Audrey Joe-Ezigbo: Building an oil empire
Audrey Joe-Ezigbo is the co-founder, with her husband, of Falcon Corporation Limited, a wholly indigenous oil and gas outfit that offers a diverse portfolio of services that cut across engineering, procurement, construction and natural gas distribution, as well as in the real estate sector.
She spoke with Guardian Woman about her challenges, steadfastness, diligence and others.
You started out in the oil and gas industry with no background experience in the sector, were you not scared charting a course on unfamiliar waters?
Allow me to lay some background before I get to your question. I was about 13years old when I watched the movie ‘A woman of Substance’ based on the novel by Barbara Taylor-Bradford. The movie made such an impression on me that from that age I made a decision that I would not work for anyone but would rather build a business that would one day grow into a multinational conglomerate. Fast-forward many years, and my husband and I decided that after my first Masters’ degree we would venture into entrepreneurship. Though we were both essentially in academia at the time, we both had strong entrepreneurial aspirations. With the realisation that we both shared some very key attributes capable of catalysing something truly exceptional, Falcon was birthed.
In retrospect, we started the business very naively but I also believe that was the best way we could have started in what, as you have rightly said, were uncharted waters for us. Of course, we took many hard knocks in those early years as we found out through various challenges just how difficult the industry could be; but we never gave up and we never will. The nature of greatness is that it involves surmounting of obstacles at every level. We learnt very early ‘Do it Afraid’ and to ‘Keep on Keeping on!’
Being a capital-intensive industry, how were you able to raise the required resources to remain competitive in the sector?
We started back in 1994 with just about enough funds to furnish our simple office very sparsely, and that in itself makes for an interesting tale, as we could then only afford a few secondhand tables and chairs, a tiny second-hand manual typewriter and a couple of ceiling fans. My husband and I had to lay the plastic Dunlop tiles we covered the floor with by ourselves because we couldn’t afford a contractor to do the work for us. The beginning was really tough and we recognised that the only way out was to ensure we consistently put in our very best towards any opportunity we were privileged to be given. No banks would give us any money back then even for the very little jobs, we managed to get. So we were creative about raising funds. We had a tiny second-hand jalopy of a car which we would sometimes go and park as a collateral with a community bank that finally agreed to loan us money
Because we were diligent with service delivery on technical projects, Falcon began to get repeat work orders and a high level of referrals from satisfied clients, at which point we began to ask for advance payments that greatly eased our cashflow’s.
In addition, we had gained credibility with many of our suppliers and so were able to negotiate more relaxed payment terms, and more robust credit terms. It then also didn’t take long for the banks we had been using to begin to see us as serious players committed to best practices, and the window of overdrafts, invoice discounts, and term loans began to open up to us. We have also maintained very strong governance structures and statutory compliances are non-negotiable within Falcon and this has continued to pay off for us. At some point, we were able to attract Venture Capital funding from the African Capital Alliance funds, and the status of governance and compliance was one of the things that attracted ACA to us. That was a very timely investment partnership that changed the landscape of our operations. To date, we have funding that is a sound mix of IGR, and terms loans from our partner commercial banks as well as the Bank of Industry.
How easy was it for you to weather the storm in the formative years of Falcon Corporation Limited? Were there specific individuals’ instrumental to your success?
Take off was tough! As I said earlier, we had very little resources at hand, and our initial investment was very quickly exhausted. Initially, the company was set up with the intention of producing and marketing an array of lubricants out of petroleum bi-products. However, circumstances playing out within the industry at that time did not allow that aspiration to be birthed. What we then did was to pursue registrations for the company with the IOC’s and larger service companies where Falcon began to pursue jobs. We also worked hard to win other small projects from clients outside of the petroleum industry.
When we started out in 1994, the oil and gas industry was also very much skewed towards giving opportunities to companies that profiled foreign technical partnerships or ownerships, and/or a high quota of expatriate staff, whereas Falcon was a wholly indigenous company very much convinced that we could make significant impact and add value to the industry notwithstanding. We remain wholly indigenous to date and are proud to be so. We were also not intimidated back then by the fact that we did not have any expatriate staff or backing. Making it work was for us hinged on an ongoing commitment to deliver value at all times. We did not allow our size and scale distract us from those benchmarks. As we got new projects, we improved on our proficiency through training locally and abroad; and over the years, our focus on safety and quality of service have remained strong. As of today, it is evident that this strategy paid off.
What has your 22 years’ journey at Falcon Corporation been like? What are the key milestones recorded so far by Falcon Corporation?
