Simon Aranonu: Going School was a Huge Challenge as Father Couldn’t afford my School Fees

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Simon Aranonu

Executive Director, Large Enterprises, Bank of Industry, Simon Chibuike Aranonu, 58 years of age, who has spent over 30 years in the banking and financial consultancy industry, in this interview with MARY NNAH, shares the story of how he grew up in the village, the challenges of growing up in a large family of 10, with petty trader parents, and what has sustained him, all these years in the banking industry

Tell us a bit about your background and growing up days

I was born to very poor parents. I never imagined I will be living in the urban area because I grew up in a rural town called Utuh, Nnewi South Local Government, though I was born in Onitsha. I attended primary school in that Village. My dad was a petty trader while my mom was a seamstress who had a table top sewing machine which she takes to the market to fix peoples torn clothes and occasionally sew new ones. That was popular in those days as clothes were passed on. It was a major source of income for her and she did that for many years. Amazingly, at 84 now, she still sews.

I grew up in a large family of 10. I have five sisters and four brothers. I am the third child but the second male child. Growing up was very challenging with two petty traders as parents. I was the very first in the family to be able to go to secondary school and university. Getting an education was very challenging as there wasn’t money for the first two to attend school. But somehow, by divine arrangement, God made a way for me to get a university education. Some of the things we learnt in those early days are helping us today. For example, one of my hobbies today is to ride bicycles. People don’t know that I used to ride it back then, not for fun, but because I used to help my mother carry her sewing machine to the market which used to hold every four days. I used to take the sewing machine to the market before going to school. I will then return home, park the bicycle and then trek to school 5 kilometres away. After school hours I will return home and then take the bicycle in the evening to go bring the sewing machine back. I started doing that at about 10 to 11 years old. That was how I became comfortable with bicycles.

When I finished primary 6 in 1974, I gained admission into Oraifite Secondary School, a missionary school set up by the Anglican Diocese. Going to  school was a huge challenge because my father couldn’t afford my school fees. Before I completed primary school, my father already arranged for my uncle who used to live in Lagos to come and pick me to learn how to sell motor spare parts as an apprentice trader. My uncle arrived right on time but by divine arrangement, my headmasters persuaded my father to allow me to attend secondary school. My father told them that any of them that insist I should go to school should bring the school fees. Somehow, I had an aunt who convinced my dad to allow me to go to secondary school because she had her son in the same school and because my father hardly says no to her that was how he changed his mind. But it was challenging going through that school. My dad bought me an imitation of Cortina shoe back then because he could not afford the real one. The shoe was so big that I had to put newspapers in it to cover up space in front for four years before it was able to match my size. I was mocked by friends but I didn’t allow that affect my self-esteem. I left that school with one of the best results and I was a school prefect.

The issue of going to the university never even arose because if your father was unable to train you in secondary school, it was no point mentioning going to the university. I became an auxiliary teacher after a brief stay in my father’s shop. I taught for a year in the same primary school where I graduated.

It was there that God kept someone who helped shape my destiny. The man called me and advised me to save every money I will receive as salary, and that I will need it someday. That was how I took his advice.  Suddenly Shagari came to power and then increased the minimum wage to N100 per month. That was equivalent of about two hundred dollars then… I saved that money for a year and that was what was largely used to pay my university fees for the first 2 years in the university. By the 3rd year, I had exhausted the money and so my father took me to my maternal uncle who agreed to lend me the money on the basis that when I start working, I will pay him back. We agreed and I paid him back all his money when I got my first job upon graduation.

What I’m saying is that the journey has been a tedious one.

I gained admission to read Finance at the University of Nsukka in 1980. I met with other people from Ivy League secondary schools, they had good exposure and there I was coming from a local secondary school. I got intimidated and it was difficult for me to cope in the first year. I found myself averaging almost a 3rd class in my academic scores.

I met a fellow student in my second year that encouraged me to study hard and so I got my self-esteem back and then started to study hard. I left that university as the best graduating student in my department. That was a great turnaround.

Why did you decide to read finance?

Again, I will say it is by providence because my secondary school was science-oriented. I didn’t know anything about finance or accounting. I would have been a doctor. I applied to study medicine or pharmacy. One evening, our guidance and counselling teacher met with my friend and I. He asked us what we applied to study. We told him medicine or pharmacy. While the man agreed with my friend to go ahead to study what he wanted, he, however, said no to me studying the same. He said I should study Finance or Accountancy.

Remember I said I was a science student. The man asked me to bring my JAMB forms to him. I did and then he deleted with a Tippex what I had already filled and wrote finance and accounting, and then wrote economics and mathematics as subjects that I will sit for during the exam. That was how I found myself here.

What has been your highest and lowest moment having been in the banking industry for over 30 years?

Banking is a very strenuous occupation. It requires a lot of hard work and to find honest people who would borrow money and payback, especially in Nigeria is a huge challenge. INTEGRITY is a scarce commodity in this country.

One of my lowest moments was when I had trusted someone who I thought I knew, lent him some money and that person disappointed me. Eventually, we were able to get around him paying back using legal ways, but it was a very low moment for me.

