Chief Olasubomi Balogun
First City Monument Bank was 30 years old on August 11 . Its founder and former chief executive officer, Chief Olasubomi Balogun, shared his vision of the bank with business editors. The foremost banker who bestrode the financial sector like a colossus for many years, spoke passionately about how, with sheer determination and strong faith in God, he established the first indigenous bank in Nigeria, when all and sundry thought it was impossible. Kunle Aderinokun presents the excerpts
How will you describe your journey in the Nigerian financial market?
My journey to what you now see, has been divinely guided and if you care to know and to have details, go to the Primrose tower at the headquarters of the organisation you will read on the plaque: “This block, primrose tower is dedicated to the glory of God, as an embodiment of a young man’s faith in the unfailing support of the almighty God and in his own destiny in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”
Secondly, it is also a monument of a young Nigerian’s determination to succeed and to prove that given the opportunity, he has the might to attain the commanding height in the management of a financial institution.
Lastly, it serves as a lesson to all mankind that in all things, mortals may have their say but in the final analysis, the almighty God would have his way. That encapsulates my whole journey. I had a dream and had a vision. I was cheated as I was an employee of another institution created by Nigerians and expatriates. I was the brain behind the whole thing. I went on a course in the United States and I came back with ideas that we should set up a merchant bank, but when it came to selecting the chief executive, I was told that because I had a basic training in law, I could not be the chief executive. I was 42 and they brought a young man with little or no experience from America at 32 to come and boss me.
One of the gifts God gave me is courage and tenacity of purpose so that was what gave rise to the dream and vision which was clear by nature that God gave me. I knew where I was going but the vista was misty. It was unbelievable that one Nigerian would say that if he did not get a position in a bank, he would go out to set up a bank. But as this encapsulated, I was trying to prove that given the opportunity and with the support of the almighty God I had a vision to attain the commanding heights in the management of a financial institution. I was trying to prove a point but I was not arrogant, but by the grace of the almighty God. So when I felt cheated by not being allowed to head the institution created by a foreign institution, my then former employers, I had the courage to resign and without anything in my pocket. I decided to start on a journey of self actualisation. It was not a proud journey; it was a journey of faith. It was turbulent and so many people still see me around after about 40 years of doing what no other Nigerian had done.
Those of you who are older in the media know what battles I had fought and people who didn’t know me felt I was arrogant. I wish they learned from what happened to me by being focused and having courage. You would find that through my journey, the whole thing has been punctuated by my faith in God and that faith was very strong.
So 35 years ago, without thinking of what to do I threw in my letter of resignation. Dream is a personal thing and it is known all over the world that many institutions that have become large, an individual started it and I had a template which in this country was either not known or if it was known, people where cynical. In the world, you have heard of the JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Cadbury etc.; they were all individuals and if you heard of Sir Siegmund Warburg, who was actually my template, who started the oldest merchant bank in Britain… So, when I decided to do it, I looked for him, I read his book I even visited him before he died. You would find that most of his stories you would hear divinely guided, had been based on precedence. But in this country, for one individual to say I want to set up a bank, people thought it was sacrilegious whereas I was setting an example, I was being a pioneer. When I did it, seven or eight years ago, the likes of other banks you know now followed. So, FCMB is a 30-year journey that was started by me.We had the old generation banks that were started by expatriates and we had a few banks which were started by mergers, but there was no individual like my own case.
I got into it because I had the dream and vision that I put in my own personal culture of always looking for the best. Culture of integrity, culture of business ethics. So when you say how it all started it was a dream by a young individual who felt cheated and wanted to start a bank by being a pioneer in his time.
How does it feel when you see your bank succeeding and growing?
Like a mother who has a child, even though you cannot walk with the child, your eyes , your mind would still be with the child. You want to see the child grow and develop. The child is able to meet up with its peers so even though at about 80, I am retired, I still continuously give advice when I am asked.
Towards the end of my career, I found that investment banking was not enough for us to make resources and revenue and profits that can make us compete with the other banks. When the idea of universal banking came, in addition to you being a good investment bank, you should be able to take deposits and give cheque books. So there is no way any mother can take off her mind from the progress of the child. That is the way I feel.
From time to time, I try to give them my ideas just like this morning I asked why my shares on the market are not performing. I became an adviser, I took them through being quoted on the market.
So this hatred of what people call a one-man show in Nigeria, like in those days when I went to central bank and told some people I wanted to start a bank, one young man said you would go to jail because he did not have faith in himself because no other Nigerian had done it. I am now sitting as a founder and from time to time, I bring out words of wisdom and observation from the founder.
Did your training as a lawyer help you get this far?
I was doing very well in law as a student. The government of Awolowo decided to train lawyers in the drafting of laws but not just public laws alone, but laws for agreements and financial documents. So when I trained in the British parliament, I continued it in London. It was while I was in London I heard of stocks and shares. That was when I had the idea of setting up an investment company called Primrose Investment. So definitely that training opened my eyes wide then I came into this country. I rose to some of the highest levels of the civil service and at 28, I was the assistant parliamentary counsel of the federation, I was the assistant legal drafts man. I got to know of NIDB- Nigerian Industrial Development Bank and I said to myself I must go there. What I did was useful for all coming generations and that training helped me to get into this financial thing.
