Mr Leemon Ikpea
Growing a start up in the engineering sector into a leading player in the oil and gas and engineering sector is no feat for the faint at heart. But Mr Leemon Ikpea has never been one to flee from challenges. His early childhood was a revolving door of challenges, lack and sheer deprivation. The lessons drawn from those challenges are the virtues on which Ikpea’s company is anchored, writes SHAKA MOMODU
In the beginning
The capacity of man to break boundaries and surmount obstacles is often innate and limitless. But very few realize this. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with one’s physical prowess or the academic status. It is all in our hands to dream and make effort to actualize those dreams. For some though, the inexplicable hand of fate plays the dice to a particular direction that leaves many dumfounded as to how their little effort brings remarkable success in whatever endeavour they undertake. But for those who choose to look beyond immediate limitations to their dreams, chances of seeing the horizon are always there.
This is the case of Leemon Agbonjagwe Ikpea, the founder of Lee Engineering and Construction Company Limited. He rose through ashes of lack, despair and the travails of economic limitations. Sent home so many times because of inability to pay school fees, and the attendant hours of learning lost, he took to menial jobs to help his parents.
Whatever he was paid for doing those menial jobs, he brought home to his father. This attribute came from a father who taught him the values of a life lived on the fulcrum of integrity. His parents died before he could start living his dreams but their words are etched on the core of his being forever. And have remain the guiding philosophy of his life.
Today, a foundation called Agbonjagwe Leemon Ikpea Foundation is being launched to honour the mother who didn’t live long to reap the fruits of her labour. But the testimonies of the son’s success are indications that she lived well. Even if relatively short.
For Leemon Ikpea, chairman and chief executive officer of Lee Engineering and Construction company Limited, growing up could never have been tougher. Though born in Edo State, Esan South-East Local Government to be precise, it was in the oil town of Warri, in present day Delta State, that Leemon grew up. The affluence and the life of grandeur that petro-dollar brings didn’t seem to trickle down to his own side of the town. Hence, affording the basic things for him and his siblings by his parents was always a tough call. Doing menial jobs to augment whatever his parents put on the table became his lot.
“I had a very rough childhood considering my humble family background. It was so rough that to pay school fees was hell. I had to do menial jobs to assist the family. I was a labourer in NPA those days. I sold newspapers as a vendor. I sold firewood. I sold Kerosene. I even sold garri and other foodstuff to assist my parents in gathering money to pay for my school fees.”
He stopped, momentarily reflecting on his life. He took a deep breath before continuing. “I grew up in Warri, Delta State, and I thank God today that those trying periods are over and we can move forward without having to worry where the next mean will come from.”
The journey could have been smooth and the memories more interesting, according to him, if his parents were still to be alive today to see what their son had become. His father and mother are both dead. One kissed the world a final bye about thirty-nine years ago, 1973 to be precise, any the other in 1985. Surviving them were Leemon and his two brothers-Anthony and Joe. He did admit that their difficult childhood could have forced so many young people to go into crime to survive. But looking back today, Lee as he is better known, says the words of his late father always echo in his ears and they have continually guarded him in all he does, both in private and his business life.
“We were taught the best values of honesty, humility and hard work no matter the situation we find ourselves. His constant reframe to us was “Do not to steal, do not lie, you must be humble, and hard working and God will definitely lift you up.” Continuing, he revealed that his father was always praying for him. Whenever, I went out to do menial jobs, whatever I earned, I came back and gave everything to him directly. If they paid me 10 pounds, I dared not take a dime from it. It was exactly what I was paid that I would pass on to my father and happily he would collect it, and pray for me. After he retired in 1984 he went to the village. He got sick and died. It was the very last money he had on him that was used to send people to Warri to break the sad news to me. It was hell for me but we thank God, we crossed that bridge. As the first son of the family, I had to carry the younger ones along, so it was very tough.”
