The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour – Andrew Alli, CEO & Partner at Southbridge Group

With Wole Famurewa

I would say that governments need to think about building institutional capacity. This is the best way to manage prosperity and crises. Philanthropy is great and needed in times of crisis, but is not a strategy to move a country forward. I have been making personal contributions to help the most vulnerable in this crisis, but I think philanthropy should only be the “jara” on top of what institutions are doing. The institutions in Nigeria and across the broader African continent are weak. Whenever there’s a crisis, we seek external help. We have relied on the likes of Bill Gates to help fix various areas of our health sector.

Andrew Alli is a finance professional with over thirty years of experience, much of which is in financing infrastructure and energy projects in Africa. He is currently CEO & Partner of Southbridge Group, a Pan-African financial services firm focused on Investment Banking and Sovereign advisory. Before Andrew joined the SouthBridge Group, he was the President & CEO of Africa Finance Corporation (AFC) where he was responsible for the overall strategy and operations of the Corporation. Under his leadership, AFC committed over US$4.5 billion in investments across Africa. Until his appointment as CEO of Africa Finance Corporation in November 2008, Andrew was the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Travant Capital, a private equity fund. Before that, he held various positions with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector financing arm of the World Bank Group including responsible for managing IFC’s operations in the Nigeria and then in Southern Africa. During the course of his career, Mr. Alli has been involved with investments in Africa totaling more than US$10 billion. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Kings College, University of London, an MBA from INSEAD, France and qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Coopers & Lybrand (PriceWaterhouseCoopers). Andrew also holds a number of external positions, including non-Executive Directorships at MTN Nigeria, CDC Group, a UK government-owned DFI, and the Development Bank of Nigeria and is also Member of the Advisory Board to the Lagos Business School.

University, Science or Arts?

I went to primary school in Benin City and then transited to Lagos where I attended Kings College for my O levels. My father was a medical doctor and so that influenced my choice to explore science subjects while taking my A Levels in the UK. I actually considered studying medicine but I realized that I had a greater interest in Engineering. So I enrolled to study Electrical and Electronics Engineering at King’s College London. I got sponsored by British Telecom where I had interned and realized that I wouldn’t have enjoyed working as an engineer. I was at a cross road, about to graduate but not knowing what to do. I did some research and discovered management consulting as a professional discipline and was able to get into the consulting arm of Coopers & Lybrand (now Pricewaterhousecoopers), where I was able to qualify as a chartered accountant while consulting. Part of the reason for my choice of consulting was the exposure to other sectors that the engineering profession offered. So, while doing some work for an investment banking client, I got interested in that area and was keen to transit to this industry. I grabbed an opportunity to work for an investment bank called S G Warburg (now part of UBS) for a few years. Many of the transactions that I worked on at the time were for organisations in the UK and Europe. However, I had an interest in working on projects in emerging markets. This led to my decision to enroll in an MBA programme at INSEAD. I then joined the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which offered me the opportunity to work in investments in emerging markets. I returned to Nigeria as the IFC Country Manager. Subsequently, I moved to Johannesburg to manage the IFC’s Southern Africa operations before returning to Nigeria to co-found a private equity company with the late Osaze Osifo. I later joined the African Finance Corporation as CEO and then after reaching my tenor limit at AFC I joined Southbridge Group, a Pan-African financial services firm focused on Investment Banking and Sovereign advisory.

The Most Important Thing You Learnt at University?

I would say that the value add of a university experience is much more than what you learn academically in the classroom. You pick up a lot of social skills that are needed for your career. You also begin to build a network.

What would you have said to Andrew Alli, the fresh graduate, given what you have learnt over your career?

The first thing I would say to myself is that your career is long and you should not be in a hurry. Take your time to do things well. A related point is to tell myself that because my career is long, I should focus on things that I enjoy, because there’s no fun in doing things you don’t like just to get ahead. The final advice would be to say “don’t panic”. Most things work themselves out.

Talk about your first job and the main thing you learnt as a young employee.

I learnt the value of understanding the basics and the value of experience. I think young people sometimes don’t pay enough attention to knowing how to do what they do extremely well. However, I quickly learnt the value of paying attention to developing my skills and delivering high quality work. I also learnt the value of work experience. It’s not enough to have great degrees and qualifications. There’s a value in actually doing stuff that you can’t get until you actually do the work.

Things that you have learnt in your career that are not taught in the classroom?

High quality work opens doors and poor work comes with a cost that you may continue to pay well into the future. A former boss once told me that if you take on more work than you can do and deliver one bad job, people will remember that bad job for a very long time. However, if you turn down a job because you doubt your ability to deliver high quality work, people may be disappointed for a moment but will soon forget.

