With the importation ban on furniture over a decade ago, Nigeria’s assorted-taste market has gradually turned to local manufacturers, which has led to a burgeoning of the industry. Backward integration, competition and creativity has spawned homegrown furnishing giants such as ITEX, Universal Furniture Limited (UFL) and The Chair Centre in the current N50 billion market. The local producers whom previously suffered lack of patronage due to low material quality and market preference for imported goods now design and produce wooden, metallic and marble furniture of international standards. We sat down to talk with UFL CEO Mr Antoine Moudaber about the industry and his company’s experience so far. Here are the excerpts.
The work and projects on your site are highly impressive Mr Moudaber. Please share the story of Universal Furniture Limited. Why, when and how did it come to be?
Universal Furniture Ltd was founded in 1988 by my late father, Antoine Sr Moudaber. We started manufacturing metal furniture for schools and hospitals. We then gradually moved into wooden furniture as we felt the Nigerian market shift. Over 90 percent of our revenue comes from wooden based furniture.
Before UFL, what were you into sir?
I am a Mechanical Engineer by profession, but I have worked in investment banking in the UK before joining the group in Nigeria in 2009.
How many staff and how much was used to found this business?
We started with 20 staff and have moved to a workforce of 400+
And how well is the business currently doing? What’s annual turnover like?
What I can say is that the business is healthy, impacting more than 2000 people indirectly. Unfortunately, I cannot disclose any numbers to the public.
Kindly mention projects UFL has executed and some of its top clients.
We have worked on many projects in Lagos and Abuja. To name a few, we furnished the offices of the SGF (Secretary to the Government of the Federation), we furnished the newly constructed Central Bank building in Lagos, luxury residential towers such as Tango Towers, Golden Towers, Black Diamond in Lekki and many more.
It apparent clients do make requests for custom fittings and creative furniture designs. Which has been your toughest or most creative work?
We have worked on restaurants and night clubs such as Rhapsody’s, Piccolo Mondo as well as residences of high net worth clients. Usually, they are the most demanding.
On a lighter note, what’s the most amazing comment you ever got from a client?
I had a client once who said to me that he still eats on the dining table he purchased 21 years ago!!
Who is the creative head at Universal Furniture and what’s his/her profile?
We have a team of Nigerians and Expatriates doing most of the designs. We also consult with a UK based interior designer who has developed the collection you see in our VII showroom.
What were the earlier struggles UFL had to surmount and the current challenges it still deals with in business?
The main challenges we face are unfair competition by people who smuggle furniture. As you may know, furniture importation is banned in Nigeria. However, Chinese competitors import most of their furniture, and even if they don’t, have mainly Chinese workers in their factories. These showrooms are present in the main malls and it is a very sad sight.
Narrate one of your toughest moments running the business.
We had to move from working on government contracts, which didn’t require any design skills or good finishing, to dealing with Retail customers and private companies. We successfully managed to do the switch, but it certainly was not easy.
What would you say is the size of the Nigerian furnishing industry (in financial terms)?
There has to be a separation between those companies that manufacture locally and those that smuggle. I can only discuss the indigenous market which is around 50bn Naira market.
How has the furnishing industry changed from the time you began from its current state?
As I said, higher quality is now required. The middle class is growing, travelling and getting exposed. We have had to adapt accordingly.
What can government do to improve ease of doing business for you?
They should enforce the ban on furniture importation, give duty concessions to those that manufacture, and ensure a stable power supply.