Enugu State will soon witness a radical disruptive administration. That is the promise of the 2023 standard bearer of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Enugu State, Peter Mbah. The technocrat who thinks out of the box has excelled in both private and public life. In this interview, he explains among others why he decided to join politics after leading his company, Pinnacle, to become one of the oil industry’s leading players. Pinnacle is number one in the oil and gas downstream sector and owns one of the largest oil facilities in Nigeria today, with a world-class storage facility that has enabled the industry to cut down immensely on costs and turn-around time in operation.
Not many knew you before you emerged the standard-bearer of the PDP in Enugu State. Many would like to know where you were coming from?
I am Peter Mbah , from a town called Owoh in Nkanu East in Enugu State. Nkanu East is a local government. I am a lawyer by training; I trained in the United Kingdom. I did my LLB in the United Kingdom, came back and attended the Nigerian Law school and got called to the Nigerian Bar. I went on to do my LLM at the Lagos State University. I did my LLM in maritime and commercial law. In Maritime law, I had bias for oil and gas. So, my inroad into the oil and gas industry is not by accident. It is something that I had always wanted to do. Then I went on to earn an MBA at IESE Business School, Barcelona, Spain, University of Navarra. It is one of the leading business schools in the world. They have continued to remain number one in the last eight years ahead of Havard, Standford and the rest of other business schools. They are actually the parent school of the Lagos Business School. They were part and parcel of the Lagos Business School. I am also an alumnus of the Lagos Business School. I did my Chief Executive programme there. I did a post graduate study in strategy and innovation at the University of Oxford beside business schools. I have attended a lot of executive programmes both at Harvard and Stanford. So, I started what you see here today sometime in 2008. We started the Pinnacle Oil and Gas as another oil business. We started off in a one bedroom studio apartment; three of us. I had my secretary and somebody who ran errands for me. We have grown that business from one bedroom studio apartment to where you are today, the headquarters of Pinnacle. For those of you who may not know, Pinnacle is today the leading company in the industry. We are number one in the oil and gas downstream sector. The downstream sector is a mature sector and market where you have all the established companies-the big players, Mobil, Connoil, Oando and the rest of them. They all play in this space. We came in from that zero base of nil reckoning and we grew the company to number one today by market share and revenue. That did not happen by accident. It happened because of the passion we have for excellence –focus, creativity and innovation. Obviously, we did not grow the company incrementally, otherwise, all we would have done is to do catch up. We would not be where we are today if all we had done was to grow incrementally. We knew we wanted to become a dominant player and for a market that is already mature, for you to displace the dominant players already there, you have to do something creative.
So, what did you do?
You have to think outside the box which was what we did in Pinnacle. We looked at the space and we found out that there are compelling business problems and we needed to provide solutions to them. So, we looked at the operations space and we noticed that what we were doing in that space was suboptimal. We had a lot of multiple handlings. We had a situation where we had to bring products in large tankers and those large tankers could not go into our terminals, into the jetties to discharge because of the draught restrictions. So, what we did was to say to ourselves, how do we eliminate the multiple handlings because those multiple handlings in the maritime world, you pay per minute. The hiring of vessels is done on an hourly basis. So, if you have to keep a big tanker offshore and you have to hire a smaller vessel to go and pick products from the big tanker and take to your terminal, you are actually incurring multiple costs. This is because you are incurring the cost of keeping the big tanker, the demurrage is on you; the cost of hiring the shuttle vessels to go and lighter the big tanker is also on you. These created a lot of operational inefficiencies. So, we felt that there must be better ways of doing things and we then started thinking about solutions to the problems; how do we ensure that we take out the cost of keeping the mother vessel and take out the cost of hiring the shuttle vessels. What we did was to come up with a design of a terminal where those big vessels can berth without bringing them to the shore so that they can discharge from that location all the way to the tank farms. So, we built an offshore intake facility; what you could describe as an offshore port in an open sea. We built a terminal and had to run a subsea 40 kilometer network of pipelines all the way from the terminal to the location of the offshore terminal. So, what that did in effect was that it enabled us to bring in those large tankers that ordinarily would have taken you 30 days to empty. This is because for each voyage, you spend like eight days and typically, we do four voyages to empty a tanker of 60,000 metric tonnes. But what we designed and built offshore, we were able to discharge that same cargoe in the terminal within 48 hours. So, what used to take our competitors 30 days to do, we turned it around in 48 hours. Since September last year, we became the market leader in terms of volume and market share. We currently have 23 per cent market share. Perhaps the next company to Pinnacle has five per cent. So, these attributes that were driven by me also reflected in my sojourn when I had a four year stint in the public sector. I worked at various times as Chief of Staff and Commissioner for finance. As a Commissioner for finance, some of you would know that I am old in the media. I won an award then as one of the outstanding finance commissioners in the country given to me by Newswatch. Again, it was because of what we did; we got into the system and noticed a lot of suboptimisations. We disrupted those suboptimisations and ensured things were done optimally. We created value for our people. We came in and noticed that the budget at the time did not reflect government priorities. It was largely done in an incremental basis. We developed an economic empowerment strategy that reflected government priorities and we had to allocate funds to those government priorities. We started our budget on a zero base capturing all the government priorities. We looked at all the critical sectors. Some of them could not be contained within the budget