February 5, 2004. It was the sendforth organized in honour of the retiring pioneer Managing Director of Fidelity Bank Plc, Mr. Nebolisa Arah, with whom I had worked for five years. Somebody whispered to me “can you see that man at the other table – that is Reginald Ihejiahi, the incoming MD of the Fidelity”. I took more interest and began to observe him more closely. He was lively, but with a certain calmness about him. Even to the jokes by the comedian, he smiled with some frugality, as if there would be a fee for smiling too much, or he was reserving some for another occasion. There was something enigmatic about him.
Somehow, he could not be publicly announced that night as replacement for Mr. Arah because the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had not yet approved his appointment. The approval came just the next day and he assumed duties on February 9, 2004.
Over the following 10 years that he was CEO (from 2004 February, to January 1, 2014) I served as head of marketing communications and his special assistant (what in government they would call chief of staff). And after office, in the last five years, we have remained very close. I have seen him in grief and I have seen him in glee. As he clocks 60 years on the 11th of April 2019, I consider myself fairly qualified to talk about him.
Most people know him as a very brilliant banker, arguably one of the finest Nigeria has ever produced. They will talk about his academic exploits at ABU Zaria, where he studied accounting and London School of Economics, where he obtained his M.Sc. in Finance and went on to become a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) of England and Wales. Many people also know he holds the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) and a Doctor od Business Administration, DBA, (honoris causa), UNN.
His performance in Fidelity Bank is nothing short of sterling. Under him Shareholders’ funds grew from N3billion in 2003 to N167billion in 2013; branch network grew from 17 in 2003 to 213 in 2013; Customer base grew from 150,000 to 2.5million and Capital Base grew from N20billion to N1trillion; just to mention a few.
In focusing on his academic and professional accomplishments, people are saying the little they know about him. It really reminds one of the poem by HDC Pepler, where he writes : the law the lawyers know about is property and land; but why the leaves are on the trees; and why the wind disturbs the seas ….they do not know”.
The things that really define Reginald Ihejiahi are more than the public knows. They are the things that make him a proper human being you want to relate with any day. I proceed to highlight just a few:
Not just a big heart, but a large heart:
About four months into Ihejiahi’s tenure as the CEO of Fidelity Bank, Prof. Charles Soludo, then CBN Governor, announced the consolidation programme for the Nigerian banking industry. This was a programme that shrank the industry from 89 banks to just 25 in 18 months. Most people, including insiders, did not give Fidelity a chance of survival. But it was something that revealed Ihejiahi’s mettle. He was able to galvanize the board and the staff to undertake a capitalization programme that astounded many. More importantly is how he managed the integration of the banks (FSB and Manny) that he brought together under the Fidelity umbrella. He truly saw himself as head of one big family, and never allowed the incidents reported in other banks where the acquiring banks saw the acquired banks and their staff as conquered. He encouraged everyone one to use the word “merger”, instead of acquisition. Everybody either rose or fell on their individual merit. From the former FSB, people like Shehu Abubakar and Idris Yakubu rose to GM position before they were appointed EDs in other banks. Bimbo Ilupeju that came from the legacy Manny Bank retired only recently. Hassan Imam from old FSB and Ken Opara from old Manny Bank have risen to GM positions today, still in the system and still climbing.
During the 2008/2009 economic meltdown, most banks in the country were laying off staff. A proposal was sent to Ihejiahi that Fidelity should lay off 20 per cent of the staff. He rejected that. His reason was that no proper assessment had been done to determine who this 20 per cent should be. He said “if I tell you supervisors now to supply the names, you will quickly bring the names of people who are not greeting you well and those who did not send birthday cards to your spouses during their last birthday. The 20 per cent you want to bring their names did not cause the global melt down. So, all of us, not some of us, will bear the pain”. He then approved that everybody, including himself, should take a temporary 20 per cent salary cut. And that was how everybody’s job was protected. The good thing was that when the situation improved, not only that the 20 per cent was restored, but also the deduction was gradually refunded. Those who were in the system at the time, especially the junior staff, still talk about it till today.
Man of faith and self-discipline:
Ihejiahi does not wear his religion on his sleeves. But his simple faith in God and devotion to Him serve as compass for his life. He is always mindful of how God views any action anyone is taking and how everyone must ultimately account for their deeds. Above all, he has self-discipline. In over 15years that I have worked closely with him, he has never missed a flight or been late to a meeting. At a point he was the only CEO in the Nigerian banking industry living on Lagos Mainland and working on the Island. Yet, he was never late to work. Throughout his first year in office, he would first attend the 6.30am church service at Falomo, Ikoyi, and still get to the office for 8am.
He is deeply compassionate:
One morning in 2007, I entered his office and narrated to him how one of our female staff in the Operations department had been attacked on her way home (her department was working late that period). I could see the agony in his face for a staff he did not yet know. He quickly called the Corporate Services department to arrange to buy an additional bus for the sake of staff working late; to take them to bus stops closest to their homes. That was the origin of Fidelity’s second night bus. He also spoke to the department’s head to release staff as early as practicable.
