By Michael Effiong and Eric Elezuo.
Still Earth Construction and Realty is a premier indigenous, diversified company, with an illustrious list of satisfied clients and successful projects; some of its clients include all tiers of government, parastatals, agencies, and multinationals.
The company is highly regarded as one of the leading engineering and construction companies in Nigeria with a portfolio of completed projects and satisfied clients that are in both the public and private sectors.
With the company’s headquarters situated at Parkview, Ikoyi, Lagos, Still Earth is committed to developing the country’s infrastructural base by responsibly executing every project it is entrusted with, while creating real benefit for communities it serves by adopting a principled and uncompromising approach to its professional and value standards. Its portfolio includes but not limited to roads, bridges, civil works, buildings, and fit-outs across Nigeria.
In this interview with its Managing Director, Col. Vinay Ashish John Singh (Retd), he reveals what makes the company unique and its future ambitions.
Can we begin with you detailing what areas of the economy Still Earth presently operates?
Still Earth is a company that is into construction. We have been in the construction space for about 10 years and in these 10 years, we have done a variety of projects both for the government both at the Federal and State levels. We have also served sub-contractors to multinationals such as Julius Berger on a number of notable projects. Our completed projects are mainly in building constructions, roads, bridges, civil works for industries, fit-outs for buildings and plants, which we have delivered excellently. The works that we carry out are mainly in the space of infrastructure and realty. We look forward to doing several developments works partnering with the government and other companies.
Interesting, having told us about your operations, what makes Still Earth unique?
I feel we have a very strong foundation which stands out. We have solid direction and guidance from our Group Managing Director (GMD), Ms Oyinda Adeyemi.
She is an individual that has a lot of focus and has instilled in us a lot of discipline, she has a process-driven attitude to work which has been responsible for our steady growth.
We pride ourselves on having a very immaculate type of system which guides our business. We do not compromise on rules. We have strict standard operating procedures on which we run and follow. We follow very detailed designs, we endeavor to give our clients the best results, the best engineering, and the best technology. These qualities distinguish us from the rest.
The general impression is that local Nigerian companies usually cut corners and hardly deliver good quality, is Still Earth different?
Yes, we are very different. There are a lot of examples where we have actually improved on the job specification we were given. One recent one that comes to mind was a drainage project we did for the Lagos State Government. We improved on what was provided to us by the ministry, we improved on the design, we are looking at how to make it even better through technology since we believe the lifespan of the projects should be up to its designed life. We do not have any issues with recall or cutting corners in our projects. Basically, we deploy the best of manpower, the best of engineering, the best of technology, the best of material, and the best of equipment.
That takes me to the vision and mission of Still- Earth?
Our culture, our focus, and our sense of corporate social responsibility are captured in our mission and vision which have summarized into the company’s Global Objective which is “To add exceptional, lasting value through our technical expertise, corporate culture, and corporate social responsibility to our staff, clients, country and humanity”.
Okay, many companies complain of the tough operating environment here in Nigeria, are you also facing these challenges?
Yes! Nigeria does have unique set of challenges that we face and some of these include the unavailability of technical skills in the manpower. There are challenges of knowhow with the available manpower which means there is a need for training and motivation.
Further, we also have challenges with the working environment that we face in respect of the unique weather, which is often wet and is not too good for our kind of work.
Also, we have challenges in respect of constraints in certain technologies, some of which are not available here and so we have to import them. In addition, we have to bring in expatriates to fulfill certain responsibilities which we would not have done if the experts were available here.
To summarize, we do have challenges, but we have developed processes in our system which enable us to overcome these challenges.
Can you expatiate on how you have been able to overcome these challenges?
Like I was saying, the processes that we have developed have helped. The processes cater to all the shortcomings that we face and the reporting systems that we have put in place are excellent.
Daily reports, a system of requisition, purchases, etc. help us take care of the manpower challenges. The technological background of our staff, the expatriates as well as the indigenous staff also helps. We have a robust system of importing items that we require. We have our shippers who deliver on time when required. We have excellent vendors too who provide us with technical expertise when required.
Manpower is a key challenge for many industries and you have just mentioned it too, do you offer internships here, which can actually be a way out?
Yes, we have a program that we are developing that will bring in interns. We have contacted Registrars of eleven leading Universities in Nigeria and we have asked them to provide us candidates whom we can recruit as Graduate Engineering Trainees, who if found suitable can be permanently absorbed into the company. We have looked at the civil departments of these Universities to source for their best talents. We are optimistic that this will reduce our manpower challenges in the future.
That’s a very good one because on the long run, it will benefit you, I have to commend Still Earth for this initiative.
Thank you. Even on social media, we are putting up certain educational posts, memes and infographics that can give information to students about construction and construction practices. We are developing student-friendly content for our social media platforms. It is all geared towards attracting them to our company.
The buzz word in today’s world is the new normal, so how has Still Earth been able to adapt to COVID-19. Has the pandemic affected you?
