Chiemelie Ezeobi reports that in defying the odds, Dr. Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi, Group Managing Director of Nestoil, has transformed his humble beginnings from a trading business to the commanding heights of corporate Nigeria which has also established a foundation – with far more reaching impact on communities
The Nestoil Tower in Victoria Island is an unmistakable edifice in the heart of Victoria Island of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. This amazing piece of Architectural genius has not always been the Head Office of Nestoil. The journey began in a one room office in Idumagbo Avenue in Lagos Island. This was Nestoil’s first corporate office. Starting out as a young businessman, he had always desired to build something that will have its roots in the local environment; one with global appeal, creating exceptional value and outliving him.
From his humble beginning in Okija in present day Anambra State, Azudialu-Obiejesi had set his eyes beyond the confines of his village on lofty targets in distant and difficult terrains. He knew quite early that the world out there is competitive and unforgiving of errors, he therefore took time to study in order to gain inspiration for the task he had envisioned.
Azudialu-Obiejesi commenced his primary education at St. Johns School, Fegge Onitsha Anambra State in 1964. However, this was truncated by the Nigerian civil war which raged from 1967 to 1970. After the war, he got into New Bethel Primary School Onitsha to complete his primary education. In 1973, he gained admission into the elite Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha (DMGS) for his secondary education which he completed in 1978. After his secondary education, he attended Government College Owerri, Imo State for his Higher School Education.
Upon completion of this program, he worked with his father at the family trading business, DA Ifeanyi & Brothers Trading Company, where he participated in trading activities. This was to be his first real exposure to the business environment. During his tutelage under his father, he was able to learn the rudiments of the trading business and started thinking of ways to transform, expand and revolutionise the family business.
In 1983, with encouragement from his father, he set up what was to be the first of many business ventures – Obijackson West Africa Limited. The company engaged in direct procurement from overseas suppliers and manufacturers of household goods and consumables, engineering and carpentry tools, cosmetics and beauty products. The company’s head office was located in Lagos, and branches set up in Onitsha, Aba, Maiduguri and Cotonou. Azudialu-Obiejesi nurtured the company from inception, grew and diversified it, with extensive interest in Manufacturing, Haulage and Real Estate development.
Upon leaving Okija, his comfort zone in Eastern Nigeria, he realised that the future, though pregnant with promises, requires starting out early, with diligence, out-of-the-box thinking and hard-worn genius for the promise to be liberated from the clutches of obscurity.
Unknown to many, Nestoil started from a one room office on Idumagbo Avenue in Lagos Island in 1991. Dr Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi had decided to give up the trading business and chart a new course in his entrepreneurial journey. He settled for the Oil and Gas industry.
From a staff strength of about 10 persons, he has nurtured Nestoil into a conglomerate which has created about 2,000 direct jobs. The conglomerate renders services spanning Pipeline Constructionrepairs and maintenance, Fabrication and Pressure Vessel Manufacturing; Detailed Engineering Design and consultancy; Civil Construction Works as well as Dredging and Shoreline protection. These companies virtually cover the entire value chain of the Oil and Gas industry and they all operate from the very impressive 59-hectare Abuloma industrial layout.
At the time Dr Azudialu-Obiejesi ventured into the Oil and Gas industry, Local Content in the industry was still a figment of people’s imagination. He saw the landscape move from a tranquil one to a stormy one with locals demanding more say and involvement in the industry.
After nearly 20 years of literally weathering the storm alone in an industry dominated by foreign companies, government finally signed the Nigeria Content Bill into law and set up the Nigeria Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB) to enforce compliance and protect the interest of local players in the industry. The move has seen the emergence of new indigenous players in the Oil and Gas space.
Seeking Solutions to Festering Challenges
Like great entrepreneurs and inventors whose paths to greatness seem impossible and were first derided for taking on arduous and risky ventures, young Azudialu-Obiejesi took the road less travelled. He walked the path of greats like Alexander Graham-Bell who invented the telephone in 1876, from a small workshop after working through the years on ways to transmit multiple telegrams and discovering that voice could travel through wire. He walked the paths of the likes of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the incandescent light-bulb who did over a thousand experiments before eventually stumbling on the formula for creating a light bulb.
In deciding that his next move was going to be Nestoil, Azudialu-Obiejesi must have raised so much dust carving a small office out of a retail shop with a mandate to capture the commanding heights of Nigeria’s Oil and Gas value-chain. Through dint of hard work and focus, he has established an indigenous Oil and Gas conglomerate that will seek to maximise Nigeria’s energy potential through value-additions such as B&Q Dredging, Energy Works Technology (EWT), Impac Engineering, Hammakopp amongst others.
What’s more fascinating is that he dreamed big dreams that had no semblance with his reality at the time. From his small shop in Idumagbo avenue, he built a business better known today as the face of local content in the Oil and Gas industry. All men dream dreams but few bring them to life.
