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Sunday, 3 June 2018

I don't plan to retire, Nigeria doesn't need retirees now

-  Mr. Alfred Okoigun  FAEng (Hon)


At 62, Mr. Alfred Okoigun still has big dreams. He has plans to establish 35 companies which he hopes to use to mentor and develop youths and improve the quality of life of Nigerians: A process which he has already started.

Not surprising because Mr. Okoigun is not new to success. In April this year, the Nigerian Academy of Engineering rolled out the red carpet to honour him with a Honorary Fellow Award. Only four people have been so honoured till date.

Mr. Alfred Okoigun who is the Group Managing Director of Arco Group Plc, an indigenous oil and gas company, shares his life story with us in this interview with Paul Ukpabio.

You recently won an award. What was the award about?

The Honorary Fellow award was conferred on me by the Nigerian Academy of Engineering and the investiture took place in April this year. The Honorary Fellowship is conferred to a few selected Nigerians whom the awarding body believes have greatly contributed to the practice and development of engineering in Nigeria. A person does not necessarily have to be an engineer to receive this award; however the person must have made a distinguished contribution to the development of the profession. I happen to be the fourth honorary fellow of the academy since its inception in 1997.

How did you feel at that event?
I felt great. I was the only one honoured that day and this was done eight years after the last award by the academy. Only four of us have been honored with the Honorary Fellow award by the Nigerian Academy of Engineering which is the highest professional engineering body in this country.

What do you think made you to merit this award?

Well, it may not be easy for me to know what made them consider me but I was told that they have their parameters for choosing whom they desire to honour.

When I left secondary school, I was fortunate to be one of the pioneer students of the Petroleum Training Institute in Effurun, Warri. Just before the course was completed, some of us were selected to go to Italy for an Industrial attachment where we were assigned to Refineries and Industries. During this visit, I was further inspired when I saw what was happening in Europe, the quality of life, and the availability of those things that enabled the quality of life which were attributed to science and technology. I then became particularly interested and I was assured that this is a course worth supporting as it could bring added value to us back in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.

Thereafter, I worked with Warri refinery (NNPC) for two and a half years, before I set up my company- ARCO Group which at the time was called Arco Petrochemical Engineering Company Limited. It was at the time, solely an Engineering firm.
Mr. Alfred Okoigun with family at award event
I remember that one of the first things I did was to immediately give back to the society which led me to send some students of Petroleum Training Institute for industrial attachment in Italy. What I got, I gave back almost immediately. I wanted more people to be inspired to do great things. It was quite surprising to people, because they thought and said to me that I was just starting out in business and was even struggling to get my footing, yet I was contributing money to send people abroad for education. However, this gave me joy and I have been engaged in different kinds of fantastic engineering programmes since then. Maybe all of these added together, to recommend me to the Academy of Engineering for the award. 

How did you realize that dream of becoming an engineer?

In 1972, while a student in Form 3 at the Government College, Ughelli, I was privileged to participate in a school sponsored excursion to the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) operational locations. The trip to Shell facilities made a remarkable impression in my life notably that science and technology makes it possible to extract crude oil from below the ground and transform it into various products that enhance the quality of life. It amazed and inspired me and I was impressed by the technology that made it possible for people to be able to do a lot of things. That was when I decided that I was going to study engineering since I immediately saw it as a quality life enabler.

When I left secondary school, I was fortunate to be one of the pioneer students of the Petroleum Training Institute in Effurun, Warri. Just before the course was completed, some of us were selected to go to Italy for an Industrial attachment where we were assigned to Refineries and Industries. During this visit, I became particularly interested and I was assured that this is a course worth pursuing as it could bring added value back to Nigeria and Africa as a whole. That was how it all began.
How many years have you been in the industry right now?
If we take it to include the years of my working career in the oil and gas industry, it will be about 40 years. I spent two and a half years with NNPC and I have spent 38 years so far in this company which I founded in 1980. I started early.

But your looks suggest you are just over 40 in age
(Laughs) My wife should hear that. I play table tennis for fitness, and I do that at Ikoyi Club where I am a member and also when I'm abroad.

