Initiating and leading a revolution as it concerns how Nigerians take care of their cars, Kunle Sonaike, along with his able lieutenants, is playing a immensely important role in the lives of Nigerians. With Automedics on Radio easily one of the most-followed programmes on radio and workshops dealing with thousands of cars monthly, Kunle Sonaike, in this interview with ADEDAYO ODULAJA, said he fell in love with cars as far back as when he was in secondary school
Either as a company or a radio programme, Automedics is hugely popular at present. How did it come into place?
After my sojourn in the US, I returned to Nigeria in 2005, mainly to come back and set up and at the same time impart my knowledge the society. Basically, it was just to set up a workshop and be fixing people’s cars and change their views about how we work on cars. But in 2006, I had the opportunity of going on some radio programmes and that is where the idea of Automedics started in terms of the radio programme, we started the radio programme from there and through that, people got to know about Automedics and learn a lot about their cars and how today’s cars are. I think about two years later, a gentleman joined me who happens to be a journalist too.
His name is Gbola Oba, he joined me, he returned from the UK and he was driv-ing and he listened to the programme and felt it was something that could be expanded on and the whole idea was even to a TV programme around Automedics but from there, so many other things came up like training, which as you can see, we have a full time class room going on on daily basis.
We have trained over 5,000 mechanics across Nigeria. We also deal in imported spare parts, engine oil, name it as long as it has do with automotive. But our main focus is training, imparting knowledge into the youngsters and most especially graduates. Most of the people we have today in our system are college graduates who are disillusioned with what they studied in schools or can’t find a job, most of them end up here. They enjoy it and most of them are employers of labour now, some of them are working full time for Automedics and some are even directors here today.
What pull was so strong that made you come back to Nigeria, which is so uncommon?
When I was leaving Nigeria, my plan was to go and study and come back to Nigeria. Yes, a lot of people get stuck because of unforeseen circumstances, once you are caught up in the system overseas, it’s hard because people back home expect you to come back with loads of money and so many things but it is not like that. In my own case, I was yearning to come back because I would normally visit Nigeria and visiting Nigeria, I would go around mechanic workshops just to see how they were doing things and I saw that most of them were working wrongly, still backward. I attended one of their seminars one time and I saw so many things they needed to know and do and I saw the opportunity that if I come back to Nigeria I could make something out of it.
But coming back, was it easy? Not at all, it was tough, the first two years were very rough but I was stuck in there and said I would stick it out, telling myself this is my own country, I lived here before and if I could survive in Mushin and I survived in America, I should be able to survive coming back home. The opportunities are there but people that are here don’t see those opportunities because we are spoilt, used to government doing things for us but I saw different opportunities and I saw how I can also impart and decided to stay.
On a personal level, you once talked about learning from your elder brother but how really did it begin for you?
As a mechanic, I started very young. I started way back in 1974 and I started with being in school, coming back home from school, you are a truant and your parents didn’t want you to become a rouge or a trouble maker, I was becoming one and my mother told me: ‘Kunle, you have to do something with your life. Look for a job you can do after school. You can’t quit school, it’s a no-no’ but they wanted me to do something after school. Well, I was interested in this because I always helped my brother out. I was in secondary school and whenever I left school, I would go and sit with my brother, within two years I could work on my own. I was making money, I enjoyed it and at that point, he would buy me books.
Any book I saw on automotive I would buy and I was taking international trainings, all these correspondence trainings so I had the opportunity of leaving Nigeria to study. I went to England and when I got there, the first course I started with was Computer Engineering, I actually did Programming and after two years of doing that, what sustained me while I was in school in UK was working as a mechanic.
I would work on my friends’ cars on holidays or weekends, that was how I made money to keep body and soul together so one day I woke up and said ‘Am I not in the wrong trade? This is what I do to make money, why I am into Computer Programming’ so I just decided I would change school and went back, more or less demoting myself, to community or trade school like a polytechnic and quit Computer Programming and I have never looked back. I did two years in that school, I finished and went to America and spent another four years in college in America studying Automotive Technology. I was actually sent on Caterpillar scholarship while I was in school in America and worked there for some time.
With the choice made for you somewhat by your mother, why did you veer off into Computer Programming?
I needed something to go to school for because it was the only course I could get at that time which I ended up doing anyway. Even after I had completed my education and was working, I still had a bet with somebody that I could do this course but the guy said ‘you are a mechanic, you can’t do this’ and we had a bet that he would give me a $100,000 if I could do that course in one year and pass Oracle certification which was the first stage for a Database Administrator.
I quit everything I was doing and I started studying for it, that means I had to go back to computer and had to study programming again despite the advancements in that area of study and I got all the certifications which I have here in my drawer and I am still an Oracle Database Adminstrator. I won the bet and because he gave me a time limit I went straight to his house from the exam hall and he wrote me a cheque of $100,000.
People are talking about Automedics across the cities now but how tough was the beginning as a company?
It was very tough, it’s still tough, you know in Nigeria for any business to survive, it is very tough. Thanks to the fact that I have partners, one of them is this gentleman, Mr Kehinde Ekisola, Gbola Oba also who I mentioned earlier who is still a journalist and political analyst who is usually on radio and TV. Thanks to them, most engineers are not businessmen so you need people around you to manage the business and do some other things so we have all been able to put our heads together to move the business forward and we are still doing it. And I can tell you it’s still tough.
