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Benedict Peters: A Personal Testament To An Indomitable African Entrepreneur – By Odion Omonfoman


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Mr. Benedict Peters, the executive vice chairman of Aiteo Group is extremely publicity shy. He is more content doing what he does best behind the klieg lights. But in this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the lessons learnt is to celebrate deserving people and tell their story from our own firsthand perspective today, rather than wait for tomorrow. There is really no assurance of tomorrow, or a perfect time to celebrate them or tell their story.

In December 2019, Aiteo celebrated its 20th year of operations. The story of Mr. Benedict Peters, the founder and executive vice chairman of Aiteo Group is a true testament to that indomitable and indefatigable African entrepreneurial spirit that has propelled Aiteo to become a force to be reckoned with in Africa’s energy sector.

Benedict Peters, known to his friends, close associates and employees as Benny, was born in Abakiliki in the present Ebonyi State, but grew up in Enugu, Benin and Lagos, along with five other siblings. His early education was in Enugu, where he attended Ekulu Primary School, Enugu and Federal Government College, Enugu. He is a graduate of Geography and Regional Planning from the University of Benin, Benin City.

Even at an early age, his parents, siblings and friends knew Benedict was a special kid and would be successful in life. Benedict, as a kid and teenager, spoke well beyond his age, with a lot of wisdom and insight. As an undergraduate student in the University of Benin (UNIBEN), “Benedict was an enigma”, recalls one of his good friends who attended university with him. While fellow students prayed to graduate with very good degrees and secure good jobs after leaving university, young Benedict spent his time reading the Bible from cover to cover. His fervent prayer points, which were rather interesting, was for God to give him wisdom for wealth, and a stature and carriage that would match the weight of his spoken words. God definitely heard the prayers of young Benedict!

Benedict’s father was a corporate banker with Union Bank (formerly Barclays Bank of Nigeria). His mum is a teacher and home maker, who eventually raised Benedict and his siblings alone on her meagre salary as a teacher, when her husband died. From his father, he imbibed the ideals of hard work, integrity and corporate strategy. From his mum, he learnt perseverance and a deep faith in God.

Benedict started his corporate life like any ordinary young Nigerian graduate. After his mandatory National Youth Service with Union Bank in the early 90s, he started his career in oil and gas with Ocean and Oil Limited (now known as Oando Plc) at the inception of the company in the early 1990s. Benedict then joined MRS Oil Nigeria Plc, a major downstream petroleum company, as an executive director, and became the managing director of the company, while still in his twenties.

At some point in his early career, upon leaving MRS, Benedict’s entrepreneurial spirit saw him foray into large scale trading in agricultural commodities like cocoa, rubber and tomatoes. He would source cocoa beans from Cross Rivers and Cameroon for export to France, then enter into the hinterlands in Edo and Delta States to source for rubber for export. At some point, he was into trading tomatoes from northern Nigeria for delivery to specific markets in southern Nigeria.

His agricultural trading business flourished and he became quite a successful commodities trader at a very young age, nearly almost forgetting about a career in the downstream oil and gas industry, until he got a revelation to go back to his oil and gas career. According to him, the revelation occurred on a business trip to Brussels in Belgium. Immediately, he wound down a profitable agricultural commodities trading business and moved to establish his oil trading business. And his experiences and expertise from trading tomatoes, cocoa, rubber and other agricultural commodities would be very pivotal and useful in his new oil trading business later on.

Benedict’s stint at both Ocean and Oil and at MRS significantly exposed him to the opportunities in Nigeria’s downstream industry, which at the time was controlled by the oil marketing subsidiaries of internatuional oil companies (Total, Mobil, Agip, Texaco, etc) and also state controlled oil marketing companies like National Oil and Chemical Marketing Company (now Conoil), African Petroleum Plc (now Forte Oil) and Unipetrol Plc (now Oando). With a wealth of experience garnered while at MRS Oil and Ocean and Oil Ltd, Benedict set out to start his own petroleum trading company. In 1999, he founded Sigmund Cummunecci Limited together with his younger brother, Francis Peters, and a few associates.

The Peters brothers’ early business in the downstream petroleum sector was in trading fuel oils from the Kaduna Refinery to customers in Lagos and other towns. One of his business associates, who I would not name, recalls the early days of the business and Benedict’s keen drive to succeed. He recalls how Benedict and himself would ride in a well beaten Peugeot 505 saloon car to chase for Local Purchase Orders (LPO) from Total and other major oil marketing companies and textile companies to supply HFPO and other base oil products. As a young but very focused entrepreneur, Benedict would many times accompany the trucks laden with HFPO from Kaduna, to deliver products to customers in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Warri.

