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.”
By Chris Togneri, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW