By Omoh Gabriel
Names have a way of affecting an individual.A man’s path and career could be tied, some how, to his name.
Perhaps when he was growing up, he might have said that he would, one day, become a colossus in the Nigeria banking scene. His detractors might have sneered at him.
You, a banker and a bank owner? Impossible, they could have said.
Even in the days of liberalisation of banking licenses in Nigeria, he was one of the few who said banking could be a thing of joy but was mockingly described by the older generation of bankers as “cowboy banker.”
Nigerians who are much older will look back and say a little over two decades ago, Nigeria was in short supply of the human resources and infrastructure necessary to keep pace with the rapid technological and economic change in much of the developed world. Banking was a nightmare, as queues were a common sight in Nigerian banking halls.
An economic overhaul and the ensuing banking license’ liberalisation in the early 1990s brought with it a wave of entrepreneurs, among them Jim Ovia, who sought to inspire progressive change in what was then a highly underdeveloped banking climate.
Ovia wanted to make a difference; he wanted a change from the past when men who had bank accounts would go to their banks and face a long queue that snaked in the banking hall. Jim Ovia introduced electronic banking that would ease the laborious work load of manual ledger entries in the bank. It was believed then that they would soon fizzle out.
But with a magic wand in his hand, he turned the industry around. His bank soon became a reference point.
Although the race was tough and stiff, he endured and today, with his Midas touch on the bank he co-founded, the bank has comfortably taken a leading position in the banking industry not just in Nigeria, but in the sub-region.
At every corner in Jim Ovia’s Victoria Island, Lagos office, shelves of plaques, awards and photographs of him with Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Goodluck Jonathan, alongside pieces of literature and art, that adorn the huge office. The younger generation of bankers see him as one of the “godfathers of Nigerian banking.”
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 over country’s 120 million-strong population at the time, customarily crowded the inside 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 Bank in 1990, it was extremely difficult as the necessary resources and infrastructure to do business, 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 had told Forbes.
Zenith Bank has greatly impacted banking 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. Ovia began his career in 1973, working as a clerk in Barclays Bank, now Union Bank. 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 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).
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 where he gained experience in the use of computers while working part-time in 1977. 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 on July 16, 1990.
He joined IMB as a Financial Analyst in 1980 and moved to the management cadre in 1987. He headed the Corporate Finance Department of Merchant Bank of Africa from 1987 to 1990. His interest in computers was picked in 1977 when he worked as a part-time Computer Operator at Baton Rouge & Trust Company, Louisiana.
This interest, those close to him said, played a large role in setting up his foundation, the Youth Empowerment/ICT Foundation, which focuses on improving the socio-economic welfare of Nigerian youths by inspiring and motivating them to embrace ICT. The foundation supports the use of ICT “whenever and wherever possible to enhance the standard of living in the society and increase human efficiency,” according to information on its website.
He is the Chairman of the Nigerian Software Development Initiative (NSDI) and also Chairman, National Information Technology Advisory Council (NITAC). He is a member of the Honorary International Investor Council, as well as the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI).
Ovia is a member of the Governing Council of Lagos State University and also a member of the Board of Trustees, Redeemer’s University for Nations, Lagos. He was a member of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (1999 – 2007) and also served on the board of American International School, Lagos between 2001 and 2003.
He also serves as the Chairman of Quantum Luxury Properties Limited and as Director of Africa Finance Corporation. He served as a Director at Transnational Corporation of Nigeria (Transcorp) Plc. He is a motivational speaker and an avid ICT person.
He is noted for his philanthropic gestures, earning him the spot as head of numerous Non-Government Organisations (NGO) at various times including being the first President of the Nigeria Internet Group (2001-2003). In 2012, he donated N1 billion to the rehabilitation of victims of the then flood disaster. He is the founder and Chairman of Mankind United to Support Total Education (MUSTE), a philanthropic organisation which focuses on providing scholarship for the underprivileged. Today, some of the beneficiaries are qualified professionals in diverse fields.