The recent acquisition of ConocoPhillips’ Nigerian assets by Oando Energy Resources is an epochal oil and gas deal that did not get the deserved blitz. But this is not a surprise, Wale Tinubu, the man behind this fast growing energy conglomerate is a consummate corporate visionary that is not given to needless attention. And this is one of the many qualities of this forty five year old corporate guru that keeps redefining indigenous participation in the dreaded waters of oil and gas entrepreneurship with all its risks and rewards, which only the multi-national giants have been able to chart successfully at such scale. Same quality endears him to me, long time ago.
Around late 2001 to 2002 I was a first year economics student at Obafemi Awolowo University, but I followed the news enough to know that business pages of Nigerian newspapers were abuzz with the landmark privatization deal that saw one Wale Tinubu, said to be 34 years old then, lead other equally young folks to take control of Unipetrol, one of the many mismanaged assets of the Federal Government of Nigeria. The face was ubiquitous in the newspapers. The deal was highly celebrated, just as skeptics also raised concerns. The operators of Nigeria’s ever thriving rumour mill also had a field day, churning en masse rumours ranging from the Obasanjo connection to the then Governor Bola Tinubu’s hand.
I chose to believe the purely business angle, which I picked from newspapers. That was my earliest memory of Wale Tinubu, the man that would later be my employer for four years until early 2012.
How Wale Tinubu transformed a dying, bureaucracy-infested Unipetrol, and later the downstream assets of Agip Nigeria, into the Oando of today is stuff for best-selling American entrepreneurial books. How he has managed to go about his business without the controversies that dot big time businessmen in this part of the world, is even more thrilling. And the latter, more than the former, thrills me more.
In Oando’s early years, Wale Tinubu had the internal challenge of putting his new house, the new Unipetrol, in order. The external challenge was the widespread political shenanigans that followed his success at the bids. If the discounting of his success by Nigeria’s sea of rumour merchants was the least of his problems then, the first two were surely not. Through his business dexterity he was able to assail both –deploying his negotiation skills to amicably resolve the internal hostility and letting his post-take-over performance do the dowsing of the external pressure. Today, Oando is the most successful of all government businesses sold to private entrepreneurs then, some of whom had far deeper pockets and more years of experience than the young Tinubu.
As an active participant in Nigeria’s highly critical online communities, one question many online debaters always put across to me anytime I stick my neck out for Tinubu is, but he was born with a silver spoon. This argument is weak. Stories abound of children of nouveau rich businessmen that cannot sustain the legacies they inherited. More so, Wale Tinubu’s father was known as a successful lawyer, not a businessman. And a final blow to the argument: Wale Tinubu built his business from scratch. In the interview he granted FORBES Africa edition in the November 2011 issue, Wale narrated how his business acumen was manifested in his days as a student in University of Liverpool, how he used his school fees to trade in luxury cars, driving personally through Europe to buy and sell cars. His early years in oil business were even rougher. In the FORBES interview he narrated how he journeyed through the Bonny waters, in a rickety boat, alongside his friend, Mofe Boyo, rains falling heavily, heads covered in rain sheets, without life jacket, in order to deliver on a contract. That was in the mid 90’s, Wale Tinubu and Mofe Boyo in their late twenties, struggling to get their business footing, no Obasanjo as president, no Bola Tinubu as governor! Now, you won’t call such courageous acts rent-seeking!
By 2002 when the Unipetrol and Agip deals were consummated, Wale Tinubu and Mofe Boyo were already big time businessmen whose oil business, Ocean and Oil Holdings, which had been in existence since 1994, was already a success in its own right.
By stroke of fate, when I finished my youth service in 2008, Oando, a company I had long admired from distance for its trail blazing, was the first company that offered me job and I had the opportunity to watch at closer, even if not personal, distance the man I had long read about in papers from my year one in the university.
Oyewale, an accountant formerly with Oando Plc, is an MBA student at Edinburgh Business School