Nzan Ogbe: Using bold ideas for sustainable future
Share your childhood memories and influences with us.
I was born in Arondizuogu but was raised in Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, where my parents hail from. I grew up in my house not knowing who my real elder brother was because our relatives from my father’s and mother’s side lived with us.
My father was a civil servant and an administrator par excellence, with a mechanical and methodological demeanour and outlook. My father had a very high value in using words, so he didn’t use them carelessly. I can’t remember my father cracking a careless joke.
At a young age, we used to have relatives send their children to come and spend holidays with us so that my father could instil discipline in them. Interestingly, he was the one that never physically disciplined us in the way that parents of that era used to discipline their errant children.
On the flip side, you had my boisterous mother, a businesswoman, and she owned a chain of hotels at the time. I would say I picked my entrepreneurial side from my mother and my discipline and principles from my father.
How would you describe your career progression in brief?
I learned early in life what I wanted to become, which was to be an entrepreneur. I remember telling the story of how we had a housemaid when I was about eight or nine years old who was always teasing me that I liked groundnuts too much. She teased me to the point where I decided we could sell it if it tasted nice. I took my pocket money and gave it to her to buy raw groundnuts. She bought it, and when she came back, I told her to help me boil it, and then she put it on the tray, and we placed it outside the house to sell.
That was my first business venture, but I did not do too badly; many people bought out of sympathy, but I made a profit, which started my whole story.
I started selling cars with my business partner. We took cars from a seller, marketed them, and made quite a bit of money.
In 1995, I got the opportunity to travel to South Africa, and I found a group there called a CoolShade that manufactured shade ports for cars. Now, you don’t find them around anymore, but in the late 1990s, I was the one that brought the first CoolShade brand into Nigeria. Shade ports are like colourful car covers that you see outside people’s houses. It was already in use in South Africa then, and I decided to bring that franchise into Nigeria, which sold quite a bit. I expanded the business to Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt, which was still in line with my car sales.
I started making money at a relatively young age, which led me into the telecoms sector. During the early days of the telecoms industry in Nigeria, there was an opportunity to sell mobile phones and handsets, and I also got involved in that.
Having done this for a while, I transitioned from the telecoms sector and took an interest in the power sector, where I did some work based on the knowledge I had at the time. Eventually, Real Estate was a natural progression. One thing I learned early in the day was not to spend my profit but instead to set it aside and put the rest back into the business, and at the time, there were not many investment opportunities. I have always had an interest in oil & gas. I had friends around me who were in the oil & gas business, and some of them were multibillionaires, but I never really forayed in there until much later in 2016, when I founded Levene Energy, after which my journey in oil & gas started.
Share with us about being the Group CEO of an energy company. How has it been?
While I may have missed out on the boom era where everyone was in the oil space, and everybody was buying tank farms, there was huge arbitrage at the time; people in the industry at that time were making millions of dollars in trading of refined products and crude oil.
Interestingly, while people were moving away from the business, I was coming in, and that’s simply because I have a mindset that there are always opportunities in wartime. I looked at the whole landscape, paid attention to the mistakes that my progenitors, the guys that went ahead of me, made and then charted a path to ensure that I didn’t repeat those same mistakes. One of the first things I did when I decided to set up the company was incorporate a robust corporate governance structure.
Building the company’s corporate governance has been great for me because it set up a path for the company from the get-go. We have always worked and built on our corporate governance structure, having integrity as our watchword. The business has grown organically, bearing in mind that though we may be local, our competition was global, and as such, we had to do things by adhering to best practice principles.
Founding Levene proved to me that there’s an opportunity for everyone in any market. You just need to find a niche for yourself and operate within the ambit of that niche, but most importantly, you need to study and understand the market you’re going to. I studied the energy sector post the 2013 – 2014 era, and to be honest, I discovered that there was opportunity across the value chain, and one just needed to do a little bit more to be able to obtain value, whether it is in downstream, midstream, upstream or even in the renewables space. Today, by the grace of God, we are operating in that whole ambit and with some level of success for a 6-7-year-old company.
In a nutshell, Levene Energy is an integrated company that operates across the whole oil & gas industry value chain.
What are your milestone achievements in the Energy space from inception to date?
We started as a company trading crude oil out of Nigeria and refined products and other derivatives into Nigeria, and we built a significant book. I would say as one of the leading partners with the national IOC in that regard, we’ve done significant volumes over the years, and that led us to our midstream business and then ultimately our upstream business, where we have acquired a few assets in Equatorial Guinea and in Nigeria, more recently. We are also looking at other assets to acquire.
However, we discovered that about three years ago, access to capital was shrinking in the oil & gas space because the western nations were taking a position post-COP 26, saying that they needed to start reducing investments in the oil & gas space and all of that, which was quite a challenge for us, as we had just set up our UK office.
