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Adams Okoene On Building A Corporate Legacy

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Adams Okoene On Building A Corporate Legacy

Adams Okoene2ADAMS OKOENE, former managing director/CEO, Midwestern Oil, is a man who is not always in the news because he treasures his privacy. Some weeks ago, FUNKE OSAE-BROWN sought him out. In this interview, he shares some of his legacies and retirement plans with her.
When I set out that sunny Sunday afternoon, I never knew I was going on some kind of expedition, an expedition into an unknown world of the super rich. My destination that afternoon was the exclusive posh Northern Foreshore Estate, Lekki. At the estate’s main gate, I went through the strictest security screening. I was not allowed through the estate gate until clearance was given from whom I was billed to see. The ambience was really serene. The architectural and aesthetic appeal of the structures tell of the calibre of people who live there. The buildings were arranged like pieces of art that mirror their owners.
It is in one of these statement pieces of architecture that Adams Okoene, former managing director and chief executive officer, Midwestern Oil and Gas, resides. Soft spoken and religious, he warmly welcomes me into his home. The upholsteries are no child’s play at all. The arrangement of the furniture and general furnishing of the living room say a lot about his taste.
Raised from a humble beginning, Okoene grew up in a village called Ewu, in Edo State. A place he describes as “very rural.” He attended Annunciation Catholic Government College, Irrua, and Edo College, where he was discovered by Shell. As a result of his background, Okoene never aspired to be a mechanical engineer, even though he was good with the technical subjects. He just wanted to go to school and perhaps become a professor like his closest friend, Professor Sanni.
“I was sure it would be a technical line,” he recalls. “Whether it is going to be in engineering, mathematics, physics or something, I wasn’t sure. Quite frankly, if Shell had not taken me out of the country in my life at that time at Edo College, I would have ended up a professor. My closest friend, Professor Sanni, he is retired now. He went to Loyola College while I went to Edo College. He did a concessioner entrance exam. I was supposed to. Before he finished his higher school, he got into University of Ibadan. He wanted me to do the same. But I had to take a decision because I come from a very poor family,” he says.
Since there was no guarantee his parents would be able to pay his fees through the university, Okoene decided not to cut his higher school programme, and go into the university because if he did, he would have had no certificate. “Then I said no, I will complete this HSC programme. So, at the end of it, I could have a certificate to work with and be able to fend for my folks. That was my reasoning.”
But just before the programme came to an end, Shell sent a message to most of the Government Colleges and asked the principals to send two of their best students to Port Harcourt for scholarship interview. And the principal then called Okoene and ask if he was willing to go to Port Harcourt for the interview.
And so Okoene went to Port Harcourt. It was the first time he would ever cross the River Niger. “It was an adventure,” he says. “In some cases, a frightening adventure. After series of tests in Port Harcourt, on the third day after the test, I was told I have been offered a scholarship to study mechanical engineering. I was asked if you are offered scholarship in the UK would you accept?’ I said: “UK? I don’t have a choice!” that is how I got the scholarship.”
And so Okoene went to the UK to study mechanical engineering, and because he was sponsored by Shell he was able to get scholarship. When the programme was coming to an end, Shell offered him a job, which he accepted.
“I must say it was a good job,” he adds, “because I never really looked out and I stayed with Shell for nearly 30 years, basically rising to the top of my career in Shell.”
Two years before he took early retirement, Shell asked him to set up a training programme for technical graduates, which marks a turning point in his career and achievements as a mechanical engineer. A few years before then, while at Shell, I was asked to recruit young technical graduates, and send them on courses abroad. In those trainings are students from the UK, US, Europe, Taiwan, and so on. In the beginning, Nigerians used to be at the top quartile of the class because at the end of the programme they would send reports back to the various companies.
“Our students were always on top of the class,” adds Okoene. “Over the years, the performance of Nigerian students started to drop. By the time we were now looking at the problem, they were at the bottom quartile of the class. And Shell felt here is a problem. And Shell recognised there was no way the Federal Government will allow them bring in fresh graduates from abroad. We decided we have to do something about the market from where we recruit our technical graduates. We decided we would set up a programme. We will pick the best technical graduate we can find, put them through a one-year programme and to the level they ought to be, if they had attended a standard university with standard curriculum in Europe or America.
“Shell looked around, I was engineering technical manager at the time and pick me to come and set it up. I then became manager in charge of recruitment, training human resources, among other things. Nigerian Breweries Ltd (NBL) had set up a similar programme. There was a man – Dr John Mbonu, who helped them set it up. We contacted NBL and we got him on board. He actually spent about two and a half years with me on that programme. We had to now go around the world to look for who could help us set it up, and we picked Robert Gordon University in Scotland. We contacted the Nigerian universities. Between Robert Gordon and some of the professors, we also recruited from some of the Nigerian universities,” he narrates.
