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Jim Ovia: From a clerk to founder of Nigeria’s most profitable bank

Visionary businessman that he is, Ovia hardly sees things as they are.



Jim Ovia: From a clerk to founder of Nigeria's most profitable bank

Described as the ‘Godfather of banking in Nigeria’ by Forbes Africa, Jim Ovia is quite popular for his business dexterity and leadership skills, especially in the banking sector.

A Forbes cover story on him says, “Banking is where he began life as a clerk; it was also the vehicle that carried him to his fortune.”

But Jim Ovia had a life (outside) his banking career, and has built businesses and mentored people. So, there is actually more to Jim Ovia than Zenith Bank Plc, which Nairametrics will uncover in this week’s Founder’s Profile.

READ ALSO: CBN’s heterodox policies buoys credit growth


Jim Ovia was born on the 4th of November, 1951 to the large family of Obi Olihe of Agbor-Obi, in Agbor, Delta State. Talking about early life challenges that could have truncated his future, Ovia wrote in his memoir:

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“When I was just four years old, my father—who was in his mid-fifties—suffered a massive heart attack and died several weeks later due to inadequate medical facilities. Left to fend for herself and her family, my newly widowed mother called upon her intuitive entrepreneurial skills to set up her own small trading business.

“My oldest brother, who was almost twenty years my senior and working in Lagos, sent part of his wages home each month to help pay my school expenses.”

This was the condition that surrounded his early years, making him realize in time the importance of education. It later became his motivation to establish the James Hope College, a co-educational boarding school where 50% of the students are on scholarship.

He attended Ika Grammar School, Bojiboji-Owa for his secondary education, before going to Lagos to join his elder brother.

READ MORE: Loan: CBN disburses over N300 billion to SMEs, health, agric, manufacturing sectors

While in Lagos, he started his banking career in 1973 as a clerk at Union Bank, (formerly Barclays Bank) working at the branch at Oba Akran way, Ikeja. He worked for 3 years as a bank clerk before moving to USA, where he obtained his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.


An eye for the future

While studying for a degree in business administration, Jim Ovia developed a keen interest in computer science and information technology, so serious that he decided to incorporate it into his program.

His uncle was against this decision, believing that it would become a distraction to him. More so, technology was still considered with some skepticism at the time, and not many thought it would amount to much, but Jim held on to it.

Even then, he could see that technology would in the coming decades define the way business was done. If he was studying business administration, he reasoned, it was better for him to have advance knowledge of technology rather than being caught unawares.

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To further equip himself, he worked as part- time computer operator at the defunct Baton Rouge Bank and Trust Company.

READ ALSO: You won’t believe how much Jim Ovia made in just one day!

He returned after his degree and rejoined Union Bank of Nigeria’s branch at 121 Broadstreet, Victoria Island for his National Youth Service Corps. After his service year, Ovia joined International Merchant Bank (IMB) in 1980, working his way up from the position of financial analyst to bank manager.

Jim also worked with Merchant Bank of Africa setting up the corporate division, and Lion Bank, where he rose to the post of branch manager in Lagos.

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A man who knows what he wants

After the deregulation of the banking sector during the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida in the late 1980s, Jim Ovia, alongside some investors, applied for a banking license.

The deregulation suddenly took the exclusive right to start a bank out of the hands of foreign global financial institutions, or a federal or state government institutions, and allowed Nigerians to establish banks.

All that was mandated was having a Chief Executive with at least 10 years banking experience, raising the required capital, and setting up the required physical and governance structure.

READ MORE: What we’ve learnt so far from Jim Ovia’s Africa Rise And Shine

Among other things, the bank had to choose its colours and logo before commencing operations.


“Some of my colleagues said we can’t use red for a bank because it signifies danger, or war. Many other banks at the time were using cooler colours like blue, but no bank ever used red before us. But I insisted because red signified power,” he later explained.

In addition, he had also noticed that most developed countries and world powers, like USA, UK, Japan had red as one of the colours on their national flags, so he insisted that there must be something right about it.

Starting from scratch

As at 1990 when Zenith bank kicked off operations, there were not many buildings specifically designed for commercial or corporate purposes, so they started at a residential building which they shared with a young couple on one wing, with the bank on the other.

As Ovia recalled, they converted the garage to a customer service unit, and then made teller points out of the rooms, to create the first branch at Ajose Adeogun street, Victoria Island, Lagos. In time, the couple could no longer cope with the nuisance that came with being neighbours to a bank, and they moved out, giving the bank more space to operate.

