By Tolu Ogunlesi
(originally appeared in Next on Sunday on June 19, 2011)
He was one CEO you were likely to encounter in the elevator, or in the staff lunchroom. He shared an office floor with a company department, and had a habit of handing out boxes of chocolates at meetings. If you didn’t know him, you’d be hard pressed to tell that he actually ran the show.
In a culture in which being the boss was supposed to come with an exemption from the inconvenience of sharing elevators and office floors, or having lunch in crowded rooms, Tayo Aderinokun, or ‘Uncle T’, as his staff knew him, was an alien. If he was aware that there was a certain image that needed to be maintained as a C-suite executive, he never showed it. It meant nothing to him.
But that unassuming attitude meant a great deal to the people he worked with, and all who met him, at work, church (Ikoyi Baptist Church, where he was a committed member), and elsewhere. “Humble” and “simple” are recurring words in the countless tributes that have emerged since his death last week.
“In all the years I have known him, he has been totally courteous to myself, university colleagues and, more importantly, to his staff; he was loved in the work place and he was a guiding beacon,” says Simon Knox, Professor of Brand Marketing at the Cranfield School of Management in England, and co-author of two business case studies focusing on GTBank.
Frustrated by the general dismal quality of service on offer from Nigerian banks, Aderinokun teamed up with Fola Adeola to found Guaranty Trust Bank (later branded GTBank) in 1990. Aderinokun served as the bank’s deputy Managing Director, before succeeding Adeola as chief executive in 2002.
He steered GTBank through the uncertain days of the banking consolidation, as well as the meltdown that hit in 2009, turning the crisis into gold for his bank. “We are the first to admit that we have benefited from the turmoil the Nigerian banking sector has experienced recently. Our asset base has been growing and deposits are increasing,” he told African Banker magazine in 2009.
Under him the bank grew into an ambitious and marvellously innovative entity. In 2007 it became the first Nigerian bank to issue a Eurobond, and the first Nigerian company and African bank to be listed on the London Stock Exchange. Aderinokun also oversaw, in 2005, a highly successful rebranding effort.
A generation of bankers looked up to him. “[Aderinokun] inspired thousands including yours truly to pursue a career in banking. He and Fola [Adeola] remain the SI unit of success here,” a mourner tweeted. A comment on the NEXT website read: “Uncle Tee!! You gave me a chance in this industry and your quiet calm was always enough to bring peace to any situation.”
The drive to be the best never flagged. In his last major official outing – a webcast Q & A session with the public in January, he said: “We believe that in the future, the online community is going to be [as] relevant as the offline community that we’ve been used to, and we want to remain in the forefront.” GTBank is one of the few Nigerian banks running a channel on YouTube.
Yet, for all that ambition, he never crossed the line into the ruthless competitiveness many of his colleagues had elevated into an art form. “When we last spoke [in 2006], we discussed our goal to become the third bank in Nigeria and now we have achieved this, but not the way I expected – so many of my competitors have fallen by the way side,” Aderinokun lamented to Cranfield academics Stan Maklan and Simon Knox, last year.
In an industry notorious for sharp practices, Aderinokun and his bank were the poster children for ethical conduct. One subordinate recalls his fondness for cautioning employees against “looking for trouble” – “trouble” referring to tempting deals with the potential to backfire.
The giver, and arts lover
His large-heartedness was as striking as his humility. Day Waterman College, a co-educational boarding school which Aderinokun set up near Abeokuta, his hometown, makes scholarships available for up to a third of its student population, to enable those from poor backgrounds take advantage of the elite education on offer.
His love for the arts was unmatched. “You don’t find supporters of the arts in every corner in this country. It’s sad to see one of the few who love art going away like that,” poet and former President of the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA), Odia Ofeimun, told NEXT.
Aderinokun chaired the Board of the popular Lagos arts center, Terrakulture, and supported the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) and the annual Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), among other arts intiatives. GTBank sponsored Yinka Shonibare’s exhibition of his ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ installation, unveiled last year at London’s Trafalgar Square. Aderinokun shared that passion for the arts with his brothers, Eddie and Kayode, both published poets and prominent members of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
He lingered, then left
Eddie wrote, in one of the poems in his most recent collection (‘Thirty Thoughts in Thirty Cities’): “So, beloved soul, linger not unduly between Life and Death / ay, between In and Out…”
Those lines were from a lamentation for Haiti. But they might well have been for younger brother Tayo, who spent the final years of his life “[lingering] … between Life and Death”; battling terminal cancer. His health took a turn for the worse in February, and he travelled to England for treatment. In May he was rumoured dead. He stayed alive for another month, reportedly in a coma, and died in a London hospital on June 14, aged 57.
Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2011