Michael J. Prest’s father was Alhaji Mikael Godwin Edward Prest, President Shagari’s Chief of Staff while his grandfather, apart from being an Ambassador, Minister, and a Judge, in 1950, founded the Mid-West party with Anthony Enaharo. Being the first Son and first Grandson, in a prominent family steeped both in politics and the history for the independence of Nigeria. Politics, one thinks, would have been the road taken by Michael. Instead, after considering becoming a Priest and then studying Law and being called to the bar, Michael sought his own path to find fortune. He opted for Finance, business and yes, Oil. He carved a name for himself in the hardest of arenas as a number one trader at global trading behemoths, Phibro Energy, Vitol and then as Chief Executive at Marc Rich Investments. Prest has left an indelible impression on the oil and gas trading by understanding and sanitizing risk in Sub-Saharan Africa and also executing legendary deals in Nigeria, Ghana, DRC, Tanzania, Sudan and Zambia. With the Petrodel brand, he established trading templates still used today across Africa. It is said that Sahara, Ocean & Oil and MRS did their first major deals with him. Those who work for him say he’s a hard task master with a most incredible attention to detail. The late Marc Rich, renowned as the King of Oil trading, recognized Michael to be a consummate negotiator, always on top of his brief that when and if needed, would wear his counterpart down until such time as the deal fitted its objective and his needs.
Paradoxical at times, Prest remains an enigma. A very private person, one will think he’s quiet yet discover, with boundless energy, he’ll party with close friends until day-light and then go back to his desk and work 14-16 hours to get the deal done. Yes, there’s always a deal, the size didn’t matter. Today Prest is living his best life yet purely on his terms and within a global footprint. Very few really know who MJP is and what really makes him tick. We are not certain we ever will.
FUNKE BABS-KUFEJI reports…
You have been described variously as a reclusive billionaire, a reclusive Nigerian billionaire, a reclusive oil baron. Each time the word Reclusive keeps cropping up in descriptions about you. How do you feel about such descriptions and does the word capture the real Michael Prest?
That’s an interesting question. Is Reclusive used to suggest something sinister? For many years I worked, I worked very hard, tending to my responsibilities; looking after my family both nuclear and extended and (thankfully) was given an opportunity in which to excel and which allowed me to take care of my responsibilities in a way I wanted to but always very quietly. If you weren’t involved in the sectors I was in, you wouldn’t have known me nor even been bothered to know me. Then suddenly and for now well-known reasons all that changed in 2010 and (against my will) I found myself thrust into the spotlight and that’s something that didn’t sit comfortably with me. So, am I reclusive? To the extent that I do keep to myself, yes. I keep and prefer to keep to myself. My children know the real me, my family know the real me and a small group of friends that I’ve had for decades know parts of the real me. Does that make somebody reclusive?
What did the COVID pandemic teach you and what life lessons do you think should be passed onto to the younger generation or a younger Michael Prest?
Well firstly, my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who lost someone during this period and to those, and there are many, who’ve suffered and are still battling with mental health scars highlighted by that period. Covid highlighted just how vulnerable we human beings really are. It highlighted the systemic inequalities that we’ve tried to paper-over for so many years of so-called societal development. It underpinned for me, just how similar we all are, irrespective of colour, creed, sexuality, wealth, or any other distinction social commentators would like to add. It hammered home too that there is an urgency in life and that time waits for no one, it is not inelastic. Did it meaningfully bring us closer as people, as families, as friends? Covid seemingly paid no respect to anything or anyone, and like the grim reaper it is, it cut through all with its long and very sharp scythe. Cold and dispassionate. My prayer particularly for young people is that this punctuation in their lives does not spawn five or ten years down the track an explosion of mental health issues and that is where I think a lot of attention as a society, needs to be paid. The life lesson I would give to a younger me, is pace yourself, focus on staying physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy.
