By Toni Kan
On the night of Tuesday, March 26, 2013, a full year before Seplat Petroleum Development Company became a publicly quoted company, Austin Avuru, the Chief Executive Officer, shared a very interesting insight with members of his Leadership team.
The occasion was the celebration of Seplat crossing the 50,000 barrel per day mark, 33,000 barrels up from the 17,000 barrel mark they inherited when they bought over OMLs 4, 38 and 41 from Shell.
The venue was Villa Medici and Avuru had “spoilt” the happy celebratory mood with an anecdote.
“When I was an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka,” he began. “Whenever I came home on holiday my mother would point out a man or the other and say during the year God blessed him. He made some money and bought a car or built a house. She did that to encourage me to work hard.
But what I noticed was that a year or two later that man would be out of a job or would have lost his business and I would see him sitting outside and playing draught. That taught me a lesson about the need to sustain wealth. Today, we are celebrating 50,000 barrels but I want us to think about tomorrow. Seplat has to outlive all of us. We all, as members of the leadership team, must begin our succession planning today. I do not want us to be like those men in my village.”
That story encapsulates, in many ways, Austin Avuru’s business philosophy which is anchored on sustaining what one might call inter-generational wealth. Avuru sees the business race not as a sprint but a marathon and so 50,000 boepd was, therefore, for Austin Avuru, a man with giant sized ambitions, no more than just the starting point.
Who is Austin Ojunekwu Avuru? Born in 1958 in Ipetu-Ijesha in what is now Osun state to parents who hailed from Abbi in what is now Delta state, Austin, as he is fondly called, began his education in a most auspicious manner. He left primary school with distinction then proceeded to Orogun Grammar School from where he passed out in 1975 with Division 1 in a class of 118 students. His result was so good that Austin Avuru was retained by the school, at the ripe old age of 17, to teach Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
He proceeded, subsequently, to the University of Nsukka where his academic trajectory was no less stellar despite his many extra-curricular activities as Leader of the Student’s Union Parliament 1978/79; Member of the University Debate Team 1978-80; and President of the University Graduating class of 1980. Austin graduated with a B.Sc (Second Class Upper) degree in Geology from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka even though he always found time to attend literary events with Prof. Chinua Achebe, Gbubemi Amas and many others at Anthill. He was, what many would call, a well-rounded student.
Three years after graduating, Avuru undertook a course at the E&E Training school at the Petroleum Training Institute, Warri. Out of a class of 36 Geologists and Petroleum Engineers, Austin Avuru emerged not just the Overall Best but also Best in Geology, Best in Geophysics and Best in Petroleum Engineering.
Even as a young Manager, Austin Avuru’s dedication to duty, his unparalleled brilliance and shining leadership qualities were recognized in 1989 when he was honoured with the NNPC GMD’s Merit Award for “Outstanding Performance and Distinguished Professional and Leadership Qualities.”
Ever questing after knowledge and perennially seeking to better himself, Austin Avuru proceeded to the University of Ibadan for a Post Graduate Diploma in Petroleum Engineering and once again, his path was paved with the cobble stones of excellence. He finished with 7 As and 3 B+s as well as the honour of “Best Graduating Student” in the Petroleum Engineering class of 1992.
Appointed the Chief Executive Officer of Seplat Petroleum Development Company Plc since May 1, 2010, he has served as its Managing Director leading the nascent company formed as an SPV by Shebah and Platform from the conclusion of the divestment from Shell to a dual listing on both the Nigerian and London stock exchanges and upward to its enviable position as Nigeria’s pre-eminent independent which was recently migrated to the Premium board of the NSE after just four years of listing.
Oil industry practitioners regard Austin Avuru as an outstanding professional whose career trajectory has seen him wear a many-plumed hat as Wellsite Geologist, Production Seismologist and Reservoir Engineer at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) where his early career took off. Legend has it that as a youth corps staff at NNPC, Austin Avuru was supervising permanent staff who were attached to him as trainee Well Site Geologists.
After 12 years at the NNPC with working attachment stints at Shell and Chevron where his work was adjudged excellent, Austin Avuru joined Kase Lawal’s Allied Energy Resources, a pioneer indigenous deep water Operator, where he worked for the next ten years as Exploration Manager and General Manager, Technical.
