BusinessDay

How easy and laundered money clash at sea

...At 64, a multi-sector investor, Emi Membere-Otaji, recounts leadership and management lessons of his life

It has been revealed that most large sizes of ill-gotten money are invested in vessel ownership and operations at sea. Their small-scale counterparts are believed to invest in houses and hotels. At the same time, those who came with clean money and borrowed funds have to compete with these deep pockets that scooped their funds from unknown sources.

While those with hard-earned money try to look well and negotiate well, those with easy money or laundered funds swoop down and shake the waters. Small players often crash.

These are some highlights of many revelations from medical-doctor-turned-investor, Emi Membere-Otaji, who is a top entrepreneur from the Niger Delta region, as he clocked 64.

The Rivers-born founder of maritime company, Elshcon Nigeria Limited, told BusinessDay in an exclusive interview that managing a business in turbulent times is one of the greatest skills needed in business management and leadership.

He said the story of his life is that which runs from academic brilliance at school, medical practice, politics and public sector boards. Since 2005 or thereabout, Membere-Otaji has been in private sector business management and leadership from national to international levels.

Looking back, the former chairman of the West African Glass Industry (WAGI), former Commissioner of Health, and former Special Adviser to the Governor on Investment said he used experience from the private sector (he had his own clinic) to enrich his stint in government and later brought back the experience to run his companies at board levels.

In doing these, he pointed at special management strategies such as hands-on but never to micro-manage, plus strong leadership to excel. Above all, he said he relies on what he calls ‘God-feeling’ or intuition to take sensitive decisions that have surprised many peers.

Details:

Well, at 64, you get wiser more mature. You also gain more life experiences, which is the best teacher.

Life is about navigating through good, bad times:

Push through the wall theory

Since the last time I celebrated, I gained more insight into life that guides me. When I turned 60, I said I don’t look for trouble. On the other hand, if anything hurts me, I bear my pain and walk away. I will now put my leg where you can’t hurt me again. It’s about using experience to navigate.

Life is about navigating through times; good times, bad times, even ugly times. People in a turbulent plane may shout but the pilot has to navigate all through, however he can including passing through the storm, sometimes.

Few months before my father died when I was in my final year in secondary school (the Baptist High School, PH), I suffered from peptic ulcer, what was then a terrible sickness. I was just 17. I was in a boarding school and could not eat because the pain was very severe. Those days, it was difficult to diagnose peptic ulcer in a 17-year-old. My mother took me to many hospitals. My secondary school would not place me on special meal that such ailment required. I was also about writing my West African School Certificate (WAEC). So, it was a very difficult moment: I lost my father and his support, lost my chance to eat, lost my health, and exam was rushing at me.

The lesson I later learnt is that in life, challenges will come; it is up to you to decide whether to stop your drive or push through the wall. Yet, by the grace of God, I navigated through all those obstacles and came out in Division One result in the exam. Challenges will come but should not be allowed to becloud your success in life.

The rescue loan my mother gave me after I left government

The second lesson life taught me is when I served in government in many capacities including as a chairman of the WAGI, Commissioner of Health, and later Special Adviser on Investment. Yet, when I left, I desperately needed funds to rebuild my crumbling businesses. My mother had to sell her land to raise the funds for me.

My business (Elshcon Nigeria Limited) that was already working for Shell and other International Oil Corporations (IOCs) went down. Existing contracts went down. I needed to recapitalize the business and had no funds. The situation became desperate. My mother came to my rescue. She said, my son, go and start your life again.

It was a very emotional moment for me. That too was another lesson, a learning curve. I was lucky to have such rescue opportunity that most other persons would not get.

This taught me how to build strategies, plans, etc. It taught me how to build my castle in the air and then build it on ground. That is to say; how to plan and how to execute. If you in the course of execution, things do not go the way you wanted, you can re-jig, modify and go ahead. Do not give up.

Elshcon and the finger of God

Elshcon was doing chemicals plus our core businesses which is civil engineering work at their Shell’s land locations. By the time I returned, through fate and coincidence, we went into mechanical engineering works to IOCs. We started doing marine jobs, tug-boats, and other forms of fabrication and construction for the energy and non-oil/gas sector. So, we veered totally. Now, see what happened.

