By Eric Elezuo
Meeting Mrs Kehinde Onabanjo Iyiola, the brain behind Finesse Events and White Stone Hall, for the first time will leave one completely awed, especially if you were privileged to have heard of, or come to terms with her tremendous exploits in the hospitality industry. Beautiful, intelligent, jovial, highly attentive and upwardly mobile, Kenny, as she is fondly called, is an epitome of self discipline, determination, commitment to duty, focus and attendant hard work. In this brief chat, she exposed her inner self, beliefs, story behind the glory and why her projects, Finesse and White Stone should be the first in the event owner’s list. Excerpts:
Can you give us an insight into your personality
I am Kehinde Onabanjo Iyiola. I am a lady that has the fear of God, selfless and believe in life principles of what you give is what you get, treat others how you want to be treated. I believe that life is a circle; there are no lucks, there are no circumstances – what you put into life is what you get out of life. That has been my perception about life.
I was born over three decades ago to a Pharmacist father from Ijebu Ode (Onabanjo) in Ogun State and mother from Aiyetoro, also in Ogun State.
Kindly trace your educational background
I attended ASCON Staff School, Badagry where I had my primary school classes. From there, I attended Lagos State Model School, Kankon. I majored in commercial subjects. After Kankon, I went to Lagos State University (LASU) in 2001 where I studied Law. Afterwards, I attended the Lagos Business School, OMB 27 Class where I did the Ownership Management course in 2019. I have also done other business trainings thereafter.
Also trace your work experience
While I was in school, I did ushering jobs with some event companies. Basically, I did ushering jobs with Elizabeth R, and while at that, I started making the usher’s uniform, and from there, I started planning to sew for some people. That was never my passion though I use to do some drawings. I am very creative in terms of imagining things, and deciding how I wanted anything to look. And this drew me to fashion. But all I wanted to really do was event. So after school, I registered my company, and ended up in this business.
Did your growing up as a child affected in anyway who you finally become today?
I am the third child in the family, though my twin sister will always say I’m the fourth of five girls. God has been faithful to me in my life journey. I have had to do things once. For example, I did my JAMB exam once, and instantly got admission into the university. I also wrote WAEC once. All in all, God has been faithful to me. While I was in LASU, I was a member of Junior Chambers International (JCI) and I was very active in terms of being in the forefront of organising things whenever there is event involving the club.
While growing up, I was passionate about cooking, home keeping and maintenance. In fact, if one wishes to dress up, I was always on hand to decide the combination of colours and attires. Then, my mum was dealing in beads, and I spearhead its arrangement. I like being creative; I like designing things. I believe it has a hand in the profession I ended up with.
Somehow, there was a long strike during my second or third year in school, and that was when a friend of mine invited me for ushering job, and I grabbed the opportunity, and that was how I landed into ushering for Elizabeth R.
What prompted your movement into event planning
Studying Law in school was really very demanding. I once had a conversation with my mum, I don’t know if she would remember, and I told her that I want to into events planning. She told that she knew I could actually do it because I have the trait, the energy and the drive. I was like ‘where and how would I get the ‘big time’ clients to give me the big jobs. She submitted by saying that I should go ahead and give it a try; that with God nothing is impossible. She actually gave me the first encouragement that made me decide it was something I can actually do. And because of the passion I have for hospitality, seeing to the needs of people, I decided to settle for it after school
Kindly recall the first job that you did, and what was it like planning for the whole thing
The first event I did was my sister’s wedding in 2007, and funny enough she paid me. She paid the sum of N250,000. And there reasons she did. In the first place, she saw value in what doing for her, and secondly, she knew I was just starting, and i didn’t have the materials or anything instrument. But she knew I had the ideal knowledge of putting her event together to make it a big success. In fact, I put all my efforts into that event. It was done at LTV 8, Ikeja. After my sister’s wedding. I got two more weddings, and that has been it
What job exactly launched you into big time or the realm of breakthrough
You know because I go the extra mile for every of our event, every event has always been a testimony, but I could recall that there is one particular one I did that was blew my mind on how God can make something so small so big. We had a Christmas party for one of our clients. We have really done that for about two years, and it usually holds in their house. In that particular year, the governor of Bayelsa State came for the event. It was for the AG of Bayelsa State. It was a small gathering of about 100 guests. The PA to the governor also attended the event. And when she got there, she was blown away by what the beautiful things she saw. And she told me. As fate would have it, her birthday was in two days time. She immediately told the AG that she would want this person to handle her event, and the AG was like ‘why not’. I was called that someone needed to talk to me, and went and met with her, and she invited over to Bayelsa State in two days, and I accepted. She asked for an estimate of the cost. When I promised to work on it, she demanded an instant estimated cost. So I did, and right there and then, she transferred the money, And that was how we stated preparations and moved to Bayelsa for the event. After that event, we did all Bayelsa State government event while Timipre Sylva was the governor.
