Otunba Subomi Balogun is a banking guru who has made an appreciable impact in the profession. He was one of those who started indigenous banks and has remained relevant in the banking sector. He will clock 80 years on March 9 and he spoke on his life, challenges, career and other sundry issues.
How do you feel as an 80-year old man?
Normally, I would have said I had enough press exposure, but a number of people insisted that they would want to know about my reflections now that I have reached age of 80. Take it from me that I don’t feel 80 and that is the grace of the Almighty God in me. I don’t want any controversial question and I’m not interested in politics. I’m a statesman, a man of God and I spend every minute of my life, every part of my body praising God.
By the grace of the Almighty Cod, the Alpha and ever faithful, come the Sunday March 9, 2014, I will be marking the 80years of my sojourning on this terrain, When I cast my mind back and reflect on the amazing and the abundant grace with which the good Lord has endowed me with during this remarkable span of 80years, I’m humbled and at the same time, bewildered by the wholesome power of our Cod to crown with success, preserve and sustain His own chosen children in any human endeavour in spite of the not unusual malevolence or resistance by fellow human beings. It is therefore with the greatest sense of humility that I’m offering the rest of my life to continue to serve our God and humanity as well as give thanks for the wondrous things that the good Lord has done for me. That encapsulates what the celebration is all about.
What were those things you had done and with the benefit of hindsight you would not have done?
I will say no. If you know me, you will realise I have a strong character. Even at 80, I still speak correctly and articulately. The moment I started a banking institution, I said I was coming with the culture of excellence and I was the first to create a special dining room for staff of bank. I was the first who insisted that my staff must be wearing dark suit. I wouldn’t say that I’m anything more than human being but there was the unseen hand of God guarding me so there is nothing I have done that I regret. If I come again, I will do it again.
I want my God to use me. I want to spend the rest of my life giving my service to God and humanity. I want my God to give me opportunity to show my appreciation. I want the rest of my life to be entirely devoted to the service of God and humanity. I want to be able to impact my experience and the reflections and the lessons about life. I’m not asking for anything again in life. God has given me all the beautiful things of this life. I just want you to join me in praising God and unfathomable power of Cod, the giver of all things, the creator of all of us, the Alpha and Omega; the El-Shadai. If someone tells you what we went through in this country without being politicians and yet we still raise our heads high, you will know what I’m talking about.
Someone said I was telling lie that I wasn’t as old as the age I gave. It has a lot to do with my background. My late father used to say that there is no difficulty which industry, perseverance and prayers cannot solve. The way I look at life, God has a purpose for all of us. I’m impacting to the younger generation to be focused, to make integrity their hallmark and never to look back. Once you believe that your God is with you, the unfailing God, the El-Shadai. I have experienced God in all facets of my life.
How did you earn the appellation, the Grandmaster of Nigerian banking industry?
We were told to go and look for N25billion capital. So, I had just retired at 70. I told my people, I was going to come out and lead you in the campaign. So, I started going around, I approached a very highly revered statesman, and said, big brother, I want to come and sell KMB shares to you. I have been asked to raise N25 billion and I’m going to lead the campaign. He said you have been selling other people’s shares; you now want to sell your own? And I said yes. It was at that point he called me a grandmaster. I caused T-shirts to be made for everybody including all the staff of the bank and the first team the media saw was my wife and I wearing shirts bearing the inscription Grandmaster. So the thing was captured. Not many people thought with what we went through in Comfort Inyam episode, we could fully subscribe. Instead of failing to meet up, we acquired about six banks and since then, we have acquired the Finbank which is an amalgam of four banks. Those are the miraculous things God has done for me so that appellation of Grandmaster was given by a venerated Nigerian individual whose profession is very close to the financial world who said you have sold other people’s shares, now you want to come from retirement to sell your own, then you must be a grandmaster. I picked that word and put it on the T-shirt. We made about 600. We were junketing round the whole country and we were heavily oversubscribed. I dramatised the whole thing because when I was entering Ijebu-Ode, horse riders came to meet me. When I was entering Kano, it was with the long horns and so on. Several banks were inviting me to take them up. I ended up offending some of my friends because after we made about N27.5 billion, I did not want to bite more than I could chew.
