Lawrence Chibuike Achigbu, Group Managing Director/CEO of Chimons Limited, a gas refilling plant recently shared the story of his firm, its growth, future plans and his appointment into the advisory board of the Commonwealth Economic and Investment Commission with select journalists in Lagos.Babatunde Olaoluwakitan was there.
What was your growing up like?
I was born into a poor background. Survival was no mean task. I had to do all manner of odd jobs to survive. In fact, I had to do bus conductor job in Aba to buy a pair of slippers. It was that tough. But I had an uncle who was a principal. So, he was a role model to me. I saw his children eating good food and wearing nice clothes, so I wanted to be like them. That serves as my motivation. Not that you were envious or didn’t like them. I just wanted to also be like them. When I finished secondary school and my father told me he didn’t have any money to send me to a tertiary institution, that I should go an learn a trade, I told him ‘no’. I disobeyed him. Instead, I carried my certificate and I was going from one big man to another soliciting for sponsorship. It was that bad, an 18-year-old boy. Then my cousin who was in the Customs heard about it and invited me over. That was how I went to a university.
You recorded a string of bests in school. Tell us about this.
I wasn’t that good in primary school. But in secondary (Ngwa High School Aba, Abia State 1977-1982) I scored 100 per cent in the first test we wrote. The principal said I cheated. He brought me before the assembly and said he suspected that I cheated. So, he decided to test me in the open field, before the entire students. In the assembly ground, he sat me down and said I must write another test. He got the teacher to set fresh questions. After an hour, the paper was marked and I got 100 per cent. The school erupted. So, from that day, everybody started coming to me to help them solve problems. Therefore, I knew I had to be ahead of the pack at every point in time, because once they come with any problem, you must be able to solve it. I gave my studies full time, especially mathematics. During holidays, I would solve the whole mathematics in the textbook. So, in class, anytime my teacher ran into trouble, I would correct him. And you won’t believe it. There was a particular question I couldn’t solve in one week, but an angel solved it in my dream. Then a voice told me in my sleep, ‘you’d forget it in the morning, get up and write it down.’ I did. The next morning, I said yes, something happened in the night. I went to check and behold, I saw where I wrote it. I screamed. Trust me, I carried it to the class the next day and moved from Class 5A to E. I set the question and said whoever solved the question would get a present from me. But nobody was able to get it. That actually helped me in secondary school. I passed out as the best student in science. By the time the time I got into the university, the confidence was there.
I was a pioneer student at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) where I read Petroleum/Petrochemical Engineering Technology. I passed out in 1988 winning the best department award and as the best overall student in petroleum engineering. Although I made a first class the school management said the school was too young and so nobody should be given. I have never read like that in my life. FUTO was tough. I did my Masters in Public Administration (Political economy) at the UNILAG. In 2009 I went Harvard Business School, Boston, USA for a three-year programme in entrepreneurship and leadership. In 2011, I was awarded a postgraduate certificate in business strategy and leadership development.
I did my NYSC in Mobil. As a young graduate, I used to go to work everyday in a helicopter. They would pick us from where we lived in the bush and drop us at a platform. Imagine a 24-year-old, only me in a place with dolphin and fishes as companion; and if it was raining, I would hold one of the oil pipes to keep warm and remain there until the helicopter came for me.
How did you set up your first business?
I always wanted to go back to my profession, hence I set up my first company, Chimons Limited, a gas refilling plant in 1994. I managed the bid team that won the first ever contract for the successful lifting of LPG from NLNG into the domestic market. The NLNG picked my organization as one of the first six off-takers. Since 2006 when we came on board, market has stabilized. In collaboration with other stakeholders, we have moved from 40000 metric tonnes LPG consumption in 2007 to 400,000 metric tonnes. By the end of this year, we would be doing 500,000 tonnes. Above all, we are doing our terminal in Delta State, which would be ready next year.
How did you raise you take-off capital?
