‘There’s nothing impossible to achieve with God’
ON Wednesday, May 28, 2014, ENCOMIUM Weekly had an exclusive chat with the founder of FCMB, Olori Omoba Michael Olasubomi Balogun. Held at the Centre for Values in Leadership, on Balarabe Musa Crescent, Victoria Island, Lagos, the grand master of Nigerian financial institutions (who was honoured by the CVL in recognition of his legacies in the sector) talked about life at 80, his style of leadership, entrepreneurship and how he rose to the top of his career…
How do you feel at 80?
Honestly, until you mentioned that year, I feel 70. Yes, there may be some ageing processes but nothing basically has changed about me.
Entrepreneurship is a big challenge to us these days, how can we surmount it?
I don’t think it’s really a challenge. It’s something you are born with or you develop it. And when you have it in you, you become passionate about it and never believe in failure. I don’t believe that anything is impossible to do. Don’t believe that something can’t be done. Just believe in yourself and you will succeed.
What is your concept of leadership because it appears our nation needs one badly?
Leadership is not something you throw around the whole place. Do it by your own example. Whatever you are doing, practice it and have faith in what you are doing; be persistent, consistent, persevering and ready to face challenges. And in my own case, I would say put God first.
(Before granting ENCOMIUM Weekly this interview, Otunba Balogun had addressed his hosts and guests. And while he was telling his inspiring life story, we didn’t miss any part of the mini ‘autobiography.’
“What I did at that time, I call it myself actualization agenda. I wanted to prove a point that with God on my side there is no height that is unattainable. That can-do-attitude of mine is divinely given to me. It didn’t just start from when I decided to bell the cat or when I decided to tread where the lions fear to tread but it started as far back as the 60s.
“When the World Bank and IFC decided to set up a bank in Nigeria, it was then called the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB). It was owned at that time by the World Bank, IFC. I was then a very senior staff of the Federal Ministry of Justice and I was invited to be interviewed for a job there by a representative of the World Bank who saw the way I performed during the negotiation. I was the legal draftsman. After passing all their interviews, the powers that be said, “No, Balogun can only become the secretary of the Industrial Bank on my dead body.” I was living at No. 48, Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, at that time. Kunle Ojora who was a director at UAC was living on the same street with me then. I didn’t know that one day I would live at the roundabout of the neighbourhood. He rode a bicycle to my house and said, I’m scared of you. What happened was that the gentleman who said I would only become secretary of NIDB over his dead body even after I led in the interview conducted by Chief Chris Ogunbanjo, was killed during the Nigerian first military coup and I was in the cathedral as a young mass steward. There I saw an Indian gentleman who happens to be the new general manager of NIDB. I told him how I was denied job at the bank after I performed well at their interview. He said, I think we have to invite you back. We heard that so and so died. I went to the altar and said, “Good Lord, guide me aright.” Few days later, I was asked to reappear before another panel. Out of 35 lawyers, I was picked and I became secretary of the NDIB. Kunle Ojora, riding a bicycle to my house then said in Yoruba, ‘Subomi, ori e le o, I will never confront you in life.’ He said, ‘You have a tough head. I will never struggle for anything with you, do you know that the man appointed to take over your job and his mentor died during the coup?”
It wasn’t long I got my letter to resume as the secretary of NDIB. When I did that I was catapulted to a position which salary wise was almost bigger than that of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, because that was the salary scale the World Bank recommended. I would recall Chief Philip Asiodu, the then Permanent Secretary protesting and banging the table, “We can’t allow this to happen here.” But my boss said it’s what World Bank recommended and that was it. When in the next occasion, God wanted to show His hands, I had the joy of proposing to my colleagues that from the experience I learnt from Wallstreet, we should set up a merchant bank (Icon Merchant Bank). I wanted to tell them it can happen. I ran to the late Oba Olashore and the late Ola Vincent and said, ‘Please sir, this is what is happening in the US. And they encouraged me to write the paper. We got the license. I expected I should be made chief executive but my boss said, “He is already telling the whole of Lagos he would be the chief executive but he cannot.” He later on grudgingly agreed I should be an executive director but I should not be in the line of succession to a 32 year-old boy while I was 42 (this story is in my book). And I laughed. I spent about a year there struggling. I even wrote a petition to the then head of state, Murtala Muhammed which Chief Obafemi Awolowo personally handed over to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo but that letter didn’t do anything. One of my sons usually led our morning and evening prayers and when we prayed in the chapel, their rhetoric was, “Good Lord, please make daddy, chief executive of Icon Merchant Bank. One of my sons, now in his late 40s, turned to my wife and said, why is daddy hankering after being chief executive of another person’s company, why can’t he start his own company? On our bed, my wife called me then said, “Oh ye man of little faith, maybe you don’t believe in power of prayers. God must have been talking through that young man.”
