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AN INTERVIEW WITH OVATION

What was it like growing up with a father who was a minister of the gospel and one of Nigeria foremost educators (Late Venerable Archdeacon B.A. Adelaja) and a mother who was also an educator, disciplinarian and serial entrepreneur?

Well … this hints that I was born into a very conservative family environment, but I can say that being surrounded by clergy and educators did not necessarily translate into a cloistered fun-less upbringing. Rather, it allowed for a diversity of experience for which I am grateful. The combination of our mother and father helped to create a good balance. Dad was the perfect example of a thoroughly good man, impartial and principled, and uncompromising in his stand for honesty and truth. He taught us about the importance of integrity and maintaining a good name before God and man, and he was a clear-cut “old-school” instrument for direction and change within and outside his family. Besides ensuring that we passed through very broad and balanced developmental stages, he also assured that our daily living pattern had us fundamentally immersed in God’s word. Our mum further balanced the act by not only giving dad her complete support with his pastoral work, but also working very hard to supplement his not-so-robust pastoral income. Our mom was a very creative and successful entrepreneur, and this enabled us to play at a level comparable with other privileged scions in society. 

Do your parents have a strong influence on the woman you are today?
Definitely yes! My dad’s leadership and astuteness combined with my mum’s entrepreneurial and royal style may have been a seed sowed in us and which the good Lord has us all harvesting.

What lasting memories do you have of your late father and mother?
Dad’s good deeds forever live after him. Today I stand to gain from where he sowed. I remember him for his selflessness and forever walking me up to every next level of my development. I have fond memories of “Ben O Ben” (as I now call him) marching up to his CMS Grammar School office dressed in crisp tailored suit and cat eyed spectacles as he resumed his daily schedule. I recall as he grew slowly but surely to ripe old age and died at age 89.

Similarly, I will forever recall Eva (my mum)’s penchant for style and opulence. She had an eye for nice things. From her choice of a common slipper to bed sheets; from crockery to drapes; from event planning to delivery she demonstrated a high sense of style. To this was crowned a world-class entrepreneurial spirit, a bubbly and cheerful nature and later in life a fighting spirit as she battled a disease that finally took her at age 64.

I recall how both personalities though very different, combined beautifully as they charted a direction for us – the blend was beautiful and still is. “The music in our hearts we bore after it was heard no more”. This December both Ben and Eva would have been 10 and 20 years translated to eternal glory.

Being an accountant, why did you veer into food retailing and at what point did the Sweet Sensation brand start?
Well, right after my internship and professional training with Price WaterHouseCoopers, I then practiced in an oil service company as an accountant for a few years. Meanwhile, l was having my babies in quick succession and the entire home/work balance was not quite equating especially with long distances between work, home and the children’s school. That tended to have my eyes open for an escape. While trying out various food related businesses on the side, ranging from fish mongering to a micro QSR called CITICATE, I gradually ended up confused about what should be my future level of engagement in running a small business. On one hand was my respectable accounting profession and on the other hand was this somewhat demeaning, hands- on, pedestrian food business of cakes and pastry. In the confusion, I sought God’s face and with new conviction about His direction, I embarked on food as a business direction with renewed vigor. This was no longer ‘guesswork’ or ‘accident’ as previous years had turned out. I was now in phase two, confident and sure of God’s endorsement. Sweet Sensation was berthed from this point.

 My book “Pots, Pans and Spoons” elaborates on the sweet sensation story in greater detail.

What motivated you to write the book “Pots, Pans and Spoons”?
I actually never planned to write a book. As my 50th birthday gradually approached and as close friends, mentees and benefactors got wind of the date, pressure was mounted by them that I tell my story of grass to grace. My mentees particularly thought that the story should be told to others as it had been told to them in their privileged counseling sessions. I was a bit lethargic about this considering the 2-month deadline to my birthday. A young man named Kunle Kasumu was chief in the “MUST WRITE” vision and doubled as publisher. He encouraged me with various strategies to execute this plan. And with us both equipped with micro recorders and 2-3 hours of recording every night, the book was gradually scripted in 6 weeks, edited in 5 days, printed in faraway Dubai in 5 days and finally delivered by air to Lagos in 3 days. Now that I know how demanding book writing could be, I appreciate all those processes as well as the scrutiny of Remi Morgan the reviewer, Chief E. A. O. Sonekan the presenter and the precision of the many testimonials. With the support of many people too numerous to mention “Pots, Pans and Spoons” finally hit the bookshelves with all its profits going to Sweet Sensation’s philanthropic initiatives. I am not only proud but also grateful to God to have become an emergency author! Perhaps the inspiration for book 2 is already in the making.        

