He is a dynamic Chief Executive with a penchant for excellence who is successfully leading a team of diverse professionals to create a niche for VFD Group in the corporate world. Nonso Okpala’s experience and intelligence has driven his entrepreneurial passion into national reckoning. In this special report, his success factors are highlighted even as he advises younger professionals.
I attended the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus where I studied Marketing, and came out as the best graduating student in my department in 2003. I went on to join KPMG, and as a requirement for working in Audit in KPMG, I became a chartered accountant, a member of ICAN. After leaving KPMG in 2008, I joined UBA for a short stint, and then went on to work with BGL Plc, initially as a Special Assistant to one of the Executive Directors, and subsequently joined the Corporate Finance Team. This was a fantastic experience as it gave me an understanding of how businesses are run and how funds required for business operations and investments are raised. I left BGL in 2010 and joined Heirs Holdings where I worked as the CFO for almost 6 years. I resigned in late 2015 to join VFD Group as the pioneer CEO.
On the impact of his marketing and accounting background on his achievement as a CEO
One of the unique combinations you can have in business is a combination of marketing; the customer facing aspect of the business (business development) and accounting, which is the most back office aspect of any business operation. From the marketing perspective, you get a good understanding of who your customers are, how to target these customers, what strategies you need to deploy to stay ahead of the curve, your competitors and the likes.
With accounting, you know to a great level of detail what is happening in the company, what the financial health is and its profitability, the gearing ratios, and every other finance type indicators of the company. These aspects are two critical aspects of any business and having such background at your fingertips is very crucial. On how I have been able to leverage that to run this business successfully? Our team will easily say that we never lose sight of the bottom line, and this is the mindset of an accountant. We don’t just run for transactions, we run for transactions that significantly add to the bottom line; this speaks to my accounting background. True also to my marketing background is that we aggressively look for transactions and we tirelessly find the best ways to get to our customers, understand their needs, and deliver it to them in a very compelling way.
An insight into what VFD Group does
VFD Group is a financial services proprietary investment company, and we seek to consistently invest in every sector within the financial services industry. We are quite young, futuristic and ambitious, hence we do not only invest in the traditional sector. We seek to understand the emerging trends and align our investments to these trends.
One unique emerging trend which also speaks to our innovation, is the aspect of digital banking, a form of banking that is extensively supported by technology and contradicts to a large extent the brick-and-mortar mentality of the current banking system. As a holding company, we have interest in a couple of companies in different sectors where we have added value. We have a significant microfinance bank and we consistently seek to grow its capabilities on the back of technology. We also think it will give us an opportunity to launch the first truly digital bank in the country.
Secondly, we are also a major player in the currency market; we play in the aspect that you would call some form of a hedge. We also seek to understand how the economy moves, opportunities that we can take advantage of, then we deploy funds to do likewise, be it in currency, fixed-income trading, equity, and all instruments that are available based on our unique understanding of them, that way we can play and take some form of profitability from these effort.
We also have an asset management firm called Anchoria Asset Management Ltd. It is currently looking to launch three SEC registered funds soon.
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Lastly, we have interest in real estate and have a firm called Dynasty Real Estate. We also have an Auto firm called Germaine Autos Ltd. These two companies are integral to what we want to do in the future so that we can become significant players in both the mortgage and auto leasing space. To achieve this, it is important that we have the bedrock for such issuers of assets be it a real estate firm that runs targeted at the middle class, presenting durable and lasting properties to meet the need of that target market. Same with the auto business, we think to a large extent that we can support lending to the auto space on the back of a yard that sells, repairs and maintains and ensures that those assets remain very active in itself.
On factors responsible for VFD Group’s steady growth
To a large extent, I will attribute this to integrity and track records because for you to run a financial services or an investment firm, a great deal of the currency that you trade on is integrity. People need to believe you, rely on what you say and more or less stake their livelihood on your company. We have tried consistently to be transparent and accountable, we ensure that our word is our bond and we hold the interest of all our customers as utmost priority and our investors, debt providers and clientele on the subsidiary levels are all managed with that mindset. These has come through as one of our unique selling points; integrity, accountability and transparency, despite its difficulty over the years.
The second is the sense of innovation. I think that the challenges that we face in the Nigerian economy are such that its solutions are significantly homegrown and if you don’t have a home-grown mindset to solving the problems that we have, then to a large extent what you will be presenting to the market will not be confirmed. I tell people that philosophies and principles built in Harvard don’t always hold water in Nigeria. You need to think genuinely about our problems, think genuinely about the pain points of the customer, think genuinely about the need of the market to come up with products that serve their specific purpose.