The past 22 years have been a long journey of growth for us – 22 years that have been intense and challenging on one hand, exciting and exhilarating on the other hand. It has been an evolution of learning and growth, highs and lows. It has been 22 years of positive impact – on the lives of the hundreds of people who have worked with and for us, in the communities we’ve worked in, on our business partners, and on the nation as a whole. As of today, Falcon offers a diverse portfolio of services that cut across Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC), Natural Gas distribution, as well as in the real estate sector. God has indeed been faithful, and we believe there is yet much more for us to do. We have had multiple milestones in this time that would be too many to mention. Over the years, we have won series of awards from various organizations and industry players, from ‘Best gas distribution company of the year’, ‘Best equipment Conversion and Reticulation company of the year’, ‘Most Valued Business Partner’, to the prestigious ‘Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year West Africa 2014 Award’. We have won awards and recognitions for safety compliance and for our quality commitment.
We are also proud of the fact that our Quality Management Systems were certified to the ISO 9001:2008 standard in 2012 and we have maintained that certification with strong commendations from the certifying authorities to date. In addition, our Occupational Health and Safety and Environmental Management System is certified to the OHSAS 18001:2007 and ISO 14001:2004 standards. We have an impeccable performance track record and recognised among our clientele for prompt service delivery within project time lines. We have, as I said earlier, also built a very strong corporate governance structure, and have achieved a reputation for integrity and ethical business conduct that is well recognised in the industry.
You also co-founded Falcongaz Limited 2002? How different was that from your current operations at Falcon Corporation? What necessitated this expansion?
Our vision has always been to build a group of companies that will operate, create and derive value from various service offerings and sectors of industry. Falcongaz Limited was birthed out of this aspiration, and particularly as our scope of services began to expand over the years. Setting up Falcongaz in 2002 followed by a strong business case hinged on the harnessing of our operational efficiencies, and take advantage of available fiscal benefits associated with some of our expansions. Falcongaz operations are quite distinct from those of Falcon Corporation Limited in terms of offering, scope, size and focus; although Falcongaz does also provide some level of technical support service to Falcon Corporation on particular types of project. Over the past 14years, Falcongaz Limited has, in itself, built a solid reputation for delivering quality & safe engineering solutions based on global standards; leveraging on its own expertise and the strength of the Falcon brand to expand and diversify its service portfolio, and thus positioning Falcongaz Limited in its own right today as a strategic partner for infrastructure development within the Oil & Gas, and other sectors of industry in Nigeria.
It must be extremely challenging working with a spouse in the same business, how do you resolve the differences in decisions with your co-founder when such arise?
On the contrary, working with my husband cannot be described as ‘’extremely challenging’. It has been no more challenging than working with anyone else would have been. Indeed, we have rather been blessed to have enjoyed a fantastic working relationship over the past 22 years and counting. Fundamentally, this is because we are best of friends and love each other’s company. We are each other best friends and co-collaborator, each other’s greatest champion and supporter, each other’s fall-back position.
Of course, we do have our disagreements, but this is healthy for the business. As we see it, if we agree with each other simply because we are married, then we will sub-optimize the potentials of our businesses, because it would mean one person or the other is not putting their best foot forward. We always say that at the highest levels of management, organisations hire people who can critique actions or intentions in such a robust and constructive manner that then allows for better decision making and sound strategies to be evolved. Indeed, it is on the strength of our greet work relationship together that I wrote the book ‘Double Impact: How to live and work with your spouse in peace, harmony, and professional excellence’. It is also based our positive experience as well as how well the book has done, that we started the Double Impact Platform which is a business training and relationship building platform dedicated to couples who work together. That has been a phenomenal success in itself.
The petroleum industry is regarded as a blessing and a curse to Nigeria. Critics say it is responsible for some ills in the country today. What is your position on that and why?
God’s resources on the earth can never be curses! It is the mismanagement of those resources that creates the kinds of economic woes that we see in nations, and therefore my view is that it is those who have mismanaged the resources that have been the curse to Nigeria, and not the resource itself. To the degree that we had people who saw oil revenues as easy money to channel to personal gain rather than productive activity, infrastructure, and development; we today find ourselves contending with a myriad of challenges. Many may argue that this is semantics, but I hold this position very strongly. I like to make this distinction because as a nation we are also now currently speaking to diversification – moving away from the prior mono-product focus regime. However, if our diversification efforts again begin to yield significant revenues in any other industry, and we don’t put the right people in place to manage those revenues; what we will see will be that the other industry will follow the same trajectory as the oil industry did and this is what we necessarily need to watch out for, going forward. We cannot allow the lessons of the past be lost on us, and especially where accountability is concerned.
What new opportunities does your organisation explore to remain competitive like the multinationals?
