He is the maverick entrepreneur in the hat – who has worn many hats: the precocious kid; the investment mover and shaker, the banking wizard. Whenever you see Atedo Peterside in his flowing robes in the heat of a Lagos afternoon – you know a big deal is cooking.
Right now, wherever Peterside lays his hat, that’s his home. His diary shuttles him between Lagos and Abuja; he is on the board of six listed companies; he is chairman of the National Council on Privatisation’s technical committee and runs his own foundation on good governance. On top of this, Peterside is behind many of the biggest investment deals in Nigeria.
We talk at his Victoria Island penthouse, full of art and family portraits. This is Peterside’s quiet haven, away from work and his other passion, polo – a sport he has played for more than two decades with a current +1 handicap. He has a string of fine polo ponies.
Peterside is in the news these days for reasons other than maverick business and polo, but he is quick to clear up that he is no political aspirant – merely a devotee of the greater good; a philosophy born of years of sweat and risk in the dynamic Nigerian banking sector.
At 33 years old, a little older than he would have liked, Peterside became the youngest bank CEO in Nigeria, when he founded the Investment Banking and Trust Company (IBTC Bank) in Lagos.
“Because I was young, people were quite nervous about a bank being run by a ‘kid’, businesses wouldn’t take you seriously. So, I invited some other shareholders who would join the board to create the understanding that it was a mature decision,” says Peterside.
He ran IBTC Chartered Bank for 18 years. Now he is Non-executive Chairman for Stanbic-IBTC, following a merger with South Africa’s Standard Bank Group Nigeria operation – Stanbic Bank Nigeria.
It was the fruit of a merger, in 2007, Nigeria’s first ever tender offer. A foreign direct investment of $525 million took place and Stanbic IBTC was born.
“The most difficult problems I faced as CEO were self-imposed – when I started IBTC, I made a personal decision not to cut corners. I made a resolve to never get involved in any form of corrupt transactions and practices. I had a strong personal commitment to integrity and good ethics. We were going to be above board. I never wanted anyone to say ‘This guy built a bank but they are a bunch of crooks’. While it was very difficult for many to operate this way, for me it was quite easy as I was bent on creating a quality and reputable institution that will stand through time.”
In 2005, following a directive by the Central Bank of Nigeria on conversion to universal banking – a system that allows a bank to engage in all aspects of banking under a single license, Peterside’s IBTC was the only pure investment bank left at the time. There was an eventual compliance and a ripple effect – out of this came IBTC Chartered Bank.
“Acquiring two small retail banks took us out of pure investment banking into universal banking which was never my strength as I was an investment banker through and through.
“But even before we got to that point, I knew that it was time to move all the way to a different type of institution. In effect, if we were going to have a universal bank, I thought we could team up with an international bank. I was happy with IBTC as a well-connected domestic investment bank and we could have kept that model going for many years but there were new requirements that came with the change that affected the tight control unit that had existed previously – I thought, I might as well go all the way and started exploring the direction of a merger with an international bank. Stanbic was the obvious choice. They also had the need to expand their footprint in Nigeria.
“Simultaneously, I divested substantially and reduced my percentage shareholding and also sold some shares to Standard Bank – that too, was deliberate. I was not comfortable leaving too large a chunk of my personal net worth in one institution as I was already seeing signs of vulnerability. I didn’t want anything to get in the way and preferred to have my net worth spread over regulated businesses. Also, events of 2005 showed me that in a heavily regulated system like banking, the regulator can destroy your business overnight with the wrong decision and sometimes you are only as safe and secure as your regulator allows you.”
This is all part of a career, born of foresight in his days at the London School of Economics, where he earned a master’s degree and steeled himself for the world.
“At that time, I was one of the people who were bent on returning to Nigeria – I never contemplated staying a few more months after my education. I was back in Nigeria within two weeks of receiving my master’s degree. In reality, I got a sense, even at my age of 21, that Nigeria would go places very soon and I thought by staying in London to search for a job I’d be missing out on the great things that would happen back home,” he says.
“Oil had just been found in large quantities and I thought my country was going through a very important phase. The civil war had ended in 1970; I was to return home in 1977. So, I thought that was Nigeria’s now moment and I didn’t want to miss it. I wouldn’t say I was phenomenally patriotic, I just felt Nigeria was a place where the sky was the limit. I identified with every single thing that was happening and I felt I could move mountains here – I could have an impact.”
On his return, Peterside was clear; he wanted to be an entrepreneur and chose the field of finance because he felt he could do well. First, there was compulsory time to be worked for the government in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Peterside didn’t want to waste time and requested to be posted to an investment bank.
“I was told the investment banks were not registered with the NYSC scheme and my next best bet was a commercial bank. After spending about six months there, I met the CEO of NAL Merchant Bank, who registered with the NYSC scheme, so I could join their team after I expressed my initial interest. I finished my NYSC at NAL Merchant Bank and stayed on after my service. I worked with this bank for 10 straight years – after which I left to start my own bank,” he says.
