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Inside Captain Evarest Nnaji’s Entrepreneurship World

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He is the managing director/ chief executive officer of Odengene Air Shuttle Services Limited (OAS Helicopters) Nigeria and chairman of Odengene Air Shuttle Inc. (USA), Odengene Group of Companies Limited, Electrostatic Laser World, and OAS Offshore Logistics. Born in 1962, Nnaji obtained a Political Science degree at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), holder of USA and Nigeria pilot licenses.

As a businessman, he has single handedly steered OAS Helicopters from a start-up in 2006 to a major player in Nigeria’s oil and gas helicopter aviation by 2018. He sees himself as an ardent believer in aviation industry and technology. He holds the United States’ license as a pilot amid other specialized helicopter flight trainings and certifications.

He became an aviator because of his unquenchable passion for flying. All through his life, Nnaji has always loved science, and aviation matches his passion for applying scientific solutions to everyday problems.”The industry is science-driven. I love science because it has universal application,” he tells Start-Up Digest. “Flying in another country, anywhere in the world, does not give you any iota of disadvantage as a pilot. Aviation brings the best out of you and opens you out to the world. It is helpful and makes you see how far you can go in life,” he says.

He believes that succeeding in the aviation industry requires passion, intellectual soundness and patience.

A number of business people believe that the aviation industry is a cash cow. So they delve into the industry for the purpose of making quick cash.

Nnaji says this is a wrong understanding of the industry and anyone who goes into it for quick cash could be disappointed.

“I always tell people that aviation is not where anyone can go to make quick money,’ he says.

“Those who went into aviation to make quick money never lasted. And this is not about Nigeria. If you look around the world, you will see how airlines are doing—including the ones owned by governments. It is a good business, but not a place to make quick money. People go to airports and see the number of passengers waiting at the lounge and they use their calculators and do the maths that amount to huge sums of Naira. That is not always true. The money in that calculation is nothing when you turn it into dollars, and spread it amongst things need to be paid for,” he explains.

As a superpreneur, he is not one to set up a business without conducting feasibility studies. “Of course there must be profitability if it must be a business,” he says.

“To me, for a business to find my interest, it must have two characteristics. First, it must be a business I am passionate about, meaning that I must be happy to be in the business. Second, it must be worth my time. In other words, it should be able to pay for my time. These two characteristics must be there for me to consider making investments,” he discloses.

The oil and gas is one industry that drives helicopter business, especially here in Nigeria. This is because helicopters are used to fly a number of experts oil and gas workers who do their daily activities at offshore rigs or production platforms. However, the industry is a bit slow right now around the world due to trends in cost of crude around the world. How is this trend affecting Nnaji’s helicopter business?

“Yes, if crude cost slows down, things around helicopter oil and gas aviation slows down too. This is so because as crude oil price goes down, investors will also slow down in making new explorations, especially deep offshore. Because the deeper offshore you go, the more expensive the cost of production. Therefore, there will a scale down in activities which as a chain affects demand for flights. What brings about boom in helicopters oil and gas operations is when companies are developing new wells,” he elucidates. “But the slow down in activities in Nigeria is not peculiar to aircraft operations alone, none of the sectors is performing excellently since our economy banks completely on crude oil,” he says.

“So, the industry is not doing exceptionally well, but it is nothing peculiar about helicopters. Things are slow at the moment in all sectors.”

Nnaji says he company operates different models of helicopters, including Airbus and Agusta models. He explains that the choice of helicopter is determined by how much weight (passenger and load) it can carry, the range it can fly and the associated equipment of the model.

“Can it fly three, four or five hours? If you intend to fly for one hour into the sea, for instance, you have to be prepared to fly two hours to be able to return to your station. You should also have back-up fuel hours in case you need to detour. In this case, the aircraft must have an endurance of about three hours, for peace of mind. And then, you have to consider the amount of load it will carry for the trip. Aircraft configured to fly offshore must have enough avionics equipment to support all weather and navigational requirement of the flight. So, offshore support aircraft are configured differently and much higher than the regular onshore aircraft, and they are much more expensive,” he further explains.

