Viannet Okouma was 17 when he left Gabon to pursue higher education in London, UK. Almost 30 years later, in April 2023, he returned to the country to helm VAALCO Gabon SA as its CEO. He is steering the company toward further growth, profits, and expansion. In addition to that, he is also striving to contribute to the country that had given him so much, for example, education and university tuition fees for many years.
Viannet stepped into the oil and gas industry more than 20 years ago. He started with Royal Dutch Shell (RDS), and ever since, his career has been on an upward trajectory. It is his focus on achieving goals and targets that have fueled his progress in the industry. Viannet is a result-oriented leader.
He is not a people person. He says that he does not wake up every morning to be liked by others. He does not mind if others do not like him. When he comes to work, he just wants to do the best he can and lead others in achieving superior results. Those who have worked – or are working – with Viannet Okouma know him as the “non-nonsense” guy – the one who will definitely achieve the result, whatever the need may be.
In his undisguised zeal to achieve results, Viannet Okouma, however, does not ignore the needs or views of those around him. He makes sure to ask those working for him: what they want him to do, what decisions they want him to take, and what doors they want him to open for them to do their job. “We are paid to work together. Let’s make the most of it,” Viannet often tells people around him.
Journey: From Gabon to Gabon
Born in Okondja, Gabon, Viannet left the country after high school to study in London, where he lived for nearly 8 years. He studied Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and Petroleum Engineering, earning honours degrees and high distinction postgraduate degrees. When young Viannet arrived in the new country, he did not speak English. Due to that, he chose to study applied mathematics at University College London (UCL). Math’s was the easiest subject to study compared to others for the non-English speaking young boy. “Mathematics is a universal language, so it was easy for me,” Viannet says. He has done his Ph.D. in applied mathematics.
Originally, Viannet Okouma wanted to be a university teacher. He aspired to teach and do research in a university. But, on the other hand, he also wanted to do a job that would provide him with the opportunity to travel the world. He soon realized that teaching was not that profession. “If I want to travel the globe, I should be in an industry that has a high turnover and moves stuff around,” he thought.
Viannet Okouma discussed that with his mother, his father and his elder brother who was studying in Germany, who all asked him to consider joining the oil and gas industry. That special conversation with his mother resulted in him accepting an offer from Royal Dutch Shell – just before he finished his Ph.D. – to do research in a laboratory in Rijswijk, The Netherlands. That is how he joined the oil and gas industry and got to travel around the globe – Gabon, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Canada, U.S., Gabon, Canada, UAE (Abu Dabhi), and now back to Gabon.
When he received a call from VAALCO Energy Inc., with an offer to lead one of its operations in West Africa, particularly Gabon, Viannet Okouma was serving as the Senior Strategy and Business Development Advisor at ADNOC Group in Abu Dabhi. He accepted the offer mainly because of two reasons. First, he wanted a career change, and the second reason, he says, “I wanted to come back to give back to the country what it had given to me and stay with his ageing mother.”
CEO of VAALCO Gabon SA
VAALCO Energy Inc. is a Houston, Texas-based independent energy company, set up in 1985 and founded by Founded by Virgil A Walston and Charles Alcorn. It mainly engages in the production, development, and acquisition of oil and natural gas properties in West and North Africa and western Canada. The company currently has a market capital of close to half a billion dollars. VAALCO Gabon SA is one of the subsidiaries and constitutes the biggest VAALCO operations globally.
It has operations in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea (West Africa), Western Canada, and Egypt. VAALCO Energy Inc’s strategy is to increase reserves and production through the development and exploration of international oil and natural gas properties, with a primary focus on Africa. VAALCO Energy Inc. aims to be A Diversified African-Focused E&P.
As the CEO of VAALCO Gabon SA, Viannet handles multiple responsibilities, including managing government and public relations. The company is a private investor in Gabon. So, Viannet has to ensure that it abides by the rules of the land as well as international markets compliance. “My job is to make sure that every project that we carry out is approved by governmental bodies – even by the highest office, that is of the President,” he says. We want to ensure best value for both, VAALCO Energy Inc. and Gabon Republic. It is a winning partnership.
Viannet has a technical background. He is tapping into that to make sure that operations are running smoothly and efficiently and are economically optimal. In addition to that, he is also in charge of new business development. “VAALCO Gabon SA today produces about 18,000 – 20,000 barrels a day. A part of my job is to make sure that we increase production over the next few years,” Viannet says. He and his team try to develop the business either by buying assets, through exploring new blocks and/or buying new production. VAALCO Gabon SA has been producing in Gabon since 2002, with first oil from offshore Etame field.
