Shell rejected me as fresh graduate, I rejected them years after —Awodeyi
Mr Niyi Awodeyi is the former Country Manager, Schlumberger Gabon and Chairman, Subterra Energy Resources. He is also a Consultant in the National Executive Council on crude oil theft. In this interview with SEGUN KASALI, he shares his experiences about life.
YOU had your childhood in Benin City.
You know this is not how Benin was. It was a jungle back then. I had a cousin who grew up together with me. We had too many escapades. We got into fights. We jumped over trees. We used to travel to a town called Abudu. My maternal grandfather was the last Esama of Benin. You know the present Esama is (Chief Gabriel) Igbinedion. So, when my maternal grandfather died in 1962, they did not give anybody that Esama title until Igbinedion because it is a critical title. It is not just given to anybody. The only criterion is that you must be the richest Benin man alive. It takes a while to determine it. So, they used to call him the Emperor of Osomo. The capital of Osomo is Abudu. So, we used to go to the family palace in Abudu. And Abudu had a river. I and my cousin did not know how to swim. We did not know how to paddle a canoe. We went to the beach side and we saw canoes and the fun-loving boys that we were then jumped into it and we decided to paddle away and of course, it was catastrophic. We had to be rescued because we did not know anything about it. We saw people paddling and we wanted to paddle too. They saw the canoe sailing around with two children and the fishermen jumped in so as to rescue us. My mum heard about it but she didn’t come. But my cousin’s dad gave us the beatings of our lives and we never tried it again.
You really had a wonderful childhood.
I had a pretty interesting childhood because I was brought up in Benin City. I grew up with my mum till I was about 10 years old. My dad was in the military and he moved around a lot. So, I was that child that loved the outdoors. While I was growing up, Benin City was a safer environment. Parents could leave us and I loved playing football and would just be out there after school playing soccer. Most times when I got back home, there would be a cane waiting for me by mum because I was supposed to be doing my homework but I would be playing football. Back then, you didn’t have mobile phone to call anybody. It was neighbourhood shouting, So, anytime I came back, I would get my punishment. But I didn’t mind because the football was worth it. Mum didn’t spare the rod. She felt that it would affect my academics. But it didn’t. In 1989, I was called up to the national Under-17 camp. I once played during NUGA while I was at the University of Ibadan in 1993. Throughout my whole secondary school, I was the school’s goalkeeper. I got the letter to join Under-17 but my mum tore it.
Did she tell you why?
It was because football wasn’t the way it is these days. Back then, it was never-do-wells that played football, unlike now where you see a lot of people earning so much from football. Then, you had to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer and all that.
One would naturally think your dad would use the cane more as a military man.
Yes you are right but my dad did not feature prominently until I was nine years old. I didn’t really know him until my parents told me. My parents were separated when I was a baby. So, that was what I got to understand. The other side of the story was fun, for he is fun to be with. My dad never used a cane on me. I don’t understand why. Maybe because of the obedience my mum taught me. I was very obedient to him. I had very stubborn brothers and sisters. My mum taught me patience and giving while my dad taught me humility.
What were the lessons from your dad?
My dad taught me how to enjoy life and not take life so seriously. He was a disciplinarian. Even at that, he taught me humour. He taught me to always see life for what it really is. So, my dad taught me humility because he was a rich and great man but did not depart from his people. Anybody could walk in to see my dad and he would give you audience. My dad was the chairman of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in Ondo State during (Shehu) Shagari’s administration. He also became Social Democratic Party (SDP) chairman in Ondo State. He was also the chairman of a party in Ondo State during Abacha’s time. Then, when Obasanjo came in, he was Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chairman in Ondo State. So, he was there politically.
Why did you study geology when medicine runs in your maternal line?
That was an interesting one. My maternal family is medical in orientation. My mother is a nurse. She actually retired as the Director, Nursing Services in Edo State. My aunt was a doctor while the other was a nurse. My aunt who was a nurse got married to a medical doctor. So, everybody is medicine. They pushed me to study medicine. In JAMB, I put in for medicine. So, medicine was in my head in secondary school. When I looked at my secondary school days, I was so good at biology. I was not a great fan of mathematics but I could get by. But I realised that I was very creative with my hands. A friend of mine, Yinka Odeyemi and I actually made a small car that moved. The car would hit wall, reverse and move. So, I was inclined towards engineering. During the interlude of being at home and when I got accepted for medicine at University of Ibadan, I had already made up my mind that I was not doing this. You know I wanted to study petroleum engineering, but because I didn’t do Mathematics in JAMB, I couldn’t switch medicine for petroleum engineering or electrical. Then, I applied for a change of course before I started medicine because I knew if I started, they won’t allow me to change. The only way is year two but you have to go to a Physical Science programme—physics, chemistry, and geology. So, I looked at it and I was like what if they don’t switch you out in your second year, what other course would you not mind being stuck in that would give you professionalism and it was geology. So, I switched over to geology. After one year of geology, I fell in love with it and I refused to submit my changeover form. That was how I became a geologist.
What was their reaction at home?
They said I had gone mad. They knew they were coercing me to study medicine because the family was medical. So, I guess they weren’t really so surprised. For someone like me who did not live in the city, I got a lot of freedom. My first year in the university was terrible. I didn’t do well. I went to secondary school on Federal Government scholarship because when we did common entrance in primary school, I was among the top 12 in the then Bendel State. So, they gave me scholarship to go through secondary school free of charge and I was getting awards when I was in secondary school. So, to enter the university, it was freedom. Football, volleyball, basketball were all I was doing. I enjoyed sports but academics suffered. At the end of year one, I was in third class. When my late aunt saw my result because she used to come to UI for her Ph.D, she was worried. So, in year two, I climbed out of third class and was in second class lower division. In year three, I was at the threshold of second class upper division, but it was in my year four that I moved to 2:1. People ask me today what point in life would I like to return to and I tell them year two in University of Ibadan.
How were you dealing with the ladies in school?
It was crazy. My room was always filled with girls. There were times I would leave them in the room and go away. That was why I said it was fun because I had more than enough in school.
Ladies were not fighting over you?
I was too smart for that. If I had a girlfriend back then, I was that kind of person that was faithful. I would let all the ladies know who I was dating. When you make it clear this is my girlfriend, nobody disrespects you. I don’t remember having any of such issues when I was in UI.
Did you eventually settle down with one of those ladies?
No. My wife attended University of Benin (UNIBEN). I knew my wife even before I got to UI. She and I checked our JAMB scores together. I carried her to go and check her score. But she went to UNIBEN and we were separated. After UNIBEN, she left the country. So, I didn’t see or hear from her for almost 10 years. We reconnected and within a few months, we got back together.
And she accepted you back immediately?
She said I was mad. Yes, we were talking on a phone but I hadn’t seen her. It was on a phone we reconnected because I was a field engineer in Equatorial Guinea. I was on the rig site. She got my number and called me. I was shocked, asking who gave her my number? She said she ran into a friend of mine in London because she was based in London. She called me and we just started talking. A few months later, I was in London. The day I got to London, I told her I was going to marry her. She said I was crazy. She said I had gone mad. We eventually got married.
Is there anything she wants you to stop doing?
I am not perfect. Maybe eating too much pounded yam. She complains that this is what was making my tummy too big. She always wants me to live healthy. Yes, this one also which is by her and my mum together. They said I drink too much whisky.
Your job story is interesting.
I graduated and did my youth service in Shell, Warri. I did well out of four of us that were corps members in the environmental department. Corps members didn’t normally go to the offshore locations in Shell but I was volunteering to go to the rig. The first time I went to the rig station in my life, I was a youth corper and I was held hostage. It wasn’t a deliberate thing but joy and fun for me. I hate sitting in one place for too long. You asked me about my wife, another thing she wants me to stop doing is to stop being restless. I am very restless. I am always on the move. So, the department took note and they wanted to retain me as a contract staff. So, my sectional head told me that once the service year was over, they would retain me. So, I left happy. I didn’t even apply to anybody because I thought I had a job with Shell as a contract staff. When I went back in three weeks, I went to my department and I was greeting but everyone was just looking down. I was wondering what was going on. So, I walked straight to my sectional head’s office. When he saw me, he said: “Come let us go there.” Immediately I walked into the HOD’s office, he just shouted, «that is the boy I have been talking about. So, why are you people bringing the file of somebody else to me?» And my sectional head said but this is the boy whose file we have been bringing to your table. The HOD just went cold. He said okay come back on Monday. By the time I came back on Monday, they said the job was not approved. What happened? I am a Yoruba guy- Niyi Awodeyi. The sectional head is Yoruba but he was a detribalised person. The HOD is Igbo and he was the boss to the sectional head. So, the whole of my service year, I was working with my sectional head and his team and all the while I was in the meeting with him, he didn’t know my name. He just thought I was Igbo and everybody was recommending me. He thought my name was Neil not Niyi and cancelled the job because I was not Igbo. Since I did not apply anywhere else, I was stuck.
So, from there…?
Being the restless person I was, I went out and started doing contract. Two months after, I was exporting timber to Italy. I went into forest, got people, got a financier, got wood, got an Italian man and we started doing business and I was exporting timber to the guy in Italy. I was supplying and he was exporting. I made a lot of money and I saw how it was easy to make money as a businessman. So, I kept my 2:1 Geology aside and started doing business. I did terrazzo for a man who was building a school. I did some contract for UNIBEN. For three years, I was having fun and making money. Then, one of my uncles who is a professor in UNIBEN called me and said look at this man wasting his 2:1 doing business. He was lecturing at Shell Intensive Training Programme (SITP). As at 1999, I was making profit of half a million naira and a million naira when a crate of soft drink was 10 naira. So, do the maths. That means I was making tens of millions. Money was not an issue for me. While I was doing SITP, Schlumberger came and advertised just like others. So, I applied to Schlumberger because they were doing their interview in Warri then. When I finished the SITP, I was offered employment by Shell as permanent staff on a Monday in their geological lab. On a Wednesday, Schlumberger offered me a letter of employment to be an international staff. They gave me letter on Wednesday and by Friday, I was on board Air France to Paris to go and sign my contract. I didn’t come back to Nigeria for six months. After signing the contract in Paris within six weeks, I was sent from France to Gabon. I was in Gabon for three, four months and I was sent to the United States, which was the first time I was going to the US, in 2001. I was eventually made the Country Manager in Gabon. After Gabon, I was transferred to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates as a personnel for a year. From Abu Dhabi, I was transferred to Beijing in China for three years.
Any regret not taking Shell appointment
No. A lot of people would tell me that I should have taken Shell but Shell is a slow grower. A lot of my friends who worked with Shell have houses in Ikoyi and the likes but it is a slow burner and you don’t really learn.
So, what happened to your business while you were doing all these?
When I was in SITP, I was still doing business but the businessman in me was buying and selling to my fellow students. So, when I joined Schlumberger, I dropped the business. I was being paid in dollars at Schlumberger. My one year salary at Schlumberger will cover my one year profit as a businessman.
Is there anything you would have loved to do right in the past?
I will do everything exactly the way it should be done. There is no regret in my life today.
What is your indulgence?