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The two parts of Jim Ovia that will make him immortal

By Sam Adeoye
25 September 2021   |   2:56 am
Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re asking yourself this question: what does Jim Ovia eat for supper?

Jim Ovia

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re asking yourself this question: what does Jim Ovia eat for supper?

Is Jim Ovia an early dinner type of person? Someone who goes home from work every evening, settles at an oak dining table and grinds down, in sober contemplation — as CNBC Africa blasts on, mutedly, in the background — a portable bowl of vegetable salad; which he then rinses down with room-temperature water, served in a pristine glass, of course?

Someone who’d most assuredly coddle his gastro-intestinal tract than engage in potentially precarious late-night chow-downs because, of course, the gut is all-important for a business mogul and this particular tycoon may still be looking at a ton of business missions to complete in his one life.

There’s a reason you might be rolling this scenario around in your head. Mr Jim Ovia, most commonly introduced as the founder of Zenith Bank, which is almost always number 1 among Nigeria’s biggest banks, is a deeply contemplative man — with shrewd eyes and a quiet demeanour — who almost never does things in small sizes. But Mr Ovia is also a rare type of businessman who is, perhaps in equal measure, prone to grandiosity and austere conservatism.

To illustrate, here are two short stories, featuring two advertising agencies. They shall not be named. But trust me: I witnessed these events first-hand.

In the first instance, the agency team had gone to pitch for the ad business of Mr Ovia’s Visafone. This was in the Interregnum, between his retirement as CEO of Zenith Bank in the year 2010 and his return as chairman in 2014. At this time, he spent his days running Visafone, a CDMA telecom company — which he would later sell to the country’s biggest industry operator MTN.

At the start of the meeting, Ovia told the marketing people he would give them a tentative five minutes to “see if what you have is worth the time.” If he was impressed at the end of five minutes, he would allow 10 minutes more for details. At the end of the presentation, which including such moonshot concepts as humans that could fly, Ovia had been in discussion with the agency for not less than 30 minutes. The agency would later produce, among other works, an ad starring street dancers, Lamborghinis, and hip-hop.

In the other story, however, Mr Ovia wasn’t as adventurous. This time, the brief was for Zenith Bank itself. Inside the bank, the communications department had been on the same page with the Chairman that the principal TV commercial, after 10 years, was due for an update. So, they briefed a handful of agencies and soon settled on one. Three months of story development and demos later, they were ready to show the Man what they had.

As usual, Jim Ovia was ruminant. But after listening to the agency for five minutes, he terminated the meeting. “Thank you for your effort,” he said. Soon, a refreshed TV ad would be aired on CNN, but save for a few extra motion graphics in a modern font, some techie animations, and a new voice to do the VO, what Zenith chose to air was essentially the same old TV spot.

So, Jim Ovia. One man. Two sides. Sometimes play is good. Sometimes be super serious. It all depends on the sometimes.

You’d see this unusual balance of pomp and restraint when you step into any branch of Zenith bank, at least the ones in the key cities of Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt. Wide halls, marble countertops, open plans, walls of mirrors, expensive fixtures, high ceilings, and an accent of red here and there.

Zenith, which Ovia founded in 1990, remains fancy and bright but its halls are rarely ever crowded. This, evidently, is because it has over the years earned a reputation as the bank for la crème de la crème — the type of bank that, if you ever need to go there in person, you may feel compelled to put on a good suit.

A senior ad executive once told me, “I don’t care how much it costs to open an account at Zenith, I’ll give anything to not have to spend all my days in a queue, as you’d like do at other banks.”

As for its official brand colour, Mr Ovia has said it was to seize attention and immediately signify status. “Some of my colleagues [in 1990] said we can’t use red for a bank because it signifies danger or war,” he said. “Many other banks at the time were using cooler colours like blue, but no bank ever used red before us. But I insisted because red signified power.”

That summarises what he has come to stand for Power. Forbes magazine has described him as the godfather of Nigerian banking. His staff generally refer to him as Chairman, being that, in 2014, four years after he’d earlier been made by government directive to retire as CEO of Zenith, he became a non-executive director and chairman of the board. And if you happen to be a contractor working for any of his companies, your task, above all else, is to produce something, and I quote, “iconic”.

As iconic as the unmissable white square on the roof of every Zenith branch. As iconic as the yearly landmark Christmas lights on Ajose Adeogun Street in Victoria Island Lagos, the location of the bank’s headquarters. As iconic as the Civic Centre Lagos, built by Ovia’s real estate and investment concern, Quantum Capital Partners, it looks as if the structure is leaning forward. And as iconic as the Civic Towers Lagos, which isn’t just a 15-storey glistening piece of commercial real estate but also has to be, one of the first “intelligent” buildings in Nigeria.

The Civic Towers, according to its tenancy brochure, came with double glazed curtain walls to minimise solar heat gains, plug-and-play Internet, intruder alarms, and an intuitive fire alarm system, among other statement trimmings.

In 2014, Jim Ovia was named the 34th richest human in Africa. In 2014, the USD was exchanged for NGN183.21. This is 2021 and the naira has dropped to about NGN410 to a dollar. While we’re certain that he’s still one of the wealthiest black people on this Earth, with fortunes nearer to $1 billion than it might be away from it, it’s unclear where he currently ranks on lists.

“Your passions are always in sync with opportunities. You’re naturally able to identify them and respond to them as they materialise because of the passion you have for them,” he has said.

He was, wasn’t he, the upstart who grew Zenith from a $4 million into $1.6 billion in market cap.

Born in Agbor, Delta State of Nigeria, into a large lower-class family, his first job in banking was as a lowly clerk at Union Bank, Ikeja Lagos. It was in 1973 and he’d just completed secondary school. Three years into that career, though, he’d secured the funds to go to school in the States.

While in America, he said, “It so happened that halfway through my studies, my keen interest in computer science and information technology was heightened. I decided to incorporate computer science into my program.”

In about four years, he was back in Nigeria with the first degree in Business Administration from Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and an MBA in Business Administration from the University of Louisiana.

At the beginning of Zenith Bank, Ovia fought through the last bits of the dark ages of Nigerian banking — military-civilian political turbulence, zero internets, no real-time transactions, non-existent ATMs — and prodigiously read the present to predict a future where his bank’s bottom line, fed with that mix of spectacle and orthodoxy, will sit atop the industry.

Even though Jim Ovia clocks 70 this November, it’s expected that he’ll keep building icons. Why? Perhaps because by building icons you’re likely to become iconic yourself. And icons, thankfully, tend to outlast generations.