A company is born
The story of successful breakthrough does not always take a discernible direction. It is not always like script in a play that needs to be followed to the letter. Sometimes, improvisation might become necessary to fill in the gaps when memory fails any member of the cast. And for Leemon Ikpea, the story of his company, according to the man himself, was like a miracle. Perhaps, Providence had seen the not so smooth and easy childhood and hence decided that may be it might be time to smiled at this poor lad. He picks up the story:
“It was like a miracle. When people talk of miracles, I am one of the beneficiaries of miracles. After I finished college in 1976 and by 1977, I got two jobs the same day. I got NPA work in the morning and in the evening somebody called me to come and work at the Warri Refinery during the construction of the refinery. Some people told me that NPA was a more secured job since it was a employment on a permanent basis while the construction work at the Warri Refinery was a contract job; in other words, on a temporary basis. Those people advised me to stay with NPA. I actually agreed with them but when I told my father about it, he said I should forget about the NPA job and take the job at the Warri Refinery with Whessoe. Whessoe was a British company based in Darlington, United Kingdom. I listened to him and the following morning I resumed work with Whessoe. At Whessoe I worked very hard. I started as a Time Keeper. From a Time Keeper, I became a Wages Supervisor and from the Wages Supervisor, I became personnel officer. When we finished our scope of work at Warri Refinery, we then moved to Forcados terminal for another project for Shell. In Forcados terminal, I was the only Nigerian in that office. I was the Accountant, the Personnel Manager, the Store Man, and the Procurement Person. I was everything in the office. To the extent that the white men used to tell me that ‘Mr. Leemon please yourself.’ I wondered what they meant then.
Was it because I had so many things at my disposal and I should start stealing them? Or were they just teasing me? But my mind never went there because my upbringing and family values were very strong. My mind was to get the job done and be honest because I remembered what my parents always told me and that was it. I never really knew they were taking note of me. So when our project eventually ended in Forcados in 1980, they asked everybody to go. I was the last person to finish with them. I never knew that they had recommended me to Snampoogetti. Snampoogetti was the major contractor that built the Warri refinery. I never knew they recommended me to the company. When I saw my boss off to the airport he gave me a letter to Mr. Sampaulo. Mr. Sampaulo was the overall boss of Snampoogetti in Warri. The following day I took the letter to Sampaulo and Sampaulo happily received me. And said ‘Ah, you are Mr. Leemon? And I said yes. And that was it.”
The Italian took him to an office and told him that was his office. That was how he started working in the company. Starting as a Wages Supervisor, he rose to become a Personnel Manager eight years later. When they finally finished their work in Nigeria years later they now handed him over to Abb Soimi. He completes the story:
“That is why I say I am a beneficiary of miracle. That was my last place of worked before moving to set up my own company. All through the period of working as an employee, I would leave my house at six o’clock in the morning and come home around ten at night and by that time, my children would have slept. It was not easy me and for 14 years that was my routine. I was working and working and not a single day of leave. And I will tell you, today for any successful person to achieve success, that person must be imbibed with the spirit of hard work. This is what I believe in, and I am a hard worker. And hard work can only make you a better person. I worked very hard at ABB SOIMI and when I finally decided that I had had enough and wanted to leave, they didn’t accept it. I gave them notice that I wanted to leave on the 1st of July 1991, they thought I was joking. Three weeks later, when they didn’t see me, that was when it dawned on them that I was actually serious. They had to send an official letter to me that it seems I actually don’t want to come back.
They now organized a send-forth party and invited people to Hotel De Mark in Warri, in Effuruun. Hotel De Mark is still in Effurun today as we speak. There, I told all of them my family background, about those days in college when I was in the boarding house and they will come around and say everybody bring out your teller and I would be the only person who had not paid school fees, they would then drive me out of the school. I would trek from Ororokpe to Warri because I didn’t have money for transport and I would get to Warri very late at night. So it was really hell but I thank God. Those days were trying periods for me and it really made me strong and more determined. So that was my journey before I eventually resigned and established Lee Engineering. If you look at what I had been doing all along with all these companies, it is all engineering and construction work and I had seen that all the work that was going on all the people in the field are Nigerians and, the white men came with their expertise and equipment. So I thought to myself, why can’t I do this? Also, during my send-forth party, my former company informed me that they had authority from Milan that if I refused to come back that they should sign me up as their Supplier or Consultant. We had the send-forth party on Saturday and on Monday I started doing business with them and that was my take-off point. That is the genesis of what you see today”
From the establishment of the company twenty-one years ago, the company seems to have established itself firmly in the oil and gas industry. For someone who started with the an engineering firm that constructed the Warri Refinery, perhaps he is still at home. However, the point is that here is a man who did not have a background in the oil and gas industry before his foray as a field staff in 1977. Leemon Ikpea himself throws light on how his outfit has become one of the leading players in such a highly technical industry.
