The magnificence of his mansion dazzles in white and gold, in a brilliant facade of ornamented sculptures. The glow of his skin and the glint in his eyes complement the steady gait of his octogenarian body. Wealthy and winsome, Otunba Subomi Balogun needs no introduction. Decked in bespoke attire, his resplendent figure illuminates the expansive living room. Before he turned 85 on March 9, the blueblood from Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State disclosed what distinguishes him from many mortals, writes Demola Ojo
Otunba Subomi Balogun, the Group Chairman, First City Group (a financial conglomerate comprising First City Monument Bank, FCMB Capital Markets, First City Assets Management, CSL Stockbrokers and City Securities), chatted with journalists at his palatial home in Ikoyi a few days preceding the celebration of his 85th birthday.
Looking a decade younger than his age, he was dressed in all-white with his bespoke hat and cane in matching colours; regal complements to the decor of his one-of-a-kind, predominantly white mansion, which is predominantly white with gold trimmings, artistic sculptures and numerous collector’s items.
He spoke in a clear voice that floated through the spacious room as those gathered listened intently. The running thread through the conversation was his appreciation of God.
Otunba Balogun is awed by his achievements in life and humbly attributes his many successes to God. He repeats it in every other sentence; you can almost anticipate it as his answer to the next question.
He is especially appreciative of his good health; he still lives an active lifestyle (swimming, boating and three-day work weeks) and maintains his mental sharpness, to the point of remembering graphically and to the smallest detail, events that happened decades ago.
“I’m extremely grateful to my maker for making me very agile, very meticulous, very articulate and still behaving like someone of about 60 years old.
“I want to thank my maker, in his awesome benevolence to me. The whole essence of my celebration is to give thanks to my maker. In all humility, I’m giving this opportunity to you, to let you know how appreciative I am for what the good Lord has done for me,” he said.
As can imagine, those seated around him were itching to hear success tips and life hacks, the type you can only get from one of the wealthiest and most accomplished Nigerians in the financial sector, the pioneer indigenous banker in Nigeria, a philanthropist of note and a multiple award winner in his community, country and internationally.
“I’m at peace with my God. I marvel at every occasion, why has he been so kind to me? It’s the amazing grace of God, even at the climax of anything I may have achieved. I attribute everything to the awesomeness of God. His love for little me,” he said.
If you listen attentively enough, you pick up nuggets of information amid his regular reference to God.
“I was born in Ijebu-Ode. I can’t hide that I come from a notable family in Ijebu,” he said. There was a little history lesson as we became beneficiaries of his sharp mind and vivid recollections.
“I happen to be a primus inter pares among royalties. I’m a direct descendant of the Awujale (king of Ijebuland) who had the courtesy of receiving representatives of the British Queen in 1892. And he allowed them to preach Christianity, which was unheard of then.
“If you tried to preach Christianity before 1892, they will pursue you with Oro (a Yoruba deity). But my own progenitor allowed that to be done. He even allowed some of his children to be christened and gave them the land on which the first church in Ijebuland was built.
“But he wasn’t partial. He also gave the Muslims the site on which the first mosque was built. It was in commemoration of going to thank the Awujale that the idea of Ojude Oba festival started. They were all going to the Oba’s palace to show appreciation for what he had done.
“However, these are things of the past. That doesn’t immediately make me whatever I am today. Maybe it’s because my parents had the opportunity of putting me on the right track. I had a good education. I went to one of the most illustrious secondary schools in Nigeria, Igbobi College. I came out with a very good grade. Then I went to Britain and studied law.
“I qualified at a very young age. At 25, I was one of the youngest lawyers in the Western Region. Then I tried to be very close to my God, always seeking His guidance, and it is the answer to such prayers that brought me to where I am today.”
Otunba Balogun was called to the English Bar in 1959. “The then government of Western Region trained me as the first Parliamentary draftsman. When the British were passing the Nigerian Independence Act, I was the first black face to be seen in the official box. This is the background I have.”
He disclosed some traits that must have helped him attain success.