We needed to know the transition plan of the national IOC, which was still known as NNPC at the time, and what our transition plan is, as potential investors needed to see that, not just so much for us but also to justify in their books that they were loaning money to organisations that were not going just to use it to trade in fossil fuels.
We sat down, considered it, and looked at the options. We started to look around for opportunities in solar energy to see who we could partner with internationally. We bought into a Nigerian company, took a majority interest and started deploying solar in Nigeria. If you go to Marina, you will see the Sterling Bank building, which is a 12 to 13-storey building, and it’s now wrapped around with solar panels, and it is generating one megawatt of power, which makes the structure not only an efficient building but also self-sufficient as far as power is concerned.
An eye opener from this is that importing these panels caused delays to our delivery timelines. We needed a more efficient way, if we were going to do business in the solar space. We then decided to engage with the OEMs, and by the grace of God, by next quarter (i.e Q2 2023), we will break ground on a solar assembly plant in Cross River State.
For me, it’s a differentiation for us as an energy company that we could embark on this transition and not just focus on fossil fuels or product delivery. Consequently, we have carved out a niche for ourselves in that realm, and we are truly proud.
What have you learned over the years from your vast experience?
I would say two to three things. One is that Integrity is key. People must be able to take your words at face value and go to the bank and see that this guy would deliver. I met 70% of the people I know today when selling cars 30 years ago, and I’ve kept those relationships. Therefore, personal integrity is key.
I also think that we need to know what we want to do. Many young people come to me for advice saying their motivation for doing business is to make money. That’s a wrong motivation because you can’t go into business just to make money but to solve a problem. When you solve a problem for people as a solutions provider, they are willing to pay you. But if money is your only motivation, your focus will be to achieve that at whatever cost. Such people believe they must make money; you see that often with people who engage in sharp practices.
What were the challenges you faced during your journey?
I will take it a bit differently, and I agree with the point that access to adequate financing and an enabling environment are a challenge. But think about it in this “lack of enabling environment and lack of finance”. Indians, Lebanese and other nationals are coming into Nigeria and making a killing. The South Africans came in with telecoms, and they made a killing. So, I think it is part of it, but it’s not all. I would say that for young business people, a lack of mentorship kills that spirit of entrepreneurship.
People like us who have had this number of years of experience need to take people under their wings and guide them. In my little way, I am trying to do that. I own a venture capital firm where I’m investing in the creative Industry, in technology (or Fintech as they call it), and it’s not because I’m desperately looking for Investments; it is that it allows me to mentor the younger generation.
What is the drive that keeps you going?
My drive, my hunger, is to prove that a Nigerian company could be built on proper governance structure and apply global best practices that could be comparable anywhere in the world, and that’s what keeps me up at night.
When we won the oil blocks in Equatorial Guinea, I remember a publication in one of the international magazines describing us as the Nigerian Junior. Levene Energy had successfully secured four blocks in an international tender. For me, that was a thing of pride because it showed that we had a strong team even as far back as 2019 to bid and be successful in an international tender. So that keeps me up at night to make that point and show that it can be done.
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Talking about your Foundation, in what ways are you passionate about improving the welfare of humanity?
To be where I am today is by the sheer grace of God and a lot of hard work. Hard work pays off and in assisting people, whether by supporting them financially to pursue their education or in a more formal way.
I have three children altogether: two girls and a boy. My son, who’s 17 now, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 15 years ago, and that led me to experience firsthand the challenges that people would ordinarily go through. Although my wife and I could seek the relevant care and support for him overseas, it also showed me that there were potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of people here who were going through the same thing and didn’t know what it was. So, I set up a foundation called Zeebah Foundation, which caters to people with ASD, and our pilot centre is located in Abuja.
We plan to break ground on our permanent site by God’s grace soon. We started with about three students; today, we have about 30, and we’re giving them as much support as we can, be it from the background of research, bringing in International therapists and facilitators who coach parents on how to deal with these challenges, giving people awareness of what needs to be done from a dietary perspective to how to deal with the child that was “facing any form of misalignment” in society because of this syndrome.
What days remain unforgettable to you and why?
Top of my mind was the birth of my first child. I’m sure it’s the same for most people, a significant time in my life. Of course, there are more instances in my private life and business life, which is what you’re referring to.
In my business life, that would be the day we launched the Zeebah Foundation in Abuja in 2018.
What are your concluding words?
Honestly, people should focus more on the positive than the negative; there will always be an opportunity. It depends on how you look at it. Some people see problems, I see opportunities. You just have to have that mindset, and then we have to start advocating seriously and lobbying the government to see things from our standpoint and work with us to achieve our goals.
And to young people, there is no easy business. You will continue to fight and face challenges; even after you conquer the last one, there will be new ones, but just be clear about what you want and know that it will be a journey, but enjoy the ride.