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Profiles

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.

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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

Beginnings

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:

“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.

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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!

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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.

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.

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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.

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“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]

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Bike Farotimi

    July 25, 2020 at 8:20 pm

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

  2. ETHELBERT ONUOHA

    February 25, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    An inspiring profile it is. Kudos to you Ruth. I’m greatly motivated.

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Exclusives

Bridget Oyefeso-Odusami: The emergence of a marketing and brand communications guru

Oyefeso-Odusanmi has certainly marked her presence in the corporate world of marketing and brand communications.

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Though not everyone can be the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation at the same time, there are women equally etching their names in various industries across the globe. Stanbic IBTC Holdings PLC has one of such women.

As Head, Marketing and Communications, Bridget Oyefeso-Odusami is showing that her 22 years of experience in brand strategy, sponsorships, digital marketing and communications have equipped her in ways a Doctoral degree might not have, especially since Integrated Marketing Communications is hardly offered as an independent course in institutions.

Bridget Oyefeso-Odusami bagged a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany from Lagos State University, and a Post Graduate degree from the University of Leicester, UK, before foraying into marketing communications.

Career journey

She was Marketing Manager of Aero Airlines for 6 months, and was with British Airways for 9 years, serving in several various marketing and sponsorship positions.

Her professional recognition started back from her time managing the British Airways corporate image in Nigeria and other African countries, where she received the highest ratings for creativity, innovation and dedication for functional responsibilities at British Airways Plc, the best of British Airways community volunteering award.

She served as Executive Director at Change-A-Life between September 2009 and June 2010, and was also Head, Sponsorship and Event at First Bank Nigeria Limited for over 6 years.

Oyefeso-Odusami served as Corporate Investment Banking Marketing Manager at Stanbic IBTC for over a year, before assuming the position of Head, Marketing and Communications department in acting capacity. The appointment was confirmed in January 2019.

It was in this position that she emerged winner of the Outstanding Corporate Communications Personality of the Year 2019 at the MARKETING EDGE Marketing and Advertising Awards of Excellence. According to the presiding board, her versatility and inspiring growth in the Corporate Communications sector and performance in the marketing, advertising and brand management environment, had distinguished her among other nominees.
In August 2020, Oyefeso was appointed Non-Executive Director of the Stanbic IBTC Asset Management Limited Part-time.

Professional qualifications

She is a certified member of professional bodies such as Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), UK, National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria, NIMN and an associate member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR). She is also a member of Women in Business and Management (WIMBIZ), and has taken part in different global business and economic summits.

Other interests

Outside the business of marketing and brand communications, Oyefeso-Odusami mentors women and joins missionaries to reach out to widows in Northern Nigeria. She is also actively involved in a couple of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

She attributes much of her successes to constant self-development, worklife balance, and properly apportioning time to work, family and self.

In an interview, she said, “Stay true to your commitments and give no room for excuses. Having the right support system also makes the balancing act easier. I believe they go hand in hand and flow into one another, with one fuelling the other and giving it room to flourish.”

She also noted that she had been fortunate to work in organisations that allowed her to grow and rise as far as her talent and desire could take her, irrespective of gender, and had the privilege of good career mentors.

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The story of women shattering the invisible ceiling always seem so rosy and inspiring to others, that the years of sweating it out are almost forgotten. Regardless of this, talent and hardwork will continue to separate the best from the rest.

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TY Danjuma: The retired military general who made Forbes richest list

From the barracks to boardrooms, TY Danjuma has built and is leading some of the most notable companies in Nigeria.

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It is not every day you come across a retired Military General who remains in the limelight more than four decades after retiring from active service and for reasons totally unconnected to the military service. This is probably the reason why some might consider General TY Danjuma to be one of the most controversial businessmen and retired generals in Nigeria.

Vocal as he is in Nigerian political matters, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma is a force in the business environment, pulling weights in some of the most notable companies. Much of his wealth is attributed to his shipping and petroleum interests.

As at 2015, he was worth $750 million and ranked 30th among the top 50 in Africa’s 50 richest list (as compiled by Forbes), until he dropped off the following year due to weak oil prices. His businesses still continues and he remains on several boards still putting his business acumen to use, even in his eighties. The story of his move from the barracks to the boardroom makes for an interesting read.

Birth and education

Theophilus Yakubu was born on 9 December 1938 to Kuru Danjuma and Rufkatu Asibi in Takum, a farming community in Gongola (now Taraba state). Like many other children born during this time, he joined his father to plant yams, rice, cassava, and benniseed.

