Were you tempted to stay back in the US after your studies?
To be honest with you, yes. I was lucky when I got to Chicago State University. I entered the university with honours from the Richard Daley College, because I got credit in majority of the Accounting courses.
After the first term, I was one of the candidates on the Dean’s list and my professor, Joe Jesse, commended me for my hard work, class participation and brilliance. He said that I would be lucky if I could keep my activities and brilliant results up till the end of the term. He didn’t say more or in what form the luck would manifest.
At the end of the term, and still on the Dean’s list, Professor Jesse came around to inform me that he would employ me to manage the Accounting laboratory for the institution. He gave the letter of employment to the dean of the faculty. The following week, I was called upon to take up employment as a tutor in the institution because I was very good at Mathematics and Accounting. I met Tunde Badejo in the school; he was a year ahead of me. But I told him (we took a bet) that we would graduate the same year and he didn’t believe. Later, when I was given a scholarship to become a tutor, I took the letter to Tunde Badejo and said: ‘See, the school is paying my tuition.’ He was amazed. That was how I became a tutor, with my tuition being paid. Tunde Badejo majored in Mathematics, and having been challenged, his performance got better the following semester and he also became a Maths tutor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. I was challenged and severely under pressure to keep up the grade as each semester rolled by, because if my grades should drop I would lose the scholarship. It was quite challenging and in the end, I graduated top of my class and I was recruited as an Accounting major. There were big accounting firms then. Touche was number nine. I was recruited. And I still got other job offers. Then there were eight big accounting firms in the United States, including Arthur Andersen , Arthur Young, Ernst and Whinney, Peat Marwick and Mitchell, Deloitte and others. Out of the big eight, five of them offered me jobs and that was school recruitment–right on the campus.
I was on the Dean’s list; I was in line for the award for the overall best counting student as well as that of the university scholar’s award. With that, the big firms would continue to woo you. Despite the five job offers, I was equally offered employment by IBM and others. Professor Jesse called me and advised that I should not be arrogant. He asked that I remove my name from the career placement centre because, according to him, the more they saw my grades, the more I would be sought after. He said that might hinder other accounting graduates from being recruited and that the faculty wanted as many accounting graduates as possible to be recruited by the big companies. So I went and removed it. Usually, there was a benchmark for recruitments by the big professional accounting firms and they didn’t go beneath that. I got an offer of $20,000, with travelling allowances and all that. It was big money for me at the time.
But when Arthur Young saw the money I was offered, they offered an additional $3,000. My adviser told me to consider an offer that would make me function effectively in my country, particularly given that the country is blessed with crude oil. I wondered what I would be coming back to do. The career placement officer called me again and asked me what I wanted to do. I said they just spoke to me from my department.
Unlike what happens here, universities in America prepare the students for the future; how to dress, how to face job interviews. The third day after that, Deloitte, Haskins and Sells, now Deloitte and Touche Consulting Group, gave me another offer. They said they were not just going to hire me, but develop me. They asked me to take the salary I was being offered or forget about the job. I went back to Professor Jesse and said: ‘Look at what these people are offering, I would rather go to Arthur Andersen because they were offering to pay more’. But he said that I should not. He said he had always advised me that my career and professional development were more important. He said Delloite had clients like General Motors, Procter and Gamble, National Oil and worked with Aramco Exxon, etc. He said I should consider that my country has crude oil and I might want to return someday. He said I should consider a firm with clients in anufacturing and oil sectors than Arthur Andersen, which only dealt with financial institutions and banks.
I took to his advice. I resumed work at Deloitte training school in June 1979. By April 1979, when I was graduating, I had gotten my future charted. And that was the greatest thing I achieved in America.
Tunde Badejo was still looking for a job. As a honours student, I was there at the high table with the Dean, President of the college and so on, while the rest of the graduands were on the lower platform. So, when they called my friend, Tunde Badejo’s name, he refused to get up because they mispronounced his name and called him ‘Tunde Badeho’. He refused to get up. I was laughing at him from the high table and was saying: ‘You see, I told you we would graduate at the same time.’ I later stood from where I was seated and whispered to the event handler that his name is Badejo and not Badeho. It was not until they called the name correctly that he stood up.
Why did you opt to study Accounting?
Sincerely, it was accidental. It was the university placement. I was good in Mathematics and business courses. In fact, if I were to choose a career for myself, I would have chosen marketing. I know Tunde was placed in the Mathematics department also by the university. I came in with A grades and I had nothing less than A+ in Accounting and Statistics.
