Paul O'Callaghan was an executive director at the Lehman Brothers on the day the company collapsed.
For Paul, financial services had already become a gilded cage. After the 2008 financial crisis, he determined to change career and make an impact. Aged 38, he chose Cranfield School of Management over Cambridge Judge for his MBA.
At Cranfield, he started up WestAfricaENRG with fellow MBA student Lolade Oresanwo. He graduated in 2011. Less than a year after his MBA, he left the UK and relocated to Nigeria to develop his new business.
Today, WestAfricaENRG is the largest private landfill diversion company in West Africa, extending across four states in Nigeria and employing over 3,000 people.
As co-founder and CEO, Paul has successfully pioneered the privatization of solid waste management in Nigeria. He runs the country’s first materials recovery facility, diverting waste from landfills, recycling it and putting it back into industry.
Paul is dedicated to developing the sustainability of West African economies. By the end of next year, he aims to be generating electricity from solid waste.
You worked at Lehman Brothers when it collapsed. What was that experience like?
It happened so quickly you didn’t even see it coming. That Friday, the whole of Lehman’s went home knowing Monday was going to be different. We didn’t expect bankruptcy. We expected Barclays or the Bank of America to buy us out.
But it is what it is. And, with hindsight, I was getting quite disillusioned with financial services. In the immediate aftermath, it was almost like the end of the world as we knew it. But once I got through the shock of it all, I realized that it was actually a good opportunity to go and do something different.
Why did you decide to pursue an MBA at Cranfield?
I chose Cranfield because of the age of the cohort and breadth of experience. I wasn’t the youngest on the program, but I certainly wasn’t the oldest. Having that breadth of age, background, experience and nationality was a real bonus for me.
Plus, the way the course is structured at Cranfield means there’s a lot of time for personal reflection. I really wanted to transition out of finance but I wasn’t sure what into. It was a really important time for me to think about what it was I wanted to do.
You started up WestAfricaENRG on the Cranfield MBA. Where are you at right now? What do you hope to achieve?
We’re a company of firsts, there’s no doubt about it. We’re the first company to take over what is effectively the privatization of a solid waste management authority in Nigeria. We built and own the first materials recovery facility in Nigeria. We’re about to build the first in vessel composting facility in Nigeria.
We’ve expanded across four states. Ultimately, we create jobs in an environment where jobs are a scarce commodity. We have over 3,000 people working for us now, and we train people to become mechanical engineers and machine operators.
By the end of next year, we aim to be generating electricity through solid waste. The plan is that we become a leading environmental sanitation company in West Africa.
What challenges do you face?
Within any developing economy, the role of government in business is very large. You need to involve government in your decision making process. That can sometimes be time-consuming. Clearly, West Africa has a business culture which can be a difficult environment to work in. But I’ve not paid a single dollar in a bribe or ‘facilitation’ in Nigeria. That’s something we’re very strict about.
What advice do you have for MBAs looking to start their own business?
You’ve got to be open to change of the business model and you’ve got to be opportunistic. If someone asks you to do something and it’s akin to what you’re doing, take the opportunity. These opportunities lead somewhere.
What should applicants think about when deciding to do an MBA?
The number one priority is the connections you make while doing your MBA. Mature students need to look at the school’s alumni network and see whether it fits in with where they want to be.
And visit the school. I went to an open day at Cranfield and I was just enamored by the whole structure of the MBA. The lectures they gave on that day were so relevant and so fascinating that I made up my mind there and then.