Q&A With… Busi Mabuza
IDC Chair Busi Mabuza on diversity and development.
There are many female executives at the top at the IDC; how is the organization driving gender to resolve challenges in the African economy?
- The pleasing part is that the more we improve, the more we see opportunity to get better. Just over half of our staff complement at the IDC is female. We have focused on nurturing talent in a fair and equitable manner. The CEO [Geoffrey Qhena] pays specific attention to promoting equity in the management and executive levels of the organization. My interest is to also ensure that our professional level, which is our natural leadership pipeline, continues to be representative.
How does the IDC develop female entrepreneurs and ensure they contribute to the economy and nation-building?
- The funding of women-owned business is one of our specific corporate key performance targets which we monitor and report on. This has focused everybody’s mind and is an integral part of our conversations at board meetings. We recently hosted a conversation session with women entrepreneurs specifically focusing on manufacturing. Management is now synthesizing the very constructive inputs received. We aim to be an accessible funder and to be one of the first ports of call for entrepreneurs requiring funding in our areas of focus.
Past the tight security at the Industrial Development Corporation’s (IDC) stately headquarters in Sandton, Johannesburg, and up a couple of floors, we meet Zama Luthuli as she steps out of one of the glass-enclosed offices. She is slender, in a striped skirt and killer heels; one could have easily passed her off as a model.
Luthuli laughs when you suggest this. She has considered becoming a model and owning her own makeup and clothing line, she admits, so we are not far from the truth.
At 40, this self-confessed fashionista is the IDC’s youngest executive. As Divisional Executive: Corporate Affairs, she holds a critical role. This is evident when she points to the files she has in front of her, of entrepreneurs the IDC has developed. She speaks animatedly about them. This job, clearly, is more than a job for her.
“I see it as a contribution to the continent,” she says, which makes the long hours and lengthy Exco meetings worthwhile.
“It’s something bigger than us, it’s about other people. We work long hours, we get so tired but we look at people’s businesses and see the impact in their lives, and then the long meetings no longer matter.”
The IDC is a 75-year-old national development finance institution in South Africa set up to promote economic growth and industrial development.
Luthuli was only 37 when she assumed an executive role for the first time, in her previous job, at PetroSA. She joined the IDC in July last year, working with four heads in marketing, CRM, CSI and facilities management. Her work is in perfect alignment with her goals.
“A woman’s role is in the kitchen? A woman’s role is in bigger kitchens nowadays, [kitchens] that make stuff, create stuff and create employment,” says Luthuli, referring to the umpteen factories and industries that women lead today.
It’s a far cry from when her mother struggled to send her to university. Born in KwaZulu-Natal, Luthuli worked very hard in order not to disappoint her mother, and graduated in communications.
Thereafter, she says she was always fortunate finding employment.
That’s also because she was willing to take risks. “I always knew I wanted to be in a corporate environment.”
But she has a piece of advice for young people. “If you want a job, make one,” she says.
“With challenges, you learn, you grow, you adjust. There will be a woman who has been there before, so rely on her skills. It’s important to have a mentor. You need to understand the lay of the land, understand the organization.
“And always look for a business opportunity in what you do while you are employed. There are so many creative ideas we encounter on a daily basis. Whilst you are working, work on your dream, work on an idea, have a back-up plan.”
What are some of the most offbeat entrepreneurial ideas Luthuli has seen come her way?
“We find quite a few blueberry farms in South Africa!” she offers.
A single mother, with two girls aged 13 and nine, Luthuli says it’s important to rely on support systems. She took up an MBA degree after the birth of her children. But in the end, it’s about finding what works.
“Balance is something you create that’s relevant to your own situation and environment. Balance is also taking into account your own personal journey at a given time.”
The articulate executive says she has gone through enough pain and loss in her life that she knows it’s teaching her something every day.
“Our challenges may be different but let’s not dim our lights, let’s help each other,” says Luthuli, and you know that’s exactly what she’s doing at the IDC, lending her creative energies and late hours for Africa and its people.
Ten minutes into the interview and it’s easy to tell Lizeka Matshekga is a soft-spoken powerhouse. While that may sound an oxymoron, this is a person with enough years in the financial services industry and multiple accolades in her trophy cabinet.
“I don’t want to call it success,” says Matshekga, with a quiet confidence.