READ ALSO: CBN debits banks another N459.7 billion for failure to meet CRR target

As the years went by, some banks which started off at the same time were forced to merge or sell out, but Zenith stayed strong. Ovia’s peculiar interest in technology was a strong factor in favour of the bank, as he was way ahead of the others in that regard.

His early interest in technology was the reason Zenith bank became the first Nigerian company to have a functional website in 1995, and was able to smoothly migrate its operations from the analogue times to a technological era.

From a single branch in a residential building, Zenith bank now has hundreds of branches all over Nigeria, and several subsidiaries in other countries. The bank became a Public Limited Company in 2001 and was listed on the Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE), and later on the London Stock Exchange (LSE).

On 27th of April 2007, Zenith Bank Plc became the first Nigerian bank in 25 years to be licensed by the UK Financial Services Authority (FSA), giving rise to Zenith Bank UK Limited.

Jim Ovia and his beautiful wife, Kay Ovia at the launch of his book, “Africa: Rise and Shine”

Retiring at 53

Zenith Bank started off with N20 million (then equivalent of $4 million) in shareholders’ funds. Amidst the economic instability at the time, and the tension between military and civilian regimes, Jim grew the bank in two decades to become one of the biggest in the continent, worth billions of dollars in assets.

The bank was 20 years old in July 2010, and ahead of time, Ovia had begun to plan his retirement. He had a lot of interests, some of which he had started paying attention to, but he realized that if he fully wanted to actualize them, he would have to leave the bank on his own terms and give an opportunity to the younger generation.

However, a new policy from the Central Bank of Nigeria on tenure of Bank CEOs compelled him to retire earlier than he planned. He was succeeded by Godwin Emefiele, one of his pioneer staff who had grown through the ranks to become Deputy Managing Director. Emefiele would later advance in his banking career, to head the Central Bank of Nigeria.

“Stepping down from Zenith bank was a very big blessing for me, because it afforded me the time to pursue other things which I would never have been able to do as CEO of Zenith bank,” he later remarked in an interview.

Despite retiring from the position as CEO, he was appointed Non-Executive Director and Chairman, Board of Directors, four years later.

Finding value in a dumpsite

Visionary businessman that he is, Ovia hardly sees things as they are. After retiring from the bank, he went on to establish other businesses based on potentials he could identify in the space.

Ovia picked interest in a property along Ozumba Mbadiwe, a waterfront which used to be a refuse dump, and this became the starting point of his real estate venture. On this piece of property would later stand the Lagos Civic Centre—a masterpiece event venue on the waterfront.

He also set up the Lagos Marriott Hotel, as well as the Aquamarine Boat Club, and the Civic Towers, a 15-story office block.

Driven by his knowledge and interest in technology, he established Cyberspace Limited in 1995 to provide internet services, and later the Visafone Communications Limited in 2007.

READ ALSO: Tether: King of digital dollar-denominated asset

Visafone was later sold to MTN for an undisclosed sum in 2015, after it had gathered about 3 million subscribers. Ovia also founded the Quantum Group, Inc, where his wife, Kay Ovia, is CEO.

Top on the list of his achievements, he counts the Jim Ovia foundation which has four arms: The James Hope College, Jim Ovia Scholarship, Jim Ovia ICT Entrepreneurs Programme and Empower Youth Program. For Ovia, these arms have been his way of grooming the next generation.

Over 1,500 students have been provided with university scholarships. More than 3500 youths have been empowered since 2002, with over 500 entrepreneurs empowered with ICT skills.

His memoir, Africa Rise And Shine was presented in 2018 with all his business secrets and life philosophies. About it, Richard Branson said, “His story is a living testament to his message that success results when we act with courage and dare to try.”

READ MORE: Digitization of the U.S Dollar faces U.S Senate hearing

Other positions of service

He is a member of the Governing Council of Lagos State University, Digital Bridge Institute (DBI) and National Economic Management Team of Nigeria, and a member of Honorary International Investor Council and Board of Trustees, Redeemer’s University for Nations, Lagos.

Ovia chairs a number of boards including Nigerian Software Development Initiative (NSDI), National Information Technology Advisory Council (NITAC), Quantum Markets Limited and Cyberspace Network Limited.

His exceptional skills and achievements have been severally recognized, and he has received awards such as the Professional Leadership Award at Zik Awards, 1999; Vanguard’s 20 Most Outstanding CEOs in Corporate Nigeria in 2002; Lifetime Achievement Award at Africans Bankers Award 2015; as well as the prestigious Commander of Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which he received in 2011.

You can purchase his book, Africa Rise and Shine here.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated Jim Ovia’s year of birth as 1957. He was born in the year 1951. This has now been corrected.