cycle. We had to design a midterm expenditure framework which allowed us to deploy funds to that sector in order to achieve our output. So, we did all those things also mindful of the passion we have for excellence. So, what has taken me into this new phase of my life which is to serve our people as their governor starting from next year, is largely again driven by my vision and mission for my people. My mission essentially is to deliver a quality people-focused governance and to make Enugu State the preferred destination for investment, business, tourism and living. I envision an Enugu State that will be one of the top three states in this country and our aim is to achieve a zero percent rate in our poverty headcount index. We also have a clear governance philosophy but like I said earlier, this is not my day to begin to unveil my manifesto. We also believe that Enugu State has witnessed an appreciable growth on account of prudent and creative management of our resources particularly in the last seven years of this administration. There has been a buildup of new infrastructure and maintenance of the existing facilities. Enugu as most of you already know, discharges its obligations to our teeming civil servants. We are also today arguably the safest and most peaceful state in the country. And you know there cannot be any sustainable development without peace and the current administration has invested hugely in making sure that Enugu continues to be safe and peaceful. You hear about the South East and the commotion going on here and all that but it is almost like Enugu is insulated from all that. Those things do not happen by accident. It is also a deliberate strategy that this current administration has taken to ensure people of Enugu State continue to live in peace and safety. So, to sustain these achievements and also to build on it, require more than just having a mere appreciation of the status quo; it takes a commitment for one to harness the human and material resources of the state. It requires someone with a good head; someone whose past record both in the private and public sectors cannot be questioned. I think that essentially is what is driving the kind of support we are getting across stakeholders and the leadership of our party. We have identified that, in order for us to take our state and be able to compete and achieve this sort of record that we are talking about. I want to grow our economy to become one of the top three in this country. Enugu State’s GDP currently is at $4.4 billion annually. That is our current GDP size. We are saying that we want to grow that economy from $4.4 billion to $30 billion. This is because the three top states in the country today are Lagos which has a GDP of about $37 billion, second is Rivers State with a GDP of about $27 billion and the third is Delta with a GDP of about $22 billion. We want to in the next four to eight years be able to grow our GDP from $4.4 billion to $30 billion. That is not something you can achieve by growing incrementally. Refer to the background I gave, the private sector; that when we came out, our ambition was to dominate the industry and we knew we could not achieve that by growing incrementally. When you talk about incremental growth, you might be looking at a growth rate of about five to six percent annually. That would never take you to becoming the top three states in this country. So, what we want to do is to achieve a quantum leap, to leapfrog and that can only happen through disruptive innovation, creative and radical innovation. How do you essentially make Enugu State the preferred destination where businesses find attractive to come and invest, where investors are queuing with their funds to invest, where tourists are all running to because that is a safe haven and they all have their attractions to visit. I think that requires getting a lot of things right. And one that stands out is the ease of doing business which is something the state is already doing very well. We intend to build on that. We intend to make sure that businesses have the ease of setting up in Enugu; ease of procuring their construction permits; procuring their property registration and most importantly, the enforcement of contracts. And that would obviously require us to strengthen our institutions, judiciary and security. So, we are poised to doing that.
Initially when you joined the race, leaving such a flourishing company like Pinnacle, how did you feel knowing the caliberof opponents up against you like the former Deputy Senate president, Ike Ekweremadu?*
When I made my introductory remarks, I talked about what one was driven by. We have different values that drives us in life. Some are driven by extrinsic values; by this I mean things that are materialistic. You could spend a lot of time dwelling on how much output you are able to get from a particular decision you have to make. Some are driven by intrinsic values. That speaks to those decisions you make in life that your drivers are essentially how satisfied you are in it. Assuming you have a job offer somewhere, you may decide to stay put where you are earning less than move to a place where you are getting more. This is because your drive for making that decision is not expensive; it is not the money but the satisfaction you get; the people you work with; people around you. You wake up in the morning and you look forward to going to that office. That is intrinsic. So, if you remain where you are, it is because of the satisfaction you are deriving from the place. And there are people in life that are driven by transcendent values. I think that is where I fall in and that is the feeling that drove my going into this race. Transcendent in the sense that it transcends self; it is no more about how much satisfaction you are getting; how much material things you are exposed to. It transcends you and you are thinking about how your work and decision would impact on the third party. So, it is no longer about the self; it is about others. I think that is what essentially drove me into this race. The feeling is largely about how can provide solutions with all that is going on in this country; we feel the desire that perhaps the solution may not necessarily come from the centre. It may be strengthening the subunits, making sure that Enugu is doing very well, Lagos is doing very well and that other states are strong. If we are able to get 15 or more other states of the federation well strengthened and doing very well, we are done and fine as a nation. People would find Nigeria attractive to come and live as a nation. So, I am such an advocate that our solution may not necessarily come from the centre. It may well be that if we get the subunits right, then that would rub off on what happens at the centre. It may not be a top bottom solution but could be a bottom top solution. That is my strong belief and what got me into this race.
