The Chairman, Absa Nigeria, Adedotun Sulaiman, speaks on his career growth, transformative contributions to the enterprises and the public sector as well as Absa operations in Nigeria in this interview
Congratulations on your 70th birthday; how does it feel to be 70?
Honestly for me, it feels good because at 70 I am in good shape without any health or other challenges. However if you put it in the context of the environment and the times we live in, I don’t feel as good as I could or should. I am not happy that the country is facing diverse and numerous challenges, many of them self-inflicted and needless. As I speak, we are all currently struggling to cope with heightened and extreme forms of those challenges at every level.
The problem is that I cannot be okay or as happy I could or should be when all is not well with the community of which I am an integral part. That is how I feel about Nigeria in my 70th year.
Can you take us through your professional career up till date?
I started my professional career in 1975, 47 years ago, first in the Nigerian diplomatic service. The first two and half years of my working years were spent in the service, most of that as an attaché at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC. However, I discovered soon enough that a career in the diplomatic service was not my calling considering that my university degree was in business administration.
Consequently, I joined Arthur Andersen & Co., a new audit, tax and consulting firm just setting up in Nigeria in 1978 and my career in management consulting began. It has been an amazing growth journey at my career, living through and being a part of and witness to the all changes in the country, the industry and the firm. In 1993, I took over from the founding Managing Partner as the Office Managing Partner and successfully ran the firm until 1999 and upon the split of the global firm the consulting half of the business until my retirement in 2005.
What has kept you busy after retirement?
Soon after retirement, I decided I was going to continue doing what we did excellently well at Arthur Andersen/Andersen Consulting/Accenture – identifying, training and developing young talent, this time through enterprise. So far, Arthur Andersen and its succeeding firms have done a very good job at training leaders for Nigeria and I wanted to continue contributing to that, this time through enterprise, instead of the professional services setting in which I grew up. By this, I work with young entrepreneurs and help them get their businesses off the ground and grow them into thriving enterprises with some remarkable success to point to, including Interswitch, SecureID and Parthian Partners among several others.
My latest entrepreneur venture in that regard is a video streaming service called SuperTV working with 2 brilliant co-founders one of whom got killed in very tragic circumstances last year.
I have also done a quite a bit in the public space, latest one of which was my role as the Chairman of the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria for four years. In 2012, after the fuel subsidy removal riots, the then Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke set up some adhoc committees one of which was review the structure the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and parastatals in the Petroleum Ministry. Some of the ideas and recommendations from the work of that panel which I chaired have found their way into the recently enacted Petroleum Industry Bill/Act (PIB/PIA), a full ten years after the work was done.
I also headed the committee set up by the Securities and Exchange Commission of Nigeria (SEC) in 2009 to reorganize the structure and processes of the Nigerian capital market and rebuild confidence of Nigerian investors following the global capital market crash in 2008. The recent demutualization of the Nigerian Exchange (NGX) is the one of the outcomes of the work that the committee did.
Tell us about your role in Absa
I was approached by Absa to facilitate their re-entry into the Nigerian market. It was then known as Barclays Africa. The intention then, and still is, to launch a commercial bank in Nigeria. At present, we offer trade finance, securities trading and investment banking services, through our 3 licensed entities. The ultimate ambition of Absa in Nigeria is to establish a full scale commercial banking presence, this will come to fruition in due course.
How do you see corporate governance becoming a more serious part of the financial services industry?
Corporate governance is an evolving development and I believe we have made significant progress to make it work more effectively in Nigeria. Taking an overview across the various sectors, you will discover that some sectors have stricter rules of governance than others.
As Chairman of the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria, we introduced the National Corporate Governance Code for Nigeria, which harmonized the disparate sector-focused corporate governance frameworks and codes operating in the economy. The code is initially focused on Public Interest Entities (PIEs) which we defined as entities that are regulated and operate under a license or concession. That covers sectors such as the banking, insurance, pensions, telecommunications, listed companies, pharmaceutical, aviation etc. The codes for the public sector and the civil society/not-for-profit sector remain outstanding and still need to be done.
Of course, there continues to be corporate governance failures every now and then, but I will say that as a country we have not done too badly especially in the more formally organised sectors and large corporates but we still have a long way to go. We can start with making our regulations and the work and approach of our regulators more facilitative, nurturing and development-oriented rather than being heavy-handed, punitive and IGR-focused.
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Where the real progress of corporate governance practice still needs to be made is with indigenous businesses, especially with the larger, more successful family-owned businesses. That is where corporate governance is still weak. The National Corporate Governance Code was fashioned on the principles-based, ‘apply and explain’ model. Although compliance is mandatory the codes are not specific or prescriptive. It establishes and defines good corporate governance principles and including explanations as to why it makes sense to apply and follow them.
