Ideas from Tony Elumelu And What Every African Entrepreneur Must Learn From The Legend

Editor’s Note: This piece was first published in Nkpuhe, our old blog, by our Founder, Dr Ekekwe. But we want to bring this to you – Tekedia is bigger. The lessons from Mr. Elumelu continue to guide our strategy and have changed our perspectives in many ways. In short, after his talk, we do not have any ‘fear’. Why? If he could do it, we too can. Thank you Mr. Tony Elumelu for that wonderful talk.


Boston, USA – Nov 21, 2010:  I just made it back from Philadelphia after participating in the Wharton Africa Business Forum (WABF) as a panelist on the topic “Beyond Natural Resources: The future of knowledge-based industries in Africa”.  The theme of the forum, which was organized by African MBA students in the iconic business school, was “A Blueprint for Africa: Navigating the World’s Fastest Growing Continent”. By and large, they delivered. The energy was intense, the intellectual vigor was deep, the pragmatism was real, and on parade were the core of Africa’s brightest future minds on business.


Usually, I write my weekly contribution to Harvard Business Review every Sunday. But this week, I will move it to tomorrow morning, in order to share some of my WABF insights. There are many exciting aspects of the forum, but I will be focusing on a man who has inspired me, all these years.

Registration for Tekedia Mini-MBA (Feb 6 – May 6 2023) has startedClick and register here. Cost is N60,000 or $140 for the 12-week program if you register by Dec 3, 2022. Beat the early bird for free books, discounts and other bonuses. 


Mr. Tony Elumelu delivered the keynote, titled: “Perception and Reality – One African Entrepreneur’s Journey” The Nigerian-born African business legend who through hard work, discipline, and vision helped reshaped Africa’s banking industry shared invaluable business experiences.  He was the immediate past CEO of United Bank for Africa Group (UBA) and presently is the Chairman of Heirs Holdings Limited, a principal investment company, within Africa. He also founded The Tony Elumelu Foundation with the goal, largely, to facilitate the promotion and celebration of excellence in business management, entrepreneurship and leadership in Africa.


As CEO of UBA, he transformed the bank from a Nigerian financial institution into a key African financial services institution. UBA is today a multinational corporation, out of Africa, with offices in France, USA and UK.  And Tony Elumelu is an African business icon with lots of influence.  Despite everything, I saw yesterday, a man with in-depth entrepreneurial and philanthropic passion. A truly bold thinker, Mr. Elumelu holds the Nigeria’s Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR) – a national honor.

He spoke in the simplest and most candid ways I have ever seen from a successful CEO. A young man from a middle class family, in Nigeria, was a bank CEO before his 34th birthday. It does not always happen, but listening to him I saw a man who could see beyond his years and his peers and pursued those visions with unmatched passion.


As he was talking, he kept reminding the full-packed auditorium that if he could do it, that any of us could certainly do what he had done. When Standard Trust Bank was formed, he had three key strategic objectives on what he wanted the bank to become after certain number of years. When the bank morphed into UBA, he also developed a new set of objectives. And in all cases, he realized them.


This man has confidence. He saw opportunities in the midst of enormous challenges.  Otherwise how can a mortal think of having a bank in the old Nigerian banking industry with the behemoths of First Bank of Nigeria, Union Bank, Africa and old UBA? Indeed, Tony’s resolute and absolute commitments to his ultra-vision are worthy of emulations by the young Africans.


Mr. Elumelu’s success illustrates many good things. Firstly, Africa’s universities can and do produce success. Mr. Elumelu spent his entire Undergraduate and Graduate career in Africa, only considerably later attending IMD & The Harvard Business School, AMP. All his life, Mr. Elumelu has worked in Africa. This shows that we can do anything we decide to do if we have the right vision and passion. He has broken the ceiling and put confidence in the minds of many young African business leaders. He illustrates that even at a young age, we can find success if we work hard.


The only dull moment for me during the talk was when he explained that the Central Bank of Nigeria had to ask bank chiefs that have served more than 10 years in the industry to retire. It was very unfortunate because all of a sudden, the continent loses a top-notch banker because of the mistakes of his arch-competitors. But good enough, UBA is under the leadership of my former boss (to 3rd order), Mr. Phillips Oduoza. I recalled the day he shook hands with me when he heard that I had passed my IT certification exams when we were both in Diamond Bank. He said, “use that training to add value to DBL”. A very bright man, Mr. Oduoza, like Tony, symbolizes the best from Nigerian educational system.


These are my takes from Tony’s speech at WABF:


You need a vision: Tony had a vision that though the Nigeria’s banking industry was competitive, yet, service and superior products will help him get the market share he wanted. He consistently adapted his vision and the goals all through his storied career.


Match that vision with strategy: At the stage of Standard Trust, Tony had three key strategic goals.  Also, when it was time for UBA, he also developed three core objectives. Without these objectives, it would have been difficult for him to access himself. Those objectives were largely building a brand, increasing market share, having regional influence in key financial sectors.


Hire the right people: He consistently mentioned that he got the “right people”. That was very important and that enabled him to execute.


Test, validate and scale: Tony bought one of his early institutions with about N30m. He was able to prove his worth as a turnaround expert. With those initial successes, he built a personal brand and people believed, much more easily- he has records. Then they looked at his results and it was easy for him to tap more resources from investors. As he focused on testing the ideas on smaller business units, he validated most, and then at the time of UBA, he scaled.


Confidence: It takes confidence and an unusual one for a 33 year old to run a bank in Nigeria. He has basically helped to usher a new dawn that younger managers could be accepted by the public.


Be open-minded: When UBA New York had some challenges, Tony called a Nigerian based staff to go and fix it. That was unusual because in Africa the reverse is always the case. But he did it and that demonstrated his core business values of having confidence in people and openness to try unusual things.


Build a brand: In his talk, Tony kept emphasizing his obsession with image. I could hear the pain when he spoke about rating downgrade of one of his branches. That brand consciousness pushed him to do the right things, quickly, to solve the problem.


Have balance: You must not start an organization and immediately devote a big portion of your working capital to charity. He answered a question and it was very clear that having a balance on meeting social responsibility is important. Now the dusts have settled, he has his Foundation- there is time for business and there is time for charity.


Think broad: Tony in his speech repeatedly said stakeholders. In short, he evaluated the value UBA has created for shareholders. He examined the jobs UBA has created. He looked at the respect the firm has brought to Nigeria. And finally, he understood he was now rich. Simply, he has a broad way to see how his business is affecting all the necessary partners.


Take risks: I saw in Tony a man that when he believes in something, he goes for it. He does not always allow the challenges to outweigh him; rather, he takes them heads-on by developing mitigating strategies. I saw a risk taker when he decided to invest in a collapsed Crystal Bank.


Society matters: After he made the big bucks, he wants to help build a new core of experts to continue that progression. The Tony Elumelu Foundation is poised to help engineer a rebirth and renewal in leadership, entrepreneurship, and management in Africa.


I do hope the students will post the video as I cannot wait to study it. Tony spoke literally without using slide. There was a slide but he was simply talking and lecturing throughout the time. The talk was effectively educative and inspiring.

As Tony was talking, I immediately reevaluated a strategy of a project in Nigeria which I am leading. I will do five things, differently, based on the lessons from his talk.  Right here in Boston, he is framed on a photo I took with him this July when he visited Boston. And I could hear again, from him, saying “If I can do it, you can do it too”.


Photo: Tony Elumelu ( then UBA Boss), Dr Ekekwe,  (private)  in Boston, July 2010


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