Kyari Abba Bukar MD/CEO, Central Securities Clearing System Limited, CSCS
By CHINENYE ANUFORO
If you didn’t know him before now, it’s either because you have no keen interest in the financial sector, which would be strange in this time and age, or just because of his nature as a silent achiever, who carries no airs but who is constantly working his himself to the bones to achieve set objectives, which is why his name precedes him wherever duty calls.
However, to satisfy your curiosity, we unveil Kyari Abba Bukar, the incumbent managing director/chief executive officer of the Central Securities Clearing System Limited, CSCS. He succeeded Dr. Onyewuchi Asinobi, the pioneer MD/CEO of the company who retired March, last year. Prior to joining CSCS, Bukar had been the MD/CEO of Valucard Nigeria Plc where he engineered the company’s turn-around from a nil-profit-making entity to what could aptly be termed a highly profitable entity before his exit.
With proven versatility and a proficiency in Information Technology (IT) systems, Bukar previously spent 14 years working with Hewlett-Packard (HP); one of the world’s leading IT companies, where he garnered valuable experience having occupied several technical and senior positions. Few among them are: research and development engineer, manufacturing development engineer, marketing programme manager, senior IT consultant and worldwide technical marketing manager.
Bukar, who holds a B.Sc. in Physics from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and an M.Sc. in Nuclear Engineering from the Oregon State University, United States of America, also had a stint with FSB International Bank Plc (now Fidelity Bank Plc) as executive director in charge of electronic banking, information technology and operations.
Recently, he sat down with ASPIRE, in his expansive Lagos office, and opened a window to his job and his management principles. First, he frowns at CEOs who fidget when it comes to taking decisions ‘on their feet’, and who are somewhat averse to taking ‘calculated risks. ‘ Taking a decision and failing, he says, is better than not taking a decision at all. Indecision, or inability to take meaningful decision as quickly as possible, is an assured path to failure, and possible extinction.
The hallmark of a good manager, he adds, is the ability to think out of the box, rapidly assess situations, and take decisions that would enhance the corporate objectives of the organization. But where a decision does not ultimately lead to the actualization of the desired result, which, sometimes is the case, it is still a plus for the manager, because such situations offer a good platform for learning from mistakes, remedying them, and making sure they don’t recur. “Being called a risk taker is a good label,” Bukar declares. “But not a blind but a well calculated risk taker in the sense that even as a kid, I loved physical sciences but I hated biology. I knew I wouldn’t probably be a good doctor but I could certainly be an engineer or physicist or even a mathematician.
So, the risk is minimised by the fact that I have a natural inclination towards the physical sciences. In fact, I remember receiving a letter from my dad when I entertained the idea of staying with Shell because they had offered me a job. The pay was about three times the pay of a graduate assistant in any of the Nigerian universities but I decided to follow my passion. I went for my graduate studies in nuclear engineering. Having joined HP, which is the world-renowned technology company, my career progressed there.
I was being promoted every two or three years, and it wasn’t long before I reached senior management position. At the time, I was entertaining the idea of working for HP for the rest of my life and retiring and coming back to Nigeria. “For me, to decide to come to Nigeria and join FSB International Bank was a risky decision in the sense that, why would you leave the US or why would you leave a company like HP for FSB! But at the same time, it is not a decision informed by money, prestige or anything. I believe it is what I would call an altruistic decision in the sense that I had a young family.
My daughter was just turning nine years and we were entertaining the idea of her coming to Nigeria to do her secondary or high school education. Having joined FSB as an executive director, I believe that would be the pinnacle of a career of most people. But when the opportunity of becoming the MD of ValueCard Nigeria Plc, now Unified Payment Services, I found that ValuCard was bankrupt. It had lost money since it was started and was still losing money. But someone who left a cozy job like an ED in a bank and embraced that uncertainty can be characterised as a very risky person.
However, at the same time, it was a calculated risk because I know and I will continue to believe that electronic payment is going to grow at a phenomenal pace. “Once upon a time, I had a professor in business in the US that told me that if you must go into an industry business, go into an emerging one. I can never forget that. So, you have to have certain skills, certain risk management framework and a bit of luck to make a success out of a near comatose company.”