The remaining and ongoing challenge is to sell the imperative and usefulness of good corporate governance practices to entrepreneurs and businesspeople so as to promote institutionalization of their businesses. It means ‘depersonalizing’ the enterprises so businesses do not have to die with the demise of the owners/founders. That SuperTV example I mentioned earlier is a veritable test case of a business, a startup for that matter, which survived the sudden and unexpected demise of its principal founder and largest shareholder because we were sufficiently advanced in establishing the management and governance structures and processes that depersonalised the fledgling enterprise. The need to enlighten Nigerian entrepreneurs and business owners on the professionalisation of management and the importance of an effective board cannot therefore be over-emphasized.
There is so much talk now about Green Energy as an alternative power source. What specific roles is Absa playing to ensure Nigeria becomes a very strong player in this area?
First of all, we have signed up to all sustainability movements and other related matters. One of the roles we play is to finance technologies that promote green and renewable energy. This invariably means we begin to step down on the financing of what is now getting to be called dirty industries. For example, financing the building of a solar-powered electricity generating farm in Sokoto is going to be much easier and on much better terms than opening up a coal mine in Enugu.
Basically, what we do in Absa is to use financing to direct investment towards more developmental, more environmentally-friendly and sustainable projects and businesses.
The Coronavirus pandemic seems to have accelerated the adoption of digital technology across industries. How far gone is Absa in terms of transforming into a digital entity?
Transforming into a digital entity is a movement that is not going to be reversed. What the pandemic did was to open us to other possibilities and alternative ways of doing things that we have done in a certain way over the years. Fortunately, the basic technology to enable that was available and rapidly developed in response to the crisis. At Absa we rose to the challenge, leveraging technology to fill the void created by limited personal contact.
Our processes are being digitised and we will continue to invest in the technologies that enable and facilitate that possibility. We will get it right not only in technology but even our connectivity, broadband, speed, power, and others. This is the direction that the world is going. It does not just work, it is the future.
However, what we still need to do is to find cheap and affordable technological solutions that will enable people at the bottom of the pyramid to join the digital revolution and continue to work, learn and be entertained regardless of their placement on the economic totem pole. We will need therefore to find ways to democratise access to digital platforms for education, entertainment, work, communication, socialisation and to make sure that everyone has access to the use of such technologies.
Are there any significant deals that Absa has consummated in the last two years?
I will give you some of the highlights. For example, Dangote Cement issued a N50 billion bond last year, Absa acted as the lead issuing house in that transaction.
Dangote Cement also offered a N41 billion commercial paper; Absa acted as a dealer in that senior secured commercial paper. On the Access Bank US$500 billion bond, priced at 6.125% per annum, Absa acted as the joint lead manager.
IHS, the towers company, had a $378 million initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE); Absa acted as the only African bank on the transaction.
IHS also issued a $1 billion bond; Absa took part in that transaction. In addition, Absa acted as a joint financial adviser and provided financing support to the IHS acquisition of MTN Towers in South Africa. That transaction entailed the sale of 5,700 MTN towers comprising 4000 greenfield and 1700 roof-tops sites.
Environmental and sustainability issues have become entrenched these days. Can you speak to this regarding what Absa is doing?
It is something that we subscribe to and take very seriously. Of course, this is facilitated by the fact that Absa Nigeria is part of a large continental banking organization. In Absa Nigeria, we have domesticated those policies and practices for Nigeria, hence, we take environmental and sustainability issues seriously in our business operations and decisions.
It is also one of the metrics that we look at in transactions. We make sure that when we are evaluating counterparties for transactions, we evaluate them on their own compliance with and adherence to acceptable global and local ESG standards. I can confidently say that we hold ourselves and our customers to a very high ESG standards.
Can you outline two or three important lessons we can learn from your wealth of experiences, either private or public life?
Nigeria is a tough environment to do business in, however, if you are diligent and you work hard Nigeria is still an exciting place to do business and make lots of money. If you take a long term view and are willing and able to pay the price by working hard, working smart and doing this on a consistent and sustained basis you can be sure of outsized returns and rewards. That is the way to go. In everything you do, you have to have a long-term mindset.
If you are going to be successful, you must do what successful people do. There is a formula to it, long term success requires giving it your best and paying the price, short cuts won’t get you very far nor keep you at the top very long.
I remember in 1988, I had the opportunity of being part of the Nigerian delegation to the Seoul Olympic Games in South Korea and on return my boss, Dick Kramer, now of blessed memory, asked me a question: “what lessons did you learn?”
I told him I learned that there is only one standard for the Olympic Gold. There is no Nigerian standard, no different or special standard for Africa to win that gold medal, you have got to work for it, you have got to give it what it takes, you have to be the best. There is no other way. And that is a mindset we must entrench in Nigeria.
I happen to hold the very strong view that for every wrong step that we have taken and continue to take in Nigeria in our national affairs, we knew the right thing to do but chose not to do that because it was/is not convenient, was/is ‘too hard’, it was/is going to take too long or more often than not, did/does not serve the interest of some narrow group or sub-group, however you define that. That is why we are where we are today as a country, as a people. Think on it.