Yinka Abioye is the Chairman of the Inspire Group and a retired oil and gas executive. He tells TOFARATI IGE about his career and other issues
As the chairman of Inspire Group, what are your responsibilities and duties?
As the chairman of the organisation, I oversee different facets of the company. The company has different arms— from marketing and branding to public relations and logistics.
What I basically do is oversee the affairs of the company, work with the managers of the various arms of the business and make sure they execute whatever we plan.
When it comes to delegation of duties, many leaders often have a problem in that area because they like to do everything themselves. What do you have to say to people who fall in that category?
To lead, one needs to have worked or learnt from the bottom. A true leader does not mind sharing the limelight with the people they are leading because the objective is to succeed at what they are trying to do. It is important to find the right people and match them with the right job or task. There is something called the capability and willingness quadrant. If a leader wants somebody to do something, they have to ask four questions— ‘Are they willing and are they able’?, ‘Are they willing and not able’?, ‘Are they not willing but able’? or ‘Are they neither willing nor able’? Once a leader puts the tasks or demands from the people one is leading into those four quadrants, they would know what they need. Once one has a willing participant (employee), one has got 50 per cent of what one needs. With ability, one can probably help with training or mentoring. The idea is to get them to be in the first quadrant, which is somebody with very strong ability who is also willing to do the job.
How do you identify leadership qualities in the people that work with you?
Personality is key. Self-drive and self-assurance are also important. One cannot drive a person that is not self-driven. They have to want to succeed. Recruiting the people that would work with one is very important. One has to be objective and not be nepotistic. One should also find the appropriate compensation and be open about it. If possible, align their compensation with their performances. That way, one can get the best from people.
You spent over two decades at Exxon Mobil. How were your early years in the company?
I joined the company in the United States of America. Prior to joining the company, I was a chemical engineer, working in the pharmaceutical industry. I was making second generation intravenous solutions and antibiotics, and I worked in several industries. When I joined Exxon Mobil, it was from the chemical department where we made polyethylene and polymers. Later, I was interested in doing something that would bring me back home (Nigeria), and I realised I needed to move to the oil side (of the company). Five years into my employment with the company, I requested to be transferred to the oil and gas section. And, I did very well in the oil and gas section, mostly around the US. Then, I requested to come to Africa. The only way I could get to Africa was through training, and I had amassed a lot of knowledge. I was able to get an opportunity to come to Africa in 1998 when they had an issue with training on the continent. Thankfully, I did all my 10 years running around Africa in different capacities. For about four years, I was the Training Development Manager for Africa and the Middle East for the company. For another four years, I was in charge of the retail business between Gabon and Mauritania, excluding Nigeria. (In that capacity), I went to a lot of villages around West Africa. In the course of that, I had to learn French.
Basically, those were some of the highlights of my career— being able to see a lot of West African countries. After that, I was appointed as the Managing Director in Senegal for a couple of years. While there, I got to deal with governmental and labour issues. I saw the business from another angle. After that, I went back to the US, where I was in charge of the retail business for the East Coast of the nation— from Maryland to Florida (in the US), which we call the franchisee or dealer business. All in all, the experience was great.
When one works for a big organisation, one gets to make bigger decisions and take bigger risks, but one is working in a controlled environment, so it teaches one discipline in how one approaches things. Thankfully, one can even apply that discipline to one’s life. It was a wonderful career with no regret. I got a lot of remarkable results and I still enjoy them till today.
At a time, you managed the retail business of the company for West Africa and were responsible for over 500 stations. How were you able to pull it off, considering that it was a tough assignment that involved a lot of travel?
It did entail a lot of travelling. It was also at a time when there were no daily flights around West Africa. Sometimes, one could be stuck in a location for two days before one could catch the next flight. However, it was probably one of my easiest jobs because I had determined that I was going to enjoy myself. It was also an opportunity for me to bring in all the stuff I had learnt, while working diligently in the Western world. It was great to come back home and share some of my knowledge with people that I was training and those that were reporting to me. Any time I landed in any country, I always felt like I was in my country. That was my attitude and I had a wonderful time. I also made a lot of money for the company and made some impacts in my career. More than anything else, I left a lot of protégés, many of whom are now holding top positions in the top five oil companies in Africa, especially in the downstream oil and gas sector. That makes me happy.
You were said to have reversed the negative trend of business in the company and made a turnover of over $350m a year. How were you able to achieve that?
The number one thing is control, which is where I believe a lot of Africans fail. We, Africans, need to spend more time, money and energy on control and discipline. Rather than giving products to people on credit, one should reduce or remove the credit. One’s volume may go down drastically but one just needs to increase one’s energy in marketing and sales. If I’m selling one thousand bottles at a dollar per bottle but at the end of the month, I’m not getting paid, I would be better off selling just a hundred bottles and getting my money. Additionally, I could put more energy behind my sales’ team and they could increase the sales to 500 bottles. Those are the kinds of mechanisms we put in place.
First— the control to get people to do the right thing and follow the rules. Also, help customers in different ways through services, not just through the product or the credit of the organisation.
