Jim Ovia: Succession Planning Key to Business Survival


The Founder/Chairman of Zenith Bank Plc, Mr. Jim Ovia, was the Guest Speaker at the second edition of the Nigerian British Chamber of Commerce’s Sharing Experiences series. Responding to questions from participants, Ovia emphasised that successful brands were built through innovation, adding that in a world ravaged by COVID-19, businesses must adopt creativity and innovation in order to remain in business. Obinna Chima brings the exempts:

How has your personal philosophy impacted on the brand?

The Zenith Bank brand is a vision we created 30 years ago. At that time, we all recall that Nigerians were very doubtful as to whether young boys of our age (we were all in our 30s), if we could really be trusted with depositors’ money and whether we would just wear blue jeans and vanish from the country. But we were determined to prove members of the public wrong. We were determined to make a change. If you recall, it was during the military era. I do know a number of persons who were CEOs of banks at that time that were arrested, tried and jailed, because they lost all their depositors’ money. The history books are there of the number of banks that were affected. So, we were terrified and for that reason we needed to be very careful and we needed to display a great deal of honesty and integrity to continue to do well. That was the vision and that was the focus. And in those days, if there are letters from the government or the regulators, you just have to stop what you are doing and read those letters three times, to be sure you knew what they wanted you to do . Otherwise, if you ignore what the letter says, it might render the project you are running useless. So, that was the era we came into banking and those were the situations we met. It was very scary.

Having established a brand that has lasted long, as the founder of a bank, how do you ensure that in the pursuit of expansion, that you maintain the brand quality and more importantly, when you retired, how did you ensure that the brand remained the way you envisioned it?

This is one of my favorite questions and I have been asked this severally. There is the 100 Club, which is all about companies and institutions that have lasted 100 years and beyond. My inspiration is that if those organisations had been built 100 years ago and are still in business, then we should be able to do that. So, succession planning is very important. Who takes over from who is very important. So far we have done it three times now and remarkably so well. Many assume I am still there, but the last time I ever visited the office was about 10 years ago, when I retired. But some assume Jim Ovia is still there. But succeeding CEOs have always continued to run the institution even better than the way I did when I was a CEO. Definitely, the brand would continue to be maintained and the reputation of the institution would continue to be maintained, whether I am there or not.

With the banking industry going through the biggest innovation change, what challenges do fintechs pose to the traditional bank?

I do not personally see fintechs as being destructive, but I see them as being collaborative. We need the fintechs to do certain services that banks would not ordinarily be able to do. Definitely, we need the fintechs. They are smaller, they are more nimble and they have the technology. The fintechs also cannot possible survive without the banks in terms of some retail transactions. So, it is a collaborative effort. We don’t see it as being destructive, we see it as being creative and innovative to our retail business and at the end of the day, all the funding and liquidity are going to end up in the banks.

What is your personal template or methodology that an organisation can adopt to build a reputable brand leveraging innovation?

Firstly, you must have integrity. Integrity is defined as your word is your bond. Integrity is that you must respect corporate governance, you must respect rule of law, you must respect and honour contracts. Even though when the contracts were drafted, you suddenly realised that it did not favour you anymore and that you are going to lose money, but it is a contract and so you must honour it. That is integrity. That is what we do at Zenith Bank and that is what we think people should do.

As it relates to Zenith Bank, what challenges did the bank encounter in seeking to maintain its brand equity and how did you overcome those challenges?

There would always be challenges in life, in business and in anything you do. It doesn’t really matter about the profession or the kind of business you do. So, you have to be prepared to face those challenges when they come. And, businesses may not be good all the time. So, you have to be prepared so that when you run into such adversity, you will be able to survive at the end of the day. But you can’t run away from challenges.

What tips do you have for innovators in Nigeria to overcome the myriad of challenges that the peculiarity of our environment presents?

Let me put it this way: Every country has its challenges. It is not just in Africa or Nigeria that many people tend to complain that we don’t have the type of enabling environment that Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, all enjoy in the United States. That is their own environment. We have our own and we have to adapt to our own situation and circumstances. And the kind of enabling environment that these companies enjoy in the US, you don’t even see too many companies enjoy such in Europe either. So, it is not only in Africa. I remember when Nicholas Sarkozy was President of France, he said then that the way the French workers protest all the time, there was no way they could build great institutions such as Microsoft, Apple and Facebook. That meant Sarkozy was admitting to the fact that what the innovative companies in the US were doing, they couldn’t do them. So, let’s not complain that in Nigeria we do not have a perfect enabling environment and let’s adapt to the situation that we find ourselves.

With benefits of hindsight, what advise will you give to younger entrepreneurs?

I tend to think depending on time, chance and the opportunity that may have arisen at that point in time. It is actually difficult to hypothesise of what to do differently if such problem never occurred. Yes, we faced challenges and we were able to surmount those challenges, resolved them and we moved on.

You are passionate about youth empowerment. In your view, how do you think the business community in general has done in this regard?

The youths are the future of any nation. We must empower the youths, encourage them and we must sponsor the youths so that they would be to achieve their dream.

What is the impact of an environment on the brand and can an environment within which a business operates shape the way a brand is perceived or affects the brand equity in any way?

Definitely, the environment you operate is part of the brand equity. We are listed on the London Stock Exchange. The perception before we got listed was that African and Nigerian businesses might not respect the rule or adhere to corporate governance. But we have proven that we do respect the rule of law, we have proven that we can obey corporate governance all over the world and wherever we operated. We have operated in the United Kingdom for over 12 years and we have never been sanctioned once. So, we respect what the regulatory institutions say because we know the perception of the Europeans about African or Nigerian businesses back home. We are not given benefits of doubt and we are presumed guilty until we prove ourselves to be innocent. So, based on that we ensure that we don’t do things that would bring shame to our country. Not just Zenith Bank, but other Nigerian banks operating in London and they are all doing extremely well and I must also tell you that none of them have been sanctioned or betrayed the name of our country.

In this Covid-19 era with its attendant effects, what strategic model should businesses adopt to drive public affairs and stakeholders’ engagement?

Definitely, Covid-19 has a very difficult period for all businesses globally and no country can say it has the magic wand or the solution. The only solution to the virus is when there is a vaccine and that is when we can all go back to our normal way of life. But so far, you don’t have cure for it. So, everyone is obeying the NCDC, W.H.O protocol. That is what all organisations are doing. We can’t design our own strategy. We are obeying the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 and so far it has worked for us.

How do you create an organisation that encourages innovation?

Having the right people. The best asset of any company are the people. You have to have the best people. Do not hire your brothers, your sisters or your cousins, just because you know them and that you are related with them. Those kind of people would not give you any idea that would be disruptive or game-changing ideas. They would be so happy to be loyal to you, but definitely they would not be disruptive nor would they create any positive change. But they would be loyal to you and they would be bowing down from you every morning. And that is all you may get. So, go for the best people always. That is why our tripod stand at Zenith is people, technology and service.

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