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The most strategic bet I ever made

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By Onome Amawhe

A well-respected business leader, philanthropist and mentor to thousands, Dr. Pascal Dozie, is a vibrant example of someone who has little doubt about what motivates him, what he hopes to accomplish, and what sort of example he wants to set for others. His is a character forged by struggle and perseverance, shaped by a deep faith that guides him.

In the banking world, where he first came into mainstream awareness, Dr. Dozie is feted across Nigeria and far beyond. Diamond Bank, the financial institution he founded more than 20 years ago is unscathed by many financial crises and remains, within the banking sector, a sterling reference. In telecoms, he weathered the familiar storms of skepticism, corruption and high capital investment costs to emerge one of the first Nigerian investors to gamble on the future of mobile telephony in Nigeria.

It paid off!  MTN, the company whose board he chairs remains the flagship of Nigeria’s mobile telephony. MTN’s success put Nigeria on the map as one of Africa’s most exciting telecoms markets, and consolidated Dr. Dozie’s position among the continent’s leading investors. As success stories go, few come bigger than Pascal Dozie who is still pre-occupied with issues of economic development.

Pascal Dozie, Chairman of the board, MTN;
Founder, Diamond Bank

WHAT is the story of your journey with MTN?

MTN had an interest coming to Nigeria at a time the Nigerian government, under General Obasanjo, concluded plans to bring in mobile telephony operators. So they called for bidders. At the end of the bidding exercise, MTN emerged one of the successful bidders. When it finally prepared to launch into the Nigerian market, they needed to bring in investors from various parts of the country to partner with them. Then I was approached to invest in the project. That was how I came on the scene as one of the early Nigerian investors in MTN.

There had been skepticisms as to the viability of mobile telephony in Nigeria. How did you summon courage to take the plunge?

I knew they were going to succeed because of the quality of people we were dealing with. More than that, MTN had committed a non-refundable fee of 225 million dollars. What more could an investor ask for? They have a credible international reputation but it was quite difficult getting investors to take up the forty percent shares allotted to us. And that had to do with our past experience with NITEL. Nobody thought mobile telephony would succeed in a country like Nigeria but thank goodness it did.

Prior to MTN, you had founded Diamond Bank. What were your learnings in the course of transiting from banking to telecoms?

Obviously, the technicalities are different. In the banking world, I operated both on the technical and managerial sides. In telecoms, I operated on the managerial and board sides. In banking and telecoms, gover-nance is the same so there is no difficulty in transition because in MTN I only attend board meetings. Though telecoms is different from banking but telecoms is more demanding because you have various aspects like network, distribution and all sorts of things to deal with. In all, it’s the same principle that comes to play: How do you govern a company? It all depends on the depth. That is why you find that the board pack of a bank is much smaller than that of a telecoms company.

Banking and telecoms seem to go hand-in-hand these days. Did you see it coming that there’ll be a convergence?

In truth, I didn’t see it coming. But, was there a likelihood that it would happen? Yes. And that’s because banking in itself is communications. So both telecommunications and banking are all forms of transmission of information.

Where are the most exciting opportunities ahead for these two sectors?

For telecoms, there’s still a lot to be done especially in the digital and broadband areas. And also in the use of the information captured from customers (data mining). Now that mobile telephony could be used to buy all sorts of things, a person’s profile can be easily known. For banking, what needs to be done is an extension of financial inclusion. This is an area where telecommunications could actually help leapfrog the banking sector. Both sectors haven’t reached the critical mass and there are a lot of opportunities for telecommunications to drive financial inclusion and make the market a little bit more sophisticated.

How would you describe your role as chairman of a company like MTN?

I am the Chairman of the board of MTN; I am not the Chairman of MTN.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that under the Nigerian companies and allied matters of the Corporate Affairs Commission, only the position of chairman of a company’s board is allowed. There’s nothing like chairman of a company. So, there are two bosses as such in a company: The Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive. Although the CEO is on the board, therefore, he is part of the board – but who manages the company? It’s the board. That is why when you read a company’s financial report, it always states ‘Report of the Board’. So, as chairman of a board, you shouldn’t intrude into what is happening in the management because the only role you have there is your interaction with the CEO and possibly, the secretary of the board.

How does your role impact that of the MTN CEO?

The CEO, as is always the case, reports to the board but it also depends on the dynamics in the board. Where the dynamics is good and everybody interacts and contributes, then you’ll make use of your wisdom. But the board remains the board and when you’re on the board, you have a double whammy in the sense that you, as a board member, have privileges and responsibility on your person.  If you’re there and people take decisions that make things go wrong, nobody will believe that you weren’t there. So, if you don’t agree with a decision being taken, it’s better to speak out and give reasons why you don’t agree. And then it would be in the minutes that you didn’t agree with a particular decision that was taken. It is not easy to be on any board, but unfortunately for us in Nigeria, everybody wants to be on the board.

I’m sure you agree with me that both Diamond Bank and MTN are monstrous corporate entities in Nigeria today.

Of course, they are both very relevant. MTN holds sway as the flagship of Nigerian telecoms and it’ll continue to be that way for a very long time to come. Diamond Bank is also one of the few banks that the Central Bank has always recognized for its systemic relevance and innovation. Diamond Bank introduced the first debit card in this country – Diamond Pay Card. We also started electronics transfer of money through the Diamond Bank Integrated Banking System (DIBS). In any case, I’m not on their board so I don’t know what they do these days (laughs).

What are some of your biggest accomplishments in business?

My biggest accomplishment in business is staying sane and keeping my hands clean. And not trying to short circuit the system. In a country like Nigeria, it’s not easy to achieve whatever you want to achieve if your hands must be clean. Most times, what should take three weeks or three days could stretch up to six-months depending on how you want it done. One of the things that I have learnt is getting to know how to be patient; in the sense that you do all that is required of you without trying to force the system.

Other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?

The most strategic bet I ever made that paid off wonderfully well is marrying the woman that is my wife. One critical success element is stability in the home front. And it’s the woman of the house that’s instrumental to that stability. If you don’t have stability at home, it’s either you’re living a separate life or you’re extremely lucky in the sense that you can do it without having peace of mind at home. My wife has really exercised patience in managing me and the five boys that we both have.

African Capital Alliance, MTN Nigeria,  Kunoch Holdings, Diamond Bank, Nigeria Stock Exchange, Kaizen Venture Partners, Commonwealth Business Council board and Nigerian Economic Summit Group. You’ve been on the boards of these institutions  How did you physically manage being on the boards of these institutions?

No man’s success is attributable to him solely.  Life is such an interesting thing because everybody lives for others. There will always be people working with you and once you have harmony, everybody must buy into what you want to achieve. And if there’s no buy in, then something is wrong. And for people who believe in professionalism and creativity, harmony is important. In my own case, I always make sure that we share the same values. Though, there might be some discordant voices once in a while but the values will always be the same.

What has been the role of luck in your success?

I like the word luck. The role of luck is the ability to prepare and plan well because if you plan well, all things being equal, the chances are that you’re going to succeed. But if you don’t plan well, lady luck will not shine on you. Even if it does, you will not recognize it.

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