By Omoh Gabriel
In everything I do, you have a reflection of all these qualities in me. Like when I walk out, you saw me smart, strong and alert, it has been part of me, I don’t suffer fools slightly. I am very intense and I want the best out of anything.
From what you have said, how was it growing up?
I think I have been very privileged, I came from a polygamous environment and my mother happens to be the only educated wife out of five that my father had and that had tremendous influence on me. In spite of the fact that there were still other wives, the way I looked at my parent’s behaviour, infuses in me some confidence, some assuredness that God being with me all will be well.
Growing up in a polygamous environment could be very competitive, how did you cope?
I was not in any way influenced, my father was an enlightened educated person, he was in the colonial days one of the people in the forefront. I think he and the late papa Odutono, having left secondary school, Ijebu Ode Grammar school in 1919, by 1921, they were selected by the colonial authorities to be what we call court registrars (Akowe courtu).
They were not only dealing with courts, they were the administrative hub. It was the court clerk between the district officer, invariably expatriate and the people. They will do normal interpretations in court but it was more like an administrative officer, so much so that those of us who were children were enlightened and favoured.
We were in the upper court of the society. So in that enlightened environment, privileged environment, with educated parents my father went to the topmost secondary school in those days and in 1921when the colonial authority were looking for people who can be a go between them and the district officers, my father was one of the privileged to be appointed as at that time.
Then in the home front, I had an educated, enlightened mother, all these influenced me. So I started sure footed, is a matter of confidence and luckily for me, I was very bright and brilliant, what gave rise to this was that ever before my father put me and some other siblings in school, most of them were older than myself, I had the privilege of being tutored by my mother in addition to some teachers who were revered people in those days.
Place of birth: I come from Ijebu Ode, an elitist environment and secondly as God would have it, both of my parents were well to do. So I had privileged parents. My dad for instance was the ´Daudu,´ the eldest son of a Balogun in Ijebu Ode, Balogun Odunuga. They were Muslims and my dad was always organising the annual “Ojo´ode Oba” an event that happens in Ijebu, so being the daudu, he was very prominent. Then he developed a penchant for education and vowed among his people that Muslim children should not be less educated than Christian children, so he was in the vanguard of setting up Muslim schools.
Muslim in religion but not in enlightenment training, for instance I was sent to a Muslim school in 1940, but before then, both my mother and my then teacher, we call them lesson master then, were already brining me up in a way that I had head start with my older siblings who were older than I was, I was about six as at that time but I could speak a bit of English which was not the usual thing, we usually start from Yoruba “A, B D” but at the time I was six, I had gone through all the visible training by mother. She was a seamstress and a trader in clothes. So you could see the radiance of that privilege.
In addition to that, my mother come from a highly privileged part of Ijebu, she happens to be a princess from the royal throne of ´Tuwase´, Oba Tuwase was the one that the British met when they came to Ijebu in 1892 after they defeated the Ijebu’s at war and he was the one who allowed Christianity to be preached for the first time in Ijebu Ode. In addition to that he did a lot of remarkable things. For someone to be described as “Alaye omo olowo jooye meji po, oje awujaleton,otun je dagbure” saying that from my own royal throne, I am both a descendant of the Awujale who ultimately went to a hamlet and became an Oba, so they call us “Arojo jooye adele tejuteju.” These were things which were in my environment at birth.
My early names: While my father’s family named me “Olasubomi, my mother’s family named me Adesubomi, olayiwo ola olaonipekun” these are things that by the time they say them to any Yoruba hearing, they will tell you this is a privileged family. I come from that environment but I had an educated, foresighted mother who will not allow me to be spoilt.
Descendant of the Awujale
She started me with discipline, for me to know what is good and what is bad. But interestingly enough, even though my father loved me a lot and I was a favourable child, my mother influenced me more. As a toddler, my mother during late time when you could hear stories and legends, would always pick from the bible and be reading that to me.
When ultimately at Igbobi College, I decided to be converted at 13 or 14 years, my Mother was the only one I could confide in without my father knowing, because my father was a vocal Muslim among the Ijebu.
