Jim Ovia, Chairman, Zenith bank is self-effacing. He is better known for his business wiliness than public bravado indeed he hardly ever appears in public much less deliver lectures or speeches. He has been the ultimate man with the big ideas and small media exposure. It was a griping surprise that he, nevertheless, decided to write a book titled, ‘’Africa, rise and shine’’, which more or less is a practical guide to business concept development, design and execution rather than an autobiography. Jim glides quickly past his humble family beginnings and dismisses it in the space of a paragraph or two as he zeroed in on what he appears to have considered a more interesting and substantial issue: how companies can be built to last.
Jim sets out early in the book to establish twelve principals that he considers to be critical for success in both corporate and personal lives. He argues that these principals separate the diligent builders from blundering pretenders. Business Hallmark presents excerpts from this well written and carefully curated book of rules for succeeding in the gritty world of business on the African continent:
It was in June 2013 when, with the day’s mail, came a copy of the latest Forbes Africa magazine— the one that happened to have my photograph on the cover. I sat down at my desk, putting the rest of the mail aside. As I stared at the magazine, my thoughts turned back to the photo shoot at which the picture was taken. In the photograph they chose for the cover, I was standing against a dark blue background wearing a dark suit and a sapphire-blue tie. I was looking directly into the lens of the camera, one hand extended as if in greeting. Above, and partly behind my head, was the magazine’s iconic name. The cover text read in large letters, “Why $825 Million Means Nothing to Me,” and below that, “Jim Ovia: The Godfather of Banking.” For anyone who has sought to make a mark in the business world, a Forbes Africa cover is a seminal moment—tangible proof that you have done something not just remarkable, but rare—and for me with my humble upbringing, something quite unexpected.
Though I’m often asked for interviews, I had kept most of the details of my upbringing private until the Forbes Africa story. In that moment of seeing the magazine cover for the first time, I realized I wanted to share my story. My cover story gave me a great sense of pride, of course. I experienced a sense of wonder, as well. Many people have asked me over the years how a boy growing up in the small Nigerian town of Agbor had been able to start, build, and maintain a bank that is one of the largest and most profitable businesses in Africa.
The issue of Forbes that featured me became the magazine’s best-selling edition in Africa. They had to reprint it four times. It was around that time that family, friends, and business acquaintances began suggesting I write a book about my experiences.
This is that book. It took me some time to decide to write it. Certainly, the idea of publishing a memoir or autobiography held no appeal for me; I suspected that, in my case, such an account would do little more than bore its readers. I prefer a book that is less memoir, and more business- focused—a book that describes my business transactions and high-powered deals and details my experience as an entrepreneur. My business ambition is closely entwined with my vision of a future both dependent on and enhanced by various exogenous factors. Like any successful business builder, there are also personal qualities and experiences that prove influential or are carried over into my decision-making process. I want to shed light on the principles and practices that have brought such achievements to me—to provide insight not just for bankers, but for people of all roles and in all industries. It has been my wish for a long time that the young people of my home country of Nigeria—and throughout
Africa—take advantage of the tremendous opportunities Africa has to offer. The path to success is accessible to every young African person, regardless of background, family income, or education. This has been said many times, but I repeat it sincerely now—if I can do it, you can, too.
AFRICA RISE AND SHINE:
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS TO $16 BILLION
Africa now has a fast-growing middle class: according to Standard Bank, around 60m Africans have an income of $3,000 a year, and 100m will in 2015. The rate of foreign investment has soared around tenfold in the past decade.
—THE ECONOMIST, “AFRICA RISING,” DECEMBER 2011
When most people outside of Africa visualize the continent, the associations they often make are with famine and poverty, conflicts and war. From the moment I began writing this book, I have been determined to redefine this narrative and illustrate the real Africa behind the headlines. The Africa of my birth and of my life experience is a continent of abundant human and natural resources, immense and diverse investment opportunities, and an economy that is primed for leapfrog strategies. Africa’s challenges may appear daunting to most, but to those with the right entrepreneurial vision, challenges always provide opportunities. Poor infrastructure? The entrepreneur sees that as a chance to leverage structural improvements as a core component of a burgeoning brand identity. Inadequate supply of electricity? The entrepreneur identifies such a deficiency as a blank slate on which a new electricity supply can be built. My own road to success is evidence that these are no mere platitudes. The path I followed for more than twenty years in building Zenith Bank from a nascent business with $4 million in shareholders’ funds to an internationally recognized brand and institution with more than $16 billion in assets was achieved under both military and civilian regimes, despite a decaying infrastructure and periods of economic instability. For anyone who has the intuitive entrepreneurial capacity to envision obstacles as entry points to brand building, and the vision to translate “not yet” into “finally now,” the climate in Africa can provide a richly fertile bed in which to seed new business.
