Renowned banker and politician, Dr. Alex Otti, speaks to TOFARATI IGE, about his banking and political career
Why did you leave banking for politics?
There comes a time when one looks beyond one’s personal comfort and interest in taking decisions. For me, that time was in 2014. I had spent over 25 years in the banking industry rising from a graduate trainee in 1988 when I finished from the university, to become CEO in 2011, after serving a six- year tenure as Executive Director in First Bank of Nigeria. I may not have completed my tenure as CEO of Diamond Bank, but I had achieved most of what my team and I set out to do in the bank in a shorter time than we set for it. Meanwhile, I come from a state where things were going bad owing to inept and incompetent leadership. I thought it was a good time to go and serve a lot more people than I was serving in the bank.
I was not interested in politics ordinarily, even though like it is said, man is a political animal. So, I always find it difficult to refer to myself as a politician. I do, however, know that the kind of changes that I wanted to make in the society can only be achieved in politics.
I have always been involved in what you call politics from my younger days and even in school, having been part of student union activities. I am also familiar with the words of Plato, which says, “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
Was vying for the governorship of Abia State your first taste of politics?
I will say yes, if what one did in school is relevant to your question. Otherwise, this was my first attempt in the larger society.
Why did you choose to start at governorship level and not the Senate or perhaps the House of Representatives?
Governorship was where I thought I would make my greatest impact. Like I had said earlier, mine was not driven by the need to hold an office but to deliver service to my people. Legislative functions, even though important was not going to cut it for me. Again, I was gainfully engaged and was really not looking for a career in politics. Mine was more of an intervention than anything else.
What were some of the profound lessons you learnt in politics?
Many lessons that can take up the entire paper. I will highlight a few of them. The first is that people are more discerning than governments give them credit. In spite of the propaganda of the government of the day, when people want change, they want change. I was the subject of all sorts of propaganda, prejudices and blackmail, but the people still voted massively for me even though the mandate was stolen. The second one is that many people who call themselves career politicians are actually jobless and many of them are anything but honest. Again, the real power is in the hands of the people, not necessarily those that parade themselves as leaders. It was shocking to see that people can tell the kind of barefaced lies that you will never imagine. It still happens till today. You owe someone five months’ salaries and you take a space in the media and swear you are up-to-date in salary payments. Finally, treachery is fair game in politics.
How did you make the transition from banking to politics?
Those who call themselves politicians do not possess anything that a professional does not have. It is on the other hand more difficult for them to transit to professionalism. As one who had always related with people, it was not that difficult. I had a clear message for the people which the people bought into and followed.
Do you regret quitting Diamond Bank for politics?
If I had any regrets, it would be that I should have done this earlier. I completed my assignment in the bank before leaving. I remain proud of the modest achievements my team and I made in the bank. I am glad that I have led the way for a lot of young people to follow. Many people who had avoided politics like a plague told me that they were encouraged by what I did and would participate in the next election. That is how changes happen. Someone must make the required sacrifice for change to happen. It is impossible to make omelettes without breaking eggs.
Did losing at the poll come as a blow?
First of all, I did not lose at the poll. I won overwhelmingly to the extent that my opponents who were in power then had to manufacture figures to counter their defeat. The records are there to show. Rather than dealing me a blow, I was very proud of my team for their efforts and for dealing a seating government a big blow and forcing them into desperation. You will recall that the Court of Appeal revalidated our victory based on valid votes cast in that election. The Supreme Court reversed it based on technicalities and not facts of the election. Like we have said earlier, we have since moved on.
Were you not bothered about committing so much money into your political campaign even when you weren’t sure of victory?
Everything is about planning. I had a clear plan of what was needed to be spent and where the funds were going to come from. So, there was no anxiety. Besides, I had a lot of support from friends and Abia people who wanted change in the state. Everything in life is a risk, including the risk of going to bed and not waking up. If you get worried about that risk, you may decide not go to bed to mitigate that risk. Avoiding risks is more dangerous than managing them. Once you get involved in a venture, the chances that it would not work are always there. So, we factored in the risk of not winning and even the risk of winning and it being stolen like it happened in this case.
