Femi Okunniyi: At 60, I Feel I Have Many Mountains to Climb

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His silky, smooth face, suave looks belie his age. Femi Okunniyi was born to two farmers in the hinterland of Ayesan in Ondo State. Life was tough for him before he was able to rise above the doldrums of an impoverished existence through a dint of hard work and focus. From a humble background, he rose to sit atop an insurance empire.

Today, Okunniyi is the Chairman, Araromi-Ayesan Oil Plc, the company where his parents once worked as peasant farmers. It is one amongst a retinue of other companies he chairs. Although he is a man of unsung glory, his life and career are hinged on diligence, the audacity of hope; a restless spirit and hunger for success. He is a lawyer, chartered insurer, an arbitrator, administrator and preacher of the gospel. A former Managing Director Goldlink Insurance, Okunniyi, the senior pastor and zonal superintendent of Foursquare Gospel Church, Arepo, on the outskirts of Lagos State, tells Adedayo Adejobi about his passion for insurance, love for his wife, and devotion to the vineyard

Can you tell us about your background?
I was born 60 years ago in a village called Ayesan, Ondo State. It’s now a town surrounded by water. My late parents were farmers who worked in a company called Araromi Ayesan Plc, started by Obafemi Awolowo in 1955. Incidentally, I chair the company today and we are into palm oil production. I started my primary education at St Andrews Anglican Primary School. My brother invited me to Lagos in 1969 after my primary education. Because of lack of money, I proceeded to a four-year programme evening school at Benevolent High School Surulere. I later completed my secondary school and moved to Yaba College of Technology. I began working in an insurance company owned by Phoenix of London in 1976. I moved to Veritas Insurance Company and later to Goldlink Insurance which later became a public quoted company in 1992.

Starting Goldlink Insurance was a vision started by my mentor, Mr. Ralph Oluwole Osayanmeh. We gathered and paraded the best brains in the industry with a view to changing the game. When we came, we turned around the face of insurance. Soon after, I became the managing director of the company. We were aggressive as a brand in the market. Our promise was our bond. Our acid test was our ability to pay claims promptly, and that we did with ease. We earned a name and created a niche in the market.

What were the challenges you faced managing Goldlink Insurance?
There was the issue of the people management, inadequate capital and inability to raise funds within the marketplace. When I became managing director, I took the company to the stock exchange in 2008. To raise money in an economy faced with global financial crunch became a huge challenge. At that time, the Federal Government was increasing the capital of insurance companies, so meeting up with the recapitalisation was indeed a challenge. But the Lord saw us through.

What did you set out to become as a child?
I wanted to become a banker.
So what changed?
I call it Providence. When I started working in the insurance sector, I found joy in it, so I decided to stay.

When you were leaving paid employment as the chief executive officer of Goldlink Insurance, did you envisage you would go into the Christian ministry?
Yes, I did. I knew I was called into the ministry. When I gave my life to Christ, I knew God was taking me somewhere, and that He wanted to make use of me in the ministry. So I went to a Bible college to study more about theology. By the time I was inducted as a vocational pastor, I knew I was hearing from God.

How did you strike a balance between being a pastor and a businessman?
It could be a little bit difficult striking a balance as a pastor and a professional, but one of my spiritual fathers told me that being a pastor and a CEO, there could be conflicts. But you need to strike a balance and know when to say no. There were so many compromising things as a pastor and chief executive officer that my position demanded of me, but which I didn’t do. I was very firm. I stood my ground, struck a balance and said no when the need arose.

In retirement, what keeps you busy?
In retirement, the ministry has kept me so busy such that I am involved at the board level of Foursquare Gospel Church Nigeria. I still sell Insurance. I get business; get an underwriter and play the role of an intermediary. That keeps me busy. I am never idle because I hate being idle. I am restless. There was a point in my life I was doing a professional course, attending a Bible college and studying law at the same time. I finished all the programmes simultaneously.

What’s the hardest part of the ministry for you?
Managing people; the ministry has to do with ‘thus says the Lord’. Perhaps, it could be you that God could be speaking to, your followers may believe you, but sometimes they may also doubt you. There could be conflicts. I thank God for the flock that God has made me a shepherd upon. There has been wonderful cooperation between my council member, the church of God and myself. There has never been any conflict.

Pastors tend to read a lot. What kinds of books have you read that have shaped you?
I love reading. As an insurer, lawyer and pastor, I must read. My books cut across management, entrepreneurship, motivation and religion. I read local and international authors.

