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Festus Akinpelu: From obscurity to top CEO

By HENRY OJELU

Few decades ago, Engr Festus Akinpelu was just an ordinary man struggling to make ends meet. With a dent of hard work, perseverance and dedication, he is now the Chief Executive Officer of Pilot Science, one of Nigeria’s leading engineering firms. In this interview, he shares his journey from a relatively unknown young man to a top CEO.

Background:

I was born in Surulere, Lagos. I attended Saint Thomas Acquinance Primary School and Basinan High School. After secondary school, I proceeded to Yaba College of Technology  to study engineering. I did my Post Graduate Diploma in Federal University of Technology, Akure.

I also have professional certification and registered member of Council for Registration of Engineers in NIgeria, COREN, Nigeria Society of Engineer,  NSE, Association of Energy Engineer, AEE, Atlanta, USA. I am also a registered professional, Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria and Certified Data Centre.

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Growing up in Surulere

My father was an average man; a civil servant and my mom was a busineeswoman.  I am number three among six children.  My father was a very strict disciplinarian.  He tried his best to ensure that all his children were well behaved. Sometimes, he takes it too far. For instance, I was born a left hander-person but my father practically forced me to use my right hand. Surulere back then was an interesting place and I believe it is still so now.

We had a mixture of all kinds of people as neighbours. We had the rich, poor and middle class families as neighbours.  What I have become today is actually a product of the network of friends I made while growing up. We had kinds of characters; the good, the bad and the ugly but my parents guided us into making the right kind of friends.

Cherished moments

Surulere is one of the real environments in Lagos. Everybody was happy. I would say that we were just normal people unlike on the Island where you are classified as either a butter if you are from a rich home or Aje-Kpako if you from a poor family. People in Surulere were just themselves. It was a wonderful place to grow up and it has had the best impact in my life.

Choice of Engineering

Some parents tell their children, ‘You must be this and that’ but my parents were not that adamant. All they did was send us to school. We learnt a lot from the street. In secondary school, I was very good in accounting, economics and commerce, so that gave  me an idea of what course to study. When I couldn’t gain admission into the university for two years, I decided to try polytechnic. Yaba College of Technology was my naturally choice.

With the large number of candidates trying to gain admission to read accounting and business administration then, I knew I wouldn’t get admission if I applied for those two courses. By some kind of divine intervention, I ended up picking electrical engineering. My first year was rough because of my drawing but with persistence, I got it right and graduated successfully.

After school experience

Immediately after graduation, I had one remarkable experience that taught me a big lesson and change my orientation in life. In my environment then, we always relied on people we know to get certain things. Even before my graduation, I had often help students influence their NYSC posting. But something happened to when I tried to influence my own posting. I tried all my contacts but it didn’t work.

My friends paid a syndicate to help them influence their posting, but I was shocked to realise that I had a carryover in a course. Because of that I didn’t go for service that year. Those friends that paid to influence their posting, had one problem or the other. When I finished my carryover the next year, I decided not to do anything about my posting. To my surprise, I was posted to Lagos which had always been my dream.

First Job

During my NYSC, I was posted to a company but the general manager rejected me saying they didn’t want any youth corp member. While I was leaving, the managing director of the company met me along the corridor and told me to come over to his office. After interviewing me, he asked me to start work immediately. I just knew then that it was a divine intervention.  That company was the foundation of my career. What I learnt from the company over a decade ago is about 80 percent of what I am using in my own business today.

Bigger experiences

My first real employment was in a contracting firm in Lagos. They loved me in the office but I felt I was not learning enough. The owner of the firm was just a businessman running an engineering firm. As a fresh engineer, I needed to get more practical experience so I left the organization. I struggled a bit before I got another job. After that, I also worked for two other small companies before I got my dream job in a major organization.

I joined them in Lagos and they transferred me to Abuja within three days because every organization want to use you. They were actually paying me small money as salary. Fortunately for me, that time was the beginning of telecoms in Nigeria. Because the company wanted to use me, they made me do all kinds of jobs that were not directly related to my profession. I did business budgeting, customer relations, client sourcing and so many other things. It was really a tough time but the experience has been instrumental to the success of my own company.

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Starting Up

After garnering the necessary experience, I just felt it was time for me start up something. It was not easy at the beginning but with the help of friends and clients who believed in me, I was able to start this company-Pilot Science  Co Ltd.  I started from a small office somewhere in Ikeja, Lagos.  It is about 15 years now. Initially, we were doing electrical engineering but as time went by and the company expanded, we went into more areas of engineering. Today, our clients cut across civil engineering and infrastructure building. 80 percent of our clients are multinational. We also provide services for the leading telecoms companies in the country.

Business principle

Our key business principle  is Integrity. In business, once you don’t have integrity, you will not last long. The key thing for us here is to always deliver on every promise we make to our clients.  Another thing we don’t also toy with here is quality.  Over the years, these two qualities have earned us numerous awards and accolades across the country.

Industry challenge

Finance is usually the major challenge in the engineering sector.  Sometimes, a client is willing to give you a big project but the banks are not willing to support you with credit facilities.  Often times, we have had to raise funds for major projects by ourselves. Getting quality and dedicated staffs is also one of the major problems in the industry. Some of the engineers and support staffs that come to us  for employment are often poorly trained so we go the extra mile to retrain them. Running offices in four locations across the country has also been a challenge for us but somehow we have mange to cope.

Though of giving up

The thought of giving up comes once in a while but when you have fought many business battles, you don’t fear the next tough challenge. At the beginning, it was usually very painful for me because my company had all the experience and manpower but the banks were not willing to help with credit facilities. When they decide to give you credit facilities, the interest rate is another problem.

Family factor

My family has played a major role in my success. I tell you, it takes a stable home for a man to really succeed.  If you have a troubled home, chances are that it will also affect your business. Business itself is a battle ground. So after the battle, you should be able to look forward to going home to the warm embrace of your wife and children. My wife and children have been tremendous and a major factor to my success. The peace and love my wife provides is always an inspiration for me to achieve more in life.

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Advice to youths

My advice to them is this; you don’t need capital to start, what you need is the opportunity, readiness and divine intervention. When people see your worth, they will invest in you. I mentor a lot of fresh graduate in this organization. Every year, we take at least three fresh graduates from school. What an average youth in Nigeria need, no matter how bad things are, is the readiness.  Once you are ready, when the opportunity comes, it will pick you.

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