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Sunday, 17 March 2019

I wasn’t a ladies man because mom warned me


    -          Joseph Jemine Akpieyi (Ex CEO of Nigerian Petroleum Refinery Company)


Few weeks back, Chief Joseph Akpieyi turned 80 and the celebration has not stopped. That’s because at 80, Chief Joseph Akpieyi, has too many people to celebrate him. He has children and grandchildren and goodwill that have been built over the years in the corporate world and outside it.

In the 80s, Chief Joseph Akpieyi was a Chief Executive Officer of Nigerian Petroleum Refining Company (now Port Harcourt Refinery Company) and was also the CEO of Warri Refining and Petrochemicals Company Limited. Now at 80, he is still in boardrooms, notable among them being Arco Group of companies where he is the Chairman.

In this interview with Paul Ukpabio, Chief Joseph Akpieyi takes us into his life journey where a major part has been as head of organizations in the public and private sector of the Nigerian economy.   

How does it feel to be 80?
I am grateful to God for preserving me to 80 in good health.  I feel fulfilled.

When did you turn 80 and how did you celebrate it?
I turned 80 on 28th February 2019.  My family and I went to the 06:30 am Mass to thank God for His manifold blessings upon my life; thereafter, we received family and some friends at my residence. The formal celebration will take place in early April by the grace of God.

How did your early background influence the person that you are today?
I grew up in a much disciplined environment both at home and in Government College Ughelli (GCU). Certain values like honesty, integrity, striving for perfection, hard work as secret of success, punctuality, humility, kindness to family members and neighbours, standing up for your right, protection and preservation of family name in all circumstances, respect for the rule of law and respect for seniors, wife and friends were all inculcated in me at home and GCU. These values have been the anchor and beacons of my life that have upheld me to being the person that I am today.

At the time you were a young boy was it fashionable or compulsory to go to school?
No, it was not compulsory or fashionable to go to school. Sending his children to school was, however, a priority for my dad who had been denied the opportunity to acquire western education. He had seen that the boys who went to school in his time were those who came to occupy the prominent positions in government institutions.  Educating boys were, however, given higher priority to educating the girl child in some families.

You attended Government College Ughelli, what decided that for you?
Government College Ughelli was the secondary school of first choice in our days: it had excellent infrastructure, devoted expatriate and Nigerian graduate teachers, bumper student welfare schemes and it diligently pursued the policies of ‘healthy mind in a healthy body.’ My elder brother, William, who was my role model, preceded me to GCU and he told me numerous stories of how wonderful the college was. So those were the things that made me resolve to work really hard to gain admission into the famous College.

If you did not obtain a scholarship would you have received a secondary school education?
Yes and No. Yes, because I was admitted into GCU as a fee-paying student. I was three months old in the College when the Principal invited me to his office and informed me and three other classmates that we had been awarded the Western Region Government scholarship. The award meant that we would pay only £3 instead of £32 per annum school fees. It is obvious that the scholarships relieved our parents of significant financial burden.  Whether our parents could have been able to carry the burden of £32 per annum over five years lies in the realm of speculation.


Was it easy to get a scholarship then or were you just brilliant?
The grant of scholarships into GCU was based on students’ performance in the highly competitive common entrance examination.  The scholarships were therefore to ensure that students with high academic potential did not miss the opportunity to obtain quality education because of their inability to pay school fees. In the case of GCU, the first six students in the common entrance examination obtained government scholarships automatically.  My elder brother was first in the examination in 1952 and he earned the automatic scholarship. I learnt that I was seventh in the Common Entrance Examination, which explains why I was awarded a Western Region scholarship when I was only three months old in the College.

What memories of GCU do you have?
I have very rich repertoire of memories of GCU. GCU was the turning point in my life. I have memories of great teachers like late Dr. Abel I. Guobadia, once the Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), who was an outstanding physics teacher; Mr. S.O. Egube who taught Chemistry with passion; Dr. Christopher O. Kolade, the former Nigerian Ambassador to the UK who made literal subjects and mathematics very interesting to learn; Mr. Soriyan who taught mathematics with an incredible style and depth; Mr. S.O. Tiemietan who taught Biology with glamour and great panache; and Mr. Philips who taught History excellently well. They have lived in my memories forever. House masters like Mr. B.A. Okafo, who provided disciplined leadership and innovations in managing School House, my House, also lingers in my memory.

