the clothes on his back,” says Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis. “That was a big move, a bold move. He was willing to take the plunge.”
After doing his research, Lawal moved to Georgia in 1971 and attend Fort Valley State College, a historically black institution known for its biology and chemistry departments. It was a turbulent time to start a life in this country. The black liberation movement was raging, and the United States was still embroiled in the Vietnam War. Lawal later transferred to Texas Southern University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Upon graduation, he went to work for Shell Oil as a chemical engineer at the Deer Park Refinery. “Of course, I didn’t want to be wearing the hard hat. I decided I wanted to go for my business degree so I could wear suits. I knew I had to go back for further education in business, thus I enrolled, and Shell paid for my M.B.A. program,” says Lawal, who earned his M.B.A. in finance and marketing from Prairie View A&M University in Texas.
A few years later, in 1977, Lawal landed a job as a research chemist at Dresser Industries, which is now Halliburton. Over the next decade, he would hold several positions within the oil and finance industries, including executive positions at Suncrest Investment Corp. and Baker Investments.
STRIKING IT RICH
While still in finance, Lawal learned of a business opportunity that would change the course of his life: a new venture with a group of entrepreneurs from Cameroon, the nation that borders Nigeria to the south and east. “They were setting up this tobacco and cigarette manufacturing plant, and they gave us the opportunity to do the procurement of the tobacco for them from the United States,” he says. Cameroon-American Corp. was formed in 1986 to purchase tobacco from the U.S. and sell it to the Cameroonian cigarette manufacturer, who in turn sold the cigarettes throughout the Middle East. Eventually, the company would be known by the acronym CAMAC. Lawal, his wife, and c
hildren would come to own 80% of the entity, and the remainder was divvied up among Lawal’s brothers and sisters.
In 1989, CAMAC moved into the oil business upon the urging of Rilwanu Lukman, a foreign minister for Nigeria and later secretary general of OPEC. Through his connections, Lawal, who holds joint U.S.-Nigerian citizenship, secured exploration rights in Nigeria. In 1991, he began production in partnership with Houston-based oil giant Conoco, which provided the financing for oil exploration. That alliance reportedly produced more than 20,000 barrels of oil per day. CAMAC would go on to form several such partnerships over the years.
CAMAC was able to achieve significant revenue growth through the integration of “upstream services” like the exploration and drilling of oil and gas and “downstream services” such as the trading and refining of products. As a result, CAMAC’s revenues grew from $114.3 million in 1999 to $979.5 million in 2001, earning the top spot on the 2002 BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE