The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour – Olabode Agusto, Founder, Agusto & Co.

Bode Agusto is a chartered accountant with over three decades of experience. He founded Nigeria’s leading credit rating agency, Agusto & Co, serving as the company’s Managing Director from 1992 to 2003. He started his career at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), rising to the position of Partner before leaving to start Agusto & Co. He also worked with Citibank Nigeria as an Assistant Vice President. In 2003, he was appointed Director-General of the Budget Office of the Federation & Adviser on Budget Matters to President Olusegun Obasanjo, after being conferred in 2002 with the Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR) award for his contributions to the Nigerian economy. He has also been a non-Executive Director of the National Pension Commission (PenCom), the Shell Nigeria Pension Fund, and a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Bode is currently an independent consultant with research interests covering politics, economics, and business strategy. He is a non-Executive Director of Agusto & Co. Ltd and Guaranty Trust Bank Plc. Bode graduated from the University of Lagos with a degree in Accounting, holds an Executive Certificate in Strategy & Innovation from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan), and is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN).

“…the way we choose our leaders in Nigeria does not align with my values. We choose based on religion and ethnicity. It’s contrary to the worldview…My grandfather was an Imam and he was the legal adviser to Archbishop Leo Taylor of the Roman Catholic Church. They were the founders of the Society for the Blind in Nigeria.”

University. Science or Arts? 

I was an Arts student because I liked History and English Literature. However, I was comfortable with Mathematics as well.

Biggest lesson you left University with?

The big lesson I left University with is that education is a life-long journey. The law of life is “grow or die”. This was further drilled home at PwC which placed a lot of emphasis on continued Professional Education.

Any teacher you cannot forget and why?

We had a gentleman called RSO Wallace who came to coach us for the ICAN examination at PwC. He was extremely knowledgeable about the subject and he gave us a lot of confidence to be able to tackle the qualifying examinations. Four of us took the exams. We were all first-timers but we all passed. One of us came first and another came third. 

Who was the bigger influence in your life, Mom or Dad?

My father was there to provide for us and ensure that we did not lack. He was a lawyer. He was called to the bar in 1948 and he practiced until he passed away. My mother was there to provide encouragement; always telling us what to do and encouraging us to strive. She was more or less at home even though she was quite educated as well. There were quite a few of us, so she was home to take care of us. My mother attended both CMS Girls School and Queens College, Lagos. But the biggest influence in my life was my grandfather. He was the first generation of educated persons in our family. He worked hard to send himself to the School of Pharmacy. He was not satisfied with his qualification as a Chemist & Druggist (Pharmacist), he still saved money and sent himself to the United Kingdom to study law and qualified as a lawyer in 1924. He was later appointed a Queen’s Counsel. Whatever we have achieved in this family today, it was because of him. An illiterate who sent himself to school and got to the pinnacle of his career. That has always been a big inspiration for me.

What is the biggest lesson you took away from home?

I graduated from university in 1977 but I did not leave home until 1983 when I went to London to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers. But even while still at home, I had my own apartment and I was financially independent. One major lesson I learned is that solid education differentiates you from the pack big time. I also left home with values such as honesty and competence, and strongly believe in equal opportunities for all children, male as well as female. That is the way my grandfather brought up his children. One of my aunts qualified as a lawyer in 1952. Another aunt was a Professor of Nephrology at the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital.

What is the biggest lesson from your first job?

I was posted to Aba in the old Imo State to work for UTC Motors for my NYSC. This was my first job. I had a wonderful time working there. I worked in the Accounts Department. But the biggest lesson I took away, which is still a big influence on me today, is not about the work. It is the humanity and the kindness of the people I worked with. People have stories about Igbo people but in my experience, they were very nice and supportive and I still remember it to this day. One of the women where I worked would always tease me by saying I would have to marry one of her daughters. It was a good time.

Who do you consider your best boss ever?

My best boss ever would have to be one of the partners at PwC while I was training. He was a tax partner, Chukwu Amako, of blessed memory. I enjoyed working with him because he radiated calmness and professionalism. He always gave solid advice even on private issues. He would talk to you about what you needed to do even in your private life to be successful. He was a big influence.

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What two or three things have you learned in your career that you wouldn’t have learned on any MBA programme?