It is instructive to pause and reflect on Austin Avuru’s relationship with some of his bosses and superiors in order to gain a firm handle on his work ethic, respect for superiors and on-going successes.
Two men come to mind. Two men who nurtured his entrepreneurial drive, provided oil and gas industry mentorship and sharpened his intellectual acumen. They are the aforementioned Kase Lawal, whose Allied Energy must have opened the young Austin Avuru’s eyes to the potential inherent in entrepreneurship and Macaulay Agbada Ofurhie who was Avuru’s boss at NNPC and now a Non-Executive Director at Seplat.
When Austin Avuru speaks about these men in formal and informal settings it is always with respect and a healthy dose of something approaching awe thus highlighting the need to pay homage to bosses and mentors; the same deference that many in the industry now show to Austin Avuru who has become a genial avuncular figure and bonafide mentor.
In 2002, Austin Avuru founded Platform Petroleum Limited and became the Pioneer Managing Director. In setting up Platform, Avuru assembled an impressive team of industry professionals to help realise his dream and they had achieved some significant success as a marginal field operator before the big opportunity came knocking following a spate of divestments by IOCs and Austin Avuru left to set up Seplat in 2010.
A versatile, cerebral and highly regarded professional with over 35 years’ experience in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector, Avuru is a much sought after speaker, a Fellow and past President of the Nigerian Association of Petroleum Explorationists (NAPE) and author of two books: “Politics, Economics & the Nigerian Petroleum Industry” as well as “Nigerian Petroleum Business, a Handbook” which he co-authored. Mr. Avuru’s intellectual sagacity and brilliance has earned him numerous academic laurels.
Passionate about growing the Nigerian oil and gas sector to achieve its potentials, Austin Avuru was at the forefront of the campaign for indigenous E & P participation in the industry from 1996 to 2000. He was Technical Coordinator for the 1991 review of the industry MOU and was also involved in drafting the document that gave life to the Petroleum Industry Bill.
As a member of the National Committee on Local Content Development, Austin Avuru chaired the technical sub-committee that drafted the policy blueprint that would later become the Nigerian Local Content Act of 2010.
In 1999, Avuru was an invited speaker on Oil and Gas Policy at the Shell Workshop for selected committees of the National Assembly; he delivered a paper in May 2002 at the Nigerian Investment Forum at the OTC, Houston Texas and in December 2001 at the Nigerian Oil and Gas Summit, Houston Texas.
Despite his increased responsibilities as CEO of a listed company, Avuru continues to make himself available for national assignments while serving the industry in various capacities. He has served as Call Out Consultant to the Senate Committee on Petroleum Resources since 2000.
Beside the official engagements, Austin Avuru is a philanthropist who is always happy to give back to his community and alma mater. He donated a purpose built Geo-Sciences complex to the University of Nsukka in 2017 and a well-equipped hospital to his Abbi community in 2016.
A firm believer in, an outspoken advocate and notable champion of Local Content Development in the Upstream sector of the Nigerian Petroleum Industry, Austin Avuru has shown by the success he has achieved with his team at Seplat that he is not all talk and no action.
Taking over OML 4,38, 41, he sweated the assets, evolved a bespoke gas domestication policy and took off like a rocket. And all this when the gas price was anywhere but competitive. Today, Seplat is not just the biggest supplier of gas to the domestic market, it is on course to surpassing its 2018 guidance for both oil and gas production and revenue.
Seplat, under Avuru’s leadership has shown itself an example of all that is possible when a well-run Nigerian company steps up to the plate. Avuru, as CEO of Seplat, has shown that excellence is not alien to Nigeria and neither is sustainable and ethical business practice.
A few days before his 60th birthday on August 13, 2018, Seplat Petroleum Development Company Plc and its subsidiary ANOH Gas Processing Company (AGPC) with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and other related subsidiaries executed the shareholder agreement and other commercial agreements for the ANOH Gas Processing Company and the Nigerian Gas Processing and Transportation Company (NGPTC) project. The signed shareholder agreement will govern the respective interests of SEPLAT and other parties in the AGPC joint venture.
It was a fitting icing on Avuru’s 60th birthday cake from an industry he has served for almost 40 years and from a company he has mid-wifed from a fledgling entity to a bonafide player on the world stage.