ABC Orjiako is the pioneer and immediate past Chairman of Seplat Energy Plc. In this interview with select journalists including BusinessDay’s Assistant Editor, Iheanyi Nwachukwu, he speaks on his experience leading the company’s Board, growth trajectory of Seplat Energy, emergence of the company’s new Independent Non- Executive Chairman, among other issues. Excerpts
What was it like leading the Board of Seplat Energy and building a global energy company with great reputation?
In the last 13 years that I have been associated with Seplat, it has been a leapfrogging of various forms, of passion and vision on how to bring lots of dreams and ideas to fruition. And from my perspective, this has only been possible for a number of reasons. Notable among these reasons was that, from when we founded the company, we dreamt big and took a position to take a long-term strategic vision. It was clear where we wanted to play and it was also clear to us how we were going to navigate through to achieve that.
Secondly, Seplat has a very strong, diversified and experienced Board and with that also, is a very strong Management Team. So, these put together, meant that you now have the right tools to deliver on this strategic vision. When I look back, it becomes clear given the way the company has been governed. Governance became very important for us, and when we talk about governance, it is not just by ticking boxes, but to put on an embodiment of justice, fairness, love and how you relate with people and the business you do. At the back of all these in Seplat, we then put a lot of policies in place, to make sure that we kept within this scope in what we were doing. So, it’s really been a very rewarding 13 years, working with the people executing the ideas that have now turned into reality and so in terms of my experience, I think that it is very gratifying to see those dreams you have dreamt about, come to life.
Do you want to share any challenges you had?
The whole idea of setting up a company like Seplat was very daunting and challenging. When you set up a company that is playing in the extractive industry which, prior to our existence, was really dominated by the international oil companies, what that meant is that you were going to be stepping into very big shoes in terms of the technical ability that needed to be deployed, financial requirements and people. So, it was challenging from the beginning, but we pulled the bull by the horns and were determined to achieve all of these.
One of the things you will find that the company did very well was to have the right values, to be able to deliver on its objectives and, as I spoke earlier on, the people. When we had the people put together, and our values from inception, we made sure that we had the right core values. But, of course, when you start, you are going to be requiring quite a lot of capital. Hence, capital was another major challenge. However, we decided to overcome that by listing the company on the London and Nigerian Stock Exchanges. This meant that Seplat became an investment entity for credible investment, globally.
Another area of challenge was how we could do business in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, because that region, for everyone anywhere in the world, was dangerous. There were quite a lot of oil theft, vandalism and associated criminality in the area. So, for us, that was a major challenge which we converted to a great opportunity. Right from the beginning, we developed what we called the Seplat Model of Community Engagement. And this, really, was very simple as we created a win-win scenario where those in the host communities saw us as genuine partners, because we treated them with respect. We held their hands and we made it clear that when we succeed, they have succeeded. So, going forward, they looked at us as true partners, not people who were coming to do business and leave.
I am sure that part of the things that Seplat is noted for is that, if you check all our areas of operation, you find that the community became the security providers for us, because over the years you can see many community contractors, we have trained to create prosperity in these areas. We have also identified with them, through one of our flagship programs, the “Eye Can See” programme, where several tens of thousands of people with eye conditions have been treated. We have had situations where we go to places where there are no roads, we put roads, and provide other amenities for the people. We have equally created jobs. When we started, we had just thirty-seven people whom we inherited from Shell, but today, Seplat has employed over 700 people. And even beyond that, related contracts associated with our work has provided employment for thousands of people and most of these people are community people. Ninety-nine per cent (99percent) of our employees are Nigerians.
Read also: NGX lauds ABC Orjiako, welcomes Omiyi as chairman of Seplat Energy
We also recently launched our education programme, where we are stepping back and saying that people from areas where we operate should not just be gatemen and grass-cutters. So, we decided to invest in education, starting with them, so that we can have in the future, trained engineers and geologists who can work. So, there have been quite a lot of programmes we have deployed to make sure that they see us as true partners and not just people who have come to do business and go away.
Can you take us through the process that led to the emergence of the new Chairman?