“If I see you doing something good, I will rather emulate you than criticise you. Like I know some people like to wear white. At a point in life, I said the purest thing I want to be close to my God is white, and touchwood, God has allowed me to do that, which is a privilege,” he said. “I know my parents, even though they were affluent, they had a common touch. We don’t put on airs. Two things I like and I have a weakness for are my white dress and my white cars.”
He spoke further on his use of symbols, saying: “When I started the bank (FCMB), I wanted it to have a solid character; permanent, respected, assuring. So I went with columns. If you are going anywhere, as soon as you see the four columns, you will recognise FCMB.”
His home in Ikoyi is painted white and has columns, just like the bank. Looking around the room, you also see horses carved in white, symbolising strength, dependability, virility.
“I still do certain things people won’t expect me to do. I still go swimming. At times in the boat, I will wear shorts. This is the grace of God,” Subomi admitted.
“I’m a child of God. It would be wrong for me to conclude that God has concluded his work in my life. I’m throwing myself as a free agent for him to use me till the very end. And I’m also praying for something very interesting.
“By the time I’m 90, I’ll be praying for 100. And I’ll still want to be articulate and maintain my cerebral gifts. So I always believe there’s something more. Part of my name says Olaotan, Olaonipekun (wealth has no end). Believe me, I may say it, but I don’t get carried away. I’m throwing myself in the hands of God to make me whatever he wants. And I’m enjoying it.”
Perhaps, his youthful looks have a lot to do with his active lifestyle and his optimistic outlook. “A friend of mine came here the other day. I ran upstairs and came down. He said ‘you have a lift there. Why are you using the stairs?’ I said, ‘I still want to be walking like a sprinter.’ These are my prayers and my approach to my God,” the billionaire added.
“I talk about it as the culture of excellence in my bank. I always want the best but I’m not arrogant about it. Rather, I am consumed with my appreciation to my God.”
He reminisced on some memorable events in the past. Like when he honoured his mother during her burial. “Because I’m Otunba Tunwase, and it was through her, I decided to bring her body from Lagos to Ijebu in a motorcade of over 100 vehicles. My royal father arranged that all the kings in Ijebu send their staffs of office. Do you know the prayers I heard? People were praying that they should have a Subomi as a child.” He laughed softly, a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. “I was only honouring my mother.”
Otunba Balogun is a renowned philanthropist.
“When people approach me for something, even though I’m not Father Christmas, I will at least do something. I won’t send anybody away.” He always tries to send a token, he said. But there’s a lot more.
He has devoted a substantial part of his resources towards the care and service of the less privileged in his immediate community and Nigeria at large; from giving scholarships to endowing chairs at universities, contributing to infrastructure in his state, and supporting religious organisations. He has also constructed several institutions for the health care, welfare and survival of children.
There are personal encounters. Like the man who went through high school and university courtesy of a scholarship by Otunba Balogun, and made the most of a chance meeting by giving him preferential treatment at a registration exercise.
Realising that the man finished with first class honours in the university but was still jobless, Otunba Balogun gave him a prestigious job at FCMB.
There was also the baby, who by providence, was born at the gate of a hospital while Otunba Balogun was opening a children’s ward in honour of his mother, with many top dignitaries present.
“We saw a taxi driver screech to a stop in front of us. What I have never seen before happened on that day. A woman about to get down from the taxi delivered a baby. I decided to adopt that child. And they named the child Subomi. He has just left university. He even added my name to his surname.
“I don’t know why I do these things. God pushes me to do it. It’s not ostentatious. I’m even scared to tell you because they amaze me. Well, whatever I can do to serve my God. I regard myself as a special agent sent by my God to do all these.”
He continued, “I’m doing a lot which I don’t like people to know. When God gave me this endowment, he didn’t want me to spend it on myself. He wants me to use it for the upliftment of my neighbours. And my neighbours are not just my family or domestic staff. Every one of you is my neighbours.
“I will pass through this world but once. Any good I can do, let me do it now. That’s what drives me,” he said.