Were you born with a silver spoon?
Wooden spoon you mean? Not at all. I was born into a modest but contented family. There were many of us and the resources were very lean. It was management all the way. My dad would always give us what he thought was enough to sustain us in school while our mum would, out of her meagre resources, augment. Our dad must not know that our mum was augmenting otherwise; he would reduce what he would give us. In spite of apparent lack, there was dignity and happiness.
Growing up, did you have any vices that usually got you into trouble?
I was a very good child and didn’t have such vices.
What is that one unique/quirky thing about you?
Simple; uncomplicated, straightforward; what you see is what you get.
Who were some of your friends and contemporaries?
A lot of them. However, in the university, two of them that stand out are Rotimi Amaechi and Nyesom Wike. While Amaechi was one year ahead of me, I was a year ahead of Wike. So I’m literally caught in the middle. I’m sure you don’t envy me. They both remain my friends.
Considering that they are your friends, have you tried to broker peace between Rotimi Amaechi and Nyesom Wike?
That is work in progress.
You studied Economics at the University of Port Harcourt; had you at that time began to eye a career in banking?
Banking was obviously one of the options given what I read. But I was also open to other things.
Graduating with a first-class degree is a rare feat. How did you achieve it?
I must first of all, attribute that feat to God. It was not my feat at all because I cannot say that I worked harder than others nor was I more brilliant than others. The thing about first-class degree is that you must be consistent both in character and in learning. If you miss it at the initial stage, it would be difficult to correct later.
One must have thought having graduated with a first-class degree, you would have pursued a career in the academics. Was it something you considered?
I not only considered it, I was given the opportunity by my alma mater after graduation. I turned it down because I thought I needed a job that would pay well at that time so I could support my parents with my seven younger ones, being the first born.
Can you recollect your experiences on your first job upon graduation?
There are many of them. One that stuck is my experience with the personal computer. I had not seen one before. It was my first day at work. My boss then, Mr. Kole Olowofoyeku, handed me a handwritten document and wanted me to produce it on the PC and return to him in five minutes. I had no idea how to turn on the PC not to talk of using it to produce a document. Well, I had to enlist the help of one my more experienced colleagues then, to get the job done. The second one was the kind of training that one had in the bank. Hard work was natural in the bank and I can still remember that on a couple of occasions we could not close from work until the next morning. You would just go home in the morning to freshen up and come back to work.
Did it in any way impact your career afterwards?
Yes. One is that it helped prepare me for surprises. The second is that hard work has become second nature to me.
Who are your role models?
My two role models are no more. They were my dad who passed on in 1994 and my teacher, Prof. Claude Ake, who departed in 1996.
What particular event shaped your life?
I am not sure there is one particular event but a complex set of events which includes the circumstances of my upbringing, education and work.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt in life?
I have learnt so many things that it would be difficult to isolate one as the most important. One of them may just be the one my late mother used to teach. She used to say that you cannot lose anything by working hard, rather, that you had all to gain. That was her way of imbibing the culture of hard work in all of us. The other one is that excellence will always dwarf mediocrity.
While in school, you served as the editor of some publications; did you at any point consider a career in journalism?
Not really. It was just an interest that I had and that is why I still write up till this moment. I maintain a fortnightly column in Thisday and I am completing my second book.
You took a course at Harvard University; how exactly did that impact on your business and professional acumen?
Harvard was one of the most important places that I trained. Interestingly, the course prepared me for the CEO role and exposed me to a lot of new things. The nine-week Advance Management Programme was a life-changing one which I will recommend to anyone who has the opportunity.
What would you regard as the highlights of your banking career?
