Patricia Simon-Hart is the founder and Managing Director of Aftrac Limited, an oil and gas service company that has been in operation for over 20 years. She is the current Secretary to the Executive Board of PETAN (Petroleum Technology Association of Nigeria) and a co-founder/ Vice President of Women in Energy Network.
The former Commissioner for Water Resources and Rural Development, to the Government of Rivers State (2009-2015) has over 30 years of experience in Management, Public Policy and Administration. She is a die-hard entrepreneur and strong advocate of women participation in Nigeria’s oil and gas space, particularly in the service sector. As AFTRAC boss, she leads her team to blaze trails in the areas of Surface Well Testing and Coiled Tubing services, Sand Management, Process Diagnostics, Inter-well studies and a range of technology driven solutions, among others. Excerpts of her interview with JEROME ONOJA.
You’re the CEO of AFTRAC due to your out-of-the-box thinking. As a woman, what made you veer left when everyone else was going right?
I am not sure which way is left or right, I have always believed I’ve been on the “right” path, and never really considered my gender in the equation.
I started my business looking for unique technology and services to help E&P companies optimize production operations. I was actually running away from unprofessional business practices and competition in the ICT sector at that time, and came across some amazing technology for the upstream oil and gas sector that we worked hard to introduce. We continued to expand our services from there.
There are several opportunities in an emerging economy like Nigeria. Why did you choose a difficult terrain like oil well services; secondly, why did you choose to operate from the heart of Port Harcourt at a time when it was thought to be volatile?
The main stay of the Nigerian economy is Oil and Gas, and so most sectors render services to the Oil sector directly or indirectly. I happened to be in the ICT sector and my main clients were Oil (Upstream and downstream) and Oil services companies. That’s how I got involved in the Oil sector, providing ICT products and services. I then moved on to other technology which was related to their core operations, Well Services. I had a choice of going into Procurement, Projects or Services, I choose Services and Well Services as they generally go on, no matter the cost of the price of oil, and the margins in procurement are usually really low and it’s highly competitive. Also with well services I could add value.
Why operate from the heart of Port Harcourt? First and foremost Port Harcourt is home and I actually started operating my business from here, way before there were any security challenges. Apart from this, most oil field operations are mobilized from Port Harcourt, so it was only natural to have my head office and operations base and yard in Port Harcourt.
As Secretary of Nigeria’s foremost industry association-PETAN, you occupy a position where you contribute to shaping the industry rather than looking to the industry for what to benefit. What ideas do you hold to further entrench one of the pursuits of the NCDMB regarding in-country value retention for Nigeria’s oil industry?
PETAN has from inception worked to drive local content and indigenous participation through the entire oil and gas value chain while ensuring quality and safety standards are not compromised. Our vision and mission remains the same, we speak for all indigenous players and not just our members; just as the NOGICD Act and establishment of NCDMB opened up opportunities for all Nigerians. We are now pushing boundaries and looking for new horizons and opportunities for our members in other African countries… African content.
Before floating AFTRAC, what was your experience in the oil industry?
My main experience was really in Information and Communication Technology (ICT); I had worked providing products and services to some E&P companies as well as the refineries and petrochemical plants.
How do you get ahead in this male-dominated industry?
We do this by focusing on operating to the highest quality and safety standards and building local capacity; the products we promote are superior and all our well services equipment is of the highest quality. We are prompt and professional in our services delivery and we never compromise on safety.
There are few women in the oil and gas space; even fewer in the leadership role. What do you think can be done to change the narrative? Also, what advice do you have for new female entrants to the industry?
Yes, and it is most unfortunate. We need to change more than the narrative…we need action as the industry has a lot to gain from more women in the Energy space in general. A few of us have finally gotten together to promote women in the Energy sector; we established the Women in Energy Network – WIEN. We are an advocacy association working to advance women in the Energy sector, from leadership positions to building female entrepreneurs to encouraging STEM for young girls and providing mentorship. And we are running with the vision.