At that point in life what did you want to do in life and what did you eventually study?
Students were expected to choose to do Science or the Arts subjects in class five.  I returned good grades in both categories of subjects. My elder brother had chosen to read the Arts subjects and being my role model, I was expected to follow in his footsteps. In our days, there were no education counsellors to guide students about career choice; so we resorted to seeking advice from our seniors. I was quite good in Chemistry and so sought advice from Mr. Oritsegbemi Omatete who was one year my senior and who was a notable all round excellent student in my House, on the career path I could tread. He told me he was planning to read Chemical Engineering and that was it. I too decided to walk the same path.

You grew up in Warri, which more or less was a city then, what did it mean to live in Warri then considering the oil industry that was just growing?
Warri was not a bustling city like Sapele. Sapele had the African Timber and Ply wood (AT & P) factory that attracted expatriates and locals.  The oil industry had not started to grow in Warri at the time.  Warri was a sober city with the exclusive European Quarters located in the present government reservation areas in Okere and Nigerians lived in other places. My family was living at Dawodu Street in the Alders Town. One important event that created excitement and spectacle was the Empire Day, May 24th, in which all schools in Warri celebrated the birthday of the King or Queen of England.

The notable personalities in Warri at the time were Chief Mukoro Mowoe, Chief Malori who operated a cinema house, Chief Obahor, Chief Ikomi, Mr Okpodu, Mr. Edukgho, Chief Ometan, Chief Arthur Prest, Dr. G.M Urhobo who had established the God’s Kingdom Society Church in the outskirts of Effurun in the Uvwie Kingdom.  The important secondary schools in Warri were Hussey College Warri and Urhobo College Effurun.


When you decided to study Chemical Engineering were you targeting the oil industry?
Truthfully, there was no nexus between the study of chemical engineering and working in the oil industry. No Nigerian universities were offering chemical engineering in 1962, which was why I first obtained a degree in Chemistry from the University of Ibadan but was sent on an in service training by my employers, the Petroleum Division of the Ministry of Mines and Power, to study chemical engineering in the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. 

What experiences and memories do you have of the University of Ibadan, what was the welfare like in your days?
University of Ibadan was the premier University in Nigeria in my days. My memories relate to well - equipped laboratories, decent halls of residence where every student had a room to himself, great options in meals served in the cafeteria, great free periods to be spent as the student deemed fit. So student welfare was as good as I had experienced in GCU.

At what point did marriage come in?
The marriage idea came in after three years of graduating from the University, securing a decent job in the public service of the Federation and being sent abroad on in service training, which meant that my salary was still being paid during the period of the in service training. I married when I was 29 years old.

Was it love at first sight?
Yes, it was indeed! I had gone with my elder brother, William, to visit his classmate and friend, Mr Joseph Oroye, who was on vacation from Igbobi College, Lagos.  Mr. Oroye had arranged a luncheon for the lady of his dreams, Janet Otuedon, my cousin, at his father’s sprawling residence on Macpherson Road, when I sighted Joseph’s sister, Mabel, a slim, very beautiful lady. On first sight, I blurted out, “you will be my wife in the future” How prophetic!!

At 80 are you fulfilled?
Yes, I feel quite fulfilled: I was educated at the prestigious GCU, premier University of Ibadan and the University of Surrey Guildford, U.K. I am an alumnus of Columbia University Graduate School of Business, New York, USA. I served as the CEO of four key NNPC subsidiaries; I retired voluntarily after 26 years of meritorious service. I have been married to my childhood love for 50 years plus and we are blessed with six lovely children who have in turn given us 14 grandchildren. At eighty, I do not suffer from the infirmities of old age and my faculties are still very much intact.

