April 13, 2021

Celebrating Excellence & Integrity

Just provide solutions, no one cares if you’re a woman’

Deborah Nicol-Omeruah is the acting Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of UPDC Plc, the largest real estate development company in Nigeria and is responsible for driving business growth and increasing profitability across the entire business. She has almost 20 years’ experience in real estate and banking with specialisation in property development, property finance, acquisitions and mortgages. She also has extensive private banking and investment planning experience in the UK and Africa.

A Real Estate Professional and Certified Mortgage and Financial Adviser (CeFA, CeMAP) by the Institute of Financial Services in the UK, she is a recognised industry expert in the Nigerian mortgage and real estate development market and served as non-executive director on the Board of Trustbond Mortgage Bank Plc (now FirstTrust Mortgage Bank Plc) from 2015 to 2019. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she takes us through her career journey, the future of real estate in Nigeria amidst post-COVID-19 recovery and other issu

Give us a little peep into your background, education and career journey?
As an Architecture graduate from the University of Nottingham, my progression from banking into property development was inevitable as I have always had a passion for real estate. My professional career spans almost 20 years and I have transitioned through the real
estate and finance industry both in Nigeria and the UK, holding positions in mortgage and financial advisory to help individuals buy homes; property finance to help developers build buildings and property development to build my own buildings as a developer – I have gone full circle.

While in the UK, I gained my certificates in Financial Advice, as well as Mortgage Advice and Practice from the Institute of Financial Services and worked as a Senior Private Banker at both HSBC Bank and Lloyds Private Banking. I moved back to Nigeria in 2008 and started my career here, heading the Mortgage Unit and then the Property Finance and Acquisitions Unit at Stanbic IBTC Bank Plc.

I joined Landmark Africa Group as Chief Operating Officer overseeing their property development and corporate finance activities, and then moved on to Broll Property Group as Africa Asset and Transaction Director for Standard Chartered Bank, before joining UPDC in 2019 as Chief Commercial Officer. At UPDC, I was promoted to Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director in December 2019 prior to my recent promotion to Ag. CEO/MD. It’s been an amazing journey with many challenges but even more successes I’d say.

With your new role, what are your plans for UPDC?
I am delighted to have been appointed Ag. CEO of UPDC Plc, it is Nigeria’s foremost real estate company and a company I have admired for years as I progressed in my career. As CEO, I am responsible for driving strategy and growth in UPDC’s principal activities which are property development and facility management and I plan to build on our vision to create affordable lifestyle developments for Nigeria’s growing middle class, whilst maintaining our loyal client base.

I am confident we can achieve this by capitalising on our strengths as there is no other real estate company in Nigeria that has our track record, our experience, and most of all, our people.

How would you say your background and experience helped you stand out in your career? 
When I look back on my career, I find that hardwork, building strong teams and transforming businesses have been instrumental to my success. Some of my proudest achievements in Nigeria includes growing the mortgage department of Stanbic IBTC Bank (a member of the Standard Bank Group) by 130 per cent in 12 months; transforming Landmark Africa from a Serviced Office business into a lifestyle property development company and most of all, being part of the executive leadership team driving UPDC’s transition in the past two years. I am now responsible for setting UPDC on a path to sustainable growth and profitability.

Working in the banking industry gave me a head for dealing with finance and investment. As a mortgage adviser, you get to understand what clients are looking for, and the challenges they face with finding affordable quality homes from reputable developers. I found that the key challenge a lot of developers faced was actually financing their projects, so this drove me to move into property finance, so that I could ensure developers had sufficient funds to produce the homes which the banks mortgage clients could then buy.

Financing the developers taught me a great deal about the development process, and seeing as I understood how to structure projects so that they are “bankable,” I easily moved into real estate development and was able to secure financing from banks to build quality commercial, retail and residential assets. My background in architecture already informed me of what quality real estate looks like and how to design and build efficiently. This is how I transitioned from banker to real estate developer.

COVID-19 has had a great impact on every sector, how much would you say it affected the property/real estate industry and how are you looking to rebound/reposition in this ‘new normal’? 
The effects of the pandemic cannot be understated and had wide reaching implications on people, business operations and finances. The commercial office and retail real sectors in particular have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Many retailers have been forced to move their operations online leaving malls with vacant units and many corporates are encouraging their employees to ‘Work from Home’ resulting in a reduced need and demand for office space. For us, we have the advantage of experience in almost all the real estate asset classes, however our primary focus remains residential property development for sale, which continues to enjoy stable demand as Nigerians continue to look for comfortable homes to acquire.

Our breadth of knowledge of real estate trends has guided our decision to concentrate on middle-income residential developments, moving away from high-end developments which can be restrictive in its returns during turbulent periods such as now. We are embarking on our first project under our new management team which is the Festival Apartments in Festac, targeted at the middle income buyer, where we have seen there is stable and continued demand despite the pandemic.

