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Tuesday, 16 January 2018

How I found an Ibo lady for wife in Oron -Chief Olabintan Famutimi (President, Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce)


Only few Nigerians are as energetic as Chief Olabintan Famutimi, is at 70. Amidst sitting at different board meetings Famutimi runs a hectic schedule shuttling the mainland where his office is, and Lagos Island, where his work and socials are. He could be at a board room in the morning, move to the golf club in the afternoon, then a private meeting, and end it all at a black tie dinner on the Lagos Island; all in one day! 

He is the Chairman of Tricontinental Group, whose major business is in the oil and gas industry. But Famutimi is also presently, the National President of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce. 

A well-travelled businessman, Famutimi who is from Ondo state, tells us in this interview with Paul Ukpabio, what took him to the top, his role as the Chairman of Tricontinental Group and National President of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce, and how cupid's arrow got him married to an Ibo lady he met in Oron, Akwa Ibom state. 

You have been in the oil and gas industry for quite a while, twenty years down the line, how has it been?
We have achieved a lot since we started; we started in a small way, doing mainly procurement for the oil industry. But we concentrated on the upstream side of the industry. However, we have since expanded our portfolio. We are still in services, we are not in product. We have been doing pipeline inspection services, inspection of manifold equipment, topside inspection, and subsea inspection for Exxon Mobil, whereby we inspected their 92 offshore platforms, using remotely operated vehicles. We did that and produced the report. We have done other forms of inspection with other companies. We are presently working with Shell in what is called PPMS which is project, quality, management services for all their gas gathering project throughout their operational areas. And we have been doing the inspection and reporting for them since six years ago. We do supply. We have high level experts on contract who come in. At a time we had over 300 personnel engaged in Shell who are technically our staff but they are staff of Shell because they were more or less seconded to Shell by us.

Apart from that, what else do you do?
We have broaden our scope and gone to some niche areas of the gas and oil industry. We do corrosion management; we do material management for oil companies all over the federation. But interestingly, some of our technologies are not limited to the oil industry alone. We represent some companies that have special products and services which we deploy. Few of the companies are Sponjet which is an American company that is involved in surface preparation before quoting. And because we are doing that, we have developed quoting capacity. So we do not just prepare surfaces for others to quote. And because our managing director is a world renowned material management professor of engineering, he has been able to let us be one of the most received quoting companies. We also represent a company called Dalink where we are able to use liquid method to repair any damaged parts in any equipment on aircrafts, equipment and other things. So for spare parts that are damaged and may have been discontinued in production in other places, we just repair them and they become like new. Our signage for that is repair not replace. That is a French company. We represent another company called Enecon an American company that has technology and materials for improving the life of some products. In this regard, we are the sole representative of these three companies, in the whole of West Africa and the Caribbean. That is why we have offices in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago. Those are some of the services that we provide.

You are regarded as an icon in the oil and gas industry. And from your wealth of contribution and dedication to servicing the industry, one perceives that you must be a core engineer.
Interestingly, I am not an engineer and I didn't study engineering in the university. What I did when I got into this industry, was to commence a lot of study. That was because I realised that I had to develop core knowledge of the industry because, we don't just want to be like other companies in the industry, doing the same thing that the other companies in the industry had been doing. We decided to think out of the box. It was my decision that we should look at the pressing areas where we could make a difference. We went for the niche areas. And in my quest to improve and ensure our longevity in the business, I tried to do some succession planning which is the reason why I got my friend, a world renown expert in the fields that we wanted to go into, who had also by then served in Saudi Arabia for about 19 years and has industrial experience apart from being a professor, to invite him to join me. To do that, he had to relocate to Nigeria in April 2010. He became the Group Managing Director, while I remained the Chairman of the Group. With that combination, we have been able to stabilise the system and our growth. We have been ISO satisfied since five years ago and that extends to all our operations all around the world.

