Suleiman Yahyah is the Director General of NAHCO. In this interview with Paul Chiama, he talks on his experience in the corporate world; what and who inspires him and how he has succeeded in repositioning NAHCO. Excerpts:
You have the knack for picking a dead company and turning it around and you did the same with NAHCO. How do you do this?
Well, I do it through a lot of capacity-building and development. We have to realise that value addition begins from optimisation strategy. In several industries in the economy, some of the opportunities available are latent and, usually, the missing element is management, governance or finance. So, if you are able to bring in talent, high quality governance, best practices and financial resources, turn-around becomes, as it is, easier. As a result, value is created in the process and jobs evolve. You create wealth and you are happy to see the dead coming back to life.
We have done that successfully in the financial service sector, in telecommunications and, of course, we are doing it in the NAHCO and several other companies.
You just turned 50. What would you describe as the defining moment of your life?
I think the defining moment was when I was 27 and I decided to jump ship; to resign from a well-paid job in the Continental Merchant Bank. I met my managing director and told him that I was resigning and he said "where are you going to?" He thought I was going to another bank, but I told him that I and some professionals had decided to set up a bank. He said, "What? You are going to set up a bank?" I said "yes". He asked again; "At 27? Really, do you have the resources?" I said, "No, we have the talent and the know-how". When I said that, he said, "you guys have the ingredients for success". Since then, we have never looked back; it has been one opportunity after the other and one challenge after the other. One can say that in spite of all the odds, we have kept the graph rising. You know, we have added value and continued to grow.
So, that was the defining moment and it was in June, 1992, 24 years ago and, to be honest, it has been a remarkable journey.
Which personality or event inspired you in your decision-making?
I think it was destiny, truly speaking. You see, when I graduated with a First Class degree, the university wanted to retain me to serve in Bayero University Kano, as a graduate assistant. But under the National Youth Service Corps programme then, I had to be posted to a state and asked to return. The NYSC computer system posted me to Kaduna State, because I hailed from Funtua local government in Katsina State, which was created in August 1987. Our service 'call-up' was in September. That month, the state was created and I suddenly became an indigene of Katsina. As a result, I was posted to Kaduna State.
As soon as I got to camp, they said, "Five of you are going to ABU, Zaria". I was one of them. When we were in the camp, Continental Merchant Bank placed a notice of advertisement for First Class Corps members. I didn't really put down my name but a friend of mine, Munir Gwarzo, wrote my name in the list. The next day, they came to camp and they invited us for a conversation.
As soon as I went to have a conversation with them, they offered me a service (NYSC) career in the bank and they did all the magic. They went to the NYSC secretariat and withdrew the letters. So, it was just like destiny. It was not as if I chose to do a few things.
Even when I went to the university, I went to the Bayero Univeristy specifically to study Mass Communication. Initially, I wanted to be a journalist. I did my first summer 'internship' with Radio Nigeria, Kaduna (while awaiting my result). My first choice was Bayero University (Mass Communication), second choice was the Ahmadu Bello University (English Language) and the third choice was the Obafemi Awolowo University (Mathematics). Bayero just offered me admission.
It was at the school of basic studies that my tutor asked me; "We saw that you wanted to study Mass Communication or English but you have an 'A' in Mathematics. What exactly is your career objective?" That was the first time I was asked myself about my career objective. I said I want to be a boss. So, he said, "you mean you want to be a chief executive?" I said "yes". Then he said, "You cannot be holding the microphone. You need to be either an economist or an accountant." [And all these was] because he saw I had an 'A' in Mathematics. So, you see, sometimes, things happen.
Let's come back to Corporate Nigeria. At various times, you were the managing director of the First City Monument Bank (FCMB). How did the experience help you?
I was part of the team that turned around the defunct or the dying Nigeria Universal Bank. On December 23, 1999, just seven days to the end of the year, we were invited by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to shop 11 banks that were to be liquidated within eight days. One of them was Kaduna Cooperative Bank which became Nigeria Universal Bank. We discovered that it had a negative capital of N50m and the requirement was N2bn capital. We felt that we could save the bank and, in seven days, we raised the N2bn and pushed to the CBN.
The Nigeria Universal Bank and one Tropical Commercial Bank were only two of the 11 banks which survived. On January 1, 2000, the CBN liquidated the other nine, including Premier Commercial Bank and several others. It became our template for turn-around, because within three years, we moved the bank from the shareholder base of N2bn to N7bn. We had a profit of nearly N1.5bn and I think that within three years, we also achieved a level of respect in the industry; so much that we were able to establish nearly 70 or so branches in the country. For us, that was a major template for a successful turn-around, from the negative to the positive within three years. That was my role there.
So, in 2003 when First City Monument Bank (FCMB) suffered financial crisis in 2002, the founder, Otunba Balogun, invited me to join them and help stabilise, as well as turn the bank around. I joined the FCMB team in 2003 and, within two years, we restored the bank to profitability. Actually, that year, we achieved profitability. Within another three months, we achieved profitability and the story of FCMB has changed up till today. It was becoming second nature. I am still part of the company. I resigned from the board of the bank two years later, because my job was done. I turned things around and moved on.