NJ Ayuk is CEO of Centurion Law Group and author of Big Barrels: African Oil and Gas and the Quest for Prosperity.
Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
I believe the biggest challenge is earning credibility and acceptance in a very conservative industry such as energy law. Here was a kid, under 30, with a business plan, guts and a laptop, who believed he can play with the big boys. The big firms and the industry players were not going to make way for a rookie, even though I was qualified with the hunger to succeed. Why would a general counsel or a CEO of an oil company take a chance with me with no track record of winning anything in Africa?
As God is always good to me, I was eventually given more and more business from companies such as Schlumberger, Lukoil, Afex Global, Vanco (now PanAtlantic), Gazprom, DHL, IFD Kapital, and many African petroleum ministries. I did well because I was on the ground, and focused on getting results and winning for these clients that trusted me. I took every call, stayed up late at night, cut out crazy friends and negative people, and used the best of my legal education to make Africa work for me.
I pursued a strong policy of local content, which led to hiring more Africans and training them in US law schools with the hope that they serve our clients better. What was important was the loyalty and trust that was built in the process, and I took every attack from the big firms or detractors with a smile. We have a Teflon approach.
Which business achievement are you most proud of?
I am proud of some of the amazing cases, like winning the highest out-of-court settlement by an oil company to an employee after a nasty legal battle; negotiating some complex transactions for oil companies wanting to invest in the continent; and writing local content laws to give Africans access to the oil and gas sector.
Then there is also the tremendous success of my debut book Big Barrels where Joao, my co-author, and I had a chance to put a positive African story out there, and still sell many books, rather than engage in the old news of talking down the continent. We’ve gotten many African professionals to believe in transformation and that when it comes to Africa and its resources, change itself is not a choice. It’s inevitable. It’s happening.
Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
Loyalty is both my biggest strength and weakness. I price loyalty more than anything in business and I get stubbornly loyal, often at my own expense. If I say I got your back, know I got you even when you don’t deserve it. I love to fight the good fight and fight for people who need a chance. We have a loyalty and compassion deficit in Africa and that needs to change. I just can’t stand people without any principles. If loyalty is a weakness in business, then I accept it.
What conventional business wisdom do you disagree with?
I just don’t believe the BS that practice is going to make your work perfect. I believe in what Les Brown teaches, that “practice only makes improvement”. You will never get to perfection in any business you do. I believe in constant improvement because there is always room for anyone to grow.
Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?
Another mistake was being cheap and unwilling to pay for expertise right in the beginning. It helps to accept that you can’t be good at everything. I also wish I knew about the importance of data. I like to look at data and numbers, but when I started I was reluctant to look at it. It’s a sin to not be data driven.
Name one business opportunity you would still like to pursue.
I still like to pursue a business that does data modelling and psychographic profiling in public affairs in Africa. I believe using data to drive public opinion and improve the current governance framework in the continent will be amazing.