In retirement, I have been gainfully engaged as: the Executive Chairman of TRITHEL International Consulting that has built an impressive client base across corporate Nigeria in the diverse fields of Quality and Environment Management Systems and Services, Human Capacity Building and Executive Search and Selection. I am the Co - Founder and Chairman of Air Separation Nigeria Limited, a wholly indigenous company, which manufactures industrial and medical gases for industries and health care institutions, and now has incredible reach into 30 States of the Nigerian Federation employing many Nigerians.
 
The President and Commander–in–Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, appointed me as the Chairman of the Interim Technical Board of Port-Harcourt Refinery on 31st May 2004 to prepare the refinery for privatization. I have been the Chairman of Arco Group Plc family, a leading player in the oil and gas services business to multinational companies, since 2008. I once served as the Chairman of another reputable company, SOWSCO Well Services Nigeria Limited that is into well cementation, well head maintenance and repairs, brine filtration, pipeline and industrial cleaning services.

I was the National President of the Nigerian Society of Chemical Engineers from 1999 to 2000. My period witnessed the transformation of the Society to position it to meet the challenges of the new millennium and successfully integrated the Society into the Nigerian Society of Engineers. I was the Chairman, Board of Trustees of the Nigerian Society of Chemical Engineers’ Foundation. I have given back to my Alma Mater by serving it as president in two branches and as its President – General from 2011 – 2015. I definitely feel fulfilled. I give God all the glory.

Any regrets?
I wished my father– in–law did not transit to the great beyond so early for he was a great man who loved me in a unique way. I wished I had the opportunity to reciprocate his affection for me. I wished also that I had acquired emotional intelligence skills earlier in my career. I would have had  fewer bruises from some superiors who hated my guts in speaking bluntly on issues.

How about your family lineage?
I am descended from the Omateye Itsekiri royal family, being a great-great- grand son of Prince Otuedon Omateye. Prince Otuedon was the first son of Prince Omateye of Ode Itsekiri who was himself the second son of Olu Akengbuwa 1, the 16th Olu of Warri who reigned from 1808 to 1848. Akpieyi, my grandfather, was the first son of Prince Otuedon. My paternal grandmother, late Ayionfor Ejekwokwo, was the daughter of Ovie Ejekwokwo, who was the fourth king in the Uvwie dynasty.


Who were your role models in life?
My role models in GCU were William E. Akpieyi, my elder brother; Professor Obaro Ikime; Professor Ogebemi Omatete; Mr. S.O Egube of blessed memory; and Christopher O. Kolade. In public service, they were: Chief M.O Feyide of blessed memory; Chief Philip C. Asiodu; Chief S.B. Awoniyi of blessed memory; Engineer S.A. Kufeji of blessed memory; and Chief Aret Adams also of blessed memory. All of them were wonderful examples of the best traditions of academic excellence, character, diligence and patriotism.

Was it easy to get into the Federal Civil Service then?
I was bonded to the Western Regional Government to provide service to it after the completion of my studies at the University of Ibadan. Following the creation of the Mid West State in 1965, I was relieved of the bond and was released to the Federal Public Service. I was then interviewed by the Federal Public Service Commission and posted to the Ministry of Mines and Power where my abilities could be gainfully utilized. The process was simple and straightforward. I reckon, therefore, that graduates in my time did not face much difficulty in getting into the Federal Civil Service.

Where did you start your career in the federal civil service? Did you enjoy your years in the public service?

I started my public service career that spanned 26 years in 1965 with the Ministry of Mines and Power in Mines School, Jos, before the Federal Public Service Commission transferred my services to the Petroleum Division in the same Ministry in 1966.
I certainly enjoyed my years in the public service because Chief M.O. Feyide, the Chief Executive of the Division, ensured that I was given requisite conversion courses and trainings before posting me out to face challenging assignments.  

My first posting was to Port - Harcourt in 1971 to Head the Refining and Oil Marketing Unit in the Petroleum Division that was charged with the responsibilities of ensuring that refining and oil marketing activities carried out in then Eastern States were in accordance with statutory and regulatory laws. My bosses must have believed that I discharged those responsibilities creditably well that they decided to transfer me, in 1973, to the Ministry’s headquarters to head the Refining and Marketing Division, a position that I held till 1977 when the NNOC (The Nigerian National Oil Corporation) was merged with the Ministry to form NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation).

