Abiola Lawal is an entrepreneur, a visionary and a technology advocate that fervently believes that there is a ton of untapped employment opportunities within the tourism industry in Africa. In Nigeria, where oil prices have crashed, the tourism and travel industry presents an ideal opportunity for younger generation of Nigerians to explore for employment. A travel enthusiast, Lawal is a passionate entrepreneur who is driven to empower consumers and customers during the process of search for the right destination or vacation spot. A firm advocate of exceptional customer service, Lawal founded Flyboku in 2015 after 25 years in the US working for and honing his craft at major corporations such as Disney, Ernst & Young and SAP
Tell us About Your Background
A: My name is Abiola Lawal. I am the founder and Chairman of Ashton & Dave Travels and Holidays and our latest innovation is FlyBoku.com. While Ashton and Dave is more for corporate travel, Flyboku is more for personal lifestyle. Mr. Boku, the brand personality, is your digital agent online that allows you to discover more places. I was born and bred in Lagos and I attended the University of Ilorin (Unilorin) where I studied Economics and Finance. After graduating from the Unilorin, I relocated to Canada first and then to the United States. The most fascinating job I had on arriving in the US was working for Skywest Airlines which is a subsidiary of Delta Airlines. I had a chance to discover places, people and learnt a ton about aviation logistics and travel. I got enamored by this amazing experience and consequently, my interest in travel became more affirmed.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family?
I come from a relatively large family. I am the fourth of eight children made up of 2 girls and 6 boys. There used to be a running joke growing up that my mom doesn’t have to pay for professional services because she has a kid for every profession. I am very proud of my mother. She is my role model in so many ways and she has a fantastic dedication to education as a primary way to empower her children despite the fact that she supported all of us under very challenging and incredible circumstances. As a result, I have always drawn motivation from my mother’s strength. She is somebody who is not traditionally educated but educated every one of her kids. I also have two girls and a boy of my own.
Can you please tell us about your career so far?
I didn’t get into the travel industry in a glamorous way. I actually started by loading bags on the aircraft at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in the early 1990s and I was very proud of my job as a young man trying to discover his path in the United States. I was working two jobs as well as going to school because I had a plan to get an MBA. After working for 5 years, I got admission to the University of California, Irvine for my MBA and then from then on I mostly worked in the corporate world. I had a chance to work with Disney which I found very fascinating I witnessed customer satisfaction firsthand once they arrived in Disneyland. After Disney, I worked with Ernst & Young which is a major consulting firm globally. At Ernst & Young, I learned a lot in terms of helping companies get better at what they do. I received fantastic training and received a lot of exposure to multiple industries that equipped me to do a ton of other things in my life. I ended up spending five years at Ernst & Young and then joined SAP, a global ERP company, a few years later.
– Abiola Lawal
While I still working with SAP, I took a trip to Nigeria and was introduced to the founders of Oando. The founders really liked my profile and were trying to take the company to the next level. Oando brought me back home and hired me as the Group Chief Strategy Officer (and also Director of Gas and Power Business Unit) in 2005. After Oando, I got another opportunity to oversee a transformational strategy at a company called CAMAC Energy Inc. CAMAC Energy is a company based in the US but a lot of their footprint asset is in Nigeria. My employment with CAMAC gave me a chance to move back to the States and eventually we took the company public making it the first Nigerian company on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Afterwards, the board asked me to step in as the CFO of the company.
After my experience at CAMAC Energy, I felt that it was time for me to refocus on my love for aviation, tourism and travel. I moved back to Nigeria and decided to refocus on my initial passion for travel. Ashton and Dave Travels was launched in 2007 but I wasn’t fully involved initially because we had other partners involved. However, I came back full circle to run the business and inject innovative ideas into the company to move us forward. In addition, Flyboku was launched last year (2015) and we also have a small charter helicopter operation that we also work with. So, that explains the full cycle of my career.
How did you come about this location?
The current location is centrally located right here in Victoria Island and we have a lot of customers on the island. However, we also have customers across Lagos. We also have an office in Houston, Texas and we intend on establishing offices in other locations across the World. As I said earlier, Flyboku is a locally created brand for a global audience and we see ourselves growing and expanding into other areas. The vision is that Mr. Boku will become a global brand and as Nigerians we should not expect anything less. This belief is one of the reasons why I like what The 234 Project is all about. What you guys are doing is positive and I like supporting positive message.
How did you get your staff aligned with your vision and strategy?
I will be lying to you if I tell you that it has been easy, I will be lying. I have had to restructure my organization. I have had to let some people go. I have had to hire some people. I have had to maintain a culture of execution and dedication. In fact, if you ask anybody on my staff, I have a four letter acronym that everyone that works here is committed to. It is called TIPA.