Brand Builder – Creating Novelty from Obstacles
Charismatic leaders usually define the life, character and personality of the brands they help nurture to success. Such brands are defined by the character and personalities of their founders or those who run them. It is virtually impossible to divorce Nestoil as a brand from its iconic founder Dr Ernest Azudialu Obiejesi. Indeed, the Nestoil brand has taken on the doggedness of its founder earning it the reputation of “King of the Swamps”.
The Shell Nembe-Cawthorne Channel Trunk Line Replacement Project (NCTL) project is a case in point. This was the largest single pipeline construction under the SPDC Joint Ventures Asset Integrity Programme that replaced more than 1000km of deteriorated major pipelines and flow lines in Nigeria. The 97km Package A of this project was executed by Nestoil under the leadership of Dr. Azudialu-Obiejesi. This project involved major construction in a harsh mangrove swamp terrain and traversed 3 cluster communities and hundred autonomous communities in both Bayelsa and Rivers state of Nigeria at the height of militancy in Niger Delta. Nestoil completed this project one month ahead of schedule without a single fatality. 99% of the workforce in this project were Nigerians including the Project Manager. This pipeline has the capacity to evacuate about 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
The Shell Kolo Creek Trunk Line (KCTL) Replacement Project is another project that validates doggedness and innovation. This project, which is a first of its kind involved a method of pipeline installation that preserves the delicate natural environment of the Niger Delta. It is well known that the Niger Delta is an incredibly well-endowed ecosystem that contains one of the highest concentrations of bio-diversity in addition to supporting abundant flora and fauna and more species of freshwater fish than any ecosystem in West Africa. The fact that this pipeline was laid by Nigerian engineers without disrupting this unique environment is quite remarkable.
One project that may have thoroughly tested Nestoil’s resolve to deliver in spite of very harsh terrain, militancy, and frequent kidnappings is the Obiafu, Obrikom, Oben (OB3) gas pipeline. The section of the project that Nestoil is working on is the swampy areas starting from Omoku in Rivers State to Umukwata in Delta State. A large portion of this section transforms from dry land to swamp during the rainy season, hindering work on the pipeline for about seven months each year. Part of the Nestoil scope is to cross the 48-inch diameter pipeline under the bed of the River Niger over a 2 km span. This has never been done anywhere in Nigeria but Dr Azudialu-Obiejesi is confident that despite setbacks the company has faced till date, Nestoil will deliver on this project sooner rather than later. The 48-inch diameter and 65-kilometre long gas pipeline is the largest gas pipeline ever built in Nigeria and is expected to boost domestic gas supply by two billion standard cubic feet per day (bscf/d) when it begins operation.
A Heart to Give
As his businesses began to flourish, Dr Azudialu-Obiejesi set up the Obijackson Foundation as a platform to propagate his humanitarian endeavours. Through a well-thought out strategy of empowerment, the Obijackson Foundation became a catalyst for growth, job creation, skill acquisition, healthcare delivery, infrastructural overhaul and cultural renaissance. The evidence is overwhelming. Roads are being tarred in Okija and beyond, Street lights are being installed and street sweepers employed to clean Okija streets; scholarships are being awarded to indigent students, widows are being supported with seed capital to set up businesses. The list of social and infrastructural intervention is endless.
There is also the Obijackson Women and Children’s Hospital in Okija which he has built and developed into the foremost Women & Pediatric health-care institution – first of its kind in eastern Nigeria. The hospital with state-of-the-art diagnostic, surgical and other equipment has delivered over 300 women with zero mortality till date. Patients who have no funds to pay for treatment are catered for by the Obijackson Foundation. Nobody is turned away from this hospital on account of inability to pay their bills. Dr Ernest Azudialu himself says the sheer profile of the hospital and the impact in saving the lives of women and children across eastern Nigeria makes this project extremely humbling and fulfilling. This hospital directly employs about 100 locals. Hundreds more are indirect employees in the form of contractors and other service providers.
The Power of Education
Despite being introduced into the trading business at an early age, Dr Azudialu-Obiejesi found time for formal education. He believes in the power of Education as the only springboard that can actually lift humanity out of poverty. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Accountancy and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Benin. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree in Business Administration (DBA) from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (FNSE). He was a finalist in the prestigious Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 and gained recognition from the Petroleum Technology Association of Nigeria (PETAN) for Industry Achievement of the Year Award 2014. Under his leadership, Nestoil companies were nominated in 2017 and 2018 by the London Stock Exchange Group as a Company to Inspire Africa, being companies that generated vital employment opportunities, contributed to sustainable economic growth and are the bastions of best practices and good corporate governance practices.
Succession in the Radaar
After nearly 30 years of founding a business, Azudialu believes it is time to hand over to the next generation. His shoes may appear too large to fill but Azudialu-Obiejesi disagrees. He says he has seen enough talent within his pool of Nestoil employees that are driven by uncommon passion – a restless spirit seeking answers to Nigeria’s engineering and technology challenges especially in the Oil and Gas industry. Their relentless quest to deliver exceptional value continues to define the Nestoil Brand as it takes on more audacious mandates within the oil and gas industry.