I Did Not Plan To Be ‘Super Banker’ — Subomi Balogun, Founder of FCMB

He did not train as an accountant or a banker. He read law at the London School of Economics and worked with the British Parliament. In those days, lawyers’ ambition was to become successful and get to the peak of the profession, and he returned to Nigeria young (26 years). He could have been a judge but he didn’t like that. At a point, he was among officials earning the highest salaries at the Federal Ministry of Justice. But by the time he became the Secretary of the Nigeria Industrial Development Bank (NIDB), originally known as ICON, an acronym for Investment Company of Nigeria, he was earning more than the Chief Justice of Nigeria. In this interview, Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun, founder of First City Monument Bank , FCMB Group, and Olori Omo-oba of Ijebuland, who is now 85 plus, reveals that God was the secret behind his success in life, adding that he just can’t explain how banking innovations got into his head

It is on record that you took several blue-chip companies to the capital market. How were you able to do that?

That is what made me in addition to divine intervention. At a point in time, the government of this country introduced an indigenization policy whereby all foreign companies would sell their shares to Nigerians, 40 per cent, 60 per cent or the whole and we required an issuing house to do it at the Stock Exchange. I had gained some fame in selling UAC. I had also sold Coca-Cola, Mobil Oil. At the time the indigenization policy came, there were only three Nigerian companies. There was also Investment Company of Nigeria, ICON, my former employer. So, I came out with what we called City Securities and people were calling it a one-man show but I recruited some bright boys, geniuses. One of them, Ladi Balogun, is the incumbent Group Chairman of First City Monument Bank, FCMB. There were many young men that l recruited who later on became chief executives. I introduced different things. In those days, bankers only wore shirt and tie but I said my staff must wear dark suit. We also introduced eating of lunch at the Penthouse. I don’t know how these innovations got into my head and that is why I ascribe everything to God.

Were you trying to set new standards?

I did not train as an accountant or a banker. I read law at the London School of Economics and worked in the British Parliament in order to be trained as a parliamentary counsel. I was called to the English Bar in December 1959. That is all the training l had but I was very good at plagiarising and I was learning. I would sit people down. Then-Chairman of the Inland Revenue Service was one of such people. I would ask him to teach me accounts and would I teach him law in return. I think it is something very divine. I could not believe how it happened. The day we started FCMB in Mandilas House, I prayed that by the time the three years’ lease expired, God would have blessed me to have my own offices. By sheer coincidence, in my second year, I was offered a site of May and Baker there and I bought it for N1.5million. I even hesitated but my then Secretary, Mrs Kojomi, said to me, “Oga, land is never expensive in Lagos, pay for it”. So, I gathered funds everywhere I could and paid for the land.

Despite your age, you look strong, you are resilient. What keeps you going?

Some of my friends in their 80s don’t wear suit again. But I still come to the office at least three days a week, spend about three hours, advise the management of FCMB about this and that, read papers and tell them, “oh, this bank has just published this, when are you going to publish your own? What is the price of FCMB at the Stock Exchange now?” It is divinely given. I love reading. I also like writing. And that has kept me going. I have also been lucky with some of my staff. Only recently, we lost one of them at 71. He started with me at 29. I had a mandate to restructure the NNPC and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I took advice from Britain. I was told about an institution. I got them to be my partner in restructuring NNPC. The staff member who just died later on came to work for me. Initially, he was scared and was not married. So, when I think of the awesome way God did it for me, the only thing I could spend the rest of my life doing is thanking Him because He knows how it happened.

FCMB is a success story and the industry is getting more competitive. How do you intend to sustain the good work

I pray a lot and the good Lord is answering my prayers. As I said, a number of the top staff of the banking industry passed through these walls. And by divine design, my children followed my footsteps. I have four sons; three of them are fully in finance. My eldest son has even gone to the extent of setting up a finance institution of his own. He is just in his fifties. My third, the head of the group, just had a degree and led his class in economics and a bank in London was looking for trainees and they went to universities and picked him. I was trying to encourage him to come back home but he was not interested.

Then one day, I succeeded and brought him back. I made him my Executive Assistant before the likes of Femi Pedro, a former Deputy Governor of Lagos State. Ladi refused to sit next to me. He preferred to go to training, corporate banking, loan syndication and made his mark. All of a sudden, he said, “Daddy, I must go to the Harvard Business School”. I could not hold him back. But when I spoke with someone, he said Ladi was too young to be taken at Harvard Business School and I told him to take his time. But by some coincidence, there was a Ghanaian working in an investment bank in London. He ran into me and he had heard so much about me. I was a consultant when they were setting up the Ghanaian Stock Exchange and this fellow said, “Sir, I would introduce you to somebody and he would call Ladi for an interview. If he is impressed, he would take him”. So we took Ladi to Harvard in Boston and they interviewed him.

I could see from the genuflection of the man that Ladi was doing well and, at the end of the day, we shook hands. By the time I arrived in my apartment, a telex message had arrived in Nigeria and my Secretary phoned to say they had a message from Harvard that Ladi had been taken. He was 27 then whereas my friend said they could not take him. When he finished, he worked briefly at Citibank on my introduction. A gentleman, who was Deputy Governor in the CBN went to Citibank for training and came back and said to me, “Oga, I saw one bright young man Balogun in Citibank, could he be your son?” And I said “yes”. Then he said “bring him, this is the type of people we want”. It was Edozie and we encouraged Ladi. He became an Executive Director and, three years later, there was an opening for an Executive Managing Director and I proposed him. But our friends in the CBN said he was too young. Ultimately, they called me and we had a chat.

Then-CBN Governor said “go ahead, make him Deputy Managing Director”. About three-four years later, at 70, I decided I had had enough and decided to make the expatriate who died the Chairman and we proposed Ladi as Managing Director but one particular official again said he was too young and that if we allowed it, Pascal Edozie (founder of Diamond Bank) and Mrs Cecilia Ibru (former MD of defunct Oceanic Bank) would bring their children. Another Deputy Governor said, “Baba, let him stay there acting until about a year and a half later”. So, God made him and that fellow who said he was too young is now seeing it. But, recently, the CBN made a regulation which, I think, is unfair which says chief executives of institutions, after ten years, should go away for three years before reapplying.

Why should they go? It is like you are having your house or a wife and they ask you to leave them for three years and come back. By the time you come back, they might have polluted what you have and I tried to check up all over, the international bodies, it is not done. It is only when the chief executive has offended or done something improper or unprofessional that he should go. Honestly, my own idea is that within 10 years, come and review the operations of the institutions. If the person is not doing well, you then have a right to ask the person to change but not putting a blanket. At the time they wanted my son to retire, he was just in his mid 40s. Then to be able to control all the subsidiaries, I set up a group structure, So, when the CBN came, l said, “Yes the boy is going to be 10 years next year, but we have a group structure” and I quoted another bank, IBTC, that also had a good structure and I said he would be moved to be the head of the group.

Naturally, the CBN accepted and we looked for somebody good among the Executive Directors to become the head of FCMB instantly. So l am always thinking of succession but, in doing it, I am also praying to God to guide me. What I am doing now is part of succession. At 85, I am just sitting and wearing agbada around, engaging in all sorts of things because God has made me successful. I am not involved in the running of the bank. I am only recognised as a founder but l am always looking at what happens if, naturally or unnaturally, Ladi has to leave. I am always thinking ahead but, in addition, I am always begging God to show us the way.

Humanly speaking, who is your role model?

God is my role model. I ascribe everything to divine authority. So I can’t point to an individual. In what field should I talk of my role model? I confer a great deal with my God. I have senior friends who I appreciate but, in what I am doing, it is only God and what I do is, before l bring up ideas, I first put them before God. Let me tell you something about how FCMB started. Way back then, every evening, my wife and my four boys would go to the chapel to pray before going to bed. Every morning, we would all converge there too. One of the things we did then was to pray, “Good Lord, let daddy become the head of ICON”. ICON was another bank owned by NIDB and the World Bank.

Amazingly, my second son, at the age of nine, was just about to go to school in Britain; he walked to his mother and said, “I pitied daddy when he was praying. Why is he seeking to be the boss of other people’s bank? Why can’t he set up his own?” And my wife said to me, “Did you hear what Jide said?” Jide is 49 plus now and I said to my dear wife, “A nine-year-old boy, how can he say that?” We were going into our bedroom. So, I branched to Jide’s room which he shared with his brothers. We had a large room for four of them and I saw Jide was already covering his head. I took off his bed sheet and said, “Jide, what did you tell your mummy?” He said, “Daddy, I pitied you the way you were praying. So, I went to mummy and said, ‘Why can’t daddy start his own bank instead of being the boss of somebody else’s bank?’” After that, I covered his head and prayed for him. I went back to the chapel and started praying again. “Good Lord, show me the way”. Who am l, all alone, to set up a bank? I didn’t have the money but instead of feeling sad, I was singing, “You cannot fail, you cannot fail because of Jesus; you cannot fail”.

After that, I went into my study. I took the memo and articles of ICON, my employers, I deleted ICON. I put ‘City’ and made consequential changes. Before I went to bed that evening, I had completed the format for a new company to be known as City Securities. In the morning, I went to my wife who was working with the Ministry of Health as Personal Assistant to the Permanent Secretary. I said, “Please dear, type this for me when you get to the office”. She said, “What? When did you do this?” And I said after the discussion of the previous night I was inspired. Reluctantly, my wife took it from me and typed everything before she came back. I was an official of the Federal Ministry of Justice. My juniors were Registrars of companies and l got them to do the certificate of incorporation in three days. I had told my wife and mother that, going by what was happening at ICON, if I would be selling garri or doing something else, I was going to leave.

