Sola Owoloja has been working in the business for five years; he understands how to please. He had to transport a comb from New York to Johannesburg. It must have been a very special comb. He naturally said: “Yes”. You have to.
The patron staying at a Johannesburg hotel had left the comb, given to her by her dying mother, in a hair salon in New York. West Chauffeurs got in touch with the New York hotel and within 48 hours the comb was hand delivered to the patron.
Running around, chauffeuring, catering to and cajoling the rich is what makes concierge services pay. On another occasion, a patron asked to deliver an elephant across the Atlantic to the United States as a gift to his daughter. Luckily, the request was not followed through, again Owoloja would have said: “Yes”.
“Integrity is very important. If you make a promise to your guest, you have to keep that promise. We made a promise to our guests. We will bend, we’re flexible. We’ll do anything to keep them satisfied,” says Owoloja.
In 2008, Owoloja and Kagiso Dumasi saw a gap in the market for a concierge company in South Africa that would cater for the needs of wealthy travelers. Owoloja oversees the operational, financial and recruitment side of the business, while Dumasi looks after the marketing.
West Chauffeurs can make dinner reservations; find scarce theater tickets and presents in a hurry, as well as deliver combs.
Nigerian-born Owoloja learnt early on at home, in Lagos, that you have to do business however you can.
In Lagos, while in his twenties, he dabbled in the supermarket business with a friend. He moved to South Africa with the hope of running an oil services company, but failed. He moved back home but later returned to South Africa to start a business with the little entrepreneurial experience under his belt.
“When the chips are down, in the face of adversity and massive challenges, you need to still inspire people to get them to see beyond the challenges of the day,” says Owoloja.
Their Johannesburg business prospered through a link to Quintessentially, a global luxury lifestyle company, known for its high net-worth clients.
With a little help from the National Empowerment Fund, West Chauffeurs increased its fleet from two cars to eight, after making more than R1 million ($108,800) in its second year.
They relocated from the central business district of Sandton to another affluent suburb, Melrose Arch. This opened up the business meetings market. The company had to swear its drivers to secrecy as many deals were struck on the road.
Towards the end of that year, an opportunity came to run the travel desk for two new five-star hotels in Cape Town but it all went downhill from there. The two found that they had expanded too quickly.
They had entered into unfamiliar territory, in an international tourist city that has well-established hotels. West Chauffeurs found itself exposed, a small business that relied too much on the hotels for guests for business. The two new hotels were unable to fill up enough rooms to secure business for West Chauffeurs. The Johannesburg office had to keep Cape Town afloat.
“For a small company, expansion should be managed very carefully. We were profitable in our first year, but we did not think through that move carefully. We expanded very quickly without the structures to manage the expansion in terms of cash flow, record keeping,” says Owoloja.
At the end of each month the business was short of around 65% of their costs, which they had to source from the profit made during the previous year.
“It dried up very quickly. We tried to get overdrafts, personal funds to pay salaries but it was quite difficult. We picked up heavy losses in Cape Town but yes those are lessons learnt. They were painful,” he adds with a chuckle.
Owoloja says a big mistake was for the company to go without a management account and financial statements for nearly a year.
But that’s all in the past now. In early 2011, West Chauffeurs packed up office in Cape Town and focused on business at its headquarters in Johannesburg, where the company was doing well.
They signed a contract to run the travel desk for the five-star African Pride’s Melrose Arch Hotel located in the trendy precinct. Again, they struggled with being too small and having to run a high occupancy hotel with demanding clients. The hotels patrons were skeptical about making use of their services because they were much smaller than established car rental companies.
Through it all, things started to look up. The company now turns over nearly $800,000 annually.
“We went from nothing to quite a bit. There’s this very nice feeling that comes with making things work,” says Owoloja.
West Chauffeurs currently has twelve cars and employs 17 drivers and consultants. They drive clients from First Bank of Nigeria, Liberty Life and Barclays, to mention but a few.
One of their biggest achievements was beating more established companies to drive members traveling with the British Lions during their rugby tour to South Africa in 2009.
The softly spoken Owoloja says they are wary of leaping without looking, the scars of the Cape Town run deep. For now, their plans are to grow other services within the West Chauffeur brand in Johannesburg and capture the leisure market.
Surely, when the time is right, the answer will be: “Yes”.