With the creation of NNPC, I was appointed the first Head of the Commercial Division and the first Chief Engineer to coordinate the gigantic 3000 kilometers network of pipelines and 19 associated oil depots projects, which we completed in a record time of less than 24 months.

On 14th February 1980, Chief A. K. Hart, the then Commissioner for Petroleum Resources and Chairman of NNPC Board of Directors, decided to send me on a rescue mission to take over the head ship of Nigeria’s premier refinery, the Nigerian Petroleum Refinery Company (NPRC) Ltd at a time the company was steeped in crisis and was notorious for frequent management staff crisis. The peace and harmony that I restored and sustained for a record period of five years I served as the CEO was unprecedented in the annals of NPRC.

The Board of Directors of NPRC that largely comprised my superior and peers issued me with a commendation letter that said: On behalf of myself and the Board of Directors of the Nigerian Petroleum Refining Company Ltd (NPRC) I commend your dynamic, altruistic and purposeful leadership of the management of NPRC from 14th January 1980 to 1st February, 1985, and particularly the financial prudence management demonstrated under your leadership. The records of your achievements constitute challenges for future Chief Executives of the Refinery’

From NPRC I was moved in 1985 to another troublesome spot in NNPC – the Pipelines Operations Division – as its Chief Executive. Again, like in NPRC, I was able to restore order and provide purposeful and visionary leadership that the Division, in a very short time, became the envy of other operating arms of NNPC.  I earned various letters of appreciation and commendation from my superior officers, including the Group Managing Director, Aret Adams, during my three years tenure.

I was in that position up till June 1988 when I was appointed the first Managing Director of the newly created Warri Refining and Petrochemicals Company. I served in that capacity until 1990 when I was again transferred to the National Engineering and Technical Company (NETCO), a joint venture company between NNPC and Bechtel, a world renowned Engineering Company, to breathe life into its operations that had ostensibly become stymied in international politics. I succeeded admirably in energizing the company to fulfil the purpose of building local engineering and management expertise for major oil and gas projects through technology transfer. I retired voluntarily from the public service in 1991 after 26 years’ service during that watch.

In my various postings, right from the Ministry to NNPC, I was given responsibilities by my bosses of positions two to three grades higher than my substantive ranks: I represented the Ministry / NNPC at the Federal Executive Council meetings in General Gowon’s Government on all matters relating to petroleum products distribution; I was the chairman of an Inter-ministerial Task Force set up by the Federal Military Government; I initiated the Offshore Processing Scheme which involved the processing of Nigeria’s crude oil in overseas refineries and the return of finished products for consumption in Nigeria as a short term solution to stave off petroleum products shortages in Nigeria. The value of the scheme was in billions of Naira and the Federal Government did not have to pay any subsidies on imported products throughout the duration of the scheme.

I was the first Chairman of the Petroleum Equalization Fund Management Board, where I served for ten years and demonstrated rare integrity in discharging the sensitive responsibilities for the administration of the revolutionary country – wide uniform pricing mechanism. So competently did the Fund perform under my watch, that the Fund was able to transfer some N100million to the then Military Government of General Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, through the channel of Professor Tam David West, the then Minister of Petroleum Resources.


In 1976, I was the Government Chief negotiator for the 100 percent takeover of ESSO Nigeria Limited (now Oando), and I was a member of the Ministry’s team that negotiated the acquisition of 60 percent controlling shares in Shell Nigeria Limited, now CONOIL.

During the period of my stewardship as the Head of the Refining and Marketing division, I was fortunate to have worked directly with three of the best Civil Servants the nation could boast of – late Chief M.O. Feyide, CFR; Chief Philip C. Asiodu, CON; and late Chief Sunday B. Awoniyi, CON – whom I still fondly remember as great role models that I will revere forever.