Banking is a job that if you will be honest, patient and diligent, and do it according to the rules, you will be fine. That’s why I am glad that as a young man, I started with Chase Merchant, an American bank. They taught me global banking practices.

One of my high moments would be watching projects that I started financing when they were small and seeing them blossom into very large enterprises.  Some of those businesses are worth billions now. One of them is worth over a billion dollars now. I see the promoter flying around in his private jet; I see his corporate offices, not only in Nigeria but also abroad. For a banker, nothing can give you greater joy than that.

Tell us about your working career?

After service year I started working for Choice Courier in Ojuelegba. While I was on one of my errands, I met a former schoolmate, who told me another of our colleague just qualified as a chartered accountant.

So that discussion sparked my curiosity and challenged me. That’s how I went borrowing money and registered for ICAN, and in 1988, I qualified as a chartered accountant.

I joined the bank and started having exposures through training. My first was with the Financial Institution Training Centre (FITC). From there, I worked for Liberty Merchant Bank for about 11 years. Their salary was not too fantastic, but while they were no paying a fat salary, they trained us properly. It was Liberty that sent me abroad for the first time. My first overseas training was three weeks Credit Analysis training at Citibank New York. The same Liberty Bank sponsored me to an Advanced Management Programme at Stanford University California in 1998. I also became a USAID sponsored scholar that was chosen as one of the participants in Africa Best and brightest bankers programme in Spring of 2000. That programme enabled me to attend training in Chase Bank in New York and Mellon Bank Philadelphia USA. Other training I attended in University of Chicago, Harvard Business School, and Wharton Business School were paid for by my employers.

You are the Executive Director of Large enterprise. Is it only large enterprises you grant loans to? Any hope for the small scale businesses?

There is more hope for smaller businesses. The reason is that whereas we have only one directorate dedicated to the large businesses, there are two different directorates in BOI dedicated to the small scale business. Unfortunately, many business owners don’t know about this. We have what is called Small and Medium enterprises directorate headed by an executive director, who handles businesses of N10M and above.

And then we have another directorate known as Micro-enterprises who handle businesses from N1 to N10M. As I said, people don’t know that if you want to borrow less than N10 million from the Bank of Industry, you don’t need any tangible security. You don’t need to own land or a house. What we normally ask for are guarantors.

We now have mobile collateral asset register, which was introduced by Central Bank. Under this, if you own a car or any other movable asset, you can register it under the collateral asset register, and then on the strength of that, we give you a loan.

People don’t know we have lending schemes for fresh graduates as well. We lend to youth corp members who have business skills. We call it the Graduate entrepreneurial scheme. What we do with them is to ask for their NYSC certificates and they get loans. But they must do us a feasibility study to show that they know what they want to do with the money. After that, they undergo training with us, free of charge. We have so many success stories from that.

We also have a Youth Entrepreneurship Scheme (YES) programme. This one is for those who have left the university or have obtained an Ordinary National Diploma, within the age of 18­ and 35. Again we lend them money without tangible security. All we need are two guarantors.

Going personal now, how did you meet your wife and who is she?

My wife is Ijeoma. We’ve been married for 28 years. I met her elder brother in university and we became friends. We were visiting each other, but I never spoke to Ijeoma because she was younger than me. She was also very reserved. Years after, I visited my uncle’s wife and told her I felt like getting married. She supported the idea. I told her I didn’t have anybody in my life. She then suggested two people, one of them, a graduate, the other was not. And I told her I wanted a graduate from a good home.

My uncle’s wife didn’t know how to locate her but knew her family well. As God would have it, her first daughter had met Ijeoma a few months earlier. All she could remember was that Ijeoma arrived Lagos from Jos to collect data for her Master’s degree thesis. They met in the process and she would have returned to Jos.  The daughter didn’t have any other information. With that, I went to look for the elder brother. I told him that I would be visiting Jos. I asked for a written note introducing me to her sister. He obliged.

By the time I got to her in Jos she remembered who I was and then we spoke. The next day, I asked that she saw me off at the airport. It was then she asked what I came to do in Jos. I told her I came to see her. She didn’t believe it. I left for Lagos. The following day, I put a call to her and I proposed to her and she accepted. In less than six months, we were married. No courtship. Our courtship was via letters and phone calls.

Are any of your children into banking?

No. None of them likes banking. They all say banking is too tedious. My first daughter is an engineer; my second daughter is studying medicine and the third girl is in the university as well, while the baby of the house is in senior secondary. But in life, you never say NEVER. I have been a Pastor in  The Redeemed Christian Church of God for about twenty years. I never imagined I would be a Pastor.

What would be your advice to the young ones who want to go into your profession and make a success of it?

I have this formula that has worked for me, and it is 3Hs – hard work, humility and holiness. These are what have driven me, and propelled me, all my life. Hard work has no alternative. If you are not willing to work hard, forget success. If you are not humble, you cannot learn. Invariably, you cannot grow. And the last H, holiness. Holiness is next to godliness. Don’t do what God doesn’t want. Don’t steal. Move closer to God. He will guide and make ways for you beyond your imaginations. There is always a GOD FACTOR in every success.