Tony Elumelu: The Entrepreneurship Journey

Published on 23rd January 2018

Many of you know that I was once synonymous with banking, but I have come to redefine myself since that time, as I have transitioned from the financial services industry to the next phase of my life. After my retirement as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of UBA, I was guided my two main values in deciding on my next steps:

Passion: Your passion will guide you to the next stage of your life and by following your passion, you will be led to your higher calling. Every profession has an ecosystem. Identify the aspect of this eco system that you can play in, that you are passionate about and that you can own.

Purpose: Your passion drives your purpose. Your passion will lead you to your purpose and will ultimately give you fulfillment.

After a successful career in banking, breaking new grounds and charting new frontiers, my passion for humanity – and in particular Young Africans – led to me to develop the concept of Africapitalism and the ultimately the Tony Elumelu Foundation.

Africapitalism is the point where business meets social good. It is at the tangent of making profits and creating shared prosperity. Our businesses demonstrate that it is impossible to do well and do good.

Transcorp: Through Transcorp, we are able to light up Nigerian homes, schools and hospitals, help our children to study without harming their eyes, power Nigeria’s industry to support the diversification of our country, while making the communities we operate in more inclusive by providing employment opportunities, offering scholarships and other capacity development initiatives.

 Avon: We are also active investors in Nigeria’s healthcare industry. We understand that a country without a healthy workforce can not be competitive in the 21st century.

As a lifelong entrepreneur, having fully understood the importance of small businesses to the economy, and being an ardent believer of democratizing luck and increasing access to opportunity, I founded the Tony Elumelu Foundation to empower young entrepreneurs whose ideas can transform Africa.

Thus, I would like to speak on entrepreneurship and I hope that I shall be able to convince some of us to embrace entrepreneurship. First of all, I must emphasize that entrepreneurship is not a function of age. You can choose to embark on the entrepreneurial journey at any time in your life. A few tips to guide you are:

Start small: do not be misled by grandiose ideas, but start small. You must deploy your retirement savings judiciously without being carried away by high-falluting plans.

Scale gradually: As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. The Tony Elumelu of today was not a success overnight. It is as a result of continuous improvement and learning.

Engage in economic activity: in a country like ours where inflation and other economic indicators cannot be easily predicted, it is important that in addition to savings, you engage in a productive economic activity that guarantees you an income despite the economic cycle.

To illustrate and bring to life all of the above, I would like to share with you my personal story and I hope you can learn a few things from it as you move into this phase of your lives.

In 1997, I assembled a group of professionals and we took over a distressed bank. In 1997 we were all very young. I think I was the oldest and I was 34 years old at the time. Remember what I said at the time, great leaders set the purpose and define it and indeed when I look at some of our leaders on the continent of Africa, I often tell myself that it could be that some leaders don’t have a personal vision and a purpose for what they want to deliver and how they want to deliver.

So, we had a laser focus purpose on what we wanted to do. We had a goal and it was to turn around this distressed bank I had acquired. Having set our purpose we defined what the purpose meant.

As we all know, one of the attributes of a great leader is that you must define the purpose and break it down so that everyone in the chain and command understand the purpose and buy into it. People don’t buy into a vision they don’t understand so you define, you break it down and mobilise everyone. Make sure everyone knows what role he or she is to play to make that happen and break it down in such a way that if people are pulling in the right direction, they know they are contributing to that purpose.

So we did this and so there was clarity at all levels. We defined tier 1, what success meant to us, so we just felt what we wanted to achieve was long. We defined the purpose and provided clarity at all levels and it became clear to the team what we wanted to achieve and what role everyone had to make that purpose come through. So, the lesson here is that Leaders set purpose, priorities, they break it down, provide clarity, mobilise people so everyone knows what role they play and how he or she can play a role.

The second thing we did was having set the goals, we decided to assemble resources because if you have a purpose and you don’t execute your purpose nothing happens. To execute your purpose some things must happen, one is resource provision so we decided to assemble human, financial, Machine, technology resource etc. We hired the right people, we estimated what we needed by technology, we went to raise money to ensure we acquired the right technology and resources.

So, if you relate this again to the conversation on leadership, great leaders understand that their people cannot perform miracles if they don’t provide resources for them and great leaders know that they themselves don’t have to fight a battle but they need to provide and mobilise resources. We created the right conditions for success by hiring the right people and providing skilled resources required and our people succeeded.

The third thing we focused on was people equation. We realized that it was all about people. Everything about leadership to a large extent is about people, managing people, directing, controlling, leading. that’s what it’s all about. We realized that to win to a large extent depends on getting the right people, and getting the two equations right so we hired right, we hired the right people, trained them, we instilled self confidence in our people.

We made our people feel they were the best and they became the best and that is why when I hear some leaders say my people are lazy, my people are corrupt, my people are corrupt, I cringe because inadvertently your people become how you describe them. They become what you say they are and great leaders instil a great sense of confidence in their people. You make your people think they can walk on waters and indeed they will walk on waters if you make them feel so and you train them.

We created a reward system and incentives that encouraged and shaped the right attitudes in our people and this made them soar and this made them perform. Through our achievements to show that this is not a wasted generation, people woke up and went to work because of this generational commitment to show that this generation can make a difference and they did make a difference.

I told them that we had identified a higher purpose and sense of corporate mission. We must live it, exemplify it and let people see it in everything we do and that also became manifest and formed the kind of culture we have. We became missionaries of our purpose, no longer a Tony mission all of us had one mission and that’s what leaders do we must take it to a level where it goes beyond you and others become even more passionate about the big mission you have.

Because we gave confidence to our people, because we made them know they could walk on water, they did perform miracles and so the distressed bank we took over within 10 – 8 years we had grown this bank to the level to where the then standard trust bank merged with the 3rd largest bank in Nigeria and became a huge financial services group. Because we shared a common purpose, because we defined that purpose and because we mobilised everyone, we made the people who defined this purpose realise that they were indeed catalytic and key people and because reward also followed this. So, leadership means to a large extent the ability to mobilise and galvanise people. So critical, if your people are mobilised they make great things happen.

Having achieved the feat, we achieved at the time becoming one of the top3 banks in Nigeria – in fact at some point the biggest in terms of asset base and branch network in this country, we had to define a new set of goals, evolve new aspirations.

We created the second – we said we should go beyond Nigeria to Africa, again we sat together asked ourselves what we want to do how we are going to do it. First, we said – tier 1 intent: let’s be strong in Nigeria. Tier 2 intent was to become a pan African bank. Tier 3 intent was to have a global footprint in key financial centres of the world.

Today I’m sure most/some of us bank with UBA. UBA operates in 19 African countries and this is a project that commenced in 2007 – 1000 branches and also UBA operates in London, the only African bank operating in the US and presence in Paris this we were able to achieve because of the principles that I have shared here with you.

I hope that you have all been able to learn a few lessons from my entrepreneurship journey which I believe contains useful lessons.

By Tony O. Elumelu, CON.

Chairman, United Bank for Africa (UBA)


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