By OKEY ONYEAWEAKU
News of the provisional approval granted the promoters of the James Hope University, Lagos to commence activities filtered in recently. And media hounds and members of the discerning and researching public soon put it together: the mercurial business strategist, iconic entrepreneur and veritable ‘man for all seasons,’ Jim Ovia was making some other grand move.
For the intrepid business player who came into public prominence as the founding MD/CEO of Zenith Bank Plc some three decades ago, and had since moved on to the supervisory perch as Chairman of the board of the front-line financial institution that ranked as one of the largest financial institutions in the continent and with assets in the range of $16billion as at December 2018, this was quite vintage.
Further, as at the close of the 2020 trading year, Zenith Bank was posting gross revenues and profits of N508.97b and N177.28b respectively, a tribute to its founder’s capacity for pushing across impossible frontiers and which has long come to be seen as one of Jim Ovia’s deeply ingrained attributes.
Zenith Bank is listed on the London Stock Exchange, the Nigerian Stock Exchange and hosts operations all over Nigeria, parts of West Africa, and London and Dubai.
At the same time, Ovia’s tentacles have also stretched into the world of insurance where he has served as Chairman of Prudential Zenith Life Assurance Limited, overseen the landmark partnership of Prudential Plc and Zenith Life and is currently the Chairman and majority shareholder of Zenith General Insurance Limited.
A property and investments buff, Ovia is also associated with prime real estate across Nigeria. The Lagos Civic Centre, the Lagos Marriott Hotel, the Aquamarine Boat Club, and the expansive Civic Towers are some fruits of this gifting. And for the icing on the cake, Ajose Adeogun Street, where Zenith Bank began, is today informally described alternatively as Zenith Bank Road on account of the sheer mass of holdings that Ovia and the Zenith Bank brand have since come to be associated with.
Driven by his knowledge and interest in technology, Ovia founded Cyberspace Limited in 1995 to provide internet services and the Quantum Group, Inc, where his wife, Kay Ovia, is CEO. He was equally the lead driver of the mobile telecommunications operator, Visafone Communications Limited, which at a point had garnered as much as 3 million subscribers, before it was offloaded to MTN.
As it were them, and for one who had cut his teeth as an astute investor, not even the many accounts and experiences of how battered and run-down the Nigerian educational system was, has been enough to deter the dogged Ovia from getting involved in the educational arena. And there is even deeper explanation for that: a life-long inclination to find and use more and more knowledge.
Making a decision
Born on the 4th of November, 1951, Ovia was educated in Nigeria and the United States. Indeed, it was after his studies at Ika Grammar School, Bojiboji-Owa and a three year sojourn as a clerk at Union Bank, (formerly Barclays Bank), Oba Akran way, Ikeja that he was to move on to the US, where he obtained his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
A decision by Ovia to incorporate computer science and information technology studies into his business administration programme proved to be most timely as his career and life trajectory has since underscored. To deepen himself in the field, he also worked as a part- time computer operator at the defunct Baton Rouge Bank and Trust Company.
Upon his return, Ovia served again at Union Bank of Nigeria before moving on to International Merchant Bank (IMB), Merchant Bank of Africa and Lion Bank, before the deregulation of the banking sector happened and he, alongside some investors, made a pitch for a banking license.
With the bid being successful, Zenith Bank took off in 1990 from a residential building in Ajose Adeogun Street, Victoria Island, Lagos and Ovia’s immersion in the world of technology sure came in handy as the competition thickened. Evidence: Zenith Bank was the first Nigerian company to have a functional website and was also to become a Public Limited Company in 2001.
Still notching wins, on 27th April 2007, Zenith Bank Plc became the first Nigerian bank in 25 years to be licensed by the UK Financial Services Authority (FSA), giving birth to Zenith Bank UK Limited. And all of this had started with N20 million or five million dollars at that point, in shareholders’ funds.
Soundly educationally minded
Indeed, Ovia’s forays in the education sector come with a history. While those close to him say he is always learning, the trajectory of his educational involvement has clearly also been impacted by two, among other factors. The first is a personal experience of, and regard for the place of education in shaping lives, and the second is Ovia’s sound entrepreneurial fortune of reaching out to pick A-list advisers and staff to help drive his respective projects.
