?
The truth about hair is that authenticity is key. If you sell fake, you lose your customers. You don’t tell the quality of hair by looking at it, you tell by use. This is durability. Hair can be beautiful but when you use it for a while, it turns out bad. The truth is that the customer has purchased it from you and has used it, then she comes back to complain. That is the place of integrity in business and that is why I give my customers guarantee, like I get from my suppliers too. I keep to my word and that is what my customers love and respect me for. When I came into this business in 2010, I was duped and I also had issues with clients returning some goods. Though I lost a lot of money in the process of doing that, today they are my praise singers because they are still with me, till today.
How was the experience when you were defrauded in business?
It was a bad one. I almost gave up but one of my good friends who is in the same business encouraged me never to give up. That is one thing I learnt in banking again. In banking, it has to be just your job alone and they must not know you are doing something else.
What is the major challenge you face as an entrepreneur?
Getting the authentic hair is a big challenge because we don’t have the original in Nigeria; so, one has to go abroad. I have suppliers who supply me from different countries.
And how much money do you make from the business?
Hmmm! Yes, it is lucrative when you have authentic products. People will buy from you if you sell the original.
Understandably, most of your customers are ladies. How do you manage them, considering that they can be difficult to manage?
Mind you, I also have male customers who come to buy for their ladies or so. You just have to be humble managing them. My six years experience as a relations manager in the bank hall is enough for me transfer into my business.
What is you driving force?
That would be the smiles on my customers’ faces and the referrals they give me. It makes me always wanting to please them.
What has kept you in business, all these years?
I think that is God and my family. I sell products now but I plan to do it in a bigger way and expand My Hair Clinic. I also teach people how to manage their hair themselves.
Could you highlight the supportive roles you get for your business?
First is from my husband. He is my backbone and chief adviser (laughs). He is a lawyer, a businessman and a former banker too. He is always there, especially those times I almost fell off. Having a husband who supports you is important in being able to run your business. He is a good man. My staff are also very supportive. I have empowered them to be able to take decisions and call me for any one they cannot face.
You have any core value?
Say honesty, integrity and always ensuring I put God first in all I do.
Are there plans to expand your business?
Oh yes! I want to go big time into hair products centred on treating and managing human hair. I see that most ladies don’t know how to manage their hair and I want to go into that and also train people on that.
Do you think Nigeria has an encouraging platform for businesses to thrive?
Yes, Nigeria has it, Lagos in particular. The Nigerian business terrain is tough with the foreign exchange instability affecting us but we are pushing it.