(THE CREST EXCLUSIVE)
By Shola Oshunkeye
Three things define Barrister Grace Ndidi Olowofoyeku: her solid faith in the Almighty to stand like a rock when and where others are shifting and sinking; her grit that makes her strut where even angels fear to tread; and humility that beggars belief. Perhaps, the most endearing, if you permit a fourth, is the fact that she doesn’t behave like a business mogul; never the one to wave wealth like a banner.
“I’m just a contented woman,” she says as she brushes aside your millionaire or billionaire label, beaming her signature smile. “My sufficiency is in God who meets my every need according to His infinite riches in glory, through Christ.”
Did you intone: ‘behold, a woman of faith’? Well, you do not need a seer to tell you that. Everything about her points to Olowofoyeku as a virtuous lady, married to an equally upright man, a chartered accountant-turned-pastor, Rev. Bankole Olowofoyeku.
As you ponder on her personality, Olowofoyeku smiles again and stretches her right hand to formally welcome you into her compact office at the headquarters of ASCON Oil Company Limited on Victoria Island, Lagos, where she holds sway as the Group Managing Director, GMD.
A law graduate of the University of Lagos, Olowofoyeku became ASCON Oil’s GMD in 2005 following the death, in a plane crash, of her first husband, Engineer George Ikemefuna Enenmoh, who founded the company in 1985.
Barrister Olowofoyeku bore the loss of her husband stoically and grew ASCON Oil Company Limited to an enviable height, turning it to a major player in the oil and gas sector of the economy. Under her leadership, the company expanded its retail outlets (filling stations) to 57 nationwide, acquired its own tank farms, operated businesses related to its areas of core competence, and imported products.
Like every journey, which begins with a simple, single step, the Sabongida Ora, Edo State-born lawyer-turned-business mogul traces the story of ASCON Oil Company Limited to 1984, when her late husband launched into the oil and gas sector as a 30-year-old, in Kano; determined to brave all odds and make a huge success of the venture.
“George just wanted to make ASCON Oil Africa’s most innovative, principled and value driven oil and gas company,” she continues, quoting from the company book. “And he spent every day laying a solid foundation for reciprocal loyalty by setting the standards for customer satisfaction and employee engagement.”
In 1988, ASCON Oil Company Limited, which started operations in Kano, signed its NNPC/PPMC bulk purchase agreement as an Independent Petroleum Products Marketer.
“In 1991, we moved our Headquarter to Lagos from Kano which now serves as a regional office for northern branches,” Olowofoyeku informs. “In 1999, the company completed the construction of a bulk storage terminal at Ibru Port complex. It was designed and constructed by Nigerian engineers; and has a capacity of 35,000 metric tonnes (MT) with a loading capacity of three million litres per day.”
In 2005, ASCON took a big step into another threshold. It added another feather to its cap through the purchase, and taking delivery, in Turkey, of a twin 7000 MT capacity sea-going vessels-MT CALIP SETER, which the company renamed initially as MT AGBOIYI but later called MT LOVELY GEORGE; and the other, MT AHMED KARAOSMAN, which was renamed as MT GRACIOUS.
In the same 2005, the founding Managing Director died and the then Barrister Grace Enenmoh, who waited for seven years before remarrying, flew the banner of ASCON Oil very high. Under her, the company grew in leaps and bounds, expanding its retail outlets from 11 to 39; then to 57.
In 2010, the company expanded its business frontiers, introducing a new range of lubricants for the market. By September 2014, the company, under Grace Olowofoyeku’s leadership, added aviation fuel to its range of products.
“ASCON AVIATION was basically established to set a new high for a sector that has zero tolerance for errors,” she told The Crest. “It is a commitment to safer air journeys. And with the world going green, the company began to look in the direction of liquefied petroleum gas.”
Though the hardest step in life is that over the threshold, for ASCON Oil Company, opening new frontiers is almost as easy as a hobby. Sorry, that was before the current economic situation.