Over the years, Sweet Sensation has grown to be a franchise known nationwide. How did you manage to achieve nationwide success?
Our growth is not as nationwide as it appears. Sweet Sensation is presently only in 2 states of the federation, even though the brand is known and accepted nationally. Because of the very intricate business model our wide menu diversity necessitates, presence in many states may be very cumbersome considering the infrastructural investments that would be required in each region. Therefore if there isn’t enough of a market to sustain at least 4 locations within a 5 km radius, then that state is not worth going to. That being said, let me also point out that this is not also the best of times for excessive growth, but it is however for consolidation. We are not totally out of new growth plans, but very careful about unnecessary distractions to existing flagships. As I speak 4 new locations are in the making, 2 in Lagos and 2 in a state in which we do not presently operate. In summary, our growth strategy at this time is justifiably conservative.    

 

Considering the scale of your business, how have you coped with managing your home along side your business? How supportive has your husband been in the process of running and growing Sweet Sensation?

 

First of all I believe that a woman must first master the art of managing her home as a foundation to meeting the management needs of a growing and later full blown business. This suggests that women should take the emerging phases of management in their lives in compartments. Not just because it makes total sense in its alignment with family goals, but also because success and growth usually comes in phases. What am I saying? A woman cannot break her lessons in entrepreneurial management with a retreat to learn the basics of running a home. I’d say learn how to be a good cook while a spinster, acquire skills from mum or others tried and tested in those skills on child care, home care, husband care or anything worth caring about. As you balance in the combination of these acts, business vision is building, probably professional skills earlier acquired is opening up opportunities to higher levels of achievement and then the maturity of a woman built over time comes to play. My philosophy --- success cannot be rushed except it will be short lived. There is no short cut to climbing the ladder of success. No escalators, No elevators - only an out- right climb. This narration suggests that an infrastructure built over time at both the home and work front can ease the stress of managing the two worlds. The infrastructure at work is made up of people and machines. More of good rather than bad people have surrounded me and as a team they have been great support. We owe so much to them.

One of the greatest obstacles to the balance of home and work is the role that husbands play in the general synopsis. If any woman must succeed within the family setting then her goals must not contradict that of the family. Similarly a husband who is not supportive of his woman can naturally frustrate her business. What I mean to say is that all our desires and goals, as women must be brought to the family drawing board for mutual endorsement before it can work. It is then and only then that our spouses can give their support. I continuously tell my daughters that if your success will depend on your husband’s cooperation, it is only sensible to choose a God fearing man as husband in the first place. It doesn’t end there you must match the qualities you require in your man. This is how love and not hate, fair play and not selfishness, openness and not diplomacy will rule in the management of our various endeavors. My husband is a gift of God to me in his support of every one of my goals. As a matter of fact, he sees the goals as joint goals and so treats them as such. Women should not in desperation or in time deadlines overlook the steering qualities that make a relationship work to compromise an entire lifetime. Most importantly, only God makes things happen and with precision too. Without God many things, no matter the embellishments may not work. We need God not only to integrate but actualize our dreams.     

 

What are the pros and cons of managing a business of such a large scale and how have you managed to remain one of the foremost retailing franchises in Nigeria today?

The very nature of our business and its multiple locations does not make our operations easy. However, the problem we know is better solved than those we do not know. So, Nigeria’s energy issues, our infrastructural plight in road networks and our dependence on imported technology remain a big challenge to our business. With generators constantly hooting and gulping diesel, logistic vehicles and water tankers wearing off in shorter lifespans and the challenges of attracting a productive workforce whose academic credentials fall very well below international ratings, our hands are indeed full with side dishes and not the main meal!

Somehow, we do get by but with seriously eroded profits and fast defraying fixed assets. I guess that our attention to quality, our focus on the attraction, retention and reward of the best of our human resources, our enquiry into the customer’s heart and our determination to remain creative even within the slow melted and ailing economy speaks for us in the overall analysis. God has clearly been good to us and will help us get better.

   

What is that one experience you would never forget since you started your food retailing business?

I will choose a funny and not a negative experience. The opening of the Opebi restaurant floor to business in December 1999 was a very funny one. The outlet was scheduled to open to business at 2pm. Banners, posters and newspaper advertorials had communicated the opening time and date. Our furniture maker had promised all installations of seats and tables well over 3 days earlier. For some reason the date kept moving till the D-Day. From 8am he promised 10am and then 11am. Meanwhile every other thing was set except for tables. Yearning customers, interested in partaking in the first experience thronged the outlet surroundings demanding that the doors be open. We had to open up to them about the challenge, but they were satisfied with the situation, “We’ll eat from our laps” they chanted. With tables not in sight, and in this dilemma, the outlet was forced to open to business. Oh my God, it seemed to me a horrible sight at the beginning as customers wolfed down rice and chicken from their laps. But I saw joy in their hearts, as they seemed to enjoy the new ambience and products, cheering and gisting away as they swayed to the background music. It was amazing! Till the close of business on that day, the outlet rocked! The tables were later delivered and installed overnight and we then got back to serious business the following day.