And, ultimately, Viannet’s job is to manage a company of about 100 to 150 employees. He points out that it is a challenging responsibility, as each employee is different and has different needs. He may also have to deal with employee unions, who sometimes do not work in the best interest of the private investor. So, building positive relationships with employees is a key part of his responsibility as the CEO.
VAALCO Gabon SA does not operate in Gabon alone. It has partners and various stakeholders. Working with them, Viannet ensures outcomes that are in the best interest of the company. “We have to make sure that the company achieves results,” he says. “We are trying as hard as possible to do that.”
Viannet also regularly communicates with the headquarters office in Houston. There is a time difference of 6 to 7 hours between Gabon and Texas, which, he says, does not make his life easy. “But that comes with the job, you’ve to do what you’ve to do,” he adds. Viannet carries out his responsibilities with the help of a Gabon leadership team consisting of 4-5 people, including the operations director, finance director, human resources director, and deputy managing director. They work as a cohesive unit to make sure that their operations run smoothly.
Job satisfaction is what motivates Viannet to do his best. He feels a sense of satisfaction when he strikes a deal with a government body or another competitor/partner or when he hears from people that he and VAALCO Gabon SA are doing a great job. Satisfaction also comes from keeping the image of the company blemish-free. He is supported by the executive team in Houston, Texas.
Viannet believes in having the right attitude at work every day. “I wake up every morning, knowing that a good attitude will determine your altitude,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad days. I do have them, but I don’t dwell much on those.”
As a strategic thinker, he is always looking at how to do the best, how to improve and turn a corner, and how to do things better than he did yesterday.
Putting His Heart into the Oil and Gas Industry
Working in the oil and gas industry may not be the original career plan of Viannet, but after spending his entire career in it, he says that he wouldn’t trade his job for anything despite the challenges. “The challenges are too many and difficulties are too high, but if you put your heart into it, then you can achieve great results,” he adds.
Viannet is also a firm believer that industry impacts people’s lives in a good way. He points out that most of the things that people use daily are products of oil and gas, such as fuel for running car engines, petrol, cooking gas, cosmetics, and electricity, etc.
Over the years, Viannet has done various jobs in the industry. Some of them were not the best or to his liking. But he underscores that in the end, the world is full of resources if one can explore them safely without impacting the environment – then one is extracting wealth for everybody on the planet. This is in line with the UN Sustainable Goals (17 Goals to Transform our World), especially Goal # 7: “Affordable and Clean Energy.”
In his remarkable career, Viannet has plenty of achievements to his credit because of his dedication and drive to achieve results. When he was working as a principal subsurface engineer in Nigeria, he was responsible for feeding the Bonny LNG plant with upstream gas. Under his leadership, a group of 15 people used to pick up the gas discovery, develop and exploit it extract the gas, and send it to LNG, and then LNG sails across the ocean to be sold to markets in Western Europe and Asia. “Gas cannot be sent in the original form. It has to be liquified before transporting it,” explains Viannet. It is a highly profitable business, and he says that he is proud of what he managed to achieve while working in Nigeria, both from a technical and business viewpoint. Nigeria has become one of the biggest gas exporters in Africa.
At ADNOC Group in Abu Dhabi, he used to write speeches as the strategic advisor to Upstream Executives, making sure that they did not say anything that had the potential to hurt the company and was always in line with the Group Strategy. His stint at the company and exposure to top company executives also offered him exposure to some of the burning topics: OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) production policy, Energy Transition, M&A (Merger and Acquisitions), Corporate and/or assets benchmarking and valuation, Unconventional Resources, CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage), Hydrogen, etc. He could look at OPEC policies and find out when they should dial up or down the production quota to influence market dynamics. He considers it an achievement as he became aware of developments in multiple locations, not just one. And, most importantly, he gained an understanding of how people in the oil industry evaluate on a day-to-day basis to optimize the oil price.
Set Ambitious Targets
Viannet’s definition of success has evolved over the years. As a young graduate from Imperial College, London, he defined success in terms of being “the best” in school or at work. Experience and responsibilities have taught him to view it in a different way. When he became a father, he realized that he would not be a successful man if he did not ensure that his children were successful as well at school and in life. There is a say that: “You cannot be successful until your successors have succeeded.”
