Revolution Plus occupies a front-row seat in Nigeria’s real estate sector – and the gentle giant behind the multi billion Naira empire, Mr. Bamidele Onalaja, made my day on Monday, July 19, 2021 when he consented to sharing the inspiring story of how he built the business, step-by-step, brick by brick, till it got to where it’s now comfortably sitting – at the top.
Inside his colourful and neatly-arranged office, in Ikeja, Lagos, the real estate guru also opened the eyes of our Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, to all the mistakes to avoid in the sector, the best way to deal with ‘Omo oniles’ and so on. Excerpts…
First, what and what should we know about yourself?
Definitely, Bamidele Onalaja is my name. I’m the Group CEO and MD of Revolution Plus Group, comprising about ten companies – Revolution Plus Property, Revolution Plus Construction and Infrastructure, Remarkable Food, Remarkable Hotel, Remarkable Real Estate Company, Remarkable Facility Managers; it also has the Chris Bamidele Onalaja Foundation (CBAF) – where we do charity. It has the real estate school, Revolution Plus Real Estate School, then it has a betting company, Abe Bet. That’s the brief on Revolution Plus Group.
So, how did you come about the name, Revolution Plus?
Several years ago, or about eight years ago, when I was still working in a bank; I’m an ex-banker, I worked in the bank for 13 years, and when it was time to leave or just when I made up my mind that I wanted to leave banking, I didn’t want to do this anymore… So, me and my wife, we started praying, deliberating, discussing about it. And the name just came – Revolution. We checked that one, it was gone. It wasn’t available in CAC (Corporate Affairs Commission). So, my wife just woke up one night and said the Holy Spirit said we should put Plus. So, we just put Revolution Plus and lo and behold, when we checked it at the CAC, it was free. And that name, you will agree with me, is unique because we came into the real estate sector seven years ago and we are now the game changers. Yes, we are just seven years and we have changed so many things. Several locations that we go into, several times, maybe the developers, they are not doing anything well, they are not doing the right thing, but when we get there, we change things. So, we are the game changers in real estate. That name is divine. That’s why it’s truly a revolution for us.
What exactly got you interested in the real estate business?
Thank you! I don’t see real estate as a business, because I’ve been a mortgage banker… You know that mortgage and real estate go Parri-passu. So, when I was working in the mortgage bank – I worked in four mortgage banks – I noticed that the housing deficit was just too much. People could not afford even ordinary land, not to talk of houses. They couldn’t afford housing, which is one of the basic needs of human. There’s housing, clothing and shelter. Those are the three basics. But this housing; without a house, you cannot wear clothes, we can’t eat. So, I made up my mind that I wanted to do something different. So, that’s how my love, my passion started when I was working for Agbara Estates Limited. That was my first real estate company when I finished school. Then, thereafter, I moved to another bank, Refuge Mortgage Bank, here in Opebi (Ikeja, Lagos), then we went to Cornerstone Mortgage Bank, we went to Safe Trust Mortgage, before I started Revolution Plus. So, it’s a passion for me. I just want people to have a home, land, house that they can call their own. So, that’s where the passion came from. So, for me, I tell people, I say if I want to make so much money in this real estate business, I will not be selling the properties I’m selling at that price. That’s the truth! We are one of the least real estate companies that focus on profit. All I just want is for people to have homes to call their own. That’s all! If I’m just making a little profit, I’m okay. And so far I’m able to pay my bills and my staff are happy.
You’ve been into this line of business for about seven years now, what would you say has kept you going?
Integrity, trust, doggedness… I’m a very, very focused person and I have a very wonderful wife that works here also. My wife is the Group Executive Director, so we work closely together. So, doggedness. The challenges in real estate are constant. I call it constant headache, because it’s a business where either you are fighting Omo onile (land owners); if you buy land, the Omo onile will come and take the land. I’ve bought some estates and I paid three times! And we are talking of multiple millions, up to N500 million! And I paid three times. Once you buy from them, another set will come, another set will come. But over time, we now mastered the art of buying. So, those ones can’t happen again because we have learnt the ropes over seven years, we’ve been able to know which one and which one we should deal with. So, integrity has kept us going. Then, we cherish our name. I can protect this name with anything. Even despite the challenges that come; there are so many challenges in this real estate business – it’s either government is fighting you, government challenge, Omo onile challenge, the buyers, realtors, everybody. So, the challenges are enormous. You buy land with a C of O, the government says the C of O is being withdrawn, you buy land of gazette, the gazette is being withdrawn, so the headache is everyday. But what can we do? So far this is the line of business that we chose, we just have to keep going. So, focus, doggedness, integrity, trust, timely delivery…That’s what has kept us going.