What made Ekweremadu to say he was not going on with his ambition and that he would now support you after you emerged?
First of all, I find the position he took very honourable. One of the things that Ekweremadu and I share in common is the passion for the development of our people. I have engaged him privately; we talked about our people and how we can improve the lives of our people and he also noticed that I am passionate about the development of our people. We had always said to ourselves that this is not going to be a bitter contest and that however this pendulum swings, that we would be fine. This is because our interests are largely our people; it is not about what he or I would eat as individuals. So, it did not come to me as a surprise that he gave his support and to have his people support me, and that he said he was no longer pursuing his ambition. I think that like every other clime where you have parties conducting their primaries, the objective of those people who are involved in that race is that it is obvious to them from the onset that it is just one of them that would emerge as the flag bearer. And what you notice is once someone begins to gain traction or becomes a leading person in the poll, what you notice is that there will be some horse-trading, negotiation going on between the campaign management of the guy leading the poll and the guy who believes his popularity is waning, to say look, I have this beautiful idea, how can you guys incorporate it in your programmes; my support base is interested in this project, can you guys incorporate it, I will lend my support. So, you see all those kinds of negotiations going on. The recent one that happened was in the US between Bernie Sanders and Biden. It took Biden agreeing to implement some of the programmes Bernie has in medicare and students’ loan for him to come out openly and declare open support for Biden. This is where people genuinely want to serve their people and all they are doing is to see how they can integrate things that their support base is passionate about into the winning team programme. That is essentially what you do in primaries and largely what you witness also in what has played out with my other colleagues.
What are the factors that will shape your choice of a running mate?
Again, I think that I am not one of those who subscribe to the idea that your running mate should be like a spare tyre. I think a running mate should be somebody who should bring value to the team and who should also be capable of governing in the event that you are not there. That would really be the factors that I would be considering in the value proposition of my running mate; someone who is capable of fitting into my shoes if anything should happen to me.
We know you are likely to win; what is the assurance that in future, there will be no predecessor/successor crisis?
I think one of the greatest achievements we have had in Enugu State is that since the beginning of the Fourth republic, since 1999, we have remained a PDP state. In the last 23 years, Enugu State has been governed by the PDP. The state of our union continues to be stronger and stronger. That is what we are experiencing here in this company. It is like a family affair. It is like going into a boardroom to have a dialogue and coming out to say this person should go and represent us in the assignment that we have all agreed should be executed. I do not expect any predecessor/successor crisis.
After you picked the governorship ticket of your party, you immediately reached out to other aspirants; what is the level of response from them?
I think I am humbled by the responses I have received thus far from my colleagues. It has just been so humbling. I cannot think of any exception; all the aspirants that ran the race with me, we have reached out to one another; they have sent their congratulatory messages and declared support. We are intact and the state of our union as a party continues to be stronger. We treated everything that happened as brotherly affairs and we continue to foster the unity as a party. The responses have been great and we continue to forge that alliance.
Why do you want to leave this size of business for politics?
You look at the state of business and the size of business I do and you would truly wonder why on earth would anybody leave this size of business and at this time of growth to do what I am going in to do in an uncharted waters of politics. I earlier talked about the values that drive people. But above all, I don’t know how much you hear or know before today about Pinnacle; we are typically not very loud people but the truth is that we are the industry number one. Any player in any industry that is at the state where Pinnacle is, the CEO of that company would never want to resign. That is because it is the desire of any CEO to play a leadership role in the industry. We play such a leadership role that if anything affects Pinnacle, you would feel it in the market place because of the share volume we control. In an established market like the downstream, to have a 23 per cent market share is no mean feat. It is major and what that means is that as a CEO, I look forward to coming to the office everyday. I know that when I cough, the market will quiver. So, it is a lot of sacrifice and even what we do here in terms of revenue is way beyond what a state like Enugu does. There is no way I could have been driven by extrinsic values to go into where I am going now. We are in good stead. I am not leaving Pinnacle at a point where it is shaking. I am leaving Pinnacle where the ovation is at its loudest; everybody would wish to be in a position that I am right now. That is the real difference and this is almost like a baby I have nurtured in the past 14 years and you can imagine that it is also somewhat emotional for me to even make that decision to leave. But I think that the driver for me is beyond myself. If you realise that there are certain decisions you take and you go back to your room and you cry, then you wake up and you realise that it is for the betterment of the larger society, you say okay, you have to do it.