Vanguard awards

April 8, 2016

Jim Ovia: Change agent of banking in Nigeria

Jim Ovia: Change agent of banking in Nigeria

Jim Ovia

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 on the Nigeria banking scene. He dreamt of being a change agent that would revolutionise the Nigerian banking industry. He had a discerning mind and a knack for figures.


Jim Ovia

Jim Ovia

He was business inclined and pursued his dream early in life. His detractors during his days of life struggle might have sneered at him. Asking the obvious question: you a business mogul and a bank owner? Impossible, they could have said.

The opportunity to test his dream came 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 common sights 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 it was who 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.

Computer technology

But with a magic wand in his hand, he turned the industry around. 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.

He said “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,” His determination 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 at Barclays Bank, DCO, 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 alongside other investors 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”. Notwithstanding these 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.

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 adorns the huge office.

The younger generations of bankers see him as one of the “godfathers of Nigerian banking.” 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. 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).

Scholarship for the underprivileged

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.

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 by 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.