From 1996 when I joined UBA, I had been part of a transformation team. I guess the successes we recorded must have made First Bank to headhunt me where I also joined a transformation team. The subsequent results by the team must also have informed that call by KPMG in 2010 that led to my resumption as MD/CEO of Diamond Bank. Again in Diamond Bank, it was also transformation all the way which yielded many positive changes. I must say I was very lucky to have assembled an excellent team who worked tirelessly to change the bank. The results came quickly. The bank grew rapidly by assets, profitability and efficiency ratios. It wore a new look as we rebranded the bank, relocated a lot that were not properly located and opened several new branches. It became a preferred place to work as our compensation package became one of the best in the industry. We established a presence in the UK and expanded to more African countries. The Central Bank of Nigeria recognised us as one of the eight “Systemically Important Banks” in the country. This recognition simply meant that because of the size of the bank, it became “too big to fail”. Our information technology systems were upgraded to become one of the most efficient in the country. We rolled out several platforms for service including our agency banking and financial inclusion products. We made the environment such that people were looking forward to coming to the bank and staff loved their jobs.
What were your toughest moments as a banker?
Interestingly, the highpoint of my career as a CEO was also the toughest moment. If I managed to find four hours of sleep in a day, that was a great day. I was everywhere and was involved in everything, juggling them for balance. I was always thinking about the next thing to do to achieve the targets that we had set for ourselves as a team. Thank God, they all paid off.
What professional and personal qualities helped you rise to the pinnacle of your banking career?
Again, I must say that at the centre of it all is God. I believe He enabled me to be focused on what is important. As a leader, you must devote a lot of attention to assembling your team and guiding them. An institution cannot be better than its people. If you want the best institution, you must have the best people. I had a knack for attracting and retaining the best people. I also lead from the front and not the rear. I would not ask you to do what I cannot do. There are very many others that I may not be able to list here.
What were some of the challenges you faced as the CEO of Diamond Bank?
I must say that I was very lucky with my board. I had a very experienced and supportive board so that helped to reduce the pressure. The major challenge beyond the ones I had mentioned earlier was how to deal with the transformation given serious regulatory headwinds. The effect of the global economic crises of 2008/2009 was still being felt in the bank when we came on board. We had to clean up the books of the bank by writing off some toxic assets but we also maintained a minimum capital adequacy ratio as prescribed by CBN. Because the bank was in a transformation mode, additional capital could not easily be raised, otherwise, you would destroy value for shareholders and sell cheap. We, however, found our way round it by raising what is called tier 2 capital. It was not until when we stabilised the bank in 2014 that we went to the market to raise capital by way of a rights issue which was very successful as it was fully subscribed.
What professional/personal goals have you yet to accomplish?
I always set new goals when I accomplish set goals. Right now, my goal is to impact many more people than I had done in the past and the best way to do this is through public service. You can only do so much as a player in the private sector.
In the course of your career, you worked in oil & gas and energy business; in what ways do you think money from the oil industry can be used to ensure meaningful lives for the general populace?
The major problem we have is government. We run a very large and expensive government that we end up using over 70 per cent of the annual budget to pay salaries. That leaves us with less than 30 per cent for the rest of the people. Meanwhile oil accounts for over 90 per cent of our foreign exchange earnings and more than 70 per cent of our revenues. I believe we must do something about reducing the size of government for the populace to enjoy meaningful development. Some call it restructuring. Whatever name you want to call it, we must discuss how to spend more on infrastructure and social amenities than we are currently doing.
You are on the board of some Nigerian universities, how can the educational sector be revamped?
We need to start from the most rudimentary level. Primary education by law is under the local governments. We all know that most states do not allow the local governments to function. So, funding is a challenge at that and other levels and unfortunately, that is the foundation. Once the foundation is faulty, what can anyone do? We also need to pay attention to the quality, number, compensation and welfare of teachers. Then we must ensure that merit is the basis of everything in the educational sector, be it admission or recruitment of teaching and non teaching staff. We must also pay attention to the curricular. What are we teaching our students? The world has moved. In the world of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, our teachers cannot continue to teach nonsense, apologies to Fela.
What personal qualities have helped you to stand out?
I can only guess. I believe the fear of God is number one. People say I am committed and dedicated. They also say I work very hard and that I am always focused on what is important. Of course, those people may be wrong.
