A veteran of the Nigerian oil and gas industry, Dr. Leemon Ikpea, is the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Lee Engineering and Construction Company Limited, a high level Engineering, Procurement, Construction, Operation and Maintenance (EPCOM) firm in the Nigerian oil and gas industry. To mark the company’s 31st anniversary, Ikpea an honourary doctorate degree holder from the Benson Idahosa and Ambrose Ali Universities as well as an alumnus of the prestigious Harvard University executive programme, tells Emmanuel Addeh about his very humble beginning and his struggle to extricate himself from the shackles of poverty.
Congratulations on your 31st anniversary. It is no mean feat, given that many companies actually don’t last that long, especially in an environment that people see as very harsh for business survival. Where do you see Lee Engineering and its subsidiaries in the next five years?
You know I am a man of faith. If you believe in what you’re doing and you put it in words and deeds, it will come to pass. That is when the grace of God will come in. I see Lee Engineering at the top in the next five years along with its subsidiaries. From the aviation firm to Kizi oil which won one of the marginal fields recently, coupled with our production facility in Warri, which we will commission next year, by the time we start production, people from all parts of the world will come and patronise us.
With that, I am optimistic that in the next five years, now that we have about 2,000 workers, it will double and this will increase capacity, foster technology transfer and earn foreign exchange for the country because our vision is for other countries to patronise us.
Let’s talk about the factory. What exactly is it about and how will it impact the industry?
The factory is meant to build or fabricate special equipment in the oil and gas industry. The people that will work in this factory are Nigerians which will increase our capacity, earn forex, create a lot of multiplier effects, including for local suppliers, vendors, etc.
Many people see you as an inspiration. You’ve been very big on local content. You feel that Nigerians have the capacity to do what their foreign counterparts are doing, even better. What is your perception of the state of local content as it is today and what do you think can be done differently?
I will confine myself to the oil and gas side of the industry. We’re doing very well. If we go back 10 years ago, we were far behind. Today, I’m told the local content has grown massively. We are already achieving close to 50 per cent. In the next five years, we’ll get to almost 90 per cent. So with the support of the government and the government supporting the local content board and having the right people on the board, I’m pretty sure in the next five years, we’re going to get to 100 per cent.
The oil industry is going through critical challenges, especially the Nigerian oil industry in terms of not being able to meet its OPEC quota, which is a big issue as it is today.
What do you think can be done differently because you know the price of oil is very volatile, it can slump any time and that will be more trouble for Nigeria? What can we do to be able to ramp up production in the next few months?
I didn’t even know that there were people stealing the oil at that magnitude until the recent discovery. Left for me, everybody should praise the management of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC) for the recent discovery. You may have even taken note recently that the production has started climbing. So kudos go to the current Group Executive Officer, Mallam Mele Kyari, because something that belong to the country, some few individuals are conniving with some other people we don’t know to steal it. It’s very sad. I’m sure with this discovery and if the lines are fixed, the product will definitely increase and with the marginal field production going on right now, soon production could go to three million barrels and this will increase our revenue.
You mentioned the critical role that Nigerians played during the construction of the Warri refinery, which was decades ago. Today those refineries are not working. People feel that those refineries were deliberately run down by some people so that they will start importing because that’s where the money is. Do you think the timelines for fixing them can be met by the current government?
Yes, I can tell you that Nigeria has the capacity to fix them. As you rightly said, maintenance work is going on in Port Harcourt. I’m sure Warri must have started. Kaduna is underway. I don’t think anybody would deliberately not want the refineries to work. Maybe, it’s budget constraint or what because refineries with my experience in refinery, as I told you, I’ve been in the industry for close to 45 years. Refineries are supposed to be maintained every two years. So this problem started during the military. So if a problem started since the military era, and they handed over in 1999, they were not maintained until the one in Port Harcourt and Kaduna and then the Warri in 2004 or something. During the military, most of the assets were already gone before the civilian administration came in. You know in civilian government, there are a lot of protocols, a lot of processes, a lot of legislations before you can take money from the safe to fix anything. So combined with what happened during the military, that’s what put us in this mess we have found ourselves today. But right now, everybody has seen that refineries are supposed to work. Everybody has known that this needs to work and with the current administration making sure that the refineries work before they leave, I think we will be activating them and we will see the refineries work again.
There are many industry experts who feel that the issue of subsidy is a waste of resources that needs to be removed. Do you think the government should withdraw subsidy on petrol?
