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LEEMON IKPEA: From 40ft Container to Offices in Warri, Lagos, Italy and USA

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LEEMON IKPEA

Dr. Leemon Ikpea, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, formed Lee Engineering & Construction Company Limited on November 11, 1991. The organization has undergone tremendous development over the last three decades, based on its concept of honesty, integrity, and transparency. In this interview with Bayo Akinloye, Ikpea, who is celebrating his pearl anniversary, talks about the company’s beginnings, his personal exploits, and the good impact of Nigeria’s local content policy on the country’s oil and gas business. He also reveals the secret to business longevity and success, providing a blueprint for young players to stay in the game and highlighting Lee Engineering Group’s commitment to job and wealth development. Excerpts…

How has the journey been in the last 30 years?

To the glory of God, the journey has been successful. Without being told, the journey is riddled with various circumstances and uncertainties of the political and economic climate. By special grace, we believe God is seeing us through thick and thin. We are grateful that the journey continues amid hopes and prospects, not minding the challenges. We continue to trust in God, who has made all things possible. He has guided and guarded us through the years.

What will you say is the biggest challenge so far?

Funding of our various projects is very challenging; not getting the much-needed support for our ventures. However, by special grace, we are able to get to where we are today. We have looked for more pragmatic ways to get the needed funding. In addition, like other big enterprises working in a Nigerian economy that is dollarised, prices of materials rise unpredictably within a few days or weeks. It’s difficult to go back to a client to discuss new terms regarding changing prices.

What impact has the local content policy had on your business?

I must acknowledge that before the local content policy, to put it simply, things were not really favourable. With the advent of the local content policy in 2010, a new window of opportunities was open for local players in the oil and gas sector. The capacity of local companies has been enhanced. It is hoped the government will keep to the philosophy of the local content board and allow the technocrats to continue to implement the policy fully. It’s beneficial to local businesses and the country; more revenues are generated, and other benefits spread across the value chain. If the local content policy continues to be fully implemented in the next five to 10 years, we would have built our capacity to a large extent. Imagine what the oil and gas industry will be like for local players without the local content policy. With the advent of the local content policy, Nigerian companies have been strengthened to play important roles in the industry. With the establishment of the local content policy given teeth by law, operating as local companies in the oil and gas industry is now a different ball game. Local companies have been given a platform to excel. We are working directly with the IOCs and multinationals.

The Nigerian Content Development & Monitoring Board have proved invaluable. They ensure that local players in the industry receive adequate training. The agency also encourages us to establish fabrication workshops. Today, Lee Engineering Group’s fabrication yard is undergoing construction. It will be inaugurated by the first quarter of 2022. At least $100 million has been sunk into it. When it’s ready, it will serve as a hub for local manufacturing of various equipment. We are convinced the federal government will support this project and ensure that high-quality materials are no longer imported when they are locally produced. This will have a multiplier effect on the country and its citizens, reducing the burden on foreign exchange, not to talk of job creation. In other words, it is hoped the government will make it mandatory for the OICs and multinationals to patronise us.

Looking back to when you started this company 30 years ago, what’s the story behind it?

It’s a long story. This company started with a 40ft container. The container is still there 30 years after. It’s still there in Warri. It was demarcated and insulated to avoid too much heat. At its front, we were selling safety tools and at the back was my office. Looking back, one is filled with nostalgia and gratitude. God is great. Moving away from the container, we rented a four-bedroom bungalow, got another apartment and before you know it, we realised that our capacity was growing and the office space was no longer big enough for the staff. It was soon obvious we needed our own facility. In 2012 we got our own place and set it up on a space of five acres, including office, warehouse and fabrication yard. The fabrication yard in Warri is about 10,000sqm. Work is ongoing to complete the fabrication yard and get it ready by the first quarter of next year. As of today, we have a staff strength of 2,000. Several of them have spent decades in the company. We have one of the staff, who started as a secretary, who has spent 30 years with us; now a manager in the organisation. She is a repertoire of the company’s history and corporate information.

What has kept them for that long?

The work ethics, culture and camaraderie, have kept a number of them to remain with the organisation for more than a decade. They believe in the system we run, which is not just a commercial concern. It is a venture with a human face. We have come to see work as an extension of a social contract for the good of all. While I encourage hard work, I have led by showing a good example in humility. It is heartwarming when you have genuine, hard-working and loyal employees.

What motivated you to go into this line of business?

