Olorogun O’tega Emerhor, consummate banker, businessman, politician, onetime youngest bank CEO, philanthropist who just turned 60 in this interview with Bolaji Ogundele speaks on his many exploits. Excerpts:
Life at 60
Well, at 60, I don’t think you have any other choice than to be wise. When I was 40 I thought at 50 I would retire from business and I would have achieved all that I need so that I can travel and do whatever I like. But we are in a country where things change rapidly, where people who are rich today can be poor tomorrow and those who are poor today can be rich tomorrow. By the time you are 60 you already have a family; I have three grand children as we speak and that tells you the level of dependency are also high. I have extended family also. I am a politician and all that.
When you put all that together, you realize that your life affects so many people. At 60, no matter who you are, you have crossed so many people and it imposes a responsibility on you to be matured, to be wise and to be more understanding on how life affects people. It teaches a lot of lessons. What I can say for myself is that; God has been wonderful to my life, He has touched me and He has blessed me. God has also used me as an instrument to also reach out to other people. I give Him (God) all the credit. I still ask God everyday to make me wise, that was the only thing Solomon asked for. At 60, you are an example to so many people. You’re a mentor to so many people –people want to use you to model their lives. It’s a great responsibility.
At 60, my reflection is to be thankful to God. If you look at the mood in the country today and circumstances of everybody, what should I be doing to celebrate my 60 years? Is it to invite rich people, buy champagne and let’s drink?
No! I felt that I should use this as an occasion to reach out to Nigerians that are under stress and that is why as a family we sat down and said ‘lets come down to my community and do most of the activities here’. Let’s design a medical outreach; this will take place in about four communities; we are going to test people’s eyes, do tests and give free drugs.
I have a clinic in Evwreni (my town), we also felt that it will be an opportunity for most of my friends who will attend the novelty match to make contributions in terms of fund to support the clinic. On Saturday, which is the birthday proper, we also want people to come and watch cultural displays, there are cash prizes to be won and this will help to develop culture. The final of it is going to be on Sunday where we are going to be empowering hundreds of youths and women. We want to support them with some working capitals so that they can improve and possibly my commitment will be to monitor these groups of persons to see how well they will use the funds.
As a young person, your initial set out is not to go and build wealth and influence; very few people have that high level of far-reaching thinking. But as a young man, due to the background I came from; my father was a subsistent farmer with my mother in Evwreni Kingdom, but compared to other families, they were doing well; we had our own house, I was sent to school and in those days my father had a white Raleigh bicycle and as members of the Jehovah Witness, we were always travelling to other cities to go and preach. They (my parents) were among the enlightened people.
But that was as far as it went, I knew early that coming from that background, education is going to be helpful to me and when I had the opportunity in school, I tried my best to come out with a result that will ensure that I got a job the moment I graduated. At the outset I told myself that in a country where your success is not going to be on a platter of gold, you have to use what you have to get what you want. My goal was to concentrate, pass my examinations, come out well so that I can get into the system of work and from there take it to propel myself.
In my time, having good grades and coming out well was key and in my life, that was the key that opened doors for me, if you asked me how I got to where I am today. I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I made a first class in accountancy, I got awards and when I saw some advertisements by some professional organisations like Price Waterhouse and applied, they called me immediately. I got two jobs immediately I finished school.
I was engaged by Price Waterhouse and Coopers& Libra. They were the highbrow accounting firms in Lagos. In fact, when I got to Lagos the first time and I saw people wearing white tie,I told myself I must be among these people.
So, having a first class made that happen. I didn’t have parents who could go lobby or who had the influence to come and lobby before I got a job. I can testify that at our time, if you worked hard in school and you came out with good grades, such would happen to you. That was what happened to me.
After Prince Water House, of course it was easy for Citibank to come and recruit me and then I became a banker with Citibank at the time they were just coming to Nigeria. You could see that one thing led to another. In the banking industry you get exposure to see businesses and you more or less become a consultant to an array of industries. So, by the time you finished as a banker, it is very easy for you to know what to do. This is the background to how I moved from a village boy to a city man. But today, I can say that it is a lot more difficult for only result to do all these to you.
Setting up shop
I must point out that my career in the banking industry was very interesting. I moved very quickly in the banking industry because I probably met very good bosses and I also worked very hard. In my early 30s, I became the first Managing Director of a bank in this country; at that time Crystal Bank. In banking, there have been a couple of turbulence.
When I became MD, the bank was actually having some issues and my MD at the time left. I was Executive Director, so, I had to move up to become Managing Director.
Ultimately, it was because of the turbulence in the banking sector at that time. I too had to exit the banking industry because Crystal Bank later transformed into Standard Trust Bank and merged into today’s UBA. But when I left, the nearest thing I felt I should do is to set up an insurance company, which was within the same financial service sector.
I then bought an insurance company then known as Jubilee Insurance Company Limited, recapitalized and renamed it and became Standard Alliance Group. That became my first start-up business that I used to go into other business.
My parents were good Christians, but they were also disciplinarians. My father in particular, likes things being done properly and I believe that is good for an upbringing. I give you an example; I told you he had a white bicycle and he was able later to buy a motorcycle. I was so excited about the motorcycle, each time he was not around, I tried to grab it and ride it.
One day he caught me and he beat me up and my feeling then was that ‘why is him beating me because of a motorcycle’ and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t touch that motorcycle again and I’m going to grow up and buy my own.
That was what I felt about it, but later in life I realized that he was protecting his only son. We were six in the family; five girls and one boy. He had seen how young people died from motorcycle accidents and he was scared that I could be involved in such kind of accident. This I understood later. But that discipline he gave to me taught and made me feel that when grew up, I was going to buy a car and not just motorcycle. That tells you the kind of family I came from.
Attraction to politics
I realised that I needed to impact my immediate society, particularly Delta State. The quickest and most impactful way I could reach out to the people in my state. I also saw the government that was ruling my state in Delta from 2006 culminating 2007 when I ran for the governorship under PDP, I thought a lot can be done better.
That was the motivation. As an individual, no matter how rich you are your impact unless in setting up industries and employing people, you can’t really directly impact people as would if you’re running a state. As a state you’re efficiently deploying the resources available at that level to touch the lives of the people. So, this was it. I saw my background and I say look, I have learnt so much in business and chartered accountant and fellow of the institute and I have in banks run department financial control.