In May 2000, The Economist magazine published a cover story that dubbed Africa “The Hopeless Continent.” Over a decade later, that same magazine categorically reversed its position in a new cover story called “Africa Rising,” which was accompanied by an illustration of a young child racing through the grass while flying an Africa-shaped kite painted with all the colors of the rainbow. The story revealed that Africa herself had, in fact, never been hopeless, and it was this awakening perception of
a continent at the zenith of her growth that I want to reflect in titling this book Africa Rise and Shine.
In the course of Zenith Bank’s own journey to “rise and shine,” the business began as a single branch in Lagos on the ground floor of an improvised residential duplex that we shared with a private tenant and his wife. At the time, there were no high-rise office structures in the area, and we were not able to afford a stand-alone building of our own, so we created an impromptu commercial space where we could carry out the banking business. We put up our signage and logo, but truly it did not resemble an office or a bank at all.
That unassuming duplex was the starting point for a business that became a London Stock Exchange-listed company with operations in the UK, China, UAE, Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, with more than 400 branches and business offices in Nigeria. What lessons can the next generation of entrepreneurs learn from the meteoric rise of Zenith Bank?
Among the most important of those lessons may be my experience that it is not necessary to be born rich or in influential circles to achieve success. By those standards, my own achievements would be categorized as having come about against the greatest of odds. 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. For this reason, I was able to stay in school. This was the emotional inspiration that would ultimately result in my building James Hope College and offering scholarships to 50 percent of its students. My brother’s financial generosity and wisdom in knowing how crucial it was that I remain in school are the reasons I place so much importance on education, and on creating programs and scholarships that will help young Nigerians go to school and graduate.
From my earliest recollections, this was the model on which I based my own behavior—and I developed my own work ethic in keeping with my mother’s and my brother’s example, responding to adversity by cultivating the capacity to react. Throughout my life, I have retained this drive to overcome any and all obstacles life might cast in my way.
The difference in attitude between those two Economist cover stories—from Africa-as-hopeless-continent to Africa-asrising- nations—carries its own valuable lesson: never allow the perceptions of others to play a substantial part in your own vision of yourself and your future. It is imperative to rely on one’s own instincts in taking stock of one’s own capabilities, and in evaluating a new business opportunity. No matter how fertile the economy, certain universal rules apply regarding properly researching and evaluating potential venues and partners. As I encourage entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity to invest in Africa, I also offer a reminder that the universal rules of prudence apply, just as they do anywhere in the world. An entrepreneur must ensure that due diligence is carried out in setting up any new business, regardless of the location.
It is important to remember that Zenith’s level of success is set against this backdrop as Africa rises and shines. In a 2014 article in the World Economic Forum agenda, authors Paul Collier and Acha Leke remark on the fact that the size and worth of Nigeria’s economy has been too often overlooked.
“What is lost in most discussions about Nigeria today,” they write, “is the strong economic record that it has established over the last decade. In fact, a recent year-long study of the country by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) showed that, over the next fifteen years, Nigeria has the potential to become a major global economy.”
It remains something of an open secret that Nigeria has become a major player on the global economic stage.
I am among a number of Nigerian corporate leaders who are regularly invited—along with heads of state—to participate in multinational summits such as the World Economic Forum, the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, the Commonwealth Business Forum, and the United Nations Global
Compact Group. In the elite world of these international summits, it has long been acknowledged that Nigeria is both a major corporate player, and a paradigm for business/private- sector partnerships to accomplish charitable projects.
For that reason, another goal in writing this book is to make potential investors and entrepreneurs, both in Nigeria and abroad, aware of the scope of unrealized business opportunity here.