So what initially inspired you into a complex industry like the oil and gas?
By nature, I am a tenacious person. When I am into something, I give it my absolute best. I do everything to ensure success. From youth, I had accepted that nothing good come easy. The inspiration is that if I get into somewhere, I must make a difference. Actually it was in my quest to go into these niche areas that brought me into contact indirectly with Professor Ashiru. It was in Cape Town, South Africa, where I was having a meeting, that his name was mentioned. I never knew he was a Nigerian. We later got in touch and started talking. And I gave it the best in me.

Going into the oil and gas industry means that you must have had a sizeable capital to start off with
(Laughs) Interestingly, I didn't have a lot of money. In fact I didn't even have much. I was more or less doing general business before I settled for this industry. I had my hands in a number of companies. I led the group that actually acquired the Odua shareholding of the Nigerian-Romanian Wood Industry in Ondo. I joined two friends of mine Chief Olu Akinrelure the current Deputy Chairman of South West APC and another friend, Mr Ralph Osayemeh, and we were able to acquire the 30.9% shares in the company which we managed for some time until the politics of the federal and state governments, tore everything apart. I was one of the founders of Goldlink Insurance, it was led by Ralph Osayemeh when he invited some of us into it, and we built the company to the level where it was able to be quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. I have been involved in a few other things in my life, all of them, I gain experience from as I go along in life.

Can you remember when you made your first million in naira?
(Laughs) I cannot remember that. But I remember that by the time we wanted to buy the Odua shares, we needed some money. One way or the other, I was able to come out with my share that eventually gave me 40% of the equity while my other partners had 30% each. So we got our 100%. I don’t remember when I made my first N1m because I had been in business since I left employment in 1994, doing one thing or the other but always moving forward.


Back then, did you envisage that you will rise to the top?
I didn’t envisage that I will rise to anywhere because I have a queer nature. I am a determined person, a workaholic. I didn't remember myself having any particular ambition to be anything. I just kept on working. I worked for success, but I was not outrightly setting goals for myself. I am usually happy once I have results in what I am doing. I have a strange nature, in that, i do not regret anything I do. If something does not go my way, I just return to the drawing board and continue in a different way. I take things in my stride. I do not brood over any misdeed. I am an extremely optimistic person; I see the bright side of life in everything.

Were you a privileged child?
I was not born into anything identified as privilege! Instead I was born an unprivileged child. I am the first child of my father and I was born into what is called a quintessential Yoruba like family. When my grandfather Chief Aruwa Famutimi died in 1952 he had 54 children and 23 wives, my father had four wives and 23 children. I am the first born. I come from an extreme polygamous family, where competition is very tough and so you have to develop grit to survive. I didn't have any advantages. All I knew was that I wanted to succeed. The only way that I knew I could succeed was to have education. So I determined to get education. That led me to the university where I graduated with B.sc Geography from University of Ibadan: Though I have never needed to use it to practise. After that, I have done several courses abroad and here in Nigeria, particularly related to whatever industry I find myself.

What inspires you?
Hard work. My father was hard working. He was a cocoa farmer. He had huge farms and employed about 30 people who worked for him in the farm. We worked together with those people in the farm. My mother was a hard worker too, though a petty trader. I learnt that from them. I will say that work ethics runs in my family. That is the same thing people say about me.

You were abroad for quite a while, were you tempted to marry a white lady?
I was abroad at different times to do short courses. The longest at any time was an advanced management programme in France. I was there for 11 weeks. And in any case, even if I stayed there longer, I wouldn't have married a white lady because I have never contemplated it.

What does success means to you?
It means being able to accomplish what one sets out to do. It also means being able to provide for your family, to have a balance with your life in having a quantum of material need that suits you and that which you can manage.