But when I was in NIDB, and I had to be offered the appointment and they told me after all, you are just a lawyer and to rub it in, they brought in a young new 32 year-old American who only had a first degree. I was 42 and he was 32 so I wrote petitions to Obasanjo of those days. I was a fighter so I attracted enemies, ill-informed enemies; I didn’t fight them back because I was focused in what I wanted to do. So that training gave me the broad mind and exposed me to finance. People expected that you should be an economist or accountant before you can do what I did. So to those of you who had different discipline, if you listen to the voice of God, if you listen to your inner self, you can be at the top.
Will you say banks offered more opportunity today looking back from 35 years ago?
The opportunities are growing but have the opportunities been taken advantage of? There are opportunities but people have not tapped the opportunities.
Looking at FCMB today would you say you are comfortable with what it has become?
My mind is entrenched in something much bigger that was why I led FCMB to be quoted on the market. That was why I also disabused the myth that the bank was only meant for elites. Go into FCMB, we are very much involved in retail banking; that is why we have grown from five branches to nearly 300 and we are still growing. So it is more or less a function of the environment that we are going the way we are going. We are just about half way with where we are going and I thank God that I am associated with the chief executive because his dreams are much wider than what I thought. He took the bank from over a hundred branches to nearly 300 branches and he has acquired nearly eight banks and we are still growing. This means that FCMB is a dynamic institution; we have not reached our journey. The chief executive said within a period he wants to make us among the first five I pray for him and I am in full support of it.
When the dividend was high, at what point did you decide to go and achieve what you called an industry benchmark?
I had set a stage that at a particular time I must allow the old order to change yielding place to new. Success without a successor is not success. So at a point, I was thinking of the stage I would retire and I actually said to myself at the age of 70, but at 65 to 68, hell was let loose even when I knew I hadn’t done anything but my God was with me. At the eve of my 70th birthday, I retired. Growth is something that is continuous so I was making arrangement for succession.
A lot of people look up to you as a role model, what would be your advice to them?
They should persevere through the guidance of the almighty God that all would be well. They should not give way to the syndrome of doubting Thomas. They should be determined, focus straight and have integrity and then out of the scarcity in a tough environment, God would show them the way out. They should not give up. I believe God has used some of us as a pointer to the next generation that they should not lose faith.
Where would you want to see the group in the next decade?
Not because Ladi is my son, the sky is the limit and I want him to explore. Very soon, the London branch would be expanded and its horizon is being widened but in Nigeria, there is a crying need to bring back banking facility to your computer and mobile phones. The best of the state-of-the-art banking practices being cashless, I want FCMB to be among the first five as I agree with this dream, but not in size, also in service. In London, I used my card in a big shop and within seconds I got an alert so I am not telling stories, but the shop manager asked if we had a branch in London and they wanted to open an account. I felt proud with myself so that is the next change I want for FCMB.
Tracing your steps backward in your journey, what have you done that you think you should have done better?
If I come back again in life, I would want to go all over it again with FCMB. So there are no regrets. When I look back, I smile and raise up my hands to thank God.
What will be your advice to young CEOs?
Professionalism, ethics are culture of excellence. A faith in your God and anchoring what you are doing of the Supreme being. The reason I emphasise God is because much of what has happened to me, has been God-driven. You must not compromise integrity no matter what profit you are going to make, you should be transparent and clear. I have learnt considerable lessons in life, and I have gone through the crucible of a chastising experience with the support of providence, I have renewed my strength like an eagle and I am now in a position to soar to whatever level my God would take me. Although I was thoroughly shaken, I was not uprooted and my head was bowed, but not cut. In spite of all these, the almighty God gave us the grace, to reorganise the group in order forge ahead.
So I told God that neither my health nor my personal composure within the system and the public, suffered any losses. My faith in my God became firmly established and I am able to serve my God more faithfully and more steadfastly.
You may start to wonder what makes this man thick as I am a very thorough person. Like a swimmer, you cannot suddenly stop in the middle of the sea without making your hand progress otherwise you would sink. So you have to continue to swim and face the waves but you must have confidence and faith in God. That is what has been sustaining us and that is where I continue to be seeking the face of God in the progress of FCMB.
What would you do differently if you were made CBN governor?
I am an old man, and I don’t get into controversies. All I do is pray for the holders of office.
What is the secret of your health?
When you people leave, I am either in the swimming pool or walking around this place. I just feel that God still has a big plan for me even till 100 years. But the basic thing is to ask God to give me that grace to live well and serve him in total contentment with what God has done for me. I am not over ambitious, I am throwing myself like the net which a fisherman throws into the water and leaves it and harvests it to what God will give him. So the secret is the grace of God.