18, 2020 12:01 AM / By Proshare Content/ Header Image
Boardrooms can be theatres of hot passion, conflicting perspectives and hubris. The livewire of qualitative boardroom interaction is the cross-fertilization of opposing opinions and the nuances of individual views. To ensure that the potentially explosive mixture of personalities does not derail corporate purpose and prospects, a dean must be put in charge of the seemingly conflicted class of boardroom personalities. One of Nigeria's toughest and most skillful board monitors has been 77-year-old Oba Otudeko, CFR.
Otudeko has been a titan of local boardrooms for over four decades and has emerged as one of Nigeria's savviest masters of the art of motivation, inspiration and jackboot tough love where and when necessary. His training as a Chartered Accountant has created a visceral inclination towards steadiness and compliance while his natural tendency to win has meant that his dominant personality does not suffer fools lightly; the combination has proved to be effective, even if uncomfortable for friends and foes alike. The alchemy of dominance and compliance establishes a rock-hard personality that can be a formidable corporate weapon. The irony? Otudeko can equally show incredible compassion, generosity and emotional intelligence.
Starting The Future
It is hard to imagine that the idea for one of Africa's largest conglomerates was spawned by a message on a greeting card. But, in the aftermath of Nigeria's civil war in 1967, importing greeting cards were banned, but a young Otudeko saw the flashing lights of opportunity where others saw problems. He understood the importance of keeping people and families connected in a country in search of healing. The understanding of this need translated into a call for action and within minutes he decided to team up with his mother to start a greeting card company that would grow to become today's Honeywell Group.
Otudeko's precocious mind created the outlines of the inner essence of a man and his business-an unwavering belief that Africa had a wealth of human capital with the skill and ingenuity to capture opportunities that could change the continent. Indeed it was this marriage of man and vision that led the boardroom craftsman to his first forays into commodities in 1983, and evolved into the establishment of the newest company under the Honeywell imprimatur-the startup incubator, Itanna.
Back in The Days
The rusty rooftops of a million sprawling houses in Ibadan could not be bothered with the tenants they provided shelter, the plebian and the overlord were equally protected from the elements of rain and sunshine as they swept Ibadan's streets and markets in an engaging battle of supremacy. The torrential rainfall of June and July did not quarrel with anybody as the blazing sun smiled on everyone. It was in this remarkable rustic straggling city that the future boardroom maven, Obafoluke Ayoola Otudeko was born in August 1943, the 11th child of his father's 15 children. "Oba", as he is fondly called, completed his primary education in Ijebu Igbo and went on to Olivet Baptist High School, Oyo, where he excelled academically.
Fresh-faced and newly graduated from secondary school, he started work at the then Co-operative Bank as an accounts clerk at the tender age of 17. The early bank appointment was thanks to a chance meeting with the bank's general manager, the late Chief Ayodele Onagoruwa, at his father's house. "Oba" proved diligent, resourceful and at times pleasantly 'headstrong' and was rewarded for his commitment by rising rapidly through the staff ranks to become a manager at the age of 21. Scholarships from the government and the bank to advance his education at the Leeds College of Commerce soon followed. At the age of 25, Otudeko had qualified (with honours and several prizes) as a Chartered Accountant of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), UK. He returned to the Co-operative Bank as a senior accountant, rising to the position of general manager, then becoming the acting chief executive officer (Ag. CEO). In his time at the bank and several years after, Otudeko worked with and through people to give opportunities to others. Many organizations that are now large entities, started with seed funding he provided while at the Co-operative Bank.
Within the period, Otudeko built a strong foundation on the personal front; he became a family man, getting married to his young heartthrob-a marriage that has waxed strong after 48 years and seven children. Otudeko founded Honeywell in 1972, leaving it under his mother's watchful care as it hummed along quietly in the background. In 1983 he was ready to strike out on his own: at the age of 39, he retired from banking to address the corporate challenges of Honeywell in earnest.
A Forward Look At The Past
Otudeko's mother had been a fairly successful commodities trader in the western parts of the country, so it was natural that Oba started down his new path by retracing his mother's steps and broadening the business's horizon. Honeywell's early focus was trading in food products across Northern Nigeria and West Africa and Otudeko's retirement from banking allowed him to pour his energy into its expansion. A few years into the business the ex-banker got fresh insight into a bigger portrait and soon Honeywell pivoted into the import business, importing baking yeast, milk, stockfish, glass and steel rods, among other products.
