Cape Town businessman Atose Aguele was interested in business from a very young age. Picture copyright ATOSE AGUELE
CAPE Town businessman Atose Aguele was born in Bath, England, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, went back to the UK for high school, and to the US to university. He fell in love with the Mother City on his first visit. He tells Marika Sboros about the stress and magic in creating and running gas businesses.
What was your earliest ambition?
Funnily enough, I always saw myself in business, as an entrepreneur.
How come, from such a young age?
Well, we went back to Nigeria from the UK when I was three. My early childhood was in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub. My father started a gas business when I was three years old in 1967 so I was immersed in business from a very young age.
Your first degree in the US was in agriculture (animal sciences) and the second in economics from the University of Delaware. What made you choose agriculture?
Other than the gas business, which we owned, my family was also involved in agriculture. We had a large poultry farm outside Lagos and the idea was for me to go back to be a farmer.
Did you like that idea?
Not sure I really thought about it. I have early memories of being on the farm, using farming implements, driving tractors. It was fun.
So what happened to the farming idea?
In 1985, there was a change of government policy, and the Nigerian government banned the importation of wheat, which is the main staple of chicken feed. It effectively killed the poultry industry, set it back by a generation or two. We downscaled, and when I got back to Nigeria in 1991, farming wasn’t an option. I joined the established, family-run Grenigas (the first indigenous liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, bottling company in Nigeria since 1967), as commercial manager in charge of the group’s marketing department.
After working with your father for five years, you started Union Petroleum Services, which is still is a significant trader of LPG, with exports from Bonny River Terminal, operated by Exxon Mobil. What motivated that?
I moved up the value chain: while the family business was involved in bottling and distribution, I saw the opportunity in supplying the industry with LPG, and soon Union petroleum became the main supplier to Grenigas. I looked at real opportunities in trading the product, moving it by ship.
When did you buy your fist ship?
In 1997 — 500 tonnes, a small one in LPG terms. We became a dominant player in transportation and trading of LPG especially in Nigeria. It’s the eighth-largest producer-exporter of LPG in the world.
What made you move to South Africa?
I first visited as a tourist in 2001 and was absolutely blown away by Cape Town, and bought a holiday home in Camps Bay. At first, I had no interest in settling here, but I started thinking about it and decided to do that in 2007.
Any thoughts of retiring at the time?
Obviously I was too young to retire, so I had to look for opportunities. I had been in LPG for 15 years, so I looked in that space again, and started Avedia Energy.
As CEO and MD of Avedia, what work stresses do you face?
Most things are stressful if you want to do them well, and there is some amount of stress that you must be prepared to handle. I have a very supportive family, and that helps. But one of the reasons I moved to Cape Town was that the trading business — the volatility of the market — is stressful, and I could see how Cape Town reduces my stress.
How does it do that?
I love hiking, the mountains, the beaches. I spend a lot of time outdoors, close to nature.
Where did you meet your wife?
Monica and I met at university in the US. She has an MBA from Rutgers (University).
Did you ever thinking of going into business together?
We have four daughters. She decided to use her MBA skills in running the home and family.
What is on a typical day’s menu for you?
I’m not a big breakfast person, so I usually just have cereal and a fresh fruit juice, occasionally an egg. Lunch I’ll eat out at a restaurant nearby — our offices are in Green Point. Living in Cape Town means there are lots of great choices to eat out, plenty good natural foods and products.
I make it a point to eat at home every night.
Do you manage to get the whole family round the table?
We try, but during the week it’s not always possible. But we make sure that at least once a week, we are able to have an “around the table” with all of our four daughters, Aimisi, 14, Esivie, 12, Edia, 8, and Emade, 6.
Those are lovely names. Do they have special meaning?
They are taken from Edo, the minority ethnic group in Nigeria that my family comes from.
Do you take any vitamin or mineral supplements?
I do. I take a multivitamin for men everyday. I’m not sure how that differs from a normal multivit. I think what has helped me cope with stress is 1,000mg of vitamin C I take everyday religiously.