My CSCS career move
CSCS is an interesting one. There is room for improvement. For ValueCard, we found it in a dismal state and we left it in an excellent shape. The advice from my mother had always been: ‘leave a place better than you found it’ or ‘leave the room better than you found it’. That was exactly what we did with ValuCard. And now the opportunity to transform CSCS is also a significant one.
Number one, the entire capital market industry was undergoing a huge turmoil. You remember I joined exactly 14 months ago. Mr. Emmanuel Ikazoboh, who was the interim head of the Exchange and also chairman of CSCS was at the tail end of his winding down. The tsunami had hit the capital market and Arunma Oteh was only a little over one year old in SEC.
A number of changes had taken place and I subscribed to the statements being made both by the DG of the SEC in the midst of transforming the entire industry and the new CEO of the Exchange, Mr. Oscar Onyema. Both of them are people with lots of pedigree.
These are, essentially, people I would love to associate myself with. So, it was an easy decision on my path to take up the challenge of transforming CSCS. Obviously, and historically speaking, there are a number of things that could have been done with an entity like the CSCS to make it a world-class organisation.
So, when I came in, I, basically, benchmarked all the processes, all the procedures of all the things we were doing, against global standards and principles by getting some consultants outside of this country who are very knowledgeable in that area and they basically benchmarked our processes against global best practices.
That gave us a very honest and candid view of how we are placed vis-à-vis what one could call the past. There are 1, 2 and maybe 3 of the 23 benchmark areas where we scored better than average but very many of them. We still reached below average in many areas, which basically means that a lot of work is needed to transform CSCS.
We are addressing corporate governance issues. CSCS has now become a Plc rather than a limited liability company. If you are a limited liability company, you can only have a maximum of 49 or 50 shareholders; and CSCS, even though it was a limited liability company, is, in reality, more than that. It, technically, had vehicles where some of the shareholders belong to those vehicles. It was like 24 or 25 shareholders belong in those vehicles; and so it was like in reality for the sake of transparency and to have proper governance structure, it became better to transform it into Plc so that one can see all the shareholders that have the ownership of CSCS.
There is also the board decision to bring in independent directors. Internally, internal control, risk management and the reorganisation of the company are going on. And in the process, obviously, there would be people that had to go or had to leave and the fact of the matter is that whenever you are transforming an organisation, those kinds of casualties happen. They come as a matter of fact because some might be a mismatch of skills and, in other cases, it might just be redundancy, meaning we may have too many hands doing the same thing and so on and so forth.
There is also a cultural transformation going on. We have a new vision, mission and core values for the company that had been articulated by the rank and file of employees and we are basically positioned to continue with that transformation.
Probably in a year or so, many of the projects that we intend to have would have been kicked started and some may have been concluded. The obvious among them is the upgrading or change of our system or technology platform so that we can actually be able to support the exchange with some of the initiatives that they have in introducing new products to the market.
Life as CEO
My day, during the week, starts, very early. I am up, usually, at 4.30 a.m. or so. By 5.00 a.m. to 5.15 a.m., I would have prayed. I exercise and catch up by logging onto the Internet, check my mails and respond to mails. By the time the rest of the family is getting up, I would have put in at least two hours. I take my showers and I am usually on my way to the office between 6.00 to 6.30 a.m. Sometimes by 7.00 a.m., I am usually on my desk unless I have an appointment elsewhere. And I do a lot of work before the rest of the people show up.
By 8.30a.m., meetings take over. I tend to have lunch on my desk if I am very busy. But the best lunch is to go outside because changing your environment helps. My day stops between 5.00p.m. and 6.00p.m. in the office; and usually I am home early unless I have an evening appointment. When I get home, I will have dinner with my wife. Thereafter, I watch news and make few phone calls.
My other habit is that I turn off my phones between 9.00 and 9.30 p.m. So, by 9.30 p.m., I’m usually disconnected from the world and go to bed and wake up very early. Between 10.00 and 10.30 p.m. I am usually in bed.
