Reaction Factor: The Importance of Timing

By Jim Ovia

Five years had passed since the liberalization of the financial markets in 1985. Prior to that time, there were only about ten banks in Nigeria, all of which were owned and operated by the government. With the commercialization of previously regulated industries that followed the collapse of oil prices in the early 1980s, private investors were now trying their hand at starting and managing a financial institution. 

Fast forward to the date of April 22, 1990 – a day that will forever be burned into my memory. I had just deposited the ₦20 million of investment money into a special account at Central Bank, which was the final step that would activate my banking license. Just minutes after making the deposit, an announcement came over the radio that a Nigerian military officer by the name of Major Gideon Gwaza Orkar had just led a violent and bloody coup d’état against President Ibrahim Babangida, seizing a radio station, military headquarters, and the presidential residence.  

Everything came to a halt—every business in the city ceased working. Every interaction with government agencies had to stop. No licenses would be issued. Luckily for me, on the very day the coup was announced, there was a counter-coup—the first coup was defeated by other military officers defending the government. 

At the time, the most senior general of the highest government ruling body—the Armed Forces Ruling Council—made a dramatic speech to the nation, assuring citizens that all was well and that business should return to normal. Subsequently, at its very next meeting, the general approved ten banking licenses. The Zenith Bank license was one of them, and with the flurry of governmental confusion out of the way, we were now on our way as a fully licensed bank. 

Lucky Timing? You Actually Have a Bit of Control  

Timing is everything when it comes to business. In this instance, I was lucky. However, some say luck is when preparation meets opportunity – I’d tend to agree.  I worked tirelessly to create and deliver my application for licensing. I spent many days and nights writing the Zenith Bank feasibility study followed by extensive effort to make sure the application was ready to be reviewed by the Central Bank directors.   

All told, I spent the better part of a year participating in these bureaucratic exchanges, but at last, I received the long-awaited letter. The fact of my confidence in my prospects did not detract from the thrill of unfolding the single typed page bearing CBN’s official logo of a green eagle atop a shield. The letter itself was brief and to the point:  

“Congratulations, we are pleased to recommend the approval of your banking license to the Ministry of Finance, who is charged with the responsibility of issuing the ultimate banking license. You should now enlist other prospective shareholders to join you to contribute a total of ₦20 million.” 

The work had been done – I did the best I could.  Timing would still prove to be a critical element in whether I’d have the opportunity to pursue my venture.  This time it worked out in my favor – and there have been plenty of times since where timing has been both kind and unfortunate regarding my efforts.  The key in each scenario is preparation, persistence, and patience.   

Learn more about how a bank housed in a single-story apartment helped revitalize a nation and how those principles can help you take your business to the next level.  Purchase your copy of, Africa Rise and Shine today. 

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