THOUGH of noble birth, Mr. Jim Ovia, the pioneer Managing Director of Zenith Bank Plc and current chairman of its board realized early in life that having blue blood in one’s veins wasn’t enough ticket to guarantee stardom in one’s chosen endeavor and opted for the narrow path? And unlike the present dispensation in the country whereby desperation for materialism has dwarfed the age tested virtues of honesty and dignity in labor, Ovia, apparently due his strict upbringing in the royal court imbibed integrity and hardwork holding the attributes firmly as master keys that will unlock all doors in his life journey.
Little wonder therefore that the topmost banker who will clock 68 on Monday November 4th has attained not only the pinnacle of his chosen career –banking but regarded as an exceptional role model to many upcoming Nigerians especially those with eyes on business. He is also reputed to be a reference point on philanthropy. Indeed his distinguished attainments also in business, as motivational speaker, writer and in the information technology communication, ICT remains a classic example of someone who waded through life journey from grass to grace.
A prince, Jim Ovia was born on the 4th of November, 1951 to Obi Olihe of Agbor-Obi, one of the most revered royal fathers in Agbor Kingdom, Delta State , attended Ika Grammar School, Bojiboji-Owa for his secondary education before travelling to the United States for the proverbial golden fleece, where he had his tertiary education. While there, he bagged a B.Sc. degree in Business Administration from Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and later Master’s degree in Business Administration from University of Louisiana, Monroe. He is also an alumnus of Harvard Business School.
Ovia admitted that he was encouraged to venture into his course of study by his uncle and thereafter resolved to excel in his chosen career, adding that his golden rule since then has been ‘honesty and integrity’. “Always honour contracts: it is very important to be of tremendous integrity. Those who try to take shortcuts will always fail’’ he declared in one of his famous quotes. No doubt, his life philosophy above has a fundamental backing of American billionaire Warren Buffet who maintained that three attributes: intelligence, energy and integrity are a must for any one aspiring to be an achiever with integrity not negotiable. For him, without integrity the other two attributes are useless.
Rather than stay back in the U. S. to savour the vast opportunities, Ovia upon graduating, returned to his fatherland, joined Union Bank for his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), and worked in Lion Bank where he rose to the position of branch manager in Lagos. He later joined International Merchant Bank (IMB) in 1980 rising from financial analyst to bank manager from where he moved to Merchant Bank of Africa. And following an unblemished career in the affected banks coupled with the experience garnered, he alongside some investors established Zenith Bank in May 1990 after the administration of former military president Gen. Ibrahim Babangida deregulated the banking sector.
As prime mover of the financial institution, he became the pioneer managing director and chief executive officer of the bank, a position he held for 20 years before resigning his position in July 2010. But four years later and given his track record of service, he was appointed the chairman of the bank. It is on record that under his leadership, Zenith Bank grew in leaps and bounds thus first becoming a Public Limited Company, Plc in 2001 before it got listed on the Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE) as well as the London Stock Exchange (LSE).
Significantly, on April 27, 2007, Zenith Bank Plc became the first Nigerian bank in 25 years to be licensed by the UK Financial Services Authority (FSA), giving birth to Zenith Bank UK Limited and also with subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, South Africa and China. Truly and like the biblical mustard seed, the bank which was established with a capital of just N20m some 29 years ago with currently over 500 branches nationwide and thousands of employees announced recently that its total assets stood at N5.97 trillion as at end of September this year.
Perhaps Ovia’s humility and disciplined background has made him to distance himself from public space and one who doesn’t like blowing his own trumpet. For instance he sees the flourishing story of Zenith Bank as not due to his financial wizardry but borne out of vision and a passion to make it a reality. ‘’You can build an app or a company or a product or service, I happened to build a bank’’, he noted while speaking on his business secrets. The foremost banker also has interests in real estate; Information Communication Technology, ICT; founded Cyberspace Network Limited one of the pioneers of internet services in the country as well as Visafone Communications Limited, a Nigerian wireless network provider, a company that has been acquired by MTN.
As an author, Ovia in September 2018 published his first book, an autobiography ‘Africa Rise and Shine’ containing his business success secrets and how he was able to create one of Africa’s largest banks. Recognizing the fundamental role that sound education played in his life success and the need to offer a helping hand to the less privileged members of society, he established Jim Ovia Foundation, a non-profit organization with the aim of investing in the African youth’s ‘unlimited and untapped potential as the key to socio-economic growth’ convinced that such gesture will not only enhance the standard of living of the society but improve the nation’s economy.
Described as the ‘Godfather of Banking’ by Forbes Africa, the philanthropist has similarly invested a fortune on humanitarian work through the Jim Ovia Foundation comprising of four arms: The James Hope College, Jim Ovia Scholarship, Jim Ovia ICT Entrepreneurs Programme and Empower Youth Programme with over 1,500 students said to have benefitted from university scholarships since October 2010, and empowered over 3,500 students and entrepreneurs since its inception. A man of many parts and one who has bagged numerous laurels, Ovia is a recipient of the national honour of Commander of Order of the Federal Republic, OFR.
As a true patriot and in deference to public opinion, Ovia recently withdrew from the World Economic Forum (WEF) that held in South Africa even though he was already at the event, following the uproar that trailed the xenophobic attacks on some Nigerians and other black foreign nationals by rampaging youths. As one analyst noted, Nigeria will attain greater heights in no distant future if most of her prosperous citizens emulate Ovia’s philanthropy especially his passion for developing the human capital through scholarships to youths from less privilege background.
* Imonikhe, former editor Daily Champion, writes from Lagos