Barrister Olowofoyeku’s countenance falls as she ponders the company’s fortunes under the current economic situation in the country, describing her experience “a tough one”.
Now dead serious, she reveals that things have become so hard that the company has pruned its staff strength by 80 percent. Still, the problems aren’t going away. And she hurls the blame on the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration, saying its economic policies aren’t just working.
In fact, Olowofoyeku says the government’s economic policies are biting so hard she could not forecast what would be the fate of ASCON Oil in five or 10 years down the line.
Well, as they say, the eating of the pudding is in the eating. Please, sit back, fasten your seat belt, relax, and enjoy the first tranche of the exclusive interview:
How is doing business in this environment? I asked that because most businesses are crying these days. What has been your experience?
It has been a tough one.
How do you mean tough one?
Because we haven’t been doing business.
So, how do you pay your bills if you haven’t been doing business? How do you fulfill your obligations to your employees; staff and all that?
I have laid off a lot of staff because we can’t pay salaries.
In the last four years, we have been gradually laying-off staff.
What percentage of your total workforce have you laid off?
Eighty per cent.
That is three quarters of your total work force?
So, how do you sustain your daily operations?
From personal earnings
You use your personal pocket to augment the company’s operations? Why does it have to come to that?
Because we are not doing businesses. The banks are not helping. They refuse to do business with the downstream sector of the petroleum industry. Therefore, there is no money. So, what do we do?
That will be sending negative signals to all the people that want to do business with ASCON Oil Company Limited.
It is not only ASCON that is in distress. All of us are groaning under this economy. Some of us have issues with forex differential, that is, subsidy. But government is now paying subsidy, may be that will help. As for ASCON, we don’t do subsidy. We have people who bring product for us, and they have been giving their promissory notes.
How do you mean ASCON does not benefit from subsidy?
We don’t do any subsidy business. We had third parties that brought products on our behalf. We are running away from the fact that the money won’t be paid on time. We had problems with forex differential. When forex rose from N150 to a dollar, bank loans changed. Importation was no longer possible for most of us. For instance, if you wanted to bring in a cargo that you had edged to bring at N150 and you now had to pay back N450. That put a lot of us in debt. As a result of that, we were now struggling to pay our debts; we were struggling to pay salaries; struggling to maintain our facilities, and all that.
So, what are you doing now to get the company out of this situation?
We are doing something but we don’t want to say it on the pages of newspapers. At the right time, we will come out with it.
Is it still going to be in the line of your core business?
I don’t know. I will not say. I will choose not to answer that question.
When the time comes, I will answer the question.
Madam, please, tell me, how do you sleep? Here you are sitting atop a big organization as ASCON Oil Company; and by your own admission, you had to lay off 80 percent of your workforce. Do you sleep easy?
I sleep easy. I am a born again Christian and I believe that, like gold, God has to take you through a refining fire, the furnace, for you to come out shinning like gold.
In order words, ASCON Oil Company is in the furnace now, being purified like gold. And you hope, at the goodness of time, the company will come out sparkling; you are hopeful that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I don’t have to be in the oil industry again.
Are you saying ASCON Oil will transform into another business entity totally different from oil and gas?
I don’t want to answer that question.
So, we should wait and see?
Let’s wait and see.
You just told me, when I asked you how easy you sleep, that you are a child of God. How does being a child of God moderate your blood pressure when you have to think of so many bills to pay, so many people to take care of, and so many businesses to service?
If you are a child of God, you don’t think about those things because God knows the end from the beginning. He will take care of you now. Once I lay in bed, I say to God: Lord, you give your beloved sleep. And I sleep.
As simple as that?
Yes, as simple as that. I just sleep. And I sleep deep.
Let’s brush aside the current economic situation. What does it take a woman to sit atop an organization like ASCON?
You have to have sound leadership skills. You must know your staff. You must know your onions. Basically, that is it.
