Henry Okolie-Aboh: My Dream is to Build a Business Empire


Henry Okolie-Aboh is the Managing Director/Chief Executive officer of Westfield Energy Resources Limited. Against all odds, he has grown his company to become one of the big players in the oil and gas service sector. He loves work and enjoys his job, but he also creates time to be with his family and follow his other interests. Okolie-Aboh talks on the most fascinating activities of his work with Vincent Obia and Anayo Okolie

What are your most fulfilling activities?
I like to work. I could state very clearly that my calling is entrepreneurship. I always want to explore new opportunities. Upon graduation from the University of Jos in 1993 and after my National Youth Service Corps, I had the opportunity of working in some organisations in Nigeria, including banks. For the brief period I worked, I can say categorically that my mind was not there. I never found fulfilment working for others. I always wanted to do my own stuff.  I had ideas of what to do, especially in the oil and gas sector and when I got the opportunity to relocate to Houston 10 years later in 2003, I never hesitated. Same week I arrived in Houston, I set up an office -a home office of course since I had no capital for any elaborate office anywhere. So from my bedroom I started the company and that was a dream fulfilled. Those early days and even till now I work!  For me, honestly I really enjoy what I do and getting up in the morning to work is probably a part of my DNA now. Sometimes I could clock 18-20 hours of work in a day due to the time difference between Houston and other parts of the world, especially Nigeria. Obviously, the reason why it was so was that at the early stages of the business I could not afford to hire anyone and had to combine all the functions and roles in the company. I was the accountant, business development officer, salesman, everything!
But in retrospect, I have enjoyed every bit of it and, of course, I am so grateful to God that I have a story to tell. So, I enjoy the fact that I am an entrepreneur and have had the privilege to pioneer five companies; all of which are going concerns. So, in a nutshell for me, it’s all about work! work!! work!!!

Nigeria ranks very low in the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business index. How has this affected you?
I will tell you this; this peculiar issue in Nigeria has hurt us and a lot of start-ups. From my personal experience over the years, I could state categorically that Nigeria losses several billions of dollars of foreign direct investments because of this perception. We have a very terrible bad press overseas. Just mention you are calling from Nigeria and everyone sits up. As early as last week, we had two very important companies that we had approached to partner with us on some upcoming projects declining; and the reason being the obvious, security. Despite the assurances and arguments to allay their fears about the security situation and Boko Haram, they still would not yield.
Another negative for us, of course, is the issue of integrity. Some business people have been doing business with partners or parties overseas and have not met the financial terms and conditions of their contracts, thereby inhibiting easy access to financing and credit that small business need. Now we are required to pay for everything upfront. I remember in 2005 when we had to fill an order for Chevron worth about USD28,000.00. The manufacturer shipped to goods to my address in Houston before sending their invoice. Of course, upon receipt of their invoice, I made sure we paid it based on the agreed terms, that same manufacturer provided us credit references that culminated in over a million dollars of credit lines from several manufacturers in the USA. So with integrity I know we can do a lot even when we have zero initial capital. Locally here, you don’t even see anybody giving credit, because the next guy is not sure he is going to be paid if he supplies the requested goods or services, and it hurts our business. Something needs to be done and urgently too. A proper credit rating system in this country will go a long way. We must learn to punish bad behaviours and reward companies or individuals that have elected to do business the right way. These are very important measures and reforms that people in our financial organisations need to put in place.

Do you have hope that with what is on ground, things will change in the country?
Absolutely, I am a very optimistic person. How many would have believed 10 years ago that today you could go to a shop in Nigeria and make a payment with your credit or debit card? Many wouldn’t have believed, but it’s happening today. That was unimaginable in this country, but now we have gone past that. Now we are no longer required to carry tons of money around to do things. If someone had told me that one day I could from the comfort of my phone make payments and transfers to people without having to queue up in banking halls, I wouldn’t have believed, but today it is happening.
Now even bringing it closer to the oil and gas industry, our indigenous companies are competing favourably with foreign companies for varied service-related opportunities and are performing on their contracts, which is quite commendable. We have excelled in various areas of engineering like front end engineering designs, detailed engineering designs, etc. Our welders and other are doing a great job. Our companies have installed several hundred kilometres of oil and gas pipelines successfully. And like we know, the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB) has done a great job in developing and formulating policies that have led to these success stories.
Also the emphasis lately on agriculture I believe will yield positive fruits in no distant future if sustained. A lot of people, including myself, are now thinking agribusiness. I am certain that with a lot more encouragement and sensitisation from both the government and donor organisations, we will see growth in this sector.
The pressure on our currency due to the heavy dependence on importation of food and fuels is worrisome. Imagine how much foreign exchange we could conserve if our refineries were working and there was no need to import petrol? Thank God for investors like Alhaji Aliko Dangote that are now investing in refinery. Obviously, with investments like this I am positive things will be looking up very soon in our dear country, Nigeria.

What role does your family play in your business and success?
I am married with two kids. I am a firm believer in the dogma of work life balance; if your family is okay, you have an opportunity to focus on the business and grow it. In my case, my family lives in the US. We’ve always lived there since 2003. So I am always going back and forth. My wife, Adaora, is a pharmacist and plays a very important role in the family, raising the kids. Adaora has been very supportive through the years and I thank God for everything he has endowed me with.  Though, she did not support my aspirations of building a business. My wife would rather after that I get a job especially in our very early days in the US. I was used to phrases like, “no, this is not the right thing do. Why don’t you go and look for a proper job?” Later on she came to realise how passionate I was about my dreams and she keyed in. For my children, I have eight-year-old twins, boy and girl. My daughter, Anuli, is a diva. A very sweet and caring girl. She would always want to know how I am faring and for sure I get all the “breaking news” at home from her. She just learnt how to send text messages and chat on Facetime, so I get updates on an online real-time basis. My boy, Kenenna, is the baby of the house and somewhat reserved. He likes karate and his games just like every child of his age. In a nutshell, I have a wonderful and very supportive family. I’m certain I have received loads and loads of encouragement from my family and I am appreciative of that.

How would you describe yourself in one word?
Honestly, one word will not be able to describe me. I think I have what I would call the dual personality, especially, in the eyes of people. I have seen instances where people will see me for the first time and think that I am a very mean person. They just judge from my disposition probably because I’m having a bad or stressful day and not smiling. However, some people come back a few days later saying they never knew that I was such a nice fellow. So if you ask me the type of person I am, honestly, I might not be able to say. It is up to you or those that have known me for a while to say. Personally, I am a very easy going person and I like to work. Also, I try to help others as much as I can, which is an important area that I am passionate about, because I have realised that not every one of us is equally endowed. Some of us, God has blessed so much and we must be a blessing to others that do not have such opportunity. So my focus is on education. I believe that if you train a child, the amount of inherent abilities in the child that you have trained cannot be quantified.

What will you consider your greatest accomplishment in business?
Honestly, I don’t even believe that I’ve started. My objective is to grow a business empire; and when I say business empire, I don’t mean one or two companies, I mean business organisation that will touch the lives of people, I think that is probably one of the greatest fulfilments that I see, to come here every day and see different people working. Different people from different backgrounds: engineers, accounts, project people, you see all of them working towards the same goal. But in terms of where we want to be, we have not even started at all. We want to build a business organisation that will go into agriculture and property development (for low income earners). Agriculture is one of the areas that I have really looked into over the past three months. Another area is entertainment; we are coming up with an entertainment brand, as Nigeria has a lot of talents out there that are looking for opportunity to showcase themselves. We have just incorporated the business, it’s called Spice Records. It’s going to be a record label that we are going to use to showcase young talents, a lot of whom may never have been heard.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My greatest strength will include being able to see business opportunities. I think I am a very sociable person and I can mix with anybody that I want to mix with given the right conditions. Languages, too; I speak very good Igbo, good Hausa and I understand Yoruba to some extent. Language is a very strong area that I have and it has helped me a lot.
On the down side, one of the challenges that I have and that is an area that I am trying to work on is the fact I could be snobbish when I want to. I could sit with someone on a 12-hour flight and I don’t even turn to say, hello. Engaging people in a discussion when I don’t know them is a problem for me. I am not able to start a conversation with people I don’t know. But for those I am familiar with, of course, I will engage. One other weakness that I have is in the area of negotiation; but I think it is one of the issues I’m currently addressing as I am participating in an executive management programme at the Harvard Business School. One of the core modules is negotiation skills, how to sharpen your negotiation skills.

When last did you have an outing with your family?
I try as much as possible to take my family on vacation every year, but the responsibility falls on my wife to determine where we go to and to put it together. My own part of the deal is to make myself available. Last year, we took a cruise to Mexico, and the year before, we went to Jamaica. This year I am thinking of somewhere in Europe, but the decision is hers to make. Of course, every year, as an Igbo man, we go to the East in December. During Christmas we don’t miss going to the village. My children always look forward to coming back home for the Christmas.

You are a former President General of Uli Town Union. How do you see the Igbo society in terms of ability to present a common front on national and regional political issues?
The challenge the Igbo society has, I think, is our republican nature and disposition. Everybody wants to be a king. I did the town union work in my community; as far as I am concerned, it was a self-help work. I spent a lot of money and time serving my community. The whole idea was to make sure I touch the lives of people and my people were very appreciative of the little that I was able to do. My term is finished and some other person has taken over.
But on the broader Igbo question, an average Igbo man wants to be the head, and that way we cannot get to where we want to get to. We must have a ruler. In Igbo there is what we call “Oha- na -eze”; the “Oha” signifies the people while the “Eze” is the king; but in a situation whereby everybody wants to be Eze and nobody wants to be Oha, there will be chaos and I think that is the problem of the Igbo race. I think it is the major challenge we have. The governorship election in Anambra State is coming up later this year; you will be shocked about the number of aspirants and money that will be spent. Everybody wants to be governor. Can’t we just come together and select one person that will do the job very well? The way we are going, honestly every other tribe in Nigeria will rule over the Igbo. Of course, we have lots of economic power, but it would take just one law in the National Assembly and everything we have done will be gone. Anambra State is the only state with only two members at the Senate till date due to litigations; whose loss is it? It is Anambra’s loss; it is the Igbo race that is losing. If that senator from Anambra Central were to be in the house today, he would have had five to 10 aides, which is five to 10 jobs and five to 10 families being fed. So who is losing at the end of the day, it is the generality of the Igbo that are losing.

What is your advice to upcoming entrepreneurs?
One of the things that I will advise is training. When I started business I didn’t know what I know now, thus what I am still doing is catching up. In the last two years I have had to go to Harvard Business School to learn how to organise my business, because there was no training from day one. Training here is not going to school, because I went to school, but training on how to organise your business. Another important thing is that we need to innovate, don’t start a business centre where you photocopy and print documents because Mr. Henry started one and you have seen that it is working. Before going into any type of business, let us do a lot of research on the particular area we want to venture into; come up with the proper strategy. In this country, the reigning thing now is agriculture and everybody is rushing into it without asking themselves what area of agriculture they want to venture into. There should be a clear-cut plan on how to execute the strategy that has been put in place. A lot of people want to get to the top from day one; why not look for something little to start and grow with? You can’t be a Dangote from day one. You have to put proper structure on ground. If I am not available today, my company will run because there is a proper structure in place to ensure that the company runs effectively. Another thing is that, as an entrepreneur your cheque book should not be in your pocket. You should have a proper organisational structure, even if those roles are going to be vacant, it will help to ensure that your company runs smoothly.

What other business affiliations do you have?
Westfield Energy Resources is actually our pioneer business that started in 2005, and ever since then due to the changes in industry and other areas of interest for us, we have about four companies that we have already incorporated and that are currently running as going concerns. One of them is Transcore Geoscience Limited. Within Transcore we have very nice platform and have set up a Seismic Data Processing Centre where we process all sorts of data for the oil and gas companies. What we’ve put together right now is probably the second largest processing centre in the country, because we are able to process and store about 164TB (terabyte) of data for our clients. We have been able to complete some QAQC jobs for Total and Chevron. Our other subsidiaries are Westfield Subsea Limited, Spice Records Limited and Powell International Services Limited.