Leslie Oghomienor, Chairman, Russell Smith Group Nigeria and philanthropist, has been in the forefront of assisting youths fulfil their dreams in football. Passionate about sports, he has so far offered the opportunity to over 80 kids to travel for football tournaments around the world. In this interview with MARY NNAH, he talks about his cravings, contributions to the Barca Academy Group, Nigeria franchise, which is the flagship FC Barcelona School aimed at boys and girls between six and 18 years of age with the main objective to provide a comprehensive training environment for pupils
What kind of boy were you as a teenager?
At a certain point you drive off the lane. You are doing the opposite of what you were taught growing up. At the level of secondary and post-secondary, I was all over the place. When I was younger, we had a tutor teaching us the keyboard and piano. I was playing piano when I was younger and when I left university I said let me give it a shot. The time I won the sound track award my mum did not believe it was me. I did a sound track with RMD; it was for a movie, ‘Out of Bounds.’ It won the award in 1998. She was watching the award on TV but she didn’t know it was her son she was watching. The story goes like this: I used to go to the studio at night when everyone was already sleeping and I come home very early in the morning about 5-6am just before she leaves for work. She probably thought I was sleeping all night in the room and when she’s going to work she sees me sleeping. On the day of the award, she saw me on the television. I got home that evening and she said I saw someone on the TV collecting an award. Are you sure? I asked. She said yes, I then told her I was the person. She said it couldn’t be me, that I’m a lazy man always sleeping. I walked into my room and brought out the award. She said what? At their award, I didn’t use my real name, I coined my name. I was doing that and they didn’t know in my house. ‘Hope this is not the job you want to do. From tomorrow, go and look for a job’, my mum said. I then got a job at a company called Accenture Consulting. It was an intellectual boot camp. There, I learned dedication, diligence, promptness, customer relations and service, hard work, strategic planning and thinking .The skills I learnt during that time still works. All the creative skills I still use them till date. In oil and gas anytime we want to do things like promotion, marketing, advertising, ideas around creativity I was always the number one guy to get that done. The oil and gas company (Russell Smith) was a sheet of paper when we started. Now it’s a multi-billion-naira company. I was CEO of Russell Smith for 15 years and in 2018, I became the chairman but before then, we have started the sports thing in 2017. In sports, we have lots of clubs that are approaching us, on how they could get involved in our project – clubs from Spain, from England.
Tell us about your involvement with F.C Barcelona
I was active in sports while I was in school. I was one of the Barcelona fans. Somehow, I got to know the members of the board of the Barcelona Football Club. One day, one of them came to Nigeria and told me they would want to have a meeting with me in Barcelona. So, I went there for the meeting and they said they want to have a big launch in Nigeria and asked if I would be interested. They said they want to open a school in Nigeria and they want me to be the promoter. I said, why not. It’s my club. I like the club. I also felt, it’s going to be a great opportunity for Nigerian kids to have a club like F.C Barcelona come to Nigeria to bring its philosophy here and train them.
Along the line, I was moved from being the CEO of Russell Smith Group Nigeria, an oil company, to become the chairman of the company. I felt if I’m going to be the chairman, I might as well drive the energy into the sports.
In the Academy, we have an after school and day school. We are running one in Lekki, Gbagada, Lagos Island and Teslim Balogun stadium. We have been able to expand the game, train young kids who have no hope of playing football. They have played in Barcelona’s World Cup in the past three years. They have gone to Spain; we have taken about 80 kids to Barcelona to play football. We have also taken parents that can afford to pay because we have two programmes for the school.
We have the ones for the elite children, they pay the fees. The ones that don’t pay fees are the ones we pick from the community. We look for very talented kids and we take care of their bills, when we are travelling, we travel with them. That to me is the key area of the sports program. Being able to give hope to one child in one community and the parents come to us and sing praises and thank us because they have never had that kind of opportunity. Some of them have two, three kids playing under our scholarship. It is that journey that has put the Barcelona brand into this area where it is touching lives. We also go to schools and do football clinics for them. The school is not just an academy for kids alone. When they get to 15, 16, 18 years, we start giving them exposure on the local league. They play in Division 3 under a league called FC Bulmaro.
We have another set of coaches there that train them on professional football. It’s no longer academy anymore. We get the opportunity of sending their videos to foreign scouts. The league makes them competitive, it’s not as if they are playing friendly match and training, we give them bonuses and an upkeep allowance. We are trying as much as possible to see how we can impart on the Nigerian youth. They don’t all have to be lawyers, doctors or engineers. Footballers are big influencers these days. You can see them during this COVID-19 pandemic, they came out much more. Other professionals, besides the doctors that are on the frontline, are the sportsmen, besides the journalists that are reporting daily occurrences.
What makes me happy is seeing people progress. I have people that I mentor even outside football that I try to share values with. What makes me sad is the opposite of it. When the person is getting all the help and not utilising it, it makes me sad.
You seem to have an incomparable passion for helping people; does that have anything to do with your upbringing?
Yes. It has a lot to do with my background and also my own personal experience. The way I saw my parents affected my lifestyle today. My mother was very accommodating. She was more into looking after people that don’t have. Not that she has a lot but she’s always willing to share, she’s always willing to provide for people. Sometimes, we used to wake up in our house and see someone strange staying with us. She tells us, this person has problem of accommodation and that the person would stay with us for a while. We are used to sharing the small food we had with other people. We are used to that so, that developed something in me as a person. My belief is that God blesses you to bless others; when you are blessed by God you need to reciprocate by blessing other people because God will not come from heaven to bless those people. He will use people, His agents on earth to distribute the wealth and I want to be one of those people. I was brought up in a strict Roman Catholic family background whose values swing on the hinges of selflessness, love, integrity, truth, discipline, the spirit of giving, good character, respect for elders, humility, trust in God, who is the ultimate and total commitment to one’s life purpose when discovered and pursue in love and genuine selfless service.
What lessons has life taught you as a person?
Being simple as best as possible in life is one lesson life has taught me as a person. Most of the crimes people commit today is because they are under pressure to be or do what is not necessary, then put unnecessary pressure on themselves. Humility and service are very important to me. Money is a good vehicle for self-expression, but accumulating money beyond a certain point amounts to greed. You must distribute your wealth. After it reaches a certain time your cup will be full you have to be pouring it down for other people around you. You can’t be looking for more containers to keep the money. I have also learnt that this world is transient, we are here today and gone tomorrow, whatever you accumulate and you didn’t distribute will be collected after you have left.
What is the other side of you people don’t know?
I like to do things without all the fanfare. If it were some people they will be advertising how many children they take abroad every year. They go to their village and probably, make noise about these so that they could become Senator or Representative of their constituency. To be honest with you, these kids we sponsored I don’t know where they come from, sometimes, I don’t know most of them by face. They go for their trials, the foreign coaches pick them. For me, that is how you can actually do God’s work. I don’t believe in the logic of this guy is from my village, choose him over this one. Each guy comes in and they all come in on the same level playing field. If we all tend to do that, we will have a better environment. Whether the person is Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, once you have what we require and the white man that is choosing them does not know the difference; as far as he’s concerned he’s looking out for one thing he needs to choose from. A lot of scam going on, like telling parents to bring N2 million to take their kids to Europe and then they dump the kids in one hotel and disappear. Some people are using this kind of gesture as a political tool, but we are very silent about what we do, action speaks louder than words. As a journalist, you can find out all the things we have done.