CHARACTER, VALUES AND LEADERSHIP: LESSONS FROM MY LIFE JOURNEY
Culled from a speech delivered by Ike Chioke, Group Managing Director of Afrinvest (West Africa) Limited at the AUN 9th Commencement Ceremony.
Just like that, in one afternoon in August 2008, I realized that I was penniless. All my money from nearly two decades of working in investment banking was tied up in Afrinvest. With the firm now effectively bankrupt, I practically had gone from being a millionaire to being broke overnight. What was worse, because the firm owed money to the banks, we first had to pay back all the billions we owed them before we could keep any money for ourselves in the form of profits or dividends.
My first instinct was to run. Yes, run very far away from Nigeria. However, because it was a global financial crisis, there was nowhere in the world that was not affected. Venerable firms such as Lehman Brothers and Bankers Trust which had operated for centuries had collapsed. Many other previously unassailable firms such as Goldman Sachs in the U.S., UBS in Switzerland and Barclays in the U.K. were being bailed out by their respective central banks. I remember going to meet Tayo Aderinokun (God bless his soul), then MD of GTBank, to seek his advice. He told me in very plain English, “Ike — do not even think about turning your back on this problem. If you do, Afrinvest will go down. If Afrinvest goes down, your name will go down with it. As a result, you will never be able to work in the financial services industry because it operates fundamentally on trust. You would have lost your reputation and credibility”.
That was the best advice I received during that very bleak period. The situation was further compounded by Godwin’s desire to spend more time to help his friend Adams Oshiomhole reclaim his mandate in the courts following the 2007 Edo elections. Ultimately, in May 2009, I was appointed MD of Afrinvest and Godwin moved up to become Chairman. I was given the mandate of restructuring, recapitalizing and repositioning the Firm back to its former glory and even beyond that.
Those were very difficult days. I look back now and I still cannot believe that we made it. Indeed, there were many days when I felt like giving up. When weeks of hard work and toil on a mandate just evaporated either because of client disinterest or an unforeseen regulatory change. There were other days like when my entire investment banking team resigned en masse and decided to go work for a competing firm. That felt like someone punching you in the belly on an empty stomach. Yet, despite all those difficulties, I remained resolute on my goal. I recalled my early days in New York and how I had survived near starvation in another man’s country. I reasoned that no matter how bad things got in Nigeria, I knew that I could always provide a roof over my head and food on the table for my family.
Suffice it to say that we applied every technique we had in our arsenal of transaction structuring methodologies to review, analyze, value, re-value, write-off, restructure and reposition the billions of naira of exposure we had to multiple banks and clients. When those did not work, we begged, delayed, cajoled and prostrated to our creditors to understand and reason with us. It was a very humbling experience and it provided an invaluable lesson for me in the incredible capacity of the human body to take punishment.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very pleased to announce that over the course of the last 8 years, Afrinvest repaid, restructured or resolved all the problem loans arising from the global financial crises. Today, the firm has fully regained its right of place among the leading investment banking advisory firms in Nigeria.
As I look forward to the future for Afrinvest, I find myself reminiscing about some of the small and not so small companies we advised over the past two decades who have now reached unprecedented heights. GTBank, which revolutionized online retail banking in Nigeria, is today the most profitable bank in the country; UBA is now a Pan-African banking giant stretching its tentacles across the entire continent; Access Bank has gone from being a niche player in corporate banking to a top tier bank in Nigeria within a decade; Dangote Cement has become the biggest and most profitable manufacturing company in Nigeria with a market value representing one-third of the entire valuation of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. For me, investment banking has been a force for good, a force for change and a force for growth and transformation.
The main takeaway from this experience is that at one point on the other in your life, there will be problems which may seem insurmountable but you have to be forthcoming about these problems and earn the trust of all stakeholders involved. Key to earning this trust is displaying integrity and openness. Encourage yourself with your success stories and vow never to repeat the mistakes.
I have taken these lessons and gone full circle in my life journey — from unprecedented success through some unimaginable failure and back again. But for you, what does the world outside this ivory tower hold?
You will leave here today, armed with your freshly printed first class or 2:1 or 2:2 or even third-class certificates. Some of you already know what you intend to do, others are yet on a voyage of discovery. Even so, always remember that building a career in the arena of life is a marathon, not a sprint. As such there will be many ups as well as many downs. The important thing is to remain focused and committed and keep moving.
Think of your certificate as a ticket to enter the stadium to watch a football match. The first time you enter, you will notice that you are seated on the popular side of the stadium directly under the midday sun. Those are the toughest seats and that is where life will test you. Your task is to continue to build on your character, focus on your goals and sustain your values as earning the right to get a seat under the covered stand. With hard work and a bit of luck, you may one day find yourself able to buy a ticket in the air-conditioned VIP section of the stadium.
Even so, that might not be enough. At some point you may ask yourself, how do I move from being a spectator to the owner of the stadium. It is at that point you know you are ready to make your own mark in the annals of time.
You can read the full speech here.