A former Vice Chairman of Mobil Producing Nigeria, Otunba Solomon Oladunni, who had just clocked 70, speaks on his life experiences, growing up and his career in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA
How best would you describe the past 70 years?
If you really want me to enumerate the countless number of gifts and blessings one has received over these years, we would tell the story from daybreak to dusk and another daybreak. Over the years, from childhood to adulthood and to this age, there are so many things to be thankful to God for. First, we are thankful for life and good health. I also thank God for the lovely children I have. One cannot but be happy when one sees the blessing of God in terms of procreation. So, I’m grateful to God.
You grew up in your home town, Oke Agbe, in Ondo State; being a rural area, how smooth was your education?
I had my education in record time, in spite of the circumstances surrounding going to school at that time. In those days, your right hand had to touch your left ear before you could qualify to go to school, and I was able to, so I was about six when I started. There were not many schools around then and not every parent realised the need to send their children to school, so one has to be grateful for having parents who valued education. Back then, we had to go to the brooks to fetch water. We were using gas lamps and lanterns to read. We didn’t even have radio not to talk of television. And it would interest you to know that those things didn’t matter to us; we were happy. We believed those were the challenges we had to face in order to be successful. On several occasions, especially in primary school, I walked barefooted to school because of the situation of things and I never saw it as an issue. Schooling became more interesting over time, especially when Chief Guy Garguilo, a foreigner, became our principal in Ajuwa Grammar School in 1963. He brought in some American peace corps to teach us and he recruited some local teachers. Before he came, it was not easy to get a graduate teacher to come and work there, being a community school in a remote village with no social amenity. He also introduced a lot of extracurricular activities and he taught us a lot of hymns. Overall, we did a lot of exciting things as students.
Would you say that environment was a limiting factor?
I was very adventurous then and I remember that we the members of the Current Affairs Society in Ibadan Grammar School visited Ghana. I later went to Ibadan Grammar School after leaving Ajuwa. We went for excursion in Ghana and we also had a debate with our student colleagues in Achimota College, Accra. We visited Aburi, which was the place where the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, alongside some of his governors, met with Col. Odimegu Ojukwu, who was leading the Biafran group to negotiate a kind of peace deal to settle the crisis then. At that time, they used to say ‘On Aburi we stand’. We were there less than a year after that historic event. We also visited some places of interest in Togo and Cotonou. As young as we were, we chattered a vehicle from Ibadan because we had the zeal to see the outside world. And that was why I chose a Higher School far from home.
Did your parents play any role in your choice of school and your course?
My parents didn’t go to school, so they didn’t influence any of the two. However, there were a few factors that were responsible for that choice. In my secondary school, I didn’t have the opportunity of taking science subjects as there were no laboratories, and that was why I went back to the school to build a laboratory for them. That aside, I loved economics as a subject and I believe that if you really want to help in shaping the destiny of any organisation or nation or any place you belong to, there must be sound economic planning. Besides, there is nothing we do in life that doesn’t involve some measure of economics. So, if there is a subject that can also equip you to do it much better, that is economics. And of course, there were renowned economists like Prof. Sam Aluko and Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade, whom we aspired to be like in the future.
In those days, even till now, many people see it as enormous blessing if one gets a job in an oil company. How did you get into Mobil?
Only God knows how it happened, but what I know is that whatever God has destined is bound to happen. Mobil had a system whereby they would go annually to recruit students, either for vacation or graduate employment. They needed few people, usually. So, people applied and I did too. I didn’t even know that my name had been pasted as one of those to appear for an interview until one day when I was coming back from a lecture and one of my friends said my name was one of those on the notice board for interview. I quickly gave my book to another person and ran to the venue of the interview. Some of my classmates and seniors were also there. The panel members were all Americans. They asked me several questions and I noticed that after answering any question, they would either say good or very good. That was the feedback I was getting from them. After the interview, they asked if I had any question and I said yes. I asked them how soon would they give me feedback (laughs). They said ‘well, young man, you don’t have to worry, we would hire you.’ I later found that of all my classmates, I was the only person they said they would hire. When I got back to class, some of them said they couldn’t pick the accent of the experts. But, fortunately for me, Chief Garguilo, who was our principal then, Robin Nelson and one other teacher in my school then were all Americans. So, I had been able to pick their accent. I was chosen and that was how I got into Mobil the first time. Some of my classmates gave me a nickname; Mobilo. They still call me that up till today.
What level were you then?
I was in part one. Normally, they used to recruit students in part two, and that was why I felt mine was divine, but they decided to talk to me. During my first vacation job there, I met one Pa Oyeniya, who was the most senior Nigerian in the administration department. He was the boss of the person I was attached to. After the vacation job and I was to go back to school, my boss said he wanted to introduce me to him. Otherwise, there was no way I could have met him. When we met him, he was an elderly man, he said he had got good reports about me and that he had also seen my reports and they were happy with my work. He said they understood I was in part one and that they would like to have me again if I was interested in working with them the following year. I jumped at the offer and quickly said I enjoyed the work. When I was about leaving, I told him I didn’t want to be too forward but that I had a question. I said there was one boy named Oyeniya in my house (hostel) when I was the house captain at Ibadan Grammar School. He was my junior. I asked if he knew that boy by any chance. Surprisingly, he said he was the father of the boy. He then asked, in amazement, if I was the prefect who helped him when he came to visit his son in school? I said yes. He was very happy. So, he said, if you want to come again, you are free. That was it. Let me tell you what happened. I was the house captain then and it was not a visiting time but the man said he was coming from Lagos and he wanted to see his son. They referred him to me and I allowed him. That was it and I had even forgotten about it because it was about five years after. So, that moment, we ignited a relationship and we were close till he died. When he clocked 80, I was the chairman on the occasion. When I became a director in Mobil, even though he had retired a long time before then, he came with my boss to greet me. He said if a father builds a bungalow and his son builds a storey building, won’t that father be happy? I said yes. He said that was why he came. They were not able to get to director level when they were in Mobil but I did. Both of them were so happy that I attained a position they could not.
How much were you paid then?
I was paid 30 Pounds per month. They split it into two. They paid you part of it and they would save the remaining. When you were going back, they would give you the balance in bulk. So, I had good money at that time and I enjoyed myself in school. I had money to spend and I was also on scholarship. After the first year, I got Marketing Board Scholarship and I got some pocket money from them.
After your education, was your employment automatic?
When I left the university, they had already interviewed me, but I wasn’t even aware they had offered me employment. I went to Oke Agbe briefly and then came to Lagos. Since Mobil had not contacted me, I then took up a teaching appointment at CMS Grammar School in Lagos. I had not taught there for more than four weeks, when another company called me for an interview. They said they were impressed with my performance during the interview but I would need to come for the final one. They said I should check back in one week. From that interview, I decided to stop by at Mobil House to greet some of my friends and the junior colleagues I left there. When I got there, the secretary screamed and said ‘where have you been?’ They called me ‘Dip Dip’, which was the name my friends and I gave ourselves when we came back from Ghana. It meant diplomat. She said they had been looking for me and that when they contacted my school, they were told I had left school after graduation and they didn’t know how else to reach me. There and then, they gave me my letter. Don’t forget, I just went to greet them casually. While I was still teaching and doing job interviews, I didn’t know a better offer was waiting for me. That was a very happy day in my life and you could say it was one of my happiest days. It was a great deal to get a job in an oil company. Of course, I didn’t bother going back to the company that asked me to come back the following week (laughs). But remember I was still teaching, so it became a dilemma.
What was your dilemma?
I was thinking of how to handle the pupils I was preparing for WASSCE. People at Mobil had asked when I was coming to resume and I told them I would revert to them. So, the following day, I went to see the principal of the school. I told him I had an issue and I didn’t know how to solve it. I told him I got a more permanent job and I didn’t want to go without letting him know. That was how he started praying for me. He said I was the first economics teacher to inform him of a planned exit. He said others would just run away once they got another job. So, I told him I would be coming in the evening after closing from work to prepare the pupils till it was about two weeks to their exam and I wasn’t getting paid for that; it was just to help those pupils. After a while, I could not cope because of the volume of assignments I had in the office, so, I started my work full time at Mobil. I believe my joining Mobil was God’s grace and I had a flourishing career there (laughs).
How did your parents receive the news when they heard you got a job in an oil company?
Everybody was happy and they even did thanksgiving; both for my graduation and for my job. One of my friends then said I was working in a company where they used sack to carry their money (laughs).
You started as a personnel assistant and you moved from there to become the Vice Chairman. What was your career progression like?
Okay. I joined as a personnel assistant, like a management trainee, and then I became personnel coordinator. From there, I was promoted to personnel advisor; from there to personnel administration. From there, I became the personnel manager and from there to manager, compensation and benefits. I moved from there to become the manager, human resources and services and from there to manager, employee relations, then to manager administration, then to executive director and then vice-chairman.