You’ve worked with several notable names in this sector, how accommodating is it for women, especially those just starting out?
I spent most of the early stages in my career being the only woman in the room, especially as I moved into more senior roles. And I am sure, like many other women in senior roles, I was sometimes mistaken for the Personal Assistant (P.A), but you rise above it and quickly learn to always act like a lady, but think like a man. My personal experience was that I often had to work twice or three times as hard as male counterparts just to be given the same opportunities, but this extra work helped me strengthen my skills and build my determination to succeed.

What I have found is that actions speak louder than words so ensuring that you stand out and are bold and excellent in your execution will speak volumes for you. If you provide solutions, add value and are impactful – no one cares if you’re a woman.

Do you think mentorship is important for women, especially in this industry?
Extremely important. I have had some fantastic mentors, both male and female, who have helped me get to where I am today. I have found that I tend to make my bosses my “unofficial” mentors as I have had really great bosses in my career who have inspired me and I’ve had the privilege of working with and watching them through their successes and challenges.

Everyone needs a role model, especially one who has trod the path you are on and managed to succeed. Who better to guide you along the way than someone who has been there, made the mistakes and learnt from them. The male mentors I have had helped me to rise above my emotions, be bold and “think like a man”. The female mentors have been extremely useful in helping me find a balance in succeeding at work, family life and my personal wellbeing. Many career women tend to focus on work and family and forget about themselves and mentors are very good at ensuring you don’t forget about you.

If you were speaking with an upcoming real estate entrepreneur right now, tell her five pitfalls she must avoid to be successful?
Make sure you buy property with good title – you can end up in years of litigation if you buy a property from the wrong person or one with liens or challenges with possession

Choose your partners carefully – do your due diligence on partners, and make sure your end goals and ethics are aligned. You want to build the right reputation for yourself by working with the right people.

Don’t over promise and under deliver – this could ruin your reputation, so you should always try to manage people’s expectations properly.

Do your research before you start – know when, where, who, how much, and what to deliver

Have integrity – be honest in all your dealings, and follow all building rules and regulations, this could help avoid costly delays, shut downs, fines and litigation.

*What is the future of real estate in Nigeria considering everything happening? Does it still look promising?
I am optimistic about the future of real estate in Nigeria. Real estate is everywhere, it is where we live, work and play. It is a basic need and necessity, like bread and butter as there will always be demand as long as you deliver the right property to the right people at the right price.

One of Nigeria’s greatest strengths as a nation is population growth, and with this we are seeing the emergence of a more dynamic, technologically savvy, young, working population. The key is in finding ways to meet their changing demands and accommodate their financial situations. While this may seem like a monumental task, due to negative external factors, it’s very promising for firms like us that have repositioned themselves accordingly.

*In your opinion, would you say today’s women are shattering the ‘glass ceiling’?
Absolutely, we have seen and continue to see an increasing number of women taking up roles we had never seen them in before. From CEOs of large corporations, to board members, chairpersons, ambassadors, ministers, chief justices and of course, the first female Vice President of the United States. These trailblazing women tore down those glass ceilings that the rest of us are now walking through.

*What would you tell any woman that wants a seat at the table?
Don’t wait for someone to offer it to you; if you want it, be bold, figure out what you need to do to get it and get to work on doing those things till you get it! It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

*Has there been any personal experience that made you want to throw in the towel?
I wouldn’t say I was ready to throw in the towel, however, starting a family definitely added a new layer of challenges to finding a work, life and sanity balance. It is impossible to be the perfect employee, the perfect wife and the perfect mother all at the same time, you will always feel like you are failing at one, and you will always have to make the often difficult choice of prioritising one over the others. You have to quickly figure out how to put the right support structures in place around you at home and at work, to allow you plan or compartmentalize your schedule so you have time for each role you play as a woman each day.

*What is your passion, what drives you to keep succeeding?
I am a very ambitious woman and I am passionate about unlocking financial freedom and improving the standard of living for Nigerians through real estate investments in lifestyle focused real estate concepts. I also want to build a personal legacy for those coming after me to see what is possible and achievable if you work hard. I am a self-confessed real estate geek so because I am doing something I’m passionate about, I don’t give up easily when things get tough, I am persistent and dedicated to doing better each time.

*If you had the power to change something for Nigerian women, what would that be?
I am happy to see some positive changes with increasing female representation in executive leadership positions, but I still worry about the gender role biases that our culture raises us with. Even till today, I find myself correcting my children’s teachers who make stereotypical statements about male and female roles. We should be teaching our sons and daughters that mothers can be in the office and fathers can be in the kitchen, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these scenarios.

*What last words do you want to leave with readers that have been inspired by you?
It is great to be inspired by the success of others, but competing with them may only lead to stress and frustration. You are on your own unique journey and you are your own greatest competitor, so focus only on competing with the best version of yourself, and always seek to beat your prior best.

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