So, I went to Mike Eboh, a year my senior at Igbobi College, and told him l wanted to be a distributor of his beer and he asked if l knew about beer selling. But by sheer coincidence, an American, a chief executive of a company I knew, also said there were several foreign companies which wanted to indigenise. I said I was just thinking of setting up a company. That is how it all started. When we were starting, all the friends I went to for funds said they didn’t have money to invest. That is why, l believe, you need to pray on any project you may want to do and leave the rest to God. You may have plans but God’s plans may be different. In those days, lawyers’ ambition was to become successful by becoming Senior Advocates of Nigeria and I returned young and brilliant at the age of 26 into this country after studying abroad. I could have been a judge but I didn’t like that. By the time I rose, earning one of the highest salaries in the Ministry of Justice, I was only 27-28 years. But by the time I became the Secretary of NIDB, the Secretary was earning more than the Chief Justice of Nigeria. How did it happen? I can only ascribe it to the awesomeness of God. You cannot plan. You can only ask God to guide you. I am not delivering a sermon. I am only reporting what has happened to me.

You have been doing things that many people will think are impossible all your life. What is the magic?

I think there must have been God’s plan. So, what kept me going is that l have kept in constant touch with my maker, Whenever I have a proposal or an idea, I put it before God. At a point in my career, I was doing very well. But one day, I was in Britain with my wife when my Secretary phoned and said the CBN had said there were certain papers we should send to them. If we didn’t, they were going to send FCMB out of the foreign exchange market and I said, “How could I give all the papers in London? Go to the Director in charge of finance, he would give them to you”. But at about 6 o’clock, she phoned back to say the CBN said they were not happy with what we sent and that they were suspending the bank from the forex market. I said, “This is not fair. Go and book my flight. First thing tomorrow morning, I am returning to Nigeria”. So, I returned and said, “What have we done?” They said one lady deposited some money with FCMB and we promised her and her customers in Alaba Market to give them foreign exchange. Meanwhile l didn’t know anything about that transaction.

Then I tried to phone my friends, people who called me big brother, including Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, then-CBN Governor and current Emir of Kano: “What have I done? Is it because something happened in City Securities, you want to take it on FCMB as a group? If something happened at ICON at the lowest level, would you know about it?” So, I said something must be there. I couldn’t understand it. Then about two days later, there was a screaming newspaper headline, ‘The Fall of a Super Banker’. I called Sanusi and told him l didn’t know anything about it. He said some people said l signed some papers and sent the papers to me. Then I saw a grand conspiracy involving some highly placed people in the country. I tried to get former President Olusegun Obasanjo on all the telephone lines I knew but they were blocked. So, I began to pray. I was in my living room when my youngest son, who is 45 plus now, said I had a telephone call from Aso Rock.

I took the call and said “Your Excellency” but a lady answered and said it was not Obasanjo but that the President had agreed to see me the following Tuesday. So, I assembled about 15-16 staff members, even my wife followed us. When we arrived Aso Rock, one lady, then-Chairman of Public Service Commission came and said Obasanjo would see me alone. So l took file no.13. We had carried files in ‘Ghana must go’ bags. We thought we had all the evidence to prove that the offending transaction was not from FCMB. It was from City Securities even though associated but not owned by FCMB. So, I took file no 13 and headed to the President’s office. It was Obasanjo sitting down alone in his white long cassock. I greeted him and he looked back and said “Otunba, good evening”. Before I could say something, I was in tears. I said “God is my witness. I don’t know anything about this. My offence is that people believe I own FCMB”.

Then the President said, “I don’t know much about it. But I called in people from CBN to discuss the fate of the economy and they were saying you were the cause of it. That it is some bankers, the way they were selling forex and one of them, we believe, is your friend, Otunba Balogun”. I said “me?” Just then, we heard a knock on the door. The President had said it was only me that would be at the meeting and Sanusi came in. I turned to him, my friend, he pretended as if he did not know me even though he called me Egbon (big brother).

Then the former President said “Mr. Governor, any problem?” Sanusi replied that he heard that there were some problems with FCMB and that he came to see if he could be of help. Mr. President said, “Don’t worry, Otunba is my friend. We had known each other for a long time; let me give him the respect of a friend. If I need you, I will call you”. Sanusi left. I told Obasanjo l didn’t know anything about the transaction. I narrated that l was in Kano opening a new branch of FCMB when l received a call that some people from Alaba market had surrounded the bank in Lagos to demand for their money. I told the President l returned to Lagos and heard that City Securities, an associated company, was the problem.

Then I said City Securities was not part of FCMB. I said it was started by me as a stepping stone but being run separately, and that the money they said they paid to City Securities, they probably paid half of it to FCMB but that none of the traders from Alaba market put a dime with us. And that the lady who brought them in had taken the money out and I told President Obasanjo l had ample evidence of the withdrawal of the money. Obasanjo said, “Well, you have taken us to court, now let us finish at the court before we decide the next move”. I said, “Mr. President, you want me to wait for a moving train. I had to go to court. I had laboured and I am getting close to 70, do you want me to be knocked out just like that?”

God just put it in my mind that maybe if I withdrew the matter from court, things would be fine. So, as soon as I got out, I told my wife that we needed to phone our lawyer, the late Chief Rotimi Williams, to withdraw the matter in court. I phoned Chief Williams and said, “Good brother, save me. I have just met President Obasanjo and he said he would not be able to listen to me until the matter in court is finished”. Case withdrawn and, two days later, CBN said we could come back into the forex market. Seeing that, I made public that at 70, I was 68 plus then, I would retire.


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