Another good thing the Lord did for me is a good wife. We were going on around the whole place and when it happened, even my enemies came to congratulate me. Some people begged me to take over their banks. This was a bank a year earlier was pilloried and we thought it was over. So how am I not going to praise the name of our Lord?
Will you say some of those great potentials that attracted you to apply for a banking licence when you did are still there today?
I have a can-do attitude. At our own time, no individual could say he wanted to set up a bank. If you wanted to set it up, you must bring an expatriate. So, there were a lot of skeptics who thought probably I was mad or would go to jail. So it is the same that applies now. ‘There may be problems but I have great hopes, bright hopes for that matter, about the future of the industry because it is the mainstay of the economy; without an effective banking, the economy cannot be oiled. So, definitely, I’m still optimistic that we are just scratching the wall; we have not gone the depth.
I don’t believe that anything is impossible if God is on my side. Take what is happening in the institution God helped me to create. We were only a minute, a small one-man bank as they used to call us, but I told people that when the time is ripe I would invite them to buy shares. I did it. When it came to succession, I nurtured ideas; there was a gentleman, and I won’t mention his name. I picked him from Chase and I was grooming him. Then suddenly, he walked into my house one day, I had heard that he was planning that he had to go and work with Dangote. I wished him well another one, which you all know, wrote that he started a bank and that my bank was his template. There were so many examples. Cowards will chicken out, but somehow, I’m an optimist. I have the can-do attitude but qualified with the support of the divine.
What is happening in the Nigerian banking industry now are trying times. Like late Obafemi Awolowo said, when they shake the jar of life, everything will take shape. He said at that time that a jar of life is like a bottle with big beans and small beans. That when they shake the jar of life, the small beans will submerge and the big beans will remain at the top. That encapsulates my own belief. We will continue to have stresses and stress test like we had recently but I still have hope that we have not yet seen the best.
How will you respond to the allegations that banks are feeding fat on the manufacturing sector of the nation’s economy?
There are a lot of misconceptions because there has not been enough enlightenment. It has to do with the culture of Nigerians. Not many of them are interested in the culture of long gestation of manufacturing. The typical Nigerian is a trader. The typical Nigerian is looking for quick bucks. The typical Nigerian facilitates quick ingress and quick evacuation; I decided to build a ramp especially for that place. Then I refurbished the whole place and restructured it and I gave it more wiring. It is still one of the best in the department of medicine. To my surprise, I had a letter from Professor Osuntokun that their council and the then Minister of Health, Prof Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, had agreed that they should name that wing of the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan after me. It is named the Otunba Tunwase Children’s Emergency Ward. It is one of the best maintained and I endowed it in perpetuity and I give it regular sustenance.
So how did you take development to your state; Ijebu Ode in Ogun State?
People from my hometown in Ijebu Ode complained that I was all around doing everything without doing such in Ijebu Ode. Then I spoke to my royal father, the current Awujale that if I was allowed, I was going to do something similar in ljebu, I was asked to approach the then governor of Ogun State, Governor Lawal, for a piece of land. He said, just go to the General Hospital, whatever you like there, go and do. I drove round and I saw a number of places and I said look; I need a hectare of land. To my surprise, I was asked to demolish. So, I built a 40-bed air-conditioned children’s hospital which I named after my mother, the Iye Subomi Childcare Centre.
When they now asked for an outpatient ward, I built something again; God then did something, which I think was a miracle. While we were all sitting down, during the commissioning, including the then military administrator of Ogun State, the Awujale and some other prominent Nigerians. Suddenly, we had a pandemonium, we thought it was an accident and someone was being rushed to the hospital, a taxi drove in, the driver got out and opened the door. A woman who had been in labour just delivered her baby in the presence of virtually 300 people. I was moved. Then I told one of my staff standing behind me to go and tell them that I would adopt that child. So, they decided to give the boy my name, Subomi. I don’t know the parents. That boy is now 20years old and he is in the university. He is virtually, a member of my family.
Later, I had a letter from the West African College of Physicians that I was going to be honoured for what I had done in the medical field particularly with children and that General Ibrahim Babangida and late MKO Abiola were also going to be honoured.
As I was coming down the aisle, the minister of health, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti walked towards me to congratulate me and then he said Otunba what he had in mind was a prototype of a great hospital in London which will cater for not only taking care of children, teaching and referrals. Then I said we would think about it. Before we left the place, I asked for the cost of the project. He said about N50 million will do a 50-bed hospital. I was a small banker then. On my (60th birthday, I was able to give them N10 million and asked them to come and break the ground.
I saw him again at another event at an award being given me by the College of Physicians. Everybody was calling me Baba ewe and the bank was doing very well. It was in the days when we were having public issues and every now and then they will see my pictures in the papers selling Daily Tunes, selling Mobil Oil and so on, so seeing me also going into philanthropy amazed many people. So I told Prof. Ransome-Kuti, that I can’t get land. I had gone to the then deputy governor of Lagos State to give me something on Lekki road but she didn’t cooperate. Prof Olikoye Ransome-Kuti said I should not worry. He then introduced a young man from the audience as the commissioner of health in Ogun State and told him this man wants to give your state an international hospital but he doesn’t have land and the commissioner promised to look into it.
How did you get the land for the project?
I was in Ijebu Ode in my house when the military governor of the state, Governor Joseph came in. He prostrated and said, sir, we have been told you want a piece of land. This is the C of O of a 50-hectare land along the road. Pay whatever you like. I think I paid about N5 million to secure the place.
Another governor came to break the ground and that was how it started. We formed a committee made up of professionals including Prof Nike Grange, who later on became the minister of health. We were in the middle of construction when suddenly naira was devalued. So what we thought I could spend N50 million for; I was told I might need about N250 million or more. That was much for a poor banker and I couldn’t dip my hand in the kitty of the bank. I did have some other investments outside banks. So, all sorts of people were advising me, if you want to make it a teaching hospital, then you must have post graduate students residence and we built 90-room building. We built an auditorium which will take a thousand people, and then we built lecture rooms with projectors. It was getting to three years, I hadn’t finished. My 70th birthday was approaching and I begged my God to allow me finish the project and get it commissioned on my 70th birthday and the good Lord answered my prayers. By that time, I had spent N1.7 billion.
I told a friend who promised to give me $100,000 not to give me the cash but to furnish the facility for me. I also had my wife and children donate to the hospital. My wife donated the delivery beds. Our eldest son, Bolaji donated neonatal. His 17-year old twins were born prematurely so we named that Bolaji Balogun’s Neonatal department.
The clinical section was named after Olori. Then they all agreed that some amount be deducted from their salaries every month and paid to the hospital. So it was me, my wife and my children that were doing it. So, we were all competing. One day I sold some shares and gave them some millions of naira. I then created some endowments for it. I was donating N10million a month to pay the salary of staff there. I gave a lot of residential apartment, well-furnished for the use of the hospital for consultants and professors. One day, I woke up and resolved to give the facility to University of Ibadan but I don’t want the standard to fall. I begged them to retain the name and because it is very close to the Benin-Shagamu express road, they have put an accident centre there. I promised that I will continue to pay N5million sustenance allowance for another six months. The six month-periods expires this month. I believe it is the good Lord that is sending me on a mission God has been so kind to me that I consider it a duty to give back out of the abundance. That was how I veered from banking. So much of me now is known in pediatrics than in banking.
At what point in your life did you fully embrace God?