For new female entrants to the sector I would say spend time studying the industry well and decide on the area you want to focus, you can’t be a ‘Jack of all trades’. Then I would suggest you try and access various networks related to the sector and build relationships. Attending International Oil and Gas conferences and exhibitions is also a great opportunity to build on your knowledge and networks.
Patricia Simon-Hart delivering an address at WIEN workshop
Tell us a bit about your support system that helped you thrive as a mother and an accomplished entrepreneur.
As a single mother of two, my immediate family were most supportive, especially when my children were still in primary school. By the time there were in Secondary school they were boarders, so it was much easier, but I still had a lot of support from my family. That really helped. Also having competent and reliable Managers in the company that could run operations seamlessly in my absence was also a contributing factor to my success, as I also had to spend considerable time away from the office to attend to my children. So having the ability to delegate and let go is a necessary skill. Technology has always been a great tool I use in managing the company and working remotely while away.
Being a co-founder of the Women in Energy Network (WIEN), what are your aspirations as a group for the industry?
Our vision is to become the leading Women’s association that advances Women’s participation in leadership across the energy value chain. We want to help women emerge as leaders in their careers and businesses, and ensure they have the required capabilities to lead using technologically advanced methods and access to business opportunities and finance to succeed.
From your antecedents, you don’t come across as a risk-averse entrepreneur. So, what are some daring goals you have in sight for AFTRAC?
Yes, I try and take on what I believe we can handle and build up competencies as we grow. So we have grown slowly but steadily and because we are risk-averse, when the shocks come we somehow are able to weather the storms. But that also has a down side. We are currently exploring expansion into EPC’s as well as extending our current well service offerings, but we are closing monitoring the highly volatile market and will only jump when we see its safe and secure to do so.
Do you have a side hustle, like a safety net should the oil industry go south for a very long time, considering the lingering price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, as well as the shale and the renewables threat. Also, do you see an imminent end to the face off?
No, I don’t have a “side hustle”. I don’t think shale oil is a threat as long as the prices are low and I do not look at renewables as a threat, rather an opportunity. We are looking at renewables; solar power to be specific. I am also passionate about Public Policy and Development and still do a bit of consultancy in the Water and Sanitation sector. I think my passion is actually there.
On the face-off I’m sure we’ll see some “give” sooner than later.
There’s this notion that women are always in competition with one another. What’s your perspective?
Now that’s the narrative that needs to be changed! It’s simply not true. I think WIEN is a great example of how women with one mission and vision can accomplish great things together. “A women alone has power, together we have impact”
Winning PETAN elections, back to back tells you’re diplomatic and understand the rudiments of politics. Again, successful women are often described as abrasive, difficult and determined. Do you share these qualities?
I do not know that I’m that diplomatic or a politician per se, but rather was elected based on competence and what PETAN as an organization needs in this season to move to the next level, and accomplish her mission in the Nigerian Oil and Gas Sector.
Yes, successful women are indeed perceived negatively; the same qualities that are deemed to be acceptable for men are not for women. I think we need to pay attention to individual qualities and not focus on negative perceptions or try and put us in a box.
What is unique about you that people hardly notice?
I’m a sticker for process and do not tolerate mediocrity. Things have to be done in an organised and proper manner, but I think people know that about me. Lol.
How do you relax and create a work-life balance?
Christian fellowship and charity outreach programmes, I have always been sporty, I played volley ball for my state and university, I used to play squash in my twenties and thirties, but I now play golf. I also love a good movie or series to relax my mind.
What’s the Nigeria of your dreams?
Nigeria could be such a marvellous place to live, but there is so much poverty, lawlessness and unfair practices. My dream is for a God-fearing nation that is inclusive in terms of economic and social development, where people are patriotic and place Nigeria before personal preferences.
What’s your parting statement regarding the raging Coronavirus.
For individuals: stay safe, follow government laid down guidelines on social distancing and mandatory lockdowns. For companies, remember to think safety first, protecting the lives of your employees comes before business. Use this experience to start working “smart” using technology where you can to run operations remotely. And build the extra necessary resilience in to your Business Continuity Plans. This too shall pass!
Patricia Simon-Hart, Funmi Ogbue, Mele Kyari, Amina Maina, Charlotte Essiet