Now, what exactly does real estate mean?
It’s just the way it’s being pronounced – real! Any investment that is real, touchable and feelable. It has to be real. Real estate is not MMM. It’s not abstract. Real estate is touchable, it is feelable and it is the best investment anybody can have. You can invest in a property right now, give it five years, that property can triple ten times. So, real estate is an investment, that’s why it’s called real. Anything that is real, that you can touch, you can feel, you can live inside is real estate. It has different categories. You know the real estate is big – there’s real estate development, there’s real estate agency, there’s facility management, there’s real estate marketing, but we have chosen the development part. We are big-time developers, we have over 35 estates that we have developed all over Nigeria and we are still waxing strong and we are still doing more. So, our passion, like I said, for real estate is to provide affordable housing and affordable luxury and that’s what we’ve been doing over the years.
So, why should anyone be interested in real estate?
I can’t speak for everybody, but I can speak for Revolution Plus. Anyone should be interested in real estate through Revolution Plus because No. 1, you have to have a house. Something was very clear to us during the stay-in-your-house covid period. In 2020 when covid hit the world very bad – you were hearing every government telling you to stay in your house, stay at home, don’t go out. There was lockdown for 6 months. Even up till now, there’s still lockdown in some cities outside Nigeria. So, it’s now very clear that everybody must have a home. So, everybody just has to have a house that they can call their own. If they don’t have a house, they want to have a land that they can develop and call their own. So, that’s the big deal in real estate. It’s the most important sector in any government plan and policy. Any government that neglects real estate will not do well, because oil is making us so lazy and real estate and farming, are very, very important. Because food and shelter and clothing; those are the three most important things that anybody in the world can have. So, real estate is the No.1 for us… We just opened our branch in Port Harcourt (Rivers State) for us to expand more into every nook and cranny of Nigeria.
To succeed in the business of real estate, what must one do?
So many things. Firstly, I will use my own practical example, when we started. We started Revolution Plus with zero Naira! Not one Kobo! Because when I left banking seven years ago, I left broke. There was no money from anywhere, from anybody. We approached banks, they refused to give me money, we approached family and friends… until some few people just came together and introduced me to our first estate in Mowe/Ofada (Ogun State). That’s where we started from and I can say to the glory of God now, we’ve built the company into a multi-billion Naira company – from no Kobo, zero Naira and I can tell you for now, as at today, we are not owing any bank one Naira. We have never borrowed money from banks, as big as the company is. It’s called grace. The grace of God is working here. So, that’s what makes us special and we are still waxing stronger.
What is the commonest mistake that most people that play in the real estate sector make?
There are so many mistakes o! You know, the way the sector is, if you are not careful, the way you are seeing the money, the way money comes into the sector, if you are spending the money the way you want, you will not be able to deliver to your clients, because it is OPM – Other People’s Money. That money that is coming is not your money, you are supposed to use it for development and to deliver to your clients. So, most people into real estate, if you are not careful, once they see the money, it enters their eyes, they start misbehaving, before you know it, they won’t be able to deliver. Another very good example and mistake that people make, which is not their fault anyway, is government and Omo onile. I told you I bought one particular estate in Ibeju-Lekki (Lagos) three times and we are talking about an estate of 20 acres, with C of O! E get C of O! So, if the financial capability is down totally, you can’t continue. Because I know some companies that we bought land in the same area, up till now, they are no more in business because they could not pay the people three times. After we bought it, another person came, they collected money. Another person came… But we are now able to master it, we took them to court, we did all the legal processes, we did out-of-court-settlement, they had to sign that they will not come to the land again, so many things. So, the challenges in real estate are much. So, if you want to do it, it’s not for the lily-hearted. If you want to do real estate, you have to be strong. Forget this suit o (laughter) and tie. If you see me on a normal day, at the site, I’m boxing with Omo onile. A ma ja ese one on one…
What do you like most about being in the real estate business?