Shell sold their land assets, just about same period. If we had not deviated, it would have been a disaster. Oil majors had moved offshore. Providence moved us out.

One of my companies was doing medical equipment supplies to the oil industry.

This time, the IOCs also stopped giving hospital equipment to community hospitals as part of their Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSRs). The IOCs moved from doing this under the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU; which allowed the IOCs to choose what projects and programmes to do for communities) to Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMoU; which allowed communities to choose and handle their own projects). As providence would have it, we (Elshcon) had just moved away from such jobs before these things happened. That is providence for you.

We were now doing entirely different things such as mechanical jobs, etc.

The lesson from this in my career is that nothing is permanent. Things will always change, things will hit you, but you just have to learn to navigate. That is how I got myself into fabrication, construction, maritime, vessel ownership, etc. Today, we are also going through a different curve. When we got into marine sector, it was about ship ownership servicing the offshore sector. We ran into a sector where the big masquerades launder money (through ownership of ships and vessels). This is how small masquerades use buildings and hotels to launder their money. Now, in the sea amongst top players and money launderers, you have to learn how to navigate. You are going to take loans to do the same things that the money bags do. This is a game of “Easy money and hard money clashing in the ocean.”

Read also: Nigerian content board ignites technical resurgence in Nigerian technical schools

Gut-feeling as my business decision-making secret

Change as the only thing that is permanent; and that things evolve. You must be amenable to change. I learnt to depend on my Gud-feeling. My staff have come to know that when Dr Membere-Otaji says he does not just like something, you better be ware. It is not because the facts are right but intuition speaks.

In my management style, I do not micro-manage my workers. Yes, I advise and watch them closely. I am satisfied allowing you take your decisions, make your mistakes, and learn from it and we move on. But, my Gut-feelings are important. It works for me but may not work for another person. You must know yourself, and you must have observed over the years what happens to you.

Gut-feeling is not about being just lucky. Luck will give you less than 10 per cent chances of winning. People win with luck but over 80 per cent of times, luck will not win. If you strategize, you must win.

I sleep like a baby

Another lesson life thought me is, no matter how big, how blessed, how old I am, I don’t use it to oppress others, especially those not as blessed. Also, I do not put grudges in my mind. So, I forgive easily. So, I sleep like a baby. This is because I do not allow hurt to hurt me.

They say, oh he is a gentlemen, but a gentleman should not be seen as a foolish man. You must also not be foolish. A man that forgives is not a foolish man. Maybe that is why my Kalabari (Ijaw) people made me Deinprebo 2 of Kalabari, the peacemaker of Kalabari people. When I was commissioner of health, my governor (Dr Peter Odili) use to say, a dancer does not see his back. It is spectators that will judge a dancer. The Sekobiri (Kalabari ruling council) found it wise to make me the Deinpribo.

You must also not be foolish because it is dangerous to be foolish in Nigeria. Always have your thinking cap on. It has to be in moderation. I just navigate my way through.

From WAGGI board to Elshcon board

Many have asked me to look at between 1958 when I was born and today, 2022, and from when I the chairman of the West African Glass Industry (WAGI) that exposed me to corporate and economic politics and now that I am running mega businesses, to point out what has happened; between being chairman of another man’s board to being chairman of my own company. They want to know what the difference is in the two economic time-eras.

I usually recall that I was just a medical doctor working in a teaching hospital in Port Harcourt in 1987. I then started my own small medical practice. Then, in 1994, I started Elshcon Nigeria Limited, providing services to the oil industry, but in 1992, I was asked to chair the board of WAGI.

From about 10 years a medical doctor, it was difficult for me to transform to a board chairman, a corporate board player. In those days of analog life, I had to go to the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), which was a small place then, to scratch whatever expertise and knowledge I could. Then, Dr Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke was the deputy director-general. I just went to her because she is from Rivers State, and she just took me up and truly put me through to the big players in the private sector. We were the first set of the Lagos Business School (LBS); we went through many courses including corporate governance courses, but it was not a university then. These things helped me.