“I was heavily exposed while at NAL Merchant Bank. I had a lot to do. I did not complain because I was learning. People wondered why I had been given so many responsibilities but I believe it was a mutually beneficial situation for the CEO as well. He had a lot of confidence in me and he threw a lot at me.”
Like a man on a mission, Peterside studied the system, identified loopholes and carved out a niche. The genesis of his own bank proved a problem. The qualification to be a bank CEO, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria, was at least 10 years’ experience.
“I was bent on becoming a bank entrepreneur in Nigeria, because I felt that the existing investment banks at that time were not very good. So, I was in a hurry to set my own bank up and take them on,” he says.
After 10 years of work, in 1989, license in hand, Peterside gathered young professionals and older heads to found the top investment banking institution in Nigeria.
“I was also lucky in another area – the minimum capital requirement to start an investment bank at the time was quite low. It was therefore within my capacity as I was able to muster some savings, own about 20 percent of the bank and invite others to own the rest of it. I saw a window and I didn’t know how long it would remain open for – I had to grab the opportunity while it existed. Also, when I began, the requirement was a minimum of 10 years’ experience. Several years later, the requirement became 20 years’ experience. Today, it has become 15 years. So, there was an element of good fortune in my case,” says Peterside.
Through it all, a sprinkle of luck and a mean hand played by Peterside won through. This was pure Peterside, a calculating player, who split his life into three segments.
“The first 25 years for me, was to get educated, the next 25 was to be productive, gain financial independence and be well invested. The next stage is to start investing my energy into giving back to society, see how to improve the country – I have that time now.”
It is a belief born in childhood, he says. Peterside grew up, one of three children, in Lagos and Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He recalls a strong parental influence.
“I think I almost grew up with the message that: Yes, you must do well and be successful but that also came with a contract that says if you achieve all of this, promise to devote some of your time to the greater good of society. So, I’ve always taken this to be a duty.”
One of Peterside’s big duties, right now, is overseeing the privatization of Nigeria’s parlous power generation. The country has a mere few thousand megawatts to share between more than 160 million people. He is the chairman of the technical committee of the Nigerian Council on Privatisation. With the privatization of the Nigerian power sector being one of the biggest issues on the continent, Peterside and his team have their work cut out.
“One thing we must remember is that Nigeria’s power sector was neglected for decades in terms of the priority given to it by government. We were at rock bottom. A number of us believed that the way forward was to launch a power sector reform program that was driven at the heart by privatization. We did all that and actually went out to advertise transparently, got prospective asset owners to compete transparently and it is fair to say that the entire transaction was hitch-free,” he says.
“If we had made a decision to sell the entire power sector to one individual, I’m very sure there would have been no takers. The activity is just too complex, not to mention the staggering financial requirement.”
Many Nigerians expect the lights to switch on overnight. Peterside warns that is not going to happen and there are also issues around the reform of gas supply. Most of the country’s power generation relies on gas, which suffers from unreliable supply.
“People also have a right to be angry, however, and they have a right to demand accountability but it will not happen overnight. We should expect to start seeing improvements within six to 12 months and, for as long as these improvements continue, then we are getting somewhere,” he says.
Peterside says he is now semi-retired and has closed the CEO chapter in favor of striking out on a new path. Seven years ago, he founded the ANAP foundation. The foundation name, also his nickname, is based on the initials for Atedo Nari Atowari Peterside. It is a non-profit organization fostering good governance.
“I’m convinced that my purpose is to be able to influence those in political office in the right direction and I think that’s a full time job on its own. I believe this is something I can do effectively too,” he says.
“I have no interest in holding political office itself – I don’t think that was ever my purpose. I’m more gifted with being able to influence their decisions in moving the country forward. My focus is on projects that will bring good to the greater society and not individuals – we are trying to impact lives.”
Apart from banking, Peterside has invested in aviation and property.
He is inspired by people like Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and prophet of the free market, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric.
With a good polo pony collection, ranch and boat, Peterside enjoys himself and time with a close knit family. On the future of Nigerian financial institutions, Peterside is optimistic.
“We must remember that the Nigerian banking sector was dominated by Nigerian institutions. It was important to allow Nigerians to form banks if one wanted the sector to develop. Stopping people from trying was going to be counter-productive and Nigeria was right for allowing some of us to give it a try,” says Peterside.
“When there is a lot of stumbling and falling however, it is also right to take them out – there should be no room for sentiment. It is dangerous to allow failing institutions to remain in business in finance and banking. Ultimately, we are well on our way to having a mature banking industry and the only way we can get there is by making and learning from our mistakes.”
Peterside believes all entrepreneurs should surround themselves with good people. Good staff, good board members and good business partners.
“I always remind people that everyone does not have a divine right to get to the top. By definition, only a handful will get there. When you forget that you are likely to fail through a combination of arrogance, lack of humility and/or poor homework,” he says on why some entrepreneurs fail.
As Nigerian banks move forward in the 21st century, they should tip their hats to the maverick who is rarely seen without his.