Apart from the family cycle, how do I socialise? Well, my socialisation involves basically what I call eating with friends. I can have breakfast and lunch meetings. For me, eating a meal is not about eating but having time to discuss. So, meeting my friends for lunch or dinner, especially during holidays, is the best time to have fun. In terms of activities, I have actually reduced my social activities. I do not, for example, go to clubs or anything like that. But I swim much more than I used to. Most other times, I stay at home with the kids.
Me and ABU at 50
I came into ABU in 1977 and graduated in 1980. As an alumnus, looking back at those ABU (Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria) years, gives me a sense of pride and fulfilment. In essence, I believe ABU at the time offered one of the best opportunities in engineering and physical sciences in the country. Honestly, 50 years of celebration is a mark of achievement both for ABU and the Alumni. I remember that during my time, a professor mentioned something during our matriculation to the effect that if we were to pull out all the Alumni of ABU from civil service at the federal level, the Nigerian government will collapse.
Though it was in a lighter mood, looking through these 50 years of ABU, I believe the quality of human capital that ABU has produced over the years is a wonderful mark of achievement. I am proud to be an Alumnus of ABU. Nostalgia was the feeling when, less than six months ago, I visited the ABU Nuclear Energy Centre and ABU Centre for Energy Research, which houses the nuclear energy reactor of my physics department where I graduated from. It was quite emotional to find that everything was still the same even though more students are passing and the entire town has changed. There were too many cars, too many people. But for some of us, we still reminisce the good old days of our great ABU.
Between Abu Of My Time And Now
Generally, the quality has certainly gone down. There seems to be lack of maintenance. The library is not what it used to be. Those days we had journals and the laboratories were well equipped. I remember that even though I was a physics student, I used my first scanning electron microscopy copy to do my physics thesis in the geography department.
We used facilities across the university. I even used facilities in the chemistry and chemical engineering departments during my days but some of these facilities were hardly there the last time I visited. Certainly, the quality of education we had was fundamentally broad- based and as such, a university graduate tended to have been well groomed and grounded to face any challenges on their own. Today, unfortunately, the quality of graduates is not quite the same.
This issue came to the fore in my previous job where we had to introduce pre-employment testing. When we tested about 20 graduates, we hardly could get two or three people that passed. Out of that three, one of them must have graduated from a foreign university. So, essentially, we have very dismal quality graduates. That basically means that there is a need for us to look at our educational system critically, especially the university, which is probably the last in the educational process.
This improvement in the educational system should start at the nursery and primary level. If a kid has been well equipped at that level, even if through self-education, they would tend to pick up quite naturally as they advance through the tertiary institutions. Therefore, we need to emphasise quite early on, at least in the first four to five years of a child’s life, and then onward to primary school. Those are the fundamentals of quality education.
As I came into ABU in 1977 and graduated in 1980. Even though we had two strike actions, generally, those were not the days of strikes. One was ‘Ali must go’ and that was when Colonel Ahmadu Ali was the Minister of Education and General Olusegun Obasanjo was Nigeria’s military Head of State. I think it was about a small increase in meal ticket, from 25 kobo to 5o kobo per plate, or something like that. But generally there were very little interruptions through the educational process.
Students, in my time, were quite active politically in the sense that they are the pulse or the heartbeat of the nation. There was extreme awareness probably because we were just coming out of a civil war and a lot of African countries were going through independence and Nigeria was one of the countries that actually supported this African renaissance financially and morally.
I remember some South Africans and Zimbabweans on scholarships by Nigerian government attending schools side by side with us. I also remember having some of the freedom fighters, especially in the southern part of Africa, attending or visiting ABU along with their presidents to give lectures, and so on and so forth. I recall seeing Samora Machel and Antonio Augustino Neto who visited us from Angola. Even the current Zimbabwe President, Robert Mugabe, then a freedom fighter for the UNITA rebels, also visited us at ABU. So, life in ABU was quite enriching in the sense that it was not just academics but you are also generally exposed to what is happening in Africa and in the world.
This made us to be actively engaged both spiritually and also physically to what is happening around us. So, to me, it was quite a wonderful period and in essence, those years were the foundation of life. For me, personally, going through ABU was an experience that basically shaped who I am today.