If you check around, you will see that Nigerian hospitals are not functioning well. Same with the roads. The money we are spending on subsidy, yes we may suffer for some time because of subsidy. But if we look at what we spend on subsidy, it can be used to build major infrastructure. Look at the East-west road, it is a disaster. Look at the road from Abuja to Lagos, it is a disaster. So if you fix these roads, the commercial activities will flow. We should take our money from the subsidy and fix the major roads. Major hospitals will be working well, but if you continue to pump money into subsidy, Nigeria will never move forward.
So you support the removal of subsidy?
You are investing seriously in fabrication of oil and gas equipment in-country, but there is this move or transition from oil to renewables. How do you balance that? Is it not a bad investment decision to put in so much money into a product that we have been told is going into extinction?
You know, we are Nigerians and not only that, we are Africans. So, we cannot force ourselves to be Europeans overnight. I’m very sure and very convinced that petrol will still be needed in Africa, in Nigeria in the next 20, 30 to 40 years. I’m also very sure that gas will be needed for almost everything because though we need renewables, we need gas more. As long as the country is still in existence, gas and oil is something that we will continue to use in the country and in this world till the end of time. Yes, Europeans are inventing things every day. But for us in Africa, we also need to do something in our African way to also keep our economy running. If you look at them, if 10 people were working before, they have shrunk it to two. So eight people are not working, we can’t do that here in Africa. We need to create jobs for our people and for the market. If you reduce it, what will give jobs to families? Then crime will increase, so many other vices will increase. So I’m sure Africans will do their own thing in their own way to save Africans.
Nigeria is operating a new oil and gas industry law, the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA). How do you think the law, if fully implemented, will impact the sector that you operate in?
The PIA is a very interesting piece of legislation. It will create a level playing field for operators, increase transparency and if the system is transparent, investors will come in and this will impact the country positively. Many jobs will be created, many industries will come up and when this happens, it will improve our economy greatly.
You sound very passionate about local content, and it is like the bedrock of boosting local production. What do you think the government can do differently? How do you think the government can add more fillip towards realising Nigeria’s local content drive?
The government needs to create the right environment. They have been doing a lot but they need to continue to do more to support Nigerian companies, create the enabling environment because if the enabling environment, like the issue of security is not provided, then not much can be done. And then, the operators of the industry need to support the government to improve the security situation by opening up a pool of fund where they are going to reach out to serious companies and then there’ll be something that will help fight this menace. If governments, for example, support Nigerian companies, by patronising our factories, they will produce more, Nigerians will be trained on how to do the work, instead of bringing foreigners to run the factories and more factories will come in.
Tell us about how the general insecurity in the country has affected your operations.
It’s serious. In one of our sites, they attacked us. Seven of my workers lost their lives. So as I’m talking to you now, we have suspended work there since August 16. Since then, all my equipment are rotting away. So you can imagine what I’m losing, plus the lives that were lost and then all my equipment are rotting away. Nobody’s there. So you can imagine what happened to us. 250-tonne crane, big equipment, and just like your car, if you’re not using them, it begins to depreciate. So I’m happy you mentioned that. We’re losing a lot. That is why we said let the multinationals collaborate with the government. If possible, they’ll pull the fund in a certain pool which they can use to help security, especially because that’s the sector where the money comes from. If the country is able to produce according to OPEC quota, it will help everybody. You see the problem of dollars now. There’s no forex. But if you don’t sell, how can you get revenue. The more oil, the more dollars. But I am glad the NNPC is putting measures in place to curb this oil theft. And I want to commend the president also, because gradually, all these people that are doing this, will be brought to book.
What’s your diversification plan given the energy transition?
Well, we are diversifying. We are into aviation, equipment production, travels and tours, indeed we are into eight different fields. You can imagine the job that those companies have created.
Nigeria cannot meet its OPEC quota at a time oil is selling for almost $100. What can Nigeria do to stop this menace?
The problem is that they are vandalising the pipelines. How will production come and how will revenue come in? How will production be increased when they are breaking pipelines. By the time you pump crude oil, it will be stolen along the road? So it is this insecurity we need to tackle immediately. The effort they’re putting now, the military, NNPC everybody is supporting the government to fight this evil. If this problem is tackled squarely, I am very sure that with what we have in place now, in two or three months, you’ll see the difference.