Can you mention the landmark events that you have done
Another event that we did that opened up a lot of other royal events that we handled was the coronation of Oba of Ijora. I could recall that for that particular event, they had loads of vendors bidding to get the job. But then the then chairman of Apapa Local Government Area, Mr. Ayo Joseph, whose wedding I also did shortly after my sister’s wedding, and who has always been pushing Finesse forward for every event, insisted that it was going to be us even as Alli Dapo Balogun, the Oba’s cousin, who was also a member of the organising committee, mentioned he didn’t know us, and had doubts about our work.
I could recall that on the day of the event, Mr Dapo searched voraciously for me because the picture of the event went viral, and when I met him, he apologised for doubting me. He confessed that what he saw was beyond his expectation. From then onwards, he brought me closer, took me as his sister, gave me his events and that has been it. Each of my events gives birth to different other events.
And some of the landmark events we have done include the Coronation of Oba Ojora, the Coronation of Oba of Epe, the Coronation of Oba Elegushi, the Coronation of Oniru, Governor Seyi Makinde’s birthday as well as his inauguration and mother’s burial. I must mention that it was a big event, spanning two whole days. The first day was for five thousand guests while the second day was for 22,000 guests held at the recreation Club in Ibadan. We did the planning and execution. There was also Chief Razak Okoya’s 80th birthday celebration, Ohief Olu Okeowo, whose event we have been handling in the past 12 years and Chief Elegushi since he became the Oba of Ikate; we have actually been handling his events in the last 11 years. And of course, we have done lots of weddings, burials and get-togethers. In fact, we have done over 8,000 events. The truth is that God has blessed us with quality and enduring clients. On the human level, I can assure you we give services that are hardly found elsewhere.
Tell us how lucrative is the event planning business
The event planning industry is a very lucrative one, and I always believe that once you put passion in whatever you do and give it value, the returns will always come. All you need to do is project yourself, put in all your efforts in every job you get the amount you are paid notwithstanding. The fact you have collected the job, and committed yourself to do the job, you must go all out to do a good. At the end of the day, it is the outlook that people will see, not the amount you were paid. People must understand that you so privileged to market yourself in a gathering of about 1500 people, and so must give it your best and ensure the event is well delivered. You will probably be able to knock down one or two potential clients. The industry is very lucrative. I have always said that I started my business/Finesse with zero kobo, and over the years, God has been faithful to us.
What was it like when you made your first one million naira
Oh my goodness! The truth is that the first one million naira has been made over and over again. I can’t even remember, but I know that when I just started, I never saw profit; I reinvested every kobo I made into the business. So I took me a long time before I started making profit.
Which of your jobs so far could you say was the most challenging
For me, it’s really the job; it just have to be the client. There are some clients that are just difficult you can’t explain it . I could recall that some years old ago after we did Governor Makinde’s birthday and the burial which was for 3000 people. He was blown away afterwards, and dashed me $4000 just to say thank you, and me too I was blown. I saw true reward for labour. There are some clients one would have made the same sacrifice for, put in so much for, and all you get is after all I’m paying you for your service. Anyway, the truth remains that once you get a brief, you have to go all out and deliver. There are clients who are not patient enough to see the ending; they always want to interrupt the process. They forget that you may not appreciate the process; what they see as rubbish becomes wow at the end. Personally, I have not had difficult project; I probably have difficult clients.
What are the features of your events planning as regards services you render to clients
When I started initially, it was just event planning and decoration. But over the years, we have added rentals of decoration items and we have a training school where we train those interested in learning event management and decoration.
