Engr. Greg Ogbeifun, Shipping mogul and Chairman, Starzs Group , who doubles as Chairman, Edo State Port Implementation Committee speaks with TNMN on what he has been up to since he retired from being CEO at Starzs Marine- one of the companies under his conglomerate-  last February.

A former President of the Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), he is far from quitting the industry. There is already a line-up of interesting industry events to mark his 71st birthday on February 11.  The three day event will feature a launch of his newest accomplishment- Diverse Autocare, an automobile repair yard on February 11th, launch of his biography and the establishment of an endowment ( Greg Ogbeifun Marine Institute) at the Edo State Polytechnic for the training of blue collar job personnel for the maritime industry.

As Chairman of the Edo State Port Implementation Committee, Ogbeifun also gives an update on the Benin port. We hope you enjoy every bit of the interview.


Sir, you have been quiet in the industry since you retired from Starzs Investments?

Ogbeifun:  I have been enjoying my retirement and out of the limelight, trying to do other things to achieve my life desires, which is principally to see how I can continue to give back to my industry and then to the society. But because I have relocated to Benin, I will say that I have spent a lot of my time developing new initiatives, new ideas to ensure that we leave a future with some hope for the future generation both in our industry and in our country.

Speaking of new initiatives, how is your new automobile repairs company- Diverse Autocare faring?  

Ogbeifun: Diverse Autocare is in Benin and will be a year on the 11th. Since the dedication of the facility last year, the workshop has handled more than 450 vehicles both in Benin, and we are now getting called out to places like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, to address specific challenges that vehicles have because of our diagnostic style. The workshop is getting reputed for our diagnostic skills and you know that once you diagnose a problem, the solution is half solved.

We have about 60 staff already in the automobile workshop. One of our biggest accomplishments was when Toyota Nigeria Limited sent a team to come and see what we are doing there, and after their visit, a couple of months later they appointed us their representatives for their warranty jobs in that region. They have also given us accreditation to carry out services on their behalf, and even more importantly, become a dealer of their original spare parts in that axis.

I think the best thing is to go there and see what is happening. I would be celebrating my 71st birthday which is coming up on the 11th and the events will run from 11th to 13th. We could not celebrate my 70th last year because of COVID.

On the 13th, Diverse will be formally commissioned. We will have the honour of the presence of the Director General, National Automotive Design and Development Council (NADDC), Mr Jelani Aliyu, to commission the work and Mr Kunle Ade- Ojo, who is the Managing Director of Toyota Nigeria Ltd. to co- commission the project.

Our biggest client right now is the State Government. 80% of our clients is government and they have lived up to expectations in terms of payments. The governor went further to ask us to train a hundred and thirty (130) drivers in the State Civil Service. We did that successfully in partnership with Edo State Traffic Management Agency (EDSTMA) sponsored by government itself and since the end of the programme, we have had testimonies. Their ethics changed.

At Diverse, we engaged a retired Zonal Commander of Federal Road Safety Agency. As we speak, we have over 80 vehicles ranging from Hilux and SUVs that are waiting to be repaired, that is apart from the walk-in customers. We had no option but to acquire a second site for expansion.

I am satisfied that I am able to make an impact. If you come to our workshop, you will see male and female graduates Mechanical, Electrical, ICT graduates proudly introducing and telling you that they are mechanics. So, we shifting from the road side mentality of the mechanic work to what we call international best practices that is changing the face of that industry.

How has the grill and grind of being a marine engineer influenced your work at Diverse?

Engr. Ogbeifun: It does not take rocket science to know that a ship repair yard is a bigger version of a vehicle repair yard. It is simple. Running a vehicle repair yard is like a toy when placed beside a shipyard. The vehicle repair yard has its challenges, but the process is the same. The knowledge of running a shipyard definitely influenced my putting up the workshop but the idea was born about six years ago.

Of course, Nigerians like good cars. I am a Nigerian too so I am authorised to also like good cars. I bought my first Lincoln Navigator in 1998, brand new and I kept it for 20 years. How was I able to keep it? When I buy all my vehicles, I also buy one year spare parts to keep them going. Then anytime I travel, I also buy. I however began to notice that choice cars of three, four, five years were abandoned on the streets of Port Harcourt and in mechanic workshops. That was when I then decided to launch my own vehicle repair yard. What you see now is the finished product. The equipment in our workshop had been bought and kept in my shipyard for about three years before the workshop at Benin took off.

In setting up the repair yard, I didn’t want to set up a workshop to make money. Money will chase you when you chase solution and quality so, I decided I will set up a workshop where we can get intellectuals to be the operators. That means looking at University graduates, those with HND too. Now, we are integrating the whole process of vehicle repair in a software which we bought from India and they trained us online. We are integrating the process from the time a vehicle arrives, gets diagnosed, gets the spares needed, makes purchases, down to the actual repair. When you go to Diverse now, we have quite a lot of ICT people.

The biggest challenge is the Nigerian factor. We are bringing people from environments where they were repairing Mercedes on roadside and they think it is cheaper and want to divert customers. So, I try and find out why will a mechanic want to do that, i engage the mechanic so as to address the matter. This reduces that tendency.

Our basic salary is better than the industry salary. We also introduced pension and PAYEE. We listed them on HMOs so all our staff have health insurance. We pay their medical bills.

We had to recruit from different places and for those who came out of town, we hired an apartment for them. They are also paid their housing allowance too.

