By Toni Kan
Seven years ago, I received an email asking my company to submit a proposal for a biography project on Tony OnyemaechiElumelu, economist, banking and finance guru, serial entrepreneur, Africapitalist and philanthropist. We had just published our well-received biography of Samuel Shonibare, one of Nigeria’s richest men of the 60s.
We wasted no time in putting one together. We suggested two titles – “Tony Elumelu: Africapitalist” and “Business the TOE way!”I remember someone saying that “Business the TOE Way” was too similar to “Jack Welch & The G.E. Way: Management Insights and Leadership Secrets of the Legendary CEO” and arguing further that Tony Elumelu had not yet achieved such legendary status as to merit being defined by a TOE way of doing business.
The project did not happen and time passed but as news of his 60th birthday filtered through, I opened the TOE folder to look at what we had put down and boy, what a difference seven years can make in the life of an audacious Africapitalist.
The first time I heard about Tony Elumelu was in 2001. I had just pivoted from journalism to banking and was hired to work with Magnus Onyibe at Continental Trust Bank which had been promoted bythe Merchant Bank of Commerce Limited (MBCOM) with Ike Nwabuoku and Tony Elumelu at the helm. Tony Elumeluwould leave MBCOM to set up Standard Trust Bank in 1997 at the young age of 34 and in time made it the vehicle for which he made an audacious play for the big time.
This timeline is important because we live in a country where it is immensely difficult to trace the trajectory of many business leaders.
We didn’t know it then but ensconced within STB were the seeds of what would become a global conglomerate – UBA with footprints in over 20 African countries as well as the UK and US, Transcorp, Heirs holding, Avon medicals and the paradigm defining Tony Elumelu Foundation.
Back then people spoke about Tony Elumelu as ambitious, audacious and driven. He had turned STB into a nation-wide success and even though his name was being mentioned with some degree of awe among young bankers, no one could have predicted back in 2001 that Tony Elumelu would become the apostle of Africapitalism and the global business icon (with multiple TIME magazine mentions) he is today with fingers in several pies from banking and finance, real estate and hospitality, insurance and health management, to oil and gas and power, anda man committed to helping young Africans realise their potentials from Kano to Kigali and Nupe to Nairobi.
Who is Tony Elumelu? Like the proverbial elephant and the seven blind men, portraits of the man they call TOE are usually composites. His provenance is traced to Onicha-Ukwu and Onicha-Ugbo in Delta state even though he was born in Jos to Suzanne and Dominic Elumelu. Education wise, he holds a BSc from the Edo State University of Ekpoma and an MSc from the University of Lagos. The implication of this short biographical detail is that Tony Elumelu is completely homegrown; a telling fact underlining his belief that African youth can make it in and within the continent.
He had his first taste of banking at Union Bank. From Union Bank he worked briefly as a copier salesman before moving to All StatesTrust Bank from where he learnt the ropes in preparation for the big time. Working with a group of investors, would take over the struggling Crystal Bank which morphed into Standard Trust Bank the vehicle he used in merging with UBA in what has been described as one of the “largest mergers in the banking sector in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
It was audacity on steroids!
The mention of UBA will take us back to the early 80s when “Cock Crow at Dawn” was a staple on NTA. Everyone who owned a television set or hadaccess to one remembered the BongosIkwue soundtrack and the UBA advert tagline – wise men bank with UBA and women too.
Shot in Jos, was that when the young Tony Elumelu who was a secondary school student at St. Pius Onicha-Ugbo began to imagine a career in banking and if he did, could he have imagined that one day he would be the owner and leader of the bank for wise men and women?
The man himself has confessed that his success is based on hardwork and luck and a consuming hunger for success. “I started my career as a salesman, a copier salesman to be specific, young, hungry, and hardworking, but the reality was that I was just one of the thousands of young Nigerian graduates, all eager to succeed.”
Parlaying his successes in banking, Tony Elumelu would branch into the hospitality business and one now wonders whether the first time he booked a room at what was then NiconNoga Hilton hotel, Tony Elumelu had imagined that he would one day own the imposing hotel?
Life, for those who believe in luck,often consists of a series of serendipitous happenstances all coalescing into something grand and spectacular. A consideration of serendipity will help us gain a firm handle on how that young man from a quiet town in Delta state has ended up becoming one of Africa’s richest serial entrepreneurs, friend of world leaders, captain of industry and mentor to thousands of young starry-eyed Africans waiting for the ship of their entrepreneurial destinies to berth at good ports.
The outpouring of congratulations to TOE @ 60 all point to the fact that he has become a truly phenomenal and inspiring business leader with a Global sphere of influence and one who has, in the past 10 years empowered over 16,000 African entrepreneurs and by so doing catalyzed Africa’s development.
Today, with a sprawling business empire,built through organic and inorganic growth, bestriding Nigeria’s major sectors, Tony OnyemaechiElumelu is better known as an africapitalist and philanthropist who has committed $100m to “ to create opportunities for young people” because as he noted in a facebook post “I believe that our youth have the talent and the zeal to transform our world.”
While many have tried to reduce Tony Elumelu’s philanthropy to clout-chasing especially when you consider his larger-than-life social media impression, it is important to note that while his focus may well be to up skill and so uplift young people, he has always displayed a predilection for helping other people.
To underline this point, I will narrate a story shared by a septuagenarian gas industry pioneer who was once Tony Elumelu’s neighbor. Seeking to raise funds to set up a business, the gentleman had approached Tony Elumelu for advice on potential investors. Elumelu had whispered a secret. “There is a Chief who has loads of cash and looking for where to invest. Go and see Chief and ask him to invest.”The gentleman took Tony Elumelu’s advice, approached the Chief and ended up getting funds to build Nigeria’s first indigenous gas business.
This anecdote is to highlight the fact that from the moment Tony Elumelu began to rise, he has always had a heart for helping those like him from the disadvantaged end of the street get a leg up the rungs of the ladder of success. It is not clout-chasing.
As he celebrates his 60th birthday, I wish the man with whom I share the same baptismal and Igbo names– Anthony and Onyemaechi – greater successes and god speed in his unalloyed commitment to lifting Africa’s youth.
Onyemaechi means “who knows tomorrow?” As Tony Elumelu continues to empower Africa’s youth who can tell who amongst this army of empowered youths will become the next Africapitalist in the mould of the incomparable TOE?
And who knows, we may get to write that biography, one day.
•Toni Kan is an award-winning writer and PR professional.