You suffered some losses of loved ones recently. Your brother-in-law two years ago and your aunt, Audrey Edu, this year. How did these two events effect you?
What I will say is this, my brother-in-law was a truly wonderful, warm, and wise human being who loved his family and made sure he did everything to keep them secure. I admired him. May his soul rest in perfect peace. With his passing, I’ve moved to make sure my sister and her children are and will, remain safe. My sister and I have been close from childhood. My Aunty, simply put, was my favourite aunt. She was my late father’s sister. She was warm and always welcoming. May her soul rest in perfect peace. I prefer to keep the rest to myself. As much as death is the natural consequence of life, losing someone never fails to hurt and that hurt, I find is something best dealt with privately.
What would you consider to be your greatest achievements in life to date and what are your plans and goals going forward?
That’s a difficult question to answer. If by achievement you mean success, then the narrative of success is an ever-changing landscape that means different things at different stages of life. Is materiality success? Is having money, success? Is overcoming personal fears and challenges, success? Is being well-known, success? What I know is that I have been blessed on several fronts and I am humbled and remain always truly grateful for that blessing. The boxes that you would perhaps ordinarily tick as evidence of success I have been able to tick. Yet for me personally, if I must pick an achievement and to be honest, every day it evolves and teaches me something about myself, and I pick it for many reasons personal to me, is that of being a father. The cornucopia of strands that weave themselves into that answer are rich in their texture and their impact on my life has been huge and to that extent, it has dwarfed everything else.
Looking from the outside at what is often written about you, it appears that despite this gilded life, you have been unsuccessful when it comes to love and the affairs of the heart. You had a celebrated marriage and then a celebrated divorce that still seems to fascinate people to this day, not to mention the Supreme Court of United Kingdom ruling that was the final chapter of the divorce, is the subject in the curriculum of every law student in the world today.
There are various ironies in that divorce chapter which, incidentally, was a long time ago. The first of which is that I had always admired and to some extent, followed the career of Jonathan Sumption QC. He’s a truly powerful intellect. Yet I think that Lord Sumption (as he became) if pressed privately, may conclude that he didn’t have his finest day on June 13th, 2013. He’d been thrown something of a hospital pass because the High Court had made such a hash of things, as later highlighted by the Court of Appeal. So, in having to give some semblance of a ruling, Lord Sumption had to gift the appellant a fifth way, something the Appellant had never even applied for in her four grounds of appeal. I think Lady Hale, gave it away in her dicta supporting Lord Sumption. Yet everyone must admire Lord Sumption’s bravery and as a lawyer myself, I accept what the Supreme Court said as final. Ultimately, legal history will determine whether this should be considered a celebrated ruling. The fact that it is the subject of every law school curriculum around the world is also the second irony. As a friend of mine said, it took an African from Warri to cause the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to look in on itself and what had been settled law since 1897. That is a story in itself. If Law students around the world can gain something or it can help their legal studies, then surely that must be a good thing. Better still, I could earn a royalty for each time the case is mentioned or (yet another) accountant and or lawyer makes it the subject of a keynote after dinner speech! (Laughter). The third irony is this, Lord Sumption, Jonathan Sumption QC as he was at the time, earned £7.8 million for his defence of Roman Abramovich in the case Berezovsky v Abramovich. This is believed to be the highest fee ever earned in British legal history. The case was the last where Jonathan Sumption QC acted as a barrister. He delayed his appointment to the UK Supreme Court so that he could finish his work on the case. Judgment was given on 31st August 2012, ten months before June 13th 2013. If you are one of those who believe a BBC Panorama program: Roman Abramovich’s Dirty Money, then, do you place a question mark on that £7.8 Million paid to and accepted by Jonathan Sumption QC? If the source of that money, using the definition of the BBC program, dirty, does it mean, post tempo, we question the moral compass of Lord Sumption? Should we question the integrity of his judgment and, by definition, his Judgment? History is a strange thing. Whether I am unsuccessful when it comes to love and affairs of the heart? I am not sure what that means.