It’s also important to keep the team motivated. I used to work a lot of hours and I would tell my team that I was not ashamed to make them work a lot of hours because I was right next to them doing the same thing. As a leader, it is critical for one to work hard and let one’s people see that one is also working hard.
What are your thoughts about the Petroleum Industry Bill which was passed recently by the National Assembly and has been criticised by quite a number of stakeholders in that industry?
The world is not short of policies. There are policies all over the world but implementation is the issue. Look at the number of years it took to finally sign the bill; now we have to get to implementation. Implementation is where one can tell if one can get results from what one intended to do. I’m waiting to see the implementation. A lot of it is nice but are we going to implement it?
You talked about the importance of control. Which mistakes do entrepreneurs in this part of the world make in that regard?
One of the errors made in this part of the world is (having) compassion for people with one’s business. The first area where this plays out is in recruitment. Many people recruit family members who have no knowledge about the business, and that means they don’t hire the right people for the right jobs.
Also, because of the lack of many basic (things), a lot of people depend on one. When people come to one with their issues, if one is not careful, one could use one’s cost of goods to help people and consequently kill the business.
The third issue is credit. Somebody comes and begs you for something. You then take the risk and help them. In some cases, those people could even tell others about the help one rendered, and invariably bring others (seeking for help) who might default. Those are the challenges small businesses face.
Lastly, there is the issue of access to capital and cost of capital. The cost of capital is too high. A lot of times, interests on loans are too high. The (profit) margin one makes would barely cover the cost of credit. Unlike what obtains in many (developed) countries, many people borrow money at over 20 per cent interest here. What profit would remain with one if one has to give about 30 per cent of it to the bank?
You are described as a ‘business optimisation professional’. What does that entail?
First, one ascertains the dream of the business owner. After that, one looks at their assets and liabilities. Meanwhile, assets also include people. Certain questions also have to be asked such as, ‘Do you have the right number of people and are they in the right position’? ‘What are the skills and profiles of those people’? Sometimes, the right position is not only about their educational qualifications; it could also come from passion and interest. There are some people that have been in the same position for a number of years and they are no longer motivated but, they are good employees. So, one (business optimisation professional) would have to identify them, and understand the attitude and personality of the employee, as well as the person’s long-term dream and help them match it to the job. While doing that, one (business optimisation professional), would know the gap the company has in terms of knowledge. Then, one can help them close those gaps with a training process. It’s also important to make sure that the organisation has a written policy because one cannot enforce what is not written. If nothing is carved in stone for people to understand, anybody can do anything. One can remove nepotism and racism by writing a policy and putting controls in place.
As a trainer, how would you advise employees to get the most out of their employers and vice versa?
As companies have projections, it is also important for employees to have their own projections. Employees must constantly train and improve themselves.
While working with Exxon Mobil, they used to vote about two per cent of sales for training. A company needs to have a training budget and a marketing budget, regardless of what happens. A lot of companies don’t train or do marketing because they feel they did not make enough money that year. When a company does that, they are dying slowly. Regardless of how much money a company makes, they need to devote a percentage of it to people and business development. If a company does that, they would get results.
Prior to joining Exxon Mobil, you worked at Baxter Pharmaceuticals, and you were said to have reduced manufacturing time by 40 per cent in the cephalosporin/penicillin manufacturing plant. How were you able to pull that off?
When I joined the company, I was not very happy with the job. I was a chemical engineer but I was put in a laboratory as a chemist. The first thing I told myself was I didn’t want to stay on the job for more than a year. I took it (the job) because I did not have a lot of options. It was the highest paying (of all the offers I got) at the time and money was important. The company was big and I was hoping to bring it to Nigeria. When I got to the company, I saw that the standard operating procedures were done the same way for at least two decades and I started researching to see why that was so. In food and drug manufacturing, it is very difficult to make changes and because of that, a lot of people don’t want to rock the boat. I felt that if we had been doing something the same way for 20 years and the world was moving forward, some things must have changed. I did a lot of research and realised that the machine they were using two decades prior to that time which cooled water had undergone some modifications. Even the chemistry of the drugs had changed, so I started experimenting to see if I could speed up the mixing of the drugs and maintain the integrity of the drug. That’s because if the process of making a drug is changed in any way, it could affect the integrity of the drug— for example, the drugs could decay too quickly or may not be as effective. After a lot of testing, I reached out to the manufacturing manager and I suggested doing things differently. Of course, I met a lot of resistance. I was asked to defend what I was proposing and I showed them that I had been testing it for more than three months. It was then turned into an official study in the company to validate what I said. They then implemented the new procedure and it cut manufacturing time down by about 50 per cent.
As a child, was that the career path you envisioned for yourself?
Not at all. As a child, my dream was to be an engineer but I didn’t know what engineering was in my primary school days. I just knew the name sounded cool. I was also fascinated by cars, so I thought I was going to design a car that could fly. However, after secondary school, the realities of life started setting in. Chemistry was very difficult for me in Nigeria but when I got to school in the US, it became extremely easy for me. In a couple of semesters, I became a teaching assistant. Because I was so good in chemistry, I decided to become a chemical engineer.