Other special assignments that I performed during my career in the Oil and Gas Industry included: the directorships on boards of the then Unipetrol, and National Oil Companies; Chairman, NNPC Re – organization sub – committee on criteria for implementation; Chairman, Kerosene Scarcity Investigation Committee; Chairman, Committee on Financial Obligations of NNPC on Pipelines and Depots Phase; Chairman, Committee on Capital Funding and Profit Orientation for NNPC; member, NNPC / SPDC Technical Committee on Natural Gas Pricing Policy; Member, Committee on Transfer Pricing; and Member, Steering Committee NNPC / Chevron Joint Venture Company.

The public service also gave me great opportunities to see the world. Thus, I have visited Kuwait, India, Japan, Houston, Washington, Cairo, Hong – Kong, Athens, London, Paris and Italy on official assignments.

It is evident from all that I have stated, that I had a most fulfilling public service career and that I enjoyed my years in the service that was characterized with challenges that I successfully surmounted.

Do you miss the public service after you left?
I deliberately decided to retire voluntarily from the public service. Before doing that I had weighed life in the service and life after service. I knew that there would be a time that every public servant must leave the service and face the future. So, I decided not to let the fear of the unknown to deter me from leaving the service ahead of the retirement age. So, I can say I did not have any reason to begin to dwell on whether or not I would miss the public service. Life must continue.

People don't retire voluntarily in such lucrative sector as the oil and gas industry. Why did you leave?
I agree that it is not usual for people in the oil and gas industry to retire voluntarily in such lucrative sector unless pushed to do so. As I had stated earlier, I think what is responsible for that situation is the fear of the unknown. In the Military Governments’ culture of “retirement with immediate effect” it was evident that one could be retired arbitrarily with no notice for drummed up charges of inefficiency, lack of integrity, lack of productivity and so on. The staff would have to face the unknown with the stain of the cooked up reasons for the sudden retirement. I thought it was by far better to face the unknown with one’s integrity intact. Hence, I opted to retire voluntarily. If I had allowed myself to be retired suddenly, the undertones beneath the retirement would have crushed my spirit and probably hastened my demise.

When you were leaving what came up next to do in your mind?
I retired five years before the statutory age limit for retirement. So, I decided to do business in the fields of consultancy, manufacturing and trading. I have brought to fruition only the consultancy and manufacturing aspects of my dreams on retirement.

You retired early but went back to work again, so when will you do that retirement?
I will do that now that I have attained 80 years in good health.

How are you spending the latter part of your life?
You mean how I intend to spend the remaining part of my life after 80? Well, I will now really retire from active consultancy works but not from chairmanship that demands my service only once a quarter. I shall plan more holidays internally and abroad to the extent possible. I shall also spend more time with my grandchildren. Thank God we have many Internet communication facilities that make contacts so easy.

With TRITHEL what did you have in mind to do?
TRITHEL International Consultancy is the fulfillment of the dream of consulting that I had envisaged.

What other things do you do?
I serve as Chairman of oil services and manufacturing companies, as a member of some trustees, president of some professional and alma mater associations, and member of some home based associations. I am patron to many societies in my church.

In your youthful days were you a lady’s man?
No, I was not. In fact, GCU taught me to be decent in relationships with the female sex. My mother also preached the need for me not to ruin the lives of young females. I guess that I grew up avoiding the ladies.

What is the secret of your longevity?
I think it is genetic inheritance. My dad passed to the great beyond at 103 and my mother at 92.

Are you on special diet or sports or exercise?
I am not on special diet although my wife ensures that I always have balanced meals. I exercise by walking once a week in our estate, doing exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in my bathroom.

What makes you still stylish and fashionable at 80 and what kind of clothes appeal to you to wear these days?
Thank you for your generous comments. I wear clothes that I am comfortable in and project positive image of someone who is not oblivious of his environment.

Do you take time for holidays?
Yes I do. Throughout my 26 years career in the public service, I always made sure that I went on vacation. I never accumulated any leave because I was very mindful of the principle of balanced self-renewal and the fact that no one is indispensable.





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