How did you get into Mobil?
At Deloitte and Touche, I chose to travel more than 80 per cent of my working years there. And that is because if a staff chose to travel, he would make more money because he would get travel allowances. That got me into National Oil, which became the Joint Venture Partner of Aramco Oil in Saudi Arabia, which is like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. We had gone there to set up their accounting and auditing system. It was while on that service that I got my financial break. When I returned to the United States, my employers gave me a huge bonus, which instantly turned me into a millionaire.
How much was that?
The bonus was $850,000, before taxes. My salaries were also being paid into the bank and I was not touching them. At the time, my salary deposits in the bank had risen to about $1.8 million.
You didn’t freak out?
No. This is because I had a strong grasp of financial matters. I was happy. I bought a house from the money and invested the rest in the US. I was living well. I was living in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the south of Chicago.
Chicago had the notoriety of being a mafia city. How did you survive there?
Chicago was a very dangerous place then, if you didn’t know where to go and how to move. I wouldn’t want to mention some people I knew, whose careers were ruined and got lost in the process. I could still remember some of my colleagues, who did very well. One of them is Kunle Adedayo, whose wife, Pamela, operates the Tastee Fried Chicken. We were there together. Pamela had been a good cook since then. She used to cook for us.
My school, Richard Daley College, was located in an area noted for racism. Though there were other colleges I could go, I was determined to go there and succeed. The school was academically rigorous and maintained high discipline. Of course, the story has been told severally of the area where Martin Luther King was chased out and shot at. Blacks dreaded the area. Chicago was a windy, cold place. I was able to capitalise on it for academic success and achievement. Though the minimum requirement was 12 credits, I registered for extra course work. I was not getting a dime from Nigeria any longer because my tuition fee was already paid for, and whatever money I realised was meant to cushion the effect of my house rent. Winter time was the busiest time for me and Tunde Badejo, who I was sharing an apartment with.
Since I lost the earlier job at the construction site, I didn’t like security or doorman jobs anymore. I was a very neat guy and was always well-dressed at the place where I was working as a dishwasher in a Holiday Inn. I also got a job for Bolaji Agaba there. In the hotel, I was able to keep warm. And I was later given a room service job because I was very diligent in my previous work. That was acknowledged by those who would come to check on us where we washed the dishes.
Room service is very good; you get nice tips! I did all of that and didn’t take a penny from anybody in Nigeria to go to school in Chicago. Not a dime! I was a self-educated person and I achieved the best in that respect.
Who were the white and African-Americans you interacted with at school and after?
Danny Kay Davies, now a Congressman; Jesse Jackson, Costello Joe, one of the most successful financial consultants; Richard Daley III, a stockbroker who became the mayor of Chicago and whose father the school was named after; Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad Ali, etc. There were too many of them.
How did you get into Mobil?
At the National Oil, where we set up the accounting system and at Aramco, I was head of an assignment to liquidate the Chicago Savings and Loans Bank. The assignment was meant to take me to different places, so as to gain exposure to financial services. It is usually a hostile environment when a company is under receivership and is going into liquidation. But I managed the assignment very well. A member of Deloitte’s management, who was a principal partner on the assignment, was very happy.
At the end of that assignment, I was recalled to the National Oil, which had a joint venture with other oil companies. The United States government had a 300-page new leasing legislation at the time. This is one moment of my life I can never forget. The leasing regulation was a subject of tax implication and analysis, and as an auditing firm, we had to interpret the new leasing legislation for compliance. And that was necessary before the client could sign the balance sheet.
It was a tough debate. The managers would sit; we had to make presentations and contributions. My colleagues and I did two aspects of the lease and I happened to be right. When the partners and all of them came and they did the computation, it gave the company an additional opportunity to wiggle and improve its bottom line. So one of National Oil’s assistant controllers left there to work at Mobil. On getting there, he began to persuade me to come over to Mobil.
The period coincided with my vacation in Nigeria and during that time, the late Bade Ojora and other people I knew were in Mobil. They saw me in Lagos and we discussed generally. At the time, I met someone who was in the finance department at my uncle’s place and the man thought I was a wizard when we were talking.
I later went to Ibadan to see an uncle of mine. But before then, my return ticket had been stolen in Lagos. I had a credit card. I was lamenting the loss, when Uncle Bade said he would help in getting me a passport. Then he asked if I would work for Mobil, but I said I was not ready to stay in Nigeria because I was very successful and earning a good salary. He asked me to leave my telephone number so he could get in touch with me afterwards.
