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‘How resilience, innovation, adaptability, saw us through challenging times’

‘How resilience, innovation, adaptability, saw us through challenging times’

Timi Austen- Peters is the chairman of Dorman Long Engineering Limited, a structural engineering company that specializes in structural steel fabrication for bridges, warehouses, factories, recreational and commercial buildings, and storage tanks for water and fuel.

In this interview, he speaks with BusinessDay’s Bunmi Bailey on the company’s recent private equity investment, from Africa CapitalWorks, a Sub-Saharan Africa-focused private equity company and what the investment means for the company and Nigeria as a whole. Excerpts:

How has the journey been for Dorman Long prior to the private equity funding from Africa CapitalWorks?

The journey towards the actualization of this partnership has been a particularly challenging journey. We did a lot of hard work through demanding periods, especially because a significant quantum of the engagements around completing the transaction happened during the Covid-19 pandemic. The resilience demonstrated and exceptional breakthrough achieved is nothing short of phenomenal.

Why does this partnership matter to Nigeria?

Dorman Long is a more than 70-year-old company. Indeed, our RC number is a three-digit number, RC 744, and there are few companies still alive in Nigeria who can boast of this. The historical value alone of keeping the company alive is invaluable. We began as a British colonial company, building bridges. Later we got involved with building warehouses, tanker bodies and various steel structures, before finally venturing into the oil and gas space, where we achieved many firsts. One of those firsts beyond building Bailey bridges includes the fabrication of pressure vessels in Nigeria.

Besides the fact that the company has been around for a long time, the partnership with Africa CapitalWorks , while capturing the narrative of business resilience and survival in Nigeria sends an important message to the business community; local and foreign that Nigeria is open for business.

It encourages other indigenous businesses which are struggling with maintaining standards of excellence while pushing through difficult economic times to keep going because their quality and the value they add will stand them in good stead.

In addition, it provides much needed foreign direct investment which the government is keen to encourage. It is also important for me to mention that with a staff strength which is about 400 today and which can go up to as much as 2,000 and above depending on our projects, the value in terms of jobs and off-shoot business for other service providers who work with us is immeasurable.

What informed the private equity funding from Africa CapitalWorks?

We are a company that has stood the test of time, and our resilience and innovation and future-proofing are what attracted the funding from Africa CapitalWorks looking to invest in this part of the world. We will leverage this partnership to expand our footprint in the Nigerian market and beyond.

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Who were your advisors on this transaction?

For Dorman Long Engineering, Duale, Ovia and Alex-Adedipe and Austen-Peters & Co, legal advisors, Primera Africa, financial advisors, PKF auditors and Alsec Nominees, company secretary were our Advisors, while Akin Gump and Aelex, legal counsel, CrossBoundary, commercial due diligence, SLR, technical and ESG due diligence and PWC, financial and tax due diligence served as advisors for Africa CapitalWorks.

What particular challenges tested the resilience of Dorman Long along this journey and how did they affect the company?

We experienced a number of challenges, including but not limited to inconsistent government policies and cyclical oil prices. These challenges meant that we had to reinvent, rethink and redo all the things that Dorman Long had previously done.

What role did government institutions and regulatory bodies play in the recovery of Dorman Long?

Two important institutions made it possible for Dorman Long to scale through the hard times. The first is the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), which totally supported Dorman Long throughout its financial challenges.

The Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB) was another institution that made things work for us, particularly under the leadership of Engineer Simbi Wabote, the Executive Secretary of NCDMB. The NCDMB team ensured that the work that Nigerian companies should do, actually goes to Nigerians.

Dorman Long is a proud beneficiary of local content regulations, and we have always seized the opportunities provided to deliver value as well as doing our bit to give back by training Nigerians in relevant industry skills.

It is also important to appreciate the Petroleum Technology Association of Nigeria (PETAN), for their immense support, especially for encouraging cohesion amongst Nigerian entrepreneurs in the Nigerian oil and gas industry.

How would you describe the business of Dorman Long today?

Today, we are an all-embracing infrastructure services company focusing on steel works. We fabricate, we galvanize and maintain steel assets and we offer procurement services.

Many people have often mentioned Dorman Long in the Nigerian Story, what do you make of this?

Well, the Dorman Long story is part and parcel of the Nigeria story. In fact, it is a case study of how you survive and thrive in Nigeria and in any other environment. This is because there are specific qualities that we exhibited in the course of our challenging journey. These qualities are indispensable for survival in Nigeria.

The first is resilience. A company that is able to keep on the lights and pay salaries for 70 years, which is no small feat. We have seen civil war, oil price crashes, coups and other significant events which impact business survival.

Another important quality that we displayed over time is adaptability; although we started as a British colonial bridge builder, we have evolved over time to offering services that are relevant to Nigerians, so, beyond resilience you need to be able to move with markets and times and that is what we have done.

We have also demonstrated adaptability; and this is reflected in our nimbleness in transitioning into the oil and gas industry at a time few Nigerians possessed the capability. Finally, we have leveraged innovation, global best practices and automation to improve our service offerings for our clients.

How invested is Dorman Long in the overall development and progress of Nigeria?

We are totally committed. In all our various development objectives we are a partner to all tiers of Government in Nigeria as we help them achieve their goals which ensure progress for the Nigerian people. We are equally partnered to multiple private sector industries, and the infrastructure support service provider of choice.