Jim Ovia: Zenith leads Nigerian change

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Nigeria, little over two decades ago, was in short supply of the resources and infrastructure necessary to keep pace with the rapid technological and economic change in much of the developed world. Opportunities were limited and, as a consequence, business impetus was lacking, save for a select few individuals who sought to capitalise on what were then just pockets of opportunity.

An economic overhaul and the ensuing market liberalisation in the early 1990s brought with it a wave of entrepreneurs, among them the Zenith Bank founder, Jim Ovia, who sought to inspire progressive change in what was then a sorely underdeveloped business climate. Skip forward to the present day and the country ranks alongside some of the world’s best-performing emerging markets, thanks to men like Ovia, whose actions have underpinned the many positive changes to Nigeria’s economic environment, particularly in the banking industry, where he applied his acumen and entrepreneurial resilience to positively impact the entire system. He stepped down as GMD/CEO after two decades of a very successful career that stands out as a study in leadership, change management and strategy. He has since gone on to explore new opportunities and embrace new challenges. World Finance looks back on Ovia’s career and the ways in which he has changed Nigeria’s economic and management thinking for the better.

From clerk to CEO
Ovia began his career in 1973 working as a Barclays Bank (now Union Bank) clerk. It was there that he was introduced to an industry he would later come to play a significant role in transforming. He obtained a B.Sc in Business Administration (MBA) from Southern University, Louisiana (1977) and went on to earn a master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Louisiana in 1979. He is also an Alumnus of Harvard Business School (OPM).

Zenith Bank total assets:

Ngn 215.2bn

2004

Ngn 2.4trn

2009

One of the most crucial developments in Ovia’s early career, and one that would shape his business philosophy, was at Baton Rouge Bank and Trust Company while working part-time in 1977, where he gained experience in the use of computers. This stint, though seemingly inconsequential, sparked an appetite for technology and the realisation that it would signal a brighter future for his homeland.

Following a good few years of valuable experience in the banking industry, Ovia decided to establish a bank; one that would later turn into a global brand and a dominant player in Nigeria. Ovia was promptly granted a banking license to bring his vision to fruition, and on July 16, 1990 he and a select few others opened shop and began a revolution in the country’s overly conservative and inefficient banking industry.

Talking about his hands-on experience with Forbes Africa, he said: “I’ve worked as everything, from a junior clerical officer in a bank to a middle management trainee. I really did work my way up the ladder. I had enjoyed banking as a profession right from the outset… I worked 16 hours a day and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

In an interview with CNBC, Ovia said: “Stepping down from Zenith Bank was a very big blessing for me really, because it afforded me the opportunity to do so many other things that I couldn’t possibly do when I was CEO. Having run the bank for 20 years, really, in Africa, is quite a long time to be in one institution.” The entrepreneur’s contributions to the country’s wider development have not let up since.

Ovia began to make his contributions to the development of banking in Nigeria more pronounced when he founded Zenith Bank in 1990. Nigeria’s banking system prior to the advent of the Ovia-led Zenith Bank was characterised by queues, and lots of them, as the country’s 100 million-strong population (at the time), customarily crowded the insides of Nigeria’s precious few, ill-equipped and thinly spread banks. Ovia’s first move, therefore, was to bring ATMs to Nigeria, effectively bypassing the human traffic that clogged so many banking halls and doing away with the over-the-counter culture that reigned. “When we started Zenith in 1990, it was extremely difficult, as the necessary resources and infrastructure to do businesses, particularly banking, were not in place. There were no ATMs, no mobile phones and ICT was a rarely known concept in the business space,” he told Forbes.

Zenith Bank has greatly impacted banking (see bar chart) in Nigeria, lifting the sector from the era of over-conservatism to one of healthy conflict and dynamism, characterised by a culture of excellence and global best practices. This has been achieved through a combination of the power of vision and a skilful union of banking expertise and cutting-edge technology to create products and services that meet and anticipate customers’ expectations.

The bank blazed the trail toward digital banking in the country, scoring several firsts in the process through the deployment of ICT infrastructure to create innovative products that meet the needs of its teeming customers. The bank is demonstrably a leader in the deployment of the various channels of banking technology.

The person behind this revolution, Jim Ovia, is a man who sees far into the future and takes steps, leveraging on his excellent acuity and calculated-risk-taking skills, to crystallise any benefits from existing and future opportunities. Zenith, which by balance sheet size and other positive financials has shaped and is shaping certain critical aspects of developments in the sub-sector, is in sheer entrepreneurial energy a bank without equal, and one which has taken after its progenitor.

Going public
The achievements of Zenith Bank highlight Jim Ovia as an accomplished banker and erudite manager of human and material resources. His capacity for leadership and eye for growth opportunities is evident in Zenith’s performance and progression on a number of parameters. During his 20 years of service as CEO, the bank witnessed tremendous growth in shareholders’ funds, from the NGN 20m minimum paid-up capital in 1990 to NGN 335bn as at December 31, 2009.

In the two decades under Ovia, the economy witnessed a wide variety of economic peaks and troughs, from heady growth to global financial crises, and Ovia led the Zenith Bank Group to demonstrate resilience irrespective of business cycles, with a strategic focus and conservative business model that has become a classical benchmark. Under Ovia’s watch, Zenith Bank went public in June 2004 and was listed on the Nigeria Stock Exchange on October 21 2004, following a highly successful IPO. The bank’s shares are freely traded on the London Stock Exchange following a listing of $850m worth of its shares at $6.80 each in a major step aimed at improving liquidity in the stock through global depository receipts.

