Dr. Kevin Chukwumobi is the founder of APAMS Funeral LTD. He controls 61% of undertaking business in Nigeria. APAMS has become a household name in the industry, offering exotic funeral services with state of the art automobiles and helicopters. The business is a one stop shop funeral home, offering more than thirty different funeral services, ranging from the sales of high end caskets to repatriation of corpses from anywhere in the world. In this interview, he shared the secret of his success with ANAMBRA PEOPLE. Excerpts:
WHAT PROPELLED YOU TO OFFER FUNERAL SERVICES?
I was born in Umuahia and schooled at Immaculate Conception Seminary. Back then, I had interest in watching movies and watched a particular one that caught my attention. Later, when I travelled to the United States, I visited one of those location which I saw in a movie, and there, I saw a Funeral Home and was impressed by the way they handled corpses. Before that travel, I had the vision of going into funeral business, so, what I saw simply strengthened my resolve. Money was not actually my driving force at the initial stage. I was passionate about that vision, because I enjoy taking care of the dead with empathy for bereaved families.
WHAT DO YOU THINK PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU?
One of the things I noticed about myself is the fact that people don’t always believe that the owner of Apams is still as young as 52, though a man at 52 can no longer be said to be a young man. But there is this assumption that I should be way into my 70s or even 80s and that is the shock they bear on their faces when they walk into my office. Is this man the famed APAMS? Those looks on their faces, makes me smile most times, because I could always tell what’s going on in their mind.
Secondly, people don’t know that a man in funeral business could be busy or innovative. People most time think that undertaking is just about ambulances and caskets, but then, the creativity, clear thinking, painstaking effort and attention to details required to make things work is something people don’t see. I personally supervise most of my jobs and these things make me very busy.
Thirdly, people also don’t know that this business requires a lot of finesse and sophistication. I still travel abroad every year to skill up, attending several global seminars and events on funeral management. Most opinion out there is that our job is “unrefined and primitive”. The funniest part is the assumption that funeral undertaking requires “juju” to run but then having been exposed to how this business is managed in the developed countries; you realize it is much more about creativity, innovation and serious hard work.
Lastly, because I serve the public, people don’t know I am a very private person, a family man and a devout catholic.
WHAT DO YOU THINK HAS KEPT YOU AFLOAT IN BUSINESS?
From experience, I have realized that the number one thing in entrepreneurship is passion. Passion is key because it is one thing that keeps you digging in there when the going is tough. I still remember vividly our early years, how rough and challenging it was, but then after over 25 years of being passionately consistent, look at what we have achieved. That is not to say we have arrived, but then, it is clear we are on the right track. Nobody can question the clarity of our vision and goals.
WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL EXPERIENCE AT THE BEGINNING, WAS IT ALL ROSY?
(“Laughs”)… Honestly, the beginning was extremely difficult and challenging. At the risk of sounding immodest, I am one of the pioneers of the funeral undertaking in this part of the world. What this means is that you struggle to sell what is entirely not in existence. People thought I was completely mad. How do you add glamour to sorrow? It took me about 10 years to have the required traction for a break through. Believe me, it was tough, but we continued to sell our message.
WHAT WAS THE MESSAGE YOU SOLD TO PEOPLE, IS IT THAT PEOPLE SHOULD BE HAPPY WHILE GRIEVING?
Not really. It is not that people should be happy in grief, but Let me tell you this. The funeral undertaking business as modeled today by us was rooted in our culture. In Africa, particularly in Igbo land, the dead are so revered and that is why even in death, you cannot speak evil of the dead. Let me take you back to history, in the olden days when a King or a prominent person dies, he was given an elaborate burial- buried with several expensive ornaments, most times with human heads too in order to reflect a person’s status in the world beyond. I think we are sustaining our culture and tradition in a modern way by celebrating the dead and giving them a befitting burial. Secondly, there is this sense of relief that accompanies giving a loved one a befitting burial, the soothing effect cannot be over emphasized. I have witnessed this severally and it is one of those moments that give me great comfort and fulfillment in my line of work.
HOW REWARDING IS YOUR BUSINESS?
Reward can mean different things to different people. For me as an entrepreneur, my reward comes from the deep satisfaction of rendering excellent services to my clients, taking off the burden of running around and when in grief, people still express joy for a job well done. It is fulfilling.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNT IN BUSINESS?
There are several lessons in the journey of an entrepreneur, but for me I have to choose consistency as number one. Most times an entrepreneur who conceives the idea and carry the vision is like a mad man. He is the only person who can interpret his vision, visualize the path to success and therefore only consistency is what guarantees that he arrives to his envisioned destination. Otherwise, when people make mockery of his venture, he drops the vision and jumps into another thing.
COULD YOU RECALL THE BEST JOB YOU HAVE EXECUTED?
At APAMS, we treat every job with utmost touch of excellence. Exceptional delivery of services is our watch word. However, having said that, I know you are referring to high profile jobs we have executed. Let me mention one or two. We have executed jobs for ex-presidents, vice presidents, high profile politicians, etc. In fact we control up to 61% share of undertaking business in Nigeria. We have worked for almost all the south-eastern governors.
HOW DIABOLICAL IS THE BUSINESS OF FUNERAL UNDERTAKING?
