Michael Subomi Balogun Curtain Calls for Banking Icon

The astute investment banker, lawyer, and philanthropist, Olasubomi Balogun, who died on May 19 in London at 89 would be remembered as a phenomenal businessman with resilient and humanitarian spirit, Yinka Olatunbosun writes

For a long time to come, the impact Olasubomi Balogun, who was laid to rest yesterday, had while alive will remain on the lips and hearts of many Nigerians.

A good biography on him would identify him as a pioneering investment banker, lawyer, and philanthropist. Perhaps, a good-humoured account would paint him as an illustrious Ijebu man, while a more daring one would capture his kaleidoscopic love life, adventures, and good life. He was simply a colossus.

His famed residence in Ijebu Ode is unmissable: a stunning white edifice along a relatively busy road. A handful of security men guard the gate as one walks past to access the sprawling home. The swimming pool area was one of the late banker’s favourite places in the house. He would swim and spread out on the lounging chairs, enjoying the serenity of the home surrounded by some dedicated domestic staff.

Inside the gold-themed walls are magnificent décor pieces befitting royalty. Family photographs are often the usual ice-breakers for new arrivals at the home.

Balogun was a direct descendant of the Awujale. His early childhood years were spent in Ijebu before he was moved to Lagos where he had a secondary school education. He completed his O’Level at Igbobi College, Yaba before writing and passing the Cambridge School Certificate in Grade One in 1952, followed by the General Certificate Examination (GCE) Advanced Level. As typical of many of his peers at the time, Subomi taught at a Muslim college school briefly before enrolling at the London School of Economics (LSE) to study law in 1956. Later, he was admitted to the English bar in December 1959 after graduating in June of the same year.

Subsequently, he received the sponsorship of the Western Regional Government to obtain training in Legal Drafting in Whitehall and the City of London with a particular focus on financial legislation, instruments, and agreements. Following his graduation, he worked as a Crown Counsel in the then-Western Nigeria Ministry of Justice and then as an assistant parliamentary counsel in the Federal Ministry of Justice in Lagos.

Ascending the Banking Heights

Subomi’s interest in banking was nurtured by his work at the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB) as the Principal Counsel and Company Secretary for nine years, precisely from 1966 to 1975. Furthermore, he received training at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), also known as the World Bank, and its private sector affiliate, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), both of which are located in Washington, DC. He went on to study with top stockbrokers, investment banks, and merchant banks in London and New York.

He founded City Securities Limited in December 1977, the first institution in Nigeria to combine an issuing house and a stockbroking business under one name. Initially, he kept his lips sealed on the ownership. This was only the first step toward establishing the merchant bank he desired. At City Securities, he developed relationships with Mobil, Texaco, and Total Petroleum marketing companies where he began handling the companies’ equity offerings.

“By some divine intervention, the government of this country decided to have a scheme called indigenisation,’’ he revealed in his final interview with THISDAY.

“All companies should sell 49% or 50% of the companies to Nigerians. There were four oil marketing companies in the country at the time. There was Mobil, Texaco, and British Petroleum. Some friends who knew that I needed a job badly introduced me to Mobil. Earlier, Coca-Cola had made an offer to me. when I told them I had resigned and that I would be pleased if they could help me. They thought my company was too new. They wanted me to have a joint issue with my former employers. My former employers said no way.

“The directors of Leventis went in and came back and decided that the job should be given to City Securities, me alone. So, I formed a company, Primrose Investment Limited. Primrose was where I lived in London. When people ask me, I say some foreign friends of mine own the company. We handled Coca-Cola. They gave me one of the biggest accounts that anyone could handle. They gave me N143,000. I’m talking about over 50 years ago. That was big money. Then another friend working in Mobil Oil also gave me an offer on the promise that I would work hard and go to the US to meet some people.”

That was the beginning of the watershed in indigenous banking in Nigeria. From international meetings to closed deals, the banker was grateful to the friends who extended their helping hands while he was starting his own company.

“Another friend of mine was the Chief Accountant at Total so I got a referral. I got the business too. Within six months, I handled three of the four oil companies in Nigeria. You can imagine the adulation. Meanwhile, I was not disclosing the fact that I owned the business. I just kept claiming the company belonged to a friend.  A lot of American companies picked me. I was well off. I asked my wife and children to move to Britain so that the children could continue their education there.

At the end of the indigenisation period, I was being described by the Nigerian media as a colossus of the capital market,’’ he recounted heartily.

In 1979, he applied for a merchant banking license to establish First City Merchant Bank, Nigeria’s first wholly-owned merchant bank. The operations of the bank took off in 1983. The common practice in Nigeria, especially in the early 90s, was for banks to be set up by persons of diverse professional callings. Hence they are usually set up by groups of investors. In the case of FCMB, it was a different ball game as the bank was solely the idea of Balogun. Not just that he set it up, but he imbued it with an enduring culture of excellence.  To his credit, he was the first to create a special dining room for bank employees and a classy dress code: dark and conservative suits. He is the mastermind of the phenomenal and palatial architectural model that is synonymous with all FCMB branches nationwide.

A Man with Heart of Gold

One thing that Subomi Balogun was known for all through his life, was his exemplary and uncommon magnanimity. Unlike those who built their wealth by profiting from other people’s misfortunes, Subomi Balogun’s life is a lesson in sincerity and love for mankind.

One that stood out the most was the story of how Subomi, as the young banker decided to protect the property of one of his neighbours (an Igbo man) in Apapa during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war when many Igbos fled other parts of the country for the East to avoid being killed.

His neighbour was Alex Ekwueme, a young Igbo architect, who joined others by abandoning his home and business and with his family fled for the East.

While the war lasted, Subomi rented out his neighbour’s house and kept every kobo for him while he was in the East. After the war, the Igbo architect returned to Lagos and the Yoruba banker handed over the entire proceeds of the rent and also the house to him. Some few years later, Ekwueme became the Vice President of Nigeria and Balogun had established a commercial bank, the first by a private citizen in the country’s history.

However,  Balogun could not get a licence to begin banking operations. Many people were against him because it was unheard of at the time. At this time, Balogun remembered his neighbour who was now the Vice President and tracked him to the Christ Church Cathedral, Marina, Lagos on a particular Sunday. He had tried to get an appointment to see him in his office but without success.

After the church programme, they positioned that he would see them on his way out. However, the people following him out and security blocked his view. That was when the banker’s wife decided to take a risk and like the woman with the issue of blood, she pulled the Vice President’s cloth to get his attention who then turned and saw his old friend.

The young banker then narrated his plight and told the Vice President how he had tried to see him and what he needed to see him for. He told him about his application for a bank licence.

“Don’t worry yourself. Just come tomorrow at the Federal Executive Council meeting which I would preside because President Shehu Shagari would not be there,’’ the Vice President assured him.

By 3.00 pm the next day, the Finance Minister called the banker on the phone that his licence was ready. And the First City Monument Bank became a reality. The rest they say is history.

His Philanthropic Side

Having achieved success in his businesses, Balogun shifted his focus to philanthropy and touching lives. He built a National Pediatric Centre in Ijebu-Ode and donated it to the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan.

“The University of Ibadan named their children’s emergency ward after me based on what I have done there,’’ he revealed. “It is called Otunba Tunwase Children’s Emergency Ward. I had done other things. I also built the National Pediatrics Centre, the largest in Nigeria which is now given to the University of Ibadan and University College Hospital. I set up a scholarship for my father and mother. When I started my business, I wanted to show appreciation to my God. So the scholarship is still going on.

“40 beds donated to the hospital. We were there when a woman was rushed in. She gave birth right in front of us and the baby was named after me. I adopted the baby. He is now a graduate and not only that, he is now working at FCMB,’’ he narrated with a smile of contentment on his face.

The Subomi Balogun Foundation scholarship was instituted to create access to educational funds for exceptional students. Many beneficiaries have emerged, leaving a good name for its initiator. He uplifted individuals and communities through scholarships, empowering the disadvantaged to pursue their dreams, achieve their goals, and make a positive impact beyond their communities. To his credit are over 300 education scholarships offered to Nigerians from different walks of life.

The consummate stockbroker recounted yet another personal experience that pointed to the benefits of caring for the youths and the community at large. Often, one good turn deserves another.

“I went somewhere with my wife when they were registering voters. There was a long queue in the grammar school. Then someone cleared the way for me and my wife to register. I later found out the boy was one of the beneficiaries of a scholarship and at that time, he had no job. Right there, I called and he got employed at FCMB. He is one of the top people at the bank now.

“There are many old students of Muslim college that are around me. All the churches approach me and in my modest way, I have played my role as the leader of the laity. God has chosen me as his special son.”

A direct descendant of Oba Tunwase of Ijebu-Ode, Chief Balogun was the Otunba Tunwase of Ijebuland and Olori Omoba of Ijebuland as well as the Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians. Apart from his banking ventures, he had diverse business interests, including real estate, agriculture, and telecommunications. At 13, he converted from being a Muslim to a Christian. At 89, his final days were filled with utterances of gratitude reflecting inner peace and contentment.

“I want my God to use me. I want to spend the rest of my life serving God and humanity. I want my God to allow me to always show my appreciation. I am not asking for anything again in life. All the beautiful things of this life God has given to me.’’

Recognitions and Awards

His life of selfless service wound up with several recognitions and awards. He also has the American Biographical Institute Inc’s Distinguished Leadership Award for outstanding contributions to the development of Investment Banking. Balogun was also a recipient of the University of Ibadan’s Degree of Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) in recognition of his outstanding achievements, both in the field of Law and his contributions to the socio-economic development of Nigeria.

He also emerged as winner of the Hallmarks of Labour Foundation (HLF) Role Model Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship and Corporate Governance.

In 1994, he became the holder of the Cavaliere dell’Ordine Al merito della Repubblica Italiana (Knight of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy), conferred on him by the Italian President. He holds several revered traditional and cultural titles in recognition and appreciation of the number of lives touched and transformed, not minding religious and ethnic divisions. They include Otunba Tunwase, the Olori Omo-Oba of Ijebu, Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians, the Baba Oba of Ijebu-Ife and the Asalu-Oba of Ijebu Mushin and many others from other parts of Nigeria. The federal government also decorated him with the national honour of Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON).

He would be remembered for his investment in both human and material assets as well as his contribution to advancing humanity.

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