Yes, if given another opportunity to choose a school, I will still go for ABU. The quality of the teachers and my fellow students who came from various parts of Nigeria, and some actually from neighbouring West African countries, was rich. Of the about 12 physics majors in my department, two were from Cameroon, one from India, one other was from Niger Republic and the rest from various parts of Nigeria. There was a lady from Lagos, one guy from Sokoto State, and myself from Borno, etc. For me, the environment was so enriching that, given the same circumstance, I wouldn’t have chosen any other institution.
Yes, definitely, because I believe the quality of education then was the foundation for the grounding under one God. Let me give an example, in our final year in physics, we were exposed to a course called quantum mechanics, which you might consider quite advanced for a graduate course. I remember Professor Micah, a Ghanaian gentleman who taught us quantum mechanics, gave us a textbook by Merzbacher to help resolve some difficult problems we were working on. One was so difficult that we had to write a letter to the author. I remember it was two of us that sent a letter to the author who was teaching MIT in United States.
He replied. It was quite funny because it wasn’t that the thing was difficult but he responded and also sent additional materials and additional questions on the topic together with application forms to the university. That is the kind of thing that had happened in our lives. The other interesting thing is that for our practical nuclear energy, we went to Germany to the Centre for Energy Research where, even in our first year in the university, we spent the entire summer doing hands-on experiment in nuclear energy, reactor Physics, and health Physics, which actually gave us a strong grounding .
So, when I went to the US to do my graduate studies, the best course I took was Mathematical Methods for Scientists and Engineers. When I did that course the first time, I scored 100 per cent and the Professor said I shouldn’t have taken that course but I should actually have been the course tutor. I ended up becoming the tutor helping my other fellow students. Honestly, the foundation is the reason I am here today as CEO/MD of CSCS.
Looking at Your Career path, how has it been?
For me, it’s been quite interesting. I did National Service with Shell. Before we went for the National Service, Shell and Slumberger had conducted what I call IQ test and selected a few of us from ABU to go to the United States and the United Kingdom for graduate studies. So, I left the country and went for Nuclear Engineering and Nuclear Physics and I ended up having my Nuclear Engineering at the Oregon State University.
I developed a simulation programme for Physics and during the series of presentations I ran into some engineers from HP and one thing led to the other, we had some interactions and they offered me a summer job with HP culminating into a permanent employment. So, I made my first career change and joined the computing industry. That is from nuclear engineering, designing nuclear reactors to designing and unveiling computers. It is all about looking at issues and trying to come with creative solutions.
How was childhood like?
I was quite an active child and in primary school, I used to play soccer in secondary school. I played both soccer and field hockey in the first 11 team of my school. We had enough eastern championships in Bauchi where we got silver. Azare beat us in the finals. I also represented my school in quiz competition, which is not a sporting activity per se. I think we had the finals in Benin or Port Harcourt. It was a national championship and I think we got kicked out in the finals at the national level. I was school Librarian, so where you are with the part of the Library team, you end up doing a lot of book stuff. Those were some of the extracurricular activities I did in the secondary school.
In the university, it was mostly books because in the Physics department, you used to have two days of lab work and Tuesdays when I leave my dormitory in the morning, I will be in the lab until very late in the evening. With that type of life, you hardly had time for anything. The sporting activities I used to do in ABU was mostly in athletics. But I didn’t do it at competitive level but mainly for exercising. Later on in life, I picked up golf when I was in Oregon State University. I took a course in golf and I played for a while until I came back to Nigeria. So, I love not only watching games but also participating in them.
Do you regret any decision you have taken in Life so far?
None that I remember. Before ABU, as we were applying for admission, most of my friends wanted to study Architecture, some engineering but I wanted Physics. A friend of mine said that there was really no money in Physics, why don’t you chose Civil Engineering or something? I remember he crossed the Physics and put Civil Engineering and then I crossed it again and put Physics.
If you can find the original application form of mine, it would be quite messy because there will be two to three cancellations of my major and number one choice. That my friend had also later on in life, said that it’s very funny that you wanted that thing even as a choice and that is what you pursued. Therefore, the choice I made to study Physics in ABU was a choice that I contemplated since I was in primary school.