He was so proud of his nobility and that background that he would not want a Muslim to be less educated than any Christian. So he was in the vanguard of setting up what we call Muslim schools. Muslim in religion, but in education they were very much concerned about quality, the combination of these two circumstances, my mother’s, pedigree, from royalty.
Despite the fact that you are a privileged child and had privileged parents, there were challenges, what were those challenges?
There were challenges of a privileged child, I had siblings who were not so privileged and I became a favourite of my father than my mother, if you know what it means, “Olasubomi” means; I am overwhelmed by honour, the short way of saying my wealth, honour, privilege. You could translate Ola to mean privilege. Then in addition, I was the blue eye ball of my parents.
You actually read law, was it a decision you made yourself or parents decision?
It was circumstantial, my father was one of the first Ijebu’s to go to a secondary school and he was in the colonial service, when ultimately the native authority was set up, the district officers who were majorly expatriates, were the people supervising almost the senior most local government officers, it was a colonial administration.
Smart dresses of lawyers
By some stroke of circumstance, my father was being bossed by a young, Dokun Hanstrob, whenever I see him and my father always saying sir to him because he was a district officer, I felt infuriated that this fellow became a district officer because he had a legal training in the London school of economics in Britain and he came as district officer, he was bossing my father who could be his father. Colonial service being what it was, so I was saying if this man much younger than my father would be boss, what did he do, he was a lawyer, that first of all brought into me the idea of wanting to be a lawyer.
When I was schooling in Lagos and initially living in Isale Eko, whenever I wanted to go to school, I went through Tinubu bus stop and the High court was there, you will see lawyers with their beep smartly dressed, many of them, so I started being interested.
Then the dressing I saw in Tinubu square that engineered it but in the course of life in secondary school, I was one of the teachers of Latin and people usually believe that if you did Latin you must read law, I was even a teacher to many people, some of whom are about 84.
You read law and ventured into business, what was your motivation?
I have everything in my book, immediately I finished law or while I was studying law, I have always been far sighted, I envisioned a lot of things, I did not think ending up to be a court judge with excitement, I had a good degree in law, I was called to the bar in December 1959, but I was not. There was this self motivation, drive that I discovered is always in me. I chose the London school of economics on my own without anybody influencing me. I started wondering where will I end, will I end up being a sedentary judge in a court, I was given a special training by the government of Chief Awolowo to be trained as a legal draftsman, a parliamentary council, the first in Nigeria to be so trained.
I was just working in the British parliament when the Nigerian independence act was being passed and I was at the gallery with the officials so much so that the legendary, Dr. Elias and one other legendary judge, S.O Lambo who happened to have attended the Igbobi college, my alma mata, looked up and saw me and Elias said it must be that young boy, let him come in. immediately the bill was passed as they were walking I rushed to exchange pleasantries with them.
I was trained as a legal draftsman, I was the first Nigerian. While I was being trained, the government said I should not only learn how to draft law but I should also be interested in financial transactions so that I could be a legal adviser in the ministry of justice. It was the foresight of Awolowo and Rotimi Williams. I came back into the country after I had had training with the British parliament at the city of London with solicitors who trained me on how to draft agreement.
I did this and I was very restless. When I got the Nigeria Industrial Development Bank job, even though I was comfortable as the secretary, I was always interested in what they were doing in finance, so in my usual curious way I threw myself into the Nigerian Institute of management and started learning the rudiments of accounts and also anything that has to do with business, the NIM as at that time was set up to enlighten people about business.
The late Gamaliel Onosode and I were friends from school days, he drove to my house one day, at Glover Road as a senior draftsman, he told me about the job opening at NIDB. He found a lot of imagination in me, you call it precociousness, forwardness, while I was enjoying being called a lawyer, I got more interested in the solicitor work, drafting of laws and from there I got myself involved in finance.
At what point did you think of starting FCMB?
It started with city securities, so when I made a lot of money from indigenization, something in me, a divine urge tell me why don’t I go for the real banking instead of setting up a stock broking firm, it was then I almost met my waterloo, some people in the central bank derided me that how can you a single individual set up a bank, in fact one of them even have the temerity of saying that I would either go to jail or I would be a multi billionaire and I said your father will go to jail, he is an Itsekiri boy.