What are the fond memories of your childhood?
I think we were ‘cooler’ than the kids of today. I grew up in Ibadan, Oyo State. As a child, I had the mindset that anything I wanted to do was possible, so I had no fear. I was always very driven and focused on everything I did as a child. I actually took a lot of risks. The support I got from my parents and grandparents are some of the fond memories I have of my childhood. Today, I still talk often with about 20 of my childhood friends.
You have had a busy career. How were you able to balance that with your family life so that none suffered?
It was very tough. However, I did two things that helped me a lot. I travelled often and anytime the kids were on vacation, they always came to join me wherever I was.
We lived together but for example, there was a time I was living in the US, and I used to visit Africa about two or three times a month. Sometimes, I would stay in Africa for as much as six weeks. Whenever that overlapped with their holidays, I always made sure they came to meet me wherever I was. It was very expensive and it ate into my savings but I felt the knowledge they gained was worth it. I don’t regret doing that.
In my two and a half decades in Exxon Mobil, I moved on average of every three years. I invested in the kids visiting other parts of the US we had lived before so as to catch up with their friends.
Also, I made it a point never to move the family during the school period. I always made sure they finished their school year, then I would bring them in later so they could start the new session in the new place. I also encouraged them to join a summer league or soccer team (of the new school) before the session started. That way, they could make friends and when they eventually resumed school, some of the students would have seen them before. For young professionals that are in positions that entail a lot of travelling, I would suggest they adopt some of those measures.
Tell us about the Inspire Africa Connect project and the FESTAC project which your company is working on?
During my time in the US, I thought of what legacy I could leave behind. I have realised that to leave a legacy, one has to do something impactful. I have realised that I have the ‘gift’ of networking and making friends. As an Africanist, one thing that gives me sleepless nights is the poor intra-trade between African countries. I have always thought about what could be done to facilitate that and I realised that the answer lies in networking. The more African countries ‘make friends’ with one another, the more chances they would have to do trade together. Hence, we put together the Africa Connect Project, which is an annual event in Cape Town (South Africa), to bring people (Africans) together to talk about business.
Why the choice of Cape Town and not Nigeria?
When we started the programme, we were doing a bilateral ‘thing’ called Mzansi Niger. Mzansi is the nickname of South Africa, and it was added to Niger (which is short form for Nigeria). Those two countries are two giants of Africa. If the two countries come together, others (on the continent) would get benefits from it. In Kenya, we created something called ‘Arambi (which is the nickname for Kenyans) Niger’; and ‘Ashanti Niger’ for Ghana. We did a few events, where we used sports, networking and entertainment to bring people together. In doing so, we made them to be friends and start doing business together. We did it for some time, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we realised that people could not move around a lot. We also reasoned that if we wanted to impact the continent, we had to put something together that everybody could participate in. The options were Nigeria and South Africa in terms of size and being appealing to people. Cape Town actually offered a lot in terms of tourism. That was one of the reasons we decided to host it there. The first edition was held last year and the second one is coming up this year. When COVID-19 goes away, the idea is to move around the continent but for now, we will keep it in one location because it is easy to replicate what we have done.
It is a networking event for companies to promote themselves and meet new people in a fun way, so that participants can become friends. I feel those are the things we need to do more on this continent for Africans to do business together. Everybody sits back and says Africa is the next big thing but that is just rhetoric. Africans don’t trade with one another because they don’t know one another. We (Africans) live in fear of one another.
The other thing we came up with was the Festival of Arts and Culture. In the sixties, then African leaders got together and said one of the ways to give Africans pride and power to get better was to first accept our culture and be proud of it. They then decided to organise a cultural event every two years to bring cultural awareness and for people to grow. The first edition was held in 1966 in Dakar (Senegal). The second one was to be held in 1968 but it did not happen until 1974 under the then Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo (retd.), and Nigeria did a fantastic job. Money well spent brought a lot of awareness and purpose to the nation. However, there was never a third one.
We want to be known as an organisation that brings people together and we have done it through sports and entertainment. Arts and culture are also critical parts of who we are. It was because of that we put together FESTAC 2022, which will be an annual event. It is not a government initiative. It is about us creating our own festival of arts and culture. But, the idea is to bring it to the level of FESTAC ’77. We will start small in May 2022 and we are choosing Zanzibar (Tanzania) as a melting pot, because every part of our culture (as Africans) is reflected there. It is also a tourist destination, and we believe it will attract people to celebrate Africanism and Africa.
What are some of the activities that would take place during FESTAC 2022?
There would be lots of activities such as cultural events, visits to museums and monuments; and golfing. There would also be webinars and seminars.
How do you unwind?
I am always working because I enjoy it. These days, most of the work I do is in my head and laptop. I get excited seeing people coming together and improving. I just love humanity and positive news. I feel ‘down’ when I read bad news about the continent.
I also interact with family and friends. I always work and play together. Even when I was in the corporate world, anytime I travelled, I always liked to enjoy the sights and sounds of wherever I went.
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.
Contact: [email protected]