Life, it is said, is sweet! It is even sweeter for those who are born under the proverbial lucky star. Without a doubt, one of such lucky creatures is Sir Steve Omojafor, OON, a renowned marketing communication guru and Executive Chairman, STB-McCann, who turned 70 recently.
Interestingly, his earthly sojourn, in the past 70 years, is an inspiration to anyone who aspires to greatness in life. But like every mortal, he sure has his own humble beginning, which prepared him for his enviable status now.
With glee, he shared some momentous moments with us about his background, beginning from when he ‘ran’ to his home state in Warri, Delta State, for the first time, after his secondary school education in Lagos.
According to him, “For the first time, for me, I was literarily returning to my own state. People had taken me as a pure and simple Yoruba boy, no apologies; and my mum didn’t allow me use my name Bamidele because she thought I should just stick to my Christian name, Steven.
We were in Warri for two years; then, the war broke out and I had to find my way back to Lagos, where I completed the HSC in St. Gregory’s.”
Much later, upon graduation from the University of Lagos, Akoka, he started out with the Ministry of Information. But like a restless spirit, he found the environment rather uninspiring; so, he dumped the job to the surprise of his family and friends.
His reason: “For three months, there was no work and at the end of the third month, I said I could not start my life with this one.” But he had his plans well laid out and he didn’t have to wait too long. So, his next point of call was Daily Times, where he had freelanced before he went to the university.
He recalled that “Henry Odukomaiya; former Ogun State governor, Segun Osoba and Areoye Oyebola were there then. I worked as a reporter; I was later moved to the Features Desk and eventually became Chief Sub-Editor.
After my third year, the urge to go on was still strong. I joined Lintas Advertising, got married and the children started coming. I left Lintas after four years to set up Rosabel and STB McCann also came out of Rosabel. My partners were Akin Odunsi and Tunde Adelaja.”
Listening to him talk about advertising, you would not but be enthralled. He lives it, to put it mildly. Even though he had retired at 60 from day-to-day operations, it is obvious that advertising gives him the greatest fulfilment in life.
When asked about the secret of his feat in the industry, he waxed philosophical, saying, “When you identify where you belong, in everything in this life, you have a lot of options ahead of you. One of them strikes you as being part of you and what you will like to do. Once you stick to it, nothing gets you out of it anymore; you just get stuck, whether it is raining or fire is burning, you just say, ‘I am going to stick.’”
Today, he is certainly reaping bountifully from his sweats. Indeed, he can recline in his seat and give you a very engaging lecture on marketing communication because it is his first love, and he has remained faithful to it.
In reminiscence, he said: “It was very adventurous by the time we wanted to start Rosabel. We were all young between the ages of 28 and 31. We had no money to set it up. It was like you go to your dad… you go to your uncle… you go to your mum… tell them we want to set up a company. There was no bank to go to. That was how it all started. It was three of us and two more people. It was a big challenge, but we said were going to succeed.
“We were lucky also that none among us had greed for money, which breaks up partnership. And that was the only partnership that existed in the whole of UNILAG in those days. Today, we still live together as partners. So, staying for 40 years means it is something I love doing and enjoy and it is not something you can crash into if you need money. You could see the work of your hand and the work of your brains. You were in that marketing sector in which you could see result as you go on. I said to young people back then, ‘if you are looking for big money, you go elsewhere.”
When asked how, as young men, they were able to convince people to believe in them, he didn’t have to rack his brains so much because he had a ready-made answer. At the time they opened shops, he recalled that most of the companies were run by expatriates, a situation that threw up a big challenge for them.
Consequently, they were forced to put on their thinking caps; they literally cudgeled their brains. But after the initial challenge, they wormed their way into the hearts of some people with their consistency, originality and creativity.
According to him, “By the time I was leaving Lintas, the type of campaign that would take three months then, we were ready to get it done in one month. In fact, that was the unique selling point; a bit of creativity and speed in working. We didn’t have huge departments; if we finished one job, we moved to the next. When we could not afford a Volkswagen car and we didn’t plan to buy a Mercedes Benz either. That is part of what kills our entrepreneurs. They aim too high and try to live their dreams even before they get there.
“Today, we are all satisfied people, not because of what we built up, but because of who we are as human beings. We just had to work morning, day and night and we just got to succeed. And it became almost like our DNA. It was fun. At some point, Rosabel was getting big and we set up a second line agency, and that was how STB came into existence. I took on STB and A as we were known. I ran it till 2006, when I bowed out.’’
When the question of what they did with the money they made from their first job propped up, he sat up and his face broke into a smile. Just while you were wondering about the cause of his excitement, he offered you a satisfactory answer, saying that they acted differently from what most of their competitors were doing. How?
Rather than go on a spending spree, they ploughed it back into the company. In addition, they all instructed their wives to take care of the home fronts for a good reason.
He said: “The first six months, whatever came was to build up an institution and it worked. There was not what we even called a salary, but we sat down to define what each person was entitled to. There was no argument about it. We made it clear nobody comes to the office and borrows money. So, we had to fall back on family members and that helped us a great deal. People who joined us later also knew that we were for serious business.”
In his characteristic humility, Omojafor, who described his boss at Lintas, Olu Falomo, as one of his mentors, vehemently disagreed with description of him as one of the successful people in Nigeria. He prefers to be seen as a struggling ‘old’ man!
