By Pius Ileogben
Rarely does a black man get called up to help solve engineering problems in the United States. In spite of rhetoric to the contrary, America is still a white man’s land where the pigment of one’s skin can open or shut doors of business. But Americans also recognize talent and ideas and on that score, Pius Ileogben, an engineer with a unique pedigree, has been able to break that barrier as an entrepreneur. The Chief Executive of Airtab, a trail-blazing solutions company with a string of engineering innovations, has made his mark. Over the years, his firm has earned high profile contracts in private and state-owned US companies, ranging from airports to strategic defense installations. If he’s not at home to walk his family across 5 miles in his Atlanta, Georgia home or play ping-pong with his kids, the widely travelled Uzebba, Edo state-born Ileogben unwinds in an uncanny way: he dozes off in airport lounges to try creating solutions to life’s myriad problems. With seven certified inventions that have earned him US patents, the whiz-kid has conquered America, literally, and is now focused on Nigeria, her power problems and how technology can help solve the security challenges. In this interview with Olaoluwakitan Babatunde, he bares his mind on the next frontier of challenges
• I consider myself as a problem solver
• If I were interested in politics, it would be in America, Nigeria’s brand of politics does not interest me at all
• Getting the Government to Buy Into My Ideas Have Been Rather Difficult
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you ended up in the Unites States?
I was born in Uzebba in Owan North Local Government Area of Edo State. I finished my high school there before I moved to United States. I studied Mechanical Engineering and I graduated from Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio. I finished school then in 1983 and returned to Nigeria for my National Youth Service in Kano. I served in Building Project Development Group, an architectural firm owned by Umar Tofa who is the younger brother of Bashir Tofa and Kabiru Gaya who later became a Governor and now a Senator. That was the first time I crossed River Niger to the North. On a lighter note, while over there I learnt quite a few things: that was the first time I saw bankers wearing babanriga and long hats unlike the bankers you see in Lagos wearing suits (laughter). It was an amazing experience.
As a student how were you able to cope and ultimately settle in the US?
It was rough because as an immigrant, you have to pay about three to four times the tuition that the citizens pay. Besides, if you don’t have papers, you cannot get a good job so you have to weigh between trying to be independent or doing menial jobs all your life. I leaned towards being independent and it kind of gave me exposure into the construction industry in the USA. I always had my sight trained on doing stuff myself.
In a nutshell, what are you today?
I consider myself as a problem solver and that’s exactly what I like to be: a problem solver. I also like problems that challenge me. As you go around the world, you see all kinds of problems but instead of dwelling on the problems, I try to figure out solutions. In that area, my engineering experience becomes very important. With all modesty, in I am the first black person to do the kind of business I do in the entire state of Ohio. Actually, my firm AIRTAB is the first company owned by a black person that does what I do in Ohio state and the five adjourning states. So I am the pioneer in that area.
What does Airtab do and how significant is the fact that you pioneered the type of business it does?
My job is called balancing…air balancing, water, vibration etc. For instance, in big facilities where you have central air conditioning, if you move around and one part is cold when it’s supposed to be warm and the other side is too cold when it’s supposed to be just cool, then you know there’s what is called imbalance of air movement. So our work is to make sure there is even airflow within such a building or facility as determined by the design. We’ve done these in large airports, in high rise buildings and in hospitals. Its same with water, when a pump is meant to serve ten communities, it does not automatically serve the ten communities in equal order and equal quantity; someone has to regulate how it is distributed. The same thing applies to noise distribution, vibration etc within a building or facility. That is what Airtab does.
Can you tell us some of the challenges you have encountered as a black pioneering that sort of enterprise in Ohio State?
There’s an incident that happened much earlier, when I sent one of my sales persons to meet a client and prospect for a contract. He came back and said the contractor asked him what cool running knows about air conditioning. Cool running is a movie about some Jamaicans who went for Winter Olympics (they call it Box Sledge). If you remember that winter Olympics is all about snow and that Jamaica is all sunny and hot, then you know what the white man was saying: what do people who live in the sunny hot Jamaica know about snow. In order words what does an African who lives on top of trees know about air conditioning for him to ask for a job in air conditioning and air balancing in such a big facility. I felt challenged, and indeed the challenges are there every day. Today, I employ several white engineers and the work we do is like telling some white folk that their work is good or bad and white folks don’t take very kindly to such critiques from blacks.
Can you tell us some of the high profile jobs you have done across the world using your engineering expertise?
First of all my company, AIRTAB was initially located in Columbus Ohio before we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and from there we’ve been to about twenty five states to work in high profile establishments. We did the air balancing in the Senate building in Washington DC. We did same in the Guantanamo Bay Administrative Building, we also did the Air Balancing in Hartford Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. We were in running for the Doha Airport before we pulled out because of logistical issues. At the earlier stages we wanted to do the American Embassy in China but then I wasn’t an America citizen and you don’t go into an embassy for such work when you’re not a citizen so we missed that job. Around the US we’ve worked in hospitals, military bases, airports, schools, the US Centre for Disease Control and several others. Back home in Nigeria, we handled the US Embassy in Abuja.
You have been reported to have also engaged in the power sector, can you tell us about that?
