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Life lessons from the Godfather of banking in Nigeria

While on a tour of 5 universities recently, one of the students at a certain university asked the members of the panel why they were studying (in his exact words) Western books and trying to use tools from the western countries to solve native African problems.

I thought it was an interesting question and it stuck with me. I realized there was a craving for African success stories which these students could identify with. They want to read books about those who those who had solved African problems.

I have read a couple of books by really great entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Howard Schultz (Founder of Starbucks), Warren Buffett, Phil Knight (Founder of Nike).

Their stories have, no doubt, had a great impact on my journey but one thing was always missing, the African context or in more specific terms, the Nigerian context.

When I got a copy of the book, Africa arise and shine by Jim Ovia, I was excited and curious to read the story of a successful entrepreneur in Nigeria who has succeeded in establishing and growing a remarkable company in Nigeria for over 2 decades. I was also curious because this Author/Godfather if you wish keeps a low media profile.

Once I got a copy of the book, I delved into it and completed reading in 24 hours

My verdict – I wanted more. A lot more

But hey, let me start with what the book actually offers

His book shares his story of rising, despite losing his dad at the tender age of 4. He succeeded in starting a financial institution with $4m and building this institution into an internationally recognized brand with more than $16bn in assets.

This is definitely laudable especially if you consider that this institution, Zenith Bank, stayed afloat and became one of the top 5 banks during the banking crisis in Nigeria in 2005 when the odds of staying afloat was less than 25%.

In his book, Jim Ovia takes us back into time to where his aspirations to own a bank started. In his own words, he was intrigued with the opportunities obtaining a banking license offered. He decided to follow his instincts and apply for a commercial banking licence.

He got to use his negotiation skills to negotiate the process of getting his banking licence approved in spite of the fact that he only had 10 years banking experience. The work experience required for a banking licence by the regulatory authority was 20 years at the time but he proved he had the skills and so was granted the license.

Lesson 1. What are you holding yourself back from applying for because you believe you don’t meet the ‘stated’ requirements or qualifications? Is it a higher job role or funding for your business? Maybe it’s time to try it out if you believe you can get the job done. See it this way, you’ll never know if you don’t try.

Life never happens to us the way we plan. that’s why a quote by Jack Dorsey saying we should expect the unexpected and whenever possible, be the unexpected makes a lot of sense.

Running a business in Nigeria is tough as nails. Even when you try to stick to the rules, something unexpected might just destabilize your plans.

He almost experienced a shaking during the banking crisis in 2005. If you’re not familiar with the story, a new governor was appointed to the Central Banking Authority in Nigeria (CBN) and he asked all the banks to increase capital base to $188m or stand the risk of liquidation.

New levels call for bold decisions.

Mr Ovia successfully recapitalized Zenith bank and was one of the 25 banks of 90 banks who independently survived. He was able to raise additional capital swiftly because his institution had an excellent reputation and brand in the local banking industry. The 14 year track record of the bank was so impressive that investors gravitated towards the bank and invested massively in the public offering.

Lesson 2. Stay in the game and keep doing what you do excellently. The right people are noticing and will seize the opportunity to help you when you need that extra push to succeed. Skip shortcuts and stay focused on the goal always.

Some people might tell you it’s not sustainable and you need to become like everyone else to succeed. Not true. Staying true to yourself always pays off. You’ll get to experience success being yourself and not being a fake version of someone else.

I’ll stop with the lessons at this point and ask you to get yourself a copy of the book. There are quite a number of nuggets to learn from this book.

That said. This is what was missing for me.

There were really no failure stories.

Like really? I know we want to read a success story but successful entrepreneurs share their failure stories too. I think it demonstrates that the path to the top might be tough but worth it in the end.

I wanted to learn more about the politics of banking in Nigeria, the challenge of hiring the right people and having great people leave. I wanted to know if they ever had any close calls and how they made it through those years. I wanted to know if he had ever had to fire someone he really liked before because he had to choose the business.

But I guess I’ll have to wait to read an updated version for that..Lol

I actually learnt a lot more about him at the book launch from what his friends and colleagues shared about him.

That said, you should totally get a copy of this book for your library even if it’s just to tell yourself it is possible to succeed in Africa.

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