“Lee Engineering and Construction Company, is a service provider/operators and we do maintenance services in the oil industry. First of all we do engineering, after engineering we do procurement, after procurement we do construction, after construction we do maintenance. For instance we did a project for Shell some years back. After we finished the construction, they kept us on as operators for two years before we handed it over to them. In other words, Lee Engineering is a foremost indigenous Nigeria engineering and construction company which was established to provide value added services in the oil and gas industry.”
He added that since the inception of the company in 1991, they have been providing top quality services in engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) works which include maintenance, installation, and consultancy services. He explained that in pursue of their mission, they are sponsored by a passion for excellent service delivery based on the philosophy of strength, integrity and industry best practice.
Driven by passion and the overwhelming desire to excel and be the best, Leemon has built a sound resource base made up of highly professional and experienced workforce to keep pace with the dynamics of the business. “Being a major player in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria has placed us at the helm of indigenous EPC companies in country. Our business relationship with the refineries, petrochemicals and multinationals has grown over the years from conventional call-out contracts to turn key projects, from engineering design through construction to commissioning and close out. We are involved in major engineering activities such as: process design for industrial plants, piping design for industrial plants, design process and engineering.”
Explaining further, he said some of the key projects Lee Engineering has handled include Okrika Jetties ‘A’ &‘B’ Rehabilitation Project. West Africa Gas Pipeline (WAGP) Gas supply project. Internal Pipeline network for field Gas in Port-Harcourt Refinery. Warri Refinery PPU Extractor Rehabilitation project. Provision of Natural Gas supply pipeline to ALSTHOM Gas turbine CB Plant and all heaters in Warri Refinery. Ankpe flow station upgrade installation of Electric Export pumps and associated works. Upgrade of SPDC flow stations of Escravos, Saghara, Otumara and Opuama etc .
Sometimes, the journey was rough
For Lee Engineering, the take-off according to Ikpea himself, was smooth.
Taking off at the beginning was good but as we climbed the ladder it became tough. The Abb Soimi that was so instrumental to the smooth take-off of the company was bought over by another Nigerian investor and that made things a bit tight for Lee Engineering. But the years of operations and the experience in the business meant that some structures had been put in place to enable the company bid for businesses from other sources.
“These structures in place meant we could bid for many projects. Sometimes we won and sometimes we lost. Most of the time we got jobs as sub-contractors because most of the major projects were given to the multi-national companies such as the French companies, Italian, German and so on. After using us to do the job they would collect the money and gave us peanuts. So, it was really very hard, until recently when the federal government of Nigeria under the leadership of our able President, Goodluck Jonathan enacted the Local Content Law. It was from that local content law that we now knew that we are Nigerians because under previous governments nobody showed any concern about the growth of local participation in the oil industry. They never cared about the survival of Nigerian companies. They just felt that Nigerian companies cannot perform and they didn’t give us the opportunity to perform or to fail. It was the present administration that gave us that window of opportunity. I am also using this opportunity to thank the federal government for having that initiative to enact this law otherwise so many Nigerians would have been suffering today.”
In defence of Alison-Madueke
While many Nigerians believe that the nation’s oil and gas industry has faced a lot of challenges under the present minster of petroleum resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, Leemon Ikpea rose to her defence. To him, the woman has been doing well in a very difficult and sensitive industry. “Let me tell you my brother, it is really, really unfortunate for us to see all these criticisms. I think we should be grateful to God for bringing this woman, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke as the Minister of Petroleum Resources. We should thank God because initially when people were saying the minister is very stubborn, she is this she is that. I would be wondering if she was really as she was being painted in the media. Until recently, when I got to know her. I’ve been in the oil industry for more than 21 years and I only got to know her about seven months ago. This was when she paid a surprise visit to one of our sites. As you may already know, Lee Engineering is the company that was doing the reconstruction of Okrika Jetty for NNPC in Port-Harcourt.
Nobody at all knew she was coming. She just paid a surprise visit and when she saw the quality of work we were doing, she was impressed. When they told her it was a Nigerian company, Lee Engineering Construction Company Ltd that was doing such good quality work, she was amazed. And she said that much. I could see it from her expression when watching it on TV that she was talking from her heart and soul. She expressed her joy that a Nigerian company could do that kind of work and that the local content law is in action delivering results. I didn’t know her personally and we had never interacted one on one before that visit. If she could do what she did and say what she said without knowing me or anybody in the company but by just seeing the commitment on ground, you must give it to her as someone who means well. She commended our company saying we were able do what many companies, including foreign companies, have been unable to achieve. And that really thrilled me.”