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the relatively young boardroom executive steered Honeywell through a period of aggressive expansion, reimagining the business outlook and company's product portfolios across multiple sectors of the economy including flexible plastic production, fisheries, and electrical and mechanical engineering contracting services, to name a few. The turn of the 21st century saw a consolidation of his business holdings and today, he has built a group of companies that touch millions of lives. From pioneering new food products like wheatmeal that has changed and improved the eating habits of Nigerians, to pivotal projects connecting Bayelsa State to the national electric grid for the first time, and executing the largest maintenance contract by an indigenous company for operations and maintenance of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) plant on Bonny Island, Honeywell has made a name for itself with the quality and breadth of its products and service offerings under Otudeko's shrewd leadership and guidance.
A Willingness To Partner Tomorrow
Otudeko continued to think bigger and seek growth opportunities. A telephony revolution was occurring globally with the advent of the mobile phone and with a failing national telephone grid, there was a need for a stable alternative to landlines. In his usual manner, and razor-sharp instinct for an opportunity to be mined, Otudeko led the consortium that brought Econet (now Airtel) to Nigeria and was the first person to make a GSM call in the country; and until 2013 he was chairman of the board of Airtel Nigeria. The Ibadan-bred business wonder kid also spotted the gap in the local hospitality industry and realized the nascent demand for high-end hotel services and the possibility of a budding growth market. Through Anchorage Leisures Nigeria which he chairs, Honeywell was able to bring the international Radisson brand to Nigeria in a partnership that could shape tomorrow's hospitality architecture.
The Baron of The Boardroom
Otudeko's success has not been limited to entrepreneurship, he has put his extensive experience into tough art of investing, garnering a gritty reputation for his prolific capital market plays. His combined experience has made him a natural fit to provide leadership and guidance beyond Honeywell. Otudeko became the sixteenth president and chairman of the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) and has sat on several boards of blue-chip companies and strategic national institutions, including the Central Bank of Nigeria, Guinness Nigeria Plc, British American Tobacco Ltd, First Bank of Nigeria Plc (where he was also chairman), Fan Milk Nigeria (chairman), and Ecobank Transnational Incorporated. He also currently chairs the boards of FBN Holdings Plc and Honeywell Flour Mills Plc. It is no wonder that friends (and perhaps even foes) refer to him as "Chairman of Chairmen" and at times "Chair of Chairs".
Otudeko is renowned for his incisiveness and "take-no-prisoners" approach to the review of corporate performance and business strategy. As far as thoroughness and introspective evaluation of corporate potentials are concerned "Oba" is a lion. He is as abrasive with others as he is with himself when it comes to targets, goals and performance, his passion is dipped in success and not excuses. To some folks "Oba" can be 'rough, tough and punishing', but this rides on the rigorous and intense standards he applies to himself much more than his evaluation of others, which admittedly, according to those who have worked with him, can be exacting.
Nevertheless, "Oba" is a boardroom battle axe most corporations prefer to have in their corner as his rigour and resilience make him a gem of special value. Besides, Oba's age has not weakened his revolutionary insight and whippet-sharp grasp of trends and details, making him the go-to boardroom baron.
Oba; A People's Hero
Giving back to society has always been an important part of Otudeko's philosophy. His love for his country has seen him serve in several public sector positions including being an active member of the constituent assembly mandated to draft a new constitution for Nigeria in 1989. In 1993, he was chairman of the National Maritime Authority and for over three years, until 1993, he was a council member of the Manufacturers' Association of Nigeria (MAN). In the banking sector, he was at various times council member of the Nigerian Banks Employers' Association, the Bankers' Committee, and the West African Bankers' Association.
"Oba's" passion for giving back to society, both public and private sectors, is well-known; his hunger to promote the education of a younger generation (particularly Gen-Zers) saw him serve as chancellor of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State from 2001 to 2010 and he currently serves as a member of the Office of Distinguished Friends of the London Business School, UK. Between 2013 and 2014, he was the chairman of the Business Support Group tasked with the delivery of the National Integrated Infrastructure Master Plan of the National Planning Commission. He also served as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on the Nigerian Industrial Revolution Plan.
His service has not gone unnoticed. He has been conferred with various national honours including the Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR) in 2000; Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), 2002; Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR), 2011; and most recently, the National Productivity Order of Merit in 2019.
The Maven At 77, Celebrating Legacy
At 77 "Oba" has written much of his corporate script, he has shined a torch for others to follow and built a repoirtoire of businesses moves that provide compelling guidance for a new generation of managers and directors with fresh dreams, new visions and evolving perspectives, for "Oba" the journey has been tough, at times confusing but ultimately rewarding and educative. "Oba" has seen a broad stretch of the twist and turns of both economy and business in the last half century at the highest levels of management and boardrooms and as he celebrates the magical 77 he can look back with pride at the building of not just businesses but also legacies.
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