Bernard Bankole

It is not uncommon for individuals and corporate bodies to sum-up their entire character and personality in a given animal, which they hold up as their mascot. Often these creatures with the assumed good luck charm are those that conjure images of strength, agility and smoothness. But Vanessa Obioha discovered an out-of-the-ordinary trade symbol represented by a little known but colourful bird that inspired a weird, albeit, good business sense

In more than one way, Bernard Bankole shares striking similarities with the bird species his company is named after. Finches have colourful feathers. Bankole goes around with a visage of vibrancy and cheerfulness. Finches are known to occupy a great range of habitats. They have a worldwide distribution. Like his mascot bird, Bankole is striving to establish a presence everywhere for his trade. When he started his travel agency Finch Glow in 2006, he was little known in the industry. With just five employees in a small office at Falomo Plaza, Ikoyi, there was no guarantee that he would swim past the big sharks in the industry.

But like the finch, his humble beginning was just a sign of glad tidings in the future. Seated behind his desk in his modest office in Ikoyi, he still looked like a banker in his crisp white shirt and red tie under a black suit. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of spectacles. The wooden desk in front of him was a cluster of aircraft artifacts, awards, magazines, newspapers, files and of course a laptop which he frequently stared at. A wooden shelf stood at the corner of his office. It also boasted of more awards and journals.

Once in a while, he looked at the window where construction workers were busy with their shovels. The road was under repair. It was the first time the street was undergoing major renovation since he moved in six years ago, he told this reporter and his publicist Niran Adedokun who were seated opposite him. The white and blue building is his second office in a decade.

How time flies, he mused. It still seemed like yesterday when Bankole took the leap of faith that turned his life around. A leap that most people feared would lead to a great fall. But Bankole’s decision was more of a call to action, fueled by an undying passion. With a definite help, Providence charted a new course and perhaps, a new life for him. Those who knew him then assumed the worst may happen to him. They couldn’t fathom how he would leave his lush banking job to become a travel agent, particularly when he occupied the lofty position of a bank manager. It seemed insane that he would migrate to an industry that had little acknowledgement from the government.

But Bankole’s mind was made up. His travel business had been in the pipeline for a while. He had discussed it with his supportive wife who is also an image consultant. It seemed easy but for some unknown reason, the plan was stalled. Looking back now, he can say with certainty that his consideration for what his friends and loved ones’ said about travel agency made him tip toe for a while. They had a limited understanding of what travel agency really is, even he would find out more. It was more than booking airlines and reservations as he would later find out.

For now, he recalled his good days in the bank, when everyone called him ‘my bank, my bank’ (a weird corruption of his name). It was during Charles Soludo’s era as Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. At the time, he worked with First Inland Bank. He worked previously with Ecobank where he kicked off his career, before moving to Metropolitan Bank. Anyone who was close to him could tell from a distance Bankole’s undying passion for the financial industry. However, that zeal and lure died during the tenure of Soludo as governor of the apex bank in Nigeria. Things appeared lacklustre for the banker. There were no more innovations or new ideas. With an uncanny desire for new things, the new regime certainly was a killjoy. It was at this stage that he toyed with the idea of floating a travel agency.

To be sure, Bankole’s interest in the travel industry did not spur from a pecuniary need, rather from a passion for travels and meeting new people. There was never a time he considered himself being anything than a banker. “I have always wanted to be a banker. I was enjoying banking to the point that my friends used to call me ‘My bank, my bank’ because when I talk, I personalised my things. I had a very strong passion for banking then.

“I started my career at Ecobank and moved to Metropolitan bank, then to First Atlantic bank that later became First Inland bank. It was at that point I left because the zeal and lure I had for banking had died. There were no innovations anymore. When I started my banking career, there were innovations, new ideas, new ways of doing things, but when Soludo came in, everything just died off. I got bored. I didn’t sign up for this. I asked myself if I leave banking, what will I do next? I love travelling because I love to see other people with different cultures, languages, food, what makes them who they are. It stimulated my interest. I developed this culture for travel. I said to myself, I will float a travel agency considering that it is the smallest part to entrench my love for travel. Travel agency is the downstream sector of the aviation industry.”