I am an administrator. But today, I’m into engineering construction work and have ventured into aviation. The company has also diversified into exploration and production, travels and tour. In the beginning, I was just a fieldworker, a timekeeper. I applied to work in the NPA and got the job in 1977. At that time, I also applied for jobs in other organisations. I was excited on my first day at work at the NPA. I was employed as a clerical officer. On the evening of my first day at work, I got another offer from Whessoe, a UK-based firm. Its headquarters is in Darlington, UK. They had some job to do with the Warri Refinery. Despite the difficult terrain of my area, the firm searched me out and offered me a job that evening. They wanted me to start the next day. It was quite intriguing: I just assumed duty with the NPA today, and another company came knocking asking me to start a job with them the next day. I sought the opinion of my associates. They suggested I stick with NPA because there is job security there being a civil service. But I went a step further to seek the advice of my father. He had been a civil servant until his retirement. He counselled me to work with Whessoe. My obedience to my father’s suggestion laid the groundwork for what I had become today. So, I joined Whessoe the next day. The rest is history. From Whessoe, I joined Snamprogetti.

That’s another story. Before I joined Snamprojettif, my appointment with Whessoe had come to an end. My then boss, Mr Peter Wagner, was returning to his home country and I was seeing him off at the airport. Before he boarded his flight, he handed me an envelope that he said I should give personally to Snamprojettif’s general manager, Mr Sampaoli. This happened in May 1980. I gave him the letter. With the departure of Mr Wagner, I was between jobs. But to my pleasant surprise, Mr Sampaoli, having received the letter, took me to an office prepared for me to start a new job as wages supervisor immediately. Apparently, Mr Wagner had written a good recommendation on my behalf. In no time, I was promoted to be the personnel manager. I consider these episodes a special grace, apart from the fact that I was honest, diligent and forward-looking. It is also important that being obedient to my father played a vital role; I wasn’t stubborn. I listened to him. While a manager at Snamprojettif, I did not just sit down in my office. I took time to understand how the company operated; in that time, I noticed that many Nigerians were performing various tasks as electricians, welders and so on. The foreigners were mostly there as supervisors. There were many skilled Nigerian workers around. I have a couple of them still working with me today.

Thirty years from now, where do you see Lee Engineering Group?

Big oil companies that we know of today had humans as their founders; the likes of Shell, Mobil, Chevron, etc. Some organisations have lasted more than a century. In light of this, I want to build a company that will outlive me with a legacy to be continuing being a source of gainful employment and capacity building. I want Lee Engineering Group to endure into the future.

Do you want to speak a little more about your organisation’s diversification drive?

The main driver of the diversification initiative is to provide gainful employment to Nigerians who are willing to work to sustain themselves and their immediate families. The idea is to build people. We have engaged in civil works, water factory, travel and tours, aviation, exploration and production; Tribet Ltd (travels and tours), Tribet Aviation, Tribet Purified Waters, and Lee Oasis. Yes, we expect returns, but the main purpose is to help the common people.

Tell us, looking at the trajectory of Lee Engineering Group, what project has turned the tide for you in the last 30 years?

Nigeria is a gas haven. Honestly, we have found breakthroughs in our gas projects since 2007. We have never looked back since then with God’s support. The current major project is the gas project, domestic gas, and gas to supply the LNG Train Seven. There is also a gas project in Imo. It is a gas transmission facility. Once the project is completed, we are convinced that many moribund IPP projects will come back to life. We also foresee the price of domestic gas crashing too.

What will you say makes your company stand out?

The group’s philosophy is based on patience, honesty, transparency and integrity. It’s important to be patient in life. Hard work always pays off in the long run. When you honestly apply yourself to the job at hand and work hard, you are more likely to succeed. The least product of hard work is dignity. The satisfaction that you work for what you earn. Closely related to that is integrity. One must have integrity. You must be known not just for being hard-working, but you must let integrity permeate every process of your hard work, your operations. For Lee Engineering and me, personally, integrity is the key. You may have all the technical know-how, but without integrity, one may not go far. Integrity is the key in our business. For us, integrity is not a concept. It is who we are. With integrity, every business partner, client, supplier, or vendor looks for you because they trust you. We have honest and hard-working staff. We are not honest and hard-working some of the time. We are honest and hard-working all the time. The company is transparent. In the last 30 years, we have demonstrated those qualities without a measure of deviation. I have used my exemplary life of honesty, hard work, integrity, and transparency to demonstrate the importance of honesty and integrity to my staff.

