Ovia Recounts How Zenith Bank Was Established with N20m - THISDAY
By Obinna Chima
The Chairman of Zenith Bank Plc, Mr. Jim Ovia, has advised budding entrepreneurs not to be dissuaded by whatever challenges they might be facing presently, just as he narrated how he founded a bank with N20 million in 1990, despite the uncertain business environment during the military era.
Speaking in an interview on Bloomberg TV at the weekend, about his new book, ‘Africa Rise And Shine: How a Nigerian Entrepreneur from Humble Beginnings Grew a Business to $16 billion,’ he urged entrepreneurs to be responsive to opportunities lurking around.
Specifically, Ovia advised foreign investors not to be deterred by negative news and commentaries about Africa.
He explained: “We started the business with N20 million at an exchange rate of N5 to a dollar. So, we actually started the business with $4 million in 1990, and it has now blossomed.
“We now have a total asset base of $16 billion. If you look at the arithmetic, there have been over 1000 per cent growth. You can’t get that anywhere.
Even in the best economies in the world, you are not going to get that type of benefit. “So, that is the kind of risk entrepreneurs, businesses or international investors must take in Nigeria or any other African country and reap tremendously in terms of quantum growth in their business.”
According to him, just as he saw opportunities in the banking sector at the time Zenith Bank was set up, there were other opportunities that some other persons had in other industries.
“It was a matter of time and chance,” he insisted.
“Time and chance at that time because at that time, many people were scared to invest in Nigeria. We are talking about late 80s and to be precise, in 1990, many international investors were scared to invest, simply because we were under military rule.
“So, you could imagine the tremendous opportunities that existed in Nigeria and some other African countries, but because we were indigenous people, we knew that, that meant nothing.
“We had lived through that and we knew it doesn’t really affect the economy tremendously. Definitely, it was a matter of understanding what you do, because the corporate governance issue had improved significantly,” he said.
“So, we were able to invest at a time when international investors were terribly scared to invest. But we were patient and we waited very patiently to reap the benefits,” Ovia said.
The Zenith Bank chairman ruled out political uncertainty as a factor responsible for the downturn in the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE).
Ovia attributed the uninspiring performance of the NSE in recent time to the normalisation of interest rates in the United States and some other developed market.
“The capital market in Nigeria mimics the international environment also. Nigeria is not an isolated country. It is a country where we have international investors and interest rate is rising in the United States of America.
“Of course, there is capital flow to the US economy and that has absolutely nothing to do with politics.
“You will see that the that the capital markets in some other jurisdictions are also beginning to drop, just because interest rate is expected to rise in the US and other well-developed economies and that is what is affecting it. It is the same audience, its same market international market,” he explained.
When asked if he was worried about the level of non-performing loans (NPLs) in the banking industry, the Zenith Bank founder said, “NPL is something that banks worry about anywhere in the world, whether it is in the United Kingdom, in Africa or the US, there are NPLs. We don’t necessarily worry because it depends on how you are able to hedge against some of those risks.
“It depends on the industry, if it is oil, gas or trading, for us to be able to ameliorate those risks.”
Commenting on his new book, he pointed out that hitherto, Africa was portrayed as a hopeless country as far back as 20 years ago. Then, it was seen as a continent of war and hopelessness.
“That was a quote from the Economist Magazine in 2001. But a decade later, they changed that narrative and they started seeing the bright prospects in Africa and that African economies are doing very well. They started seeing democratically elected governments.
“The narrative has changed, and the businesses are now in Africa. African economies are rising and shining. Hence, I thought to help change the narrative of the perception of the international community and international media, about Africa, needed to do a book, ‘Africa Rise and Shine,’ and to tell some amazing stories of tremendous business opportunities in Africa, particularly in Nigeria. That was the essence of the book.”