Jonas Schwarz Lausten, a Danish entrepreneur, is a co-Founder of the Nordic Villa, a popular, well-established private boutique hotel in Abuja with a Scandinavian theme.
He recently spoke to me on why he decided to launch a hotel business in Nigeria, the challenges he encounters operating in Nigeria, and his ambitions for his hotel.
Give me a rundown of your personal and professional background.
I’m born and raised in Herning, right in the middle of Denmark. It’s very known for it’s entrepreneurialism and its textile industry. My father was an entrepreneur and owned a few textile businesses and sat on various boards. He actually lived in Nigeria back in the 1970s for 7 years. He ran a pharmaceutical company in Jos. My mother was a pre-school teacher. When she was in her 50s she decided that she wasn’t done learning and took a Masters degree in speech therapy. I was in high school and she started comparing grades with me. Not cool as she was a straight A student. I wasn’t. My parents are fantastic people who’ve inspired me to become who I am today. My brother is one of my partners and a great businessman. My sister is working in the space between digital and analogue helping businesses bridge the gap. She’s super creative and quite the entrepreneurial spirit too.
I was 5 when I started selling juice outside our house and 10 when I started my neighborhoods’ first basketball club. I’ve always been competitive and played table tennis on the national youth team for a couple of years. Sports mean a lot to me. Today I play tennis and work out. After finishing high school I worked to save money to travel the world. It brought me to Nigeria for the first time where I ended up building the first playground in Adamawa State in East Nigeria. It took me to the USA where I bought a car – a 1991 Ford Mercury Grand Marquis) with two friends. We had to sell it for scrap a month after because a drunk driver crashed into us. I have a Masters degree in a mix of Social Sciences and Business from Copenhagen Business School, Denmark and University of Stirling, Scotland.
I got a job in the Ministry of Science and Technology in Denmark where I worked as an assistant. There wasn’t much work so I started inviting my own projects. One of them ended up saving the Ministry a lot of money in internal processes. When I presented to my boss her respond was: “Who told you to do this?” When I said, “nobody – I just had some extra time and thought it was nice to save the taxpayers some money.” She looked at me and said. “I’ve never tried this before… thank you!” I’d like to think of the time as my own personal moonshine shop project.
When I studied I quickly learned that I needed the degree but I could do a lot of work at the same time. I love working and so I did. Various start-ups and all of a sudden I ended up in Nigeria. Today I’m one of the leading hotel entrepreneurs in Nigeria.
Tell me the story of Nordic Villa. What led you to start a hotel business in Nigeria of all places?
Well, my partners and I spotted a gap in the hospitality industry. We started our hotel business 5 years ago after having done various projects in Nigeria over a 10-year span. Everything from development projects to tech to media projects. My two Danish partners, Anders Mogensen and Christian Schwarz Lausten, own a Danish digital consultancy, Seismonaut, and they did the media campaign for one of the presidential candidates when he ran for office in 2011.
We were, to be quite frank, pretty fed up with extremely expensive hotels without Internet, with moldy carpets and totally worn out bed sheets (often not clean) and horrible service. We were looking for a place to set up our offices and meeting rooms and started thinking to start a business hub for Scandinavian companies who wanted to work together with Nigerian companies. We founded The Nordic Villa. 4 rooms, a couple of offices and meeting rooms. We bought an extremely expensive Internet connection, painted all the walls white and furnished the place with IKEA furniture. We did a good-looking flyer and a good looking website and were actually some of the first in Abuja to do online bookings. And then, of course, we named it The Nordic Villa and named the rooms after the Scandinavian capitals. We simply conceptualized the little hotel. A room was $100 per night – about a third of what we used to pay to get something decent in other hotels. After two months we were rated no. 1 on Tripadvisor in Abuja – ahead of Sheraton and Hilton.
When the former GM of Sheraton came to pay us a visit to yell at us because we were no. 1, we knew that we really had something going on and that the market we had stepped into had a much bigger gap than we had expected. We’ve grown since. Today we have two Nordic boutique hotels. The Nordic Villa and the newest, Nordic Hotel. We’re currently rated no. 1 and 2 on Tripadvisor in Abuja and for the 4th year in a row Nordic Villa has won the Traveler’s Choice for Best Service. It’s no. 2 in Nigeria in this category. I’m very proud of this.
We focus on the total experience. Service and hospitality, interior and design and of course value for money.
What are some of the biggest challenges to build or renovate a hotel today in a manner that’s conscious of its environmental impact?
In Nigeria, power cuts are a constant challenge as they happen constantly. Therefore everybody basically needs to have a backup generator. Because of the high temperatures we have to have air conditioners all over, however, we’re using the most power saving ones. But this means that the environmental impact is already difficult to talk about. However, we’ve done our best to make other initiatives to limit our co2 footprint. We collect all our plastic bottles and metal cans and recycle them; we have chosen not to have fridges in the rooms in our newest hotel as it consumes too much power. We have LED bulbs everyway are we have plants indoor that helps making the air better and less dirty.
In regards to renovations, it’s a challenge too as many of the local workers are not schooled to think about the environment so mixing of paint e.g. and where to throw out materials can be a challenge. It’s not a part of the mindset to think about the environment.
What do you hope to achieve with Nordic Hotels?