Yes, it did affect us initially. Around April and May, during the lockdown, most of our projects were stopped due to the restrictions put in place. We were still doing some interior works in buildings, but in the exteriors, we could not. But here in the office and on the site, we have put in place the parameters required, we adhere strictly to the COVID-19 protocols. We have hand sanitizers placed at all strategic locations in the office, we also have a temperature check system in place, and we have sanitization every two to three hours of the contact points: railings and door handle, etc, our cleaners ensure that this is done.
Also, we have strict rules of wearing face masks in the open office. When we are in the company of others, masks are worn.
Onsite, we follow all the protocols too. We have washing points; we have masks being worn by workers who are in proximity of each other. We also have sanitizers placed for workers to sanitize their hands while working, we have provided all the protocols required by the federal and state governments.
You have these protocols on all your sites?
Let’s soften up a bit, I would like to meet you, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I have 37 years of work experience. I was an Officer in the Indian Army. I was in the Corps of Engineers which deals with Civil Construction. I am a Civil Engineer. I attended the National Defence Academy, where I obtained a B.Sc. from the Jawahar Lal Nehru University, I also attended, the College of Military Engineering where I obtained a B. Tech and I also have a Post Graduate Diploma in Construction Management from National Institute of Construction Management and Research.
I am a strategic Architect with over three decades of rich experience in Business Process Management, Project Management, Tendering & Contract Management, Operations Management and Quality Assurance.
My experience span across the combat engineering part of the Army where we deal with explosives, mines, operating equipment, road construction, bridges, ferries, buildings, field fortifications, obstacles, barb wires etc. and other skills required in the war scenario.
Then I later had the opportunity to move to government organizations in India. I was seconded to the Border Roads Organization in India which is responsible for the strategic roads required for the Army in the border regions. I was responsible for 420-kilometre roads in a high-altitude mountainous terrain, it was a large project with over 2000 staff and numerous equipment.
I was later seconded to the Indian Coast Guard Headquarters to manage their works pan India. There, I was Works Director and worked closely with the Ministry. I had a lot of experience in dealing with the Government Ministries.
From there, I became the Project Director at the Project Implementation Units in the National Highways Authority of India.
I was responsible for coordinating the construction of the NH-25 & NH-26. Also, I handled the rehabilitation and resettlement of 7800 Project Affected Persons as per Asian Development Bank Standards and handled other key responsibilities in the almost four years that I was there.
I became for a brief period, Commanding Officer, Indian Army 970 Railway Territorial Army Regiment where I managed the construction of the infrastructure at the new location of the regiment with training areas, offices, accommodation, play areas, workshop and classes. I then took voluntary retirement from the Army and joined the private sector.
In the private sector, I have had the opportunity of handling large projects basically in roads. I was the Project Director for an SPV “Simhapuri Expressway Limited”, a DBFOT Project in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. The main assignment was construction and structure the operations of the 181 Km 6 lane highways by formulating the organization and commissioning of the Tolling & Highway Traffic Management System.
My job also included ensuring proper collection of revenue and maintaining the toll collection without hitches.
I went on to work as Project Director, Vindhachal Expressway Pvt Limited in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India where I was given the responsibility to turnaround stalled project by rekindling the financial structure of the sub-contract, revive the quality mechanism of the project by infusing fresh vigor in the project management consultancy and developing an operational structure to prevent overloaded vehicles from plying on the completed highway.
I was also the Head Infra, the Business Head at Lanco Infratech Limited, EPC Division, Gurgaon India where I was reasonable for the P&L for all infrastructure projects and the went on to Autostrade Indian Infrastructure Development Private Limited where I worked as CEO, Pune Solapur Expressway Pvt Ltd, a Highway Development Project in the State of Maharashtra, India.
There, I reorganized the tolling operations, created revised tolling software to refine the tolling process, provided effective leadership and guidance of various teams among other responsibilities. I left in September 2019 to resume at Still Earth.
I should add that at Lanco, I was also the Head of Power Transmission and Distribution, so I had tremendous experience in that respect as well. We had projects in sub-stations, power distribution projects and power transmission projects. There I handled the plant and machinery for the Lanco Group and all mechanical matters too. My father was a Mechanical Engineer, so I have spent my childhood in workshops developing skills in Mechanical Engineering as well. I have a lot of automobile experience too.
So, you have a lot of hands-on experience in all areas of engineering?
Yes. I like to get involved as much as I can.
What attracted you to Nigeria, why did you take up this responsibility after working in India for years?
Actually, right from the time I was still in the Army, I had few opportunities of going abroad but I didn’t have the experience of actually working abroad.
I have travelled a lot, I have been to the US, I have been to the Gulf, I was actually born in Nepal, So, you can say I was born travelling. But I have had no work experience in a foreign country which I always wanted to have.
Therefore when I got this opportunity to come to Nigeria, I knew it will be different from all I have been doing before, I saw it as a good experience for me and an opportunity to deploy my skills in a different environment. I believed it will also give me a perspective of how people do things here.
I felt that it will be different from what I have been doing so I thought it will be good experience and good education for me to learn how people do things other than in my own country.