The professional career placement centres, which we called head hunters, had placed my curriculum vitae in other companies. They would continue to pursue you, asking whether you wanted to change your job. I was invited by General Telephone and Electronics, GTE, Corporation and they offered a salary that was 32 per cent higher than what I was earning at Deloitte. I went there and was made an assistant manager, but MacGross didn’t leave me alone, asking why I elected to work for a telephone and electronics company. He said: ‘You will be discriminated against there; I know that firm.’ But I didn’t listen to him. I was chasing the title of manager. My career was blossoming. It was great to have a complimentary card carrying the title, manager. When the time came for a review, they promoted someone whom I trained to the position of manager, while I was left the way I was. I resigned that very day. That was when I decided that one day, I would return to my country.
What year was that?
That was in 1985/1986. I was determined to return to Nigeria someday. I contemplated returning to Deloitte and at the same time coming back to Nigeria. I was discriminated against. I quit GTE. I decided to go back to Deloitte. While I was still contemplating, Deloitte was relocating from New York and I looked forward to how I would be given extra allowances and bonuses.
At that time also, Mobil was recruiting for its Corporate Audit Department in the United Kingdom office. I went there and I got the offer. The rest is history.
Was Bade Ojora in Mobil at that time?
He was still in Mobil. I don’t want to go through what I did when I was in the Corporate Office in London. I was a corporate auditor, but I was a whiz-kid, an assertive one, highly professional. I was always in suspenders and all that. I came on assignment to audit Mobil Nigeria.
Were you recruited abroad and sent here?
No. I was recruited in the UK. That was Mobil Foreign; it is completely different from Nigerian operation. They have the audit right, the corporate audit regulation to audit Nigeria. I came and they said they needed an auditor in Nigeria. I went through the process.
Solomon Oladunni was the manager in charge of administration. He, Bade Ojora and Adesanya persuaded me to take the job. The title I was looking for was audit manager. They said I did not have any experience in Nigeria. I faced another level of discrimination. I was given an offer they knew I would reject, but I was determined to stay. The financial controller, a white man, called me to his office to say :”the people there didn’t want you; your own countrymen!’ He added: ‘Whatever they give you, take it, I’m here.’ I was shocked.
At the time, there was a kind of connection between the director of finance and one guy. They were both from Shagamu. And as it played out, I was only made an auditor because they said I didn’t have a Nigerian experience.
But you rose to become the treasurer…
I rose to become the general auditor there.
The audit manager, an Australian, was about leaving for his country and he told me that I was badly needed, particularly because I am a Nigerian. He said: “With this resume, you are so rich, you have experience. I know what Alphonso Olusanya, the financial controller, was trying to do.” He added that the other person they wanted to bring in has only local experience (I don’t want to mention his name because he is my friend).
And the money was not bad, but only the title…
The money was not bad. I took the offer to work in Mobil because I was tired of the discrimination I suffered overseas and had made up my mind that I would not work for any other company but an American company. I was encouraged to join their team and I met Oladunni, Pius Akinyelure, all of them. The whiteman told me to just come over and prove myself and that I would “get there”. He had been the supervisor of the guy blocking me overseas. And when the whiteman came to Nigeria, they did not give him the title, too. He said: ‘Here, I am financial adviser; I don’t care what title they give me, I am getting my salary and I have my responsibilities to New York. Don’t worry.”
Apart from this initial discrimination that you confronted, what other challenges did you face?
The system was poor. I met a very disorganized work environment here. I really did a lot to prove myself. I faced a lot of challenges, but my training and my background from the United States helped my career. I wrote so many audit queries and reports.
We learnt that you wrote one that caused an earthquake!
There were so many of them. I wrote one on Bob Eriksson, who was the Chairman/Managing Director. He was weak in his corporate control of the finances of Mobil and I boldly wrote the report based on that. And here was the Chairman/Managing Director, who was affected by the report. Everybody raised an eyebrow. But I emphasised that I was an independent auditor. I said: ‘This is my report, this is my resignation letter.’ I sent a copy of the report to the head office in New York. I wanted to strengthen my independence and professionalism.
The third day, a signal came from New York. The managing director was to be recalled and the corporate audit manager was on his way to check the report. When he came, I had my audit file. All the findings in the report and my recommendations were accepted. They recalled the MD/Chairman and he was demoted. The company rejected my letter of resignation and promoted me general auditor.
