What do CEOs do when they are not in the boardroom? Karl Toriola, who took over the reins of MTN Nigeria in 2021, opens the lid on his private life for the first time in this riveting encounter with Vanessa Obioha, and also speaks about his achievements in the corporate world
We finally met him. It was the last day of the MTN Media Innovation Programme (MTN-MIP) in collaboration with the School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University which started in late May. The programme was geared towards making the selected journalists innovative in their profession and expanding their knowledge of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector.
The news of meeting the CEO of MTN Nigeria, Karl Toriola evoked a feeling of elation and curiosity. And the reason for these feelings is the same: to ask him tonnes of questions about the 5G network which the company recently rolled out in select cities. We were equally eager to find out about the future of technology, from the metaverse to blockchain and how the company intends to play in that field.
Of course, it was an opportunity for us to express our gratitude for the fully-funded programme that had broadened our knowledge and inspired us to be more creative and business savvy, however, our inquisitiveness could not be concealed. It was written all over our faces as we sauntered into the CEO’s boardroom at the MTN Nigeria Headquarters in Ikoyi. The weather was cool that Friday morning in October. There was a prevailing light shower that drove the sun away.
One by one, we took our seats, waiting for the arrival of Toriola. If we expected the conventional suit and tie attire that screams everything ‘boardroom’, we were disappointed. Toriola walked in, wearing a ‘senator’ outfit with his glasses resting on his head. His informal dressing and manner of approach in a way reassured us that the encounter will be an engaging one. And indeed it was. From the confident and friendly way he answered questions to the light banter he shared with his colleagues, Toriola painted a picture of an affable character that is different from the serious and rigid picture most people have of company CEOs.
If you search for Toriola on the internet, you would probably glean a little bit of information about his personal life. Of course, his academic qualifications and career trajectory are all there for everyone to read, but do you know he is a fisherman?
While other affluent CEOs find pleasure in playing golf or watching polo, Toriola’s pastime resides in the aquatic field. Apparently, his delicate fingers are not only excellent at punching figures but also good at setting the hook and line.
“I enjoy fishing. Those who know me know I’m an avid fisherman. That’s my hobby. I don’t play golf, I don’t do much else, and I love traveling to nice exotic destinations,” he said in a recent chat.
Toriola is very familiar with Nigeria’s coastal waters and understands the impact of climate change on fishing.
“Nigeria is one of the best fishing grounds in the world. I think we’re slightly overfished. So the quantity of fish that you catch now is nothing like it was 15 years ago. Back then, the fishing people go out by 7a.m and by 11a.m, they will tell you there’s no more space on their boat for fish. But in terms of the geography of Nigeria and the different species of fish you can catch in Nigeria, it is out of this world. Global warming, environmental impact, overfishing, etc have impacted that. So it’s not as great as it used to be. But you will be amazed when you go out in Nigeria and see whales, dolphins, sea turtles etc. And you’ll think that you’re in some exotic place like the Maldives. We see that regularly here in Nigeria,” he explained.
His bragging rights in fishing include a 130 kg marlin and a 70 kg tuna among others.
“For a lot of the endangered species, especially the billfish, we catch and release. We try to make sure that we don’t take off species that are endangered. We return them to the seas healthy and alive.”
Fishing, the MTN Nigeria CEO admitted, requires a special skill.
“You have to know how to navigate. We have the GPS, satellite phones, and radar to see what’s coming in terms of storms and we watch the weather before we go out.”
Toriola’s royal blood is not a secret. After all, his father, Oba Joseph Toriola, was recently presented with the staff of office and instrument of appointment as the 20th Ogunsua of Modakeke. But if you ask Toriola if he plans to toe the same royal path as his father, his answer will be:
“I’m not an ‘Obalola’ (a future King). The royal title where I’m from is awarded through seniority. And my father, who became king, started on that journey about 40 years ago. I haven’t even gotten on the rung of the ladder, and I don’t have any intention to.”
Indeed, the Osun State indigene is even more dedicated to his role as MTN Nigeria CEO, a position he stepped into in 2021. Toriola who joined MTN Nigeria in 2006 has occupied many positions including the Chief Technical Officer of the company and was the Vice President of MTN Group’s WECA region (West and Central Africa) before he reached the top echelon.
However, in less than two years of steering the MTN ship, Toriola has successfully won and launched the 5G network in Nigeria, making MTN the first network to do so, as well as MoMo PSB. These two projects speak volumes about his vision as a result-driven leader.
“When we launched 5G, we were particular about the extent of coverage, penetration and speed. One of the questions that is going to pop up is why is 5G not showing on phones. The truth is Samsung and Apple, which are the two leading manufacturers, have a rigorous testing process before they release the software, unlike 2G, 3G, 4G; there was nothing like this but for 5G, they release a software to us to allow MTN Nigeria users specifically to use our mobile network on 5G. That’s going to happen in the coming weeks. So we are really going to diversify in existing locations on 5G coverage and we will continue to expand, focusing on where our highest reach and demand for internet is. Also, the faster your network is, the more data you are going to consume.”
As he talked about the company’s milestone with 5G and how the fifth generation network consumes more data which is expected, one thing was clear, he has clarity of purpose and he obviously loves what he does. Perhaps, this explained why he considered his greatest achievement to be leading a company that everyone loves.
“Getting MTN Nigeria back to a place where it’s being liked and loved is probably my biggest achievement. People love to hate two service providers, the telco and the bank. And to get customers to start to like and love you and give you some respect; I think it’s a tremendous achievement.”
Truly, MTN used to receive the short end of the stick each time there was a network failure or more recently when the company and other telcos implemented an increase in call and data tariffs. But Toriola pointed out that given the poor infrastructure and power challenges the country experiences, the company provides better quality services compared to countries that enjoy stable power supply.
“But the reality is the cost of deployment of capacity is significant. And we continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars/Naira into these networks at a period where the naira is devaluing. Now, there is no industry in Nigeria today that has seen anything less than a 16% increase in tariffs, whether it is an airline ticket from here to Abuja, road transport from here to Onitsha, the price of bread, the price of garri, your electricity tariffs, which are also regulated. Every single industry in Nigeria in the past 12 or 18 months has had a significant increase in prices.
“We are the only one that consistently over the last 20 years declined in our curves. And there’s only so long that can go on before it starts to affect the quality of service and our ability to invest in the future of this nation. So over time under the guidance and control of regulatory authorities, which is the NCC with the policies supervision by the Honourable Minister, we will continue to ask and expect that there will be a gradual reasonable uplift in prices to enable us to first absorb the inflation shocks that we’ve experienced across the country — power, diesel, etc. We operate on Microsoft licenses, Ericsson licenses, and Huawei licenses, these are all dollar-dominated and we are also impacted by that, as well as everything else, including increases in staff salaries and other cost adjustments. So just to make it plain, the increase has nothing to do with 5G but increase across any technology.”
Toriola’s love for his company also spread to his colleagues. Everyone addressed him as Karl and he equally amicably relates with them. For instance, when Lakinbofa Goodluck who works in the public relations department of the company was making introductions during the meet and greet with him, a jovial Toriola asked “Is that Lakin the doctor?”
This evoked not only warm laughter from the young man who just rounded up his doctorate but also a sense of belonging. While he described himself as a team player, it was also evident that he is a family man who loves and dotes on his wife and daughter.
“I married my university sweetheart,” he began his love story. “We met at the age of 19 and dated for a while. Ronke Omisakin-Toriola likes retaining her maiden name, which is great because her family is also an important part of her journey and my journey as well, and we’ve been married for 27 years.
“We were both in OAU, and interestingly enough, we are from two very opposing tribes – Modakeke and Ife. As you know, I always say this: my dad is from Modakeke, and my wife comes from a very prominent family in Ile-Ife. So a Modakeke man married an Ife woman, but our parents actually knew that my wife and I were very strong-willed, and in love; and once we had decided, they could say or do anything they wanted, but we were going to get married. So they decided pretty quickly that these ones were a couple, and we were going to support it fully.
“She was raised in the leafy suburbs of Ikoyi while I was a village boy growing up in Ife, and she’s been my rock. Someone once told me there are no bad men; there are men not held in check by the environment around them, which effectively is your wife and family. And so my wife holds me very much in check and balance to ensure that I don’t get ahead of myself with my ego. I’m very well-grounded.”
Toriola’s greatest gift is his lovely daughter, Damilola Toriola, “who is very happy to be a black woman in STEM. But more than the academic qualifications (she’s an Imperial College graduate), I’m very proud of her character,” he said lovingly.
He continued: “She’s a strong-willed, independent-minded person who I know will do great things in her life according to her desires and ambitions. One day, my daughter will leave me and marry. I can’t imagine what that will be like, but I will promptly adopt her husband to be my son and expand my family through that.
“So that’s my family life, a very long marriage, the best thing I ever did; my one and only child, very proud of it all.”
Family, it is, that Toriola plans to return to when he retires.
“I know where I’m coming from. I know where I’m going, and I understand that ultimately, all this fanfare, status, position, etc will all go away someday when you retire. And what do you come back to? You come back to your family. And it’s important to always remember that and to ensure that you’ve built something beyond your career that gives you a real sense of inner satisfaction,” he concluded.