Last week, when I was about to embark on a five-hour trip, I hurriedly looked through my recent collection for a book that will awaken me from mental boredom, rekindle the spirit of curiosity and imaginative brilliance, and also serve as a diversionary therapy for the aftershocks of the recently held cost-inefficient, militarized elections.
Let me deviate a little and seize this medium to congratulate every Nigerian on the outcomes of the elections. We the people are the winners. Our abiding faith in the noble workings of democracy will engender national transformation, better life for all, and good governance. I am persuaded that the president-elect will draw enormous strength and encouragement from the people’s mandate and tenaciously strive more than ever before to make Nigeria a model nation. For, this is his finest moment of legacy bequeathal.
Let me go back to the main subject matter. For no particular reason, I handpicked Jim Ovia’s book, Africa Rise and Shine, published by the famed ForbesBooks, and thereafter, I set out on my trip. As I read, I realized the cover, the content, and the back cover are laced with gems of inspiration. A kind of inspirations marinated in experience, capable of giving wings to entrepreneurs, so they can soar to the zenith of success in ethical ways. One of the interesting facts about the book is that it is not a one-note writer’s attempt to recycle threadbare platitudes, which ignore business-world factors. This does not detract the fact that the book is rich in epigrammatically expressed business truths that will inspire any ready-to-learn veteran entrepreneur or newbie to mock impossibilities and achieve great dreams.
The book, which chronicles the emergence of Zenith Bank as a model financial institution, a creator of vistas of possibilities for business owners, and a formidable supporter of people’s pursuit of happiness and better life is written in an elevated everyday language, which makes it accessible to readers from a broad spectrum of cognitive development. Every business owner can constantly draw inspiration from the humble beginnings of the bank, how it outlived the very inauspicious business climate of the 1990s, and grew to become a business empire of $16 billion with footprints of excellence across the globe.
Jim demonstrates the faith that ridicules stifling rules. At the time he applied for Zenith Bank license, his cumulative work experience was ten years. Following the linearization of the financial sector in 1985, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) made it mandatory for applicants of bank licenses to have a minimum of twenty years cognate work experience. However, the buoyancy of Jim’s confidence, charming business acuity, sophisticated intellectual pedigree, and readiness to defy progress-inhibiting rules made the CBN to recommend his application for ministerial approval.
The point every entrepreneur should note from the above is this; if you seek to experience meteoric rise, you must not sacrifice your business vision at the altar of crippling bureaucratic rules. Smart leaders violate negatively discriminatory rule. They do not make rules their rulers. Rather, they make a fine mockery of rules that are not ethical enablers of progress.
The visionary founder of Zenith Bank, Jim, is animated by the glorious wisdom of thinking big yet starting small, thinking global yet deepening local roots. The global footprint of Zenith Bank makes it difficult for many people to appreciate the fact that it started from “a residential four bedroom duplex on Ajose Adeogun Street, on Lagos Victoria Island.” Many African youths are in search of perfect beginnings, big start, huge breaks, “mega money”, and by so doing, they fail to seize their golden moment of opportunities. For their benefit, it is important to reiterate the fact that great businesses hardly start great. Every prudent entrepreneur knows that small start does not spell a bleak future. In fact, Zenith Bank inspiringly affirms the fact that enduring business significance does not take root from big start, but from a boundless spirit of innovation, prudent management, and an insatiable hunger for relevance that comes from developing humanity.
Jim teaches that any entrepreneur that seeks to surmount Mountain Everest in the world of business must become a technophile, a lover of technology for development sake. The subtext of his book could be expressed in a one-liner: Blessed are those who love technology for the future is theirs. Hence, Jim expended and expends huge resources to ensure digital technology is a pivotal driver of growth at Zenith Bank. Before the advent of internet in Nigeria, Zenith Bank made it an integral part of its business development strategy. Hence, its founding CEO was at the vanguard for the push to universalize internet penetration in Nigeria. He started ICT clubs to raise public awareness of the marvels of internet-enabled business transactions. He started an ICT firm to provide critical infrastructure for digital revolution in Nigeria. He spent many weekends giving lectures to young Nigerians on the essentiality of ICT to human flourishing. Furthermore, he influenced public policy decisions on the acquisition, development of cost-effective, time- efficient internet infrastructure. When smart entrepreneurs think of the future, they think of adopting cutting-edge technologies to their business practices.
Jim teaches another vital business lesson: If you hate avoidable stunted business growth, do not condone noncompliance with set rules and procedures. The use of kid gloves in handling errant senior executives or subalterns could put potentially great businesses in the coffin. Shortly after Zenith Bank’s commencement of business operations, a top management staff approved a credit facility in breach of due process. The management of the bank did not turn a blind eye to it. It was dealt with swiftly and decisively. The perpetrator’s authority to approve was withheld. That served as a deterrent. Hence, such executive misdemeanor did not recur in the bank for many years. If you seek to build an enduring ethical business, you must know when to use the rod of correction.
Jim and his bank reinforce the truism that the character of a king determines that of his kingdom. Corporate value system does not emerge from nothing. They are inspired and grounded in the ethos and philosophy of their leaders. In other words, Zenith Bank’s corporate culture of excellence largely springs from the core values, idealisms, pragmatism, and business ethos of Jim. An example will illustrate how Jim cherishes relational wellbeing and friendship. Decades ago, specifically, during his Youth Service year, his skillful mechanic became his business partner. Back then; he was moonlighting as a buyer and seller of used cars. He used his cordial relationship with his mechanic as a lunch pad of business enterprise.
Smart entrepreneurs put huge premium on relationship. They rank healthy relationship beyond profit and money. Jim and his management had functional relationships with the very early customers of their bank. Till date, they accentuate the fact that relationship is the centerpiece of their business development plan. The bank does not disassociate its network from its net worth. Every custom, every staff, every service provider in the value network is inflated with a healthy sense of importance.
Another philosophical cornerstone underlining the amazing business successes of Jim is: “investigate before you invest.” This is accompanied with the native wisdom “follow your instinct.” At first, it appears like an irony that Jim, a holder of an MBA from the illustrious University of Louisiana, a fine master of the science of investment and management, underscores the primacy of instinct, that is, will follow his instincts even when it is not supported by research findings. But at a deeper level, he advances the wisdom of holism, which implies in this context: putting your heart, head and hand into your business, following unseen cues.
I share the optimism of Jim Ovia: Africa can become the paragon of development if entrepreneurs commit to its transformation from a vale of tears to vistas of opportunities.