Oluwatoyin Sanni: We Can Determine Our Future If We Set Clear Objectives

Toyin Sanni

The Group Chief Executive Officer/Managing Director of Emerging Africa Capital Group, Oluwatoyin Sanni, wears many caps as a wife, mother, career woman, pastor and author, to mention a few. Loving and sappy, Sanni rules in each of her endeavours. Right at the top of the pyramid, she is presently giving order and casting down rulings in her own court; but then, her legendary feats in United Capital Group Plc. as the former Group Chief Executive Officer, continues to stand the test of time. The charming mother of three takes Omolabake Fasogbon through her life’s trajectory, family and her new pursuit that is incredibly picking up speed

Oluwatoyin Sanni steps out of the car and interrupts the moment as security men acknowledge her presence. Her driver insists on taking her bag and file upstairs; ‘no! no! no!, leave it for me,’ she replies with a warm smile . With the click- clack sound of her high-heeled shoes forerunning her presence, her highly expectant colleagues genuflect to receive her. She returns with a gorgeous smile and heads straight to the corner office. Sanni quietly pays obeisance to God and abruptly, sets out for the day’s job. Occasionally, she calls to know how the children are faring not forgetting also to reach out to the love of her youth .This has been the routine and space of impressively versatile Sanni in the past 16 years since she took up the role of a Chief Executive Officer, an “entrancing and exacting onus” as she calls it. 

As the first and only female to have won the PEARL award for the most outstanding CEO in its 23 years of existence, one needs not be told about her exclusiveness in a very tight domain. Call her the Whizkid of the Nigerian financial sector, and you are not far from being right, as the bigwigs of the sector keep lobbying for her exceptional brain.

 For the celebrated stock broker, her enviable record and touches in her previous offices, most especially as the Assistant General Manager (Trust Services) at First Trustee Nig. Limited, a subsidiary of First Bank, has well -spoken for her that she became a sought -after for the best of the best positions. 

Coincidentally and deservedly, Sanni was exalted to the position of CEO in Cornerstone Trust Limited at the exact age she so wished to be one. “My story is just a pointer to the fact that we can actually determine our own future if we dare to set clear objectives. It was my 27th birthday and part of my resolutions was to be at the apex position in any organisation I find myself when I’m 37. Meanwhile, I was just a finance executive, one of the lowest cadre in banking space. This led me to draft out a 10 year career plan for myself. I figured out what and what I needed to fulfill to realise the big dream. I followed it up with hard work and prayers. Exactly 10 years, long after I had even forgotten I set a target for myself, I became a CEO, although, I had experienced one or two rapid opportunities of moving into new positions in different organisations. Ever since, I have never applied for a position until presently that I’m inviting myself,” she narrated passionately. 

The last place she answered the roll call as an employee was at United Capital Plc where she saw to the health of not less than five subsidiary businesses. One might wonder if her capacity, especially as a woman with many other roles, could cope with this heavy role, but indeed she beat imagination only to come out super successful. Asked how she led the organisation to become the first and only investment bank that has been listed on NSE amidst other accomplishments, inspiringly, she shares the story: “It wasn’t easy but the zeal and determination kept me going. The plot of the story would not have been this interesting but for the support of my brilliant colleagues, family, hardwork and of course, the grace of God. My modus operandi being consultative and participatory also helped largely. As the head of a group of businesses, I was able to delegate duties effectively, yet, I was actively involved. I gave all my Managing Directors free hands to operate and provided them with needed support, oversight guidance and every other leadership inputs expected of me.”

Among her feats as an investment banker par excellence was leading the group’s stock to record the highest appreciation at the capital market in 2016 even when the chips were down. This according to her, was the high point of her career. 

“In spite of the toughness of that year, we were able to deliver significant growth to shareholders in terms of value creation and that actually earned me the African Business Woman of the Year Award (AABLA) in 2017. It was the total of our accomplishments between 2014 and 2017 and I must confess that it was the high point of my career. I feel so honoured to be recognised in the presence of African corporate leaders as well as a privilege to express myself.”

As a woman boss, does she feel intimidated by male colleagues, especially the highly ranked executives? While there are slight possibility of such scenarios, trust Sanni, she keeps to her stand and puts her sense of maturity into play: “I don’t want to be gender- sensitive as much as I know that traditionally, in Nigeria, some men may find it difficult to be accountable to women. Definitely, on a number of occasions, I’ve had to confront male subordinates who appear to be recalcitrant. However, we have a healthy corporate culture whereby people have been taught to be professional.” 

It looks so sweet and rosy now, but at the inception, she almost quit the career. She was a banker, so also was her husband, Here was a young bride with innocent kids, in a dilemma of saving her home or her career.