What do I like most? The challenges! The challenges are enormous. I love challenges, I’m a very creative person, I love new challenges, I want to do more, I want… I don’t sleep early, so before I sleep, Holy Spirit will bring ideas, rushing ideas to me. By 6-7am, I’m calling my staff, I want you to do this, I want you to do that. So, the challenges are what I love and also the networking. It has given me the opportunity to meet people; people that naturally I can’t meet. I’m not talking of government people, I’m talking of… I can remember vividly when we started Revolution Plus, we were one or two years, we do go to Ijora-Olopa where they sell fish and turkey. I will wear my Revolution Plus T-Shirt, with jeans and converse, I will be under the sun, marketing those women. So many of them became our friends. Today, they have houses and they have lands with us. So, that is my joy. People that naturally were not able to become landlords or landowners, but we made them. So, I’m part of their success story – because of me, this person or that person is able to become a landowner and that’s my joy.
So, what don’t you like about the business?
The challenges are much. You lose money freely. It’s like the oil and gas business. If you are not careful in real estate, your money disappears, especially as a developer – somebody that is buying. Because if you don’t do your due diligence very well before you commit money to the business, you will lose the money, you will lose the land. So, the challenges are much. I don’t like the challenges and I still love the challenges. It’s in two ways.
What is the greatest thing that being in the real estate business has done for you?
I’ve been able to achieve so many things being in the real estate business – I’ve been able to touch lives, I’ve been able to build so many connections, I’ve been able to pay my bills…Right now, we have over 5000 realtors, people that sell for us. From that money I pay them, they pay their children’s school fees, they pay their house rent, they feed their families, so I’ve been able to touch lives. And I have artisans that work for me in our various sites. So, imagine there’s no Revolution Plus? How will they feed? So, I’ve been able to touch many lives. Then, our foundation – CBOF. I’ve been able to touch so many lives through that foundation. Naturally, people that cannot afford health; we have a free school, TolDel Nursery and Primary School, built by me and my wife in Ikorodu (Lagos). It’s tuition free, and it’s a private school. People go there for free school, free food, free uniform, free books and it’s a big school, a nursery and primary school. We are now building the secondary school, free also. Those are part of what we have done. We’ve built schools, we’ve built hospitals, we’ve done police stations, we have done so many things. So, my joy is that doing the real estate business, I’ve been able to touch lives, because my own life is all about impact. I’m going to impact more lives because God has been good to me.
What would you have wanted this business to do for you that it hasn’t done yet?
I’m looking at the next seven years when Revolution Plus will be 15… What it has done for us in the first seven years is even beyond my imagination. So, all I can say is thank God, because we have come this far. I know some companies that started before I joined real estate, before we started Revolution Plus, they are dead. They are no more existing. I know some of them that are calling me to ‘borrow’ them money. So, all I can say is thank you God for what You have done so far in seven years; it’s beyond our own imagination. The brand is known almost everywhere. Also, my prayer and my plan is that in the next seven years, when we are 15 years, we would have covered the whole of Nigeria; we have an international office in Dallas Texas, USA right now, we have in the UK, we are going to Dubai, we should have in Germany, we should have in South Africa and also in Ghana. So, wherever Nigerians are, where they want real estate to come to, we are there. Then, in Canada too. So, those are my plans. But what we have done so far in seven years; exceptionally well, and I thank God for that.
Earlier on, you said something about having over 35 estates. Could you tell us some of these estates as well as where they are sited?
We have about 10 or 15 estates in Ibeju-Lekki. We have about three or four in Eleko junction, behind Amen Estate, we have two in Sangotedo, we have two in Abijo GRA, we have two in Abraham Adesanya, that’s the Dream City, we have another one in Ologolo, that’s in Lekki itself. Then, in Abuja. We have in Abuja, we have in Sabolugbe, we have in Itu, that’s Champions’ Court, we have so many other estates in Abuja. Then, in Ibadan. We have about five estates in Ibadan, we have in Abeokuta (Ogun State). We have three estates in Abeokuta. Then, we have in Port Harcourt. We have two new estates in Port Harcourt. So, overall, it’s even over 35 estates and so many of them, people are already living inside.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since delving into this business?
Challenges are enormous, like I’ve highlighted before…
Yes! Tell us the biggest one…
The biggest one? Losing money! You lose money through Omo onile. That’s the biggest challenge. Then, another one is government documentation. You buy land, you want the governor’s consent, within six months, it’s taking like three years and because when documentation does not come out, you are losing money. The client that ought to give you money for that land will say it doesn’t have documents, I can’t pay. So, you are losing a lot of money. So, the two big challenges – Omo onile, because when you give them money, they regroup. That’s why all Revolution Plus lands and estates, we take possession immediately. Because the only thing they understand at that time is money. Once you give them money, you take possession, you fence up, put gate, then your property is secured.
