I call them Africa’s Corporate Caesars after Nigel Hamilton’s book: America’s Caesars. Theirs are two great stories from Africa

Mike Awoyinfa

It was Prof. Kole Omotoso, the South Africa-based erudite Nigerian scholar, who first raised the big question in his The Guardian Sunday column asking: “Where is the Nigerian book of the year 2018? …Where do we get the books that teach us how to navigate the floods and rocky ways of this world of ours? Does the book really matter in Nigeria?” Then he comes with a verdict: “In the best tradition of the Nigerian military, the Nigerian book of the year 2018 is The Unknown Book!”

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How I wish Prof. Omotoso had read Jim Ovia’s Africa Rise and Shine—How a Nigerian Entrepreneur Grew a Business of $16 billion, a book on the founding of Zenith Bank and its success which was one of the most memorable literary cum corporate events of 2018. How I wish he had also read THE GURU, our “Eyewitness Biography of Mike Adenuga” which is not officially out but awaiting the green light for public presentation and sales.

Going through the two books, I could connect the dots and draw out the similarities between the two exceptional African entrepreneurs: Jim Ovia and Mike Adenuga. I call them Africa’s Corporate Caesars after Nigel Hamilton’s book: America’s Caesars. Theirs are two great stories from Africa, two entrepreneurs who built multibillion businesses from humble beginnings and created two mother lode brands to boot—Glo and Zenith Bank. Brands that are daily brandished all over the world on CNN through strategic sponsorships. “African Voices” in the case of Glo and “Inside Africa” for Zenith Bank, with each programme featuring inspirational stories of Africans doing things worthy of celebration. As a Nigerian, wherever you find yourself in the world, it is a thing of pride and joy to watch a Nigerian brand advertised on CNN.

So, what is the common thread linking Jim Ovia, the banking godfather and Mike Adenuga, the telecoms guru? They are two entrepreneurs who left for the United States in the ‘70s in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece. They both read business administration. Adenuga studied at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma and finished at Pace University in New York. Ovia went to Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and later University of Louisiana for his MBA. Luckily they both returned home to venture into business enterprises rather than being swallowed up by the American Dream.

In the two titanic men, entrepreneurship flows in their blood. They can smell business the way a newspaperman smells news. Take the case of Adenuga who had just come from America and was thinking about what to do. And voila!, an opportunity knocks. It was in the era of the Udoji Award of 1974 when workers were paid big bonuses and went on spending spree. At the same time thieves proliferated, breaking into cars and stealing car stereos in alarming proportions. Adenuga, the young big afro-hair entrepreneur singlehandedly invented removable car stereo solution which he imported from America and it sold like hot cakes with people queuing to buy them while he smiled to the bank in his first big break. Long queues which were to be reenacted many years after when Glo crashed the price of SIM cards and people queued miles and miles long to buy Glo, turning the new telecoms market on its head. Even though he came in late, he turned a disadvantage into an advantage. Talk of business wizardry!

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On his part, Ovia, a “youth corper” serving in Lagos, driving an old jalopy, discovered a good mechanic who refurbished his car. Impressed, he partnered with him for a new business. “This is how I found myself in the part-time business of buying old cars and having them towed to the mechanic’s workshop,” he recalls in his book. “This might seem a reckless way to part with my money, but remember, I had just completed my MBA degree, and was always looking for opportunities to apply the skill I had acquired…As my mechanic began to finish the job after another, I had in effect started a used-car business, one automobile at a time. The mechanic would fix each one up for me—repairing dings and replacing headlights, windshield, bumpers, tires—everything to make the cars look fairly presentable again. On completion of the repairs, I would display a prominent for-sale sign on the vehicle and drive it around, fishing for buyers…I sold most of these refurbished cars for double, and even triple, the price I had paid for them.”

Through selling used cars, Ovia discovered he “had a natural ability for negotiation.” A skill that will help him later in life as he negotiated business as a foremost banker. So good at negotiation that Matt Lilley, the CEO of Prudential Africa whom he had dealings with remarked: “Having personally negotiated with Jim Ovia…I have seen his artistry at deal making firsthand.”

And when it comes to negotiation, Mike Adenuga is the chief negotiator and “master of the bluff”, quoting the words of Mike Jituboh from whom I learnt a lot about Adenuga’s negotiating prowess while negotiating a long, tedious loan with BNP Paribas when looking for $285 million to pay for the first GSM licence cancelled by the Obasanjo administration over a litigious frequency given. It is a whole lot of drama and a classic case study in the art of negotiation which you will find in our book.

“When it comes to negotiation, Adenuga is the master of the bluff,” Jituboh says. “Because you cannot read his hand until he wants you to. Even for us who are close to him, who work with him, sometimes we don’t know when he is real and when he is not. Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking.”

I cannot also forget when Adenuga, the master negotiator was negotiating for a Shell business with a tough competitor and how Glo fought a hard battle to win the business. “Mike Adenuga is a first-class visionary,” Jituboh tells me. “Sometime when he takes decisions now, you discover he has looked ahead. You may not know why until it becomes clear to you later. For me, he is a brilliant businessman. Today, we are managing Shell’s telecoms network. The competitor of course is MTN.”

Jim Ovia in his book also shares his MTN experience in a chapter titled: HOW AND WHY MTN BOUGHT VISAFONE. He writes: “My team remembered the Jim Ovia golden rule that you only get what you negotiate, and they negotiated very hard. This was not an offer I went out and looked for, but nonetheless it was in front of me—ever the dealmaker, I wanted an extra 10 percent on top of the existing valuation for all the sweat equity I had invested in the business. The deal was inked and we managed to close in record time.”

Much as you try to squeeze the Mike Adenuga and Jim Ovia narrative into one back page column, you discover that the two corporate Caesars are larger than life and there are still dots to connect, more to learn and more roads to travel and unravel. See you next year by the grace of God who gives the wisdom and the power to make wealth.

An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey