FeaturesTony Onyemaechi Elumelu: Homegrown Business Titan

Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu: Homegrown Business Titan




It used to be that business moguls of a certain generation in Nigeria followed the classical route in their rise to top managerial positions. A sound education from a prestigious school – London School of Economics, say, or Harvard Business School – was an assurance of placement in any of the big corporations. A sounder degree – First Class or Second Class Upper – meant automatic employment in a senior management cadre.

But once in a while, some people break the rigid rules of engagement by companies relying mostly on graduates from Ivy-league institutions or even those with super grades. One such person is Mr. Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu, banking and finance maharishi, entrepreneur, philanthropist and Africapitalist.

Bendel State University Ekpoma (now Ambrose Alli University) where he graduated from in the eighties wasn’t even among the top 10 institutions in Nigeria at the time. Graduating with a Second Class Lower division from the Department of Economics was even less certain of catching the eye of a company boss looking to hire super bright graduates. But TOE, as he is fondly called, served with Union Bank as a youth corp member in 1985. Then he upgraded with a Master’s degree in the same discipline from the University of Lagos.

Of course, for his primary and secondary education, Tony had both in Nigeria, first in Jos where he was born on March 22 1963 to Suzanne and Dominic Elumelu of Onicha-Ukwu and Onicha-Ugbo in Delta state. He also attended St Pius Grammar School in his natal state and then his first degree at Ekpoma.

Post-youth service at Union Bank, he had a stint as a copier salesman and then All States Trust Bank where, according to those in the know, the young man beavered away as a thoroughgoing banker and investor. But working as a banker wasn’t just enough for the ambitious and audacious man. He wanted to own a bank. Presented with an opportunity of buying a floundering Crystal Bank, he wasted no time in acquiring it along with a group of likeminded investors. They named it Standard Trust Bank, then UBA after a merger of both. Bowled over by the audacity of the merger, experts in the banking sector described it as the “largest mergers in the banking sector in sub-Saharan Africa.”

It was also Elumelu’s emergence as a banker to reckon with in Nigeria and Africa. From then on, he pretty much knew what he wanted to be – a banker. At 34, he became the youngest CEO of a bank, the youngest of any bank at the time. In one recent Facebook post, he attributed his swift rise in the banking sector to two things – hard work and luck.

“I owed my accelerated career and successes to two things: hard work and luck, and I know firsthand how these factors are inextricable in success,” he wrote.

In the same post, he explained his fascination with helping young people develop their entrepreneurial skills: “My successes – and yes failures – have always driven me to create opportunities for young people. I believe that our young have the talent and the zeal to transform our world.”

In a birthday tribute published in Vanguard as Viewpoint by Toni Kan headlined “Tony Elumelu: Africapitalist @ Sixty,” we get the impression of someone who has shown an unflagging commitment to helping African youths in various entrepreneurial projects. Some of the beneficiaries from the Tony Elumelu Foundation were on hand to celebrate with their benefactor. “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,” TK wrote.

“Today, with a sprawling business empire, built through organic and inorganic growth, bestriding Nigeria’s major sectors, Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu is better known as an Africapitalist and philanthropist who has committed $100m “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.”

Elumelu’s philanthropic initiatives, TK went on, isn’t clout-chasing as some of his critics think. “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.”

Of his soar away success with STB and TEF, TK notes that “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, and a man committed to helping young Africans realise their potentials from Kano to Kigali and Nupe to Nairobi.”

TK was not alone in his glowing tribute to Elumelu. In the Life & Style section of THISDAY published last March headlined “Tony Elumelu’s 60 Years of Un-relentless Service to Humanity,” Festus Akanbi pays tribute to the “billionaire banker and foremost philanthropist” who on his own set up one of the most important development projects for youths in Nigeria and the African continent.

“How do we fight poverty and other indices of underdevelopment in a country with a burgeoning population like Nigeria? Should we leave the government to do justice to the ever-increasing needs of the people? Economists explain that as demand for a better life among the citizenry continues to rise, the reality is that government alone cannot turn the economy around without the full support of the private sector.

“All over the world, discerning political officeholders have realised the symbiotic relationship between the public and private sector players. While one sets the rules and provides the enabling environment, the other party executes the policy and funds the government by playing its role as a set of good corporate players.

“Perhaps, this explains the decision of Nigeria’s President-Elect, Bola Tinubu to have picked the Lagos home of the foremost philanthropist and serial investor, Mr. Tony Elumelu as one of the places to visit shortly after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) pronounced him the winner of the 2023 presidential election.”

Continuing, Akanbi writes that Elumelu “has indeed paid his dues as a foremost businessman with his interest spanning the power, oil, hospitality, and banking sectors of the economy. Today, Elumelu has distinguished himself as a consistently focused administrator. He has carved a niche for himself as one of Africa’s leading investors and philanthropists. He is the founder and Chairman of Heirs Holdings, his family-owned investment company committed to improving lives and transforming Africa, through long-term investments in strategic sectors of the African economy including financial services, hospitality, power, energy, technology, and healthcare. He is the Chairman of the pan-African financial services group, the United Bank for Africa (UBA), which operates in 20 countries in Africa, the United Kingdom France, and is the only African bank with a commercial deposit-taking presence in the United States. UBA provides corporate, commercial, SME, and consumer banking services to more than 21 million customers globally.

“He also chairs Nigeria’s largest quoted conglomerate, Transcorp Plc whose subsidiaries include Transcorp Power, one of the largest generators of electricity in Nigeria, and Transcorp Hotels Plc, Nigeria’s foremost hospitality brand. He is the Founder and Chairman of Trans-Niger Oil & Gas Limited (TNOG), an upstream oil and gas company that owns and operates Nigeria’s OML17, (with 2P reserves of 1.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent) and is committed to creating resource-based added value on the African continent.”