Are the rich still patronising helicopters? The superpreneur says though economic activities are in downward spiral, need still drives demand.

“If a company is worth N2 billion per annum, that is N5 million per day, for instance, it would not worry to spend N2 million to chatter a helicopter if that is required to keep its daily production. Still on that instance, if your daily operation is worth N5 million and there is the need to spend N2 million to optimize that why anybody worry to spend that? Who would want to lose N5m per day driving through the roads or wait for scheduled flights at the airports rather than charter a helicopter?” he asks.

He says that VIP travel is not as great as it was 10 years ago when the economy was better, but adds that people still weigh costs and better options before making choices.

“We provided a helicopter for a state governor who had scheduled three engagements in one day, and still needed to be back by 6pm to attend to foreign investors he had invited for a meeting the same day; and it worked easily. No other means of transportation could have handled that. The economy isn’t doing well now, but it will improve,” he says.

He believes that every firm that makes profit deserves to pay its taxes promptly. However, he adds a caveat: Tax should be based on income. He states that aviation financial view to government officials is much challenging as people tend to think that the amount mentioned in the industry is commensurate to profit; it is not. Profit margin is very slim in our industry.

“I don’t have any problem with the tax we pay in Nigeria. People should pay their taxes, but taxes should be based on income and not on speculation,” he says.

A number of players in the aviation industry complain of high cost of operations. For Nnaji, this is real.

One major cause of high operations cost is that Nigeria is remotely removed from places where equipment and trainings are manufactured and organized. “Everything is imported. Even trainings are done overseas,” he says. “So, cost of operations in Nigeria will always be higher. When people expect cost of flying to be cheaper, I disagree with them. Is there any equipment you import into the country, pay tariffs and still be able to sell it at a cheaper rate?” he asks.

Developed countries have experts and even the aircraft designers who can easily visit your maintenance hangars from time to time, even for mere cup of tea. Some of the experts you need from time to time for specific supports could actually drive or bike down to your hangar. But this cannot happen in Nigeria.

“They will have to go to the embassy to obtain visa to fly for long hours to come to you, and you may even have to fly to other countries to recruit them. And you may not even have all of the quality of personnel you want as some of them may have been on retirement and would not like to leave their environments. To come all the way to Africa may not be easy or attractive to them. So, here you must be prepared to pay top dollar to operate.

“Most of the pieces of equipment we use are not manufactured in Nigeria. Then trainings are done abroad. And this is not about government but about the numbers. If you bring a simulator for one of the helicopters, would you have enough number of that model of helicopter to patronise you and make you break even?” he asks, rhetorically.

“If the aircraft is sold for $10 million, for instance, the simulator may be sold around the same as well. And like the aircraft itself a lot of huge maintenance cost is also associated with it. You would also need the personnel that will operate the simulators. If you do not have 50 aircrafts that will patronise the simulator, you may not break even, and if you cannot break even you really do not have a business. No particular aircraft model is up to 50 in the whole of West Africa. These are some of the challenges that rev up cost of activities on this part of the world. And in helicopter aspect of aircraft operation, everything is much more challenging. The regulatory authorities are aware you cannot fly your helicopter to to overseas for major maintenances, for instance to France or South Africa. So, you have to convince them, from your setup that you have the capability to maintain the your helicopters within the country. And the regulators ensures you have the capacity and the capability; you are required to show sufficient understanding and preparation to be issued the licenses and permits for the maintenance and operational support activities,” he further elucidates. He says he does not joke with safety as the whole industry is built around it.

If Nnaji is asked to shut down one of his businesses, which one would he close down? He says none, because all of them were founded on passion and each has a purpose to which it exists.

“I can tell you that I have passion for the businesses I do. Businesses that command my time are worth my time. I also have to bring this fact home; there is always a downtime in every business. If you have a business and you believe it, all you need is to scale down to the size of activities you can contain when the downtime starts. But if the business has no future, I will always advise people to close it down, he says.

He is happy with all the regulatory agencies in the aviation industry, urging them to continue in what they do.

He is also a philanthropist. Through his Odengene Foundation, he has granted scholarships to hundreds of indigent students. The foundation has a unique care programme for orphans and abandoned babies

XOXO

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