You worked with the government for just two and a half years, why did you stop?
In terms of inspiration to go into business, it was an idea that came about at a very early age. I had always looked at the people in the society and asked myself what made them prosperous. I realised that politicians are very prominent in the society but from my experience during the visit to Shell installations, I also realised what scientists mean to mankind. I concluded that I could combine all these into a business that I could set up which would outlive me. From that point onwards, I showed interest in becoming a businessman even though at that early stage, there were insinuations everywhere that for one to be successful in business one had to be a tough businessman and one was expected to do things in an unscrupulous way because business was considered a terrain for the mean hearted.

Mr Alfred Okoigun receiving the award from the President of the NAE Mrs Joannah Olu Maduka
How did you correct that impression in your mind?
I was fortunate to have gone to a school that is known for excellence and integrity, and that is Government College Ughelli. The training that we got there empowered me to gain a lot of confidence in myself and that that if I worked hard, I would surely make it.

What was life like for a young engineer of those days?
I was lucky because after spending one year in Italy, I was able to get myself a Volkswagen car which was not very common then for a young man of my age. At NNPC I was offered accommodation but I declined because I knew I was not going to stay there for a long time. Yes, it was a comfortable life, but my mind was made up. 

Did you have enough capital when you went into business?
In terms of capital, I did not have the money. I did a small feasibility study and took it to see a bank manager. I told him that the oil and gas business had taken off in Nigeria, there are only a few Nigerians playing in this field and I want to be one of the Nigerian pioneers there. I showed him my proposal and told him that N30,000 was all I needed. The bank manager was surprised that a young man could come up with such an idea. He was excited and told me the bank would support me. For me, I thought that his acceptance meant that the bank would send me the cash immediately I left him, so I went and resigned my appointment at NNPC. After that, I immediately went back to the bank manager to collect the money he said the bank would support me with. The bank manager laughed and laughed. That was when he told me so many things that I had to do before the bank would be able to release the N30,000 to me. I left the bank dejected. You can imagine how I felt. I was hearing collateral for the first time and I had already resigned from my job.

How did you overcome that?
There was no money anywhere, I was moving from friends to relations who dropped little amounts that allowed me to move on. Meanwhile I had already written to some white people in the industry who I had met over there to visit Nigeria in respect of my business. They had agreed to come and told me to book them in a hotel: To do all of that I needed money. I needed N3000 to do that. I was perplexed. I ran back to the bank manager to tell him that five of my business partners were almost here and I needed money to book them in a hotel. I also told him that when they arrive, they will pay me back for the hotel accommodation. When he saw that it was true, he gave me the N3000 which I used for the accommodation. The foreigners I invited came to Nigeria and paid me in dollars before they returned. When I did the exchange in the open market, the money multiplied however instead of me to take it to the bank to refund the bank's money, I didn't. I needed the money so I put it back into my business.

When the bank manager saw me at a cocktail function, he just shouted at me 'come, come, come here.' So I explained to him that the N3000 was too small and was not enough. He said I should go and bring the money right away saying that when I return the money, if I want more, the bank would give it to me but I must return it first. He told me that this is the only way I can grow in business. I became afraid as I was not sure I could return the money as I thought, if I returned the money, and the bank did not give me more, the business would be gone. It was a hard decision to take but the next morning; I summoned courage and returned the money to the bank. After that I had just a small credit to my name. I waited and after one week, I went back to the bank to see if I could collect the money I returned and behold, the bank allowed me to take it. I was happy and was able to move on. That was how it went on and on and on.

After that breakthrough with the bank, was it easy for you?
It was challenging but another turn around came when some of my colleagues who were still at NNPC were given car loans. I approached them with a proposal that they should give me their car loans and allow me to use it for one year to return it with interest that will enable them to buy better cars for themselves. Some of them obliged. One of those who obliged just retired at a management level from NNPC some months ago. So with that money, I was able to start out strongly in the business.

What lessons did you learn from all these?
Well many a time people say that without money you cannot do business. That is correct. But it is not necessarily so all the time. Business is more of credibility. If you have credibility, if you can be trusted, money will come. It may not come with ease, but it will come. Trust is a fact of business. If you do not have it, forget it. And that is why companies come, you see them big today, tomorrow it disappears. Why was there no sustainability, the sustainability was not there because of lack of trust and integrity. When people have trust in you, it could be your bank manager, it could be your school mates, it could be your client giving you business, all of these combined will keep you in business. Getting money to start could be a challenge but when you have credibility, people will listen to you and give you money to do it.