I will mention three things and I will also mention one that they teach, which I believe is important, but a lot of us don’t pay attention to. One lesson is that you do not have to be a star to be successful in life. You need to be honest, you need to be competent and you need to be diligent. Another thing is that our lives as human beings are defined by opportunities, including the ones we miss. That is a quote by an American author that I find to be very true. All of us have opportunities in life. Some of them we grab and they take us sky-high and some of them we miss. Sometimes you make the wrong choices that cause you to lose focus and derail. We just have to pray to God Almighty and hope to grab the right ones. The third lesson is about your friends; the people you surround yourself with is very important. A lesson we are taught in business school that many of us do not pay attention to is that no matter how good you are as a manager if you go into a bad industry, it is highly doubtful that you will succeed. If the economics of your chosen industry is strong, you have a much higher chance of success compared to going into an industry with weak economics and difficult terrain.

What are two things you prize the most when hiring?

First of all, I would say character and that is very difficult to judge. I also like to better understand the background of the person I am trying to hire. This is because, for many of us, the way we grew up will influence the way we behave and do things. It also matters if the person is willing and able to learn. I worry about what I cannot teach a potential employee but I don’t worry about what I can teach. 

Do you think the pandemic will permanently change attitudes to working remotely?

I believe so, particularly where the nature of the business allows remote working. A pilot cannot work remotely. But those of us in other areas can afford to do that. One instance is meetings. Somebody was asking my wife to come for a meeting in Abuja late last week. She said, “There is no way I am going to get on a plane for this when we can just do it over Zoom.” A year and a half ago, she might not have thought about that possibility. The person said “Oh! I didn’t think of that.” They had a very good meeting via Zoom. So, why waste time and money on flight tickets? The cost saving is evident. Human beings quickly embrace change when they can see the ease and convenience. The pandemic has shown us how feasible remote working is.

What is your favorite kind of music?

I will not classify myself as a great lover of music. I listen to anything that is melodious. 

What kinds of books do you read?

I like non-fiction as I am grounded in reality. I like books on history and then books on subjects that are relevant to my profession – economics, finance, corporate governance, etc. I have read two books this year that I find particularly interesting. One of them analyses the best healthcare systems in the World. The writer, a medical doctor in the USA, did research on twelve countries. I found it very useful. You could see the healthcare models that work and the ones that are struggling. The second book was written by a Singaporean who used to represent that country at the United Nations. The title is Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy. It gave me a better understanding of the mindset of the leaders of China, the response of America, and what we need to do to engage China as a country.

What are you reading currently?

I am working on a project currently. It might sound morbid but I believe we are all mere mortals and at some point in time, we are all going to go. I turned 65 last September and I am trying to write my handover notes to Nigeria. I am trying to write about a long-term development strategy for Nigeria based on all the things I have learned and that I believe I know. I am doing the research, reading up on anything that could help educate me. That was how I got into reading books on healthcare systems around the world. I am thinking about the healthcare system that would work best for us as a country taking into account the realities of our environment.

What sort of values allowed you to walk away from a top government opportunity and never look back?

First of all, I looked at my parents and my grandparents. My grandfather was a private sector person all his life and he was pretty successful. My father too worked all his life as a private sector person and was also very successful. I have always seen myself as a private sector person. My foray into government was due to President Olusegun Obasanjo’s invitation to come and help in the budget office. I was 47 then and I had told co-workers in Agusto & Co Ltd. that there was no way I would be at the firm at 50, therefore they should get ready to run it. When the opportunity came, I spoke to them and they encouraged me to take it. I left to join the government and I spent 4 years working as Director-General of Budget for Nigeria. It was the most stressful 4 years of my life but we did well and made significant progress. I can point to many things we did well and a few things we did not do so well. At the end of the President’s second term, I said “Freedom at last!”. I went to South Africa with some of my friends to play golf for three weeks. Whilst there, I got a call that I was going to be appointed a minister and my first reaction was “I am not a member of this party i.e. the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). They do not owe me anything. Why should I be a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and use the slot that they have for Lagos State?” One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, called me and said “Bode, they are already saying you are arrogant. Send me your CV, let me go and give it to them.” I sent it to her and at the end of three weeks, I came back and went to Abuja. I spoke with the Chief of Staff to the President and was told the President wanted me. I saw it as another call to duty to serve my country. So, I agreed to go through the process. Some people were expecting me to go and lobby for the job but my own training is that when you want to help someone and they say they do not need the help, why should you lose sleep? Secondly, after the National Assembly interview, I had to travel to the UK to help my daughter sort out her university application. When I came back, they said I was not appointed. I said, “Well, fine”. One thing my grandfather instilled in me is that some things you just leave to the will of God. So, I was not upset at all and with the benefit of hindsight, God did me a great favor.

If a group of political elites in Nigeria was to form a political party for 2023 and invited you to join, what would your answer be?