I raised fund selling football boots. I had a brother in Russia in the era of perestroika who used to send football boots to me weekly. Every Monday I would go to the airport, pick them up and race to the National stadium, Surulere to sell. Because I was honest and remitting his money, he was encouraged to the extent that he got other friends of his to patronize me. There was a man at the stadium that was always on the wait to clear the consignment. From boots, I went on to selling wristwatches, chandeliers earrings, among others.
Within two-three years, I was able to save some money. So, I started thinking of what kind of business to go into. I know what I wasn’t going into. I wasn’t prepared to be like the regular Idiot trader. I decided to go into something along the line of my training.
I decided to go into LPG business. My first tank was a fairly-used one. I went to Germany to buy it. In my search, I met a man who advised me to go for it, instead of the more expensive brand-new one. That was in 1992. He gave me the tank for next to nothing. It was like a dash. We started business in 1994. The money I spent was for shipment and transportation. I am still using that tank till today.
I knew the business wouldn’t last forever, so I started thinking of the next move. From one refilling plant, I moved on to become a key stakeholder in the oil and gas industry. By 2007, we expanded, and that gave us the voice be become a key stakeholder in the oil and gas industry. So when NLNG began domestic sale of LPG, my company was one of the six that won the right.
We have also moved into construction now. Our sister company is doing road construction in the Niger Delta. As a businessman, when you see an opportunity, you move in. It is very important to diversify and consolidate.
You were recently appointed a member of the advisory board of the Commonwealth Economic and Investment Commission (CWEIC). What is it about?
I didn’t lobby for it. In fact, it would be an understatement to say it came to me as surprise. That’s the truth. Sometime last year, I went for a programme in Malta. President Buhari and the Queen of England were there. I don’t know the parameter they used in selecting members for the board, but all I know is that I just got an email that I was needed by the management of CWEIC. CWEIC has been in existence for quite a long time, but was reformed in 2014. I was shocked, because that was my first time at the conference. I was quite concerned. But I went all the same. Then, they started talking to me. They said they were impressed by what we do, my qualifications and all that. They said I have been selected to join the board. That was it.
CWEIC was established in July 2014 with the support of the Commonwealth Secretariat and member Governments. It is a not-for-profit membership organisation with a remit from Commonwealth Heads of Government to promote trade, investment and the role of the private sector across the 53 member countries. The CWEIC has a small secretariat within the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.
The purpose of the Council is to promote trade and investment by facilitating engagement between Government and the private sector throughout the Commonwealth. It is the apex organisation representing private sector businesses within the Commonwealth and is the only institution with a remit to promote intra-Commonwealth trade and investment. The CWEIC is also responsible for organising the Commonwealth Business Forum alongside the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
How can Nigeria leverage on the opportunities offered by CWEIC in its investment drive especially now that the emphasis is on diversification of the economy?
If you watch a country like America, you see their president talking about market all the time. That is how countries develop. But in Nigeria, what you hear is crude oil, crude oil, crude oil. The minister of trade should be the most important minister because trade is what gives you favourable balance of payment and all that. The goal is to ensure that more Nigerians and organization become key players in the commonwealth. We have to work hard to help them connect with the opportunities that exist out there.
Eventually, we are going to set up an office in Nigeria so that we can begin to create awareness with a view to adding awareness to businesses in Nigeria.
What is your assessment of Nigeria’s business environment?
Our business environment is a bit complicated. One of the major challenges is electricity. The world started from the Stone Age, the discovery of electricity moved us to the manufacturing age. Without electricity, we couldn’t have moved to the manufacturing age. But Nigeria couldn’t move to the manufacturing age because of lack of electricity. There are many other issues.
For instance, you see a good opportunity, you do a fantastic business plan, approach your bank, they see it, recognize the potential, but would refuse to support it, for some political reasons.
In the US, if a bank sees your business proposal and finds it good, they will be chasing you with money. But here, there is a whole lot of complications.
I bought some plots of land in Lekki Free Zone. I have the governor’s consent (C of O) but eight years after, I have not been able to develop it because of one trouble from one omo onile or the other. You report to the police, they tell you to go and settle with the families. The challenges we have are enormous.