Sometime ago, you argued that to grow Nigeria’s local content, IOCs should be compelled to patronise indigenous firms in the oil and gas sector. Do you still hold this view? And then, there is the issue of quality. Can Nigerian manufacturers compete favourably with their counterparts abroad?
Yes, we are capable. You need to see our factory. Don’t forget that these IOCs are foreigners. Are they happy that Nigerians are taking food from their people? A lot of these jobs, they are the ones handling them, but they will tell you where to go to get the equipment. If they discover that we are being backed by our laws and by our government, they won’t have any options but to go to listen to us. If they know the government is in full support, they will be compelled to patronise us. The only thing about them is that there are certain equipment that are very heavy commercially and we need to start from somewhere and then when the patronage improves, we can move to the next level. We are not there yet, but between now and April, we will move to where we ought to be. We will be producing heat exchangers, high pressure vessels, scrubbers etc. at the Lee International Machinery Services Limited, one of our subsidiaries in Warri.
Since the oil companies exited Warri, a lot of small businesses have closed down. That has led to unemployment. From the 2000 employees you currently have, how many Niger Delta people are included?
Oh, a large majority.
There is the issue of funding? How are you dealing with the shrinking capacity of banks to lend to big budget projects?
That’s why I talked about integrity. You know banking is about relationships. If you are honest with your bank, definitely your bank will be honest with you. If you are a high risk customer, the bank knows how to treat you. With me, I will say my bankers are flexible and I try to play my part too. We sit down on the table, agree on a rate and if the rate is not favourable, we still disagree to agree and that has helped along the way.
Does the Nigerian banking sector have the capacity to handle big budget projects?
Well, there’s nothing I have asked of my bank that they have not provided for me. But when they say return it, I return it. That’s it.
It’s been a long and tortuous route to success. Tell us about this journey.
I have journeyed a very rough road. I lost my parents when I was just about 14 years and I am the most senior of their children. We are just three boys. The other two, anywhere I am, they are with me. I did all sorts of odd jobs because I don’t know how to steal. I have carried cement on my head, I have pushed trucks, I have sold newspapers as a vendor and I say it with pride. I sold firewood, sold kerosene just to survive because my parents were very poor. I always felt humiliated each time we went for lunch, because I was the only one as a secondary school student that did not have a teller to show as required. I would trek long distances to school. And that was the road to success. But the painful thing for me is that my parents didn’t get to enjoy anything from me. This is the 44th year of my working life. For those of you who know about Warri refinery, we built Warri refinery. It was commissioned by the current president who was then federal commissioner. I was there for years with three different companies during the construction phase. There was the one based in Darlington, UK, which specialised in building oil storage tanks. I have never been used to sitting down in the office. I am an office man, but I don’t confine myself to the office. When I resume in the office, I check that everything is in order and then I move on to the field. Nigerians were the ones doing the welding, electrical, the erection and putting everything together at the refinery, but the white people supervised. That was the role they played. They also came with their own equipment. I took note of that. If I stayed in the office, I won’t know the roles Nigerians were playing all over the place. Nigerians are very hardworking and committed. After three years, the UK company left and as they were leaving, I was the only Nigerian national that was remaining. So, they handed me over to the Italian company. In my heart, I know I am an honest person, hardworking and my late father would tell me that integrity is important. I guess they took note of all these qualities. Because as an orphan, you must have sense even if by force.
Everything then was manual. There were no computers. We had more than 5,000 workers. In those early days, I would write until my fingers were swollen. I would be the first to report in the office because I knew it will add to my credibility. So, in 1985, I was made the personnel manager. So, I was already manager almost 38 years ago. That’s to tell you where I am coming from. In 1988, the refinery had been commissioned, there was debottlenecking and they felt that their job was done. I was there for eight years, and during this period, my experiences paid off, spanning the British to the Italian. I asked myself if these people can do it, why not also Nigerians since we were actually the ones doing the construction. But I also know that in my life, there’s the special grace. Because even if I was the best worker, it’s still the special grace. That’s why I try as much as possible to extend that God’s grace to others. The second company then handed me over to the third, which is ABB. I worked there for almost three years. In all the years I worked, no leave, no vacation. I was having children and I would leave early and come back to meet them sleeping. So, I told them I was leaving in 1990. But it was difficult initially because they saw me as a big asset. These days you hardly have honest people who will tell you it’s A or B. So, my boss then Franco Corona struggled to allow me go. They eventually accepted, but said they still needed my help. That was how I established my company in 1991.