Any succession, retirement plans?

There will always be a succession plan; if you may like, call it retirement. But I will only turn 65 in December this year. There’s still much energy to expend. I love being active, and I believe with God’s support, I still have many more years to contribute to the development of not just the Lee Engineering Group but humanity.

What’s your advice for young players who want to come into the industry?

They have got to be patient. They shouldn’t be in a rush and be willing to learn, and for them to learn, they must be honest and transparent. They must have integrity. Anyone who wants to succeed must demonstrate those qualities. If you’re in a rush, you’ll rush in and rush out. It’s heartwarming that some Nigerian youths are very intelligent and ready to learn. Some are on the fast lane.

Don’t you think the economic circumstances today have worsened the chances of Nigerian youths compared to the past?

You only need to look at how many of today’s youngsters are willing to get their hands dirty beyond the few diligent and intelligent ones. Are all those with bright ideas and energy willing to go through the whole hog? Some of them aren’t ready to work. But the bottom line is the window of opportunities is still open for them. We must admit that things are more fast-paced in today’s world; no doubt about that. We must also admit that there are more challenges facing youngsters today. It is also true that in all of this, humanity is more than well-equipped than ever before in humankind’s history to face any challenges headlong. The way the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that, stopping the virus in its track. We got the vaccine produced at record time. Today, we have the booster vaccine and are talking about the anti-COVID pill. The frontiers have become boundless for the youths, and only the diligent and intelligent can fully explore that. Right from day one, human society abhors laziness. Nigerian youths should be inventive and channel their energy for the good of themselves and society. They live in exciting times.

This year is a testament to how far your company has come.

It is a glorious 30 years. The group was founded on November 11, 1991. With an office at inception in 1991 at Warri, Lee Engineering Group has acquired the necessary technical capabilities that have enabled us to execute major projects in the industry successfully. Lee Engineering now has its operational base at Warri, Delta State, branch office at Port Harcourt, and Headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria. In addition, we now have overseas offices in the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States of America (Houston). Integrity is our watchword. We run an honest business. We have honest and hard-working staff. We are not honest and hard-working some of the time. We are honest and hard-working all the time. The company is transparent. For the 30 years of being in business, there is no stain on the company’s name. Every member of staff has demonstrated ingenuity and integrity. I have used my life as an example in honesty, hard work, integrity, and transparency. These are values everyone in the group holds there. Our continued existence in the past three decades calls for thanksgiving. We will do just so on Sunday, this Sunday. The least we can do is to be thankful. Things haven’t been all that rosy, but we give thanks.

You are passionate about job creation and Nigerian youths maximising their potential. What advice do you have for them?

I will urge them to identify who they are; what their talent is. Despite life’s challenges, if one can identify where their talent lies and diligently pursue it, they will more likely succeed and find fulfilment in life. Nigerian youths will fare better if they demonstrate patience even in this fast-paced world. They should be willing to understudy successful persons, whether young or old. While staying humble, they should know what they want.

Who will you say has inspired you the most in life?

That’s a British man, Jim Calderwood. He was inspirational to me. ‘Work hard! Work hard!’ he would always tell me back in the days. He was unrelenting in keeping me on my toes. But he was never short of encouraging words that always fired my spirit, my determination to continue to do well. He would stress the need for me to be honest, and I remained steadfast and kept my integrity. From that past to the present, I have always kept my head high, remaining honest and keeping my integrity.

What’s your regret in life?

My regret is that my parents did not live long enough to enjoy all the blessings I have had today. I would have loved them to see how far the values they impacted in me have carried me. They did not live long to see me achieve success. I regret it, but I give God the glory.

I will want to improve on my legacy: my integrity and honesty, and continue following God’s way. I will continue to be who I am, no matter the success I attain in business.

What will you change if you have the opportunity to live your life all over again?

I will want to improve on my legacy: my integrity and honesty, and continue following God’s way. It’s a thing of beauty to improve whatever good you’ve done, to create something and make it even better. I am convinced I have worked so hard to have come this far. But I am also convinced that the things I have done over the years could be improved. What do people say about improvement? There’s always room for improvement. That’s what makes the world go round. It’s breathtaking to consider the various innovations and improvements the world has witnessed since the turn of the century in terms of travel, communication, exploration, health care, and defence.

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