Speaking further, Ikpea said they had some operations with Shell where she came for another project inspection and fortunately, he was around at the time. He takes up the story:
“This was when we were working at Utorogu Gas Plant. As you may know, that gas plant is one of the most important gas plants in this country. It was then that I met her for the very first time. That was in May this year. It was there that I begged her that to come and commission our operational office in Ekpan, Warri and she didn’t hesitate. She said that for the fact that you are working well and you are not letting Nigerians down and she would come. She even promised to pass on what she saw on ground to the President. So since then I’ve had serious respect for her. What I observe is that there are so many people trying to blackmail the woman because she is determined. I don’t know whether it is because she is a woman. I think she is a gift to this country and to Africa. She would not allow anybody to oppress Nigerian companies and she has encouraged the growth of Nigerian companies. With this encouragement we have been able to employ a lot of people and also give a lot of people scholarships. We have about 800 workers now. Because of her efforts and the efforts of the federal government, Nigerian companies are no more beggars of foreign companies. Instead of blackmailing her and victimising her we should join hands with her to ensure that she succeeds.”
Waiting to exhale
One of the complaints against Nigerian outfits is that they do not have the expertise to do certain jobs; hence the preference for expatriates in executing some jobs so as not to be messed up based on the capital intensive nature of the oil and gas industry. But Leemon Ikpea believes that is not the case. To him, local experts have been neglected for too long.
What I’ve been saying is that Nigerian companies have been neglected for a very long time. It was when this administration came in that Nigerian companies had this opportunity so it will take some time to build up. However we at Lee Engineering have never defaulted on our project obligation. We have never abandoned any project and we’ve been doing very well. The most important thing is when opportunities are there for people, I am sure people will be able to take advantage and the eventually deliver the best that is required of them.”
Of all the jobs they have executed, Ikpea singled out the West Africa Gas Pipeline as the most challenging. The reason being that when they were to start the job, it was a live plant that was not shut down before the commencement of the job.
“I would say WAGP Gas supply project(West Africa Gas Pipeline) and the Okrika Jetty ‘A’& ‘B’rehabilitation project were the most challenging. Because for WAGP, it was a live plant by that I mean the plant was not shut down. We were working inside a plant that was on. So you can imagine the risk. That is the highest risk anybody can take because any little spark the whole place will explode. However we thank God and due to the awareness of my people and with the support of the clients we were able to manage the situation to ensure that we worked in a safe environment. Before they went into the field every morning we lectured them carefully because the safety of our staff is dearer to us than the money or any other thing that we may get. We were able to operate two million man hours with any incident or accident. Since Lee Engineering came into being over 21 years ago nobody has burnt his finger or his leg and it is by the special grace of God.”
On the Okrika Jetty, he has this to say: “Okrika jetty it is a peculiar place. My people were working at sea. Sometimes the tide will not allow you to work and sometimes the weather but we thank God we have been able to commission it and it was commissioned by the minister of petroleum resources herself and she saw it with her team and everybody poured praises on us. If we did not perform that will not happen or of we were not even given the opportunity to do the job directly this will not be happening. So we thank the federal government of Nigeria, we thank Mr. President and the Minister of petroleum resources.”
Leaning on expertise
To him, Lee Engineering has come of age. He has paid the price and there were moments when he felt perhaps, they were biting more than they could chew. But today, his outfit is one of the leaders in the industry.
“Right now Lee Engineering is one of the leaders amongst the indigenous companies in the same field of competition and our plan is to consolidate that position. We are also doing a lot of training and re-training of our staff. We are also training the people of the host communities that we work in to give back and make an impact in the lives of the people.”
“I regret that my parents who brought me into this life especially my mother died before I could lift them up. My mother did not take a loaf of bread from me before she died and it is so painful till this day. What I did for them was very little compared to how they suffered for me.”
But Leemon is honouring them now with a Foundation that will be launched on 17th November 2012. “Although I’ve been offering scholarships around the country regardless of where you come from, but I have officially registered and structured a Foundation called Agbonjagwe Leemon Ikpea Foundation, in their honour that will cater for orphans because I and my siblings were orphans. We didn’t know our parents very well. This Foundation is for the orphans and secondly the widows. Our plan is to give scholarships to orphans and those that cannot read. We’ll get them to learn handcraft skills, such as hair dressing, welders, mechanic etc, that can put bread on their table and make them more self dependant.”
The journey of the Esan boy might have been rough. But looking back, Ikpea, says hard work, determination, tenacity of purpose and refusal to give up have propelled him to the top. He declares “My life is a miracle”.