Any compelling story grass-to-grace is usually a good script for the movies. But it becomes more inspiring when you hear the narrative from a victim of abject poverty. The Adolor of Ewato, Chief Leemon Ikpea suffered the humiliation of being ordered out of his secondary school’s dining hall, food confiscated because he couldn’t pay his school fees. Without shoes, he trekked almost 100 km back home to give his parents the bad news. He had to drop out of school, resigned himself to fate but, with God’s special Grace. He now sits atop a multibillion-naira group of companies, and a private jet to boot. Besides, the Olu of Warri, HRM Ogiame Ikenwoli will, today, honour him with the chieftaincy title of Odolagbon of Warri Kingdom. He discusses this gripping episode of his life, and future plans with Bennett Oghifo
• Warri people are amazing, nice and loving people
• Why I am being honoured today by Olu of Warri
• Jesuit University to be established in my town, Ewatto
I’m Leemon Agbonjagwe Ikpea. I was born on Monday December 19, 1956 at Ewatto in Esan South-east of Edo State. After staying for a while in the village with my parents, they then decided to move to Warri, where we settled down at Okere. I attended primary school in Warri- St. John Primary School in Ajamogha, Warri, which was about 10-15 minutes’ walk from my home. In those days we walked to school; taxis were not as many as they are today and the population was not as much as it is today; there were more people in the village than in the town.
Life in Warri back then
Warri people are amazing, nice and loving people. In those days in Warri, nobody regarded you as a stranger; back then we all belonged to Bendel State from being Midwest State. You wouldn’t know who was Urhobo, Itsekiri, and Esan or from any other tribe, because as long as you are in Warri, you are a Warri boy and all of us youth, who were friends were just like one big family. We had some night clubs, Zeno and Lido, among others where we meet regularly on weekends and when coming back home, we walked freely, because the town was virtually crime-free. There was nothing like armed robbery or kidnaping; you trekked to your home, telling stories with your friends; that was the life we enjoyed in Warri in those days.
How I met the present Olu of Warri…
I met the present Olu of Warri, HRM. Ogiame Ikenwoli at St. John Primary School in 1962. We were very young; small boys in our blue shirt on blue shorts uniforms and no shoes. We were all family. The primary school was directly opposite the palace of the Olu where there was a big building of the CAC. It was the church that we attended and the school was built by CAC. That was how we met but after primary school everybody dispersed but met from time to time. We visited him at the palace and even at the palace; nobody took any notice of where you are from, because everybody was regarded as belonging to one family. Warri Kingdom is an amazing place and I’m happy I grew up there and the discipline I got from there is what is helping me till today. After primary education, I was admitted to Baptist High School, Orerokpe, about 30 minutes’ drive from Warri by car and up to two hours by foot. In those days when I was in the secondary school, it was compulsory for every student to show proof that they have paid school fees. An announcement was usually made during assembly that every student in the boarding house should take their teller to the dining hall during lunch. When such an announcement is made, I always knew they were referring to me, because I always defaulted, but it was not my fault, because my parents, they tried, were not able to meet up in most cases. So, when they asked for tellers, you know what it means when students are taking their lunch and the dining hall prefect now demands to see everybody’s teller and out of the multitude in the dining hall, you are the only one without a teller and they will walk me out. That was my experience and when they walk me out, you can imagine the psychological torture. I will leave the dining hall and trek to Warri. So, imagine trekking from Orerokpe to Warri; it is not a joke. Then I was still very young, so when I sight a vehicle coming I will hide in the bush until it passes by because I was afraid of being kidnapped. My parents always understand why I am out of school when the term just began. I will then proceed to do menial jobs to raise the school fees; I have pushed truck/cart, sold newspapers, yes, I have been a newspaper vendor, selling Observer newspapers, Daily Times, among others. I was also working as a tally clerk, doing inventory of what was discharged from ships at the Warri Port. I pushed truck in Warri and my people witnessed it because it is not something you can hide; I can’t pretend. And, in those days in Warri you can’t see people stealing, because you must struggle genuinely to survive. Well, I managed to finish school, but I didn’t have the result, because I wasn’t stable in school. Sometimes, I spend four weeks outside school to work and save money for my school fees; and those days, children were very honest, because if I earned 5 or 10 pounds, I give everything to my father and he will pray for me and he will save it until we are able to get the total amount we need as school fees and then I will go back to school. So, that was how I managed to finish school. In the midst of this trying period, I lost my mother when I was in class three. I lost my mother 43 years ago. My father died 11 years after my mother’s death.