One of the things that people usually complain about is this issue of Omo oniles. What is the best way to handle them?
There’s no best way, because you handle them as they come. Let me give you an example – my father bought this property 25 years ago in Ipaja, Lagos. I’m telling you about what is happening right now, as I speak to you. This is July 2021. We bought that property when I was in JS 3. It’s two, we bought two. I can remember vividly that at that time we do come there to cut grasses. My father planted some things, before we started building. So, the first one, we built a bungalow on it, which we all grew up and lived in. The second one, we just put one small fence. He didn’t gate it, he didn’t do anything and the whole area is now developed. That is the only plot remaining. Two weeks ago, Omo onile rose up, that it’s their land. I’m telling you what is happening right now. They rose up that it’s their land; they’ve sold the land to another man and that one wants to come and start building. Ah-ah! That’s how they called me and I said in this Lagos? Unless it’s not Lagos o! That’s how I mobilized all my machinery – all the police people, the DPO there is my friend. I just called her, she said for this Lagos, Revolution Plus, she mobilized her team, they pursued all of them. But eventually we had to re-buy the land. I’m telling you. I had to re-buy that land from them. They said if I didn’t give them money, nobody will work there; that they were ready to go anywhere. So, there’s no way to deal with Omo onile – the only thing they understand, if they show you side A, you too show side B, both of you will now sit down and discuss. They are a set of mad people. Everywhere! But they are my best friends o! We talk, we gist…you can’t do without them. In this our business, they are necessary evil.
What will be your advice to anyone who is trying to come into the real estate business?
I have so many I mentor; so many of them. I am also the chairman of Real Estate Developers Association of Nigeria in Lagos (REDAN). So, I have so many people I mentor. I do tell them, the No.1 thing you need is focus. In fact, capital is secondary. Because I didn’t have capital when I started this gigantic company. I had no capital. I left the bank broke, with no Kobo. You know banking – when you are in bank, they will give you loan, you will be ‘forming’ big boy, you will wear tie, you will be doing ‘shakara’, but you are so empty and broke. So, I was empty and broke by the time I decided that I wanted to leave. I left empty. They collected their car, collected everything they gave me. I said no problem. I went to the street and God was very good. He gave me favour, He gave me a wonderful wife who supported me and today it’s a success story. So, be focused. Not only in real estate, any business at all. Be focused, because the challenges are much. We went to the banks, they refused us and at that time we were doing well over N10/N20 million. They didn’t give us (loans). I was asking for just N5 million, they refused. So, just be focused, know that there is nothing you can achieve without God. That’s all. Focus, and have integrity. When you collect people’s money, deliver! You must deliver because one of the best ways to sell your product anywhere is one-tell-one-referrals. We do so many adverts, but our sales majorly come from referrals.
At the inception of Revolution Plus, which individual gave you the greatest encouragement?
My wife is my best encouragement, Mrs. Onalaja Tolulope. She’s my best and No.1 encourager, because initially when we started, she didn’t join us, she was still working and earning salary. I had to run the business for two years before she joined. I just said why are you still earning salary, we need your support, come and join me. Then, my younger brother – my younger brother also started the business with me…
What his name?
Success Onalaja…Then, our first staff; she’s married now, she’s no more with us. Her name was Funmi Ajagbe (at that time). So, those are the people we started with at one shop. We started from Opebi, our office was very, very small. I’m not lying, and when we started initially there was no money to pay for an office. We were using a virtual office, N3000 per hour, and we didn’t even have N3000, so we struggled to come to the virtual office like once a week because there was no money. So, when our customers started coming, we started doing small-small adverts, we will rush, we will clean the place so that they will think it’s our own. In a virtual office, every company comes, you will rent a space, you are not the owner, but you rent a space. There will just be a general reception. So, when they are bringing your mails, they will help you receive your mails. So, we’ve gone through so much. It was only people that saw the vision and stayed when the company was being built. But we thank God we’ve come this far. Now, we own buildings. This is our building, we’ve also bought several buildings elsewhere.
To buy a piece or plot of land in any of your estates, how does one go about it?