What do you source out when planning your events
In Finesse, which is the event management company, we assist clients in co-ordinating the vendors. We help them engage vendors for their event. We don’t do food, we don’t do drinks, small chops and the rest. We just plan on all those vendors and decoration of the event venue. We bring in all the vendors for the event to be a success
White Stone, on its own, is a sister company of Finesse. They have nothing to do with each other except that they are sister companies. If you book White Stone for your even, you are at liberty to bring in your event planner and your vendors. This is in exception of our own client using our facility. White Stone is totally different from Finesse.
At what point did you decide to build an event centre
I recall that the first business plan I did with a plan in 2013 had event centre in it. So, it has always been my passion. It has always been my wish to set up an event stage that people will use. So, it has always been a vision I had for years, and once you trust God for something and stick to it, backing it up with constant prayer and working hard towards it, somehow God will make it a reality.
What was it like building such a gigantic edifice
I tell everyone that cares to listen that I can never take glory for White Stone; I can’t. It is just God. It was God from start to finishing. I just know that I got this dream, and God made it real. Its been God all the way. I could recall that after the edifice was 80 per cent done, we still didn’t have a name for the hall. When I got home that day, and had a discussion with God, and said ‘God I leave it in your hands, I need a very nice name for the hall’. Then I slept. I have not even slept for long, like five minutes when I heard ‘White Stone’. Then I woke up. I thanked God for that was a nice name. Then I called the lawyer, and it was registered. So it is God all the way. He just used me as a front, to appear.
What distinguishes White Stone from other event centres
White Stone is a one stop event space. It takes away the stress of accessibility, interior, finishings and having to pay attention to all the details. There are beautiful chandeliers, moving headlights, beautiful tables and chairs. Everything one needs to have a befitting event is already installed inside White Stone. The property is in a beautiful premises that one will be proud to hold an event. We also have accommodation for lodgers coming from a distance or those that need to change repeatedly during their event or those that want comfort before strolling into the event hall. We also have restaurant that runs daily and a rooftop bar. There are two halls (big and small) and a conference room. It is a one stop event space that provides whatever a client is looking for in terms of having to run any kind of event; conference, trainings birthday parties, burial receptions etc. The space is conducive and befitting enough for any event.
Who can afford White Stone
What do you hope to achieve with White Stone
My vision for White Stone is for people to come in and have an experience that is second to known in terms of hospitality, and taking their event stress off them. There are event centres that can’t facilities as common as where to plug and all that. It is not just for event planners, but also for vendors. It is all in all a one stop space for anything events. My number mission therefore is comfort for event owners and satisfaction of vendors and customers.
Any plans to replicate White Stone in other locations
It is in God’s hands
What can you say about people who had really made an impact in the course of your entrepreneurship journey
Over the years, God has really blessed me with exceptional people. In fact, a lot of people has been a blessing to me chiefly among them is my husband; he has been a great pillar of support for just allowing me to be Kehinde without holding me back. I have had great customers that turned family such as Chief Olu Okeowo, Mrs Shade Okoya, Chief Elegushi and many more. I can’t even mention all. I won’t forget my beautiful darling friend, Bukky Airiyibi. I have known her for 12 years now, and our friendship keeps growing stronger. I also have new darling friend, Toyin of Royal Horse; she is amazing, she has been a blessing and positive vibes. There’s also Governor Seyi Makinde, Dillon, Mr Wale, Kemi and very many other. God has really blessed me with exceptional people.
You worked with Elizabeth R, owned by late Ibidunni Ighalo in the early days. What kind of person was she and how did she motivate you
She was sweet and was a sister. A week before she passed on, we talked for over 30 minutes. Before then, we have not seen for a very long time, and there she was sitting next to me. We had a very lengthy talk. We had very deep conversation that day, and I didn’t know it was a way of saying goodbye. She was sweet, amazing and I’m sure she is smiling where she is right now.
A lot of people motivated me, and a lot of people has added to who Kehinde is today. However, I must say that someone like Preston Bailey motivates and inspires me a lot in the way he is able to conceptualise and create mind-blowing events. I look into the international space more than the Nigerian space.