The bank’s total assets through June 2004 to March 2009 exhibited gains of 939 percent (NGN 215.2bn to NGN 2.4trn), shareholder funds saw a 2,061 percent increase (NGN 15.6bn to NGN 338.7bn), and total deposits expanded by 830 percent (NGN 131bn to NGN 1.2trn).

Not content with spearheading changes in management, service delivery and customer service, Ovia deployed a robust IT infrastructure and a range of digital products in an effort to bring technology to the fore of Nigerian banking.

His success in deploying a digital infrastructure ignited the interest to have him replicate the same at the national and not-for-profit levels. This led him to huge involvement in ICT-related endeavours including but not limited to his being the Chairman of the Nigerian Software Development Initiative (NSDI), Chairman of the National Information Technology Advisory Council [NITAC], and a member of the Honorary International Investor Council and the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI).

Furthermore, with over 350 branches and business offices nationwide, Zenith Bank is present in all the state capitals, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and numerous major cities and towns in Nigeria. The bank also maintains a strong presence along the west African coast, with wholly owned subsidiaries in Accra, Ghana (Zenith Bank, Ghana) and Freetown, Sierra Leone (Zenith Bank, Sierra Leone), as well as in Europe through Zenith Bank UK and Asia through a representative office in Beijing. This is in addition to a representative office in Johannesburg (see pie charts).

The bank is seen as an institution with incredibly high standards, not just on a national level but an international one. Testimony to Ovia’s leadership qualities are a succession of excellent ratings from local and international agencies, which were given in the final full year of his service at Zenith. Standard and Poor’s rated the bank BB-, which is the highest ever rating assigned to a Nigerian bank, and Fitch Ratings awarded an AA- (national). Agusto & Co., Nigeria’s foremost rating agency, for the ninth consecutive year in 2009, rated Zenith Bank AAA, stating, “The bank is a financial institution of impeccable financial condition and overwhelming capacity to meet obligations as and when they fall due.”

In January 2009, the bank was adjudged to be the ‘Most Customer-focused Bank in Nigeria’ according to a survey conducted by KPMG. The survey, which focused predominantly on corporate customers of banks, including companies in a variety of sectors, found that customers were most satisfied with the services offered by
Zenith Bank.

Impressive performance parameters such as these are an eloquent indication of Ovia’s rare penchant for banking and his unflinching ability to mitigate existing inefficiencies in Nigeria’s testing business climate.

Technology and philanthropy
Ovia’s proficiency for business away from banking was reasserted thanks to his foray into telecommunications with Visafone Nigeria. Again, it is to the credit of his business acumen and strategic know-how that Visafone subscribers hit a base of one million within six months of operations and boasted an active service usage across 12 states.

Ovia continues to play a leading role in the digital empowerment of Nigerian youths and is known to have pledged a great deal of support, financial and otherwise, to the backing of numerous philanthropic causes throughout his career and the pursuit, which is often rooted in technology, takes up a large chunk of his life to this day.

He has also donated a great deal of internet-enabled tools to youths in all tiers of the Nigerian education system, in addition to setting up various philanthropic organisations. He believes that by empowering Nigerian youths with technology, they will be granted access to essential tools that will help them on their way to any number of professions down the line.

In keeping with Ovia’s commitment to matters of technology, he is also the proprietor of the University of Information and Communication Technology in Delta State. Moreover, Ovia is the founder of the ICT Foundation for Youth Empowerment, which focuses on improving the socioeconomic welfare of Nigerian youths by encouraging them to embrace information and communication technology as part of their career and personal development.

“This will provide an opportunity for our future leaders. It is a mission I’m thrilled to drive, as it is a great investment in the future of my country. The first thing you learn in business is to make profit. However, how you choose to spend the profits is just as important. Philanthropy is important to me, as I derive more joy from spending mine this way. You need to give back, reach out to the larger society and less privileged,” he told Forbes.

Ovia’s focus on philanthropic causes can also be seen in the various NGOs he has contributed to, not least of which being his membership of the Tsunami Disaster Relief Committee and his position as co-ordinator of the Nigerians United To Save Niger Republic. He is also the founder and Chairman of Mankind United to Support Total Education (MUSTE), a philanthropic organisation focused on providing scholarships for low-income segments of the population. Through the MUSTE project, a select few beneficiaries have gone on to become qualified medical doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Lasting legacy
Although dispositions of this sort were becoming more common in the region, Ovia’s understanding of the need to give back to society was not, and he continues to express a keen interest and head impressive developments in the field of CSR and philanthropy to this very day.

In light of his impressive achievements in national and social development, the President of Nigeria made Ovia a Member of the Order of the Federal Republic in November 2000, and upgraded him to Commander of The Order of Niger in 2011 as a result of his consistent record of positive impact on his country. His other awards include the Zik Award for professional leadership in April 1999 and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in Finance from the Lagos State University in October 2005.

“I think Nigeria is a country of tremendous opportunity and of infinite possibilities,” said Ovia to CNBC. “We have a lot of young people here, who are very talented, very well educated, who are ready to embrace technology and embrace whatever the world is doing.” Following on from Zenith’s technological prowess, Ovia hopes to demonstrate alternative channels through which technology can play a role in spurring development for Nigerian business and the country’s population at large.

An attempt to deconstruct Ovia’s achievements is a near impossible task. So great has been his contribution in turning Nigeria from bust to boom that not enough can be said of the man’s corporate and social work in a place that he was not only brought up in but later came to redefine. What can be said with some degree of certainty, however, is that Ovia’s influence in both corporate and social terms have impacted Nigeria positively on several fronts.

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