There is nothing diabolical about funeral business. It is just a misconception by the public. Funeral undertaking is purely event planning/management and you know event planning is just like every other legitimate business. It is like oil and gas, real estate and hospitality business. But in our case, we are focused more on funeral instead of weddings and other events. It is a pure business venture that requires innovation and also a field for a very creative person. If you are not creative in funeral business as in every other business, you may not go far. Like I said before, I attend courses about funeral business in faraway Uk and United States. As far as APAMS is concerned, there is nothing diabolical about what we do. We are serious and we mean business.
WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THE MYTH CONCERNING DEAD BODIES REFUSING TO GO HOME?
If you are conveying a corpse and your vehicle breaks down on the road, you don’t have an option than to tell the relation of the deceased that the body has refused to go home because if you tell them the truth, they may beat you up or harm you. You know they will not be happy to be stranded on the road, so within these period, you will make efforts to repair your vehicle after which you now tell them to add money or to bring one item or the other and the driver would use it to do one incantation and tell them to enter the vehicle to continue their journey. So with that, the bereaved would have patience with the driver of the hearse and at the same time appreciate him with more money. That was what the hearse drivers were doing to deceive their clients. I abolished that when I became the chairman of Ambulance Drivers Association. So such myths do not exist.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR UPCOMING ENTREPRENEURS?
Consistency is the key. If I were not consistent in my business I would have fallen out. I stood firm despite the mockery and challenges I faced at the beginning of business. Now look at the result. So, in whatever you do, you try to be honest and remain steady. Don’t jump from one place to another. I have been telling youths that they can come around and I will teach them one or two things about business.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU FIND TIME TO DO APART FROM HANDLING FUNERALS?
There’s this friend of mine who during one of our exercise routines told me that I hardly do anything again other than funeral, because even while we exercise, others would be doing it with full concentration, but I will be exercising with a lot of distraction- a lot of calls about our job. As early as the time we go out for exercise, people have started calling to book for jobs.
I have a PA and I have administrative heads of different branches, yet most times people want to speak with me directly and it has become a challenge. I can hardly sit with you here to have discussion without interjecting calls every minute. So to answer your question directly, I hardly have time for any other thing. Frankly speaking, even my social life is suffering too because of the kind of work we do.
WHAT SACRIFICES HAVE YOU MADE TO BE WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
Like I said, I left the certainty of my former business to the uncertainty of funeral undertaking. The business was uncertain in the sense that I never knew where funeral undertaking was leading me ab initio, considering the fact that it was entirely a novel niche before I joined it. Prior to going into funeral business, I was actively doing well as a drug marketer and had substantial number of clients including some teaching hospitals. To completely leave that business for an area which you are still not very sure whether you will succeed or not is a great sacrifice. Not just that, consider also the impression people had about this business and the practitioners at that initial stage, people were so scared of me, but today, everybody wants to be my friend, even governors and top politicians. My people are so proud of me now and I have received more than 100 awards and still counting because I have done well in funeral undertaking and I have taken it to the next level.
PEOPLE SAY YOU ARE A BILLIONAIRE, WHAT DOES MONEY MEAN TO YOU?
If you are talking about billionaire in idea, I will agree. The ideas in my head are out of this world. They are worth billions. Money doesn’t actually mean so much to me, after all, even if you are a billionaire, you can only wear a wristwatch, no billionaire sleeps on two different beds at a time and people don’t even know that money does not make people happy. What gives you happiness is the positive impact you can make in the society with your wealth. I’m not a money man, rather a value oriented person. But to be sincere, I have helped a lot of people make so much wealth including top celebrities, musicians, photographers, event planners, etc. So in terms of the multiplier effect of the value I have added by helping so many people to stand on their feet in business, you can say I am a billionaire.
WHAT DO YOU THINK PEOPLE CAN LEARN FROM YOUR JOURNEY AS AN ORDINARY DRUG MARKETER TO NIGERIA’S FOREMOST FUNERAL UNDERTAKER?
What I think people can learn from my story from obscurity to success is just to be passionate and consistent. Sometimes, certain businesses people look down on, can actually turn one into a star or become one’s own oil company. People should not despise the days of little beginning. Most importantly, don’t let people talk you out of your dream, when that vision is very clear to you. People can mock you when they don’t understand your vision, but when the vision becomes clearer; you see them falling heads over heels to outdo you. Grow from one stage of your business to the next stage with a lot of patience, innovation and hard work. It took me 10 years to get accepted by people. I have done business for more than 30 years and I’m still working very hard. But an entrepreneur who does not have patience can come into this kind of business wanting to be APAMS overnight and when what he expected doesn’t work the way he planned it, he jumps to another business and keeps on doing that until he gets so tired and spent.
THERE IS THIS CLAMOUR FOR A LESS EXPENSIVE BURIAL IN YOUR STATE, WHAT IS YOUR OPINION?
Everybody has his opinion. There are things people may not understand about burial. People don’t just want to go into expensive and elaborate burial. When a loved one who has made tremendous impact in your life dies, in trying to bid him farewell, there is nothing you will not like to do for the person because you are paying him the last respect. Paying him last respect means the last thing you will do for him and you will never see the person forever. So people want to give their all, their best and their everything when they know it is the last time they will see the person in question. Again, people need to be educated on the funeral economy. There is a lot of job creation in the funeral industry. One burial ceremony can create one thousand jobs. You are talking about cooks, printers, decorators, MCs, musicians, pall bearers, media crew, textile suppliers, liquor suppliers, souvenir suppliers, security personnel and so on.