As a widely travelled businessman, what’s your impression about our country Nigeria?
Well, I have travelled around Nigeria particularly while I was in paid employment in sales and marketing which I did for a multinational that was quoted on the stock exchange. My friendship cuts across the country. One common thing I see among Nigerians is that we are hardworking, but as a nation, we have been unlucky with good leadership particularly political leadership, since the military took over government. As a human being, I find Nigerians interesting. You see, in the world of business and personal relationship, Nigerians has no problems with each other. I am married to an Ibo. One of my partners in another business is an Ibo, I have friends who hail from northern Nigeria, and I am from Ondo, Ashiru the Group MD is from Ijebu. Nigerians don't have problems with themselves, its the politicians that raise dust among us.

How did you meet your wife?
I was invited to a wedding in Oron in Akwa Ibom state. That was after my first marriage had broken. The bride introduced me to one of her friends that came with her from Lagos. I was going to be the Chairman of the wedding the next day. I started talking to Ifeanyi that evening about her. And by the time we got back to Lagos, we started dating. I found out that she was at University of Lagos, while I was running my business here. We got married and it has lasted 23 years now. We have two children; the boy is studying engineering in the US while the girl is trying to get admission to study Medicine here.

Are you a member of any social clubs?
I am a member of many. I have been a member of Ikoyi Club since 1975. I am a life member there. I have been in Rotary since the early 80s. I am a member of Ikeja Golf Club. I am a Member of Lagos Diners Club; I am a member Metropolitan Club, a member of Lagos Boat Club and others.

How about Chieftaincy titles, what do you think about it?
I have a Chieftaincy title from my town. But when I was made the Baba Ijo of my church, I regarded that more than enough for me. Since then, I have not been accepting chieftaincy title offer. I am the Baba Ijo of St. Jude's Anglican Church, Ondo.

Mere looking at you, one can see you have good health
My greatest point for good health is discipline. I exercise so well. I am almost a maniac for exercise. I was at the gym this morning and I go every day. So out of seven days a week, I do six days. But I do not exercise on Sundays. It was 20 years on the 10th of September, since I have been using that particular gym. At a point I wanted to reduce weight, I decided to take it out on food intake. I do not eat as much as I use to eat before. Now I am much lighter. I am presently fit. I have no ailment. I manage everything about my health with great discipline.

How about sports?
In my life I have not been in any major sporting competition but, I have been playing squash at Ikoyi Club for quite some time and I played squash all my young life.

Tell us about your style
Everybody notices these days that I always wear native agbada, bamsoro, though I have suits but I hardly wear then.

You are also the President of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce, how has that body been relevant to Nigeria?
Yes, I am the National president. I have spent three years already as President, so I have one year to go on the job. The Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce started the same year that Nigeria got Independence. It has been our job and scope to promote businesses between Nigeria and the USA and we have done that successfully. We are very close to the America mission in Nigeria and we are also close to the economic management of the country. We do a lot of advocacy, capacity building, advisory services, Nigerians who want to do businesses with America come to us and also Americans who want to do business in Nigeria contact us, and that is even done through the commercial section of the American embassy. When American companies make enquiry, the mission passes such people to us. We then look at areas where such persons will be able to make impact in the business life of the country. That is why we took on the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act programme, and today, we are the leading managers of AGOA in Nigeria and all other bodies work with us.

What role does the American consul perform?
The American consul in Nigeria is a board member of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce. We even have an AGOA desk which we call AGOA resource centre in our secretariat. We have a manager there doing a lot of work with the federal government through the office of the vice president, in trying to change the narration of AGOA in nigeria. In the first fifteen years when AGOA was on, nigeria didn't perform well. 

Now that the life of AGOA has been extended to 2025, we have taken a leading step to ensure that Nigeria benefits, the vice president has seen during our exhibition, the number of Nigerian companies and their products working with us and the US-AID, and the products going out. And if any goods can go to the US, it means it is good to go to any part of the world. So we have been working assiduously to that effect. We do have FFE financing conference. we have done three of it in partnership with American embassy in Abuja it has been a roaring success, it has brought a lot of investors to take a look at opportunities in Nigeria.   


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