Before the present economic storm, what are the special skills you have had to apply to get the company rolling?
I know some companies where they pray first thing in the morning before they start business…
(Cuts in) You are talking about ASCON. We have Christian fellowship here twice a week-Mondays and Fridays.
In such an environment as we found ourselves in Nigeria, how confident are you that excellent leadership skills and prayers will help you ride the waves?
Good leadership skills help but God remains the ultimate. If you depend on the God factor, you won’t get involved in certain things people are doing.
Illegality. I can never get involved in illegalities because I’m a child of God; because one day, I will stand before Him to account for my journey here on earth.
What are the illegalities that people do in this oil and gas business?
That is not for me to say. Government knows those people who indulge in illegalities to be in business; to make money. People know the illegalities they do but I will never do any such things.
Since you are not doing the business “the usual way”, what are the things you do to stay afloat?
We do real estate basically; we also do blending of engine oil. We have lube plants; and we do cooking gas. Those are the things we do, basically.
I also know that you have tank farms?
Yes, we do tank farms. Tank farm is the engine of the business. But if the stations are not working well, the tank farm won’t work well. Before now, we operated the tank farm more than even the stations. But if the tank farms are not doing well, how would the stations do well?
As a key player in this economy what advice would you give the president were you to meet him face to face?
Mr. President, please, review this economic template. This template isn’t just working. The template is not working for us, and I know it is not working for everybody in the oil sector.
But those who don’t share you view point on the economy cite the recent extension of the tenure of Central Bank Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, as a testament that the economy is working.
If the economy is working, why are people laying off staff in their hundreds? If the economy is working, why are businesses closing down?
‘…If this government really wants businesses to help take the declared 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years as the President promised in his Democracy Day broadcast, then, it must formulate policies that will help businesses grow’
In your own analysis, what is the major problem militating against this economy? I know there is the problem of our dilapidated infrastructure.
I wouldn’t know about infrastructure because I am not in that line.
For instance, you need power to fire your machines; good roads to transport you products.
I know. I will illustrate that with my Admiralty station in Lekki. Every month, we pay N2 million for electricity. What are we selling?
N2million for power per month?
Yes, in estimated bill. And in this place, our head office, we pay N600, 000 per month. Is this place (the headquarters) a manufacturing company? What machines do we operate here to attract N600, 000 per month? None. As far as I am concerned, that is oppressive. What business are we doing to generate the income that would enable us pay N2 million for power in just one station, in a month? And we have 52 stations to service. What are we making in our Admiralty station to be paying N2million every month for light?
If the government wants us to grow, if the government really wants businesses to grow, if this government really wants businesses to help take the declared 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years as the President promised in his Democracy Day broadcast, then, it must formulate policies that will help businesses grow. It is the business that grows that employs.
Nigeria is about the only country in this continent where power consumption is estimated. For some selfish reasons, some people just make metering seems like rocket science. Estimated billing is criminal and it is amazing that government is watching as the electricity distribution companies as they continue to milk Nigerians and businesses illegally. Estimated billing is killing. It is too much. And you want to get pre-paid meter, they won’t give you. If this is not corruption, what is corruption? Refusal to give pre-paid meters is corruption, and government, through the EFCC, should treat it as such.
Outrageous estimated billing is part of the problems stifling businesses in Nigeria. Just imagine, they give us light only thrice a week and we use generator and diesel for most days of the week. By the time you add the cost of diesel, we basically spend about N3million every month on power. That’s for just one station. How much can you make from a station in a month to accommodate that kind of bill?
As a result of this, we just leave the station. Sometimes, we say let the station just be there because you can’t make any profit with such crazy bills on power. Meanwhile, Even though you are not making profit, the FIRS is after you. They are telling you that whether you make profit or not, there is a minimum amount you must pay as tax.
‘Refusal to give pre-paid meters is corruption, and government, through the EFC, should treat it as such’