The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour, Odunayo Ojo – CEO – UPDC Plc

Odunayo Ojo was appointed Managing Director of UACN Property Development Company (UPDC) in 2021. He has a varied professional experience spanning property development, asset management and private equity. Odunayo has for more than 20 years advised on property development across multiple asset classes including master-planned communities, mixed-use schemes, shopping centers, commercial buildings and hotels within and outside Nigeria.  He started his career as a strategy consultant at an international advisory firm. He has held several senior roles in the real estate sector, including  CEO of Alaro City, Director of Development and Projects at Eagle Hills, Abu-Dhabi, Development Director at Laurus Development Partners,Vice President at Ocean and Oil Holdings and Business Manager at UPDC Plc. Odunayo is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers (NIESV), and a registered surveyor and valuer. He has a Master’s degree in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s degree in Estate Management. 

University, Sciences or Arts?

I studied Real Estate Management at the University of Lagos. I have always been interested in investment generally. I was very good at Economics in school. I was fascinated by the process of wealth creation. One of the central ideas of Economics is that land, one of the factors of production, is an important ingredient in wealth creation. So, when the opportunity came to study Real Estate at the university, I did not hesitate.

Which secondary school did you attend?

I attended Federal Government College, Kwali, Abuja.  It is one of the unity schools which were for a long time the elite schools in the country. It was very competitive to gain admission. It was a very great experience passing through this institution.

What’s the biggest lesson you left the university with?

Attending the University of Lagos has been one of the greatest influences on my career. University of Lagos is a university in Nigeria’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. The opportunities to interact with the industry was unparalleled. We frequently had professionals coming to talk to us about opportunities in different industries. We visited the Nigerian Stock Exchange and very prominent commercial institutions in Nigeria. So quite early, we were able to link the theory with the market; right from the university, we were prepared for the market. For me, this orientation is invaluable.

Is there any teacher you remember for being a big influence?

I was blessed with very talented teachers both in secondary school and at the university. There are too many to mention. But a few of them made lasting impressions on me. One of those people is Professor (Mrs.) Omirin of the University of Lagos. She really inspired us to develop a deep passion for Real Estate. She made us really appreciate what Real Estatewas about and how it is connected to a lot of important things in people’s lives and in the economy.

Who was the bigger influence on you between Mom and Dad?

My mom and my dad brought unique influences because they are two different personalities and I would say that my relationship with my parents has been very balanced. My mom was very strict and cautious. My mum was a teacher. She moved to the civil service after so many years of teaching. She is very methodical. Very process-driven. My Dad is the entrepreneur, always looking for business opportunities. He is the risk-taker between them. My dad had a checkered career. He originally trained as a Mechanical Engineer and practiced for 12 years. And then, somehow, he got interested in an entirely different profession; he left Engineering to train as a Chartered Surveyor. He went on to become a partner at an international firm of surveyors. Then after many years, he again moved into something entirely different. He went back to school to study Theology all the way to a Ph.D. He would start all over if he has to. That is his personality. I have been blessed to have these two different personalities – one adventurous and risk-taking and the other, careful and process-driven – influence me.

When did you leave home for good and what was the best lesson you took with you?

I left home very early for the boarding house. Although I was coming back for holidays, I think that marked the beginning of leaving home for good. At the age of eleven, I got sent off to boarding school and that was the last time I felt a continuous connection to home. That brought a certain level of independence. For six years, home was just somewhere I spent the holidays. Then, of course, I got admission into the university and only came home on holiday. I was determined to maintain this independence. I was also lucky to secure a job after university. So, leaving home for good happened a very long time ago, at least in my mind.

What was your first job? And what was the main thing you learned while at the job?

Other than internships that I had while I was in school, my first job was with SCG Consulting, a strategy and human-resource-focused firm with offices in Canada and Nigeria. I got good grades in most of my courses at the university so, I had the opportunity to be interviewed by some firms while I was in my last year at the university. At that time, we had a lot of international consulting firms in Nigeria. SCG Consulting did a lot of restructuring work for banks and multinational firms like Coca-Cola. Interacting with very senior C-suite executives in different industries gave me a firsthand view of how businesses can be run. It was something that had a very lasting impression on me; how to function in the world of business, how to structure organizations, organize work and achieve results.

Who is your best boss ever?

I have had very good bosses and almost everyone I have had to work with very closely, I have learnt something from. I have had the privilege of working with some of the best minds as I went along from my days in consulting to coming back to real estate and working in different places. So, I have got a checkered career myself and I can say that every single experience and every single relationship I have had with my supervisors have been valuable and unique. I cherish all of them.

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Godwin Ehigiamusoe, Founder, LAPO Microfinance

Could you share with us two or three things that you have learned in your career that are not taught on MBA courses?

Personally, I have come to pick up some philosophies in life that influence the way I see life. The first thing that I would say is that in the world of business, always focus on value. In the commercial world, people focus on different things – profitability, market share, and so many metrics to check how successful an organization is doing or a person is doing. How much you have in your bank account or your net worth in terms of naira or dollars are also good metrics. But I have come to realize that in life, if you really want to be successful, what you should focus on is delivering value to others. Every single relationship is an exchange of value; be it one between a husband and wife, mother and child, boss and subordinate, employer and employee etc. As long as you are genuinely interested in giving value to the other party, you are on the path to being successful. Creating value goes beyond the regular metrics that people track. If you focus on adding value as a way of life – and not just complaining about how much money you earn, how many houses you have, or wishing how things could be better in another job, etc. – naturally, success will be a consequence. The changes in our environment and in everything else around us have less to do with our environment but more to do with us. I think a lot of us have more control over our lives than we think we do. This speaks to being a change agent, being able to influence your environment positively. The point is we are more influential than we think we are.