I believe we can keep challenging the way hospitality and service is practiced in Nigeria. I hope to build a chain of Nordic Hotels across Africa, but Nigeria is a big market and we’re happy to be here and we have not even close utilized all of the potential here.
Further, I hope that they way we work with our staff and the way we think business in Nigeria will become common in the future for other companies in Nigeria. Coming from very different places, we have to find common grounds. In Nigeria, it’s more chaotic and in Denmark everything is by the book and very straight. We’re trying to mix the best from Nigeria and the best from Denmark.
We do things differently in Nordic Hotels. We’re not just a normal hotel. We’re a creative company that provides great experiences for people. I think because we’re not traditional hoteliers we can rise above the whole industry a bit more and work differently.
I believe that a fundamental point, to keep in mind when wanting to create a creative and innovative company, is that quantity breeds quality. The more ideas we can through out there the bigger chance that one of them potentially will become not just an idea, but in fact a great idea. Look at Picasso’s more than 3000 pieces of works. Look at Johann Sebastian Bach who wrote a cantata per week. And look at Thomas Edison and his 2000+ patents. Today all three gentlemen are regarded some of the most brilliant and innovative minds in their areas of expertise.
In our case, we need to learn from all the ideas our e.g. housekeepers have. After all they are in the rooms every single day and they see what could be done differently, better or faster. I need to hear their ideas. I want to hear the ideas from the managers of how to optimize processes etc. etc.
We train a lot with our staff and it’s, of course, a continuous process. We do training in good service (which we are award winning for), hospitality, story-telling (for instance what is the Scandinavian design and interior) and of course house-keeping. Now, because of our Nordic concept, which naturally is extremely different from anything else in Nigeria we are doing things in a very different way.
When we introduced the #nordicfeeling as a marketing tool for social media, we later started using it as a framework for our business philosophy. Our #nordicfeeling is much more than our signature welcome tray with a cold glass of juice and a well scented cold face towel to cool you down and relaxed you or the big smile you’ll be met with by our housekeepers in the hallways. It’s also when we do art exhibitions, when we serve (perhaps) Abuja’s best coffee in Royal Copenhagen china (a 240 year old Danish brand – the Queen in Denmark even uses this china). The #nordicfeeling has become our company culture, but it doesn’t stand-alone. We think it more holistically. We combine our corporate culture with our CSR and employee well-being and our profit. We operate with 4 pillars; hotels, guests, employees and causes, in which we believe and find important (collecting bottles for recycling, supporting IDP’s, supporting local events, local community etc.), all benefit our business. For us it’s about the long run and we can’t achieve anything without our staff and therefore we value them very much. We can’t do this business without them.
What’s your own definition of luxury?
Attention to detail. That everything is thought off. When you stay in a hotel and you feel like you’re at home – that’s also what I strive to give our guests at Nordic Hotels.
For me luxury is also when you have good china, good glasses or cutlery. There’s such a difference in drinking a coffee from a cup to a great cup – seriously. The Royal Copenhagen cups that we serve coffee in are fantastic. We get so many comments on them. It’s almost unbelievable that you can actually change the coffee experience just by serving it in a great cup. Small things that makes the difference. I usually tell my staff that my favorite word is detail.
If you were to stay in one hotel in Nigeria, apart from your hotels, where would that be?
Bogobiri, a small boutique hotel in Lagos. This is a super cool place. Very authentic and well setup. They do a lot of concerts and art exhibitions.
If outside of Nigeria:
I love Ett Hem in Stockholm, Sweden. This is pure luxury and such an amazing eye for detail. Their service is beyond anything else. Absolutely fantastic! I also love the Wythe in Brooklyn, NYC. Great interior, service and the rooftop bar is one of my favorites in NYC. In Africa, I really love this little lodge in South Africa called Nedile. It’s such an amazing place. Great staff, location, food, game drives, views. Everything is 100%.
Nigeria is definitely one of the most difficult places in the world to do business, but somehow you seem to be doing very well. What are major challenges you have encountered in doing business in Nigeria, and how have you managed to overcome them?
We have power outages constantly, which is a challenge because we naturally need to have electricity 24/7 so we need to have backup generators.
Nigeria is still a “new” country and needs to improve many things but we’re getting there slowly. It’s going to be very good when prices of internet connectivity drops and the masses will get access to it. Also, the economy is a bit of a challenge currently, but that will change again.
If you could do it all over again, would you still do business in Nigeria?
Yes. Of course. I love the challenges and I love Nigeria. Then the potential that we see here is great. I mean, 180 million people make the country bigger than East Africa combined. This is the place to be. They say, if you can make it in Nigeria, you can make it anywhere.
What are your future plans for Nordic?
I believe we will see a chain of Nordic Hotels spread around country and maybe more of Africa over the next 10 years. I feel confident that our concept would work in any city in any country in Africa because what we offer is so different that anything else.
Any advice for foreigners who are contemplating starting a business in Nigeria?
Find the right partner – this takes time. You cannot make it without a Nigerian partner. Relationships matter a great deal in Nigeria. Do not let yourself be deceived by a Rolex and Range Rover. We meet out partner, Mr. Nwaya Collins, a fantastic person, on Skype 15 years ago. 3 people were online just around when Skype become a thing in Nigeria too. The first two ones didn’t “pick” the third one was Collins. It turned out that one of my Danish partners, Mr. Anders Mogensen, had friends in common with him. Small world.