45 Great Moments in Black Business History – No. 17: The Rise of a Black Oil and Gas Mogul

BLACK ENTERPRISE celebrates the 45th anniversary of its roster of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses—The BE 100s. To commemorate the significance of this collective’s widespread impact on black business and economic development as well as American industry over four decades, we have presented 45 milestones moments. As part of this tribute, we continue our yearlong countdown.

Today we reveal No.17 in the web series “Great Moments in Black Business.”

A global oil and gas baron, Kase Lawal excels in a lucrative industry not dominated by people of color.

Born in Ibadan, Nigeria, to a local politician and a textile trader, Lawal knew growing up he wanted to be a businessman. But he did not know what business he would pursue. He became the founder and chairman of CAMAC, a Houston-based energy company. It has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry powerhouse from a small agricultural commodities firm.

Lawal has used ingenuity, hard work, and partnerships to build operations stretching from Africa to South America. His dexterity showed in 2010 when he bought the majority ownership in Pacific Asia Petroleum. Renamed CAMAC, the business became the only energy company on the New York Stock Exchange controlled by African Americans.

The deal came a year after CAMAC reported its peak level of revenues—$2.43 billion—on the 2009 BE 100s list. CAMAC, which stands for Cameroon-American, left the BE 100s in 2011 after changes in operational structure, management, and ownership. CAMAC and its units have regularly earned $1 billion in revenues since 2002. That year, it was No. 1 on the BE 100s, making the list for the first time. In 2006, CAMAC was named BE Company of the Year. Now, CAMAC explores, produces, processes, and trades crude oil, gas, and electrical power in Africa, Europe, and South America.

Lawal’s prowess is paying off. He reportedly is the fourth wealthiest black person in America with a net worth exceeding $3 billion. He purportedly follows David Steward, Robert Smith, and Oprah Winfrey, all BE 100s CEOs.

But Lawal’s incredible ride has not been easy. He founded CAMAC International Corp. in 1986. It then traded barley, tobacco, and other grains from the United States to West Africa. Lawal financed a deal allowing the tobacco to go from U.S. farms to an African processing plant. That’s when CAMAC Holdings was created.

In 1989, Lawal met Rilwanu Lukman, a Nigerian politician and oil industry insider. Lukman urged Lawal to focus on oil instead of agriculture. The timing was good as Nigeria was not tapped into the oil business, yet rich in that commodity. Tapping into his Nigerian contacts, Lawal formed Allied Nigeria and obtained oil production rights to large tracts of land in Nigeria.

Yet he needed financing for oil exploration. Lawal teamed with oil giant Conoco in 1991 after meeting with 19 different companies. A joint venture between Conoco and Lawal’s family business helped pump over $500 million into Nigeria over the next 10 years, according to Forbes. The venture prospered greatly, producing over 20,000 barrels of oil daily as of late 2000.

Lawal told CNN: “That partnership I believe was the cornerstone of the CAMAC that you know today. Subsequently, with that credibility and the advantage of partnering with Conoco, we were also able to partner with BP and also with Statoil of Norway and currently we have made a partnership with Eni, the largest Italian company, which is one of the top five oil companies in the world.”

In 1999, Lawal acquired an oil refinery and set up an energy trading firm. Before then, CAMAC mainly just did oil exploration and production. “We decided that we could get contracts, and assemble a risk management team that could deal with the volatility of selling oil and gas,” Lawal explained. Revenues rose from $114.26 million in 1999 to just over $1 billion in 2002.

In addition to oil business success, Lawal is board chairman of Unity National Bank, No. 13 on the 2017 Banks list, with assets of nearly $101 million.

Lawal told The Houston Chronicle this year that his entrepreneurial journey included relying on creating networks and forming mutually beneficial partnerships. He was a speaker at the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurial Summit in Houston.

The newspaper reported Lawal began advising and joined the board of Unity National after former Houston Mayor Lee Brown asked him to do so. Lawal reflected on the falling number of black-owned banks. “We need a national bank that can serve the American people, especially African American businesses and individuals.”

A masterful entrepreneur, Lawal also is a big advocate of encouraging blacks to consider Africa when exploring global investment opportunities.

“There is no other continent in the world where you can get a better return on investment than the African continent,” Lawal said in the interview.