A family man: It’s not just his family that he loves. If you relate with him, he would encourage you to love your own family. The family is so important to him that he tells you, before you vote for politician seeking to govern you, find out how he governs his own family. For his close aides he makes a point to know how their family members are doing.
Love for Community:
Perhaps ones of the best stocked public libraries in Nigeria today is Eziachi Secondary School library, Orlu, Imo State, where Ihejiahi hails from. He personally built and stocked the facility with some of the best books – from engineering to medicine; from history to current affairs. Beyond education, some elderly and indigent people from his community are on his roll of programmed, periodic assistance, which he does very quietly.
A thinking man: one of the things that stand him out is what he calls “thinking time”. He must devote some time daily to uninterrupted thinking and reflection. He hardly says or does anything that he has not thought about. That is why he speaks with authority on any matter. And if it is an area he has not thought about, he will tell you,” I don’t know enough to advise you on that, but I can find out”.
A reading man:
At every point in time, Ihejiahi is reading at least three books. In addition to professional books, his favorite subjects include biographies of famous leaders, history, travelogue, geography, fiction. It was from him I came to I know about the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize for literature about 10years ago. From him I knew about the works of Suetonius – Lives of the Caesars/The Twelve Caesars, the biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven emperors of Rome. Never have I seen a man who knows so much and yet wants to know more each day. Yet he is not a man to show off knowledge. Above all, he speaks little. He is guided by, and regularly quotes, the words of Jorge Luis Borges: “don’t talk unless it improves the silence”. But when he speaks with you for five minutes, if you did not learn anything new, you were probably not listening. His colleagues in the Bankers Committee knew him as the intellectual of the industry.
A man of order:
Ihejiahi does not leave anything to chance. Every event is orchestrated and choreographed with the outcome in mind. He anticipates the needs of people, their reactions and their expectations. If he wants to communicate an important message to you, he would send you a text, call you to ask you if you got the text, and discuss with you and ask if there is anything you did not understand. That way, you cannot say you did not receive the text or because of network you did not hear what he said. He leaves no room for excuses.
His kindness is purposeful: he believes that the best support he can give a person is to assist him get a graduate in his family. He did it for his first driver from Kogi State, who got an accountant and another graduate, in addition to retiring into his own house. His current driver’s son has also just graduated. Those are the things that give him joy in life.
He truly cares:
Many of his former staff in the bank would tell you that they own the piece of the earth they occupy today because he guided them and supported them. He would call you into his office and ask you “what investments do you have?”. He would remind you that what you are earning today would not continue indefinitely. He would remind you that your honest income is enough for you to invest and live happily if you shun living other people’s lives.
Yet, he is not a man to shy away from tough decisions. In fact, he would tell you that “you are not doing this staff of yours a favour by allowing him to be struggling in the banking industry. It is not working for him. Tell him the truth, so that if there is a piece of land his father willed to him in the village, he can go and face farming; not banking”. He would offer to mentor the person, so far as the person is realistic.
Quality and Eye on the big picture:
He does not settle for half measure in anything. The quality of his mind reflects in the choices he makes and things he does. He can’t stand small-minded people – those he calls men of straw. Nothing peeves him as much as seeing somebody who has been challenged with big things quarreling about small things.
Respect for people:
He respects and honours people for what they and not the size of their pockets. He admires people who do their work well – from the cleaner to the clergy. He would tell you that for the motor park tout who has been elected leader to continue to command the respect of his colleagues, there must be something about him. And he learns from every relationship, but never mixes up what that person is doing in his life. His respect for people of diverse cultures probably stem from his early life. Born of South-Eastern Igbo parents in Zaria, the North, where his parents were federal civil servants (his father, Igwe Cyprian Ihjejiahi retired as a director of education in the Federal Ministry of Education); his early childhood was in Uyo in the South-South, his secondary education was at Government College Umuahia, in the South East, where he made lasting friendships, and over the last 40 years, he has lived and worked in the South-West, where also he has cultivated important friendships. Unknown to many, he is at home with four Nigerian languages and cultures – his native Igbo, Ibibio, Hausa and Yoruba.
There is so much to say about Reginald Ihejiahi. But he is only 60 today. By God’s grace, he will live to 70, 80, and more. And we will have more opportunity to say even much more about him.
When a man lives well, he makes life easier for his friends: they don’t have to manufacture lies to tell either at his funeral or his birthday. That’s the case for Ihejiahi.
There are many successful career people, but they are not human beings. Ihejiahi is unique because, not only is he successful in various aspects of life, he is a human being, a compassionate, brilliant, God-fearing, and disciplined professional.
Today, we join him to celebrate. Yes, he will celebrate, because he believes that to celebrate is to acknowledge the benevolence of the Omnipotent. But he will not celebrate the way many would. He will celebrate his own way, in his own time. That is Reginald Ugomba Ihejiahi – unique human being. May your days be long, Sir.