How long did it take you to become general auditor?
It was less than two years. I don’t want to brag about these things, but I ended up bossing the man who interviewed me. The man they brought in to block me was sent to Houston. Luckily, I was doing very well. We were at the Bookshop House on Broad Street then. My career was blossoming.
I wrote another audit report, Financial Management and the Treasury Activities. I think Ibrahim Babangida was in power then. Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, was on then and things were very difficult. I wrote and explained what we should do to strenghten the financial base and treasury activities of the company. It was a 28-page report. Akinyelure is still alive to attest to what I am saying.
They brought in another Managing Director, called Mr. Bob Parker. Parker arrived Nigeria to replace Erickson. Parker walked into my office and said: ‘Bola, Mr. Auditor, I am not here to fight you, but to work. Please let me know whatever you find about the corporation.’
The most significant part of that episode was the 28-page report of the financial situation, the weaknesses and what I believed should be done. They looked at the report and there was another earthquake. For one week, they were going back and forth. The treasury people and the treasurer and everyone else that mattered called me to the boardroom. They said they had looked at the audit report and the recommendations therein, and that they could not find anyone else within the establishment to implement the report except me. They said they were moving me from auditor to the post of treasurer, so that I could implement the report. They said they could not but accept the recommendations.
I asked for 48 hours to review the report and get back to them. I went to Bob Parker and Akinyelure, and I asked that I should be given a free hand to implement whatever I felt would be right with the corporation’s personnel and audit. They granted my request. They sent in a corporate auditor from London, who looked at the report and encouraged me to implement it in my new capacity as the treasurer. I started work on the report and sacked everybody in the Treasury department, except the stenographer. I brought in new hands, from the audit department – people who had worked with me. I brought in a brilliant guy called Adigun from Columbia University and others I felt I could work with.
That was how I started running the treasury of Mobil, which then was located at the CMS Bookshop House on Broad Street. The Bookshop House was degenerating and was no longer suitable for our operations. So, Akinyelure and I collaborated to do financial redeployment for the purpose of having a new office complex. I began work on the financial restructuring in Mobil, so as to accommodate the new challenges of SAP. There was a BCCI (Bank of Credit, Commerce and Industry) then – the bank that went under – and I was the only treasurer that didn’t lose money. I was a whiz-kid and I am proud of that.
Mobil usually depended on rent, but I was determined that Mobil must have an asset fixed in Nigeria. And that was the beginning of the revolution of real estate in Lagos. Capital Merchant Bank was there then. I retooled the Mobil balance sheet, working with Akinyelure, who was a good guy to work with – he is accommodating and he understands the financials. Mobil didn’t want to sink so much money into it and we had to put our creativity into what I was doing. Ahmed Abubakar was the permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance. We were so much together to ensure that the present Mobil House was built. Gbolahan Mudashiru was the governor [of Lagos State] then. He gave us the approval. It was like using a pair of pliers to remove your own tooth to get the NNPC to go along with us.
The interesting thing about the project was that devaluation was coming and it was going to affect the budget for the building. We took the bill of quantities and gave the best financial projection that was possible, pre-purchased all the items that were needed to build. Nearly 40 per cent of that building was financed when the exchange rate was one Naira to one Dollar. We purchased additional materials, including steel and cement. Whatever I tell you was in the bill of quantities. It started at N4 to $1, if you looked at foreign exchange then. It would not have been possible. Then, at the next fortnightly bidding, the exchange rate shot up to N16 to $1 and that could have adversely affected the project. In fact, if we did not pre-purchase the building materials, it would not have been possible. The NNPC building got stagnated. We finished the building on time without as much as two per cent variation, and that was how we got so much credit for financial engineering.
Since you were having a good time in Mobil, why did you leave all that to join politics?
It was when I was arranging these finances. There were a lot of things that I don’t need to talk about now that got me in contact with Ahmadu Abubakar and Ibrahim Babangida. Such things got my name around socially. Then, my cousin, Alhaji Kola Oseni, and Dapo Sarumi, who was US-trained, told me they wanted to contest for governorship. They had started their politics, but I didn’t participate. I was only raising funds for them. They said they wanted quality service delivery for Lagos State. I saw the Lagos State governorship as a department that needed a good manager. We were looking at civilisation, quality control. If you went to some housing estates then, they were like this, like that. There must be good quality, standard. And the person who must fix these things must be civilised.”