There would always be critics but they should be ignored, Otunba Balogun advised. “If you listen to that, you won’t be able to do the work of God. It annoys some people that you’re doing things.”
Even when he’s low-key, it doesn’t always meet with approval. “A number of people have been disappointed when I said I’m not doing anything this year. I’m waiting till 90 and 100.
“It’s not easy for somebody who is successful not to be criticised. The mere fact you’ve succeeded in life, some people don’t like you. The fact that you built something like this for a house, some people don’t like you. ‘Haba! why all these?’ they’ll say. I’m telling you.
“So you just humbly do what you’re doing and leave the rest to God because our God sees the mind and he will continue to provide for you to enable you to do what you do towards His cause.”
Between 1966 and 1975, Balogun was the first principal counsel and company secretary to the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB). During this period, he received extensive training at the World Bank, and its private sector affiliate, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) both in Washington DC.
He also received extensive training from leading stockbrokers, investment banks and merchant banks in London and New York.
“Do you know that at the time we created FCMB, you couldn’t set up a bank in this country without a foreigner as your technical partner? But something was pushing me that I should do it. The reason was that I helped to set up another bank, which is now dead. And I thought I deserved being made the head. They didn’t want me. They said I was only a lawyer.
“I prayed to my God. My nine-year-old boy, who is now almost 50 went to his mother and said, ‘why is daddy praying to be head of another person’s bank? Why doesn’t he start his own?’ The story is in my book.
“I went to the chapel and prayed, singing songs of praise. From my chapel, I walked into my study. I prepared all the papers. A few weeks later, I set up City Securities. Luckily for me, something called the Indigenisation Programme came up during the military. Foreigners had to sell shares,” he said.
By the end of the programme, he had put against his name and that of his company, City Securities Limited, the public sale of shares of about 11 international companies and the private sale of another 20.
“I was the numero uno in this country. Everybody who wanted to sell shares came to me. After, I decided to start my own bank.”
People thought it was impossible. “Someone said you’ll either be a multi-billionaire or go to jail.” He didn’t listen to the naysayers.
“I applied. I didn’t have any foreign partner. My God was my only partner. They didn’t give me a licence initially. I went to church. I saw Alex Ekwueme. I asked my wife to grab his wife’s garment. I asked him, ‘Mr Vice-President, what is happening to my licence?’ He said I should come and see him and assured me that the following Thursday, he will give me a licence. That was how I got it. And no Nigerian before then had single-handedly set up that type of bank.
“But between me and you, rather than being arrogant, I’m humbled. It’s amazing grace.”
Balogun shared some aspects of his daily life. “When I wake up first thing in the morning, my wife comes in and we have a family prayer. I open up as if I’m communicating with my earthly father.
“I will pour out my mind. I will pray for my wife and me, then I will pray for my children, then my neighbours, my friends and then the people who work with me.
“I do the same thing the last thing in the evening when I go to bed. Unless there is something extraordinary, by 9:30, I’m in my bed. After praying, I don’t communicate again. If you telephone me and I’m in bed, I don’t pick it. I may respond in the morning.
“I attend church regularly every Sunday. If I am not in the church, I will probably be spending the time having a service somewhere else, or worshipping.”
This devotion to God earned him the honour of being chosen as head of all Christians (the laity) in Ijebu to replace “the late legend, Papa Odutola.”
It was an honour that blew him away. He was taken aback. ”I did not believe I was good enough to succeed that personality. He was a mega legend. Not knowing that further laurels were still coming my way.”
Someone had to ask why he talks about God so much. “A young, small lawyer into what I have now? The awesomeness frightens me.
“Even at 85, I’m amazed. There are many friends close to me at 85, they have one problem or the other. Yesterday, I went with my wife on my boat. And we went as far as Ilashe. People were wondering how I could still be walking around the boat in slacks. I don’t know what I have done to deserve it.
“I spend most of my time talking of God. It’s a measure of my appreciation and attributing anything that has happened to me to the Amazing Grace of the Almighty. That is what is responsible. I will spend the rest of my life just thanking him.”