Attaining the age of 30 may not sound very unique to an ordinary mind, but to a discerning and reflective person, that is a great deal.
In the life of any human, it is an age believed to be the constructive period, when men begin to acquire property, possessions, home and family. The same can equally be said of corporate entities.
The obvious fact is that not all are privileged enough to celebrate the 30th birthday either as human or a company. This is why those who appreciate the grace of God that brought them thus far, take time out to celebrate in whatever form they chose.
Lee Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd is not an exception in this regard. Incorporated on November 11, 1991, the company is 30 years old and the Board and management, led by its Founder and Group Executive Chairman, Dr. Leemon Ikpea, has chosen to mark the special age with a Thanksgiving Service in Warri, Delta State.
Anyone close to Ikpea, will find it difficult to fault his decision to celebrate the company’s successes and survival through the ages in the house of the Lord. This is because his faith in God as the sustainer of his pursuits is unparalleled.
THE HUMBLE BEGINNING
Speaking on how he has been able to get this far he said, “First and foremost, it has not been an easy journey considering the environment and terrain we operate in. But when you have faith in God and you know what you are doing, the sky will be the limit. As somebody from a humble background, we are not lazy in my family – we worked very hard to cross so many hurdles.”
Talking about working with the intent to be successful, Ikpea is quick to point out that he does not take pride in envy or being jealous of others. “The good thing is that in my family we don’t look at what belongs to somebody else. We concentrate on what belongs to us.”
Combined with a lots of prayers, positive things are bound to happen, he said, stressing that without prayers, nothing happens.
“So we have that zeal to continue to pray to God to direct us,direct my steps and to show mercy on me,” he stated.
Reflecting on how it all started, Dr Ikpea said, “This year will make it my 44th year in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria. I started from the scratch, working with specialists, working with great thinkers and builders.”
“At the beginning, we were taking notes of what they were doing during the construction of the refineries. And you know the Warri Refinery was commissioned as far back as 1978. I was already there as far back as 1976. I was able to put my head down to know what was going on and what was happening.
“My experience in the refineries helped me to learn more about the industry because I was able to work with the British people – that’s my first point of call. Thereafter, the British handed me over to the Italians – After working with one Italian company, they handed me over to another Italian company.
“I was with them for 14 years. When I was convinced that I’ve gotten the experience I needed, and having also been able to make a few contacts, I resigned and established my business, which is today called Lee Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd.
“By the grace of God, on November 11, which we call ’11-11′ , we clocked 30 years in business. It’s a journey that wasn’t so smooth. There were ups and downs, but we give God the glory that, at least, Lee Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd has attained 30 years. And by the special grace of God, we still have so many years to make and leave a special legacy for the younger ones coming behind us.”
THE MANY OPPORTUNITIES TO EXPLORE
Aside laying a solid foundation in the construction subsector of the oil and gas industry, Lee Engineering is now venturing into manufacturing.
According to him,”We are not just into construction, now, we are also into manufacturing. Very soon, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will come and cut the tape of manufacturing factory. I’m sure before the second quarter of next year, by the special grace of God, the President will come and commission our factory in Warri.”
The concept of transiting from seeking contracts in construction to manufacturing of necessary equipment and spare parts for the oil and gas industry is a giant stride that deserves commendation as it’s economic benefits to the nation are enormous. First, it engender technology transfer, save foreign exchange, build capacity alongside many other multiplier effects.
The emphasis is the fact that the factory which is said to be 90 per cent completed will help reduce the amount spent on importation and procurement of tools and parts use in the oil and gas industry hitherto imported from different parts of the world.
And upon completion, employment opportunities will be created for Nigerians and foreigners with the right expertise.
As usual, the company did not come this far without it’s fair share of challenges, but Dr. Ikpea’s faith in divine interventions has seen him through to this day.
Hear him, “Like I said at the beginning, I am a man that believes in God. And when you pray to God with all your heart, He will answer your prayers. Challenges are numerous – is it operating community challenges?, is it bank challenges? There are lots of challenges, but we surmounted majority of them to get to where we are today. There is the determination, and if determination is there, and with the backing of God, definitely you will get to your destination.”
Speaking on the contributions from employees who have stayed with him through the period he said, “This is our 30th year. Some staff who started with me a long time ago, are still with us. Some have been with us for 28 years, 29 years, 25 years, some 26 years respectively. “Sometimes in 2-3 months, you are not able to pay salaries. Some people jumped out because they could not endure. Sometimes, salaries are delayed but it will be paid eventually. But some couldn’t wait because they were on a fast lane. But there were some that, in thick and thin, remained with us. and some of them are now directors today, some general managers, some managers.”
As a way of further rewarding the dedication and commitment of those who stayed with the vision, some of them have become shareholders in the company as they have been offered shares by the company”
“I have to give some of them some shares in the company because of their hard work and dedication to the company. This was to encourage them, and let them know that there is hope; to let them know that, we appreciate the thick and thin periods we were together, and that when the sun has started shining, we are still together,” he said.
As an indigenous company that has to compete with foreign firms in the sector is definitely a serious task that only those with thick skin and focus can scale through. Asked how his firm was able to gain strength in such environment where most of its peers died before their fifth or tenth anniversary; Dr Ikpea identified commitment to delivering quality jobs on time and to specifications, as some helpful tips that stands his company out.
“There are some contractors or business people that you give opportunity but they trash it. We are not that type of company that you give an opportunity and then trash it away. We are a very responsible company.
“We ensure we discharge our responsibilities creditably. We don’t abandon projects, we don’t abandon any responsibility, even from any of the IOCs that we have worked for. We take them seriously and we give them first-class quality jobs.
