Unveiling a phenomenal banker

The untold story of Tony Elumelu’s electrifying grass to grace story and his unassailable staying power as a business manager

Sometimes, it is tempting to discountenance the small beginnings of very successful men and women, and the reasons are not far to seek. This is so because subjects of great success and achievements and even their admirers, occasionally prefer only the shiny part of the story that begins from the middle. This tendency to erase anything and everything that contrast with the current and acceptable reality is ever strong.     

However, for Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu, economist, quintessential banker, entrepreneur and philanthropist, life actually began from a humble beginning in his home town of Onicha-Uku on one hand, and Onicha Ugbo, his mother’s birth place on the other, two important communities that played major roles in his life. Without the aforementioned towns in Aniocha North Local Government in Delta State, probably there would not be a Tony Elumelu today.

Born in Jos, Plateau State in 1963, Elumelu is a titan, not just in the banking sector where he bestrode for many years like a colossus  but also in other areas of human endeavors where he also distinguished himself.

For this highly innovative chairman of Heirs Holdings, the United Bank for Africa, Transcorp, founder of Elumelu Foundation and one Africa’s 20 Most Powerful People 2012, according to Forbes Magazine,  the road to success was full of twists and turns. He was not even born with a spoon, much less of a golden one but his mother, Suzanne made all the difference as it was reliably gathered that Elumelu, who lost his father early, relied solely on his mother as the lot for his care and those of his siblings fell on her. At Onicha Ugbo, Suzanne’s home town, a new life of immeasurable challenges began for Elumelu and his siblings who essentially depended on their mother for virtually everything.

After his primary school, he proceeded to St. Pius the Xth Grammar School where he obtained his School Certificate before his undergraduate programme at the Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma and graduate course at the University of Lagos. .  

Elumelu’s banking career began at the defunct All States Trust Bank where he made a mark as a dynamic and inventive banker. Having worked a branch manager in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, he leveraged on his experiences to penetrate the oil and gas sector that was at the time, literally waiting to be conquered. From all States Bank, he joined forces with some like-minded colleagues and their partnership gave birth to Crystal Bank, a distressed bank at the time. But the bank’s name change to Standard Trust Bank, STB significantly changed public perception and seriously positioned the bank for a great future that eventually came. First, Elumelu offered Crystal Bank’s creditors an offer they could not resist, a deal which essentially centered on converting their credit to equity and that changed the story of the troubled bank.    

By far the banker’s biggest and most ambitious deal was his single-minded acquisition of United Bank for Africa, UBA and the singular transformation of the big bank from a single-country financial institution to a pan-African bank with presence in over 20 African countries with nearly 11 million customers. United Bank for Africa certainly, entrenched Elumelu as one of the oracles of Nigeria’s banking industry and the banker obviously knows this. Anyone who remembers the takeover of UBA would naturally give credit to Elumelu for his vision, shrewdness and courage while the highly controversial deal lasted. Elumelu, it would be recalled, stayed ahead of everybody, including the principal actors in the merger who gave a flurry of support to Elumelu and his team.

But Elumelu is also inventor in his own right. First, he pioneered a financial package that ingrained discipline and responsibility especially in financial relationships with the private and public sectors. For instance, in his dealings with the public sector particularly with regard to loans, he would ensure that loans are tied to allocation, so repayment is usually seamless because deductions are from the source. He also propounded the term Africapitalism, a concept that espouses the private sector’s commitment to Africa’s economic liberation through funds that do not only create wealth but also bring prosperity via social interventions. He believes the drivers of the private sector have a duty to engender growth and hope with their exceptional skills, vision and tools.

This banker, no doubt, is a big player in various sectors of our economy, from banking, capital market, insurance and real estate to oil and gas, tourism, education and health, among others. He has done well because of hard work and innovation. He also has the good fortune of being a great head hunter as he is always surrounded by knowledgeable people who add value to his ever growing business interest. He listens to them religiously, especially those with good ideas and workable views and propositions. At the beginning for instance, he formed strategic and thinking groups that regularly brainstormed and provided direction at every turn.  

Elumelu is also a good family man; he is committed, highly disciplined and proactive, virtues that keep him focused. He also owes a chunk of his breakthrough and success to Awele, his adorable wife who hails from the famous Ogbue family of Onicha Olona in Delta State. Daughter of Chief Israel Chiwuba Ogbue, consummate board room player and a former General Manager of National Insurance Corporation and also a former Chairman of United Bank for Africa, Awele is believed to be the rock behind Elumelu who respects and adores her.   

Despite his professionalism and excellence, Elumelu, at different times, also witnessed low moments both in his career and life. For instance, at some point in his career, his bank was caught in the web of round-tripping by the regulatory authority, the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN and his bank was sanctioned for the misdemeanor. However, he vowed, after the experience, that such malfeasance would never repeat itself in any of his companies again.

Those close to Elumelu also revealed that at the beginning, the banker was so shy that he could not confidently face the public. The situation was so bad that it was very difficult for him to properly project himself to a public, hungry for information about him and his sprawling companies. So, due to his shyness, many people took advantage of his reticence to fill the gaps for him. They peddled all kinds of rumor and falsehood that at some point, progressively created some image problems for the banker as he remained on the fringe despite the urgent need to communicate more frequently. This contrasts sharply with the Elumelu of today who appears in a hurry to project a good public image because it looks like he had suddenly realized the importance of public relations. And it is generally believed that if there is any regret today, it would be the fact that he did not sufficiently use the media and related platforms to project himself and his activities.       

Yet, Elumelu is a shining example of hard work, diligence and success. He is not just visible but also a major player on the world stage despite all the obstacles on his way at the beginning. He surmounted all odds to become a highly successful and influential person, not just in Nigeria but in Africa and the world at large. According to the famous novelist, Chinua Achebe, a child that washes clean his hands, is fit to eat with elders. Indeed. Elumelu has washed his hands clean and he is already winning and dinning with elders.

After his time at UBA, he founded Heirs Holdings which has interests in financial services, energy, real estate and hospitality, agribusiness, and healthcare sector. He also established the Tony Elumelu Foundation, an Africa-based and African-funded philanthropic organization that continues to do good. He has served meritoriously at national, continental and world levels in different capacities.             

In 2012, he was awarded the National Honor of Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) for his service in promoting private enterprise.        

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