But I notice something about you, at your last two jobs, you spent just two years, what happened?
Yes, you see, construction is a line where nothing lasts, because if you are on the field, you are selected for a particular project. So, when that project is done, you are sent to another project if the company has another project that is in line with your schedule or you can then move there. There is nothing static in that industry.
My problem was my schedule. Right from 2006, I have been a Project Director, being able to get the position of Project Director in the same company back to back is usually difficult. When your project finishes, you have a choice of waiting for the company to get another project, but I chose to move on to seek work on another project. That is why the tenure is shorter.
You spend averagely two to three years on a project and that is why you take the decision to move on or stay. I believe moving on also gives you varied experiences which is why I usually move on to seek opportunities elsewhere.
I love new challenges and that is why I am now in Nigeria. It helps you in your all-round growth.
How has the experience in the last one year been in Nigeria?
Nigeria is a developing economy, therefore there are a lot of opportunities and areas of improvements which gives you a good challenge and also helps you in developing good skills trying to train people, educate them, and make them understand how things can be done in a better and more organized manner.
So I am taking this opportunity as a good challenge and a good way of using my experience to be able to improve things and that is part of the targets I have set for myself in life, which is to go to a place and try to improve something there. There is this satisfaction you get when you are able to add value anywhere you go.
So, I am quite satisfied with what I am experiencing here. I feel it is a good challenge.
Now I have to ask you about your meeting with the GMD, what kind of person is she?
As I already said while answering your first question, she is such a unique lady. She is a person who has so much drive. So much discipline, she is someone who strives for perfection. She really likes things to be done in a correct manner, she is a role model for all of us and we really appreciate the work environment that she has created here which is rare for people who own businesses.
I feel she really motivates us, keeps us on our toes, she never allows us to relax at all. This is helping us to develop a better Still Earth.
The last time I was here, I saw the cordial relationship that exists here, how she related so warmly with staff
Yes, she’s very informal but still very stern. She complements both sides which makes her a good leader. She takes her business seriously.
Earlier, you indicated that the philosophy that drives you is to always improve anywhere you work, what other philosophies drive you?
Like I said earlier, I like to go to places and make an impact, and ensure there is improvement, I like to see my mark left behind. I like to go somewhere, meet something at a level, and then take it a step better. I also feel blessed that I have a sense of imagination, understanding of process-oriented systems which ensures that things are organized in a better manner.
I believe if I use my skills and experience, and I succeed in the creation of a system which runs without me being physically present, that will be the best. That is what gives me satisfaction, and this is the philosophy that drives me.
Putting something sustainable in place for the success and smooth running of the company is what I strive for all the time.
If I walk into Still Earth today as a client, what would I find that will make me engage your service?
What we guarantee any client that walks in here is mainly detail. There is nothing that we do without deep thought, planning, research and a lot of interaction. We are very deliberate in our approach.
I will give you a simple example, on site, if we have a carpenter, our carpenter should have a carpenter’s pencil not a normal pencil, we are that thorough and detailed.
The second thing that we offer clients is engineering. With my vast experience and the experience of our team and Project Managers, we have a pool of experience that there is no type of project that we have not encountered, which gives us the ability to give expert advice to clients. With us, you can get top engineering concepts, design improvements etc.
The third is quality. We have a quality system that we follow strictly. We have methodologies which we use at all our projects. When we get a project, we develop the methodology, we handle the quality processes, testing processes, so quality is assured at Still Earth.
Last but not the least is that we are economical. We try to develop a project in such a way that we do not waste anything. We always look for the best solution before we start. We offer the best for the least cost. Quality as you know comes with a price. But we do not overdo it. We do not encourage waste, we do not add anything that is unnecessary, and we offer the best solutions all the time.
I know Still Earth is not a project like your previous appointments, I believe you are not coming here for a two-year period, so where do you see Still Earth in 5 years?
In five years, Still Earth will be a bigger company. We are targeting turnovers which will be in billions. Already the target that I have myself is huge monthly. I see a situation where we will be having eight to ten projects running simultaneously. I am looking at us getting involved in very large projects, we would have established regional offices in South West, South South and in the North also. With each office handling 2 to 3 projects from their base.
I will say in 5 years about 15 projects at one time including the North if the situation improves and surely a few projects in other African countries.
Which parts of Nigeria have you travelled to since your arrival?
I have been to Uyo which is in the South South, I have been on a road trip to all the South West states: Ondo, Osun, Oyo and Ogun, repeatedly, I have travelled to Ibadan many times because we had a project there. Of course, I have been to the Federal Capital, Abuja. I move around quite a lot.
Have you tried Nigerian jollof?
(Smiles heartily) Yes, I have. I have tried some stews and soups. It is a little spicy for my palate, but it is okay. It is tasty.
How do you want to round off?
I wish we can carry on excellently with the guidance of our GMD with the line of business that we have chosen and get involved in good projects.
I pray that we can get out of this pandemic in good time so we can deliver big projects to our clients and continue to grow and succeed.