“I am hungry. When you have hunger, you keep growing. I am hungry for information and knowledge. It has nothing to do with success. It’s really about wanting to know more every day.”
Matshekga has been with the IDC for 10 years, and is the Divisional Executive of Agro, Infrastructure & New Industries.
With a master’s degree in Development Finance from the University of Stellenbosch, an honors degree in Financial Analysis and Portfolio Management from the University of Cape Town, and a BCom degree from the University of Western Cape, she has had 22 years in the financial services sector, in areas such as investment banking, treasury, turnaround and restructuring management, BEE financing and post investment management.
Last year in November, at the IDC, Matshekga scooped four awards, the most anyone won that year.
From Gugulethu, a township in the Western Cape, she stumbled into finance studies quite by accident.
“I wanted to be a scientist or doctor. I applied for BCom by mistake. My mother asked me to try it for a week, and I loved it! It was in my destiny.”
Matshekga’s mother, now 68, was a domestic worker who raised the children on her own.
“I had no access to bursaries. It was my twin sister’s biology teacher who helped me get the R1,000 ($73) registration fee for my BCom. It’s people like that I am grateful for today because he saw something in me. That’s the seed I needed.
“I always have this notion that your circumstances do not define your future. Almost every black child has faced poverty in childhood. In Gugulethu, most kids didn’t have hope. I was hungry to make a difference.”
She came to Johannesburg, which further fueled the hunger in her. Matshekga worked with Standard Bank Corporate Merchant Bank, and was with the National Empowerment Fund for three years. She joined the IDC and “has not looked back since”.
“I have been through the entire investment cycle at the IDC,” she says.
In 2011, she was asked to head up forestry within the IDC. She had never been exposed to the sector or been “a deal-maker”, so she thought: ‘how do I start?’
The unit was at its lowest in terms of performance when she took over, going up to “Top 5 in operations in the front office” by the end of the year, remaining that way for a while. Soon, Matshekga was also asked to take over the green industries sector, now called industrial infrastructure. Her mantra?
“I create an environment for my people to feel they are adding value and can be creative. It’s not my way or the highway… I also don’t limit myself to my focus area, I always look for things beyond my zone.
“I always tell youngsters at the IDC that your mentor needn’t be a senior, your mentor could be a peer. When you have friendships, let it add value. Don’t be shy to ask a team member. There are no stupid questions. You always come out of that engagement empowered.
“I always use the tested approach,” she says. “The IDC has invested so many development tools in ensuring where I am today.”
She is passionate about the new emerging industries of the future, and believes it will be her legacy.
A mother of three children, aged 16, 11 and three, Matshekga puts in enough late nights, knowing the larger purpose of her work. Thankfully, she says she has a supportive husband, which helps as her diary is more hectic than his.
From The C-Suite: ‘The Digital Economy Is An Extremely Powerful, Transparent Tool’
What are the big corporates thinking? Raghu Malhotra, the Dubai-based President of Mastercard Middle East & Africa, on developing clear frameworks for the current crisis, and why digital transformation is more important now than ever before.
Addressing the challenges of Covid-19
We absolutely find ourselves in a place where we are mandated to think differently about how we interact with the world around us. And it’s not just the challenge, but the scale of it that’s so astounding. Organizations need to play a vital role in enabling commerce critical to sustain people’s health and wellbeing.
Technology has always played an important role in how Mastercard addresses challenges, and that is even more true today. Through technology, we are better able to support all the partners with whom we interact in this ecosystem – governments, public sector, private companies, small businesses, fintechs, mobile network operators, retailers, merchants and consumers.
We developed a clear framework to address the impact of Covid-19 – containment, stabilization, normalization and long-term plans for eventual growth. We have been accelerating and enhancing our innovative services and solutions that can help businesses and governments in the region and around the world to assess, react and plan through the current crisis. We are now seeing signs that global economies are starting gradually to move into the stabilization phase.
Of course, first and foremost among the many challenges has been the cost to human health and wellbeing. We have committed to no job losses as a result of Covid-19. As an inclusive company, we know it’s paramount to consider diverse perspectives. We are encouraging learning, development and volunteering as our people combat challenges, but also discover new strengths.
Contactless payments and changing consumer behavior
Consumer behavior changes as people adapt to new environments. In order to observe social distancing, people are opting for digital and contactless modes of payment that are safe, secure and fast. While countries and sectors worldwide are at different stages of contactless deployment and usage for daily shopping habits, Mastercard saw the number of contactless transactions in South Africa grew 13X in March 2020 compared to March 2019 in grocery and pharmacy categories.