You were once being mentioned as a possible Minister of Petroleum. Looking at the oil sector of Nigeria today, what, if any are your views or do you have any advise to give to those charged with the responsibility of managing that sector for the benefit of Nigerians.
The late (may his soul rest in perfect peace) Chief of Staff Abba Kyari spoke with me at some length over two months in 2015 about the Petroleum portfolio and I would prefer not to say any more about that. As to the second part, the Minister of State Petroleum Resources is Timipre Marlin Sylva and a former Governor of Bayelsa State. I think I am allowed to say he is a friend and someone I have known for over 20years. I have a lot of respect for him. He has a deep-seated holistic knowledge of the sector, so I am not sure if it is for me to give him or the sector advice. I am also not involved in the down-stream oil sector in Nigeria on a day-to-day basis. That said, I (obviously) understand the dynamics of the sector and there are two comments I could make. The first is that oil sector is in a parlous and difficult place, made worse, given the global energy transition to renewables. It’s near-on impossible to finance the hydrocarbon sector now and sector participants from Nigeria, once the darling of banks and private equity, are now shunned and seen as pariahs. The current raging geo-politics may give the sector a few years respite, but I think that it must be the underlying point of concern as both a Nation State and a hydrocarbon producer. Simply put, come 2050, what’s next? The second comment I would add and this has been a constant for me, is never do away with the fuel subsidy. If you do, you unleash untold hardship on hapless millions. Subsidy has been given a bad name yet intrinsically, the thinking behind a subsidy in a nation where we don’t have a social safety net is laudable. So, to my mind, better manage the subsidy and as I’ve been saying for years also, better align the value derived from your hydrocarbon sales to what is spent on any imports. Managed well, they should cancel each other out and if understood properly, could even result in a net gain on the export sale side.
As an investor and businessman, what are you doing now. What are you looking at today?
A question on more familiar ground. Well, I’ve been deliberately looking at several things. I’ve always been curious and it’s fair to say, I have been a disruptor in nearly every business or investment I’ve been involved in. That arbitrage that underpins disruption is where meaningful opportunity and value exists. I am fascinated by technology and the possibility of the possibilities that technology allows. Both tangibly, yet also in terms of attitude and the way we approach things. Today we’re all doing things differently and seeing near seismic changes across life’s spectra. So, as an example I’m seeing how best to apply technology to an interest in financial services and real-estate in the Caribs and Africa, as a means of substantially increasing footprint both global and in terms of revenue. I’m heavily vested in renewables on what will be a large-scale African investment and I see that almost as an obligation in a quest to add my small voice to efforts to save this planet. I’m involved in a European media venture and looking to increase that involvement and investment in ways soon to be apparent; again, looking at how best one can apply technology in what is a digitally nomadic world. On that same theme, I’m vested in migration investment and I’m acting as an advisor to a start-up one of my children invested in, which is for me is, really exciting. Though l remain meaningfully involved in legacy oil and gas assets, the recent spike in prices has created the much needed segue to exit that investment for value. So, I’m busy. Maybe busier than ever, and I think that is because I remain constantly fascinated and still see tremendous opportunities to create value now more so than ever, in areas that interest me or my children, at my own pace.
President Shagari appointed your father, Chief Michael Godwin Edward Prest as his Chief of Staff. Your grandfather apart from being an Ambassador, Minister, and a Judge, in 1950 founded with Anthony Enaharo, the Mid-West Party. The party became part of Action Group in 1951 and is part and parcel of the struggle for independence of Nigeria from the British. Have you thought about entering Politics if simply as an extension of giving back?
