Steve Omojafor: A good man turns 70
IT was early evening on Monday, August 7, 1995. I was hurrying to meet an appointment with one of the shining stars of Nigeria’s advertising industry. I took a cab from the Maryland area to Adeniran Ogunsanya Street in Surulere, Lagos, and walked the rest of the way, about five minutes, to Sabiu Ajose Crescent. The meeting had been set up by a senior colleague of mine who gave me a note on the back of his business card and said, “Go see him. He’s looking for a young account manager to help stabilise a troublesome account.” I nervously adjusted my suit and tie as I ascended the dimly lit flight of stairs that led to his top floor office.
When I introduced myself to the lady secretary I met in the expansive office at the end of the hallway, she smiled sweetly and asked me to take a seat. That was my first surprise. In Nigeria, secretaries and front office managers of important people and organisations are usually cold, suspicious or outright snobbish. This one was different! Must be my lucky day, I thought. I carefully selected a seat in the waiting area and, encouraged by her disposition, helped myself to a bunch of dailies on the centre table. I prepared for a long wait. I had hardly scanned the cover page of the first newspaper when the intercom rang on the secretary’s table. She picked up the receiver, listened for a brief moment, replaced it and turned to me. “You may go in sir.”
That was my second surprise! In Nigeria, it is part of the business etiquette for “small” people to be made to wait endlessly by “ogas.” It helps establish hierarchy and put everyone in their rightful place. Not so for this man. Though I was a small fry looking for a job, I was treated with respect. If I had any doubts left about the character of the man I had come to see, it vanished in the next few minutes. Within a short while of what was supposed to be a long crucial interview, he scratched his chin wearily, looked up from the open file in front of him and asked, “When are you ready to start?” I must have mumbled a few incoherent words in my shock and disbelief about how fast things were going…I had just met Steve Bamidele Omojafor, CEO of STB & Associates (later STB McCann), one of the most prosperous ad agencies in Nigeria at the time! And I didn’t have to obtain a visa to do so.
Over the next 13 years and nine months, I worked up close with a man who gave you a job and let you do it the way you knew best. No meddling. No second-guessing. No looking over your shoulders. But you were entirely accountable for the outcomes. Omojafor is a master of delegation. He comfortably left multi-million Naira businesses and projects almost entirely in the hands of young men and women with “little” experience. He monitored your progress only through a meticulous scrutiny of your contacts reports and official correspondences and would occasionally stroll around the agency to see how everyone was doing. This philosophy was shared by his two topmost lieutenants, Mrs. Nike Alabi (Executive Director, Client Services) and Stevie Laoye (Executive Creative Director).
The boss himself hardly kept late nights at the office. But he managed to create a system where the unwritten rule was: “Get it done, whatever it takes. Follow laid down procedures but feel free to take initiatives if you have the stomach for it. Just be sure to get the job very well done. You’ll be judged by your results, not your compliance to rules.”
Omojafor is the consummate deal maker. He thrives in working behind the scenes to clear the path and leave the “boys” to follow through with the fine details. As a man-manager, he belongs to the benevolent school with a strong belief in doing business with a human face. He was at pains punishing or firing people – even if they thoroughly deserved it or the exigency of business made it necessary. I recall several occasions on the management board of the agency when staff were recommended for termination or down-sizing looked like the only way out. “Chairman” would listen patiently to every side of the debate and then ask for the discussion to be continued on another day. And when that day came, he found one argument or the other in defence of those on “trial” or to buy time for them to reform. Sometimes, the company took huge losses for these decisions. He believes in the innate goodness of others, and that everyone deserves a second and possibly third chance.
When he was elected Chairman of the board of Zenith Bank Plc (one of Nigeria’s foremost financial institutions) in 2010, he became the first Nigerian ad man to head the board of a major financial institution. But few were surprised. Steve Omojafor was already a celebrated boardroom czar with a reputation for making the oft-tempestuous business of managing large egos look simple. The Goldfish has no hiding place.
To understand what drives the man behind this powerful institution and way of life, you have to follow Steve Omojafor to his favourite engagements outside the office. They are many, but perhaps the two most outstanding would be with his church, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Gbaja, Surulere, and old high school, St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Ikoyi. At Gbaja, Sir Steve is not just a diligent worker behind the scenes but a pillar of support. Same goes for his commitment to the University of Lagos where he earned a degree in communications in 1971. I will say no further or I might offend his modest sensibilities. But in all of these, you see a man who is deeply committed to nurturing all the relationships he cultivated on his way up the ladder of life; who is eternally grateful to God for the good hand He has dealt him; and who is conscious of his duties to his community.
Asked in a recent magazine interview what the secret was of his long almost mythical business partnership with Senator Akin Odunsi and Otunba Tunde Adelaja (with whom he founded Rosabel in 1978), he had this to say: “What has kept us is the fact that we know each other enough and greed was not part of our problem. Money was not what we wanted to base our lives on and we managed our lives well… When we could not afford a Volkswagen car, we didn’t plan to buy a Mercedes Benz. That is part of what kills our entrepreneurs. They aim too high and try to live their dreams even before they get there… Today, we are all satisfied people; not because of what we built up, but because of who we are as human beings.”
It is partly in reference to this unique life of humble service and fidelity that his friends fondly call him “Omo Jesu.” It is Yoruba for Child of Jesus. If Steve Omojafor has any weakness, it is probably his love for the bow tie!
As he turns 70 on Wednesday, January 6, 2016, I join thousands of other Nigerians who have been touched by his exemplary character and principles in wishing him the very best that life has to offer in the years ahead. Congratulations sir!
• Anazonwu, currently lead partner at Eclipses Projects Limited, was until 2009 an Executive Director (Business Development) at STB McCann, Lagos.