“Jide is his name. And he can confirm the story. From that place, I went straight to the chapel. I have preserved that place for people to know where the miracle happened. I began to pray there. I was singing, “You cannot fail, you cannot fail because of Jesus you cannot fail.” I looked at my wife, she was already sleeping. I went straight to my study. Before I went to bed, I had completed the adaptation of the name and Article of Association of Icon to City. I deleted Icon and substituted it with City. Early in the morning, I gave them to my wife to type so I could forward them to company registry. And within a few days, that company was established.
“When I set up the company, I did not have a kobo, but I remembered I just completed a property in Ikeja, Lagos. A company chairman told Chief Ogunbanjo they needed an apartment for their new chief executive and he said, “I know somebody who just completed a bungalow.” So, I was contacted and they paid me N67,500 for three years. And I gave N7,500 to my wife to be feeding us (four boys excluding us). On the day we were starting, I went with the Bible prayed and I said, ‘Oh Lord, by the time I leave this place, let me have my own property even if it’s a bungalow. Within that period, I built Primrose Towers. I then said, what’s the big deal? If they have a bank, I can also do it, not knowing there were forces and challenges waiting for me. Some said, “That gentleman is a friend of Awolowo, if you give him a bank license, he will use it to support Awolowo against Shagari. That was not true. Awolowo’s first son was my college fag. He was in Class One. But I have been friends with Alex Ekwueme, the former Nigerian Vice President years back. Alex went away during the war. He had a property in Lekki, Lagos. I took the property, refurbished it and rented it out. When Alex arrived, I gave him all the rent I collected. He couldn’t believe it. We started the first company that was exporting building materials to the East. It was called Rennaissance Builders Merchant. My wife was our managing director and we were making cool money. So, when I had this problem, I thought of a subterfuge. I knew Alex Ekwueme would be coming to church, I told my wife, we would go to church but we won’t sit together. It was like I would be in the front while she sits on the other side, so that while Alex would be leaving the church, I would pull his dress while my wife blocks his wife, Beatrice. When the security saw us, they thought something was probably wrong with us. At this point, I said, “Mr. Vice President, where is my license?” He said I should come and see him at Dodan Barracks. Alex told me the story that some people carried the rumour that I was a politician. He told me there would be a meeting of the Federal Executive Council by Sunday. That he would give me my license. I got my license by 3 o’clock that day and he asked a minister to call me. And people around me heard me shouting, “O ti fun mi o.” That was the miracle God did for me. There is an elementary mistake many of you make when describing my odyssey they said, he was the first to start an indigenous bank. That is not true. I was the first Nigerian to start a wholly owned Nigerian merchant bank. As far as I was concerned, I wanted to do what people thought was impossible. I wanted to prove that whatever those oyibos were doing, I will do it. So, with my faith in God, I dared where others failed.
“This is the joyful story that Professor Pat Utomi and his institution, CVL has enabled me to retell. It’s now well-known that many Nigerian banks have branches all over the world. And many of them are even taking part in financial combinations not related to Nigeria. I’m happy to be part of the innovations. This is the can-do-attitude, which I have brought in. It reminds me of one thing my father used to teach us while we were young. That there is no difficulty which industry, perseverance and the good Lord cannot overcome. There is no challenge which if you have your faith in God you will not overcome. About 12 years ago, just before I retired, I had a challenge and I said something to the whole world, “Through the love of God our Saviour, all will be well.” And that became our slogan. I even converted it to what became an anthem for FCMB. What I’m saying is that with God on your side, nothing is impossible. I’m a symbol of that. I even had challenges 12 years ago, when people claimed immorally and wickedly that FCMB sold foreign exchange in an unlawful manner. I had to go to court and obtained an injunction before we were left alone. The point I’m making here is that I have in me the belief that it is only God that can make human beings whatever they are. No human being, however, powerful can undo what the Good Lord has done. Go to our premises where we are hibernating here, First City Plaza, I said, ‘Oh God of all creations, you have endowed me to create institutions, you have done this in the belief that no human force, however, powerful can undo what the Good Lord has done. On that note, Pat, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I really appreciate another opportunity of telling my story and while the hullabaloo of my turning 80 was going on, I’m still on my legs walking straight with my head straight and FCMB flourishing.”
– UCHE OLEHI