- T is for Teamwork which essentially means no man and no one is an island. My message to all my staff is that you should always regard a fellow employees’ job as important.
- I stands for Integrity. You could be the best person in the world here but if you don’t have clear integrity and we cannot rely on your words then you cannot be relied upon.
- P is for Professionalism. Professionalism to me is everything from dressing the part, playing the part and showing up on time. Even when customers are upset, I always say that customers are right. I have apologized to customers before even when I know they are clearly wrong. It is part of the service culture that I was exposed to while working in the US. Professionalism is about conducting yourself very well.
- The last letter A is for Accountability. I get really upset when people decide to “pass the buck.” I seriously dislike the negative habit of employees giving an excuse. My employees have to be accountable to each other and among each other.
This mantra is what I have used to essentially guide my staff in everything I do. We have weekly meetings to discuss briefings, protocol review, travel, ticketing, tours, pick-up, and plans for the week and upcoming weeks. We conduct these activities on a regular basis. We work hard but we also try to have fun. Everybody’s birthday is celebrated here. In fact, Mr. Boku has his annual birthday celebration on January 15th. So we do little things to try to reduce stress but our job is still 24/7. I have a staff that pretty much works around the clock and some of them barely get any sleep. So I pretty much dedicate my interviews or presentations to them. Without them there is no us and without us, there is no them. So it is a collaboration. I am very proud of the staff we have and I see us growing more. As an entrepreneur, you are a teacher because you are always repeating yourself. You have to show consistency and more importantly, you have to make sure everyone around you buys into your vision of the company. You cannot be a one man show. As an entrepreneur, I am big on creating processes. I always tell my team if it not on paper then it doesn’t exist.
What is it like being the CEO?
Well, you know how the saying goes “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and I believe it is true. There are a ton of challenges that come with the role. Hiring the right staff and identifying people that get things done can be difficult sometimes. It is easier to hire and harder to fire but you have to do both sometimes when it is necessary. I think of myself as the lead in an orchestra. While I don’t need to play all the instruments, I am a conductor and I need to make sure that everybody is playing their part and harmonizing. As a CEO, it is about leadership and it is also about motivating people to do much more than they think they are capable of. I have always in my life found it important to grow people and give them leadership opportunities. I have a young man that works for me today that came in at an entry level role and today he is a major Project Manager in my company. People growth gives me a lot of satisfaction and I am very excited about the future of Flyboku and what we are doing here today.
How do you handle difficult clients?
I always say handling difficult clients is part of what we do every day and I think difficulty arises from lack of information. In general, I believe people are reasonable and in most cases they are. Of course, once in a while we have to deal with unreasonable people but those are the outliers. I always tell my staff to over-communicate and go out of their way for customers. In dealing with difficult customers, it is all about my staff understanding that we (Flyboku) are service providers. You start with the idea that the customer is always right and so you can provide accurate information to them. Ultimately, it is all about communication.
What does Flyboku mean to you?
Flyboku for me is a passion about discovering new places, discovering new experiences. Like I said, I started my professional career in Los Angeles before I went to graduate school but you know, I have always traveled. When I was in the US, at some point I became a “Million Miler” with American Airlines which meant I became a gold member for life. So, I have always enjoyed the travel experience. However, the process of getting to that status was relatively easy and the routine of searching for a flight and booking a flight and a hotel is very seamless. I came back to Nigeria and felt that the process was very inefficient even though I believe that Nigerian travel agents were doing their best. You cannot live a disconnected life in a connected world. I felt that the majority of people out there including Nigerians were looking for a simple way to look for alternative destinations of where they want to go without feeling harassed by a travel agent. These customers just want to search in the comfort of their home or on their phone and be able to decide based on clear choices. I wanted Nigerians to have the same experience that anybody in the West will have. I called it the Global Standards for Local Adoption. Boku-Boku is the Nigeria context of plenty opportunities to view and consume information.
The idea is to provide a reliable, accessible, affordable but fun way for Nigerians to search for and select a travel destination that will lead to a yield a fun, memorable and unforgettable travel experience. So, I created this character, Mr. Boku, because I learnt from Disney that every brand should have a compelling story and there is no complete story without a lead character. Mr. Boku is the lead character in this story of helping people discover new places. He is the digital agent and he will get you to wherever a traveler needs to go. He will assist you in the process of discovering new places.
Flyboku can also be seen as a social media platform where you can share your travel photos and experiences. This is not an idea that is enforced or pushed by an airline. This notion is fostered and managed by real people. This form of sharing and feedback is quite important because people are looking for more affordable ways to travel nowadays. This is the original thought that went into the Discover Africa Campaign. We have 54 countries in Africa and you will find out that most of us that travel have been to the rest of the world but have not been to most African countries. A few years ago, I met an Australian man in the US and he was sharing with me about some fantastic places to visit in Africa. He mentioned he has travelled to at least 30 African countries and visited some amazing places in Cape Verde, Nigeria, and Zanzibar. I felt embarrassed because this gentleman from Australia knew more about Africa, about my own backyard, way more than I did. I saw this an opportunity to know more about Africa. Africa is a place of brilliant people, a continent full of opportunities, beautiful places, a place to do more business and a continent where there are endless opportunities to trade. Well, how can you trade more when movement is limited? Flyboku is meant to be part of the innovation that enables this process.
