Monday, 05 November 2012 00:00
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Gas business is extremely capital intensive’

Falcon Petroleum Limited, last week, at Civic Centre, celebrated its excellent service to the Nigerian oil and gas industry. Executive Director, Commercial Operations of the company, Mrs. Audrey N. Joe-Ezigbo, in this interview with CHARLES OKONJI, explains some of the challenges in the industry and the strategic moves of the company to soar above other indigenous gas firms.

For Falcon Petroleum Limited, last week's marked a major milestone in the company’s history. Can you tell us how the idea of the company came about?
I have always had a clear vision of running my own business. My husband as well, though lecturing at the university then, was involved in quite a bit of private enterprise. It was almost a given that we would end up in business for ourselves. At the conclusion of my first MBA in 1993/94, we had initially decided I should go into a bank to work for a while.

However, it was important to me to stay true to my passions and being the supportive man that he is, he agreed we should examine other options. Based on the current developments in the country at that time, we decided to start a business and play in the oil and gas industry.

He took a sabbatical off from the university, and we both jumped in feet first, setting up the company in February 1994 and opening our doors formally for business on 4th June 1994. We chose the name Falcon because Falcon, as a bird of strength and agility, is able to soar rapidly to heights that others cannot. The Falcon is visionary; it is focused and targeted in its approach to things. It is an achiever and an accomplisher and these were the elements we knew would drive whatever we got ourselves into at the end of the day.

From inception till now, what significant impact can you say the company has made in boosting the Nigerian oil and gas industry?
With every sense of humility and always ascribing all the glory to God, Falcon Petroleum has made tremendous impact. We started out over 18years ago with nothing more than a desire to play in the oil and gas industry and a conviction that if we applied ourselves diligently, we would succeed. We did not have the resources, industry or political connections, or any significant technical expertise to start with.

Today however, we are a clear force to be reckoned with in the Nigerian oil and gas industry. Well before the formal passing of the local content industry bill, Falcon has shown what is possible when Nigerians come together in commitment to an ideal. We are today the only wholly indigenous distribution company operating in the gas industry, and indeed we continue to pride ourselves that in all our years of existence, Falcon has only ever been staffed and managed by dedicated teams of Nigerian personnel  -technical and otherwise.

We are a testimonial of the greatness and potential that lies in every Nigerian.
From a technology standpoint, we were able to deliver natural gas infrastructure and commence delivery of natural gas to the Ikorodu Gas Franchise Zone, within nine months of the award of our franchise. This was a remarkable feat otherwise considered impossible at that time. We are however a very focused company and we consider our assignment within the Ikorodu Gas Franchise Zone as a major contributor to the industrialisation of this great nation, Nigeria.

Over the past eight years, we have put in place several kilometers of gas pipelines and distribution infrastructure, and currently deliver natural gas to several industries in the area. We continue to expand our reach and are currently engaging some other states to look at the prospects of extending the developmental benefits of natural gas into their States.

You are not a gas woman, neither your husband is. Yet, your feat from the testimonies at the celebration of your company's excellent service are immeasurable. How did both of you weave yourselves around the industry to achieve this feat?
I will correct your question a bit. I was not a gas woman and neither was my husband. That is a past tense historical perspective. At this point in time, we both think and breathe natural gas. I will take my response back somewhat as well though. Several years ago, we were running a project in Oji River in Enugu State. We had to travel to and from Port Harcourt several days in a week, coming in pretty late in the day.

What sparked our interest in the gas business was the very bright orange skylines at night which we discovered to be from the gas flares. This piqued our interest no end and we began to research on natural gas, gas flaring and opportunities for investment within the sector with a view to stemming out the flares.

It has been a long journey with many very interesting learning curves, but I will say that we have been driven by our collective passions. My husband and I get very passionate about the things we do, and we are people of an excellent spirit and so our focus is in finding out how things work and then applying ourselves diligently towards ensuring that they do work.

We have taken time to train and develop ourselves, both on-the-job and in structured trainings, to ensure that we are equipped with the knowledge and skills that have made us effective leaders and entrepreneurs. Over the years, we have jumped into the trenches with our people as much as may have been required and this has paid off. We are constantly being asked if we are gas engineers and the answer is no.

we believe firmly however that you must know what you are about, must understand the rudiments of the industry that you are in; and be focused about keeping abreast of relevant developments and technology that impact on what you do. In this space, there is no way you will not excel in your chosen field, irrespective of your original background. Passion! Vision! Focus! Add that to a dedication of everything we do to the glory of God, and you will understand how we have gotten to where we have.

African Capital Alliance was noted to be your partner. How did the company come into the picture of your company and what part did it play?
When we were awarded the Ikorodu franchise, we were required to make payment of a rather significant signature bonus as well as put in place gas infrastructure that would clearly involve a tidy sum. We did not have those kind of resources at our disposal and clearly needed to source for the funds.

We were already positioning to do a private placement exercise but were very uncomfortable with the kinds of offers we were getting. As God would have it, a few weeks earlier, in casual conversation a friend had mentioned that she would be meeting with African Capital Alliance (ACA) to review the prospect of their investing in the company she ran with her husband.

She then asked me to save the number in case we ever got to that point of looking for investors. And here is why we maintain that God has been the platform for our every business success. As the deadline for the payment of the signature bonus approached, I remembered our conversation, gave the number to my husband and he put a call across to the then Chief Executive Officer of the company.

Exactly three weeks and a whole lot of work later, we made our formal presentation to the ACA investment committee. We got an immediate approval and the rest is history. Over the past eight years, the SME Partnerships which are the funds under the ACA group that invested in Falcon, have played a significant role in growing the business.

From the injection of equity and debt instrument, to the provision of business advisory service, to their governance roles on our Board of Directors; they have been a tremendous value-add to the growth and sustainability of our company over the years, real partners-in-progress.