In the chapters that follow, you’ll be given an insider’s guided tour of the business and branding principles that can accelerate growth in the already fruitful African business climate. From building a brand to developing the art of negotiation, I will present learnable skills and rules that anyone can adopt.
My greatest hope for this book is to demonstrate through example that an entrepreneur is, in essence, a self-made entity who may well be cultivating skills and honing instincts years before identifying them as business inclinations. The very fact that you are reading this book means that if you are not already a successful entrepreneur, you have the instincts to become one. I want to close this chapter by listing some of my own basic business ingredients for success, which are as applicable anywhere in the world as they are in Africa. Even if you are just starting out, I suspect that many of these adages will feel familiar to you—as if you already know them on an intuitive level. Each of these (and more) is expounded upon later in the book, but in short:
FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS. If your gut tells you something is right, listen to it. An entrepreneur never takes what he or she is told for granted. (Even The Economist gets it wrong sometimes.)
FIND THE ASSET IN ADVERSITY. Any adversity, be it economic or personal, brings change—and change always brings opportunity.
It is demonstrable that, whether nations or individuals, those who have the least also have the most to gain, leading to fortitude and an unshakable work ethic.
BRAND MATTERS. Take time from the get-go to think through every aspect of your brand. With enough foresight and strategic planning, a powerful brand concept can be the single deciding factor for the success or otherwise of your business.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME. Never view a lack of resources or an inadequate infrastructure as an impediment. On the contrary, having the opportunity to instigate infrastructural change is a great boon, with the dual outcome of priming the business pump and ensuring a supportive and happy consumer base. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Start locally, but plan globally.
Address the needs of the local consumer first, but make sure your business plan is structured for expansion.
REACTION FACTOR. Good timing is key. Don’t let impatience win the day by starting your business too early. Make sure you have strategized in advance, so that when opportunity unexpectedly arises, you are ready to seize it.
INNOVATE, INNOVATE, INNOVATE. If you don’t make a friend of technology, it may become your enemy. The trend toward rapid tech development will continue indefinitely. Make the presumption that the tech of tomorrow is accommodated in the plans you make today.
KNOW WHEN TO GO IT ALONE. Growth is not a universal good.
There may come a time when mergers and acquisitions will work to your advantage, but more often they will not. Make the preservation of your corporate culture and your shareholder value a priority, and above all else, advocate for your consumer.
NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK. Place more value in who you know than in what you have. The entrepreneur sees a potential ally in everyone. Establish your network one person at a time by being reliable and patient. Pave the way instead of burning your bridges.
ALWAYS REMEMBER “CAVEAT EMPTOR.” Whether in your own community or in new territory, always use research to carry out proper and professional due diligence, and equally important, remember to Know Your Customer.
PASSION IS EVERYTHING. Cultivate a sense of passion in everything you do, from business to hobbies, and value that trait in others. Entrepreneurial passion is crucial for the success of any enterprise. A business that is conceived to be meaningful and engaging to the entrepreneur is far more likely to succeed than a business designed with the sole goal of making money.
RETURN THE KINDNESS. For an entrepreneur’s successes, there are always multiple debts of gratitude to the family, to the community, and to the businesspeople of yesterday who paved the way. There is no higher investment return than that derived from education. Being vested in a sustainable future for your own community is the activity that determines whether a venture is a flash in the pan or a foundation worthy of an empire.
It is about this last adage that I feel the most strongly. The boy I once was—growing up without a father—might never have looked beyond the confines of that small town were it not for one crucial factor: education. I was able to remain in school due to the wisdom of my mother and older brother who recognized its importance and made sacrifices to jointly ensure that my tuition would continue to be paid, year after year. This is the entire impetus behind the creation of the Jim Ovia Foundation—a personal imperative to help support the next generation of entrepreneurs and professionals as I myself was supported, by paying for the tuition of hopeful students in the foundation-created James Hope
College, and by providing young people with access to training programs, grants, and scholarships, all to support a thriving African future.
Anything that I have done, you can do too. If you are an entrepreneur with a vision, you can find guidance in these pages and confidence in the Zenith model and ascent. If you are already a professional, seeking to expand your business arena and explore uncharted commercial territory, you will find a wealth of strategic insight in the ensuing chapters. I offer a hearty welcome to anyone ready to benefit from and contribute to a rising, thriving Africa.