Nigerians Repositioning Africa – Robert Agbede

Montana was not what Robert Agbede had in mind. A Nigerian native, Agbede long wanted to move to America, and in January  1976, he got that chance. He excelled in science and math at a private American  high school outside his hometown of Lagos, and universities offered  scholarships: Stanford, Penn State and the Colorado School of Mines, among  others. Agbede chose Montana Tech in Butte because the school would let him start at  once.

“I wanted to leave so bad,” said Agbede, whose father died when Agbede was 8,  leaving him to head the household that included his mother and three younger  brothers. “I had been taking care of my family. It was time to leave and enjoy  myself.” When he arrived in Montana, Agbede stared at the bleak, frozen landscape and  wondered if he’d made a mistake.

“I had black platform shoes, a two-piece suit, bell bottoms. I grew a big  afro. That was the era of ‘Shaft,’ and I learned how to walk like ‘Super Fly,’ ”  Agbede recalled. “But I didn’t even have a coat. Of all the places I could have  picked… .” Better days awaited him.

Agbede today heads Chester Engineers Inc., headquartered in Moon. On March  31, the National Society of Black Engineers will present him with its 2012  Golden Torch Award for Entrepreneur of the Year. The society said Chester  Engineers is the largest black-owned environmental and engineering design  company in the United States and the largest water and wastewater treatment  plant design and management company in Western Pennsylvania.

“Every so often, I ask myself, ‘Why me?’ ” Agbede said. His unlikely rise strikes longtime friend Glenn Mahone, senior partner at the  Downtown law firm Reed Smith, as mythical. In any good story, Mahone said, the  hero comes from nothing. He embarks on an arduous quest, ends up in a strange,  foreboding land and overcomes the odds through sheer determination.

“For a black guy from Lagos, looking like Shaft, to end up in Butte, Montana  — I mean, Butte, Montana! — and eventually buy Chester Engineers? That takes  courage, and it takes confidence,” Mahone said. Agbede spent six months in Butte before his uncle, a professor at the  University of Pittsburgh, convinced him to transfer.

“They said ‘Pittsburgh is the smoky city,’ but it was heaven to me,” Agbede  said. “I loved it. My reference line was Butte. I said, let me get out of Butte,  and I just left. I had an AMC Pacer, one of the worst cars ever, and I just left  it there. In Pittsburgh, the cup was half full.”

In 1979, he graduated from Pitt with an engineering degree and entered the  doctoral program while working for the research arm of the National Coal  Council. Through most of the 1980s, he worked as an engineer with Babcock Co.,  and in 1987, his life changed, he said.

U.S. Steel called, seeking help with reducing dust from the longwall mining  machine at its coal mine in Alabama, he said. The Mine Safety and Health  Administration threatened to close the mine if U.S. Steel couldn’t fix the  problem.

“They asked how much I would charge to help,” Agbede said. “I didn’t know; I  said $1,000 because that number sounded nice to me. They agreed, and I came down  for the weekend.” In a Birmingham hotel room, Agbede could not sleep that night.

“I left the television on, and there was Jimmy Swaggart,” Agbede said. “He  was on one knee, he was crying and saying, ‘Lord, I have sinned; forgive me.’  Well, I got down on my knees, too, and I prayed: ‘Lord, don’t use all your  energy on Jimmy because I need your help, too!’ ”

Underground the next morning, he quickly determined how to fix the dust  problem, he said. Agbede designed a device he called a scrubber, which uses  water sprayers to remove dust. He patented the design, one of several patent  notices framed in the Chester Engineers offices.

“We walked out of the mine, we were wearing coveralls and gear, everyone was  celebrating, and I was walking like Rambo,” Agbede said. Two days later, U.S. Steel asked for a proposal to work on seven other  problematic mines, Agbede said. He was unsure whether he wanted to start his own  business.

“I never prayed that hard in my life,” he said. “I called them and said, ‘I  need an advance’ — I was trying to make them tell me no. They said, ‘How much?’  and I said $17,500. They said, ‘OK, go pick it up at Ross Street.’ I went to  pick up the check, and that’s how I got started.”

He bought gear, rented an office in Monroeville and started Advance  Technology Services Inc. The company grew steadily, and in 2003, Agbede bought  Chester Engineers from U.S. Filter Co. Chester was founded in Pittsburgh’s North  Side in 1910. Today, Chester Engineers has offices throughout the country and  does projects around the world. Agbede spent 225 days on the road last year.

He won’t release financial numbers, for competitive reasons. He wouldn’t even  say how many people he employs. He is more forthcoming about his efforts to help students. Agbede has not  forgotten his roots. He established the Robert O. Agbede Scholarship at Pitt to  help black students pursuing engineering degrees and has given more than $3  million in other endowments.

His desire to give back is one reason former WQED President George Miles Jr.  took a position as chairman of Chester Engineer’s board of directors when he and  his wife planned to retire to Florida. Miles knows little about engineering,  both men acknowledge, but Agbede wanted him as a mentor and moral compass.

“A lot of people work and make a lot of money, and then later on, they  realize that their lives made no difference at all,” Miles said. “I’m about  trying to make a difference. So is Bob. This company, if we’re successful, we’re  going to make some money. But we’re also going to make a difference. … Bob  takes that seriously.”