In western Nigeria, they had Oluwa Glass, which I think is Beta Glass today. It was very big, bigger than WAGI. So, I found my way to Oluwa Glass to understudy operations. So, whatever I am today is a bigger version of what I was then.

My management strategy: ask the what, why, when and where questions

My strategy in management is: whatever happens in life, find out why it happened, when, how, and where it happened. Ask those questions and proffer the answer. Here, I am a board chairman. Then, I was the board chairman of a public sector company such as WAGI with German Technical partners. I was inexperienced. Till today, I do not know what I told them in Oluwa Glass that they took me in to learn how the place operated. Nobody introduced me. I saw good operational systems.

When we finished the June 12, 1993 saga (political crisis caused by cancellation of election adjudged the best in Nigeria) when oil workers shut down the plant (furnace included), I was withdrawn from the company. The interesting thing is; in 1995, the same corporate gurus went to the governor of the day then (Col Dauda Musa Komo or so) to say look, that young man who we didn’t want before, before he left, he changed. He is very good. We want him. Do not bring another person. So, I was reappointed to the board of WAGI to reactivate the plant and the company that had closed from 1993 to 1995. I learnt a lot in the process.

Pass through the wall

Mandate: Open a factory without money

These things were shaping me. After Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged, Nigeria became a pariah state and investors were fleeing and foreign investors were no longer coming in. Internal or local investors were being conscious; doing wait-and-see. But the assignment the government gave me was; we do not want to bring in one kobo to reactivate this company. Go and look for investors. It was a military period. They were asking me to go get investors when the country was a pariah state and it was what happened in Rivers State (hanging of Wiwa and Ogoni 9) that generated the global heat for Nigeria.

We thus worked as a team and at last, good luck came in to make us succeed. Again, providence acted. We were hands-on and on our toes. By 1999, the first bottles rolled out. By 1998, Gen Sani Abacha died, Gen Abdulsalami came in. Things started getting better.

By that time, factory renovation had started because investors had started putting in their money. He who brings the money dictates the tone. They were not bringing cash but paid the bills directly. Anything you wanted to have, they paid for you. You didn’t see the cash.

In reactivating the company with other peoples’ money, you would strive to find how to protect the interest of Rivers State. That is why my most treasured certificate is the letter of commendation given to me by the state governor after the first bottles started rolling in. I had left (I had become commissioner of health). They wrote to me to say the steps you took to protect the interest of the state government is exemplary and worthy of emulation. The letter was titled ‘Exemplary Tour of Duty’. I value that letter above all the things I have. A dancer cannot see his back, but if they could give you such letter, it means a lot of work must have gone into it.

Pass through the wall: I had learnt this lesson all my life, even as a secondary school student. When I thus went to the ministry, I adopted this philosophy. I learnt how to succeed no matter the situation.

My task at WAGI was difficult. You have no money, but you must deliver. So, how was I to achieve these without compromising? How was I going to talk to somebody who was bringing the funds to still play according to the books?

All of this touched me. So, when I became commissioner, this helped me because of ability to think outside the box and to pass through the wall.

Health was a priority area to the administration but it was not their monetary priority. The state government did not have money the way they have now. The 13% derivation principle had not started rolling in. We didn’t have money but we were rolling out programmes.

Critical initiatives in the private sector

I have brought in initiatives. I will say, give me result; I have four years to leave here. As God would have it, the state governor then, Dr Peter Odili, had one of his agenda as free medical care for Under-6 and Over-60. So, how were you going to implement the scheme?

Coming from the private sector, coming from corporate politics, I told the government we won’t do the usual way. Others just say it is free, they buy drugs and equipment and give to the hospitals. I said if I did that, it would fail.

We said okay, Princess Medical Centre has many retainerships and models. Every government hospital, see yourself as a private hospital. The Rivers State government set up the team headed by the permanent secretary. Treat the patient, bring the bill. We will be paying you like patients paid private hospitals. We made them to use money to procure drugs, bring oxygen to the theatre, etc. You may not do many capital projects but use it to run the hospital. And, give me result. I created a win-win which motivated the managements of the hospitals.

Hands-on approach, not micro-managing, is my management style

I can tell you that if you do not closely monitor and evaluate, you jam the problem with Nigeria. We saw this and said if you did not closely mark them, things would go out of hand due to inflation of figures and corruption. Every quarter, we met with the heads of the hospitals and a free medical care committee and I will be there. We took them hospital by hospital. If for instance, last month, your records said you saw 1000 patients, but this month, your records show 3,000 patients. That is a red flag. I will crosscheck that. I, a commissioner, can wake up this morning and say I want to be in Bori General Hospital. I will be there before the workers arrive. The next day, I will go wherever I wanted to work and will work with them and see how the list of patients was made up. Oh, we needed to see the folder of these patients. It was difficult but we were able to do it. So, with close monitoring, looking at the books, looking out for the red flags, we got results and controlled the figures. With this method, the healthcare system of River State worked, not because of money but management.

So, when the Prof Jerry Ghana assessment team in about 2001 went round the country for performance assessment on some parameters such as rural health, urban health, roads, education, etc, in healthcare delivery, Rivers State topped as number one in the 36 states and FCT, and this without money. This was same feat in the WAGI, delivering and achieving heavy feat without money.

Being on top of your game is the key.

I have learnt governance and I have learnt that you must have hands-on approach, not micro-managing.

So, hands-on, close monitoring and evaluating, and acting promptly is the code. Monitor, Evaluate, Take action! Within that period, the free medical programme was one of the biggest achievements of the Dr Odili administration. The Health Ministry was a huge success. There were many others but this area stood out.

These were results of the experiences I came with from the private sector which we ploughed into public office. It shows you that the hood does not make the monk. Money does not make you a good manager.

Right leadership first before money

The emphasis in public office is Money, Money, Money, but that is not correct. Get the leadership right, first, before money, money, money.

So, life experiences helped in those offices, and there are many other achievements we recorded.

A second one is; as new commissioner of health, we looked at how some national health schemes are done. We looked at the National Immunisation Scheme such as Kick Out Polio programme, which would normally have number of days to go round the nooks and crannies of a state to immunize the children and all that. Each morning, we would send out teams to the 23 local council areas of Rivers State. By the time they would return that day, Ministry would have closed. Then, the next morning, they would swarm the office and state their challenges of the previous day. By the time these problems would be sorted out, its half day gone. So, when were they to leave and get to those faraway locations such as Kula and Joinkrama to deliver? So, I said, oh no problem. I would send the teams and tell my own team, a very good team, led by Dr/Mrs now Prof Ngozi Ordu (who was our permanent secretary) that we would close like any other staff but by 5pm, everybody must gather back in my office at the State Secretariat. By this time, people we sent out would be getting back in batches. So, we would listen to them and solve their problems that night. Then, Mr Bigg’s had just started fast food business. I would buy food for everyone. The next morning, the teams would head out and deliver well.

Result was that we got the best result in the country. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and others were coming to see how we did it. We got lots of letters of commendation. Again, leadership, not extra money! So, I have learnt a couple of those things.

You know what? These challenges and experiences helped me to run my businesses when I came back from the public sector. I tell my workers, take every opportunity you have working here as training school. Your salary should be seen as allowances to rain. Tomorrow, you may be working in a big capacity or for yourself, and this thing you are doing would jump into view and would help you.

These and many others have helped me run my many businesses; oil service, engineering business, maritime, healthcare, and other types of investments and businesses I am involved in.

Mr President decorates the rare entrepreneur

The Elshcon CEO was one of few Nigerian entrepreneurs that were decorated recently with the highest honour to business leaders, the National Productivity Merit Award 2022. Reacting to this, Dr Emi Membere-Otaji said; “As I earlier said, a dancer does not see his back. When the Presidency found me worthy of this rare honour I truly felt fulfilled. I value it. People close to me have seen my activities in the private sector, both where I was sent to the glass industry and in my businesses. I have always asked God to use me as a model in how to overcome challenges.

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