“So in some cases when you are told it’s a Nigerian company that did this job, you may doubt and think it’s a company from France or Germany, or from somewhere else. But we are Nigerians and we do it to the best of our ability. Everybody admires our performance, everybody admires the services that we are rendering in the industry. There is no one who doesn’t likes good things. They like our performance and they patronize us. They give us additional responsibility and we carry it out and everybody is happy.
“You cannot go and give responsibility to someone and after you rely on the person, eventually he disappoints you. You cannot go back to the same person, next time. So for us, if we have signed an agreement or contract, we face it squarely, we ensure that we deliver and that has been what we do to always stay afloat.
“There are many companies that we started together with – they are no more on the radar. You can’t find them today. They are no more existing – more than 80 percent of them.”
For Dr. Ikpea, although the celebration of 30th anniversary is a major milestone, his eyes are set on how to make more impact and remain relevant to the economic development and growth of the nation.
Asked what his plans for the company in the next 30years, he said, “By the special grace of God, I pray He keeps us alive, I’m sure in the next 30 years, the oil will still be there, and if oil is no more there by then, gas will still be there. So in the next 30 years, the company would have gone to the top because I’m laying a solid foundation for the group.
“So in the next 30 years, a lot of Nigerians would have been trained. And those who are trained would have also started establishing their own companies, and then the economies of Delta State and Nigeria would have also improved greatly. So that is the goal and that is my vision.”
Addressing Nigerian entrepreneurs still nursing the idea of venturing into the oil and gas industry, he said, “I don’t think we should always focus on oil and gas. The thing is that: let everybody focus on their talents or skills. Some people think when you come into the oil and gas industry, the next day money is everywhere. It doesn’t work that way.
“The reason why my own is different is that, that is my first place of getting the job, and I was able to use my brain to study and discover what was going on there and developed interest. And with that interest, I was able to grow for 14 years studying what was going on in the industry. Then from there, I said, Okay if this was what is going on in the industry, why can’t I do the same? So that inspired me.
“So for somebody to just come out of school and say he wants to go into the oil and gas industry, Well, if you get a job in the oil and gas industry, fine. But you must first learn and cross so many hurdles. If you just jump into the industry and you want to become an entrepreneur overnight, you may crash.
“The best thing is to learn the rules and ropes , go for training and let people teach you, have friends. when they have taught you, then gradually you begin to climb the ladder. it’s not easy to think you can just jump the fence – it’s not as simple as that.”
ASSESSMENT OF INDIGENOUS COMPANIES OPERATING IN THE SECTOR
Analysing the performance of indigenous companies operating in the sector, he said, “The problem with us Nigerians is that some of us are not serious. Some of us are just concerned about getting the money right away. Money is not everything.
“The first thing is to ensure that you ask your conscience ‘Am I ready to learn and grow?’. So if that mindset is there, that ‘yes we are ready to learn, we are ready to do things the right way without cutting corners’, then you can get to your destination.
“But if your mindset is that you want to go into it and that you want to get the money immediately , then you would crash. I would advise the younger ones coming in to, first of all, take a pause and be patient, learn through the ladder thoroughly. When you learn thoroughly, then you know that you are now ripe to go into it properly. And I think that would be a good idea.”
Tongue lashing those who engage in blackmail to secure job, he said those who do so usually don’t go far. They eventually crash, he noted.
Giving a word of advice, he said, “You can’t climb that way. Get what belongs to you, handle it properly, deliver it properly, then as you are delivering, you go back to them tomorrow and they say “yes he has delivered, let’s give him another opportunity”.
“That is how it works. That’s the same way we passed. We never for a day blackmail somebody to get what does not belong to us. Never. So if God says that this is your own, it would be difficult for somebody to take it away from you.”
Success in the oil and gas industry as in any other enterprise come with tenuous striving, thus Lee Engineering engages in lot of biddings. They bid for different projects, while they win in some cases, they may not be very fortunate in others.
But losing does not course them to lose hope or resort to unwholesome acts, adding that “The ones we win, we do them very well so that when newer opportunities come we can also grab them. The ones we lose, we say they are not for us. Those we lose due to blackmail from other people, we discover that, at the end of the day, they crash. So that is life,” he said.
EXPECTATIONS FROM THE GOVERNMENT
It’s often said that he who wears the shoes knows where it pinches, thus as a key player in the Nigeria oil and gas industry, Dr. Ikpea said if he has the opportunity to be in government, he would do more to encourage indigenous companies to excel and even advance to the global market space.
“You can see all these big companies today – they are mostly companies from South Korea and other countries. If such companies have been encouraged in their countries to the extent that they have been able to go international, what stops Nigeria government from supporting those of us who are serious.
“Now we are building a factory and we have more than 2000 people on our payroll. What stops the government from encouraging us with loans, tax holidays and several other incentives to allow us to grow.
“They can say there are some projects, let Lee Engineering do them because if Lee engineering does them, it will be able to absorb thousands of Nigerians that have no jobs. So if such an opportunity is given, you can imagine how many people will benefit directly or indirectly. But what happens here is that more opportunities are given to foreign companies.
“I’m not against it because for a foreigner to come here it means he or she is very solid. But the fact that they became solid was because they were encouraged by their governments before going international. So nothing is stopping government from also encouraging some of the indigenous companies in Nigeria to be fully empowered so that they can put in lots of capacity and start to also go international.
“We can start from Ghana and then to Angola, and start moving towards Europe and to other parts of the world. Nothing should stop that because the money comes back to the country here.”
Indeed, while the likes of Lee Engineering should be commended for their commitment to the country and the courage to pursue their entrepreneurial dream in Nigeria, the government and citizens vis-a-vis communities must support their zeal to move the country to its economic stability.