Ray Umukoro

His story fits a dissertation for management students. It is a thrilling testimony of the triumph of the spirit, of the supremacy of faith over fear.  Leo Stan Ekeh, a former mass servant and chorister in his local community Catholic Church at Ubomiri, a sprawling commune on the fringes of Owerri, Imo State, took a roller-coaster ride in the nation’s ICT sector to become the defining index of hope in an industry where many had risen and fallen. He turns 63 today, February 22.

This article is clearly not about his exploits in Africa’s ICT firmament. It is about his humanity, his humility and avid desire to make life better for the next man. Ever seen a man whose pastime is to seek out the poor and help them come up the ladder of life? Ever seen an entrepreneur who draws a distinct line between capitalism and welfarism? Leo Stan does. He believes that capitalism must wear a human face; that profit must not take the place of empathy.

The Nigerian ICT billionaire embodies the biblical principle of the rich opening their hands for the poor. Rich, yet accessible both to the rich and to the poor. A man of affluence and influence, yet he does not ascribe such success to himself. He links his fame and fortune to God, not so much to hard work, self-denial or some smart strategy.

A couple of years ago, he did what has become one of his favourite pastimes: He built a church complete with rectory in his Ubomiri community, the same church where he was once a mass servant.

In his emotion-laden testimony, which held the audience spellbound, he recalled his childhood days, his sojourn in other lands, his foray into business and how the mercy of God has guided him.

He declared: “My grandfather was a reverend father. My father was a soloist in this church and he served God with all his might; I was a mass servant and a member of this choir (pointing to the horde of choristers robed in red outfit). I have never tasted alcohol or smoked since I was born and I don’t know why. It was something that never appealed to me or fascinated me.

“I come from a lineage of people who served God dedicatedly. I am a miracle child and I remember my mother had always predicted that I would be great. I have siblings but I live my life as if I am the only child of my parents. I saw myself from the beginning even when my parents were alive as an orphan. It drives me.

“I love God and will never hesitate to do anything in the service of God and humanity. I built this church as a mark of God’s special love and mercy towards me. I have the best wife any man would wish to have. She is a superstar. She is intelligent, beautiful and, unlike some women, she is not expensive and, more importantly, we operate on the same wavelength. If for any reason I get stuck, she is the one to figure out the solution for me. God blessed me with brilliant and responsible children too. I am grateful to God because He has seen me through the valleys and mountains of life. As a mark of God’s mercy to me, I pay tithe for all my companies. I didn’t read it in the Bible but I do it.”

Given his phenomenal growth in Africa’s often difficult-to-plough ICT marketplace, you would expect him to beat his chest in triumphal acclamation of how his business acumen and strategy have helped him to the zenith of his core business area, but not Leo Stan. He sees God as the X-factor in his success story.

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“God is the architect of my success. As an entrepreneur, I have strategised, stayed up late, made projections but, if there was no mercy of God and His grace to help me implement these, there would be no success. God has done everything, even for me to be alive, to come from the family I come from, the village, town, region and country I come from. Most importantly, He has managed me because He gave me a proactive personality, removing all the holes in my life. The temptations are there, you can imagine them. Maybe if I was taking alcohol I would have been a mental guy,” he once told some journalists.   

Today, he has become a life coach of a special breed. In explaining why people fail in life, he said: “You classify people differently: people like us who never inherited wealth and those who came to this world and their parents have so much money. But the most important thing is the realisation of where you’re coming from and who you want to be. Continue to remind yourself that every effort depends on God; you work harder and you work smart and creatively. A lot of people don’t have committed faith, they go to church but they don’t believe in God and, like I said, I’m a clear testimony of what God can do. People fail because they apply poor and wrong attitude to life.” 

He pioneered pioneered world-class computer assembly in a country with overflowing cynicism for indigenous products and services. He remains till date the only Nigerian whose computers have graced the big stages both at home and overseas. Zinox Computers, his trademark, has been deployed at African Union conferences in Nigeria and the Gambia. The brand has audaciously competed with other global brands at international events, including the International Telecommunications Union events. Under the Zinox Group are multiple award-winning companies with specialities in ICT, retailing, e-commerce and property.

So, how did Leo Stan (he is more popular by his first name than his surname) grow a start-up from a mere idea to a multi-national? It is down to his irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit and his well-honed ability to out-innovate the competition. In Hindu, it is called Jugaad, a special ability to exhibit boldness in the midst of odds and maximise available resources to achieve more. The Indian ICT marketplace is replete with such spirit: creating treasures out of trash and in record time too. Leo Stan showed such capacity in the way he has grown his enterprise to deliver time-critical jobs.

A scion of the South East, famed for their legendary spirit of merchandise and raw entrepreneurial bravura, Leo Stan shot out of the blue to bring global attention to Nigeria. And he did this in a brave new world, the world of information communication technology. His is an amazing story of how a young Nigerian university graduate, after his pursuit of knowledge in India and the United Kingdom, returned to the country to chart an entirely new course. He pioneered a new world of digital economy at a time the country was deeply mired in analogue culture both in the workplace and in schools. The Nigerian media industry, from advertising to newspapers, owes him much gratitude for changing their operational processes and methodologies from mundane, medieval analogue to the robust and elegant digital platform.

Within 30 years, he has transformed a start-up that sprouted from a make-shift apartment that also doubled as his home into a digital conglomerate with incursions into oil and gas, entertainment and property. Task Systems, Technology Distributions Limited, Konga (Africa’s foremost truly composite e-commerce outpost combining offline-online mix in service delivery), and TD Mobile, to name a few, complete the ensemble of businesses in his thriving conglomerate.

In all his companies, there is a growth pathway for every employee. He deliberately creates a system that rewards every hardworking and dedicated employee. From drivers sponsored to universities and returning to the conglomerate as degree holders to persons who joined the organisation as janitors working their way up the corporate ladder, he has brought his humanity to bear on people around him. Making some lowly staff home-owners and sponsoring indigent students to universities at home and abroad comes to him as a routine.

Gifted with electric brain, a wide berth of memory bandwidth and uncommon intuition to predict the future, Leo Stan deserves more than roses on this special day; he deserves our prayers and our gratitude to God for giving humanity a man-child with a heart of gold. Happy birthday, Chairman!

•Umukoro, a blogger writes from Lagos