Who do you think is your competitor in the industry
I don’t have ooo. The sky is too big for everybody. Just imagine only me hosting 10 events in one weekend. I’m sure I will end up on drips. There are so many events happening in Lagos, so I don’t need competitors. We just have to carve out a niche for ourselves and God will keep doing wonders.
Can you categorise yourself as a religious person
No I won’t say I am a very religious person. Number one, I believe in the God factor – things don’t just happen without a supernatural force. I believe in God. If that if God says He would do it, then He would do it. I believe that you treat people rightly and justly. I believe that we are just in this world for just a matter of time. We need to make impact during our time. I also believe that tomorrow is not guaranteed. From experience, no one has ever bee buried with anything. So all we can give people is our selflessness and good nature. Your investment in people would surely yield returns from God. So I believe in God.
If you were not an event planner, what would you have been
A fashion designer. I like craft, art and imagining things, designing, conceptualisation and executing, arranging and putting things together. It is a passion for me and I do it effortlessly.
Can you describe briefly what your immediate family is like and the kind of family woman you are
I am a mother of two; boy and girl, and I have an amazing husband. I believe in investing in the family. in as much as I don’t have so much time, but whatever time I have, I try to take care of the children, pack their bags and put them to bed. I generally try to create family time when I am around. I believe in family; it is all we have to hold on to. When the chips are down, the family is the one you run back to. I try to invest in family because what you sow is what you reap. When you are available for family, they will be available for you. There are some days I will be too tired but because I know I was not around the day before, I will stand and do as much as I can for the children.
Still on family; how do you joggle between being a wife, mother and CEO
When God puts you in a position, He just gives you the grace and ability to manage it. I can’t even say how but i know that I do it effortlessly. When we have event, my staff always say I don’t rest, and until I am done with whatever I have I don’t rest. If decide to cook the next morning, regardless of how tired I am, I will still try to do it. It is just God. I am aware that if you give commitment to family, they will do same for you when you need it. So I try to balance it up with everyone I am related to; my husband, children, parents and even friends. The truth is I call myself to order to ensure that I put balance in every area. I am not the best at it in terms of maintaining good relationship, following up on people, especially family and friends, but with my immediate family, I try to measure up. I try not to push anything till later once it comes to my memory.
How do you relax
I enjoy watching movies; I enjoy going on vacation, exploring new places and shopping.
What are we expecting from Kehinde as a person and the business by the time you hit 40
I have a lot of things in the pipeline, and we should just keep our fingers crossed and watch it unfold. I believe in putting in my efforts, and allow God make it a reality. In five years from now, Kehinde Iyiola would have been an household name by the grace of God.
With the blessings of God in your life presently, how are you using it to affect humanity
I do a lot of empowerment and trainings. I am also in partnership with an organisation, and we are empowering women. For the event space, I do trainings for people that desire to learn decorations and event management, which explains why we have a training school, and presently, we have a project on empowering women. I have people I send to school and pay their their school fees. I need not announce to people all these. However, I try as much as possible to be a blessing to people in terms of having to train them in the area I specialise in. The women empowerment we are doing now cuts across skills acquisition.
Do you also relax in games and sports
Yes, I walk and skip.
What is your favourite food
I am not so particular about favourite, but I am particular about food being ‘sweet’. Once the food is ‘sweet’, i feel the food in my dream. And I like to explore new recipes.
What is your favourite attire
I like looking grand and stylish. I like a bit of drama in my dressing. I just like something that is befitting and suits me, but will never wear something that exposes my body.
What kind of people turn you on, and what kind turns you off
I like smartness in people. You are brilliant, smart and trendy; you will definitely be my friend. I have zero tolerance for people that are not smart, forward thinking. I like to have around me people that drive and impart me, not just those that will take from me.
What legacy would you like to leave after all these
I have said it earlier that we are only here for a time. We have what we have today just by the grace of God – tomorrow, it can turn around. How you handle what you have today determines how long it stays with you. my legacy remains don’t hold on to things because you can never leave with anything. Invest in people, and your legacy will live on after you are no more
Can you talk about your twin sister
She is just a darling. She left the country so early. She left after secondary school. She lives in London. She is married with three children. She is in the medical profession. People say we look alike, but because of where she stays, she is fairer while I am darker. She is wonderful, and I love her dearly.