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The rising boardroom star

By Jibril Musa and Mike Awoyinfa

In our forthcoming book tentatively titled Boardroom Leadership and Corporate Governance in Nigeria, we set out to cover every angle of the board dynamism and that necessitated having  a chapter on risk management.  In the course of sharing their intellectual and experiential knowledge, our interviewees frequently refer to other board figures with wisdom and weighty perspectives on the subject matter.  She was one of the references.  Her name was dropped casually, a passing remark, but the signs too good to be missed––PhD Risk Management, Deutsche Bank former director,  AIICO board director,  Dangote Group chief risk officer––her credentials got our adrenalin racing.

Sixteen months after we first heard of her, we finally got to sit down with Dr. Adenike Fajemirokun for an interview that lasted over 65 minutes.  O boy, are we dazed by her depth of knowledge!  She knows risk management like the back of her hand.

The woman we encountered at the Union Marble House of Dangote Group was youthful and petite and as busy as a bee.  All through the interview her eyes kept darting to her computer.  Twice she broke off to pick the intercom, and once to sign a document brought to her.  She was multi-tasking––and never missed a beat.  At the time the interview kicked-off, she was a few hours away from boarding a plane to South Africa where she was scheduled to make a presentation to a board.  We almost felt guilty taking part of her precious time.

For starters, she is a chip off the old block.  You can see in her face the looks of her father (serial entrepreneur and business tycoon Chief Dele Fajemirokun) and sparks of his intellect in her discourse.

What astounds the most was the road she travelled to arrive at her present career station.   A University of Manchester graduate of Civil and Structural engineering who after graduation worked as a fire engineer at construction sites, she had no prior idea about risk management.  Not until her employer, Arup, a global firm of consulting engineers and one of UK’s biggest, suggested that she attempt a PhD to develop a risk management model for the firm, with full sponsorship as incentive. What gave them the idea she could do it?  Your guess is as good as mine.  She took up the gauntlet, bagged a doctorate, and went on to master the field to become a one of the leading authorities in risk management worldwide.

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With that doctorate, she changed her career.  Subsequently, her hard work at Deutsche Bank was crowned with promotion as director and global head of operational risk at the time she was barely into her 30s.

She told us how she made her mark.  Remember Bernie Madoff? The American fraudster who defrauded people and institutions at home and abroad for decades before he was found out in 2008 and was sentenced to 170 years for the biggest fraudulent scheme in the history of America.  Madoff, whose victims’ names filled 169 pages, had fooled wealthy individuals, hedge funds, charities, universities, and banks such as HSBC, BNP Paribas, Bank Medici and JP Morgan Chase.

Deutsche Bank AG was one lucky bank that escaped the Madoff lure, thanks to its Risk management department:  “Bernard Madoff was a client that when the assessment was done, the whole pitch did not make any sense.  We stuck to our decision at risk management that it was not a good deal for us.  If we don’t understand it, we don’t do it.  When things started to crumble, everyone was happy that Bernie Madoff was not one of the people on our portfolio.”

Though she refused to take sole credit for that, she was however, in the heart of the team.  That was the point she wanted to prove. Four months after she became directors, she resigned and headed home to Nigeria having proved a point.

We were puzzled.  Why leave a position you she acknowledged as the highlight of her career so far?  It turned out becoming a director – with all the hard work that went into it – was merely a means to an end.  “I had wanted to achieve that before I return to Nigeria because I didn’t want to come into a place where people would say, ‘It is because she is Dele Fajemirokun’s daughter.’”

She sustained the momentum in Nigeria with her AFRisk where she worked as a specialist consultant, a role that rose to prominence from the ashes of the global financial crises of 2008.  In that capacity, she was influential towards the development of the Enterprise Risk Management models for banks such as the Central Bank, First Bank and First Capital.

Then, she caught the attention of Aliko Dangote.  When she pitched for consulting,

Dangote said “instead of consulting, why don’t you just join us?  I need somebody fulltime.”

Taking the job on the advice of her father meant leaving the familiar terrain of financial and investment risk management for the turf of manufacturing risks management.  Challenging but very exciting was how she summed up her new endeavour.  “There is no organisation like it where you have your tentacles across multiple types of businesses.  It is like working in six or seven companies at the same time while you are in one.”

That is the backstory.

We were there to tap her brain about risk management.  We asked lots of questions.  Here is her response to a query for definition of risk management.  “In my view, it is really using commonsense to understand anything that can negatively impact your business. You can bring all the techniques in this world to try and assess things that can affect you, at the end of the day, it boils down to working with people; even when you are working with systems, those systems are designed by people.  Take your common sense and logic out of it, and you have already lost the game.”

Reducing the number of risks facing a company, she said, is not the overriding objective of risk management.  Companies need risks to make money.  “The real job entails making transparent those risks.  My job is to ensure that Alhaji Aliko Dangote  is aware––and  he is already a lot of the time in taking his decision–– of risks that we are exposed to, and what our plans are should they materialised.”

Grilling her for the board dimension of her specialty, and leafing through the stages of her career trajectory, we pieced together a profile of a kid who grew up watching her father in the boardroom to become a daughter that represents him on boards.  Presently she is a member on the board of AIICO Pension, AIICO Capital, AIICO Insurance and Food Concept.  She also chairs the AIICO establishment committee.

She said board affairs are serious matters, not one for sentiment.  This she buttressed with personal examples and anecdotes.  “My father is not someone that gives you things because you are entitled to it; you must bring something to the table.  Once in the boardroom after I defended a point based on my experience, he was so elated he said, “Owo o jona m’biba yi o.” The money I spent to educate this child was not wasted!

The workhorse that she is, Adenike Fajemirokun draws inspiration from two men.

“Barring my father, I don’t think I have ever met anyone I know that work as hard as Dangote.  I have never come across someone that relentless in the amount of hard work that he put in.  He is one of the most hardworking people I have ever met in my life, including people that I have studied to know why they achieve what they achieved.  I don’t think I have seen somebody who work and hardly sleep.  This I know because, a lot of the time, we travel together.  On the plane, some of us sleep and wake up to find he (Dangote) is still awake and working, always working, as if every hour of his day has to be useful.  At times, I say to myself:  ‘Hey, I am almost 20 years younger, and I know I am not lazy, I know I work hard, but I don’t think I can match this man’s energy for work.  He either has a gift for it or he is just on another level.’ The way he works hard is something to really give respect to.”

That is one secret of greatness she learnt from Africa’s richest man.  Great men work hard.  An old-but-ever-fresh wisdom extolled in the proverbs of the wise king in the good Book. The hand of the hard worker brings riches.

She confessed also to being inspired too by the men’s humility.  Of her boss––“he is a very humble person.  I have never seen anything like it,” ––she recalled how during a trip to Zambia at the height of the Ebola epidemic when everybody was avoiding close contact and handshake was a taboo, Alike Dangote spent hours meeting everyone of his over 40 customers one after the other in a room and shaking hand with all of them and thought nothing of it.

“His humility is not an act; it is his nature,” she concluded.

She is wowed by the boardroom humility of her father whom she described as a tough guy. “If he is argued down, he takes your argument, which at times I found contrary to one’s cultural orientation.  Among the Yorubas, it is improper to argue with an elder, let alone your father.  There are some grounds for argument that I refused to tread lest I appeared rude to my father.  Now, here is dad debating with people in the boardroom and I see him listen to others, including myself when I make my own argument as board member.”

 

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