Adewale Tinubu: From a career in law to becoming the king of African oil

Described as “The King of African Oil” by Forbes magazine, and one of the top ten CEOs in the world by ASKMEN, Adewale Tinubu is a name that requires no introduction. Before he turned 30, he had already built for himself, a reputation as a market leader in Nigeria’s emerging oil and gas sector at the time.

That ingenious young man has not looked back since then, as he continues to smash new challenges year after year. He still sits as Chief Executive Officer of OANDO Plc, a rebranded version of the small company he started almost 30 years ago.

Birth and education

Adewale Jubril Tinubu was born to a legal practitioner on 26 June 1967, in Lagos, Nigeria. He had his early education in Nigeria, obtaining his West African Senior Certificate in 1983, before proceeding to the United Kingdom at the age of 16 to study law at the University of Liverpool, England. There is no mention about where he might have picked up the inspiration to study law, but having a lawyer-father, who practically lived and breathed the profession could have been an encouragement for the young man to tow the same path.

It was during his time in London that he started honing entrepreneurial and deal-making skills which he had only just discovered. He travelled across Europe several times, using his school fees to purchase luxury German cars and driving them back to London. The goal was to sell them off at a profit on his way back to London, and if he was not successful in doing that, he would sell them immediately he got to London. After making about four to five trips, he had averaged $5,000 in profits on each sale – which was very impressive for a 21-year-old.

After his law degree, he went to the London School of Economics to get his Masters in Law in 1989, before returning to Nigeria at 22 to attend the Nigerian Law School. He was called to bar in 1990.

A taste of the legal career

Adewale Tinubu started out his career working in his father’s law firm, K. O. Tinubu and Co., as a lawyer specialising in corporate and petroleum law. Even though he had spent years studying to do exactly what he was doing, he soon got bored of the profession, and his hands started itching to put on the entrepreneurial gloves. Tinubu longed for bigger challenges that would take him around the world, brokering and sealing mouth-watering deals.

For as long as he worked in his father’s law firm, he knew he would remain in his father’s shadows and never get the chance to do the things he really wanted. In 1992 and only 25 years old, Adewale quit his job and started a company, working out of his father’s garage since he did not have enough money to rent an office space. He installed a telephone which he borrowed from the family house, and also borrowed some office supplies from his father.

His small company gave him space to practise law his own way. For the first few months, he was able to secure and handle corporate assignments for some companies, and this helped him to pay the bills and save up enough to rent an actual office. He was also averaging a decent income for himself on a monthly basis, and no longer needed to borrow stuff from his father’s office. Small achievement though it was, it was sufficient to convince the young man that he could do great things.

Adewale Tinubu continued to look out for opportunities where he could take on the kind of challenges he was seeking.

Ocean and Oil, the beginnings of O-and-O

A friend, Jite Okoloko, approached Adewale Tinubu in 1994 to inquire if he could help him get a vessel to transport fuel. Okoloko had been contracted by Unipetrol, a government-owned oil company to transport diesel from the Port Harcourt refinery in the Niger Delta to fill up a few fishing trawlers in Lagos, and could not lay hands on a vessel to execute the deal.

This was just the kind of opportunity Tinubu had been looking for and he wasted no time. He contacted another friend, Omamofe Boyo, a lawyer at FRA Williams Chambers.

Boyo had represented an oil service firm, which owned a weather-beaten 1945 World War II tanker called The Carolina. After inspecting the ship, which was docked at Bonny Island, Tinubu paid for and chartered the vessel, using it to transport the fuel to Lagos in exchange for a fair share of the returns. This was the beginning of his oil and gas business, and marked the informal birth of Ocean and Oil.

He soon purchased the vessel altogether, and started doing other businesses like selling fuel to indigenous oil companies. His legal wiz came into play here, and he registered the oil trading company officially – naming it Ocean and Oil. As an astute business man, client satisfaction was his priority, given that he had no plans for marketing but hoped to break through with referral and positive reviews. His practice of effective and timely delivery did not escape his clients’ notice and the deals kept rolling in.

He went ahead to partner with his friends, Okoloko, Boyo, and Osaze Osifo in Ocean and Oil, and the business grew, further increasing the fleet to 7 vessels. By the time Tinubu clocked 30 years in 1997, he had become something of a market leader in the sales and supply of fuel products in Nigeria.

In 2000, when the Nigerian government decided to sell off its 40% equity in Unipetrol (10% to the investing public and 30% to a private investor), Tinubu knew that it was time to move in for the kill. It was a “now or never” moment for Ocean and Oil. Tinubu led Ocean and Oil to successfully bid for the 30% stake, the largest ever acquisition of a quoted Nigerian company (given that Unipetrol Plc had purchased Agip Nigeria Plc).

The group was rebranded to Oando PLC, as a way to retain the former character – Ocean and Oil (O and O). It has been a bullish rise for the company since then, with several successful subsidiary brands and businesses all under the Group. There is Axxela Limited in the midstream (formerly known as Oando Gas and Power) and OVH Energy in the downstream (formerly known as Oando Marketing Limited).

In 2005, the company became the first Nigerian company to dual-list on both the Nigerian and Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and has grown to become one of the largest indigenous energy companies listed on the Nigerian bourse.

With both subsidiaries equally successful, in 2019, Oando concluded its phased divestment from Axxela to a vehicle owned by Helios Investment Partners LLP (“Helios”), a premier Africa-focused private investment firm, for a total of $160 million. In 2019, Oando also successfully divested Oando Marketing Limited to the Vitol Group and Helios Investment Partner, resulting in the formation of OVH Energy for $461m.

Other interests and recognitions

In 2011, Adewale Tinubu donated 1.5% of Oando’s pre-tax profits to fund education initiatives across West Africa. His special interest is not hidden and one can easily see how the OANDO group has sponsored key events in some government-owned primary schools in Nigeria.

He has also donated some oil & gas sector books to 15 universities and 2 national libraries across Nigeria, as a way to educate students on the sector that lays the golden eggs for Nigeria’s foreign earnings.

In January 2007, Tinubu was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum Geneva, in recognition of his achievements as one of the leading executives under 41. Four years later, he received the “African Business Leader of the Year 2011” award by Africa Investor.

In June 2015, he was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” West Africa by Ernst & Young for his contributions to the development of the African Oil and Gas industry.

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