Ruth Okwumbu has a MSc. and BSc. in Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Delta state university respectively. Prior to her role as analyst at Nairametrics, she had a progressive six year writing career. As a Business Analyst with Narametrics, she focuses on profiles of top business executives, founders, startups and the drama surrounding their successes and challenges. You may contact her via [email protected]

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bike Farotimi

    July 25, 2020 at 8:20 pm

    An excellent profile of an icon….Great job Ruth.

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Nigerians borrow N3.34 trillion in one year – CBN

The document stated that the credit was stimulated by the policy on Loan-to-Deposit Ratio (LDR).



Exchange Rate Unification: CBN devalues official rate to N380/$1, Nigerian banks have written off N1.9 trillion impaired loans in past 4 years, CBN sandbox operations, Stirling Trust Company Limited

The total gross domestic credit in Nigeria increased from N15.56 trillion in May 2019 to N18.90 trillion as at June 2020. This was disclosed by the Central Bank of Nigeria via a communique issued on Thursday.

The document, which included the personal statements of members of the apex bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), stated that the credit was stimulated by the policy on Loan-to-Deposit Ratio (LDR).

Drivers of the credit

Kingsley Obiora, Deputy Governor, CBN, explained that the credits were driven especially by demands from the manufacturing sector, consumer credit, general commerce, information and communication, and agriculture, among others. He said:

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“Under the circumstances, the financial system has maintained a sound and stable position, following effective interventions by the CBN.

“Short-term interest rates continue to suggest some surfeit in the system with average Open Buy Back (OBB) and inter-bank call rates rising to 5.75 and 11.31 percent in June 2020, from 5.22 and 5.80% in May 2020, respectively.

“Non-performing loans (NPLs) decreased to 6.4% at the end of June 2020, compared to 9.4 percent in the corresponding period of 2019, reflecting recoveries, write-offs and disposals.”

He, however, added that despite the improvements, the economy continued to face significant headwinds to a robust recovery, as the number of COVID-19 cases exceeded 36,000 cumulatively, and continued to rise.

“The headline inflation rate increased slightly to 12.56% in June from 12.40% in May, with food inflation at 15.18%.

“Furthermore, 87% of households owning non-farm businesses have highlighted difficulties in raising money for their enterprises,” he added.


Obiora stated that it was clear that the economy faced an uncertain path, with long-lasting consequences for the livelihoods of many.

The decisive efforts of governments and central banks across the world have provided a strong foundation for the current recovery. However, it would be remiss to assume that the crisis is now over, especially as there remain many unknowns regarding the virus.

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CBN says 22 banks to restructure over 35,000 loans due to COVID-19

This is seen as part of measures by the apex bank to curb the rise in non-performing loans.



CBN, Aishah Ahmad,

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has disclosed that 22 Nigerian banks submitted requests to restructure 35,639 credit facilities of businesses that were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, as of July 20, 2020.

This represents 41.92% of the total industry loan portfolio and has partly reflected in improved industry risk profile, as non-performing loans ratio declined from 6.6% in April 2020 to 6.4% in June 2020.

The disclosure is part of the personal statement made by the CBN Deputy Governor, Financial System, Aisha Ahmad, during the last Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) on July 20, 2020.

She said that the net interest margin remained quite robust despite lower interest income, due to much lower industry interest expense, as deposit rates continued to decline.

This is seen as part of measures by the apex bank to curb the rise in non-performing loans in the system due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices.

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Also, as part of the drive to reduce non-performing loans, Nairametrics reported that the CBN had given approval to banks to debit bank accounts of chronic loan defaulters with other banks. They were given the power to debit loans and accrued interests due from bank accounts of loan defaulters across the banking system.

She also said, “The loan-to-deposit ratio (LDR), Global Standing Instruction, streamlining of access to Open Market Operations securities and other complementary measures have been strong tailwinds which have strengthened intermediation via increased lending to the key sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and consumer markets (gross credit grew by an additional N300 billion from N18.6 trillion to N18.9 trillion between end April and end June 2020 respectively) and lower market lending rates, which have insulated the financial system from the worst impact of the pandemic.”

Aisha Ahmad explained that these efforts were supported by various ongoing CBN interventions to reduce the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses and households.

Some of these interventions include the N50 billion SME and household facility, out of which N49.195 billion has been disbursed to over 92,000 beneficiaries; the N100 billion healthcare facility, and N1 trillion manufacturing and agricultural interventions alongside other significant interventions.

In her note, she said sustained credit to the real economy, particularly for SMEs and households, would be crucial to economic recovery, therefore maintaining banking industry liquidity would be paramount.

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COVID-19 Update in Nigeria

On the 13th of August 2020, 373 new confirmed cases and 10 deaths were recorded in Nigeria.



The spread of novel Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) in Nigeria continues to record significant increase as the latest statistics provided by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control reveal Nigeria now has 48,116 confirmed cases.

On the 13th of August 2020, 373 new confirmed cases and 10 deaths were recorded in Nigeria, having carried out a total daily test of 3,337 samples across the country.

To date, 48,116 cases have been confirmed, 34,309 cases have been discharged and 966 deaths have been recorded in 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. A total of 341,421 tests have been carried out as of August 13th, 2020 compared to 338,084 tests a day earlier.

COVID-19 Case Updates- 13th August 2020,

  • Total Number of Cases – 48,118
  • Total Number Discharged – 34,309
  • Total Deaths – 966
  • Total Tests Carried out – 341,421

According to the NCDC, the 373 new cases were reported from 20 states- Lagos (69), Osun (41), Kaduna (40), Oyo (40), FCT (35), Plateau (22), Rivers (19), Kano (17), Ondo (17), Ogun (15), Abia (14), Gombe (12), Imo (9), Enugu (7), Kwara (6), Delta (5), Niger (2), Borno (1), Bauchi (1) and Nasarawa (1).

Meanwhile, the latest numbers bring Lagos state total confirmed cases to 16,256, followed by Abuja (4,632), Oyo (2,935), Edo (2,399), Rivers (1,991), Kaduna (1,706),Plateau (1,665), Kano (1,661),  Delta (1,626), Ogun (1,521), Ondo (1,373), Enugu (976), Ebonyi (908), Kwara (888), Katsina (746), Osun (719), Borno (698), Abia (677), Gombe (647),  and Bauchi (580).

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Imo State has recorded 494 cases, Benue (430), Nasarawa (372), Bayelsa (346),  Jigawa (322), Akwa Ibom (241), Niger (228), Ekiti (194), Adamawa (185), Anambra (156), Sokoto (154),  Kebbi (90), Taraba (78),  Zamfara (77), Cross River (73), Yobe (67), while Kogi state has recorded 5 cases only.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Western diplomats warn of disease explosion, poor handling by government

Lock Down and Curfew

In a move to combat the spread of the pandemic disease, President Muhammadu Buhari directed the cessation of all movements in Lagos and the FCT for an initial period of 14 days, which took effect from 11 pm on Monday, 30th March 2020.

The movement restriction, which was extended by another two-weeks period, has been partially put on hold with some businesses commencing operations from May 4. On April 27th, 2020, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari declared an overnight curfew from 8 pm to 6 am across the country, as part of new measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19. This comes along with the phased and gradual easing of lockdown measures in FCT, Lagos, and Ogun States, which took effect from Saturday, 2nd May 2020, at 9 am.

On Monday, 29th June 2020 the federal government extended the second phase of the eased lockdown by 4 weeks and approved interstate movement outside curfew hours with effect from July 1, 2020. Also, on Monday 27th July 2020, the federal government extended the second phase of eased lockdown by an additional one week.

On Thursday, 6th August 2020 the federal government through the secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 announced the extension of the second phase of eased lockdown by another four (4) weeks.


