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Boardroom Leaders series : An encounter with Oba Otudeko

By Mike Awoyinfa and Musa Jibril

Our forthcoming book on Boardroom Leadership and Corporate Governance in Nigeria is unlike the traditional business management textbook. An infinite resource of such nature exists already so there is no need reinventing the wheel. Instead, the book is conceived as an experiential literature that captures the power, practice, peculiarities and leadership in the Nigerian boardroom.

We have used the formula to great success with three acclaimed books––50 Nigeria’s Corporate Strategists, Nigerian Marketing Memoirs and 50 World Editors.  The approach is simple: we grill authorities in the respective fields—seasoned practitioners who are more or less oracles of their chosen fields, and distill their views, making the book take the shape of the scripture for the profession.

The present book is not any different––50 seasoned Nigerian boardroom gurus, past and present, revealing what it takes to lead in the boardroom. The enormous resources we draw from them is filtered for valuable leadership lessons that depict the quintessence and the quirks of the boardroom, as well as the evolution of the Nigerian boardroom culture over four decades.  One of the hurdles we had to scale was getting the right calibre of board chairs and directors of the old and new generations.  So far, the book is taking the shape of an invaluable encyclopedia for students of business management and for strategic benchmarking.

To have a book that is truly representative of the Nigerian experience means we have to cast our net wide to get the best. It will be unpardonable to omit certain names and companies. To do so leaves gaping holes in the Nigerian narrative we seek to capture.   One company you cannot afford to omit is the Honeywell Group, a business giant that epitomises the rise and resilience of the Nigerian business on the global stage. As a foremost indigenous conglomerate, Honeywell’s track record in the Nigerian business environment includes “successfully establishing thriving, world-class companies which are market leaders in their respective sectors.”

The sectors include the infrastructure, food and agro allied, energy, real estate, and the service sectors.  Products of Honeywell Flour Mills Plc. are in our homes, on our tables, in the kitchen––flour, semolina wheat, macaroni or spaghetti and noodles.  To build such a behemoth from scratch requires visionary and exemplary leadership.  And when that leadership is voted Africa CEO of 2016 at the Africa CEO Forum (ACF), one cannot afford not to look in that direction.

Of the various companies and individuals honoured at the fourth ACF award in 2016 in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, Oba Otudeko, received the most coveted CEO of the Year award.  That was one of the reasons we went knocking at the door of the founder, CEO, Chairman, Honeywell Group, a man described by Wikipedia as “foremost and visionary Nigerian entrepreneur reputed for his highly successful domestic and foreign investments cutting across diverse sectors of the economy.”

It was a Friday appointment for 2 pm in January.  We were already on the road by 11am.  It turned out a day the Lagos traffic conspired to truncate our mission. We got snared in an impossible gridlock that had the Third Mainland Bridge jam-packed end-to-end.   But journalists are no quitters.  We’d rather arrive late than never. We navigated backward, found another route through the Eko Bridge. To cut the story short, we made it to the Honeywell Group headquarters in Ikoyi way behind time.  It bears mentioning that our mentor, Chief Olusegun Osoba made it possible for an appointment with one of the busiest CEOs on the continent.

He warmly received us.  Otudeko, dressed in his trademark agbada which he joking calls a parachute, complete with his forward-pointing cap, is as versed in the Yoruba language as he is fluent in the Queen’s English. His accent when he speaks Yoruba, tells you he is a native man to the hilt, evidenced by the jokes and proverbs he freely spun.  And when he switches to formal English language, the syntax is of a real corporate guru rich with buzzwords.

As we went over the pleasantries, the journalist mind did the usual profiling.  Oba Otudeko is a corporate figure with a hefty profile:  chairman, FBN Holdings Plc., and chairman, First Bank (until he retired in December 2010), founding chairman, FBN Bank (UK) Limited. A veteran of vast and varied board experience that includes Central Bank of Nigeria, Guinness Nigeria Plc., British American Tobacco Ltd, and Ecobank Transnational Incorporated, Lome, Togo. His impressive CV also includes his tenure as the 16th President and Chairman of Council of The Nigerian Stock Exchange.

The day was not for the interview proper, but an occasion for both parties to know each other.  It was in the early post-election days of America. So our discussion naturally strayed in the direction of Donald Trump’s rollercoaster victory to the White House.  Otudeko strikes you as a deeply spiritual man.  What he saw in the upset was God’s way of doing things.  He dramatically burst into praise worship, celebrating the omnipotence of God as the one who can do all things and who makes kings.  According to him, only God can raise a nobody to somebody––in reference to Melania Trump, who many years ago, while hustling as a model wouldn’t have ever imagined herself one day in the White House as First Lady of the most powerful nation on earth.

Eventually, we dwelt on the main issue.  Otudeko warmed up to the idea of a book on boardroom leadership but craved our indulgence in one respect. It wasn’t that he could not answer our questions offhand but because the interview is for a book and not for newspaper, he’d like to prepare. That was our first glimpse into his mind: a far-sighted, meticulous man.

“How long will the interview last?”  He asked. We said two hours. He was frankly practical: “I don’t think two hours will be enough.” Another insight. An insightful man.  We agreed on sending a draft questionnaire, to be reviewed and to enable him to be well prepared, and thereafter, a date will be set for the interview proper. 

In the meantime, we tried to understand the business psyche and philosophy of the man who is ACF’s best CEO of 2016.  His YouTube videos were helpful. For instance, in his acceptance speech, Otudeko, who described the ACF award as a “recognition of commitment and indeed confidence that the future of Africa resides strongly in the patriotic African person,” most strikingly said of Africa: “Our future is bright. We should not allow our challenges to diminish our confidence. Africa will prosper in cooperation with all our friends who are both within Africa and outside Africa.”

Here is one of the apostles of “Africans for Africa development,” just like Aliko Dangote and Mike Adenuga, two Nigerian Afrocentric industrialists.  In another online video, he asserts: “Today’s leader has to be quite agile, quite talented, and extremely knowledgeable” and “should be made of a special skill, health composition, because of the diversity of requirement of skills that he needs.”  He shares a personal insight as a thinking leader who sleeps with a notebook:

“What I find really is that in practice, you are thinking business 24/7.  When you sleep, when you wake up, you have to make some notes.”

Oba Otudeko is one of the three names we await to wrap up the book.  We look forward to tapping some cogent leadership lessons from this corporate colossus, which will no doubt add some heft and value to these inspirational leadership memoirs from the Nigerian boardroom.

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