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Jim Ovia: The man who took banking to the Zenith

By Babajide Komolafe

When Jim Ovia, as an undergraduate of Business Administration at the Southern University, Louisiana, United States, fell in love with computer technology, little did he know that the love will make him one of the pioneers of modern banking in Nigeria, the pioneering Chief Executive Officer, and now Chairman of Africa’s 6th biggest financial institution.


Jim Ovia
Jim Ovia

“It so happened that halfway through my studies, my keen interest in computer science and information technology was heightened… I couldn’t help it and decided to incorporate computer science into my program. One of my uncles advised me against this, as he reckoned that it was an immature industry at that point. Business administration was the way forward,” he said in an interview with The International  Herald.

Today, his obstinacy and passion for technology has created a business empire spanning banking, telecommunications and real estate, in the process amassing over $850 million fortune which made him the 6th richest man in Africa.

From banking clerk to CEO

Jim Ovia started his working career clerk at Barclays Bank, DCO, and now Union Bank in 1973.  Thereafter he worked as Financial Analyst at International Merchant Bank (IMB) where he rose to Senior Manager Position In 1987.  From 1987 to 1990, Ovia was the Head of Corporate Finance department at the Merchant Bank of Africa. He had previously gained experience in the use of computers in 1977 when he worked as a part-time computer operator at Baton Rouge Bank and Trust Company.

The Zenith Bank revolution

When Jim Ovia along other investors co-founded Zenith Bank in 1990, banking in Nigeria was at the rudimentary level. Operations and services were manually driven, and as a result customers were subjected to delays and stress.

Speaking of these times, Ovia said, “When we started Zenith 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 says.

Notwithstanding this barriers,  Ovia decided to make Zenith Bank an information technology driven bank.  This is reflected in the bank’s pay off line which is, “People Technology and Service”.

As a result,  Zenith Bank, under Jim Ovia’s leadership  blazed the trail in digital banking in Nigeria; scoring several firsts in the deployment of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure to create innovative products that meet the needs of its teeming customers. The bank is verifiably a leader in the deployment of various channels of banking technology, and the Zenith brand has become synonymous with the deployment of state-of-the-art technologies in banking.

Ovia’s passion for technology driven banking service also helped in transforming Zenith Bank from a small commercial bank operating from Ajose Adeogun Street on Victoria Island, Lagos to one of Africa’s biggest financial institutions.

In 2004, Ovia leveraged on the soaring public confidence led the Zenith Bank through a Initial Public Offering (IPO) that was oversubscribed and helped the bank survived the consolidation exercise of 2004.  This was followed massive branch expansion across the country, and establishment of subsidiaries in other African countries. Presently Zenith Bank Plc has over 500 branches in Nigeria with subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone Gambia, United Kingdom, and Peoples Republic of China.

The contributions and influence of Zenith Bank in the Nigerian banking landscape is reflected in the strings of awards and recognition from local and international bodies.

 Biggest company

For example, The Banker Magazine, a publication of the Financial Times of London in a 2013 survey, rates Zenith as the Biggest bank in Nigeria by tier-1 capital.  Also, Forbes & CNBC Africa ranks Zenith bank as the 3rd biggest company in West Africa; while Capital Finance International (CFI) adjudged the bank the Best Commercial Bank in Africa.   Furthermore, World Finance voted the bank as the Best Nigerian Bank in Corporate Governance.  KPMG rated Zenith bank as the Best Customer-Focused Bank in Nigeria.

In 2012, Zenith Bank was recognized as one of the 30 Outstanding Global Brands making sustainable impact on their operating environment. This recognition was prelude to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) which held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012.

In 2007, the bank bagged the African Bank of the Year; awarded by African Investor Magazine, Quoted Company of the Year; awarded by Nigerian Stock Exchange and Socially Responsible Bank of the Year awarded by African Banker Magazine. For three consecutive years, Zenith won the Web-Jurist award conducted by the website rating arm of Phillips Consulting.

Beyond Banking

Ovia’s love for technology also impacted Nigeria’s bourgeoning Information Technology industry.  In 1995, when the internet was still at infancy in Nigeria, Ovia founded Cyberspace. The company was one of the pioneers in provision of internet services in Nigeria.  He was also the pioneer President of the Nigeria Internet Group, an organisation dedicated to pervasive employment of internet in Nigeria.

Jim Ovia founded the ICT Foundation for Youth Empowerment, which focuses on improving the socio-economic welfare of Nigerian Youths by inspiring and motivating them to embrace Information and Communication Technology. In addition to these,  Ovia is  the Proprietor of the University of Information and Communication Technology, Delta State; Chairman of the Nigerian Software Development Initiative (NSDI) and also Chairman, National Information Technology Advisory Council (NITAC);  And a  member of the Honorary International Investor Council as well as the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI).

Mobile telecoms company

In 2007 Jim Ovia entered Nigeria’s telecommunication industry by founding Visafone Communications Limited, a mobile telecoms company with over 3 million subscribers across the country.

Recognition: In recognition of leadership role in Zenith Bank, Jim Ovia was awarded the Zik Award for professional leadership in April 1999.  Less than two years later, the President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, bestowed on Jim Ovia a national award, inducting him as a member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR). Lagos State University gave Jim Ovia an honorary doctorate in Finance in October 2005. Ovi was also received the Business Day’s Award for the top 10 bankers in Nigeria, while he  was among Vanguard’s 20 most outstanding CEO’s in corporate Nigeria in 2002.

Philanthropy: Over the years, Ovia found a second love-which is, giving back to the society. He founded the ‘Mankind United to Support Total  Education (MUSTE)’, a humanitarian Organization dedicated to funding the indigent with educational grants. Furthermore he has headed various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) at various times, including Chairman of the Committee on “Nigeria Polio-Immunisation Action Group”.  The committee in collaboration with  Bill  & Melinda Gates Foundation seeks to eradicate the scourge of the dreaded polio disease in Nigeria.

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