Contactless is definitely here to stay. In our consumer sentiment study from April this year, 78% of respondents in South Africa said they will continue to use contactless post-pandemic. The study revealed that since the beginning of Covid-19 in South Africa, 89% of South African respondents have been using contactless to pay for groceries, 60% for pharmaceutical items, 39% for other retail items, 15% for fast food, and 8% for transport.
When we look at the trends and data of growth in digital payments and online shopping, it’s significant. According to Mastercard data, for every $100 spent in Middle East and Africa (MEA), half was spent on e-commerce in May compared to a third of this figure in February this year.
For everyone to benefit, we must include everyone – that’s why financial inclusion is so important. The digital economy is going to keep growing, and to ensure we advance real, genuine, inclusive growth, we need to make access easier and simpler. Bridging the digital divide is essential to enabling financial inclusion. Cash remains a drawback to financial inclusion and growth, which is why it’s so important for all partners to work together to build communities that are less reliant on cash and better positioned to take advantage of digital growth.
Our goal is to reach 1 billion people by 2025, including millions of small businesses and women entrepreneurs. Over the past five years, Mastercard has already reached 500 million people in 80 countries through 350 collaborative programs, including Kasha, an e-commerce platform in East Africa optimized for women’s health and personal care.
It offers confidential and convenient service, online and offline digital ordering and delivery to both urban and low-income rural areas. The digital marketplace for farmers via the Mastercard Farmers Network (MFN) and a digitized school payment ecosystem through the Kupaa initiative are other examples.
Mobile network operators play an enormous part in financial inclusion as we have a long-lasting partnership with these telcos, as well as fintechs and e-tailers, to reach people – especially those who don’t have bank accounts, as these are the people who will benefit from a digital wallet to transact with mobile money through QR codes and Virtual Card Numbers. Mobile money has transformed the landscape and almost half (45%) of all mobile money activity happens in sub-Saharan Africa. Technology is helping us achieve things previous generations could only dream of.
Helping SMEs reinvent themselves
Nine in 10 businesses in sub-Saharan Africa fall into the SME category, so they are incredibly important in driving growth for African economies and providing livelihoods for millions of people. Their success means sustainable prosperity for Africa’s entrepreneurs and going digital is a crucial part of this process. In Africa, online sales currently represent only 1% of total retail sales, so there are opportunities for Africa’s small businesses as they go digital.
One of the many initiatives we are supporting includes helping small businesses in Nigeria to set up digital money accounts and accept QR payments using Facebook Messenger and a Masterpass QR bot. In addition, we partnered with Letshego in Mozambique to pilot Community Commerce in order to digitize low-value transactions for shopkeepers of informal convenience shops. In South Africa, Mastercard has partnered with fintechs like uKheshe and iKhokha and other financial services providers, to offer low-cost digital payment solutions to SMMEs and the unbanked to fast track financial inclusion.
Over the next five years, Mastercard has pledged $250 million in financial, technology, product, and insights support to small businesses across the globe. These include measures such as helping small businesses with cash flow to sustain operations, providing access to credit, making insights available for decision-making and securing solutions to go digital, or grow in digital.
“Nine in 10 businesses in sub-Saharan Africa fall into the SME category, so they are incredibly important in driving growth for African economies and providing livelihoods for millions of people. Their success means sustainable prosperity for Africa’s entrepreneurs and going digital is a crucial part of this process.”
Shaping the digital economy
At its core, the digital economy is an extremely powerful, transparent tool that enables social welfare grants for pensioners, working capital to SMEs, secure revenue streams, more convenience and lower costs for citizens. Our multi-rail approach is at the heart of how Mastercard is positively transforming the future of the digital economy. Through product introductions and acquisitions, we are reinforcing our value propositions in terms of government, account-to-account, and business-to-business payments. Additionally, we have rolled out technology for real-time transfers in bill payments and payouts, and prioritized security technology to help guard against increased fraud risk. We are participating in as many payment flows as we can to stay ahead of the changing landscape, delivering essential choices to banks, businesses and consumers.
Africa remains a top priority for Mastercard and we strive to help create a more connected continent that can continue its digital transformation and reach its full potential. We have been committed to progress in Africa for over 45 years, we are able to stay connected to Africa’s unique challenges and tremendous opportunities, as well as its inherent possibilities to succeed.
– Interviewed by Renuka Methil
‘Cash Is Our Competition’
Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s New York-based Chief Marketing Officer, was in Kenya recently. Having been a marketing guru for 35 years, he discusses key strategies for brands to stay relevant in the digital age.
Future technologies shaping marketing
In the last seven to eight years, the technology change has dramatically altered the field of marketing and is probably more than what happened in the preceding 25 to 30 years. The changes happening now are going to be even more dramatic. There’s a plethora of technologies coming in such as artificial intelligence that is going to touch every single part of the marketing ecosystem and that’s going to affect how we understand consumers, how we do data analytics, how we come up with insights. Blockchain has also been in the financial space but is going to the marketing space. For example, the advertising space has a ton of intermediaries; between the brand owner and the publisher. That leads to a lack of transparency, efficiency, and a lot of middle men are getting their cut of the entire advertising dollar. Some statistics indicate that 30 percent of the advertising dollar that marketers are spending on the media goes to the intermediaries. So there are possibilities here for Blockchain to take root and make the dollar work harder. The third one is augmented reality. It is going to add a layer or series of layers of information on top of their physical environment or even the digital environment which makes consumer interaction with their environment very different. That gives marketers a tremendous opportunity to engage consumers in unprecedented ways by providing information layers that are most relevant and appropriate for the consumers and compel them to take decisions that are right for them. Virtual reality is evolving and has yet to take real root but the moment it does, it will take off. 5G has got tremendous speed; it has got close to zero latency and that brings a whole different dimension to how we can engage consumers. 3D-printing is another area that’s coming pretty hard and fast and that’s something marketers have not exploited a lot. So tomorrow, the number of technologies coming at us are so many more and this is going to alter the landscape for marketers completely. If you know how to tackle it, you’ll be at the top of your game, but if you don’t understand, you risk being obsolete quickly.
Revisiting the engagement model with consumers
It is estimated that on average, 3,500 to 5,000 commercial messages are bombarded at each consumer every single day. That is an incredible level of information overload. On the other hand, consumer attention span is reducing. They are responding to that by tuning themselves out, putting ad blocks on their devices and those are big risks for marketers. What you do as a marketer is not just improve the ads but to rethink your entire communication and engagement model with your consumers. Mastercard took a very interesting step six years back when we decided not to be purely about advertising, which is story-telling, and said our future will be in story-making, which means we create and curate experiences that money cannot buy but which you can get only through Mastercard. So we went from pure traditional marketing to experiential marketing in a big way and that has really paid off and it’s evident as [in 2019] Interbrand has rated Mastercard the fastest-growing brand across all categories and industries.
Africa’s marketing space
Africa is a collection of a diverse set of markets and each market is at a different stage of evolution, with unique cultural nuances, and has its own unique opportunities and ecosystems. Like, for example, in Kenya, the telecom ecosystem is one of the most sophisticated you have. And if you look at South Africa, there is a tremendous amount of sophistication in terms of advertising and marketing and you have got a whole bunch of other countries in different stages of evolution and specialization. So Africa is a continent of huge opportunities that every single company and brand is very seriously focused on and we at Mastercard are no exception either. The population is huge, it is very resourced and there’s an upward mobility of the population and that’s where the biggest of opportunities come for any brand.
Need for innovation
As marketers, we have to understand digital technology and we have to leverage data while fully respecting and honoring the privacy of consumers. At Mastercard, for example, we created the Priceless digital marketing engine which tries to understand and predict the micro trends that are going to be happening in the overall society. After identifying the trend, we then try to figure out its relevance and commercial and communication opportunity for us. That’s one example of how we’re trying to break through all the noise.
If you look at the penetration of digitization of the entire economy, cash is still dominant. The digital economy is less than 15% globally and less than 5% in some countries and that’s a huge opportunity. So, the competition is not with some brands out here, it is cash and cash is our competition. So we compare ourselves with what consumers are exposed to and we want to be at the top of their mind. People have been using cash for a long time and it’s not easy to change habits; it takes time.
Avoiding consumer mistrust
When you are trying to constantly keep selling something to consumers and if the consumers’ experience is different than what the brand has promised them, there’s a big break of trust and today, the trust amongst consumers about brands and brand communication is, generally speaking, very low; there is a trust deficit. So brands have a lot of work ahead of them. They have to strive to rebuild, regain the trust, and to do that, there are a few key principles that are critical. Brands have to be authentic by not trying to fool consumers, be consistent in terms of commitment and follow through with action as well as respect consumers, practically, when it comes to privacy. Lastly, it’s extremely important for brands to be relevant to consumers as well as have a purpose.
Challenges for marketing
Reaching people at the right time, fashion and right context is not very easy. It requires a lot of technology and a lot of talent locally to deploy technology effectively. So the first big challenge for marketers is how do you find the right talent? And it’s important to develop, attract and retain the talent. What we have to as marketers, therefore, is to connect with the professors, go through them and help them come up with the most contemporary and useful curriculum. How do you enable these marketers to do the best marketing that they can by creating common standards across the industry, having the right kind of tools and methodologies?
Getting these going off the ground in any given country or region is not an easy thing but something we have to do.
– Interviewed by Steven Muvunyi
The Tall Lawyer, Investor And Philanthropist In A Power Suit
Aluko & Oyebode, Nigeria’s formidable commercial law firm, at No.1 Murtala Mohammed Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, is unusually empty for a Saturday.
It gives one enough time to admire its plush interiors. Describing it would be taking a page out of a John Grisham novel.
The imposing building houses three floors of prime real estate in the heart of the city and on one of the most expensive strips in Lagos.
As you walk in, the blood-red walls are juxtaposed with grey metallic fixtures and fittings. The décor of the building is reminiscent of past cultures of various African countries.
Each floor is delightfully curated with Afro-centric artefacts and in the middle floor of the building is the firm’s seat of power, the office of its leader, Gbenga Oyebode.
For a sweltering Nigerian afternoon, Oyebode is dressed like no other in a 100-mile radius of the elite Victoria Island hub of Lagos: in a two-piece power suit, his signature outfit. Today, it is in black, accented by a deep blue tie.
Oyebode is cordial and pleasant with the team as he takes his position on the ground floor for the first set of pictures for the FORBES AFRICA cover.
He is the Chairman of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients. In his capacity as chairman, Oyebode coordinates the various practice areas of the firm.
Described as a consummate dealmaker who has received plaudits from clients and peers alike for his corporate acumen, Oyebode’s areas of expertise cover energy and natural resources, power projects, foreign investment and privatization, telecommunications and project finance.
It is not just his formal dressing that is unusual.
Law firms in the country, family-owned by tradition, almost never run their firms like well-oiled machines providing solutions for several sectors at the same time. Oyebode was one of the pioneers of this concept. And it has not been an easy journey.
“It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,”
The 59-year-old spent the early years of his life musing over the promises of life in the civil service, a path taken by his father. It was a stable and comfortable job and one had guaranteed employment as well as a good salary. But he was compelled to ponder the possibilities of a riskier career.
“In those days, being a civil servant was the dream of every young person due to the stability of the job. However, as I started reading law, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and for a lawyer that means opening a law firm,” says Oyebode as he takes a break from the photoshoot to begin our interview.
And that is exactly what he did. But not just any law firm, he wanted to leave behind a dynasty of great lawyers whose work would carry on long after he was gone.
If he had worked for any Nigerian law firm, his future would not have been guaranteed.
“The history of Nigerian law firms in the early 80s and some of them today was that they were set up by great minds essentially to be kept in the family. Their children went to law school and even if you were a great lawyer who worked with them, they make it very clear that you shouldn’t be thinking about your future at the law firm, because they were going to hand over the business to their children. So I understood that it was not going to work for me,” says Oyebode.
At well over six feet, Oyebode has a towering presence in any room, yet his calm and cordial disposition immediately sets you at ease and makes you feel as though you are having a conversation with an old friend.
Sitting in the conference room of his eponymous firm, Oyebode recalls a series of events that shaped the course of his career.
Like the time he was going to university and struggled to get guidance from mentors who would have advised him on the best path to take to become a successful legal entrepreneur.
The prominent Nigerian lawyers at the time were not strictly lawyers who worked at the firm but were mostly also involved in other professions.
According to Oyebode, the earliest nationalists of Nigerian politics were all lawyers, who used the law that they had learned abroad to change the system in Nigeria to gain independence and push the envelope against colonialism.
That would later become the real motivation for Oyebode to become a lawyer. For him, the ability to use law to change the political system with democracy or creating value was a calling he wanted to be a part of.
After graduating from the University of Ife in 1979, he immediately went to the Nigerian Law School and thereafter, completed his postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the United States (US).
“What UPenn did for me was show me that there was a different way to do things and that the world was bigger than the opportunities I had in Nigeria. One of the most significant things about going to an Ivy League institution is how they draw from great minds around. So we went to conferences where great minds in the capital markets were and it was a game-changer. It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,” recalls Oyebode.
His journey is a textbook case study on how to systematically build a business step by step. He eschews convention. From the minute he finished primary school, his father signed up to a subscription of Reader’s Digest that was to become his monthly diet.
“He thought that it was important for us to read. He said it was important for us to understand what happened around the world. So one of the things that I do continually even today is I read the Reader’s Digest every month. It shaped my view of the world and created for me a situation where I learned more about the things that were happening around me and I was not limited to Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
His tenure as an associate at White & Case, one of the world’s leading law firms, helped him visualize the type of law firm he wanted to build of his own.
“American law firms were the type of law firms I thought we could replicate in Nigeria. Their vision for building big partnerships and for those partnerships to survive named partners was impressive. So it was very clear where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I worked with White & Case for a year and I said to myself it was time to come back home,” says Oyebode.
Home had changed a whole lot while he was away. Nigeria had returned to democracy after years of military rule. The business environment was growing and there was a need for competent people to push the envelope and help with the development of law and business.
Furthermore, there were less than 10,000 lawyers admitted to practice law and Oyebode decided he would rather be one of 10,000 in Nigeria than one of a million in the US.
Soon after making that decision, disaster struck. No sooner had he returned to Nigeria did the crude oil market collapse and the Nigerian economy took a dip for the worse. The democratic government that had motivated Oyebode to come back was very quickly removed in a coup d’état in 1983.
“Before we knew it, the [Muhammadu] Buhari government was in power. To make matters worse, the naira had collapsed and the country was looking at a structural adjustment program with the World Bank. So contrary to my plans, things changed very quickly. I couldn’t go back to the US and I had to make do with things in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
But where there are clouds, there is also a silver lining. Oyebode chose to keep faith and stick it out. He applied to work for the Gulf Oil Company, which later merged with Chevron, and spent two years learning about the oil and gas industry.
“That was very instructive because it gave me an opportunity to work in an industry, which was Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner. I essentially cut my teeth working in Nigeria’s oil industry. I saw through the merger of Gulf and Chevron and then decided it was time to go out and do my own thing.”
In 1985, Oyebode went into partnership with friends and started his first law firm
Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko. After eight years of success, the firm was dissolved due to internal challenges. The string of such incidents, be it the country’s economic downturn or disagreements with partners, have all contributed to the success story Oyebode is today.
“What is impressive about Oyebode is his calmness and composure in times of crisis. He has the ability to look beyond that problem and says ‘how do we move on from this and get to the solution’,” says Tunde Folawiyo, Managing Director of Yinka Folawiyo Group in Nigeria.
That steadfastness has been an invaluable trait for Oyebode over the years.
He went on to establish Aluko & Oyebode with his other partner. Perpetual wins translated into mammoth personal gains for the legal mastermind.
Oyebode’s is also the story of a smart entrepreneur who, spurred by the increase in the proliferation of Western companies in Nigeria, spotted an opportunity in corporate law and has methodically worked to cash in on it.
He is currently advising on the Brass LNG Project, a joint venture between NNPC, TOTAL, Conoco Philips and Agip for the construction of a $3.5 billion Liquefied Natural Gas plant. He has also advised on key transactions like the $1.275 billion financing of the Exxon Mobil Natural Gas Liquid II Project, the $1.06 billion financing of trains four and five of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Expansion Project and the $3.5 billion financing of the NNPC and Mobil Producing Unlimited Satellite Oil Field Project. He sits on the boards of MTN Nigeria, Nestle Nigeria and CFAO, among many others.
“Corporate law was something I was good at. It’s something that is dependent on your network and it is something that comes naturally to me. At White & Case and at Gulf Oil, that was my forte. I had invested a significant amount of my time around that so I was able to very quickly develop as a good oil and gas lawyer,” says Oyebode.
His wife, Aisha, attests to this. “What I admire most about Gbenga is he is very kind and warm and he is a people’s person. I do not know anybody that doesn’t like Gbenga.”
It was what Oyebode did next that distinguished him from his peers.
“One of the people that I studied a lot was Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. He ran the biggest law firms in town and was a lawyer who represented all the multinationals and was a lawyer who got involved in the businesses he represented. So when I came back [to Nigeria], I saw his model as one that I could emulate. I saw that he was able to achieve his objective, which was essentially run a significant law firm and become the advisor of the biggest corporates in the market as well as the repository of knowledge of what it means to work in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
And that was to become Oyebode’s operating style over the next two decades. His modus operandi was simple.
Find opportunities, which he could maximize, and provide professional services and legal advice to top-tier corporate clients and where there was an opportunity, take a chunk of the business.
“One of the things as an entrepreneur that you tend to look at is opportunities around you, so long as those opportunities don’t divert your from your chosen path. If you ask me what I want to be known as, I would say a lawyer first, then an investor,” he says.
Oyebode sits on boards of companies that he has invested in as well as boards that he has been invited to join due to his significant expertise in corporate Nigeria.
The last two decades have seen a veritable boom in the business. For Oyebode, the key is passion for what you do.
“I am driven to build a big firm. We have 85 associates in three offices. There are 16 partners in the firm across the different practice areas that you expect a full service law firm to have, from legislation to corporate law to intellectual property, to risk and governance. So these are all key sectors that are sectors for growth of the Nigerian economy. The rationale is building a legacy that is driven by return,” says Oyebode.
Ever the opportunist, Oyebode is also looking to capitalize on the growth in demand of global companies looking for local partners in the real estate sector. He has a two-hotel deal with the Fairmont Group to establish hotels in Lagos and Abuja. Given the size in the number of tourists and business people in the country, Oyebode believes there is tremendous growth opportunities in this sector.
“The view is that there is still a gap around the hospitality business in Lagos. I go to Accra and I see the Kempinski and Movenpick hotels and I know that if Accra can do it then Lagos certainly has significant scope to develop hotels. Abuja only has the Hilton.”
But it has not all been smooth sailing. No sooner had he started his second stint at a law firm that tragedy struck.
“Life is about tripping and falling and learning from mistakes, pulling your strengths and moving on. My partner, Bankole Aluko, had a mild illness and called in sick for a couple of days. I decided to pay him a visit after work and on my way there, I was told he had passed away suddenly. It was a big shock because we had built everything together and most of the lawyers that joined us did so because of our strength as a firm. I had the corporate law expertise and he was a litigation expert. I thought it was all over at the point,” says Oyebode.
It was dark times for Oyebode.
“In those days it was very difficult to get clients. They came to you because they knew you and your reputation so it was very personality-driven. Today, clients look at your brand and your track record. So losing Bankole both as a dear friend and a professional was devastating.”
He vowed to continue the legacy they had started together and leave his name on the business as a named partner, which still stands today. These days, Oyebode is more interested in giving back. He mentors the next generation and is finding ways to give back. He has also turned his attention from corporate boards to philanthropy boards and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the community.
On the issue of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) fight to retrieve Nigeria’s stolen loot, which is estimated to be billions of dollars from state coffers, Oyebode offers some practical advice.
“My concern about Nigeria is not the lack of law or policy but always about execution. I think we have a robust legal system, we have laws and policies in place and we have a strong civil service. Do people obey the law around the world? Yes, and that is because they are afraid of sanctions. So if you do not obey the law or sanctions, then you pay the price. So our problem is a lack of execution of good policy, inconsistent application of the laws and sometimes, we have allowed federal character and the process of rotating positions to trump skill and expertise so therefore mediocrity is able to rise to the very top.”
But that is an ongoing fight, which Oyebode believes will not be solved overnight. Presently, his focus is on leveraging his expertise as one of the most formidable and accomplished legal minds to add value and give back to Nigeria.
His legal firm is a victim of its own success. And this is a happy problem to have.
Herbert Wigwe, the CEO Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s top banking institutions, calls Oyebode one of the strongest legal minds, not just in Nigeria but also across the world.
“And I say this because I have a strong personal relationship with him, apart from the fact that in Nigeria, he runs the strongest corporate law office. The existence of what is a modern Access Bank would never have happened but for people like Gbenga….All of these attributes have led him to sit on most of the large corporate boards in the country…Saying Gbenga is the new face of business in Africa is not something that is far-fetched; it is something that he has proven over and over again in his career.”
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