And, for Viannet, there is no success if there is no goal, target, or ambition. “Achieving what you’ve set out to achieve is success for me,” he says. “However, having said that, you always need to push yourself to bigger challenges. You always need to set yourself very ambitious targets.” For example, if someone knows that they can run 100 meters and their target is just to do 20 meters, that is not a success for him. “In short, we always need to push ourselves to achieve higher and higher and higher,” says Viannet.
“Whether it is in business or any other things in life, setting an ambitious target is important,” he adds. “Put a plan in place or have an overall strategy to achieve it, and then work step by step to achieve it – that is the way to success.”
Plans for the Future
VAALCO Energy Inc. has grown in many ways. Viannet points out that companies in the oil and gas industry either grow organically or inorganically. The former is through drill bit or exploration, while inorganically means via mergers and acquisitions. The company has acquired a couple of companies in recent years. In 2022, VAALCO Energy Inc. acquired a company called Trans Globe Energy, which led to addition of positions in Western Canada and Egypt to VAALCO Energy Inc. overall portfolio.
Despite the company experiencing growth, it still has ambitious targets. “We are looking for any opportunity to increase our production base at the right operating cost, thereafter, our revenue and then our bottom line (profit). And that is what we are trying to do every day,” says Viannet.
In Gabon, around 200, 000 to 250,000 barrels are produced a day in the country. VAALCO Gabon SA is the fourth biggest operated company in the country and has plans to expand its footprints not just locally but also globally. “We don’t want to go everywhere,” Viannet says. “If you go everywhere, you might be going nowhere at all.” We are making smart investments with long-term profitability and solid returns on investments.
He reveals that they are possibly looking to expand smartly from their existing assets, which they call from their heartlands, and then move away from there and expand. The company has ambitious targets.
“We want to expand in the Western Coast of Africa and move on because the resources are here for years to come,” Viannet says. “We have gained experience as a competitive-cost operator, and that is where we perform our best. And that is what we are planning to do.”
Guiding the Next Generation
Viannet is a coach and mentor at heart. He wants to influence the next generation by coaching and mentoring them. “I want to train the next generation of oil and gas engineers and professionals because this industry can be sustained only by training other people, who pick it up,” he says.
He wants to pass on the skillsets he has acquired over the last 20-plus years to the right people. “Giving them the right advice on career choices, career development, what training and exposure they should take, and what conferences they should attend – that is also one of the ways to impact one’s generation,” Viannet says, adding that there was no one to guide him when he was young.
He also wants to make them aware of sustainable development. In Africa, there is not much discussion about CO2 emissions, UN Sustainable Goals, Industry lead forums on the future of Energy Transition, etc. “We are one of the few companies out here that measures its emissions and makes sure we do not pollute the air, nature, atmosphere, or climate,” Viannet says. The company’s environmentally friendly operations can influence the next generation to make sustainable choices.
Many people still think of the oil and gas companies as big money markers or big money machines. People on the streets do not know much about it, Viannet points out. When he has free time, he goes to school and talks to students there, telling them about the industry and clearing up their misconceptions. He believes that students gain from such conversations. They get the motivation to study something different and consider a new career option.
And he points out that if he wants somebody to work for VAALCO Gabon SA, he will speak to them at their young age and/or talk to their mothers. He also encourages leaders of the industry to engage with students in kindergarten and create the next ambassadors of the industry.
Once his tenure ends, Viannet wants to look back and say, despite the challenges, fluctuating and cyclic oil prices, and the COVID pandemic, they were able to navigate through troubled waters and made it. “Leaving a company with positive cash flow, which is on the rise and growing in every sense of the economic metric, that to me, would be a success,” he says.
Message to Aspiring Leaders
“Be focused and keep trying your best, giving the very best,” Viannet tells aspiring leaders in the gas and oil industry. “Success comes through failures. If you don’t fail, you will not appreciate success. And do the best you can.”
In his message, he also advises them to develop people because they are their best assets in the industry. “If you have the right people doing the right job, you are probably going to achieve the greatest result,” he points out.
“Do not neglect anybody. Do not keep anybody on the bench. Everybody has a stake, including stakeholders, partners, and the government,” Viannet adds. “When you sit around the table, it is not you versus them. It is together you can make things better.