From trading and trucking out HPFO and LPFO, Benedict then commenced full time trading and importation of petroleum products, importing on behalf of the major marketing companies. Within seven years of founding Sigmund, the company had grown its downstream petroleum assets to include the largest tank farms in Eastern Nigeria and the largest tank farm in Apapa (at the time), and also rose to become a major player in the downstream petroleum industry. In 2008, Sigmund Communecci rebranded and was renamed Aiteo, with eyes on phenomenal future growth. That same year, the company commenced crude oil liftings under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

With such immense financial success in that short time, many young entrepreneurs might feel fulfilled and satisfied with the achievements of the company. Not Benedict. He was just getting started with achieving the revelation of his destiny that made him take an immediate decision to leave a successful cocoa trading business right in the heart of the Belgian capital.

My path with Benedict crossed in 2006 when he was a client of BGL Limited, at the time, Nigeria’s foremost investment banking firm. He had engaged the firm to help in financing the Apapa tank farm. I was the head of the structured finance division at the firm. Benedict was a client I took seriously from the first day I met him, on account of his clarity of focus as to where he wanted to be and how important the Apapa tank farm project was to his vision. I recall he was soft-spoken, always dressed in well ironed black shirts and black pants. You could not miss his strong personality and a distinct aura that gave him a formidable presence.

The first thing that strikes you when Benedict speaks about his vision and business, is his fierce oratory power – delivered with so much wisdom, confidence and deep insights. I witnessed this powerful oratory firsthand during the Apapa tank farm transaction which, at the time, was the first syndicated financing for a tank farm project for an independent petroleum marketer in Nigeria.

Having successfully structured the financing for the project, two Nigerian banks were keen on participating in financing the project as the Lead Arranger. One of the banks required a meeting with the Board Credit Committee (BCC) to fast track the approval process for the bank’s participation as the lead lender. As the financial adviser to the transaction, we made our presentation to the BCC. Despite the brilliant presentation, it seemed we would not get the approval of the BCC.

Then Benedict spoke. At the end of Benedict’s speech, the members of the BCC were so impressed with Benedict’s astute presentation of his business and vision, that they not only approved the bank to be the Lead Arranger for the Apapa tank farm project, they also demanded that the Bank should solely finance the petroleum products as well. That is how powerful Benedict’s oratory skills are. I consider Benedict as one of the top five Nigerian chief executives with outstanding oratory prowess.

In the over fourteen years that I worked closely with Benedict on multiple transactions, there are several traits of his that I’ve admired deeply. One of such traits is Benedict’s fearless can-do attitude, backed up by his strong Christian faith, as well as a knack for meticulous planning and diligent, extensive preparation. Benedict’s ability to conquer whatever challenge or difficulty that comes his way has always awed me. Nothing gets in the way of Benedict once he has set his mind on a goal. Another well admired quality is Benedict’s perspicacious mind and a knowledge and deep insights into almost all subjects, including those you felt may be too technical, mundane or abstract. Benedict has a gift of breaking things down into their simplest forms, no matter how complex. Yet he has never attended the four walls of Harvard, Oxford, Wharton or any of the Ivy league business schools, which seems like a prerequisite to attaining such heights of business achievements in Africa.

My most memorable transaction with Benedict was when Aiteo decided to participate in the power sector privatisation when the process was opened up in 2011. I was the transaction manager. From the onset, we agreed that the Electricity Distribution Companies (“DisCos’) would be the best targets to bid for and acquire, as DisCos provided the last mile services to the customers and controlled the revenues of the entire power sector; moreso DisCos are the only entities that can potentially operate, independent of the rest of the power sector value chain (from an embedded power generation perspective). We engaged world class engineering, financial and legal consultants and investment banking firms such as Parsons Brinckerhoff, London Power Associates, Ramboll UK, PricewaterhouseCoopers, FBN Merchant Bank, BGL Ltd, UBA Capital, Sefton Fross, Detail Commercial Solicitors, to name a few. We also had some of the best technical partners such as Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA) of Thailand, Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA) of Thailand and other technical partners from Turkey, India and United Arab Emirates to put together the technical and financial proposals for five out of the eleven successor Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) DisCos being privatised. Benedict was deeply involved in all aspects of the bid proposal preparation.

Looking back, I can say without any equivocation that our financial and technical bid proposals were perhaps some of the best put together for the PHCN successor DisCos privatisation. We knew the importance of closing the metering gap and its impact on reducing the ATC&C losses. However, we also saw the inadequacy of the MYTO electricity tariffs proposed by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) at the time, to support the huge capital expenditure required to close the existing metering gap and improve the distribution network. For instance, NERC proposed a total revenue requirement of N32.5 billion (approximately US$209 million at the 2012 exchange rate) to cover capital expenditures for Ibadan DisCo over a five-year period. The total revenue requirement as proposed by the NERC was clearly insufficient to meet the capital requirement for metering alone! As such, we had already started the process of developing a plan for off-balance sheet financing for metering. We had also foreseen the revenue shortfalls that would happen to the power sector after privatisation as a result of the huge ATC & C losses and low tariffs. Our plan to mitigate the revenue shortfall risk we foresaw, was to target the large commercial customers and industrial clusters within the target DisCos and provide reliable power to them, as well as implementing 100 per cent smart metering backed by superior data analytics for these category of customers. In summary, any bidder that did a modicum of proper due diligence of the privatisation documents and the MYTO model used for the privatisation of successor PHCN DisCos would not be surprised at the current challenges that the power sector and DisCos face today.

