Lere Akinrowo’s story of visionary tenacity has all the nuggets lukewarm starters need to rise from dreariness to a zestful pursuit of their fondest dreams. That this former top employee of Chevron Nigeria Limited resigned after 21 years to return to his first love, arts, is a loud testament to preference for fulfillment above comfort. He left the plump oil job to float an entertainment outfit, Riveting Integrated Entertainment Limited (REIL), comprising Riveting Playhouse, Riveting Records and Riveting Studios. About these and more, he spoke to LANRE ODUKOYA.
REIL is an entertainment company with interests in film, theatre, music, TV, publishing, events promotion, artiste management and arts distribution. And from showbiz outfits under REIL are debuts like Ki Lo Fe (a love song), The Walking Stick and Caged in The Creeks, both of which are fine theatrical works.
Oblivious of where fate was leading him, the journey to his present destination seemed to have started at an age of innocence. Reflecting on his earliest dreams as a lad, Akinrowo recounted: “As a kid, first I wanted to be a soldier, I guess that was because my mum worked as a caterer at a military barracks and I fell for the crispy soldier look. After that, I wanted to be several other things including engineer, lawyer, and lecturer.
By the time I was going to enter the university, at my first Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) exam attempt, I chose University of Jos, mainly because one of my older twin brothers was schooling there. While processing the admission, I travelled to Jos for the first time, and my brother took me to see a play at the open air theatre where the UNIJOS Theatre Arts students were having a performance.
I wasn’t admitted at UNIJOS that year, but after that experience, there was nothing else I wanted to study but Theatre Arts. That was how I ended up studying Dramatic Arts at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, where my other older brother was schooling.”
Immersed in the world of arts by exposure he had no power over especially in a formative age, Akinrowo reminisced about the events that shaped his world view: “I’ll say my first world view was shaped by the many tortoise stories I heard as a kid. Growing up, like in so many homes in the 70s, we had many aunties, uncles, house helps, and so on living with us, who came from our village with many of these stories. I always fancied myself an Ijapa (tortoise) outsmarting everyone around.
Then I started learning history in school, and fell in love with the war aspects of history. I loved historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolph Hitler, etc. When I started studying Dramatic Arts at Ife, I took interest in the philosophical movements which developed in Europe in the aftermath of the two world wars. Some of those philosophical movements were quirky, but I took them all in. Finally, when I met Christ in my third year at the university, I fell in love with King Solomon’s slant to life and godliness, and that’s how I arrived where I am today.” Having also studied Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife, there might well be a few reasons he charted his path back and forth from the allure of the arts.
He explained; “Well, I followed it for a while. Right after youth service in October 1990, I joined Chuck Mike’s Collective Artists, first as an ad hoc staff, then later as a substantive staff. I was with Collective Artists till the end of 1991, after which I joined some of the staff to pull out and form Tempo Productions, led by Felix Okolo, where we had a fairly good run for a while. But truth is, as good as it was, we all still had to deal with the ever-present hunger.
So, one after the other, we bailed out, until it was only Felix Okolo left holding the Tempo Productions touch. When I left, I found my way, first into an oil marketing firm, Westin Oaks Petroleum sometime in 1993, then an engineering firm, Oshea Projects Limited late 1994, and then back with Chuck Mike’s Performance Studio Workshop between February and June 1995.
It was at this time that I met my wife, and one thing led to another until I found myself in Chevron Nigeria Limited, where I eventually worked for twenty one years.” That he made a detour to his first love during economic recession may well also be unsettling enough, but he discussed how he hopes to stem the pangs of the austere times.
“I always knew I would retire early, but let me tell you a story. When I first joined Chevron, I was 28. I used to watch the older employees who were in their 40s and 50s then, keep vitamins and all manner of medication in their drawers, and they would pull out these medications and throw them into their mouths morning and afternoon with the tea rounds. And I used to think to myself, if these people are so tired, why don’t they just retire and go home in peace. Guess what, just like overnight, I found myself also keeping vitamins in my drawer, which I threw in my mouth morning or afternoon with the tea rounds.
That was a serious awakening for me. But more importantly, when I left the theatre world in 1995, I never took my eyes off the goings on there. I saw Nollywood start from its very early days when everyone scoffed at it, until it grew to the point of attracting foreign interest and even respect.
All through that period, I grew in other areas myself. Chevron is a global company with world class systems and processes. While there, I learnt a thing or two about the concept of world class, and I can relate it to practically everything I see around me.
Now, if I wait till my mandatory retirement age of 60, I would have no more strength to bring that ‘world class’ into anything. I’d be exhausted and busted. So, that was why I left last year when I did- recession or not.” And like every discerning mind would prod, “do you think you made an adequate exit plan for the life of an entrepreneur?” His response is revealing: “I don’t think you can ever plan enough for retirement. In the end you just have to take the plunge, or wait till you are pushed out. Where I worked, if you decide to wait till age 60 before retirement, three months before the due date, you’ll receive a nice letter from HR saying sir, ma’am, here’s to let you know that you’re three months to your 60th birthday, bla, bla, bla.
In fact, before receiving that nice HR letter, your co-workers would have started reminding you like two years before the time in so many ways. Some will adopt you as their office daddy or mummy. It’s all jovial and nice,but you won’t ever forget that your time is almost up.
But for the life of retirement or entrepreneurship, you’ll never be ready. I’m still learning stuff every day. I’ll give you an example. To prepare for my entertainment business, I decided to learn from the best as much as I could afford. I attended several courses at the London Film School and the New York Film Academy, to learn what the film production business is at the highest level. I learnt the bolt and spanner as well as some strategic stuff about film production. But, even though I have a very good product in the shape of a movie script, which people at the London Film School and the New York Film Academy attested to as a potential world class movie, I’m learning now that, as a producer, you’re largely on your own in this industry. There are a million and one brilliant movie ideas which have all died because there’s no one to fund them.
That has driven some reality and sense into me. If I learnt anything while working with Chevron, using the company’s money, it was that everything was world class or nothing. Now out in the business world on my own, it’s now world class, yes, but who’s paying for it?” The natural fear mostly succumbed to by women could also stir some initial tension particularly in a country where plump jobs aren’t often secured on a platter. He shared the experience he’s been having with his wife after throwing in the towel at Chevron.
“Ah, I’m still trying to convince her that I took the right decision to leave. I’m actually under some pressure right now trying to prove that the decision I took was the right one.” But everything is not as it seems, this realisation dawned on him after rude awakening.
“Yeah, I attended the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where I hoped to network and meet all the right people with the right money to write a cheque and ask me to go shoot my world class movie. I got my rude awakening when I realised there were thousands of people from all over the world, I mean from America, Europe, Asia and everywhere else, also hoping to meet the right people with the right money to write a cheque for their world class projects. I became tired, my brother. I had the chance to pitch my movie to a few people there and they all liked it. But no one said can we meet over lunch tomorrow to discuss your idea further? Vision is what’s keeping me going now. I believe I’d still make the movie at some point, but I’m learning to take things slow.
” As things pan out, Akinrowo counts on his fingers a number of risks taken to pursue what makes him happy the most. “In my own case, I dropped a secure source of income to pursue my love for the entertainment business. What I’m risking is the middle class comforts which come with regular salaries and emoluments, ability to maintain my family’s standard of living, and meeting my commitments at home, church, in the extended family, and so on.”
If the story of his life was a drama, here’s who he thinks he is: “I’ve once been described as queer by a friend of mine because I seem enamoured with characters like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko, Adolf Hitler, Judas, etc. So, I like villainous characters, but in my own story, I think I’ll be the hero rather than the villain.”