Where did you grow up and what memories do you have of your early life?
I started from the village in Ewu, in Edo state. I am Ishan. Early school was at Holy Trinity Catholic School and after that was Government College Ughelli. The school was purely on merit. I remember a story then while we were in school, that the son of a permanent secretary could not be admitted into Government College Ughelli because he did not pass the examination. Meanwhile, a son of the Chief Cook of the school was admitted because he passed the examination. It was clear to all of us that admission was on merit. That is why some of us do not know how to do it differently because that is what was inculcated in us. My early life was between Edo state and Delta state. My dad was a typical community man, well respected but a farmer. I remember that on many occasions people who had challenges came to him for settlement. And once he decided that one of them was guilty, he asked the person to say sorry to the other and that matter ended there. Both parties became happy. It was usually talked about in the village that once my father intervened in a matter, the matter would close. He was respected because he was seen to be honest and forthright. When I got to secondary school, those values guided me.

Who influenced your education?
Going to school and the type of school I attended was influenced by my peers. When I was in primary school, I had the opportunity to visit Benin to be with one of my brothers who was working at Kingsway Stores. During discussions with peers, I heard them talking about how to get admission to Kings College or Edo College or Government college. Before then, the only secondary school I knew was our college in Irrua. And when I mentioned it, they didn't even know where it was. I got inquisitive and talked to some of the people who went to that school. When I got back to the village I started preparing for the examination into Government College Ughelli and I passed the common entrance.

If you were not an engineer, what else would you have loved to be?
(Laughs) It is too late to change now. Today every profession is very important. The Nigerian Academy of Engineering for example has honoured somebody who is not an engineer but whose training is as a lawyer and that person is Alhaji Femi Okunnu. This is because, due to his disposition and from what he has seen around the world, he decided to support the engineering course and so even though he is not an engineer, he has been able to make contributions to the profession which made the Academy to recognise him. What matters therefore, is doing what you makes you happy. For me I have always wanted to be engineer and that is it.

What does the future look like for you?
We started as an agent of a multi-national company. We worked for big manufacturers, one was 100% owned by an Italian company. We couldn't jump into manufacturing immediately because of the funding, until a time that we were able to train some Nigerians to maintain some of the equipment. We started from maintenance of equipment. At a stage there was opportunity that came up and we branched to marine support. Again we veered into providing solutions to pipeline network and recently we set up a unit to take care of high level security. Good enough because of advanced technology today, we are bringing in value that was not there before. Today we have four subsidiaries. We have incorporated 35 companies that we want to be growing step by step.

You have so much lined up for the future, where will you get the energy to put all that together?
I think it is more of the interest. Just like when I started, I wasn't afraid of failure. I may not have had everything I needed, but that didn't stop me. So we won’t stop, we will achieve it. Even at the beginning it was like being in a battlefield, you know when you are in a battlefield, you have to win. If you don't win, you are consumed. If you can take business along those lines you will win. But again you must have the confidence, the guts, the drive to pursue it, and to make sacrifice. Those are the things that people don't have. If you believe in your dream and then get your family to align with that dream, you are likely to win. That apart, we have to tackle the poverty in the land, we cannot fold our arms and keep blaming the government. We have to create things and make contributions by empowering people. All that will keep me busy too.

How about retirement?
There is no plan like that now or in the future! The way the country is presently, I don't think any of us has done enough to deserve a retirement. That is because we need to stick around to mentor the youth. Empowering youths is not about giving them money but it is about mentoring them to have confidence in themselves and to get the best from the society. All of that will keep me busy for a long time.  
What is the lifestyle of an engineer like? Since they strive to improve people's lifestyle and quality of life, do they enjoy the quality life too?