A resounding “No!” I believe I am too old. One of the biggest problems we have in Nigeria is that we do not hand over to the next generation early enough. That’s why I am writing my handover notes. I can only do things in an advisory capacity, sharing ideas on directions to go, likely outcomes, and looking at alternative routes.  Another reason I will say “No” is that the way we choose our leaders in Nigeria does not align with my values. We choose based on religion and ethnicity. It’s contrary to the worldview that I formed as a result of my background and values, which I cannot let go of. My grandfather was an Imam and he was the legal adviser to Archbishop Leo Taylor of the Roman Catholic Church. They were the founders of the Society for the Blind in Nigeria. 

Merit is what I know, I don’t know religion and ethnicity, since we do not choose our leaders based on merit, I do not want to be in that ring. Thank you very much. 

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What, in your view, is more responsible for the lack of progress in Nigeria? Corruption or poor economic policies? 

I would say lack of education resulting in illiterate voters. They can therefore be bought and deceived through divisive politics. If we look at the first set of leaders we had after Independence, they were the best and brightest. From the Western region, we had Obafemi Awolowo, Ladoke Akintola, and Rotimi Williams, one of our best lawyers, and Fani Kayode, someone with a super brain. From the East, we had Nnamdi Azikiwe and Michael Okpara. From the Northern region, we had Tafawa Balewa and the Sardauna who may not have had very advanced Western education but they were competent and they were honest in serving the nation. They had sincerity of purpose but things have changed. Our politics is now structured to cause division, alienating us from each other. Even as recently as the 1993 Presidential Elections, we had a Muslim-Muslim ticket with Moshood Abiola and Babagana Kingibe against Bashir Tofa. Nobody can even dream of a Muslim-Muslim ticket or a Christian-Christian ticket today. We are moving backward as a nation in my opinion. We need to educate our voters. If voters are knowledgeable, they will be able to discern when politicians are trying to deceive them. Leaders will become more accountable if voters are knowledgeable.

What is your favorite place for a holiday in Nigeria and abroad?

Holidaying in Nigeria is another kettle of fish. When I finished university and went on to do my NYSC, you could go to any corner of the country without batting an eyelid. As youth corpers, we used to drive all over the country at night visiting all sorts of places. Now, the size of the country has shrunk significantly. The land area is still 924,000 square kilometres but where I can go without worrying is very limited. This is a shame. One thing I would dearly love to do is to get into a car and go back to the old Imo State (now Abia and Imo) and drive around in a car to see the level of development or lack of it.

But to your question, I like to go to Uyo because they have a very nice golf course. The last time I was there, they had a very nice hotel managed by Le Meridien attached to the golf course. Abroad, I like the Mediterranean, especially the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal. The weather is temperate all year round. There is a lot to do, they have great golf courses, the food is healthy and there is a lot of history in that area as well.

What do you think is the best use of money for those who have a bit to spare?

The best use of money is to start a business that produces goods and/or services that add to the output of the nation, employs other human beings, pays taxes out of its profits, and pays dividends to the owners.

Who would you most like to vacation with?

That person must be a friend of mine. That person must be able to play golf. That person should be interested in history. My wife ticks all those boxes and she is never tired of me.

Where do you see Nigeria in ten years?

I will answer this question in terms of peace and prosperity i.e. will Nigeria be a peaceful environment and will it be a more prosperous country? I will first mention three key things that determine peace and prosperity in any country. The first is the size of the output of the nation i.e. the size of the cake –  how big is the cake?. The second is the population i.e. the number of people that are sharing the cake. If the size of the cake is very big and the population is small, then there is more of the cake to go around. Conversely, there will be problems if there is a huge population and the size of the cake is small. The third thing to consider is how fairly distributed the cake is. When there is a fairly large cake, the population is manageable and the cake is fairly distributed, the chances are there will be peace and prosperity.

Now, let us look at the Nigeria of today. The population is growing faster than the rate at which we are baking the cake. Therefore, on average, people are becoming poorer. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we had issues with the fair distribution of income. What I learned from the pandemic is that it has made the middle class poor and made the poor destitute. It is why I was not surprised when hoodlums hijacked the #EndSARS protests. I do not like to sound like a prophet of doom but if we do not address these three issues, what we saw in terms of destruction and vandalism is only the beginning of a new phase of what we are going to see sporadically in our country. The way to address this, in my view, is to address the output. We need to grow our output significantly. And we also have to manage our population so that we do not end up getting to 400 million people in 2030 as projected by populationpyramid.net. If our population continues to grow at 2.5% per annum, we will get to this unmanageable state. We should also use our tax system to redistribute wealth and help the poor in society access basic services. If we do not do these things, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that our country is going to be a lot worse.

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