For me, the current development is a fulfilment of a promise made. When we started, we had a Shareholders Board. The founders of the company simply sat on the Board to protect the business and protect the vision and mission we set out to achieve. But of course, you asked me about the challenges we had, when we knew that this company is going to be a world-class global energy company. We then took the view that we have to set-up a Board that will fit this kind of vision. So, we then decided to list the company and when we listed the company, we then had to bring in all the compliance issues and the regulatory requirements. And part of that is the fact that best practice requires that we have an Independent Non- Executive Chairman and we were deliberate about that promise and from my perspective, Mr Omiyi, who does not require any introduction, is easily the best candidate you can ever find for that position. Not only is he very vast, with over four decades of experience in the oil and gas industry, he has also been on all the Boards and so he is bringing in a number of things, including technical, financial and commercial expertise. He was the Country Chair of Shell in Nigeria, so there is really nothing new and if today, 13 years after, I find a man like him to succeed me; for me, it is a great honour.
Another thing to say about Mr. Omiyi is that he has been with this company for a very long time. When we wanted to bring the first set of Independent Non-Executive Directors and looking in Nigeria, he was the very first person I approached. Apart from that, when he was in Shell, we know the kind of giant strides he delivered for the Shell companies in Nigeria. So, I think the Shareholders and other Stakeholders will be very happy that we have come to the conclusion that Mr. Omiyi should be our new Chairman.
In Seplat, we are really very strong in processes and procedures and so when it became clear that we were going to deliver on that promise of bringing in an Independent Non-Executive Director, frankly, apart from the fact that we have capable people in-house, we engaged consultants across the world. But, of course, it had to be a Nigerian and I can tell you they looked at more than 300 CVs and at the end of the day, we settled for Mr. Omiyi.
First of all, when we decided that we’re going to have a globally-sound and best-practice company, we had to look for the people I spoke about earlier on and we started with the Board. It was a deliberate attempt to get the best possible candidates to come on. If you look at our inception, apart from Mr. Omiyi who was there from 2014, you must have heard about Mike Alexander and Lord Mark Malloch Brown, both of whom have retired and recently you have Arunma Oteh, some of the best names you can ever find from a very diverse industry. That is what we like to attract. So, we have seen people who are best business leaders and regulators with all of their experiences, politics and community leadership and rulership. So, we have always gone for the best.
Another thing is that if you look critically, you will find that we believe in inclusiveness and diversity. That is why you see that on our Board today, we have five females and it can only grow. So, the composition of, the Board is almost 50-50 between females and males, which is very good. Today the Board has about 30 per cent females and that is really what we mean when we say that this company is properly governed and it is well diversified, inclusive and promotes equality. And going forward, that can only improve. We have already set that standard and can only get better.
As the co-founder and pioneer chairman, is Seplat Energy of today your ideal vision or you see more of its realisation ahead?
If you look around, you will find that Seplat is the largest independent energy company. The easiest way I like to describe our vision is that, it is such a long-distance journey we have embarked on. If you get to that destination, it means you didn’t dream big enough. But what you have seen in every milestone is like a signpost, showing that our trajectory of travel is in the right direction.
So, what you see is that we promised that we are going to grow by adding value to the assets we have acquired, and we have achieved it. We said we are going to acquire more assets. We said that we are going to take everything we do seriously, to grow the stakeholder presence in Nigeria. We have done all of those and then we said we will list this company and we have done that, as the very first company that is listed on both the Nigerian and London Stock Exchange. So, everything is in the right direction. Recently, we have even said that to remain in this business, we have to move with the time and if anything, be ahead. This is why you would have noticed that in 2021, we changed our name from “Petroleum” to “Energy”. Because of the signs of the time, we decided that we would make sure that we align with everything that is globally the norm. So, Seplat is really right on course. Going forward, you can also see that in acquisitions, we recently signed one of the biggest transactions anyone can ever imagine. The Exxon Mobil transaction with Seplat, which we announced recently, is really taking us to a transformational realm. And having said that, that is not where that vision stops. So, I am very happy that I brought this company, with my colleagues, to where it is today. And I believe that the incoming chairman, with the management and the Board, will then take it even beyond that.
Last Year Seplat Changed its name to Seplat Energy in reaction to the global call for sustainability. Do you think you are leaving behind a company that would continue in this light by reacting positively to its stakeholders demands and expectations?
