UBA, Elumelu and The Power of Foresight

Tony Elumelu

Tony Elumelu

By Olusegun Adeniyi

When on Monday I received an invitation by WhatsApp to the 75th anniversary of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) slated for Monday, it brought back memories of an encounter I had with five men two decades ago. It was captured in my 4 August 2005 column. From my recollection, that UBA is still a brand today, and a powerful one at that, is testimony to the foresight of Mr Tony Elumelu. Below is what I wrote 19 years ago…


I was privileged to attend a rather crucial business meeting in the morning of Saturday 22 January this year (2005). I had gone to interview Mr Tony Elumelu, then Group Managing Director of Standard Trust Bank (STB) at his Ikoyi, Lagos residence. By the time I arrived, he was already on the dining table, holding what appeared an informal meeting with four men. Those young men with him that day, as I would later identify, were Bunmi Akinremi, an Assistant General Manager with STB, Philip Oduoza, an STB Executive Director, Obinna Ofudo, Elumelu’s special assistant and Kennedy Uzoka, STB Managing Executive for the Lagos Region. The discussion, from an eavesdropping position, centred on the merger between the STB and the United Bank for Africa (UBA) that was then just evolving.

Apparently having realised that I was hearing what they were saying, Elumelu beckoned that I should come to the dining table. “Segun, come and join our discussion. Perhaps, we can benefit from your insights,” he said. The discussion was about what name to give the new bank. It was apparent that Elumelu preferred a retention of the UBA name while the four men were opposed to the idea. I was persuaded by their argument. But from his interjections, often laced with humour and banters, Elumelu told his men he could see beyond the surface. “Let us look at what we are gaining from this merger. UBA is already a global brand. That is an advantage for us and that is the way I want us to look at it.” His men were not persuaded.

When he realised that he was losing the argument Elumelu turned to me: “Now, let’s hear from Segun. Don’t you agree with me that UBA would be the ideal name for the bank?” Put like that, I knew I was being set up to play a supporting cast to a predetermined position. But it was a role difficult for me to play because I shared the sentiment of the four other men in the room. I made my point: “From what I have heard here, it would appear you are going for a merger between STB and UBA as equal partners. If I were told that STB and UBA merged and the new name is UBA, I would simply conclude that it is not a merger but an acquisition by the latter.”

At this point, Elumelu became rather uneasy. Then he turned to one of his men who had a laptop. They had apparently been toying with some ideas. He asked that the STB logo be put before the name UBA. “Gentlemen, you know that on our logo is letter ‘S’. What if we put the logo before UBA? That would still, in a way, give us Standard United Bank for Africa.” That concession appealed to his men but when it was done on the computer, what came out was somehow incongruent. Putting a logo before a brand name did not quite make sense. Besides, the colour of STB logo (red) and UBA name (written in amber) looked riotous. While that was the compromise achieved that day before their session ended so I could have my interview, it was also evident that Elumelu was merely buying time. He wanted the UBA name. It was part of his strategic calculation, a new phase in his banking journey.

In retrospect now, especially as we move towards the December (2005) deadline for the N25 billion bank recapitalisation as directed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), I concede that Elumelu could see what his subordinates and this reporter could not see and that precisely is what sets him apart from the rest. Within the banking industry, Nigeria is steadily moving to fewer but more financially robust banks that are better able to compete in the local and international markets. Elumelu could see that in the emerging scenario, the banks that will survive and prosper are those that can meet the expectations of depositors and investors for better returns and security. And sentimental attachment to a brand name would not matter.

What I took away from the session that day was Elumelu’s man-management style. One, all the young men who happened to be his subordinates were treated as equals with him as team captain and motivator. He was also addressed as Tony (his first name) by all of them and this created a relaxed atmosphere that allowed each person to air his view without any inhibition or fear. Elumelu equally did not force the issue as most bosses would do even when he felt a strong conviction about the benefit derivable from retaining the UBA name. 

However, while the tenor of the conversation may have been friendly, there was no doubt about who was in charge and that explains why Elumelu ultimately had his way. The result of what transpired that day and the compromises that may have been reached by both sides along the way became evident when the new bank was unveiled on Monday. The name UBA was retained but it also comes in STB colour (red) rather than the UBA amber. The bank also retained the STB logo, a testimony to the negotiating skills of Elumelu and his men.

That Elumelu has become one of the biggest bank chiefs in Nigeria today is no longer in contention. But industry watchers would argue he is only reaping from his long-term vision that the future of banking would be in the retail market. That explains why STB was opening real time online branches, penetrating the whole country at a time when most banks preferred to stay just in one little corner of Lagos, content with accepting cheap government deposits…

ENDNOTE: As UBA marks its 75th anniversary with Elumelu as chairman, I can now see what he saw 19 years ago. He was not just interested in building a bigger bank, Elumelu was also buying into a legacy by retaining the brand name. Foresight!

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com   

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