What is your favorite type of music?

As it turns out, I have a very wide range of interest in music. What I listen to depends on my mood actually. Jazz and Afro beats stand out. My interest in music is a wide spectrum.

What kind books do you like to read?

My interest in books has changed over the years. Early in my career, I was very interested in books that addressed business topics – teamwork, strategy, leadership, etc., and I kept acquiring those books. Along the way, I became interested in biographies – biographies of successful people, what they have done, how they did it, etc., But lately, I have become more interested in reading historical books – books that chronicle what happened in the past, areas of geopolitics, civilization and anything that has to do with historical accounts. So, those are my three major areas of interest as regards books.

What have you read recently?

I am currently reading a book called Testament by John Romer. The book analyses many biblical stories from a historical perspective. I also recently read a relatively old book called Winning by Jack Welch.

What single thing do you think the government could do to improve the supply of houses in Nigeria?

The subject of housing is a very complex topic. I think it generates a lot of interest and emotions.  But I think the very assumption that it is the government that should solve the problem of housing is where the problem starts. Increasing the supply of housing is a complicated problem; the solution involves enhancing the roles or responses of a lot of stakeholders and players. The government is just one, even if a very important one, of these stakeholders. The government’s role includes making land more easily available, connecting cities with good roads and other infrastructure so people can move about easily and not over concentrate in some areas. The government can also intervene to ease access to finance to acquire houses or make it easier and faster to get approval to build and to register and verify titles for property. The private sector is far better equipped to boost the supply of houses in Nigeria; what the government should concentrate on is enabling the private sector to deliver houses faster and cheaper. There is a lot of research from all over the world to support this – the supply of housing to the masses is significantly improved when the government concentrates on improving people’s access to finance or loans to buy houses.

UPDC doesn’t seem to play in the mass housing market, is it a question of business strategy or limitations of the environment?

It is partly to do with strategy and also partly to do with the realities that face us as a business. UPDC is one of the largest platforms in the industry and we are interested in matching our resources to the opportunities in the market in a sustainable manner. Traditionally, UPDC has played in the high end of the market. But over the last decade, we have also delivered houses to people who do not yet have the resources to buy houses in Ikoyi or Victoria Island, but who have stable incomes or cash flow and can pay for houses. As a business, we are always studying opportunities to profitably and sustainably work with Nigerians to fulfill the dreams of acquiring their own houses.

How can the government at the federal and state levels work with formal sector players like UPDC to deliver low-cost houses and step away from building directly?

I subscribe to the view that the private sector should deliver goods and services to the market while the government should focus on creating policies that enable the private sector to thrive. There are so many ways the government could improve housing supply and conditions without getting directly involved in building low-cost houses. Improving access to property titles and regulation of building in places where less well-off Nigerians live and building roads and transportation systems that efficiently connect these places to job opportunities is one way. The government could also work with the private sector to improve access to finance to acquire houses without using public funds.

What is the best use of money to you?

I always invest in products and businesses I understand very well. Personally, I strongly believe that the best place to put money is real estate.

Investors in real estate face the risk of tenants who do not pay their rents, what is their fate?

You do not have to invest directly in rental real estate i.e., build or buy a house and find tenants yourself or through agents. To protect yourself against the risk of tenants’ defaults, you can invest in vehicles who invest in real estate. For example, UPDC has a product called Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). REIT is an asset class that you can buy on the stock exchange which has a portfolio of properties as the underlying value. The UPDC REIT has very high-quality properties in its portfolio; we have a well-tested method of selecting good quality tenants. So, the risk of tenants not paying rents is minimal. So, when you invest in UPDC REIT, you are investing in rental real estate; you thus have access to a flow of rental income from high-quality property without having to buy or build yourself or manage tenants or deal with estate agents. So, you do not have to own a building before investing in real estate.

Where do you like to holiday in Nigeria and abroad?

I have been to some very exciting places in Nigeria. I believe that Nigeria has not been discovered especially by Nigerians. Almost every corner of the country is blessed with interesting places you can go to. There are some interesting places in South-West, for instance in Abeokuta and Osun State. Even Lagos. I had the opportunity to visit some interesting places in these cities- some of them are resorts where you can spend the weekend or a holiday. Outside the country, I normally prefer going to historical places where I can learn more about global history. For example, I go to places like Rome, Jordan, Egypt etc., to see places where great events happened thousands of years or many decades ago. For example, there is so much to learn and think about when you see the pyramids in Egypt. For me, traveling is more than just going away to relax or shop during the holidays. It is also a good opportunity to learn.

Where do you see Nigeria in ten years?

Personally, I am an unrepentant optimist. I am very positive about Nigeria.  I am very confident that the problems plaguing Nigeria today will be resolved. In ten years, I foresee a much better Nigeria. I foresee a Nigeria that has stronger institutions. I foresee a safer Nigeria. I foresee a Nigeria where we are reversing the trend of the younger generation wanting to leave. I see a trend where the younger generation wants to come back to Nigeria because there will be so many opportunities in this country. You will have the “fear of missing out” if you were to stay away from Nigeria in the next ten years. I believe that as a people we have what it takes to fix this country.

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