(Laughs) The real engineers are those who strive to bring on the good life to others. To a great extent, they do not enjoy the good life like people who are in the movie and entertainment industry whose work is enjoyment everyday. Engineers need quiet places where there are no distractions so they can think through and get solutions. That is why people say engineers don't mix or have a social life. However, engineers like me are now trying to find time out of no time to enjoy ourselves so that we can have a balanced life. Unfortunately engineers have been socially affected, in that you don't find them in government because they do not know how to beg or lobby for positions in government. If you don't bring in engineers to government, you won’t get their benefit or contributions to societal development. That is why the country is the way it is. Look at China at a time they had engineers from great institutions as the majority in the cabinet. Look at where China is now. You see that again in Israel which is today competing with advanced nations despite being small in size.

Is your wife an engineer too? How did you meet?

No, she is not an engineer, she studied Sociology. I had the opportunity to have friends who organised parties and dance so when I turned 28, I decided that it was time to get married. At that time I had already spent 3 years in my business however close relations and friends thought I was not going to get married because I was too focused on the business. I was in such a position that I could approach and marry any lady I wanted but when I decided on the person I wanted, it became difficult (laughs). She said she was not ready for marriage. Eventually my patience was rewarded and we got married when I was 31 years old and I had spent 6 years in the business. She wanted to work but in less than a year of marriage, we had our first child. She was cooperative and along the line she set up a boutique and started to make clothes part time. Over the years her business has grown. But the family has also been her business and she has done well for us. We have three children, all boys.

Do you take time off?
Yes I do. At a very early stage in life, when I visited other countries, I saw how important vacation was treated abroad. In Europe, people work and save for holidays. People here save to collect chieftaincy titles! I learnt to go on holiday early in life and since then, I save to spend holidays with my family. I started going on holidays with my wife when I got married in early 80s. We continued when we started having children and now as a family we have been to different continents of the world for relaxation and learning. Some of the ideas that I brought into my companies have been ideas I got abroad. Unfortunately not many leaders in Nigeria are enlightened to buy into good ideas. But I must continue to push and let more people know that the sooner your neighbor is doing well, the better for you.

What has success changed in you?
At the initial stage when I used to wear jeans to the office of Managing Directors of companies, people would look at me in a strange way. That influenced me to dress more formally because business dictated that so I moved on to wearing trousers, shirts and jackets for many years. Later, when I realized that it is not what I wear that determines my worth, but my record, I began to wear what I feel comfortable in. My records speak for me now.

How about chieftaincy titles?
(Shakes his head) No, I can fare better without taking chieftaincy titles. I have been approached severally, but I declined. For that, I have been influenced by the lives of great people like Akintola Williams and Gamaliel Onosode, people that I have great respect for: A life of simplicity. Unfortunately, the way chieftaincy titles are given to people in Nigeria have not helped matters. I respect people who have chieftaincy titles especially those who have genuinely got it.

You are also not in politics, any special reason?
Hmm everybody cannot be in politics. Engineering demands a lot. Let the politicians contribute in their own way, I will do mine in the engineering way. Everybody cannot practice it full time.

Are any of your children taking after you in the engineering profession?
My first son studied engineering at Imperial College London, but he is not into my line of business, he is in the music and entertainment industry. My second son studied marketing and he came together with two of his friends to form a company. He is in Nigeria and he is doing okay. My last son just finished his Master degree in University College London and just got a job.


What vanities of life can you not do without?

You can see I am not even wearing a wrist watch. But I like quality food which does not have to be expensive food, but should be well prepared. Anytime I travel, I love to sleep in a very good place. Also, I value my exercise. Once I get those three things right, I am in the best shape.
I am not crazy about cars and the likes; once a car can take me to my destination, it is okay with me. Gamaliel Onosode lived in Surulere till he died and he was a man who was on the board of companies. When he was asked why he still lives there, he replied that the place is comfortable for him. If it was in advanced countries, I am sure that house would have been converted to a museum. I hope we get there one day.

What should matter to us should be the value we give to humanity. Billionaire Jack Ma, owner of Ali Baba, said that when you make one million dollars it is your money and you can enjoy it as you like. When you get to ten million dollars you begin to face challenges and when you reach hundreds of millions, it becomes other people's money that they have left with you because they trust you to use it to generate more money to bring quality life to people. When you are aware of this, you realise that all you need is to make sure that your credibility is intact.

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview,I have known Alfredo has he is popularly called by members at Ikoyi Club. A very humble man to the core. My prayers for him is, may Almighty Allah prolong his years on this planet earth, so that he can achieve his life aspirations.

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