So, second thing I will attribute as a key success factor for our Group is innovation. Through our commitment to innovation, we have continued to think and evolve in ways to serve our customers better. We always allow our minds to be flexible in understanding what the market needs and also deploring what we think is the solution to the market. This has enabled us to come out with home grown solutions.
Lastly, our sense of team work and network has also played a role in our corporate growth. We started this company as a group of friends that wanted to set up an investment club and we morphed severally into what we have now become. One thing that has been key to this process is a group of people that are completely committed to growing a successful business. A business that is not only successful on profitability but is also successful on integrity, innovations, governance, exceptional branding and all other yardsticks in itself.
This committed set of people started this company even when they were not fully available as full-time staff, but they took it as part time and grew it to a point where we all could individually resign and join the firm. That commitment and network has served as a base for operating effectiveness, networking and getting access to the various markets we have had in terms of business developments. These are the three areas I would say the success of the company rests on. In a nutshell, the first is the sense of integrity, transparency and accountability. Second is innovation and the third is teamwork; which is a network of people, shareholders, staff that are completely committed to the growth and success of the company. This team work & networking, integrity and innovation are the core factors that have driven VFD Group to its height.
Challenging periods of his career
I think every aspect of my career has been challenging, but I would say I hold very dear to my experience in Heirs Holdings – I learnt a lot there. But I think the challenges of my previous places of work were quite different from that. I would say that KPMG was where I got my B.Sc., BGL was where I got my M.Sc. and Heirs Holdings was where I got my Ph.D. in that order.
KPMG was difficult in its own right because it was the start of a career and I had to focus a lot on learning, and those skills I picked up in KPMG serve me till today and they were very crucial. BGL gave me significant market exposure with the understanding of how companies are run, the mindset of an owner and a push toward entrepreneurship. At Heirs Holdings, I mastered the art of managing, controlling and running a company. These different challenges in different aspects of my career growth has significantly affected the outcome of how we currently run in VFD Group.
VFD Group in the next 10 years
No doubt in 10 years, I believe VFD Group will have no rival in the financial services space. We will have the biggest bank, the biggest insurance company, the biggest asset management company in our fold; and in every major sector within the financial services industry, we will have a dominant player as one of our subsidiaries.
On how VFD Group is leveraging on new media to drive its growth
True to our innovative mindset, we quickly would follow the course of change. We easily embrace change, especially when we know that it is going down a sustainable path. The age of social media has come and as a business owner knowing fully well how the trend is moving from the traditional media to the social media. It has become very crucial and there is no alternative to it, so if you are a captain of the industry and you don’t have an active social media account, or your company does not have an active social media account, or they do not reflect the new age mindset of communication then you are more or less living the life of a dinosaur and you need to be careful about it.
In our Group we have embraced it, we know it has come to stay and, and we are projecting our company as much as possible on our social media platforms. We are actually even reluctant to go into traditional means of communication because we think we get more mileage, more traction from those accounts/platforms. We make it as exciting as possible so that people get held on, but we also do not lose sight of the important aspect of business which requires that you communicate with your market and track the market effectively for good optimization of opportunities within that space.
These days when I get asked for a complimentary card, I encourage my contacts to add me on Twitter, follow me on Instagram and Facebook because a lot of intelligent people have come across me on social media, are some people we have employed, some we’ve done business with and some we even mentor so that they can grow in themselves but that’s on a personal level. On a company level, we actually launched our currency exchange business on the back of Twitter and the bulk of our inaugural customers came from our social media accounts. It’s a thing to embrace and you will see that in every aspect of our business -innovation is our watchword and we are very quick to change and adapt to the most effective and efficient ways of doing business.
Advice for younger professionals
They should live their dreams. The technology age has shown that things change very fast. When people aspire to work for very established firms at the risk of being who they are or chasing their dreams, they should know that some of those firms may not exist in 10 or 20 years, and the firms they consider as small firms might become dominant players in 10 years. You really never can tell, so, you are best with living your dreams from day one.
I would say if entrepreneurship is your thing, it might be difficult at the beginning, but if you crack it right it would be worth it, it would be justifiable for you. I do not know what I would have done that would give me the satisfaction I enjoy now, being more or less a successful entrepreneur. Although, we have not achieved our objective but we could say, yes, we have pushed forward….there is no joy that compares to that.
And so as a young man or woman, you want to be a career person, chase your career for what it’s worth but do things that make you happy, gets you excited and that you are strongly passionate about. Every other thing will come your way and the universe will conspire in favor of you.