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To hear Kase Lawal tell it, while his company has been successful in carving out a niche for itself, it still remains little more than a “drop in the bucket” when compared to its competitors.
To hear Kase Lawal tell it, while his company has been successful in carving out a niche for itself, it still remains little more than a “drop in the bucket” when compared to its competitors. But when the bucket is the trillion-dollar energy industry, and the niche is pumping and processing crude from saturated oil fields in Africa, then a drop does not an Exxon make, but it is enough to make CAMAC Holdings the largest black-owned business in the world, and the unassuming 51-year-old CEO a modern-day oil magnate.
In fact, from oil exploration, refining and trading, Lawal’s Houston-based company raked in a mind-boggling $1billion in revenue last year alone. With offices in London, Johannesburg, Lagos and Port Harcourt, that totals about 100,000 barrels of crude every 24 hours.
“Business is great,” Lawal said of CAMAC, celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. “You just have to look at the newspaper to see the price of commodities.”
From his headquarters in a high-rise in the swank Galleria section of Houston, Texas, the Nigerian-born entrepreneur can see the world like few others, and reflect on a vision that has helped him overcome a civil war in his homeland and entrenched colour barriers in America, parlaying the best of the both worlds to claim a share of black gold in the historically lily-White oil industry.
Within CAMAC’s Houston offices, Lawal’s Nigeria, African roots and African-American influence are apparent. African art decorates the walls, while the talents of African-Americans can be seen throughout the corridors. An extremely private man, Lawal is reserved, yet dignified. But in business, Lawal’s bravado comes through. He will be the first to admit that searching for oil is not for the faint of heart. Big risks are taken in search of big rewards. “Sometimes, people think I’m crazy because I can sink in $40million looking for oil or gas; he said. “But if you catch it, if you get it, if you are able to get the reserves (strike oil), it pays for all of the other times you were unsuccessful. It’s an interesting business to be in.”
The great thing about drilling for oil is that once established, “this industry doesn’t know colour;’ he said. “It’s about your success in drilling and being able to find reserves.”
Much of his business acumen, he said, comes from his childhood experiences. He was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, a city of eight million people, about 100 miles north- west of Lagos. The son of a father who was a politician and a mother who was a textile store merchant in Ibadan, Lawal grew up during a time of political strife, as the liberation movement fought for freedom from British colonial rule.
Lawal remembers spending endless days at the United States Information Service reading about the similar struggles of blacks during the Civil Rights Movement in America. “I read anything I could lay my hands on,” he said. “I read about Martin Luther King. I was fascinated with the plight of Blacks. America had a tremendous influence on young people all over the world during those days. We were very interested in knowing what was happening. And most young people wanted to come to America. I was just one of the fortunate ones.”
He persuaded his parents to let him come to America to attend school. “I remember that morning,” he said. “I can still see my mother at the airport crying. It was the first time a person in my family was leaving home and going overseas. It was very difficult, but I was much more excited about what was ahead, and the curiosity of wanting to know what was in America.”
He headed straight for Georgia, the hotbed of freedom movement activity. He attended Fort Valley State University, before transferring to Texas Southern University, where he obtained a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering. He holds a master’s of business administration in finance and marketing from A&M University, Texas
Lawal’s first taste of the energy business came after graduation when he worked as a chemist for Dresser Industries (now Halliburton) and later a chemical engineer with Shell Oil Refining Company.
It wasn’t long before Lawal decided to venture out on his own. He started CAMAC first as an agriculture and commodities company that took tobacco from the South and made cigarettes to be sold overseas, but soon decided to use his knowledge of the energy industry to get into the field of oil exploration. But he ran into numerous problems trying to acquire land.
After being unsuccessful at nearly two dozen auctions, Lawal decided to go overseas. He was given a big boost in 1989 when the Nigerian government indicated that it wanted to encourage its people to get more involved in its lucrative oil industry. One of the people the government reached out to was Lawal, their native son. “Most people working on platform were Nigerians, but their bosses were the major oil company employees from the West,” Lawal said. “The government asked me to try to organise Nigerians in the US who were working for oil companies and would be interested in being technical partners with indigenous companies.”
He did, and in the process, realised that he could use his knowledge of Africa and America to gain a much bigger foothold in the industry. In 1991, Lawal signed several deals with major oil companies that would pave the way for the success that he enjoys today.
“The best way for me to get into the industry was to know what the big boys wanted, the major oil companies, the big 10, the big 50:’ he said. “Did they have an interest in West Africa? If they did, I would go to West Africa and look for what they wanted and made it available to them. I understood the political landscape and business environment in those countries in Africa. When you merge those two together, there was a good synergy that was very attractive to the major oil companies.”
THE PUNCH, Tuesday, December 13, 2005
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