What’s the least healthy thing you do?
Probably travel too much.
How much is that?
At least twice a month, long-distance, to Europe — mostly London, the US — typically New York and, of course, to Nigeria.
Do you suffer from jet lag when you get to the Big Apple?
I’ve learnt to cope with it. It doesn’t affect me badly as it would people who are not used to travelling so much. I try to get lots of sleep on the plane and try to correct my time clock on the plane as much as I can.
Does it work well to reset your biological clock?
Yes, to some extent. I arrived back from the US two days ago, and haven’t suffered any jet lag. I’m right back on Cape Town time.
Have you ever had a health scare?
Once, a very long time ago, when I was in my early 30s and had just started my business. I was travelling in the US with my wife; we had the fax machine (most people don’t bother to use them any more) and a phone in the bedroom. West Africa is six hours ahead of the States, so when the US is sleeping, Africa is working. I had to be awake at 3am in the US to work with Africa. I did that for three weeks and started having heart palpitations. My wife rushed me to the hospital emergency room. The doctor examined me, and said I was fine, but asked me a curious question.
“What do you do for a living?” I told him, and he asked how much sleep I was getting. At the time it was less than four hours day. He said I was young, athletic, with a good heart, but I wouldn’t have a good heart in 20 years if I kept it up.
So what did you do?
I unplugged the fax machine when I got back home that night. I tried to get more sleep and wake up at reasonable hours so I could get the end of the day in West Africa, and eventually I started spending less time in the US.
What do you do to keep fit?
I used to play tennis competitively at university. I don’t have time for tennis these days. I do hiking and scuba diving, and I have a gym at home.
Have you had mentors in life?
Not formally, but there are many people who have influenced me. My father, of course. He is 78 and still very fit and active. Also, Reginald Lewis, an African-American businessman who had bought a company called Beatrice Foods. I met him in the 1980s, before he died at 50. He taught me perseverance.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I read a lot, mostly books related to business, and autobiographies of businesspeople. Lately I’ve started reading books mostly on history and economics.
What are you reading now?
To Sell is Human, by Daniel Pink.
What was a defining moment in your life?
I’d have to say the birth of my first child. I was present at the births of all my children.
What has fatherhood meant to you?
When I had my first child, I realised there is no book they give you on being a father. You have to work from instinct and rational thought. To me, being a father is about being the best role model I can be.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
In business, even if you have vision and are a good entrepreneur, you might not be the best manager. Surround yourself with the best talent, even if that talent is better than you.
Have you used that advice?
Definitely. At Avedia, we are small, just 10 people in Cape Town and Walvis Bay in Namibia, but all incredibly talented. Our staff complement will grow once the import terminal is built in Saldanha Bay.
What advice do you have for others?
I would say, regardless of your circumstances, always count yourself lucky. Being born is a huge privilege. It gives you a shot at being what you want to be. Understand that contentment is not about how much money you have.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama for sure. And WE Du Bois — I read his book, The Souls of Black Folk, at an early age. That was also a life-defining moment for me.
In what way?
As a young African at the age of 18, going to university in the US, I struggled with a lot of questions. That book helped me rationalise certain things. I thought he was a brilliant author. He had written it in 1903, nearly 80 years before I read it. It still felt so real in 1982.
Did you encounter much racism in the US?
I was on a university campus, so I was mostly sheltered from it, although you would have some prejudice. The US has changed since then, though some would say not nearly enough, with all the recent happenings.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
I haven’t done a lot of crazy things. I have jumped off Signal Hill, paragliding. Some people think that’s crazy and dangerous. I think it’s fun.
If you could edit your life, what would you change?
Any pet peeves?
What’s your biggest fear?
Not being content.
What are your hopes and dreams?
To build a business that really does contribute to Africa, in particular to South Africa, and to use some of those proceeds to empower people who are less privileged, particularly in education.
Author: Marika Sboros