14 July 2012

Nigeria: How a Launderer's Sloppiness Fired Drycleaner's Dream

Young, ambitious and raring to go in an environment that seems to offer very little and expect too much, Bright Aikpitanyi, the brain behind WQ Dry Cleaners, is an example of what could be when dreams are kept aflame.

The journey within

His foray into the laundry business was both instructive and exciting; it's a testament to the need to keep dreams alive even while still pursuing other vocations. When the idea grew, Bright Aikpitanyi of WQ Dry Cleaners was still just a low income earner whose purse could not take him beyond the dusty doorsteps of the local washer man, popularly called alagbafo in the Yoruba parlance. But beyond patronizing the local launderer was his own proficiency in washing clothes; as evidenced in how he handled his uncle's wears. It was the beginning of a vocation that would take him places. But it was not the proficiency that gave life to the idea; it was the near disappointment he suffered while waiting for the local launderer to deliver his clothes one evening.

"On a fateful day around 2004, while I sat in my scanty living room waiting endlessly as usual for my alagbafo to deliver my laundries, the idea suddenly hit my mind that I could create a fabric cleaning business that could provide for the need of tons of people my income bracket. Of course, my alagbafo never turned up. I was almost stranded the next day which was a Monday. My mind started processing and expanding the Idea. Immediately I grabbed a pen and a note book and jotted notes. I almost filled up the note book in the days that followed."

Even before then, the services he was being rendered by the launderer were not the best he could have wished but they were as far as his finances could take him and so like one without choice, he stuck to his alagbafo.

"Finished clothes were not always as good as I would have wanted them. I was perpetually dissatisfied. But then, that was what I could afford at the time. I only managed a few other less expensive professional drycleaners for my few collections of suits. Before I started using the alagbafos, I use to do my laundries personally. It was always a very painstaking exercise. I usually got a lot of complement even from senior colleagues. I never knew it was going to become a business at some point."

Nurturing and living the dream

Like every dream, there was a period it was in the cooler. In fact, it took three years after the idea first came before anything concrete could be done. Fine, he had the idea but his income as a staff of a financial institution could not just support the take-off of such a business idea. He got an unemployed graduate to do the research. This the guy did but not to his satisfaction. But it was at this point that providence took over: promotions at work and some awards here and there ensured that there was a considerable increase in income.

"I was saving and investing almost every free dime I had in savings and investments. As if heaven was working with me, the sun and the moon met and stocks went to high heavens. I wasn't greedy, I sold off as many as I could and anchor my own stock, WQ. The period between the time of conception and the time of birth was more than three years. It was a time when the idea was killed severally in my mind and re-born severally. I was distracted a lot of times, but thank God, I didn't abandon the idea."

But the dream did not start the day WQ was born. Perhaps, from his school days. He had been a student that could be regarded as well above average and hence, like many young scholars then, he wanted to become a doctor. So, when it was time to write the Joint Matriculation Examination, he went for medicine, but again providence and strict admission requirements ensured that would not be.

"When medicine didn't come through I settled for chemistry. Throughout my university, I wasn't so clear about what I will eventually become. But I was quite adventurous especially in business related issues. I tried trading on body crèmes as a student. As a youth corps member, I entered into partnership with a photographer and we did some business in NYSC camp. I believe I had entrepreneurial instincts which I am still working hard to hone. Enterprise must have been somewhere in me."

Humbling lesson

It was not to be a smooth sail though. The initial bottle-necks and challenges reared their ugly heads and Aikipitanyi nearly gave up. The first problem was the quality of machines he had imported for the business. They were sub-standard and gave them a lot of headache. He even believed he might have been duped or short-changed by those who arranged the importation.

"This was one very challenging period. I realized, the we had acquired very poor and substandard machines shortly after we commenced business. In fact, I might have been duped. Most of our early equipment were defective and posed enormous challenges for my new baby, WQ. This was the real test for me. Again the sun and moon met on my behalf. That is God almighty. From the blues God sent a financial institution to bankroll our first set of authentic brand new equipments. The arrival of this equipment heralded a new dawn for us."

Aikpitanyi cannot point to any particular moment he would say he turned the corner in the business. It was a gradual rise until he became the household name he has become today amongst his patrons. He does admit that the choice of their initial stores really played a positive role in where they are today. "We worked hard and the market favoured us. So we prospered gradually. We are still expecting to turn the corner. At the moment we are working even harder because our long term goals are far from met. Right now, we are just able to feed and shelter ourselves. I wish myself and WQ good luck."

Selling point

If Aikpitanyi wants the world to see WQ as the ultimate in dry cleaning business, there must be something the company would be rendering the dry cleaning public which others don't offer. Names like Washaman, Clean Ace, Garment Care and so on have been known for their pedigree in the dry cleaning business. According to him, what stands you out is the professionalism that you bring to the business and understanding of what the business entails in terms of how you treat fabrics and the attention you give to customers.

"Textile care is somewhat generic by products/services i.e. laundry, dry cleaning, alterations and repairs, etc. The difference is the level of expertise and professionalism you bring to it. Some companies are more detailed, highly professional and well packaged. That is the level that WQ belongs. The vision is to build the most professional and competent textile care company in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a journey we are committed to. We are on course. Our numerous customers can attest to our expertise and professionalism. This is continuously being improved on in line with the popular Japanese principle of Kaizeem. High service levels, great customer service delivered by well trained professionals from decent environments sets us apart."

Even with this Aikpitanyi would not like to admit they have expanded rapidly in the last five years. To him, it has been some modest business growth and expansion and, like most Nigerians who have managed to break even in business, by the grace of God."

He also added that he would rather the dry cleaning business was as easy as many take it to be. To him, it is as complicated as most retail businesses. According to him, you cannot run it the way you run your eatery business. And to buttress the fact that it requires time, energy and man-power, WQ currently has about forty employees. "Our plan is to evolve into a dry cleaner of choice.

We hope to have evolved the most competent manpower in the dry cleaning industry with experience locally and internationally. Once you have visited WQ, then you cannot get a better service anywhere else. This is expected to be in every aspect of our business."

Though there are plans to expand beyond Lagos. But right now, according to him, Lagos is where it is happening.

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