Hence, Okoene sets up curriculum and at the end of the training for the first set of people, the quality was outstanding. By the time the second set graduated, that place became the recruitment ground for the rest of the industry. To the extent that Shell was actually struggling to even recruit from that group.
“The programme was that successful,” he says. “It was called the Shell Intensive Training programme. It was a joint venture, whatever Shell had to pay the Federal Government will pay 55 percent of it. I had decided then that the facilities there had to be first-class. Since it was going to be intensive I decided the place must be comfortable. The students and the lecturers had to be comfortable.
“The selling point to the government because government needed to understand. We then picked lecturers from Nigerian universities, put them through this two years programme, and during that period we will expose them to all the modern techniques with experience from abroad. So that at the end of their tenure in the programme they go back to the university enhanced. The government was sold to the idea. They signed on to it. I heard after I had left that none of the lecturers wanted to go back. You will leave where they are being well paid to the university where they were not better paid. The facilities where first-class and you are now asking them to go back? That’s what I did just before I retired from Shell.”
After retiring from Shell, because of his intelligence and expertise, his friends lured him into setting up Midwestern Oil and Gas, which he managed from 2005 to 2014. He took up Midwestern Oil and Gas when it was just written on a piece of paper and built it into a fully-fledged company.
When I retired, I thought I will go to a village far away from the oil industry, but that wasn’t to be. Some friends conspired and hauled me back to Lagos. I did a bit of consultancy. I helped Midwestern Oil and Gas to secure the field that they got because I was in the consulting group. They said since I know a lot about the oil industry, I can as well be the managing director and set it up. When I took over the company, it was just a piece of paper. From that point, 2005, to this point 2014, I was the MD/CEO of the company.
“Since I took over Midwestern Oil and Gas, it was slightly different from Shell,” he explains. “There I had to be very creative. When I took over as CEO, it was just a piece of paper. Now, as we speak the company employs about 80 people. We have the capacity to produce 24,000 barrels of oil per day. It is the most successful marginal field producer in Nigeria right now. In 2003, the Federal Government came up with this idea of marginal fields. Midwestern was one of the 23 that got an award at that time. As we speak, only seven or eight of us are in production. Of that lot, Midwestern is the most successful. It has been able to produce the most.
“Not only that the company has achieved both international and national recognition, I have been to Geneva, Switzerland to receive awards on behalf of the company. For the way the company is run and what it has achieved over the years. So, for me, being CEO at Midwestern has resulted in being very creative. When I was in Shell, I didn’t have the full picture of the oil industry. When you are the CEO of an oil company, the buck stops at your table. Therefore, you have to be able to be the boss of all the disciplines; precisely, production, operations, engineering, service, the lot because you are responsible for all that.
“And when you are building a company from the scratch, you almost have to become an expert in all those areas. If you had gone to recruit somebody who is got degree in that area you have to be sure that person knows what he is talking about. That is what I mean by the difference between my being CEO at Midwestern and working at Shell. The company grew from zero to $1 billion per annum,” he says proudly.
As a young boy growing up in the village, Okoene says the values that guided him in life were formed at that point in time. His parents were people of strong values. They had a strong value system. He was the only male child they had. Some people would say he would be raised a spoilt child. But they didn’t raise him that way. They made sure he knew the right value system.
“They ensured they stayed and those are the values I carry with me. One of those values is integrity. My parents told me they had to be able to believe whatever I told them. If I had a piece of paper in my hand and I told them it is black. They wanted to be able to believe me. Anytime I deviated from the path of truth, I got a hard knock. That has stayed with me. That is why today I can’t stand anyone who lies to me. I want to be able to trust people. When you tell me something I want to be able to believe you. When I find that it isn’t true, I kick you as far away from me as I can. That is one of them.
“I picked up something about sports, being related to good health from my parents. I played football for my school. Now, tennis is what I play and I love the game. It is one of the first things I built in my country home. I built a tennis court. My wife now runs a school and there is a tennis court there in Ewu. My aspiration is to produce a tennis star from that school. We are working on achieving that,” he says.
This year, Okoene retired from Midwestern. And he tells me he wants to enjoy the sense of freedom that comes with retirement. “First, I want to go and experience a sense of freedom. Freedom from I want to be in the office by 8am or 9am. Freedom from I must put in so many hours during the day. I want to be able to say today I won’t get out of my home and not feel guilty. I want to be able to say I want to have lunch in Ibadan and not feel guilty, because other things may suffer. I want to experience that sense of freedom for some months.
But I am pretty sure that after some time I might get bored. I am looking at some offers that will come my way, and I am certain that once it gets out there that I am retiring, there will be offers. Now, I am getting grand children, I want to spend time watching them grow. I want to be sure that they know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, I want to be there when they learn those things. I want to take them to the tennis court and play tennis with them. I am looking forward to doing that,” he says.

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