Today, European countries trade almost 70% of their business among each other. So they are circulating that multiplier effect within the countries and their respective economies. African countries do less than 20% among each other. Imagine, if African countries can raise that percentage by an additional 10%? The effect will be massive for the level of continent and the incremental GDP lift. These factors are my motivation because I want to do my own part. We got endorsed by the Director General of the National Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC); an organization that oversees and promotes tourism in Nigeria. In fact, the Director General was present during the successful launch of Flyboku in January 2015. What I find more fascinating is when my customers experience our service and are “wowed.” I just got feedback from a family of four that we arranged a fantastic trip for to Uyo. The family was initially considering going to Europe but decided to try out the notion of “Domestic Tourism.” My Head of Tourism put together a package that included the flight, vouchers, breakfast, hotel, breakfast, and pool activities for kids. We were able to get all of this bookings done and delivered the details to them digitally. What is really exciting is that about 20% of my customers are from the diaspora and I am amazed at how they continue to find us. However, because our message is very positive and because we have global standards, it makes sense. I don’t think we should lower our service standards because we are in Nigeria.
Do you intend on having another brand or company character apart from Mr. Boku?
Very good question. Some of our customers have already given us feedback stating that they like Mr. Boku character. He is essentially your “Doctor of Travel” that advices you on all your travel needs. I am excited about their connection to the character because that means they are tuned in to the story and I believe the story will evolve. Our customers will definitely see the evolution of this story over time and we have a trademark to protect our innovation and ideas with Mr. Boku because it is an intellectual property. I am comfortable that Mr. Boku will be a story that most Nigerians can relate to because he is a likeable character.
What has been your most satisfactory moment since launch?
There have been quite a few already. Earlier this week, a customer called and said Mr. Boku took me to my domestic destination and I had a fantastic time. Like I said, one of the key things we are trying to do is showcase positive aspects of African countries. Having lived in the US for 25 years, there are lots of negative stories in the West about Africa. As Africans, we need to change that narrative because there is more to us than just the negative things being said about us. We are good people, cultural people, and beautiful people with beautiful places to boast of. As people discover these things, my goal is that Flyboku can serve as the platform where people share their testimonials with Nigerians and the rest of the world so that new people can be inspired to travel. We get a lot of visa requests and I always tell people that we cannot guarantee a visa but we can help clients secure a visa. Anybody that tells you they can help you secure a visa is simply spitting nonsense. In order to get a visa, an applicant must have a genuine story of why he or she is travelling and must have a credible reason of why he or she should get that visa because it is a privilege and not a right. The applicant should also be able to confirm that he or she has established links in Nigeria so that the embassy is convinced they are coming back. So, one of the things we do is actually coach applicants to ensure that they get it right. It is all about customer service and providing a pleasant experience for the customer. For instance, this past weekend a customer travelling to South Africa needed to make a change to his travel itinerary and sent us an email around 11pm at night expecting to get a response back the next day. We got back to the customer with the changes he requested within 2 mins. He was surprised. His surprised reaction and satisfaction (via an email) is the pleasure of customer service. I am trying to bring the best customer service to the digital world. Mr. Boku delivers that experience to you.
Where do you see Mr. Boku in 5 years?
In the next 5 – 10 years, Mr. Boku will be a global brand from Nigeria, from Africa; a brand that all Nigerians will be proud of just like Germans are proud of BMW and Mercedes Benz as reliable, global brands. I want Flyboku to stand for a global brand that came out of Africa but delivers global standard and service. A travel brand that helps people get from point A to point B and brings them back with vivid and memorable experiences they can share with the rest of the world. I want Mr. Boku to be a global brand such that the world would say “Good job, Nigeria” and I want this company to be around long after I am gone. There is a reason why companies built on innovation such as JP Morgan, Ford Motors are still around today several decades later even though the founders are long gone. These companies are still around because their founders laid a strong foundation built on innovation, exceptional customer service and a dedicated and hardworking workforce. Flyboku will continue to surge forward with the solid technology partnership we have with Sabre and the joint collaborations we continue to build upon with our airline partners and hotel partners who have both been fantastic. We have deep experience in all these places and we will continue to look for innovative ways and avenue to make the travel experience fun, simple and memorable for clients. As we say here, when you come to us for your travel needs or requests, you can be sure that “Mr. Boku will get you there.”