Getting to work after school
After leaving school, I wrote applications to so many companies and one of the companies was Whessoe Incorporated from Darlington in the UK. The was engaged in the construction of the Warri Refinery, which started in 1976. The first phase was commissioned in 1978. There were various phases until we had the petrochemical section. The company I worked for was the major company that built that refinery. I also wrote to the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), which was the first company to invite me to start work. I started work in the morning and the next day in the evening somebody from Whessoe came to visit me and invited me to their office to work the next day. I sought the opinion of many of my friends on what to do and most advised me to go to NPA since it was a pensionable job, but I knew I had to discuss it with my father. I did and he told me to go to Whessoe, where I worked for three years and the job ended, which reminded me of what my friends told me. However, one good thing about life is that when you are working you have to be honest and commit yourself to the job because people are watching you and these were British people, who were watching me and I did not know. When Whessoe completed their work at the refinery; they specialise in tank building, while Snamprogetti, an Italian company was the major contractor building the refinery.Fortunately for Whessoe, they had a project in Forcados for Shell, so they had to draft me to Forcados and after doing the entire job they needed to do for Shell, they relocated from Nigeria. When the overall boss in Whessoe Nigeria, Peter Wagner was to leave, I accompanied him to the airport in Warri, but I never knew this man had written a letter recommending me to Snamprogetti and he did not let me know. At that time, I did not know what to do, because I was training my younger brothers. So, as they announced that Aero Contractor was boarding to Lagos, I told him and as he was walking to the boarding gate, he turned and handed an envelope to me and said Leemon give this to Mr. Sam Poulo in Snamprojetti tomorrow but didn’t tell me the content of the envelope, this was in 1980, and I didn’t open the envelope to check what was inside either. The next morning I went to the office of Snamprojetti inside the refinery and told the receptionist that I needed to see Sam Poulo, the overall boss, but he said I couldn’t if I didn’t have an appointment and advised me to return on Thursday, which was the visiting day. He asked to deliver the letter on my behalf but I refused and I told him Wagner asked me to see Sam Poulo on that day because they may have discussed. As I turned to leave the reception, Sam Poulo and four expatriates came out of his office and I greeted him and he asked if I had a letter for him and I gave it to him. This was divine intervention. He asked me to follow him and took me to the head of the personnel department and told him I was the one they had been waiting for and told him I was from Whessoe. I was given a position as wages supervisor on the spot. I worked there for eight years and became the personnel manager. Whessoe was building tanks, repairing collapsed tanks because they had the technology, while Snamprojetti built the refinery, the petrochemical plant, also because of their expertise, but Nigerians were the ones doing the job; the expatriates were only supervising and providing equipment; that is where my ‘university’ education came from, because as a personnel manager in those days, I didn’t spend my time sitting in air-conditioned office drinking tea; I went to site, from one section to another to inspect production work and I don’t need to be told, if I know where I am going to, then I need to prepare yesterday. I come from a very poor home, should I remain there forever? When I close from work sometimes, I will go to the primary school where I finished- St. John- I will kneel down there praying and crying, only myself and God. It got to a time Snamprojetti had to wind up in 1988 and only three of us were left at this time. But before they left, they needed to build five tanks but this time they awarded the job to ABB-SOIMI. SOIMI was a company that ABB bought over. When we were about to transit to SOIMI, my boss Mario Betulli called me and asked if I was interested in working with SOIMI and I accepted. He said if I didn’t like the pay at SOIMI, then he would look for another job for me. When people tell you something like this, you should know that it is not ordinary; how many people get that kind of offer; it is special intervention from God, because as the Bible says, when you work hard, you’re honest, humble yourself, God will exalt you. I don’t want to exaggerate that I am humble or that I’m honest but it is there for everybody to see for themselves and to check for themselves. So, eventually, I joined them and in 1990, I decided to quit because I was getting weak from going to work every day of the week from 7 AM to 6 PMfor 14 years without going on leave. I decided to start my company with the contacts I had made on the job. So, I approached my boss, Franco Koroner and told him I would leave on July 1, 1990 and gave them the letter in June. I now established Agbon-Lee Enterprise and we were located at 120 Okumagba Avenue, Warri. A year after, the enterprise transformed into Lee Engineering Construction Limited. Snamprojetti gave me a VW Beetle and some cash but I didn’t have savings because I was training my brothers. My wife didn’t like the fact that I quit my job. But shortly after that, SOIMI wrote to say they wanted to send me off and the ceremony took place at Hotel De Mark, at Effurun and during the party I told them about my life and admonished them to serve their parents and to tell them the truth. After my speech, Koroner then told me I would need to support them still even though not as a staff. So, the put me in charge of all their casual workers- I didn’t beg for it- and I was charging 18 per cent. If the salary for the casual workers is for example a million naira, I will get 18 per cent of that amount for managing them; because there should be no strike, no disturbance and my coming back for that purpose was fantastic. I was not going to work daily as before, and I bought a 40ft container where I started my business from and within a year of leaving the company things improved and I bought a Peugeot 505 and a Mercedes Benz; second hand cars that were very strong. We grew and had to move to a bungalow at Crystal Palace Estate from where we moved to our own property at NPA expressway, occupying about seven acres of land. It is very big and anything you find in Saipem, you will find it there, as well as anything you find in Europe. It was commissioned in 2012 and our major clients are Shell, NNPC and major IOCs. We moved from supplies to having good electromechanical jobs, including wielding and we were either paid in Naira or in US Dollars. I used the same people who worked with me when I was personnel manager. I am an administrator. I pick up these people, give them good salaries and treat them well, along with their unions. I have about 1,300 workers where we are today. We thank God for the recognition by our immediate community.