  

So far what would you say has been your greatest achievement?

There have been laurels, and laurels, accolades and accolades - all pointing at a progressive order of accomplishments. The praise of our brand’s greatest achievements are best sung by others, but I must say that the Century International Quality Era Award with which we were decorated from far away Geneva, in gold category in 2002 stands out from the others.

 

18 years and still counting, you have seen and done it all as a brand. With the additional 10 years that preceded the brand at the backyard of your matrimonial home and in your fathers converted gate house, what words of wisdom would you give someone who wants to toe your line of business? 

I would tell aspiring QSR operators to first learn from industry leaders. As they give themselves to their employers in dedication and excellence, they must open their eyes to the very broad spectrum nature of the business. They must love the work and its characteristics and then offer themselves to service in all related departments for deeper knowledge. Knowing a business very well is the catalyst to setting up one. The highest potential for failure is exhibited in an entrepreneur who doesn’t know much about a business and whose employers know it all. People tend only to follow those whom they can learn from.    

 

As Mrs. Kamson and not the CEO of Sweet Sensation, is there anymore achievements you hope to attain?

No one has ever achieved it all in a lifetime. So there are forever new horizons to be reached, greater dreams to be accomplished and newer phases in life to commence. I would say that planning and executing succession successfully will probably be my next priority, God being my helper. Setting aside a detailed plan to give time for rest is not as easy as it looks. It not only requires strategic planning but divine guidance to achieve. I also look forward to more time dedicated to God and His work. The rat race of entrepreneurship does have a tenure. We must recognize when the time is up and move into the next phase of life.

 

Now that you are fifty, looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Of course very many things I could have done differently. The essence of self-examination is adjustment and not an all night movie! Even though I might wish to have done some things differently, I am thankful to God for the opportunity to have learnt from my mistakes.  

 

What does it feel like to be 50?

Sincerely I am most filled with appreciation to God. I’ve lived a life full of content and cannot but thank God for his faithfulness.

Inside me I feel like a girl at 50. My husband and children sometimes cannot get over my occasional revving like a boarding house inmate. In my most private moments I scream out expressions, I chuckle like a baby, I throw tantrums like a child and sometimes indulge in a loly- pop. I play video games and scramble over chocolates with my children and grandchildren. Sometimes I’m not sure who the kid is around here. However, scanty borders of graying hair remind me something we all know…….

 What has been your most expensive fashion indulgence?

Jewelry appears to be that fashion item category that has taken more of my bucks. My mother passed on to her daughters (only 2 of us thankfully) a reasonably classic collection. We have both added to our collections over the years, our preference being for vintage style pieces, carefully leaving out the more popular trendy or freaky designs. Interestingly precious stones and metals (particularly gold) remain one of the wisest investment options today, as its value has consistently soared over the years, against the melting background of other investment options. Many collectors regret not giving gold a more serious focus than they did other options about 4 years ago. In the last one year alone, Gold has risen by over 40% in value, and by 583% since January 2000. The only downside for private collectors of gold is the security implications, as many have had to store their collections away in bank vaults, thereby defeating the dressing purpose. Because it’s relevant, let me also say that my next expensive fashion indulgence is handbags, which I use to aesthetically express myself with a full range of colors, although soft colors are particularly difficult to keep clean in our environment.

  

If you had to change anything about yourself what would it be?

I like myself good, old and original. There’s no substitute to Kehinde Kamson. I like the time of the day that God made me. It must have been 6:30am on a Sunday morning and he wasn’t rushing off to work. The Cocks were crowing and the birds probably whistling.

He made me beautifully and wonderfully. What do you think?

 

If you were given a chance to go back in time to live again, would you do it differently?

 I’m not so sure.

  

What are your pet peeves?

I like clarity in expressions.

I can’t stand sluggishness.

I can’t stand dishonesty especially when smoothly operated.

I fear that integrity is becoming so rare.

I hate distractions when I’m doing paper work.

I don’t like it when the Chairman of a wedding reception is not reverenced with silence as he takes his speech.

I dislike educated people fighting in public.

I hate double standards.

I’m supposed to hate sugar but I love ice cream.

 I hate ringing cell phones that could pass as alarm clocks.

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