What would you ascribe that progression to?
First, I like to give God the glory. And of course, if you are not hardworking, you won’t get anything. It is a combination of both. Though in terms of working, you could not find me wanting. You couldn’t fault me in terms of performance. Even some of my supervisors would say I pushed them hard. One of my superiors then, an expatriate, said Solomon, I know I pushed but you also pushed me hard. That was the grace of God. Things happen in life that you cannot explain until when God begins to show you signs. When I joined Mobil, I never knew I could become a director. In fact, all I was thinking was that if I could get to the post of a division head, I would be happy, even though I had always desired to be at the top. During the interview for that vacation job in my first year, the panellists asked me ‘how do you see your future in the coming years?’ I told them that in 10 years, I like to see myself as a captain in the organisation. That was the word I used. They asked how I would define my own captain, and I said I like to be at the leadership level. And God made it happen, because less than 10 years, I was already up there in the company. When I joined as a personnel assistant, the first four to five years was a bit tough; it wasn’t that easy, but God was on the throne.
How do you mean?
There was so much work to do, expectations not being realised and then appreciation not commensurate with what we were doing and opportunities not given when you think you deserve it. That was years ago, and maybe that was a period to develop me. Then, one GM, an American, came and said he didn’t like Solomon being denied opportunities simply because he was young. He said I must be given opportunity to compete with others. When he said that, things changed. The man refused to honour any move where they didn’t include me. He said I was a young man who knew what he was doing, he said he could relate with me and anytime he needed me I was there and I did whatever he needed me to do. So, that caught the attention of everybody. When I came back from a programme, he said my report should be circulated to all directors and general managers, even though I was a lower cadre officer. He said they should all read that report from Solomon. You know a black man won’t comment on such but the foreigners there started praising me.
Till date, some people still feel they use sack, hypothetically, to share money in oil companies, would you say some of the perceptions people have about oil companies are exaggerated?
I think there is exaggeration. What we do in the oil industry is that we don’t pay allowances in bits, like housing, transport and other allowances separately. No. Everything is rolled into one package so it looks big.
What were your best moments as a career person?
I had so many of such moments. Each time I was promoted, of course, one would be happy. I remember when I became personnel manager and I became an executive. It was a happy day and some of my friends held a party for me. When I became Manager, Administration, it was also a big day. Also, when I became a director and then a Vice Chairman, but there were also things that gave me professional fulfilment in terms of ability to have Nigerians rise to positions where they could hold some of the key positions in the company. It was quite an achievement, getting Nigerians up to speed in training and development to hold positions. Also, in terms of having Nigerians to work overseas, I had a lot of that done for a lot of Nigerians and it was fulfilling. We also took a look at the welfare package for employees, both during service and when leaving. That also gave me fulfilment. On the business side, I was very happy; the day we attained the one billion mark of production of crude; the day we commissioned the Oso Condensate platform; the day we commissioned the NGL platform; the day we grew production to over 600,000 barrels a day and the day we increased our crude oil reserves. When I was the manager, administration, I used to have safety and security under my portfolio, so whenever we achieved Million Man-hours without lost time accident, I used to be very happy. There are so many areas I had personal and professional fulfilment.
Even though you were in the administrative department, didn’t you miss going offshore?
I was always there. You know I said safety was under me and we did what we called safety management inspection. At least every month, we went off shore. Then, every quarter, senior management went there too. So, if I could not go for one, I would go as a top level management staff.
You resigned from Mobil voluntarily as the Vice Chairman; not everybody would contemplate that, especially with the perks of that office. What informed that move?
One has to thank God for everything. I never even thought I would stay for that long. I was thinking of leaving about four years earlier, but I could not leave because I became the Vice Chairman, so I had to spend close to five years after assuming that office. You see, when you reach certain levels in some organisations, you’ve seen everything and there’s nothing more to see. If God had saved you to get to that level, one has to know when to leave. If you’ve worked hard for a long period of time, taking a deserved rest wouldn’t be too much. At that point, there was no more promotion nor increase (laughs). The position of Vice Chairman was the highest I could get to, and I had spent five years there, so I left. But, I had a fulfilling career.
Were you the first Nigerian to become the vice chairman?
No, but I was the first Nigerian to occupy the position for such a long period. When Mobil had become very big was when I assumed that position. Some people believe I was the first but I wasn’t.
You must have had a very tight work schedule. Were you able to create time for leisure?
I did. You know you can’t do everything and when you have good hands, it makes things easier. I had good lieutenants who were fantastic on the job. We had limits of authority, so it was the things that were beyond them that they would refer to me. I couldn’t have done it alone.
Since you retired in 2001, what have you been doing?
I was still very active till when I was 65. I was consulting, I was into business and I served on the board of companies. But at 65, I retired from most of those companies. What I do now is more of pro bono, including community and church activities. And there are a few companies that I still sit on their boards.
These days, what are the things that keep you busy?
I devote time to seeing how we can bring others up, especially the younger ones, so they can be the shining stars of tomorrow, not just for their own families but for our communities and the country at large. I also travel a lot. I like to travel; I don’t like staying in one place for too long.
Like how many countries have you visited?
I can’t count them; they are too many. There is no big country in the world I’ve not been to. I travel and I attend meetings.
At what point did you marry?
My wife and I met just about four years after graduation. We met the way men meet women (laughs). Of course there were friends, but only God knew who would be one’s wife, because I also could not say initially. We knew both in Lagos and at home (Oke Agbe) and with time, the relationship clicked. I was 29 when we got married.
There was a time you declared your interest to become the governor of Ondo State. What inspired that step?
Before I retired, people had asked me to contest for the governorship position but I didn’t want to leave my work to join politics. After I had retired and I put my hands on a few things here and there which were successful, I felt challenged that there was one thing I could take on in order to create a more developed and progressive society, particularly in my state and how I could create more impact on the lives of our people. I realised that Ondo State was not realising the full benefits of its God’s given natural resources. We were not properly harnessing them and the little being exploited were not well managed. So, I thought I could provide the platform to create a rescue mission for our state but the powers that be didn’t allow it and I believe our people were the worse for it because poverty is still biting hard and unemployment is still on the increase. I believe I had reached a level in my life that it is what I can give back to the society that is more important to me. I wanted to do that without expectation of any material gain. I was even prepared to make sacrifices in terms of where I live as governor, the kind of vehicle I ride and what salary I get so we could have more funds for projects that would touch lives. I thought of reducing the benefits they give to the governor, which I see as wasteful. Literally, I didn’t need anything again; I had a house and I had a good car. I won’t ride in two cars at the same time. The one thing I would need was an office and they had one there. I was prepared to live in my own house, because I know they spend so much money on the government house. These were the things that made me want to run for that office. Of course, we tried our best, but the powers that be would not let it happen. Even when I was not in government, I spoke to some of my friends to raise funds for the state in 1996 to develop and refurbish the technical colleges in the state. I raised substantial amount of money, about N64m, in May 1996. Those were the sort of things we had in mind. I believed the state could easily have been producing its own oil marginal fields by now. The state could also have had its refinery, which I believe I could have achieved if I was a governor because I helped them to procure the licence both for refinery and marginal fields from the Federal Government in 2003/2004. I also wanted to see what could be done in some of the moribund industries in the state, and using our God-given endowment in the state and how we can leverage our relationship with foreign partners to develop our bitumen and granite industry. But it didn’t happen.
Did you feel bad that it didn’t work out?
As a human being, definitely I wasn’t happy that it didn’t work out but I didn’t beat myself on the head for it. Mine was to make effort and it was for the people to decide what they want, just that the people also didn’t really have much opportunities to make decisions. It was for the party to decide who they wanted and then later the people to decide. Even when we talk of the party, it’s the powers that be. Nowadays, it could have been a bit freer and easier, the sort of atmosphere of today, in which people can take part in a primary without the exhibition of too much coercive power. I’m not saying influence is totally removed, but at least it should not be as dominant and resistant to people’s freedom to compete. And you know that once in the life of a man, there is always a moment of decision. When you study an environment, you should be able to make informed decision. I realised that it was one thing for me to want to assist a group of people, but it’s another thing if your intention would be clearly understood or accepted. I just believe that the best time was when I came out. People have been saying I should come, but I don’t think it’s wise to go back. At my level and age, one should take life with ease. One should focus on heaven and what one could do for the people here on earth.
Do you make out time to go for parties?
These days, I’m more selective because I can’t go everywhere. I only attend the necessary ones. My nickname in secondary school was Ayo Social. Some people didn’t even know my real name, and that tells you that how much I like to organise parties and celebrate with people. But these days, I’m more selective and I love to dance (laughs).
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.