Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu is arguably one of Nigeria’s finest and most seasoned entrepreneurs. Although completely home-grown, he has expanded the frontiers of his business to all the corners of Africa cutting into every major sector. Unless you know his background, you may never believe that he cut his teeth in business and developed his abilities in Nigeria. Elumelu holds a bachelor and master’s degree in economics from then Bendel State University and the University of Lagos respectively. Even though born into humble beginning, he has successfully transformed himself into a global businessman and entrepreneur that many young Africans are eager to emulate.
From working for defunct All States Bank in Port Harcourt as regional manager at age 27, he proceeded to set up BGL investing $1.2m and became its founding CEO at the young age of 30. A year after founding BGL, he along with his team acquired Merchant Bank of Commerce and turned it around. From there, in 1997, under his leadership, BGL proceeded to acquire the remains of distressed Crystal Bank of Africa later renamed Standard Trust Bank, STB, which grew astronomically to become the 5th largest bank in Nigeria. STB later merged with UBA and Continental Trust Bank to constitute what we know today as United Bank for Africa. Today, UBA does business in the USA, Europe, and about 20 African countries.
After retirement as GMD of UBA in 2010, his entrepreneurial instincts drove him to start HEIRS Holdings with investments in financial services, energy, real estate and hospitality, agribusiness, and healthcare sector. In the same year, he founded his philanthropic organization called The Tony Elumelu Foundation with a mission to promote excellence in business leadership and entrepreneurship and to enhance the competitiveness of the private sector across the African continent. Let us find out the top 10 secrets behind the huge success recorded by Elumelu at such a young age and his philosophy for life and business.
I started reading books early in life. From a young age, Elumelu says he started studying the autobiographies of successful business leaders and how they transformed Corporate America. He wanted to understand how they achieved gigantic feats in building multinational organizations spanning many decades and countries. He grew up with the mindset that he could replicate the successes recorded by these world leaders in their different countries. In fact, it was this mindset and conviction that drove the whole idea and philosophy of business turn-around. With a smile on his face, a deep of satisfaction and excitement, Elumelu, says “when we have the opportunity to turn-around, we do it well and create value for shareholders and other stakeholders.
I always want to do things differently. He is innately driven by the need to be positively different. He likes to challenge the status quo and achieve results using unorthodox methods. This was evident in the early days of STB with him as CEO. The bank sought to radically redefine the standards of banking service and practice in Nigeria and pioneered online real-time services in all the bank’s branches across the country. He wanted to raise a generation of bankers who didn’t sit down waiting for business to come to the bank but were hungry for success and wanted to go out and get business. This practice was new back in the day because people were used to customers strolling and begging them to accept business. Today, this practice has become the norm, but it was largely pioneered by Standard Trust Bank. This has clearly defined him as one of the greatest transformational leaders of the modern time.
Discipline. Elemelusays he worked extremely hard when they started and also made sacrifices in order to succeed and in his own words, “it was quite rewarding”. People who worked with this brilliant businessman, right from the days when he was the young CEO of STB, will attest to the fact that he loves to work hard. It was impossible to survive a day in the bank if you weren’t ready to work hard. He was often the last to leave office in the evening and first to resume in the morning. During his business abroad, you would think he will be on holiday but not Elumelu. He worked during the day and read fax messages and attended to everything requiring his approval and sent them back. So he acknowledges that discipline played a major role in making him who he is today.
Developing a saving culture early in life. This man alluded to the fact that the first thing that influenced his life while growing was his father’s advice that if he didn’t save from earning one dollar, he would not save even if he earned $1bn. He says that disciplined mindset not to consume everything but to keep a part affected his life significantly. He likes to call it the philosophy of savings and long-term investment as being instrumental in making him the person he is today.
An entrepreneur must be quick and fast in his ideas and ability to act very quickly.From his early days, he always taught people the ability to think on their feet. It is impossible to be sluggish and work with Elumelu. You’ll be changing your ways the very next minute after resumption because he has zero tolerance for mediocrity. He gives you tasks that might take up to 24 hours and gives you only 4 hours. He pushes and motivates you to excel and succeed. The weak quickly get discouraged and fall on the way. He concludes by saying that to succeed, an entrepreneur must know when an opportunity presents itself and not fail to seize the opportunity.
Making sacrifices. In his words, Elumelu says “I don’t know of many people who have succeeded in life that are not disciplined”. He goes further to say, “you must have a rigorous way of doing things and be willing to make sacrifices”. People who have worked with him can attest to the fact that he lives a highly disciplined lifestyle. You might understand this better if you can imagine the amount of sacrifice and number of sleepless nights he and his team endured in order to resuscitate and transform a failed bank into the 5th largest bank in Nigeria in less than 10 years?
Stay focused. Staying focused and keeping your eyes on the goal is vital for business success. People who have related with or worked with Elumelu will corroborate the fact that his vision is 20:20and he sticks with that vision until he accomplishes it. He teaches his people how to avoid distractions and broken visions. His life also further reaffirms the value of tenacity in the pursuit of vision and staying focused.
Investing in long-term opportunities. Elumelubelieves in investing in key sections of the African economy that have the potential to bring economic prosperity and social wealth. That is why HEIRS Holdings has investments in all the key sectors of the economy including financial services, energy, real estate and hospitality, agribusiness, and healthcare sector.
Go from dreaming to actualizing. In Elumelu’s words, “when you dream dreams, you have to work hard to actualize the dream”. He goes further to explain that “the ability to translate the idea to reality is important as it differentiates successful people from ones who are not. Some only read for entertainment but others read and put what they read into practice,” he says. He further says you must “decide who you want to be and work hard at it”.
Mentorship. Elumelu openly acknowledges that early in his career at Allstates Trust Bank, he benefitted from the mentorship of Chief Ebitimi Banigo. “Chief Banigo helped me to develop my strategic thinking and insight and to channel my ideas into concrete action so that when the opportune moment arrived at the age of 34, I had the set belief to gather a small group together to take over and revive a failing bank through innovations in our services”. He concludes here that our role models help clear a path for the future and we can aspire to either be like them or do better than them.
All lovers and admirers of Elumelu consider him a champion who embodies true greatness as he carries the fight, refuses to settle for a comfortable existence, thinks about the plight of others, inspires hope and decides to make the aspirations of others his own personal fight despite major challenges. Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu is not only a winner but a champion.