Yes, my other company called GWES Incorporated was one of the first companies engaged by Ohio state on consultancy to study how energy consumption can be conserved. What we did at that time was we go to public buildings and study what it takes to reduce energy consumption and then make recommendations where necessary. At the end, it turned out they were able to save as much as 20% energy without cutting down on some of the things they use for the day to day running of their businesses. In some cases it’s just a question of repainting the rooms as you know, a black room would take five times more energy to light up to make it bright. With white colour in a room you reduce energy and that alone can save you 20% of lighting energy in a public building. By the time you holistically apply these bits of rules in huge office buildings, the savings are much. There are other recommendations that are technical in nature.
What do you consider the major challenges facing the power sector in Nigeria?
Simply put, the major issues are twofold: low generation and waste. In those days in Nigeria one of the ways you know there is water in the public tap is when you see leaking pipes on the streets. The same thing applies to PHCN when you see light in front of people’s house in broad daylight when the bulbs are not actually supposed to be lighted. Those are direct wastes that can be controlled. If controlled, it will not immediately solve our energy problem but at least there will be additional energy available for consumption elsewhere.
Nigeria is facing major energy crisis. So how can that impact Nigeria?
Nigeria has lots of issues when it comes to power consumption because we do things very awkwardly. I have a house in the United States and I have just one water heater which serves the whole house but in Nigeria you see a house with five water heaters. That causes an overload and that causes the transformer to blow off. In most places that I know especially the United States, one water heater serves a building. People don’t power a 20-liter heater only to use 5 liters for their bath, and by tmoro it gets cold and the cycle continues. What has to happen is massive orientation and the country has to establish a code of consumption. By the time you have code of consumption and how to do energy analysis, you find out that without shipping money overseas you would have employed several monitors who can help manage energy consumption.
But many believe the challenge is more with electric power generation…
If Nigeria decides to establish or enforce building or electric codes, it would experience better electricity with marginal addition in generation figures. This move would create employment of over 100,000 Nigerians within the next 12 months and would save the country millions of dollars used in the replacement of transformers and power distribution equipment, consumer appliances and electronics. In addition, if the country would partake in lighting audit and retrofit on the demand side of power, the benefit would be monumental, far beyond that of code establishment and enforcement.
As a Nigerian in Diaspora do you have any intention of coming home to help in solving some of the problems we face today in Nigeria?
It is a very poor expectation because the people that will help the country do not have to come from Diaspora but being overseas gives you more exposure. Even when you come with the things we’ve learnt it is difficult to sell it because nobody is ready to listen to you. Everybody has a fault in this. The biggest handicap that we have is being able to identify the individuals or agencies that can actually use experiences from overseas. My experience with my Governor Adams Oshiomhole is ugly since people around them him think it’s a privilege to see a Governor. In Ohio, even as a foreigner I can walk in to see the governor; all that’s required is that I wait for my turn.
Are you saying there is something the Nigerian government is not doing right?
Maybe the Nigerian government needs to create a centre where people can be listened to. Imagine, I was in Cote d’Ivoire and in a short while I was able to see 3 of their ministers. Everywhere you went they gave you all the necessary information which includes addresses and phone numbers and also guidelines on how to do business in their country. But overseas when you try to ship a car into Nigeria, you won’t be able to get information on the duty or whether it’s allowed or not. That’s not good
You said you like the good things of life. So how do you spend your leisure time?
I try to enjoy myself and what I do most of the time is doing things that I like to do. Over the past ten years what makes me happy is trying to invent something. I can go three days without sleep wrapped up in mental thoughts of the products am trying to invent or the problem am trying to solve. So far I have invented 7 products and I have them certified with US patents and some are already under production in China. Beyond those I spend a lot time with my family, taking long walks and playing ping pong at the back of the house. When my son was seven years old, he took his first flight lesson and the intent was for him to become a pilot at eleven years. I like decent cars and I like to drive high speed so sometimes I go someplace where I pay and drive as fast as I can to make my hairs raise.
You are known as a travel freak. How many countries have you visited?
I like travelling and I’ve been to all of Europe, Japan, Korea and Mexico. I have been to China and almost every major city in China, and that includes travelling by their 400km train and it’s very impressive. But I’ve not been to the Middle East. When you travel a lot you will be surprised to see all the things people do to make a living. I mean you can never learn enough.
Have you thought of what you can do to put your own imprint in a place where you were born and raised?
The kind of job we do in the US cannot be easily sold in Nigeria. There are lots of hurdles to cross and you can be chasing one project like forever. In other places contract awards are run in an open system and you’ll know whether you have it or not. That is the reason we haven’t done anything in Nigeria. I come home in Nigeria so often that people in my Uzebba village don’t even know I live in America. I have done my bit and will continue to do so but getting the government to buy into the my ideas have been rather difficult.
As an entrepreneur what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs in Nigeria?
As an entrepreneur don’t listen to what people say. When you dream you dream alone. In life people will try to discourage you so just believe in your vision and chase it to the end. Find logical conclusion to whatever you think about. If someone like me from Uzebba who did not use water system till I was about thirteen years old can go to America and establish something that takes me all over the world, anybody can be anything as long as they stay focused and determined.
You live in Atlanta where a notable black man Andrew Young served as Mayor. Has politics crossed your mind either in America or in NIgeria?
If politics had crossed my mind it would have been in America. Nigeria’s brand of politics does not interest me at all. I believe I can be more effective where I am than being in politics, so am not interested in politics now and in the future.