Do you feel any sense of regrets in life?
No, I thank God. My heart is full of appreciation for how far he has brought me in life because I never knew I will get to this level in life because of my poor background. For God to have taken me thus far, it could only be God, so I feel fulfilled in life. I have a beautiful wife who is very loving, romantic and takes care of me. God has given me four children of which three are married with children. With that and many more, I have no regrets.

Talking marriage, how did you meet your better half?
Our meeting was destined. We met as teenagers and decided not too long after then we were going to get married. In those days, there was no technology, so the first time I saw her, I knew this was the woman God wanted me to marry. I wrote a letter to her and was eager to get a reply from her. I didn’t get the reply on time, so I found a way to get in touch with her. She told me she would think about it. I went for the chase, and after some persuasion which took months, I got a reply from her agreeing to my proposal. There and then we started our relationship. This year marks our 34th wedding anniversary.

What were those things you saw in her that made you decide she was the right choice?
It was her character. I saw her to be a quiet, intelligent, respectful and humble lady. I saw in her, inner beauty and someone whom I believe we could be together for life. I tested her in so many ways. She was a teacher. And that was the kind of profession I wanted, so that my wife would be able to take care of our children and teach them. Foundation is very important to me, so that’s why I chose her – being a teacher. And I thank God for it, no regrets.

Is that to say that 34 years in marriage have been a smooth ride?
Life is certainly full of ups and downs. If I tell you that we haven’t quarrelled for a day, I’ll be lying. Each time we’ve had differences, we’ve been able to resolve it without a third party.

Who is more romantic?
I think we are both romantic. We spice up our marriage regularly. My wife likes us taking a walk around the estate, holding our hands, which I have not been doing regularly. We share good and tough moments together. Don’t forget I am a pastor and a teacher – I practise what I preach or teach.

What does feel it being a grandfather?
I feel ecstatic. Giving out one’s daughter in marriage is one of the things that every father looks forward to. It is scriptural. I feel so great because I gave out two daughters, who are twins, in marriage same day. They also married twins. It was a historic day of joy for me. I felt pains of joy giving out my twin daughters in marriage same day. As grandparents, my wife and I jubilated, lifted up our hands and hearts in praise, thanksgiving and adoration to God. It was fulfilling the scripture seeing our children’s children.

What does it feel like being 60?
At 60, I feel young. Age is just a number. I feel healthy, young and great. Like the biblical Joshua, I feel I still have so many mountains to conquer.

What advice will you give advice young pastors just starting out?
Know the God that you serve and serve the God that you know. Love the Lord according to the scripture because the God we serve is a jealous God. Know God intimately, be righteous, be holy, serve him and do his will.

Does God ever change His Mind?
God can change his mind. He’s a righteous, holy and sovereign God. He does as he pleases and no one can question his authority. To that extent, God changes his mind.

Will there be sex in heaven?
I don’t think so. It’s a matter of opinion. The Bible says there is no marriage in heaven. My belief is that in heaven, there’ll be no male or female. We are all equal.

Are you saying those who rapture would be hermaphrodites in heaven?
I am not saying we’ll be hermaphrodites. I don’t think there’ll be room for sex in heaven because it’s a holy place where we’ll keep praising God day and night.

You are a very busy man, how do you handle stress and pressure?
I thank God, I am a family man. I love playing with my children and grandchildren which reduces stress. I listen to gospel music – I like country music also. I enjoy singing. I play table tennis very well. Sometimes, when I want to relax, I read.

You’ve raised a lot of people, what’s the impulse behind it?
I like giving. I feel happy when I give. When you look at my background, having come this far with God’s help, I learnt the act of giving. My wife can also give anything. We complement each other. There is nothing too small or too big for me to give. More so, Jesus gave His life, the best to us. I’ve not seen what can stop me from giving. From experience, when you give you receive. Giving is a gift, so I thank God for the gift of giving.

There are two relatives, sons of my siblings who told me they got admission into higher institutions and I paid their school fees, just to find out three years later that it was a lie. The Holy Spirit ministered to me to find out, so I asked the parents to go. They found out that the boys were not in school. It pained me to my marrow.

The boy I trained and had first class and I never went to his school for a day. I paid the school fees and the father did the monitoring and gave me progress reports. I felt so excited that he came out of school with such result. I felt joy in my heart that I have not wasted my resources.