By stroke of fortune, there was an Alhaji Otiti who was Deputy Governor and CBNgovernor, Abdul Kadir Almed, I put in my application, by some strange fortune, applications at that time will go through the central bank to the ministry of finance, a deputy governor, Olasore, who became an Oba gave it to one Oduyemi, who later on became deputy governor and recently he was chairman of Standard Trust, GTBank then, it went to ministry of finance and I was telephoned that on the day the meeting was to be held my own letter was thrown out while that of Majekodunmi was approved.
I am persistent and I do not give up easily, I am always determined and know that my God a divine intervention in everything, I call awesome power of God to intervene in those things that are not going on well with me as a human being.
I was prayerful, every morning, evening I will gather my family on the altar, I was told that people thought I could not do it alone. Majekodunmi was bringing in a French bank but I was on my own. All of a sudden, it just occurred to me that my very good friend was the vice president, Alex Ekwueme, I devised a strategy, my wife and I walked to the cathedral church, we were told that Alex was coming, so I told my wife, when we get to the church today, you will get near me in a row, when Alex is going out I will try to hold his dress, you try to hold the cloth of his wife, when I did that the security people accompanying the vice president thought something was wrong with me and they rushed, Alex looked back and said Subomi what is the problem, I said Mr Vice president, where is my licence and Alex said don’t worry, come and see me in Dodan Barracks tomorrow, the official residence of the President at the time.
He assured me that after the preliminaries he would get my licence out that some people said some things against me. So on Thursday when they when the executive council meeting will hold, he said the president will not be around, he would be chairing the meeting, at about 4pm I was telephoned by one minister that the vice president said they should tell me that they have approved my liecence and I gave a loud shout.
I then became the first Nigerian who single handedly set up a merchant bank without anybody but God. I had in the course of time coined out the expression that culture of excellence which I meant to say that we will not stint at anything we would always go for the best. We would use every endowment the good Lord has given us to get the best, I inculcated this in my style.
The cow boy banking generation, would you say they actually imbibed your kind of culture?
The people that passed through me had a culture engraved in them, the culture of hard work, the culture of achieving the best, the culture of persevering through odds, the culture of dressing well, the culture of discipline. I do not want to embarrass people, when I was celebrating my 70th birthday, over 200 Nigerian bankers put a center spread advertisement to salute me and among them were former Deputy Governors of Central Bank, chief executives, executives directors who passed through the bank, the constitution they put up, they were disciplined, hardworking, they were organized, well dressed, in fact before I came on the scene, usually bankers would always wear shirt and tie, I was the one who insisted that my staff should be wearing suit, I was the one who also created a restaurant for my workers at the paint house, instead of bankers going outside to eat. I set a class, I set a standard, and it was divine, golden.
Comparing what it was before and now, can you say in your time people were more advantaged than now?
After I had succeeded there was a rush, everybody wants to get a license and government at that time was issuing licence liberally, so we had nearly over 90 banks set up. But then, the central bank came in and gave us a shake up, the good ones emerged, the deficient once collapsed. The legacy they got from me was that because I succeeded a number of people went into it, but when the shaking of the jar of life according to chief Awolowo, the good once emerged and the substandard once disappeared.
During the consolidation of banks they were reduced to 25 and what you find there is the essence of quality that emerged and it just happened that most of those who emerged passed through the quarter of my little institution. One of the greatest dreams I had in life was when GTB was being set up, the Chief Eecutive Fola Adeola Managing Director invited me to talk to them, I have a picture of that, they laid a red carpet for me on the road to their office. Fola Adeola introduced all his lieutenants and I told them that with hard work they will succeed, just watch, you will be envied.
I did these things from my own experience, from my divine endowments, God has always been my foundation, if you receive a Christmas card from the bank or from me, it will read, “Christ is our corner stone, on him alone we build, I am still very intense, I don’t suffer fools slightly. I take up challenges and I tried to inculcate all these things in them, what am saying is that after the shake up, those people who could subscribe to my discipline and those people who have learnt something about it survived when the jar of life shook the banking industry.