Obviously, something must have informed that stance. After much persuasion, he revealed what informed that philosophical approach to life, when he said “We all are struggling. You know when you are growing up, you don’t know what you are going to become. You just go to school because your parents say you must go to school. When, after school, you start asking what am I going to do?
“You look at your course of study and see where it’s going to lead you to. I studied Mass Communication, so I knew that I was either going to be a journalist, broadcaster or PR person. I started with prints journalism. I worked with Daily Times for a number of years, but I didn’t get satisfaction. I moved into advertising. But you have to understand that none of this was planned.
“After four to five years in Lintas, some colleagues of mine and I decided to set up Rosabel Advertising. From there, we set up a second agency called STB McCann, which I ran until I retired. So, when you talk about planning, there are certain things you really don’t know ahead. Every successful person you talk to would never say to you ‘I knew I was going to be a wealthy man; I knew I was going to be a big success.’
“You just to take one step at a time. Sometimes, you make mistakes, you come back again to take stock of what you have done and see where you made mistakes and forge ahead. So, when all these things are put together with success and failure at some point, they strike to make you great and that is where you stay and that is where you remain.”
His story would not be complete without reference to his appointment as chairman of Zenith Bank. That phase, certainly, will make an interesting chapter in his memoirs. By all standards, he was not a misfit to be so appointed, having been Chairman of STB McCann and set up subsidiaries in Ghana and Sierra Leone respectively. However, the appointment came as a surprise to him for obvious reasons.
First, he didn’t have an account in Zenith and was not indebted to it, in anyway. But he soon knew better when he got to speak with Jim Ovia on the phone.
According to him, “Initially, I thought he wanted to give me an advertising job to do. He told me the company was going to go public and they needed to bring me and two directors; and he asked me if I could join. I said I didn’t study finance and I never worked in a bank. He said it did not matter. The first three meetings, I was just listening and later got books on finance and I was able to fit in. I was director for the Ghana and the Sierra Leone branches. A time came and the position of the chairman was vacant and I was put in. I ran that for about four years.”
Having come this far, you want to know if anything has changed significantly about him. Quite expectedly, he disclosed that the change began to manifest when he turned 50. Before then, he was a party freak, a habit he picked up while growing up in Lafiaji, Lagos Island. As a bachelor, he could afford to party as he liked. But you would have expected him to cut down on the habit when he got married at 30.
But no, he dropped a shocker, saying, “When I got married, my wife knew what my life had been. She said she was not going to stop me. But by the time I was 60, I had to cut it down. And you know the normal alcohol thing from beer to cognac and champagne had to be reduced. There are still a lot to be reduced. It is a gradual process.”
Having been married for 40 years, it will be interesting to listen to him talk about the secret of his blissful union. The first requirement, according to him, is for a man to be married to a woman who knows him enough and vice-versa. But is that all there is to make a happy home? No.
He revealed more of his secrets, saying, “No secret, and you have not been hiding anything. She knows I enjoyed my parties. She knew that on Fridays, the boys must go together. She attended a couple with me, got tired and would not go again. But she was confident enough to let me go. When a woman gives you that confidence, it puts you in check.
“She gave me a lot of room and I made sure I didn’t abuse it. I did a lot of travelling on the job, so that confidence helped me to keep as much as possible. Nobody is claiming to be a saint. On the other hand, women will be women. You are bound to disagree and if you are not careful, you will disagree on virtually everything. But maturity comes in, respect for each other comes in and understanding for each other’s mood.
“Another thing is being able to accept fault from both sides. Crisis comes when somebody say no, no! There is nothing like no, no for a human being. He or she is not your houseboy or house girl. Both of you are going through the same thing either at work or in the society and you should be able to tolerate each other. Tolerance level in Nigeria is low.
“As you get older in marriage, everybody starts to mellow because the understanding is already there and you want the marriage to work. No matter what a partner is doing outside, if all you are imagining is what one person is doing outside, you will get your happiness go on decreasing. In fact, you will be depressed. You have your life to live, you have got work to do, children to take care of, make those ones your priority.
“Firstly, it is all about yourself and what you are looking for in your life. How do you want to end up? It is very easy to pick up one woman after the other. You know the questions I ask myself: after that, what next? You now run yourself into more problems. When you accept advances from a woman, at the end of the day, she will tell you I have one problem or the other.
“And if you pick another one at the end of the day, it becomes messy and you ask yourself, what I am getting there? I prefer the little bit I can to assist you. I am bold to say that 70 per cent of people who want to get attached to you may tell you it is love, but at the end, it is ‘what is in there for me?’ I learnt the lesson long ago even as a student in the university. It is either you want to play the game and waste the money for your allowance or pocket money or you want to keep to yourself. My upbringing in the mission compound helped.”
At the mention of ‘mission compound’, you would want to know the circumstances surrounding his being there at that time. His mum, he further revealed, wanted him to be a priest while growing up. In fact, his mum had taken him to the mission compound because she felt that he needed more whipping. But how did he deviate from being a priest?
Looking back now, he said the calling probably was not strong. Besides, he said becoming a Catholic priest is not a tea affair. “Honestly, if you are a catholic, there is so much involved in becoming a priest. The major one is that you must be called. If you get there for another reason, it won’t work. I was there only for three years”, he added.