The thing about energy transition, the Climate Change Action Plan and all of that, is that, even though we changed our name last year, it has been with this company since 2015. If you recall, 2015 was when the Paris Agreement came into light. As far back as then, we had already put in place real strong elements of ESG, as a way to make our business sustainable in the long term. So, from our perspective, it is not something new. Therefore, even though I’m no longer there now, everybody on the Board, everybody in the Management realizes that to grow a business in a long term, in a sustainable manner, you have to imbibe all of those.
Now, the other way I like to put this is, if you recall, after we changed our name, we then repurposed the company and we said we want to become the company that will provide sustainable energy solutions to the society. We also promised that our vision will transform lives, through energy. Energy is the blood-life of any society and growth, and of course, our mission will be to lead the Nigerian energy transformation. Seplat is the number one company that has followed every aspect of ESG. Today ESG is embedded in every aspect of our business. It is embedded in the KPIs for the Management and you can also see the way we are delivering on this. If you look at the Environment, you would have heard us say that we are going to be ending gas flaring six years ahead of time. That is because of environmental stewardship.
Another thing we are looking at is to make sure that what we are doing with the environment is in the same way or manner we do business. We are looking at innovative ideas. We are looking at technology. Very soon and I’m sure that with Mr. Omiyi coming in at the helm of affairs at the Board, you will soon hear that Seplat is deploying the latest technology about carbon-capture and sequestration. So, these are all the things we are looking at, in terms of Social.
You find that Seplat is not just speaking about this, but when you improve access to electricity, what you have done is that you have massively created jobs, right? That’s why we believe that once we do that, the small and medium scale industries will be improved and of course, job creation and prosperity will be created. Not only will this impact the society from the point of view of wealth creation, security will follow.
And then of course, the other is Governance. Now, the totality of energy transition, the way we have looked at it in Seplat is what we have aligned as a “Just Energy Transition”. How do you balance the provision and mitigation of energy poverty, with protection of the climate? That is what we speak about when we say “Sustainable Development Goals”.
Recently, you would have seen that Seplat launched, again one of our firsts – the Tree 4 Life Programme, which we did in Abuja. Again, it is part of our sustainability paradigm. And what we have done there is to demonstrate to the country that trees are life. We are going to use this as a major way to embed and deepen the carbon sink. Not only will this help the environment, it is going to also create a business opportunity by itself. There is almost a trillion-dollar business market for carbon credits and it will expose the company to that. We believe that it is the right way to go and we can only improve on that.
We are committed to delivering 5 million trees over a five-year period and that will be the first phase. So, I am sure that it’s something that many more companies will emulate and Nigeria will just be better for it, as it is well aligned to Nigerian’s commitment to COP 26 and what the President has set for 2060. So, everything we are doing is right on course in that regard.
How do you feel exiting the company when the ovation is very high and resounding with achievements, such as the signing of SPA to acquire MPNU?
In fact, that is the best time to leave. I don’t want to leave when the clapping has subsided. But having said that, you know, everything that has a beginning has an end. If you also recall, I am leaving one year ahead of time, as my contract should end next year, but I decided to leave now. The reason is because if you have run an organization and you sit back and you cannot find someone who can run that organization and step into your shoes, it means you haven’t run the organization well. And for us, one of the things we pride ourselves at the Board is our succession plan. So, as Mr. Omiyi has become the Chairman of the Board, we knew the person who will succeed him as Senior Independent Board Member, we knew who would succeed him in the committees that he was leading, and we are very focused on our governance and our policies. We made up our mind, deliberately, that we will refresh the Board from time to time and so everybody that is on that Board knows that when it is time, they will go and so that is very good for the Board. It makes people to put in their best within that finite period of time and it also enables the people who are on that Board now that Mr. Omiyi is here, the ability to go out and keep looking for people who would replace and succeed them. So, our succession plan is very strong on that Board and our Board is continuously being refreshed.
And as you can see, I think other than Mr. Omiyi and Charles Okeahalam, everyone else on the Board is new. But you would never know that, because of the way and manner that we have built a very strong and courageous Board.