You said at celebration of your company's excellent service, last week, that your vision for Falcon Petroleum is for it to go beyond a family company into conglomerate. Do you have any plan of diluting the shareholders' structure and when is this likely to take place?
From inception, we did not set up this company to exist as a ‘Mr & Mrs Limited’. As I said at the event, our vision has always been that if Coca Cola and Mercedes, among others, could start off as family run enterprises and end up as multinational conglomerates, then the sky is also the limit for Falcon as long as we benchmark with international best practices as the company evolved. Our original intent was to exit SME Partnerships by going public. However, you will agree that the market has not been an exciting place to bring a new offering to, so we went through with the exit through a debt instrument.

We are however actively seeking investors into the company at this time. We have a two year time frame within which we are confident that we will find the right set of people. We are not in a hurry to bring money in, despite our obligations at this time. We are more concerned that we get in people of integrity, the right set of values, with highly analytical entrepreneurial mindsets and leanings that will drive the business forward over the longest of terms.

We are also not averse to working with other institutional investors who have the right culture and investment mindset to build on what the relationship with ACA set in motion. It would be great if we found such investors in the next two months, but we acknowledge that this could take a bit of time to get into the place of sound equity partnerships going forward.

Do you have any plan of quoting the company in the capital market?
Yes, we will come back to the place of having the company publicly quoted in the capital market. That is an integral part of our realising our vision for Falcon Petroleum
There is no business without a challenge.

What can you say have been your challenges?
There have definitely been a multitude of challenges over the years, and for every stage of the business. This is a given for any enterprise. I would say however that a major challenge has been funding – not from an availability standpoint because by the grace of God we have a business that is attractive to providers of capital.

However, the cost of that capital is astronomical. The gas business is an extremely capital intensive business. Equipment are manufactured to spec and so there are long lead times to manufacture before one can even begin to install and reap economic gains from the asset. Construction work is detailed and time consuming, and the gas market is based on dedicated supply and purchase agreements.

All these spell ‘time’ and time in a high-interest environment becomes a critical variable in managing your overheads, cost-profiles and indeed the otherwise established economic viability of any singular project. In being given an entire franchise zone to develop and operate over a 20-year period, several billions of Naira outlay will be required. The cost attendant to this is better imagined, and the margins to the distributors at the end of the day could be improved upon. Having very severe exchange rate exposure and risk profiles do not help in any way.

Another major challenge we have to contend with is that as an LDC, we are an agent of the government in the gas sector as such the overarching bureaucratic bottlenecks that are attendant to the governmental sector tend to hold us back from achieving the kinds of milestones that we know we are capable of.

Our entire focus is on the optimization of our franchise potentials but there are inherent gaps in policy, practice and general systemic challenges - operational and administrative. As private sector players, the ‘time is money’ concept is our daily reality but things don’t work that way when you deal with government. We continue to remain hopeful that as the industry evolves and as government engages more with the private sector in pursuance of its developmental objectives,  this will one day be less of a challenge.

How have you overcome these challenges?
For funding issues, we have and continue to do our best to mitigate this particular challenge through effective project and execution planning, and very efficient financial management. Very sound financial strategies are set in place at Board level and carried through by the executive management. We have also been able to leverage more recently on cheaper funds from the Bank of Industry to drive our developmental projects within the Ikorodu industrial area.

God has been faithful so far and we know it will surely get better as we go along. With respect o the government, we are actually seeing changes at this time. The current Group Executive Director, Gas and Power and the executive management team of the Nigerian gas Company have a clear focus on expediting gas delivery projects all across the country, and we are benefiting from the improved efficiencies on this front. Our hope and expectation is that with the passing of the PIB and the various restructurings that this will portend for the gas industry, we will witness an even more highly efficient interaction with our regulators.

As a woman, how do you combine the official work with your domestic responsibilities?
I am not sure that it is still politically correct to ask such a question and indeed, politically correct or not, I must say that I am sad that we still need to ask women hoe they combine ‘domestic’ responsibilities with work roles.

I don’t hear men being asked this question and as we all know, the greatest challenge that society faces today stems from the fact that a greater number of men have left the running of their families to the women such that women are struggling to play both father and mother to their children.

Absentee fathers continue to be a major challenge in societies worldwide. I would rather that you ask how as a parent I am able to combine my responsibilities to my children and home with my work, because this is also a question that we must begin to ask our male executives and entrepreneurs.

My response would be that I have always held my core responsibility as a parent to ensure my family comes first in everything I do. The responsibility of parenthood stems from the recognition of the fact that the Lord has placed destinies in our hands. We are birthing generations and we should as parents never lose sight of that. This has been my guiding philosophy.

I only give myself to work in so far as my children and home front come first. It’s a mindset issue and I see myself as a testament that you can have a successful home where you are fully present, focused and dedicated, creating an atmosphere of love and godliness; yet still be fully present in your business and be very successful at it. There will be those tough times, but the tough times should not be the norm, and the home front should be the clear priority at all times. Easy said some people will say, but I maintain that it can be done.

What other future plans do you have for your company?
Falcon’s vision is to be a recognised strategic partner in natural gas development and energy deployment to various sectors of the economy. Simply put, we intend to make our mark in every sphere of economy and industry where natural gas can add value. Currently, we are making inroads into gas development projects in collaboration with state governments.

We have also partnered with Nirmal Industrial Controls and are currently establishing an in-country fabrication yard where we will be assembling first, and then later on manufacturing gas metering and regulating stations and equipment for the African market, here in Nigeria.

Our aim is to consolidate on the platform given for local content development and see how best we play a key role in the transfer of key technological competencies and skills into the Nigerian market. We can do it with God on our side and I am pretty excited about this.