We wrote to Ladoke University to send us five students for internship because they have automobile courses. We also got one from Auchi polytechnic. We have about 13 repair base in Benin. And we are attaching one Mechanical Engineers, Electronic Engineer and ICT Engineer to each base.

As the Chairman of the Edo State Port Implementation Committee, kindly give us an update on that project?

Engr. Ogbeifun:  Let me say that we are 45% accomplished on that project. I will also like to tell you why we have been silent. Any port you want to build in this country like this Benin-River port is at the instance of the Edo State Government but must get approval from the Federal Government (FG).  The FG must give them a nod to build and what  you need to engage FG for their approval is the Outline Business Case (OBC). We have focused on all that is necessary to ensure that when we come out with the OBC, and meet with the relevant authorities, they will see the justification for the work we have done and then give us the nod which must come from the Federal Executive Council (FEC).

We will start from the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), involve the Ministry of Transportation, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), then the Federal Executive Council (FEC). We are 95 percent through with the OBC.  Before this committee came onboard, the thinking was for Edo State to borrow money to build the port maybe through single sourcing but when I came onboard, I didn’t think the government should borrow money or mortgage the State for 30 years when the initiating government will no longer be in power. Subsequent governments may not have the same passion and at the end of the day, either it becomes a failed project or the financials will take-over. I suggested that we appoint an International Transaction Adviser (ITA) sourced through the competitive market. So, we got a local consultant who worked with us to develop the request for proposal and for the procurement of an International Transaction Adviser. Through that process, we appointed a company based in Canada with offices in Abuja and with a track record of having done somethings here. They met all the requirements. We negotiated with them and we have started working with them.

We set up a Project Management team that comprises a retired Executive Director of NPA, Mr. Felix Ovude, a lawyer and another Director who worked internationally- civil engineering, project management. The transaction advisers admitted to us that this is the first time that they are working in Nigeria with any team and the people not only understand what they are saying but challenge them. We ensure there is no compromise, everything is transparent.

So far, a detailed market study has been done to show where the cargo for this port would come from. We are building a port that is agro -allied. We also are developing a port community. In developing the port community, we looked at the mistakes made in establishing existing ports. We have Warri, Sapele, Koko and Burutu which are not viable anymore, so, we have consciously developed the concept that will address that aspect.

All agricultural produce coming from the northern states through the middle belt, come to Edo and head West to Lagos to be shipped through the Lagos ports with the attendant delays so, we have incorporated an agro-industrial park in the port community where stakeholders can develop processing facilities and importers of our goods can set up shops. We have the statistics, we worked with NPA, Shippers Associations.

The port is about 32 nautical miles from the Atlantic Ocean so, this port is going to be the second port nearest to the ocean after Lagos. It is after Edo port, you go up stream, then to Koko, Bornu, Sapele. The route from in and out of the Atlantic is shallow but we know what needs to be done to make that channel passable.  If you are familiar with that axis, ships going to Warri, they go through Nana river back into Benin river.

Some major challenges are the draft restrictions because of two buried pipelines but then, our target is not global trade, our target is to support shipping companies that are keyed into the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. Ships of six metres draft is what you need for this kind of trade. We are focused on how that port will also help the country key into the African Continental Free Trade.

The geographic survey for the port community have been completed. We appointed consultant who have completed the Environmental/Social Impact Assessment for the port area. Arrangement for people who may be affected, compensation for crops have been made. After our engagement and presentation with NPA, and they see what we have done, we believe that the government will be in a hurry because port is going to be addressing a lot of challenges even our government is having.

What we set out to achieve is a port that will be owned in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement between the State government and the investors.  After the OBC and we get the government nod, we will go on to do the full feasibility study. That is the study that can show the profitability- this is what an investor wants to see before investing- about 28 investors have expressed interest. We will come out for a competitive bid.

We are hoping  that in the course of this year we would have completed that process that would now throw up the investor. We will then have a financial closure with the investor. The State will take a minority equity and the investor will take ownership of the project. It is expected that the port should be up and running about the second quarter of 2024 from our work schedule. The intention is that once ownership goes to the investor, government has nothing to do with it anymore. We cannot change it. Any succeeding government that realises the socio-economic impact that will make should be in a hurry to grab it for their own benefit. That is where we are on the port project.

How about your Endowment Project at Edo State Polytechnic? 

At the launch of my book last year, I promised that proceeds from the book will be used for the establishment of an endowment project at Edo State polytechnic. On February 11, that is the gala night of my birthday, my biography will also be launched. I am working with a consultant now, Dr Adeoye Ojo- an academic Professor, Marine Engineer and Ship Captain who will be anchoring that event.

I will be funding the endowment- Greg Ogbeifun Marine Institute- and my trust will kick in to ensure continuity. The Port of Antwerp has offered to partner with us on the initiative. The key beneficiaries of the scheme will be Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) and there equivalent in West Africa sub region. I am not establishing an institute for marine engineers or ship captains. I am establishing an institute that will train crane operators, dockworkers, the blue-collar workforce. Part of their training will be in the classroom, and the rest in the industry, in the port, in and out of the country. After their training, they will get a certificate that will enable them go elsewhere and apply for a job if they want.

It is an Institute in the Polytechnic. We will have our Board of Directors, our own lecturers, some from the polytechnic will teach them and will be paid. Dr Ojo will make a presentation on the endowment at my birthday gala.


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