Beyond holding workshops a couple of times, how are you addressing the apparent dearth of knowledge among mechanics in the land?
When we started, we started with like a 1 or 2-Day seminar in a year or so but it’s actually an ongoing school right now and we are hoping to have an institute on automotive eventually, that’s our goal and prayer.
One would expect you to have become the agbada-wearing type who is not so involved with work anymore but that’s not the case as far as I can see. How does this affect your family in terms of time spent with them?
I spend time with them, I have two of my children here, two are in America and I talk to my kids every day. None of them is at home, they are all grownups, the youngest is 23 so they are not living with me. The two in America are doing their Masters, the only person I need time with is my wife and once I leave here I go home to my wife and we spend time together on weekends.
But in terms of working, anything you do in life, for you to make money from it, you must first of all enjoy it. I look forward to working on and talking about cars every day because I enjoy it. Yes, my staff don’t like me to be in the workshop because as the CEO and founder of Automedics, they expect me to sit in the office but I can’t sit in the office. Even Mr Ekisola wants me in the office but I am not an office person, I like to get dirty, I like to get my hands dirty doing something so I am always eager to be in the workshop and that’s where I am most of the time to see what’s going on.
Then being a training school, you have graduates that you want to impart knowledge into. I have people there who tutor them but sometimes I want to teach them from my own angle. Yes, to some of them I am old school but I teach them both the old school and new school so I am always involved in what they do and I enjoy their company and they enjoy mine too. When I am working on something, they all come around to see how I am doing it and I put them on their toes. And when I am in the workshop, it’s hard for them to mess things up, you know they are working on customers’ cars and you don’t want to leave something worth millions to an average person so you must guide them.
I am aware this facility inside LTV is a temporary site and that moving to the permanent site is in the pipeline.
We are building our permanent site, it is going to be in Ogudu then we have a place we are trying to get in Ilupeju also that we are going to be moving into very soon.
In terms of presence, where else do you have Automedics apart from Lagos?
We have presence in some other states right now including Abuja, what we do as we train these kids is that we have to find means of getting them gainfully employed so what we do is when we train them, we ask if they have a sponsor, somebody that can buy equipment for them and they would set up a workshop. If they want to partner with us the workshop will be Automedics so we drive business to them and get a percentage or Automedics as a unit or business, we can set up a franchise for them and they would part owners of that business and apart from them getting a salary, they get part of the profit so all our locations across Nigeria, any staff you see there are part owners of that location.
How have you been able to train disciples for the radio programme who are young yet combine such skills in communication with such remarkable depth of automotive?
We train hands-on, all the skills you see in the classroom right now had all been at the workshop since 8’oclock this morning. From 2-5, they are in the classroom to ingrain both the theory and the practical and we have affiliates that we partner with around the world so we are always getting updates on information on any vehicle globally.
It doesn’t matter where the vehicle was manufactured, we are always on top of the info on new technology and as we are getting it, we pass it down to these kids. The reason most of them are articulate on radio is because we challenge them. You know we have this challenge in Nigeria that when you set up a business, you want to be the leader, the boss and the one directing everything. In Automedics, that is not the case and the whole idea is where we left off, these kids should be able to take it from there. Most of them are going to be my boss tomorrow because the business has to keep going when I retire.
We didn’t set up this to be for me and my sons running it; my children are not even interested in this field, they are all into different fields and I am just the part of the owners although I founded it. Like me, some of those you see around are shareholders of Automedics and they invested in it through their time, knowledge, perseverance and the thinking that we have to make this thing work.
When we need to be harsh, we are harsh but there are also times when we need to relate like buddies so when they have a challenge, it’s easy for them to come to us and we seek how to solve the challenge. So whoever you are, whether the most senior manage, you can be approached here because we all work together.
The radio programme is hugely helpful to car owners and that is uncommon in this part, is it a kind of giving back?
When you keep knowledge to yourself, it dies with you. What good or benefit is it to anybody? We have over two hundred million Nigerians, let’s say only 10% of that number owns a car, we don’t have enough mechanics in Nigeria. I cannot do the cars in Agidingbi, I am not talking of Ikeja, just Agidingbi myself. So why do I want to keep the knowledge to myself? If you open your palm, you receive but if you fold it, nothing comes to it. As you teach, you are learning and passing out those pieces of information to people adds value to me. I am going out to give business to some of my people in other states, I could easily have decided to go and set up a shop there but I can’t do everything by myself. You have to empower some people, that is how business grows, that is how the economy grows.
Traffic Radio in Lagos seems to be the anchor but how are you replicating it in other states?
We have Love FM in Abuja, we are starting in Ibadan, we were on Petals FM there but we are moving to another station. We have a location in Ibadan, one in Abuja, in Abeokuta, Port Harcourt and six other locations in Lagos and I write a column in Sunday Punch. All of them are manned by some of our alumni, I can’t be everywhere and that is one main reason why you have to pass out information. And my aspiration is for those I train not to be as good as I am but to be better than me.
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