Reminiscing, she recalls: “I got married at age 25. I became a mother at the age of 26 and that was same year I kicked off my career, so the demands of juggling pregnancy, nursing baby and not wanting to miss any promotion were before me. It became tougher when the kids started falling ill. I remember there was a time when my child was extremely sick that he was admitted and we were in and out of the hospital. Then, I learnt a new word, ‘endemic’ from my boss because he issued a query where he wrote: “Your absenteeism and excuses have become endemic”, but then, I had the passion and the drive for my job and children.

“The period of breast feeding was another world on its own”, she added. Asked to describe the new world, she bares it: “I remember when I gave birth to my eldest child, I travelled a lot on the job. So, one of those days, I travelled and when I came back, my little boy just lost appetite and interest in breast milk regardless of how hard I tried to force him. He was only breastfed for four months and my husband was so heartbroken .That got me to change my strategy when I had other children.  I had to combine all my leave, including maternity, annual and every other possible leave to give them all the attention. So, I was with them 24/7 until they clocked 4 months.”

As hard as it was, Sanni didn’t consider the option of resigning at any time and this is one area amongst many others that she will continue to be grateful to her darling husband who she says has been exceptionally supportive. 

“Although, he is not one of those few guys that assisted in domestic chores, in fact, that is not his forte at all”, she chipped in, bursting into laughter. “But he was generous and considerate to allow someone else do what I should have ideally done myself. A lot of men won’t tolerate this.”

What if her husband is threatened by her rising profile? “Oh no! He couldn’t have been. He will rather do anything to see me sparkle. He is proud of me and always happy to see me rise in the career ladder. There was no way I could have advanced this much if he was pulling me back. Interestingly, he is also in the same investment banking space. He’s been running a consulting outfit for a couple of years and he is also helping us to anchor one of the businesses within Emerging Africa Group on a temporary basis at this preliminary stage”. 

Presently wearing the cap of a Founder and GCEO, she attests to the fact that the cap can only fit the strongest as she renders accolades to successful business operators. In a more relaxed tone, she relays her experience:  “I must confess that setting up a new business in this environment is extremely demanding but also extremely exciting. In my previous role as an investment banker, I was always pitching to investors to invest in the businesses of clients. So, for the first time, I am doing it for myself. This was pretty challenging, I must be honest with you, however, it was not backbreaking, but I think my passion spoke for itself and my accomplishments.”

Studying the profile of her business, one would not but be curious to know if she was in to compete with her former employer. She clarifies: “We are rather partners and collaborating for the growth of the economy. As I speak, there are areas of businesses that we have agreed to execute together. There is clearly a gap for providers who are willing to go a little lower down the scale to pay attention to businesses that are of smaller sizes in the investment banking space. We are looking at exploring this market.“ 

Even though, Sanni is the big boss now, she refuses to see herself as one. “I’m not sure I can call myself my own boss now. I have board of directors to whom I am accountable to and I also have shareholders.  If I wake up by 6am as an employee, now as an employer, I sleep around 6am, It is as demanding as that. For now, my shareholders remain my boss.”

She is out of United Capital for more than two months now, the memory and time she spent there still linger as she says she misses the fun and excitement of working with a larger family. 

“I enjoy the mentorship of, TOE, Tony Elumelu, who we like to address as the lion of Africa. I miss the fact that I’m not working as closely with him but he continues to make himself available as a mentor to all African entrepreneurs of which I am one of them. I also miss being part of a larger group with multiple board and executives, you feel like you are a part of very big family, so I miss seeing those peers and colleagues and the warmthness”.

53 year-old Pastor Mrs. Sanni is not a feminist neither is she in any competition with the male counterparts but her candid advice to the women folks is to focus on what gives them fulfillment, be it marriage or career. “For me, if I was successful in my career and failed in marriage, I will not be fulfilled. From day one, it’s been very important to me that at all times, I am balancing the demands of the job and the need to be happy at home. I consider the stability of my marriage as an integral part of what God wants me to pass across to the next generation, which is, one can be successful career-wise and be fulfilled at home as well. I am not of the opinion that a woman needs to be married to be fulfilled and I don’t buy that if a woman has failed in marriage, her life is destroyed. There is no need to be judgemental; if you have been able to blend marriage to a successful career, more power to your elbow, what you owe the next woman down the line is to show her how you have been able to do it.”

The Ogun State indigene is looking forward to a female taking over the helm in the country but she doubts if it will ever happen as she says, while bursting out in laughter, “we haven’t even produced a female elected governor.” But as far as she is concerned, she is prepared to play her part to help Nigeria accomplish her best potential if called upon, but definitely not conceiving an elective post for now.