Given your humble beginnings. When was your first big break?
You know in anything; the take-off is usually very rough. As you go, there are ups and downs, but God’s mercy will come in. But note that God’s mercy goes with hard work because if you are sleeping at home, or you are arrogant or you don’t have integrity, it won’t come. But thank God for humility. I have respect for others.
Beyond your work in the oil and gas industry, we understand that you also have a heart for the needy. Can you let us into some of those philanthropic work that you do?
The name of my foundation is Leemon Agboinjagwe Ikpea Foundation. This platform is meant to take care of the less privileged, to take care of the orphans, to take care of the week and to take care of those that are sick as well as the aged people. This is the purpose of setting up this foundation.
The foundation has been in existence for about 12 years if I am not mistaken. You know, like I said, what brought me into this? It is because I know the journey, I know where I’m coming from. And I know so many who are also out there that do not have. I feel that God has blessed me. God has been good and also through all of your prayers. I feel excited to be able to touch lives, help the weak and others.
As of today, as I said earlier, we have trained 40 doctors and they’re doing very well. Some are still undergoing their trainings. Every year, the various students graduate. As of today, we have about 190, in addition to the 40 who already graduated from different fields.
We have sent some people with liver problems, kidney issues and other abroad. We have them in Germany, have some in India, we have some in London, some of them are recovered, some could not make it. Then, there are some, they will say in one way or the other, we heard about this foundation. This is the problem.
Then we refer them to the director of operations. We assist them. We have some committed people who want to open small businesses. We also help them to set up their business. There are some that are hair dressers. There are those who want to become mechanics. We help them. Of course that’s the passion and I’m so grateful that God gave me this assignment to serve his children. I’m so happy and it’s a big privilege to do that and we’re doing it happily.
I guess this has also come with its fair share of recognition.
My first visit to the president was in 2018. He shook my hand and we still have the picture in my house in Lagos. He said ‘thank you Dr Leemon for what you are doing for Nigeria.’
I never knew that somebody was taking note of what I was doing and we were just doing it quietly without notice, but I never knew that it was being noticed and the president also graciously gave me an award on the 11th of October, which is last month. And I’m happy. I’m honoured by this.
I didn’t ask for them. I didn’t know they had a section especially in government that took note of people.
You are also passionate about youth employment. But it would seem that many young people have lost faith in this country. Many of them are running away from the country, by sea by land by air. They just want to leave the country. What would be your advice to them?
Actually, the advice to young people is for them to get serious with themselves because the speed with which they want to get to the top suddenly is dangerous for them. The young people need to learn how to crawl before they start running. So I advise them to be creative. Some are into fashion designing and they are doing well. I urge Nigerian youths to go into entrepreneurship by using their brains and desist from overdependence. Learn a skill if you cannot get employment. But many of them want to go into kidnapping. Some want to kill their parents and takeover their property. Some are killing their mothers. That’s wrong. So, I advise them to think because where they are going to abroad, first of all, they’re not citizens. They are strangers. The very day they step their foot in another man’s land, police are already watching them.
Immediately they are caught, for any minute offence, they’re gone. I urge them to go into small scale farming and by the time you know it, they are already what they want to become. For instance, I started with a 40-feet container from one room and today I employ more than 2000 Nigerians. When I was a manager and I was promoted personnel manager, I was living in a room and a parlour in Warri. What is the rush for? But children of these days want to buy Benz at 16 years. They want to buy private jets immediately they finish university. You graduate today and the following day, you want to become a billionaire. Even if they get those billions, it will not last. They are very arrogant. Some of them are very lazy. A lot of them when I see their attitude, I shake my head sometimes. Sometimes, I invite some people and I talk with them. I go to some places to give lectures to them because some of them are also doing it out of ignorance. They’re watching their friends. They want to be like their friends. They don’t know how their friends became what they are. Whether it is through crime. So my advice for them is they should take a pause, take it easy, and walk step by step. Don’t look for N1 million today. Start from N10,000. My salary was N300 as a personal manager, I didn’t receive N500. I left paid employment in 1990 and I didn’t receive even N500, not N1000. Today, when you pay some workers N1 million, they say the money is too small and as they’re working with you, they’re looking somewhere else. Let them work hard, be humble. They should have integrity. I’m a man of integrity and I am a very hardworking man. I’m not a lazy man. And God has blessed my work.
(This interview was first published in ThisDay)