TEF has bankrolled, the reporter stated, just under 10,000 entrepreneurs and created a digital ecosystem of over one million Africans as part of its ten-year, US$100m commitment through its flagship Entrepreneurship Programme. Self-funded, the Foundation is increasingly sharing its unique ability to identify, train, mentor, and fund young entrepreneurs across Africa, with institutions such as the United Nations Development Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other global development agencies.”

And just last week on the occasion of Elumelu’s 60th birthday, TEF disbursed $30, 000 to 17 recipients across Africa in line with the Foundation’s “economic philosophy of Africapitalism, which positions the private sector, and most importantly entrepreneurs, as the catalyst for the social and economic development of the African continent.”

Africapitalism, Akanbi states further “positions the private sector, more importantly, entrepreneurship, innovation, and business enterprise, as the key economic driver of growth and job creation across Africa, while also promoting sustainable development. The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) is the leading champion of Africapitalism in Africa, and across the world, with significant contributions to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across the continent.”

In Elumelu’s reckoning, successful businessmen and other leaders can make a whole lot of difference by supporting and championing goal-oriented young people, “hardworking and committed to making a difference in their communities because their drive and determination make things happen.”

In that regard, Elumelu himself has said that “more than ever, all of us who have attained success must become role models for the younger generation so that the next generation can learn from our mistakes and achieve even more than we have.”

African youths are not the only beneficiaries of Elumelu’s largesse. Even the Nigerian government got some billions of naira to assist in their campaign against terrorism. In one interview, for instance, Elumelu let on how a coalition he was part of put some money together to fight insecurity in Nigeria. “We, the private sector, have just put N100 billion together, again, under this coalition to help fight insecurity or to support our security agencies’ capacity to be able to deal with the issues we have in the country on security.”

And then, there is the African No Filter initiative begun last year. It is, according to Akanbi, “a donor collaborative working to transform stereotypical narratives of Africa, launched the Tony Elumelu Storytellers Fund. Named after African business leader and philanthropist Tony O. Elumelu, the Fund will award grants to emerging artists and storytellers, whose work shines a light on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in Africa. The $30,000 fund is sponsored by Heirs Insurance and Heirs Life Assurance, the insurance subsidiaries of the pan-African investment group, Heirs Holdings.

“The Tony Elumelu Storytellers Fund is a standalone initiative and an extension of his commitment to catalysing a redefined African success story, powered by Africa’s youth and their creative ideas. The Fund calls on journalists, filmmakers, content producers, and visual and performing artists to submit multimedia creative ideas, that tell the stories of inspiring entrepreneurs and showcase the true and positive spirit of entrepreneurship in Africa.”

With these various philanthropic initiatives, it is no surprise Tony Elumelu is close friends with current and past world leaders. For one, it is not for nothing that President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu chose Elumelu’s residence in Lagos as his first port of call soon after INEC declared him winner of the February presidential polls.

He is also close buddies with former POTUS Barack Obama and former Prime minister of England David Cameron. Creating job opportunities for young Africans who might be tempted to drown themselves in the Mediterranean in search of greener pastures in America or Europe is certainly part of the relationship between the businessman and the politicians – a rare relationship considering the mutual suspicion between governments and business moguls whom they see as overly rapacious.

Most often, the charge against such moguls is their tendency to become monopolistic, their tendency to emasculate competitors and so run them out of business therefore having the playing field to themselves alone.

One good example was the case against the founder and emperor of Rockefeller business empire, John D Rockefeller around the early 20th century. The Standard Oil Rockefeller founded had become too big for its britches, having gobbled up smaller competitors through direct acquisition or other unethical business practices. To curb its power, the United States under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt declared in a State of the Union address in 1901 the necessity of checking the excesses of big corporations like Standard Oil owned by Rockefeller and JP Morgan’s railroad conglomerate, Northern Securities Co.

“Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions,” Roosevelt said. It is “our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.” In a historic Supreme Court ruling of 5-4, the corporations were dissolved.

The major reason for dissolving the conglomerates, as Roosevelt put it, was the “widespread conviction in the minds of the American people that the great corporations known as trusts are in certain of their features and tendencies hurtful to the general welfare.”

A more recent instance of government wielding the big stick against monolithic businesses was that of the United States Government versus Bill Gates, Microsoft founder who was accused of the same unethical business practices as his compatriots of the early 20th century.

As in the Rockefeller case, “the Microsoft antitrust case came to be one of the high-profile cases a few decades ago. In the 1990s U.S. federal regulators sued Microsoft, which was at that time the world’s leading software company. The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation as a response to the rising market share of the company in the personal computer market. The investigation aimed to determine whether Microsoft was trying to monopolize the personal computer market. The federal agency soon ended its investigation, only to be brought up again by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1998.”

What were the charges by the DoJ? In one report, the charges “came about in response to Microsoft bundling additional programs into its operating system. It meant that for customers who wanted to access a particular Microsoft application, buying the Microsoft Windows operating system was a prerequisite. Moreover, Microsoft distributed its browser software, Internet Explorer, among consumers for free. It led to a concentration of the market share and the eventual downfall of Netscape, the company’s top competitor at the time. The DoJ case alleged that Microsoft was intentionally making it extremely difficult for consumers to install software by other companies on personal computers that ran on Microsoft’s operating system.”

And what was the verdict? In a ruling by District Court Judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson said that Microsoft did violate the anti-trust laws.

It is hard to see the same fate befall any of the companies Tony Elumelu chairs or has shares in, not with his professional business practice and his self-developing initiatives for thousands of young people across Africa. Are you still wondering why he is pals with past world leaders and an incoming one in Nigeria? Your answer is as good as ours.

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