What legacy would you like to leave behind?
I always like to leave a place better than I met it. That is one of the major reasons I went to contest elections in the first place.
Apart from banking and politics, what other activities do you engage in?
I read and write. That takes a lot of my time. I also love the hospitality business. This is out of my passion to serve. So I do get involved in a hospitality business my wife and I set up. I am also involved in a small real estate business.
How often do you get to spend time with your family?
If you asked this question when I was in the bank, the answer would have been different. Right now, I do spend a lot of time with my family and it feels very good to be able to do those things that I was unable to do in the last quarter of a century.
How did you meet your wife?
My wife and I met in 1991 and got married in 1993. I moved into the neighbourhood a year earlier and ran into her where I had gone to pick up my clothes from the nearby drycleaner which was next to her house. We got talking and like they say, the rest became history. She has been very supportive particularly filling in for me when I was virtually an absentee father and husband owing to my schedules. She was the pillar of the campaign and was at the forefront organising women and youth. She has always been there for me and I thank God for blessing me with such a wonderful wife.
What lessons have you learnt in marriage?
Marriage is a great teacher. One of the lessons it teaches you is patience. Because the two of you are coming from different backgrounds, you must be tolerant of each other and also forgiving of each other’s shortcomings. You must also be considerate of your partner in every decision you make. Marriage compels accountability and responsibility. As a single person you could do anything you want without answering to anybody, but the moment you get married, that must change otherwise, the marriage may be in danger.
What romantic things do you say and do to her?
I am not sure I do a lot of romantic things, but I am confident she understands.
How do you unwind?
I unwind by listening to music. I love music. My reading acts as form of relaxation for me, particularly when it is not serious stuff. I use the gym every other day and hang out occasionally with friends. I used to play squash a lot until a few years ago when my wife took me off it, insisting that it was too high impact. I still do quite some travelling.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to all sorts of music. I like Nigerian music and have supported and continue to support it. I also like Jazz and other soft music.
What kind of attire are you most comfortable in?
It depends on the occasion and the mood. I wear whatever works for the occasion. These days, I tend to wear traditional attires a lot. I guess having worn suit and tie for such a long time, I consider less formal wears, a welcome relief.
What advice can you give to young people as regards business?
The first thing is that they should aim to identify a need or gap and think of filling it. That is the fundamental principle for the success of a business. I see a lot of people start from what they want to do. You may do what you want to do but there may not be a market for it. So you must start from the market. A lot of businesses have failed because the business owner did not know how to separate the business from himself. You must understand that the money for the business is not for you. You should pay yourself salaries just like any other worker and let the business run as a business. Then you must continue to reinvent the business. How can you simplify processes? Are there better and more cost-effective and efficient ways to deliver the service? You must also rein in your cost otherwise; you may soon go out of business. Have your eye on technology and ensure that technological disruptions do not send you out of business. Think of our oil and gas today and how electric cars would send a lot of people out of business between 2025 and 2040. That is a perfect example. As it is, some businesses and countries may just be caught napping in spite of the warning signals that had been there in the last few years.
You survived an assassination attempt. Looking back now, would you still want to remain in politics and probably contest the governorship again?
The assassins and their sponsors were just wasting their time because they do not know God. I strongly believe that nothing can touch me except if God allows it. And if He allows it, then it is time. That is why He removed me from that house before the attackers came. Like I had said, we are all in politics one way or the other, so the question of remaining in politics does not arise. As 2019 approaches, I will make consultations and at the appropriate time, I shall make my decision about contesting, public.
What keeps you busy these days?
I am now unemployed like some people have reported in the papers. I find that I am still busy, even if not as busy as when I was in the bank. I set up a financial and investment services company in addition to all the other businesses I had itemised earlier. We are happy that we are able to create jobs. We have about 170 people in our pay roll who work in the hospitality, real estate, technology/communications and financial advisory parts of our business. I oversee the holding company with offices in different parts of the country.