I am being honoured by the Olu because of the contributions of Lee Group of Companies in Warri and the impact of our companies in the lives of the ordinary people. 85% of our business is in Warri.
About work ethics
I work hard and I am honest. I was usually the first to get to work and the last to leave the office. I needed to check the books and work being done. I always ensure that I do my job properly. But everything is by the special grace of God. What will help communities grow is for the government to establish some big projects that will trigger economic boom and restiveness will drop drastically because they will be busy; an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. The government should create training programmes, even one programme, take 20 people from each state and this will encourage the youth to behave and position themselves to enable them benefit from the training. It will also serve as morale booster because they will see themselves as being recognised by the government. This should be done properly and monitored to ensure they are done well.
Change in trend
The trend changed around 1997, during the General Abacha regime, when so many people became aware of things around them and different people started agitating, saying we have oil here with nothing to show for it. Warri ought to be like New York if things were done right, because everybody is sitting on oil and gas. In those days, the youths were very respectful, but they now said it was enough. They felt they needed to tell the world that their people are suffering in the midst of plenty and are being neglected; they want the government to come to their aid. In those days, water ran in public taps, there was constant electricity, but all those utilities stopped to work. In my company, I spend N20 million to N30 million on diesel every month. In all the facilities where we work, we had to put water boreholes and that is what many people do.
Setting up office in Lagos
I left Warri in 1995 to Lagos, but that does not mean I relocated because 85 per cent of my business is still in Warri. The operational base of my company is in Warri. I had to come to Lagos, because most of the approvals for what we are doing are given from the offices here. For instance, NNPC is here, Mobil, and Shell offices are here. So, for us to grow the company well, we had to get close to them; that is why we are in Lagos. Future plans
We know a time is coming, maybe not now, when the oil will dry up, so we are thinking of diversifying into other areas like farming and aviation. We have started with water production; very good clean water – our water is one of the best in the country. It is called Tribet A1 Water. We also have retailing business.
Long ago, I saw him as a King, because he was very composed, very calm. It was not by accident that he became the Olu; he was very close to his father and the community also loves him.
During this time, I concluded that since God has blessed me, I needed to be a blessing to others. My first priority are orphans, children that are passing the same road I took some years ago, because I know what it means when you cannot pay your school fees and when nobody cared for you. Somebody needs to comfort them and I feel that I should be that person. So, I established a foundation in 2012 called Agbonjagwe Leemon Ikpea Foundation (ALIF). As at today, we have 385 students that have passed through us. We are also taking care of widows, old people who do not have people to care for them and they need to eat. So, every month, my foundation gives them allowance, as we are paying our workers’ salaries. We draw up a scheme for the widows for them to have some trade to enable them care for themselves and their children. We train artisans on wielding and electrical works, pipe-fitting and train women in some communities on sewing and hair dressing. We also assist some people with serious ailments like liver and kidney problems, and even cancer. We sent about 15 people to India but we lost one and the others are still alive today. One just returned from treatment yesterday. I was honoured with Doctorate Degree in Business Administration (Honoris Causa) by Benson Idahosa University; in 2004, Ambrose Alli University,Ekpoma gave me Honorary Doctorate Degree in Business Administration (Honoris Causa) for what we are doing for humanity; we didn’t ask for it but they see what we are doing. Charity begins at home. I never forgot where I came from and from time to time, I always support the aspiration and progress of my people. As a catholic, I support the church and to the glory of God, soon Jesuit University is going to be established in my town, Ewatto.