What I would say is this. If I did enter politics then I’d throw myself into it full time and with it, apply the same discipline and energy and fascination I apply to everything I do. I’d be 100% committed yet I suspect people would find me somewhat contrarian and be surprised that I have very strong views on certain issues that centre around meaningful gender equality, tolerance, equal opportunity for everyone, excellence, sustainability, and technology. Politics is unforgiving in many respects and at times, the pernicious rivalry between political opponents in Nigeria is both unhinged as it is visceral. I have friends for which politics is their life, is their metier. With one of them, I’ve seen it first-hand literally rip open his life to unwelcome, vicious and biased scrutiny that made me constantly wonder, has it been worth it for him? For his family? He carried it well but because I know him well, deep down it must hurt. So, to answer your question, I don’t know is my answer. Being a Minister is being a technocrat bringing his or her acumen almost under a contract for a fixed term. Being a politician is something very different. The next elections in Nigeria, I think are as important as those that ushered in the halcyon days of 1999 – 2007. If the next Government feel I have a skillset that can bring value, then I would answer that call as a means of giving back but right now I’m really consumed and involved in what I am doing and remain ever grateful that I can approach my life in this way.
You have four very well-educated children. What advise do you give them? Do you want them to follow in your footsteps?
Again, that is a private matter, Whilst the apple never falls too far from the tree, what I can say, is I want my children to lead their own lives and most importantly, be happy and passionate about whatever it is they choose to do. Life requires humility as it does hard work. Talent is nothing without discipline. Dreams are nothing without that ability to pick yourself up, if knocked down and to go the distance. So, I tell my children to have a dream (of their own) that anchors and drives each of them, each and every day. A dream, that gets them out of bed daily with spring in their feet, so whatever they are doing is not a chore or simply a desire for a pay cheque but sees them working to achieve their dream. They’re venturing out into a very different yet global world, in which the constraints that bear down on human beings are better understood and maybe better appreciated. So, I tell them that happiness must be a similar key-driver and cornerstone in everything they do. They don’t need to follow my footsteps they need to make their own indelible footsteps.
What did you learn from your parents and how has that impacted on your life
One word immediately springs to mind and that is ‘freedom’. I was given an incredible amount of freedom growing up. Freedom to be myself, freedom to ask questions, freedom to make mistakes of which I made many, freedom that always found me at the centre of some trouble in school and University and ultimately, freedom which (I think allowed me) not to be scared to think out-of-the-box and some would say, dream big. It was also a freedom that didn’t allow me to be intimidated even at times, when (logically) you should feel intimidated. I don’t think that freedom was organic. I think it was deliberate decision made by my parents. So, I don’t recall ever being told that I couldn’t do something. Obviously, I was told that from time to time, but when I look back generally, those times were very few and certainly not as a teenager. My late Father (may his soul rest in perfect peace) was very much a polymath, who always had his head in a scholarly book. He wasn’t a Father who’d necessarily tell his children no, but he would be pretty clear on what the upside and downside were on what you would want to do, and I’d near often figure it out for myself and when I didn’t, I’d almost certainly learn for myself that that was a wrong choice to make. He wasn’t judgmental either which is something I definitely inherited. My Mother smothered/drowned me in love and wouldn’t hear anyone criticize or say a bad word about her Son. She just would not hear it. Yet she would quietly admonish and counsel me (away from others) as her way of protecting me. So, I knew my parents always had my back. There are no words that can ever capture the gratitude I have for them. The sacrifices they made and the foresight they had. Absolutely, no words. Priceless!
What would you tell a younger you today, coming out of university and venturing out to similarly make his fortune.
I would say pretty much what I told myself and what my parents told me. Be bold. Know that everything can be your possibility. Nobody owns possibility and it’s there to be grabbed only by those who seek it. Be prepared to work (incredibly) hard. Be prepared to fail as that is the path to success. Never allow others write your narrative or dictate to you what you are or to place you where they want you to be. Place yourself where you think you should be. Prejudice is borne out of fear and ignorance. Don’t covet someone else’s thing or someone else’s success but strive to have your own. Don’t die before they kill you. Be happy and actively seek happiness. Get married or focus on the raising of your children. Finally, Read The Room.