READ ALSO: Bill Gates says Trump’s WHO funding suspension is dangerous

DateConfirmed caseNew casesTotal deathsNew deathsTotal recoveryActive casesCritical cases
August 13, 2020481163739661034309128417
August 12, 202047743453956033943128447
August 11, 202047290423956633609127257
August 10, 202046867290950533346125717
August 9, 202046577437945333186124467
August 8, 202046140453942633044121547
August 7, 202045687443936632637121147
August 6, 202045244354930332430118847
August 5, 2020448904579271732165117987
August 4, 2020444333049101431851116727
August 3, 202044129288896820663225707
August 2, 202043841304888520308226457
August 1, 202043537386883420287225677
July 31, 202043151462879119565227077
July 30, 202042689481878519270225417
July 29, 202042208404873519004223317
July 28, 202041804624868818764221727
July 27, 202041180648860218203221177
July 26, 202040532555858217374223007
July 25, 2020399774388561116948221737
July 24, 2020395395918451216559221357
July 23, 2020389486048332016061220547
July 22, 202038344543813815815217167
July 21, 202037801576805415677213197
July 20, 2020372255628011215333210917
July 19, 2020366635567891115105207697
July 18, 202036107653778614938203917
July 17, 202035454600772314633200497
July 16, 202034854595769914292197937
July 15, 202034259643760613999195007
July 14, 2020336164637541013792190707
July 13, 202033153595744413671187387
July 12, 2020325585717401613447183717
July 11, 2020319876647241513103181607
July 10, 2020313235757092012795178197
July 9, 202030748499689512546175137
July 8, 2020302494606841512373171927
July 7, 2020297895036691512108170127
July 6, 202029286575654911828168047
July 5, 2020287115446451111665164017
July 4, 202028167603634611462160717
July 3, 2020275644546281211069158677
July 2, 2020271106266161310801156937
July 1, 2020264847906031310152157297
June 30, 202025694561590179746153587
June 29, 20202513356657389402151587
June 28, 20202486749056579007149957
June 27, 20202407777955848625148947
June 26, 20202329868455458253144917
June 25, 20202261459454977822142437
June 24, 20202202064954297613138657
June 23, 20202137145253387338135007
June 22, 20202091967552577109132857
June 21, 202020242436518126879128477
June 20, 202019808661506196718125847
June 19, 202019147667487126581120797
June 18, 20201848074547566307116987
June 17, 202017735587469145967112997
June 16, 202017148490455315623110707
June 15, 20201665857342445349108857
June 14, 202016085403420135220104457
June 13, 20201568250140785101101747
June 12, 20201518162739912489198917
June 11, 2020145546813875449496737
June 10, 20201387340938217435191407
June 9, 2020134646633654420688937
June 8, 2020128013153617404084007
June 7, 20201248626035412395981737
June 6, 2020122333893429382680657
June 5, 20201184432833310369678157
June 4, 2020115163503238353576467
June 3, 2020111663483151332975227
June 2, 20201081924131415323972667
June 1, 20201057841629912312271579
May 31, 20201016230728714300768687
May 30, 2020985555327312285667267
May 29, 202093023872612269763447
May 28, 202089151822595259260647
May 27, 202087333892545250159787
May 26, 2020834427624916238557107
May 25, 202080682292337231155247
May 24, 202078393132265226353607
May 23, 202075262652210217451317
May 22, 2020726124522110200750337
May 21, 2020701633921111190748987
May 20, 202066772842008184046377
May 19, 202064012261921173444757
May 18, 202061752161919164443407
May 17, 202059593881826159441837
May 16, 202056211761765147239737
May 15, 202054452881713132039544
May 14, 202051621931683118038154
May 13, 202049711841646107037374
May 12, 20204787146158695936704
May 11, 202046412421521090235894
May 10, 202043992481421777834794
May 9, 202041512391271174532784
May 8, 202039123861181067931154
May 7, 20203526381108460128184
May 6, 20203145195104553425071
May 5, 2020295014899548123704
May 4, 2020280224594641722912
May 3, 2020255817088240020702
May 2, 20202388220861735119522
May 1, 20202170238691035117512
April 30, 2020193220459731715562
April 29, 2020172819652730713692
April 28, 2020153219545425512322
April 27, 20201337644102559942
April 26, 20201273914152399942
April 25, 20201182873632229252
April 24, 202010951143312088552
April 23, 20209811083231977532
April 22, 2020873912931976482
April 21, 20207821172631975602
April 20, 2020665382311884662
April 19, 2020627862221704362
April 18, 2020541482021663562
April 17, 2020493511841593172
April 16, 2020442351311522772
April 15, 2020407341211282672
April 14, 202037330111992632
April 13, 202034320100912422
April 12, 20203235100852282
April 11, 202031813103702382
April 10, 20203051770582402
April 9, 20202881471512302
April 8, 20202742260442262
April 7, 20202541661442042
April 6, 2020238650351982
April 5, 20202321851331942
April 4, 2020214540251850
April 3, 20202092542251800
April 2, 20201841020201620
April 1, 2020174352091630
March 31, 202013982091280
March 30, 2020131202181210
March 29, 2020111221031070
March 28, 20208919103850
March 27, 2020705103660
March 26, 20206514102620
March 25, 2020517102480
March 24, 2020444102410
March 23, 20204010112370
March 22, 2020308002280
March 21, 20202210001210
March 20, 2020124001110
March 19, 20208000170
March 18, 20208500170
March 17, 20203100030
March 16, 20202000020
March 15, 20202000020
March 14, 20202000020
March 13, 20202000020
March 12, 20202000020
March 11, 20202000020
March 10, 20202000020
March 9, 20202100020
March 8, 20201000010
March 7, 20201000010
March 6, 20201000010
March 5, 20201000010
March 4, 20201000010
March 3, 20201000010
March 2, 20201000010
March 1, 20201000010
February 29, 20201000010
February 28, 20201100010

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