Both my parents were very religious but they were Muslims. When I was at Igbobi College, I was being dragged into attending services. Incidentally, my late mother was educated, in fact the only educated wife of my father. So, I confided in her that I was going to convert to Christianity. It is in my book at 13, the late Bishop Segun, who was a priest, converted me 67years ago. Having accepted Jesus; by the time I was being confirmed, I was 19 and since then, I have not looked back. But something made me to be very much interested in the scripture reading. The more I read, the more I got sucked into the unfathomable depth of what our creator meant to us. If I start on this thesis, I will write a book I joined evangelical movement in our school days in England; Bola Ige was our head then but as I grew up in Christianity, while I was in London, every Sunday, I would go and worship my God. That was how I got to know General Yakubu Gowon. We were staying in the same hostel in London. Although, I had some priests of Pentecostal churches as friends, I did not deviate from my church, the Anglican Communion. When I reflect on what God has done for me, at every stage of life, I found that the only way is standing with your God.
When I wanted to become the secretary of the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank, that was why I went into banking, I was trained as a lawyer, someone said Balogun can only become secretary of NIDB on his dead body, I was scared but I still continued praying. Do you know that that fellow died in the first coup and his appointee also died in an accident? That was sometime in December and by January, the Nigerian coup occurred and the minister who said I won’t get the job died. I was worshipping in the cathedral when an Indian gentleman saw me and recognised me. He turned out to be the general manager of NIDB. I told him I came for an interview in his organisation and that I didn’t know what happened. Then we got to know ourselves. He said the job would be re-advertised. It was re-advertised. Chris Ogunbanjo was the chairman of the panel and I was given the job.
How did you secure the licence for the bank?
I wanted to set up a bank; to many people, it was an anathema, unheard of. Some people even claimed that I was a protégé of a particular politician and so they said don’t give him a licence. If you give him a licence, he would use it to finance someone. Some people thought it was crazy for a man to say he wanted to set up a bank. My stroke of fortune was my relationship with former vice-president Alex Ekwueme. Ekwueme and I had been friends for a long time before politics. I even told him not to go into politics but at that time, he was already the vice president, so one day, he was coming to the cathedral. I planned with my wife that we were going to waylay him. Why he was coming down that aisle, I broke the cordon, pulled the vice-president’s cloth; my wife pulled the cloth of his wife. The security people thought we were mad but Alex looked at me and said Subomi, what is the problem? I said Mr. Vice-President, where is my licence? Then he said they should leave us. He said I should come and see him in the Dodan Barracks. After he had told me who and who were behind it, he said somebody from our own part of the world had said that if they give it to that man, he is going to give his money to Awolowo. Alex said, don t worry yourself. Come Thursday at the Federal Executive Council which he would preside because President Shehu Shagari would not be there. By 3pm, Alex asked the minister in the ministry of finance, Yomi Akintola to phone that my licence was ready. I shouted and said God has saved me and the people around me were wondering what had happened to me. The story is in my book. I’m just giving you landmarks that continue to convince me that I’m a chosen child of God.
In my career, there have been so many battles, some of which will consume any mortal but somehow, I have always managed to escape. One of them was the sensational Comfort Inyam saga. FCMB, described as a one-man bank was doing very well. FCMB staff were known to be well dressed. I built the first block, Primrose Tower. I decreed that all my staff should be wearing smart suits. In one day, I was in London with my wife, when my personal assistant who has spent 34 years with me now, called me on phone that she got a letter from the Central Bank that if I did not give information about a particular account, they would suspend FCMB. I asked what have we done? By 6pm, she phoned that the CBN people came and they had been given the report but 6.30, they wrote a letter that they have suspended FCMB and I told my wife to pack her bag and that we were to return to Lagos immediately. Someone, a professor had sought my permission to write about me. He wrote something and said the Life of an Icon, the Grandmaster and I said no. Call it the work of God. That was why we named it, the Financial Monument Built by God. I said everything we are talking about, God did it and not me. During the Comfort Inyam saga, I created an anthem for FCMB.
The event I’m referring to, Comfort Inyam Saga, which like the hurricane blast descended on my foundation company, City Securities and the opportunity of that event, was immediately grabbed by my waiting detractors