James Hope College
Before the university, there was James Hope College, Agbor. A co-educational establishment located on the site that was home to the Old Computer College, which exposed many citizens of Agbor and it environs to state-of-the-art technological equipment and processes, it is also quite interestingly the same premises that used to host Ovia’s primary school, the Pilgrim Baptist Primary School. So it is the same premises where the Zenith Bank founder had his early education.
It is credit to the founder’s sense of vision and commitment that after acquiring the site,Team Ovia has so built up that college such that within a half decade of its inception, it was clear that the school had bested its predecessors in the region and had already become the prized favourite for many in the region and beyond who desired a quality educational experience for their wards. Now in its eight year, the James Hope College experience continues to be a quite rich and most impressive one, with school leavers from the institution, routinely gaining admissions into Ivy League educational institutions within the country and beyond.
Among other affiliations it has secured this far, JHC is a Cambridge Associate School, a member of Council of British International Schools (COBIS) and Association of British Schools Overseas (AoBSO).
It is also in partnership with Microsoft Imagine Academy and GL Education even as it is accredited by Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE), Pearson Edexcel Examinations, and British Schools Overseas (BSO). It is at the same time also the first school in South-South and South East Region to be an award centre for the prestigious Duke of Edinburgh International Award.
A team of winners
Clearly, one of the big strengths of Jim Ovia’s success machine in the educational arena this far is his determination to build according to ultimate standards that would satisfy his clientele, no matter the costs. James Hope College is one such example. Without sparing any costs, Ovia has built a world-grade secondary school that is fit for purpose and also one that is fully and quite lavishly equipped with adequate laboratories, libraries, halls, hostels, recreational facilities and infrastructure. On the personnel side, he has sourced staff with backgrounds from across some of the best schools in Nigeria, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
Even his advisory board is star-studded. Apart from his wife, Kay, other high-flying academics and educationists including the just departed multiple Vice Chancellor, Professor Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe were carefully headhunted to come in and add value.
Indeed, a first time visitor to James Hope College at Agbor would remark that this indeed is more than a Nigerian secondary school. This surely was Business Hallmark’s response when we first visited the school eight years ago. And BH repeated the same view after further infrastructure had been added six years after our first visit, and even went ahead to muse that we would not be surprised if a university project was not in the works any time soon. Well, we are right on the money: the university is here.
While BH investigations cannot exactly put a handle now on when exactly the idea to start the university project began, a check on the website of the National Universities Commission and in discussions with sources close to the commission and other past and current applicants suggests that you really cannot apply for and get approval to start a university in Nigeria within a year.
Complementing this is the fact that, in a practical sense, feelers are that the purchase of the premises of the old American International School in Lekki, Lagos about a year ago may not just have been on account of the stated desire to establish a unit of the now very successful James Hope College in the Lagos area. It may have also been similarly connected with the drive to fulfil the stipulated requirements of the NUC.
A deep and resolute planner who works on the premise that business is serious activity, Ovia also takes into consideration field realities in driving his projects. It is not different with James Hope College. And sources say it may be the same at the university.
Appreciating the high levels of income disparities in the midst of profound potentials, Ovia ensured that a strong scholarships component was built into the cost profile for the James Hope College project. This was done through a dedicated foundation which at the onset paid the bills of at least a quarter of the admitted students, with checks being done to ensure that beneficiaries were really those that were in need of the facilities being disbursed.
When Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote visited the school and saw the strides made in those early years, he announced some additional scholarships for some more indigent students that his own foundation was undertaking to underwrite. An educated guess even now is that it is not unlikely that several scholarship opportunities would be made available to some of the intakes of the new university when it opens shop, more so when the Jim Ovia Foundation is already paying tuition bills for several students in other universities in Nigeria and other parts of the world.
But even beyond the question of possibly providing scholarship opportunities for indigent students in the new university, feelers are that following on the heels of the James Hope College experience, the new university would definitely go the extra mile in attempting to address and fix the academic need and quality imperatives demands within the tertiary education sector in Nigeria today that continues to drive why many continue to take their wards abroad. Along this line, the thinking is that some of the first student intakes in the school may be sourced from well-heeled institutions like James Hope College. Having tasted of the high standards at the secondary school level, the idea is that getting their nod to proceed onto the James Hope College University may not be really quite difficult to achieve.
Manager of men and talent
Indeed, an endearing feature of Brand Ovia is that he is indeed a most resolute manager of men and talents.
And you do not need to go too far to confirm this as his pick for MD/CEO at Zenith Bank after him, Mr. Godwin Emefiele was later to secure appointment as Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, CBN.
Another aspect of the Ovia phenomenon is his abiding romance with innovation and change. One of the early pioneers of the Information Communication Technology, ICT sphere in Nigeria, including its more recent Fintechs component, Ovia, most notably led Zenith Bank into properly prioritising the use of technology in its operations right from the get go. The outcome has been a bank that has not only continued to leverage on its tech strengths to drive market penetration and profitability, but Zenith Bank has also been able to win technology services leverage awards in the financial sector, again and again.
Ovia himself was to put this in perspective a few years again at one of the functions that the self-effacing business maestro agreed to attend.
Speaking at the 2019 Zenith Bank Tech Fair held at the Land Mark Event Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos,
under the theme Future Forward, the Chairman of Zenith Bank had explained: The world has gone digital and the Nigeria economy is now being digitised. The youths on a daily basis create new innovations, hence the need for the initiative to sponsor the innovative ideas of young Nigerians. We want to support them in the area of disruptive innovations and technologies such as artificial intelligence and various forms of innovations. We believe in the years to come, Nigeria will build its own Silicon Valley through sponsoring more innovations and creativity in the area of entertainment, technology, agriculture and other fields. This is why we encourage our youths to come up with various disruptive technologies and innovations that will channel Nigeria to the direction of global economy.
At the opening of the first PwC Experience Centre in Lagos, Ovia added some more substance to his advocacy:
My main concern is the preparedness of the ecosystem to deploy disruptive services; that is, do we have the infrastructure for that? Yes, we have the ecosystem, the consummate tech buff affirmed.
Philanthropy, Public Service and awards
Ovia’s philantropic side does not only show in respect of his support for the educational needs of indigents. It is also quite strong in health where he is one of the drivers of the private sector-led Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) that was engaged with the provision of palliatives to about two million most vulnerable families and about 10 million Nigerians spread across the 774 council areas of the country. At the moment, CACOVID’s new call is helping the Federal Government with securing vaccines to further contain the yet raging pandemic.
More structurally, Ovia’s major philantropic initiatives come under his Jim Ovia foundation which incorporates the James Hope College, Jim Ovia Scholarship, Jim Ovia ICT Entrepreneurs Programme and the Empower Youth Programme.
1,500 students have been provided with university scholarships, 3500 youths have been empowered since 2002, and 500 entrepreneurs empowered with ICT skills.
Ovia is a member of the Governing Council of Lagos State University, Digital Bridge Institute (DBI) and Board of Trustees, Redeemer’s University for Nations, Lagos. He also chairs a number of boards including those of Quantum Markets Limited and Cyberspace Network Limited.
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 the African Bankers Award 2015; as well as the prestigious Commander of Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate degree in the 50th convocation ceremony of the University of Lagos.
A member of the Governing Council of Lagos State University, Lagos, he has also served on the board of American International School, Lagos.
He equally served as the first President of the Nigeria Internet Group (2001-2003) and is the founder and Chairman of Mankind United to Support Total Education (MUSTE) and the Youth Empowerment / ICT Foundation.
The Essential Ovia
So what exactly makes brand Ovia tick? A glimpse of this can be garnered from Jim Ovia’s interaction with the Nigerian-British Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) on July 28, 2020 where he made the point about the imperative of innovation.
Speaking on the theme ‘Building a Brand,’ Mr Ovia revealed that adversity had the power to push people to adapt, innovate and that the mantra for a time such as this should be ‘survival of the most creative’.
Continuing, he noted that in building the Zenith Bank brand, global organizations and brands that had lasted 100 years are his major inspiration and that this was one reason Zenith Bank has sustained a long-term succession plan.