Even though his job as a banker availed him the opportunity to travel to the UK and America, it didn’t prepare him for the journey ahead. He compared himself to a novice when he joined the industry. And as a rookie, he spent his first two years studying the industry to determine where his strength lies.

“I started going to travel exhibitions and trade shows. It was after attending those exhibitions that I realised that I need to know what I really want to become in the industry. Do I want to be a travel agency, a tour consultant, a travel management company? I realised that with the kind of brain I have, I will do well in business travel. I started following up on global travel market companies that focus on business travels. I approached the likes of HRT, BCD and others. Unfortunately, they had been taken up by other companies. I searched for the one that was untaken. That’s how I laid my hands on FCM Travel which is a subsidiary of a flight centre management that is based in Australia. They were represented in over 80 countries.”

Bankole was able to acquire the franchise and today thumps his chest as the only local travel agency that FCM can use to handle business travels. The partnership also came with additional values such as technical knowledge. Little wonder that his company introduced the electronic ticketing and was among the first to start the Billing and Settling Plan. Apart from that, his new passion allowed him the time to travel the world. He has been to every continent and is currently the National President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA).
Presently, he has eight offices in Nigeria spread across Port Harcourt, Abuja and Lagos. There are plans to open another branch in Aba. At a time when airline booking and reservations are done online, Bankole found himself being questioned on his reasons for establishing more offices across the country, particularly in Lagos where he already has five offices.

His answer: “Lagos is such a busy place that you can spend the better part of your time in traffic. And Nigerians love to see who they are dealing with. Nigerians do not love to go online because they need to be educated. They are not like Europeans. They want to ask questions, why is it like this or that and the computers cannot answer those questions. That created a need for me to put offices in all those places. So there’s an office in Ikeja, Ikoyi, VI, Apapa, and Lagos Island to take care of the people in those environs. Each office performs optimally and contributes to the common growth.”

Another thing he found out about Nigerians was their eagerness to explore the world. This he explained while debunking the myth that Nigerians are the most travelled in the world.

“We are a kind of people that are creative. We buy into foreign ideas quickly. Once we find out that people are doing something, we get engaged. Everybody wants to get exposed in Nigeria and travelling is the only thing that can give you that exposure. That’s why Nigerians really imbibe travelling. In Turkey, 60 per cent of the population travel. And when you look at it, the only reason Nigerians are travelling a whole lot is because if you look around, you won’t find anything exciting so to speak. It is in the nature of human beings to migrate. Travel is about migration, not that you are relocating completely. People tend to travel in Nigeria because they want to see new places and discover new things.”

Despite his growth in the industry, he is saddened that tourism is given little spotlight in Nigeria. He bemoaned the lack of agencies to promote the cultures of Nigeria to the outside world. He believes that Nigeria has abundant tourism products to make a golden statement in the world. Perhaps, our abundance is our problem, he argued. For Nigeria to make the most of tourism, he advised that government has to first of all show keen interest, and the right man for the job must be put in place to man the ministry.

It is easy to assume that the road has been very smooth for Bankole going by his meteoric rise in the industry. That’s far from the truth. Like every other business, he had his fair share of challenges. For instance, he didn’t have most of the resources needed to kick-start his travel agency. He was quick to correct the impression that resources must be available before one floats a business.

“People always believe that one must have all the capital before starting up business. No, that’s not what makes a business successful. You just need to have the commitment to start and sell yourself. Anytime you want to sell a product, the first thing you sell is yourself. People want to pay for what they can see. When they see there’s a quality in you, an intellectual capacity in you, that’s what they are paying for. That’s what most people lack.”
His hat-trick in launching himself to the industry was to use the robust network he had built during his banking days. With that and little sacrificial perks and additional value, he etched his name proudly as a leader in the industry.

This in a way reflects the characteristic of the bird his company is named after. Apart from it being synonymous to its business, it described who he was ten years ago.

“The fact that the bird happens to be a small one but makes louder noise than the bigger ones was the attraction to launch my service. When you are going into an industry that you are a novice, you are more like the smallest which means that it all depends on how you are able to position yourself. That small bird will now turn up to be a big bird that it will no longer be small but can be heard everywhere and that has been our story in the last 10 years.”