We have properties of N800,000, for instance. All you need to do is just to pay a deposit of N50,000 and spread the balance over one year or two years, and you can become a landlord too. We have the least property right now, it’s N800,000, it’s in Ibadan. We have another one in Abeokuta. We have properties of N1.5m, N2m in Lagos also. So, all you need to do is just to pay a deposit of N50,000 and spread the balance over two years, you are a landlord.
What is the best business lesson that you have learnt since you started Revolution Plus?
Real estate business, you can’t learn it at once. Even as I think say I be oga, I still dey learn. So, you can’t learn it at once – because No.1, by the time you think you have learnt this, you will discover there’s another one you haven’t. You invest and most times you burn your fingers. So, you can’t learn it at once. I’ve learnt so many lessons here – one of the cruel and very bad lessons we learnt was that I bought one land three times, I paid three times. What lesson can I learn more than that? So, that one helped me to know more rudiments of the business and I tell people, no lawyer’s letter can move me. SAN has written me, Chief Judge has written me, Gani Fawehinmi has written, Femi Falana has written me and as they are writing me I’m sending their letters to my SAN to be replying them. So many challenges in the business and if you are not so bold, you will receive one letter and you will want to disappear.
In business generally, who are your role models?
I have so many role models. My No.1 role model is my Pastor – Pastor Chris Oyahilome. That’s my No.1 role model in business. Pastor taught me most of the things I know about business right now. To you, he’s just a pastor preaching, but to us, he’s our teacher. Pastor is a core businessman. Christ Embassy has so many businesses and all of them are doing so well. Pastor taught me how to be courageous and how to be bold. Once you are bold, you can face anything. Then, I also have Pastor Shola Olubode. He was my first pastor and the person that brought me into banking. He’s in Canada now. He was the former MD of Refuge Mortgage Bank in Opebi. Then, Pastor Olumide Emmanuel, the CEO of Commonsense Group. He’s one of my mentors in real estate. So, I have role models, but those are my top three that I look up to and anytime I have any challenge I call them, they answer me, they talk to me and they guide me on what to do.
Tell us about your family…
Well, I grew up in a family of ten, two wives. My father had two wives, but I’m the last child of my mother. I have five younger ones. My stepmom who I call my mother now – she was very supportive throughout my university days and when I was growing up. My stepmother is like my mother. We are very close. Maybe because my father sees all of us as one. In his family, there’s no division, there’s no senior wife, junior wife, no, no, no…All of you are one. He made sure that everybody is closely-knited. So, when my stepmom came into the house, I was still a little boy and my younger ones, all of us grew up together under one roof and I can’t remember any day she fought with my mother. So, herself and my mom were very close. I lost my mom 16 years ago. But my stepmom has been very, very supportive. Throughout my university days, I will go to her, she’s a retired nurse now, at Igbobi, National Orthopaedic Hospital, she was a matron then, she will give me rice, fish, oil, everything. Don’t tell your father o! Just take these things, you and your friends. She will also give me money. Oh, she was very supportive…
What was your father’s name?
Senior Apostle General Timothy Olusegun Onalaja. My mother’s name was Mrs. Christiana Aduke Onalaja. They are both late. My stepmother is Mrs. Mogbonjubola Oyebimpe Onalaja. She’s the only one alive now. I grew up in a family of ten. I attended Karaole Primary School, Ifako-Agege, Lagos, then Fagba Grammar School, before I went to school in my village. My father bundled all of us to our village in Ijebu – Odogbotu Community Grammar School, that’s where I did my secondary school. I can remember vividly, my father wanted me to be a doctor. My elder brother and I. I have an immediate elder brother. He died when I was in my second year in the university. He was my closest pal…
Which university did you attend and what course did you study?
LASU – Lagos State University. I studied Economics. I did my MBA also in Marketing, Lagos State University, before I also went to UNILAG for my advanced diploma in project management…
Finally, when you are not working, how do you relax?
I travel a lot, I travel a lot, because my kids are abroad, so I always travel to see them. But because of my Rotary presidency now, for the next one year, I will reduce my traveling. I also play football, I love lawn tennis, I’m a member of Ikoyi Club, I go swimming once in a while. The job is just too demanding. I don’t have so much time for leisure. But anytime I want leisure, mostly, it’s out of the country. Also, I’m the president of Rotary Club of Maryland right now, so it’s another responsibility that I’m juggling with my work; I’m a deacon in my church, I’m a leader in church too, I’m the chairman and CEO of Revolution Plus, so the responsibility is so much. But God has given me the ability to be able to juggle all of them together and it’s been good.