Competition for us hinges on constant environmental scanning to be sure we are on top of the direction of the industry’s evolution over the medium to long term, and then establishing what our strategic responses to those movements will be. Falcon’s strategic growth initiatives are robust and we continuously seek viable investment opportunities that can increase the extent of impact we are making tangentially. We are expanding our EPC competencies through the acquisition of additional highly specialised technical equipment. We have refused to shrink out training budget, but rather increased it to ensure we are able to deploy more technical skills and management training. We have increased the investment into the Falcon Academy of learning, and we see the mileage this brings to our operations and ability to compete. Our end objective is to become a major player in the upstream sector of Nigeria’s Oil and Gas industry, and so the capacity building is important.
The nature of the industry and economy today call for close collaboration and co-coopetition to minimise costs and optimise efficiencies and obtain economies of scale where possible. We have therefore entered into various strategic partnerships over the past couple of years that allow us to upscale the level and scope of our offerings without unduly impacting on our cost profiles.
Besides your full-time engagement in your business, you are also a writer, how do you find time to write? What drives your consistent launch of new books?
I believe when you can see the purpose behind your passion, you make time to give it expression. I have many people ask me this same question and my response is usually a question back to them as to how they find time for the many weddings, parties and the multiple social engagements many have come to consider as imperative to their lives. I love to write and this is a gift I do not take for granted. Writing is, on one hand, a very relaxing escape for me, and on the other hand, it is an assignment and a platform through which I can also shift perspectives and impact the lives of a great number of people for good. I have 3 books published today – Double Impact, Uniquely Woman, and RUACH which is a collection of poetry. My fourth book will be published later this month. I am also a blogger. Over the years I have had a countless number of people share with me about how something I wrote in a book or blog has been a blessing to them and has helped them make life-transforming decision and changes. This is exactly the essence for me; that alignment between my passion for writing and the purpose which I see that God has for my gift, and this is to impact lives for good.
In one of your books – Uniquely Woman – you emphasised the need for women to “walk with the Holy Spirit as a constant companion.” Do you also consider this an important ingredient in running businesses successfully?
Indeed! One thing that we are unashamedly open about within the Falcon group is the fact that God has been and remains at the centre of all our successes over the years. My husband is a medical parasitologist by training, while I am a microbiologist. Today we are running companies that are successfully operating in the Oil and Gas industry, and making a tangible impact to the industrial and infrastructural development of the country of Nigeria and the continent of Africa. We consider ourselves to be marketplace ministers because we know that Falcon is a platform God has built for us to be able to deliver glory to Him and that glory comes by way of exceptional operations and services, value addition, and profits that are ploughed back into impacting positively on the lives of people.
Apart from inspiring women through your books, do you have empowerment or mentorship programs for younger women or in fact other women?
Yes, I do actually. I mentor quite a few young women and have done so consistently over the years. Indeed, I have mentees who are my peers, as well as a couple who are older. Over the years I have also mentored both young men and women through various platforms including Apostles in the Marketplace (AiMP), Wimbiz, YouWin, Lagos Business School, and Fate Foundation. I am also active in ministry on different platforms, but more specifically as relates to women, I co-travel with my sister Mrs Bidemi Mark-Mordi on a ministry platform she runs called ‘Sista Power’. It is a platform through which we work with women of all ages to discover the essence of who God has called them to be, empower them to walk in their purpose, and release them to go forward and impact other women in their families, organisations, social circles, etc.
So who is Audrey Joe-Ezigbo? Tell us about you.
I am first and foremost God’s daughter, committed to doing my excellent best by His grace to deliver to the world every assignment and purpose for which He put me on this earth. My greatest aspiration is to die empty; empty of every gift, talent and ability God blessed and resourced me with, so I can fulfil His mandate to be a blessing in the lives of others. I have over 22 years’ entrepreneurial experience, with core competencies in business strategy; finance and investment management; commercial strategy; business development and resource management among others.
I am a woman who is an encourager by nature and so everything I do feeds into my personal mission statement which is ‘To add value to the lives of everyone I meet in a tangible and sustainable manner’. I have a personal commitment to ensuring that people’s lives must necessarily be impacted positively because they had an encounter with me in person, through my work, or through my writing and speaking. For these reasons, I am a woman for whom purpose, intentionality and focus undergird my every moment. I am wife to an amazing man with whom I have had the joy of sharing over two decades of my life – at home and at work, and I am a mother to four absolutely fabulous children whose destinies I have been given the privilege to mould for the season of my life. I am a woman who understands that all things work together for my God because my life is in God’s hands, and His plans for me are good.