By Bilesanmi Olalekan

Chibuike Achigbu, a Harvard Business School graduate, is the chief executive of Chimons Group of  Companies. But the story behind his success story is what many budding entrepreneurs would not want to experience. He tells his story.“

You were recently appointed a member of the advisory board of the Commonwealth Economic and Investment Commission (CWEIC). What is it about and how did it come to you?

How did the appointment come about? I didn’t lobby for it. In fact, it would be an understatement to say it came to me as a  surprise. “Sometime last year, I went for a programme in Malta. President Buhari and the Queen of England were there. I don’t know the parameter they used in selecting members for the board. I just got an email that I was needed by the management of the Commonwealth.  CWEIC has been in existence for quite a long time, but was reformed in 2014.“I was shocked, because that was my first time at the conference. I was quite concerned. I went all the same. Then they started talking to me. They said they were impressed by what we do, my qualifications and all that.

They said I had been selected to join the board. That was it. “What is CWEIC about? It was established in July 2014 with the support of the Commonwealth Secretariat and member-governments. It is a not-for-profit organisation with a  mandate from Commonwealth Heads of Government to promote trade, investment across the 53-member countries. The CWEIC has a small secretariat based within the Commonwealth Secretariat office in London.

“The purpose of the council is to promote trade and investment by facilitating engagement between government and the private sector within the Commonwealth. It is the apex organisation representing private sector businesses within the Commonwealth and it is the only institution with a remit to promote intra-Commonwealth trade and investment.

The CWEIC is also responsible for organising the Commonwealth Business Forum alongside the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.“The same CWEIC appointed Lagos State Governor  Akinwumi Ambode as Vice President. How can Nigeria leverage the opportunities offered by CWEIC? What programmes are you likely to pursue especially in the area of advocacy to admit a large number of investors (potential and actual)?

If you watch.  America, you see their President talking about market all the time. That is how countries develop. But in Nigeria, what you hear is crude oil, crude oil, crude oil. The minister of trade should be the most important minister because trade is what gives you favourable balance of payment.“The goal is to ensure that more Nigerians and organizations become key players in the Commonwealth region. We have to work hard to help them connect with the opportunities out there.“Eventually, we are going to set up an office in Nigeria so that we can begin to create awareness with a view to adding awareness to businesses in Nigeria; how they can access the market within the Commonwealth, whether you export goods/services.

What was growing up like ?

Achigbu, Commonwealth Economic Commission chief
Achigbu, Commonwealth Economic Commission chief

I was born into a poor background. Survival was no mean task. I had to do all manner of odd jobs to survive. In fact, I had to do bus conductor job in Aba to buy a pair of slippers. It was that tough.“But I had an uncle who was a principal. So, he was a role model to me. I saw his children eating good food and wearing nice clothes, so I wanted to be like them. That served as my motivation. Not that you were envious or didn’t like them. I just wanted to be like them. When I finished school cert, and my father told me he didn’t have money to send me to a tertiary institution, that I should go and learn a trade, I told him no. I disobeyed him. Instead, I carried my certification and I was going from one big man to another soliciting for sponsorship. It was that bad, an 18-year-old boy. Then my cousin who was in the Customs heard about it and invited me over. That was how I went to a university.

String of bests in school….

I wasn’t that good in primary school. But in secondary (Ngwa High School Aba, Abia State 1977-1982) I scored 100 per cent in the first test we wrote. The principal  thought  I cheated. He brought me before the assembly and said he suspected I cheated. So, he decided to give me another test in the open field, before the entire students. In the assembly ground, he sat me down and said I must write another test. He got the teacher to set fresh questions. After an hour, the paper was marked and I got 100 per cent. The school erupted. So, from that day, everybody started coming to me to help them solve problems.

Therefore, I knew I had to be ahead of the pack at every point in time, because once they come with any problem, you must be able to solve it. I gave my studies full time, especially maths. During holidays, I would solve the whole maths in the textbook. So, in class, anytime my teacher ran into trouble, I would correct him. And you won’t believe it, there was a particular question I couldn’t solve in one week, but an angel solved it in my dream. Then a voice told me in my sleep, ‘you’d forget it in the morning, get up and write it down.’ I did.

The next morning, I said yes, something happened in the night. I went to check and behold, I saw where I wrote it.  I screamed. Trust me, I carried it to the class the next day and moved from Class 5A to E.  I set the question and said whoever solved the question would get a present from me. But nobody was able to get it. That actually helped me in secondary school. I passed out as the best student in science. By the time the time I got into the university, the confidence was there.

Tertiary“I was a pioneer student at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) where I read petroleum/petrochemical engineering technology. I graduated in 1988 winning the best department award and as the best overall student in petroleum engineering. Although I made first class, the school management said the school was too young and so nobody should be given. I have never read like that in my life. FUTO was tough. I did my masters in public administration (political economy) at  UNILAG. In 2009, I went Harvard Business School, Boston, USA for a three-year program  in entrepreneurship and leadership. In 2011, I was awarded  a postgraduate certificate in business strategy and leadership development.

Career “I did my NYSC in Mobil. As a young graduate, I went to work everyday in helicopter. They would pick us from where we lived in the bush, drop us at the off platform. Imagine a 24-year-old in a place with dolphin and fishes as companions. And if it was raining, I would hold one of the pipes to keep warm. I would remain there till the helicopter came for me at 5pm.

Foray into business “I always wanted to go back to my profession, hence I set up my first company, Chimons Limited, a gas refilling plant in 1994. I managed the bid team that won the first ever contract for the successful lifting of LPG from NLNG into the domestic market. The NLNG picked my organization as one of the first six off-takers. Since 2006 when we came on board, market has stabilized. In collaboration with other stakeholders, we have moved from 40,000 metric tonnes LPG consumption in 2007 to 400,000 metric tonnes. By the end of this year, we would be doing 500,000 tonnes. Above all, we are doing our terminal in Delta State, which would be ready next year.

How did you raise you take off capital?

I raised fund selling football boots.. I had a brother in Russia in the era of Perestroika who used to send football boots to me every week. Every Monday I would go to the airport, picked them and race to the National Stadium, Surulere to sell. Because I was honest and remitting his money, he was encouraged to the extent that he got other friends to patronize me. There was a man at the stadium that was always around to clear the consignment.“From boots, I went on to selling wristwatches, chandeliers, earrings, etc.

“Within two-three years, I was able to save some money. So, I started thinking of what kind of business to go into. I know what I wasn’t going into. I wasn’t prepared to be like the regular Idumota  trader. I decided to go into something along the line of my training.“I decided to go into LPG business. My first tank was a fairly used one. I went to Germany to buy it. In my search, I met a man who advised me to go for it, instead of the more expensive brand-new. That was in 1992. He gave me the tank for next to nothing. It was like a dash. We started business in 1994.

The only money spent was for shipment and transportation. I am still using that tank today.“I knew the business wouldn’t last forever, so I started thinking of the next move. From one refilling plant, I moved on to become a key stakeholder in the oil and gas industry. By 2007, we expanded, and that gave us the voice to become a key stakeholder in the oil and gas industry. So when NLNG began domestic sale of LPG, my company was one of the six that won the right.“We have also moved into construction now. Our sister company is doing road construction in the Niger Delta.  As a businessman, when you see an opportunity, you move in. It is very important to diversify and consolidate.“

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