As fate would have it, for some inexplicable reasons at the time, we were exactly eight minutes late in submitting our bids to the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), even though our bids were ready for submission well before the 5.00 p.m. submission deadline. However, though personally disappointing, missing the proposal submission deadline was providence at play and a very “fortuitous” blessing in so many ways to the company! Aiteo would later on go to win the bid for the privatisation of the Alaoji Power Generation Company, while its sister company won the bids for Calabar Power Generation Company and the Benin Power Generation Company, all owned by the Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC) and built under the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP). Sadly, the privatiastion of the NIPP generation plants has remained inconclusive more than seven years after the winners of the bids were announced, stalling over $5 billion of investments to Nigeria.

Having achieved significant success in the petroleum downstream sector, Benedict set his sights on the upstream oil and gas sector. As providence would have it, Royal Dutch Shell and its partners were divesting from a number of onshore and shallow water joint venture (JV) assets in the Western Niger Delta. Benedict put together an audacious strategy to participate in the bid rounds for the sale of Shell’s working interests in one of the assets it was divesting from.

Considering that Aiteo had no prior upstream oil and gas experience, as well as the technical and financial requirements for a successful bid of such magnitude, Aiteo’s plan to acquire at least one of Shell’s upstream assets seemed extremely improbable to many pundits. For his personal friends and close business associates, who had known Benedict and had seen the uncommon grace of God in his life, we didn’t doubt his plan. It was just a matter of how and when it would happen.

In 2014, against market expectations, Benedict led Aiteo to close the largest single acquisition of an oil and gas upstream lease in Africa, and also the largest single reserve based financing, provided by a consortium of Nigerian banks to a Nigerian indigenous company. The OML 29 transaction involved an international competitive bidding process organised by international financial advisers appointed by Shell, and supervised directly from Shell’s headquarters in the Netherlands. Aiteo, without any previous operations in the upstream oil and gas sector, beat formidable consortiums of international and indigenous bidders, both technically and financially to clinch Shell’s 45 per cent working interests in OML 29 and 100 per cent ownership of the Nembe Creek crude oil Trunk Line (NCTL). Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, was among the bidders on the blocks. A remarkable story is how Benedict solely arrived at Aiteo’s winning bid price of $2.85 billion for the OML 29 transaction. Perhaps, Benedict would tell the story someday in his memoirs if he gets to write one. Suffice to say, the story, if ever told, is an astounding story of the power of prayer, and a deep faith in God.

Since concluding the OML 29 acquisition, Aiteo has grown crude oil production from below 23,000 barrels/day at the time of acquisition from Shell, to above 90,000 barrels/day, the highest crude oil production so far by any indigenous oil and gas company in Nigeria. Aiteo has been able to achieve this feat through competence, professionalism and innovation of its world class staff; in all, a testament to Benedict’s dynamic leadership.

Under Aiteo, the NCTL has also operated with lower downtimes when compared to its operations under its former operator. However, the 100-kilometre NCTL pipeline continues to be plagued by rising incidences of pipeline sabotage and crude oil theft, which the Federal Government must address as a matter of urgency, so as to enable indigenous oil producing companies like Aiteo maximise their full potentials of developing and operating upstream oil and gas assets to the benefit of Nigeria.

On a personal note, Benedict Peters is a patriot and completely de-tribalised Nigerian with friends and associates from all over Nigeria and Africa. Aiteo’s corporate social responsibility activities has seen the largest single corporate sponsorship of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) in all of the NFF’s history. In addition to the NFF sponsorship, Aiteo also paid the salaries of the coaching crew for all Nigeria’s national football teams for a number of years. Benedict Peters, through Aiteo, is directly credited to being single-handedly instrumental to the Super Eagle’s qualification for the 2017 African Cup and 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and the sponsorship of the prestigious annual CAF Awards.

Outside of football, Aiteo is a responsible company, meeting its corporate social responsibilities to its immediate host communities. Aiteo and Benedict have also given to several charitable causes such as to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the North-East, provided relief items and succour to victims of the massive flooding disaster in Benue State in 2016 and other philanthropic works too numerous to mention, within and outside Nigeria. Beyond oil and gas, Benedict is also an entrepreneur in agriculture as well. Joseph Agro Foundation, an agriculture NGO founded by Benedict, is actively involved in improving the lives of rural farmers across Nigeria. Under Benedict’s leadership, Aiteo is growing to become one of Africa’s most valuable companies.

By the way, if Benedict Peters is the executive vice chairman, you may ask: Who is the chairman? Well, the chairman of Aiteo Group is God Almighty. Lastly, I should certainly acknowledge the role Mrs. Ella Peters, his beautiful wife of many years, has played standing firmly by his side at all times. Ella has been a strong pillar of strength to Benedict.

Here’s wishing Benedict and the Aiteo Group another 20 years of many more wins for Nigeria and Africa!

Odion Omonfoman is an Energy Consultant and the Managing Director of New Hampshire Capital Limited

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