When he came of age, he had his primary education at Wusasa, and moved to Benue Provincial Secondary School, Katsina-Ala for his secondary education. Theophilus showed great interest in cricket and became the captain of the school cricket team. This, however, did not detract from his intelligence and he still bagged his Higher School Certificate in 1958, and immediately enrolled at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology in Zaria (Ahmadu Bello University) to study history on a Northern Nigeria Scholarship. He barely spent a year there, as he left soon after to enrol into the Nigerian Defence Academy.

Military career

Danjuma was commissioned into the Nigerian Army as second lieutenant and platoon commander, and commenced his military career in The Congo.

He took part in the UN Peace-keeping force in Sante, Katanga Province in Congo in 1963, was involved in the Nigerian Counter-Coup of 1966 with the 4th Battalion in Mokola, Ibadan. He commanded the Nigerian Army’s 1st Infantry Brigade, and also led a battalion that freed Jaja Wachuku, first Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives as well as first Ambassador to the United Nations and first Foreign Affairs Minister, from detention by the Ojukwu government.

On several occasions, he was sent as Nigeria’s representative within and outside the country for several diplomatic missions. He served in active military service from 1960 to 1979 where he retired as a Lieutenant General, and in the highest office in the military – Chief of Army Staff under the military administration of General Olusegun Obasanjo. He later served as Minister of Defence between 1999 and 2003, under the President Olusegun Obasanjo civilian administration.

Business forays

General Danjuma made his first major foray into the shipping business when he founded the Nigeria American Line (NAL) and leased a ship called ‘Hannatu’ to facilitate trade between Lagos and Santos in Brazil. At this time, Nigeria’s bilateral trade agreement had opened the sea routes to economies in the South American markets and so NAL had patronage from Nigeria’s National Supply Company (NNSC) to bring in government goods.

Its client list later grew to include DICON Salt (Nigeria), Iwopin Paper Mill, ANNAMCO and Volkswagen Nigeria. From about 12 staffs in a single location in 1979, NAL grew over the next three decades to almost 300 staffs.

Danjuma also set up COMET Shipping Agencies Nigeria Limited in 1984 to act as an agent for NAL and COMET grew to become one of the largest independent agents operating in Nigeria, handling many types of vessels and cargo at Lagos, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Warri Ports. NAL-COMET acquired a roll-in-roll-out port (RORO) in Lagos in 2005 and became the largest independent port operators in Africa.

He still retains his stakes in NAL-Comet.

Oil business

After 15 years running the shipping business, Danjuma decided to veer into oil exploration and production and he founded the South Atlantic Petroleum (SAPETRO) in 1995 to serve as a vehicle for this interest.

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Three years later, the ministry of Petroleum Resources in Nigeria awarded the Oil Prospecting License (OPL) 246 to SAPETRO, with a bloc covering a total area of 2,590 square kilometres (1,000 sq mi). The company brought in Total Upstream Nigeria Ltd (TUPNI) and Brasoil Oil Services Company Nigeria Ltd (Petrobras) as partners in its oil prospecting.

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The prospecting led to the discovery of Akpo (a condensate field), the Egina Main, Egina South, Preowei and Kuro. In 2004, SAPETRO won a tender process for an oil exploration contract covering 550 square kilometres offshore from the Republic of Benin and this opened the way for other transnational deals.

In June 2006, SAPETRO divested part of its contractor rights and obligations to China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), but Danjuma still remains Chairman, while his wife is Vice Chairman.

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He also owns some real estate and has stakes in Notore Chemical Industries (manufacturer of urea fertilizer).

Other interests and honours

TY Danjuma holds the national honour, General Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON). He also has several other national and international awards and titles, as well as honorary doctorate degrees from different universities, within and outside Nigeria.

Besides the companies he founded, General Danjuma has sat on the board of other companies like the NatCom Development & Investment Limited “NatCom”, (trading as ntel) where he assumed position as Board Chairman in 2016. He also served seven years as the chairman of Agip Africa until 1995 when he left to start SAPETRO.

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He has also been appointed into several committees and councils by the government, like in 2003 when he served as Chairperson for investigative committee on the Warri conflict. Danjuma also serves as Chairman of the Victims’ Support Fund Committee, supporting the victims of terror such as the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping.

Philanthropy

The TY Danjuma Foundation was set up in December 2008 and now partners with several Non-Governmental Organisations across the country to carry philanthropic gestures to the hinter areas and alleviate poverty.

The foundation targets the provision of basic amenities, education for children and young adults, and free medical care for indigent people. Over ₦3 Billion has been awarded as grants to NGOs working related goals in the area. Although the works first started in Taraba, Danjuma’s home state, it has extended to other areas. About 290 projects have been implemented across 31 states and the FCT, with over 8 Million people reached.

Every year since its inception, the foundation calls for concept notes and applications for funds from organisations with projects focused on health and education.

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