Here are some business lessons entrepreneurs can learn from Jim Ovia.

Prudential Zenith rolls out virtual services to help customers cope with COVID-19

Jim Ovia is one of the icons of the Nigerian banking sector. He is the founder and Chairman of Zenith Bank Plc, one of Nigeria’s largest and most profitable banks. Zenith bank has a market capitalization in excess of N600bn. Here are some business lessons from Jim.

1. Follow your instinct

In 1990, the year Jim applied for a banking licence, there were 2 categories available. One for merchant banks ($1.6m equity) and one for commercial banks ($4m equity). His gut told him to go for the more expensive, complicated route – the commercial banking licence, and this gave birth to Zenith Bank. If he didn’t apply for that commercial banking licence, Zenith bank as we know it, wouldn’t exist today.


2. Learn the art of negotiation

When Jim applied for a banking licence from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 1990, the standing rule was that applicants must have 20 years of banking experience to qualify for a licence. Jim had only 10 years of banking experience at that time. He was, however, able to convince the  CBN team to grant the licence by informing them that his 10 years of experience were in top-rated banks (subsidiaries of American banks), known for their high-quality training and structure and that he was eminently qualified to run a bank. He made a compelling argument and negotiated well. He was granted the licence.

3. Seek out new ways of doing things

Jim knew the importance of branding and saw to it that each branch of Zenith bank looked the same, making them easily recognizable. At that time, it was a completely new concept in the sector, which several banks started doing a couple of years later.

4. To succeed in business, you must cultivate a deep hunger to do well

In the early days of Zenith Bank, Jim would go home with a report of all the day’s transactions and working past midnight, he would go over all the customers’ names so he could call and thank them the next day. This earned the bank a lot of incremental business leading to its success.

5. Empower those who work for you

Jim empowered his staff by mentoring them, attending their social gatherings, empathizing with them over their family matters. He also sent them for various trainings and conferences (locally and internationally), making them better and more productive employees.

6. See the future ahead, know when to exit a business

Jim had to sell Visafone, his telecommunication company, to MTN Nigeria because of his business philosophy, “Be a market leader, not a follower.” Although at that time, he didn’t sell businesses but acquired them, the fact that MTN was the largest telecommunications company in Nigeria while Visafone was one of the smallest and given the importance of scale in the business, when MTN made a decent offer, he sold the business to them at a  profit.

7. Home is a source of support outside the office

According to Jim, one must derive authentic pleasure both in the workplace and at home, but should not create barriers between both of them.


From the Book Africa Rise and Shine by Jim Ovia

Contributed by Bode Omotoye

Banker & Chartered Accountant resident in Lagos.

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