Another thing I have seen is the value of networking in an interesting way. It’s not necessarily your immediate network that matters the most. It’s what the people you know say about you to those that you don’t know that matters. It’s important to think of networking as a way of adding value to people, rather than being about what you can get out of it. When you add value, you often get greater value from relationships because you become top of mind and are seen as a valuable person to the other party, rather than someone who is always wanting stuff.

 

Also Read: The Lunch Hour – Nimi Akinkugbe, Chief Executive Officer of Bestman Games

Who was the greater influence, Mum or Dad?;

Both parents influenced me to be ambitious and have a culture of excellence. They pushed me to excel academically. However, they never told me what to do. I was never forced to choose any course or subject to study. When I changed my mind about not studying medicine, being medical people they were a bit disappointed, but they never discouraged me.

What’s responsible for your excellent written and spoken English?

I read a lot and I read widely. I have always had a proclivity to read but that habit has its side benefits. I think reading widely develops your vocabulary, your ability to express yourself and broadens your knowledge. These are valuable skills for anyone building a career. My interests go beyond what is relevant to my work. I read a variety of literature. I read about science, and a lot of fiction. I also enjoying reading history. It is a habit that has also come in handy as I have travelled around the world. I have surprised a few people that I have met with my knowledge of their countries. This again has been valuable in building relationships with people.

What type of music do you like?

Classical music and opera is probably my favourite genre. I also like alternative rock groups like Coldplay.

Who are your favourite authors?

I really don’t have any, to be honest.

So what are you reading now?

Several books including Siddharta by Herman Hesse, Ten Discoveries that Rewrote History by Patrick Hunt, World Order by Henry Kissenger, and The Martian by Andy Weir.

Who’s your best boss ever and why?

It’s a tough choice because I have been blessed with several great bosses. I would say Kurt Loos, my first boss when I joined the IFC, was great in terms of letting me do as much as I could possibly do at that stage of my career and pushing me beyond where I thought I could go. He was also very generous with giving me the opportunity to move up within the organisation. He also encouraged me to always explore the culture of the places that I travel to. That has really enriched my work experience.

What has been the biggest lesson that you have learnt as a boss?

The things that I learnt from my previous bosses have been valuable to me as a boss. I have seen the value of delegating as much as possible when supervising people. It has been a win-win for the people, myself and the organization. Their progress often reflects well on me. I have also seen the value of demanding high quality work from the people you work with. It produces a top quality organization.

The spread of Covid-19 has inflicted a huge burden on society and the economy. What in your view has been the biggest lesson from this pandemic?

I would say that governments need to think about building institutional capacity. This is the best way to manage prosperity and crises. Philanthropy is great and needed in times of crisis, but is not a strategy to move a country forward. I have been making personal contributions to help the most vulnerable in this crisis, but I think philanthropy should only be the “jara” on top of what institutions are doing. The institutions in Nigeria and across the broader African continent are weak. Whenever there’s a crisis, we seek external help. We have relied on the likes of Bill Gates to help fix various areas of our health sector. Healthcare and education are vitally important and we must create an institutional framework to make sustainable progress in these areas.

 

Also Read: The Lunch Hour – Atedo Peterside, Chairman, ANAP Foundation

Things you value the most in a candidate when hiring?;

I try to investigate if they really have the relevant experience for the role. Related to that is to find out if they have the curiosity and bandwidth to grow into greater responsibility. The third thing is to investigate the candidate’s motivation. How motivated are they and what exactly is motivating them? At the AFC and Southbridge, I have seen that one thing that has motivated people is a desire to do something significant in Africa. I find that a lot of young Africans are strongly motivated to make the continent a better place.

What’s your favourite place to go in Nigeria and abroad?

In Nigeria, I like the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja. I find it very peaceful and I enjoy the swimming pool and sports facilities. Abroad, it’s a tough choice. I like to go to new places but if I must pick one place, I will say that Thailand is a great getaway to experience the local culture, history, food and friendly people.

Your favourite Nigerian Brand and why?

I would say MTN Nigeria. It, and the whole mobile telecommunications industry, has made a tremendous positive difference to the lives of many Nigerians and to the economy. I also happen to be on the board of MTN Nigeria.

Any interest in sports?

Swimming. It is a great all over exercise with minimal stress on the joints. I have bad knees so many forms of exercise are out. I try to swim every day, but I haven’t been able to swim once since March because of the lock down.

Best use of money ever for you.

What I paid to earn my MBA at INSEAD. In many ways, that experience has opened many doors for me.

Who will you like to spend a holiday with?

My wife. I often pay for a local guide because you learn so much more and visiting sights is so much more enjoyable when such knowledge is shared with you. We visited Rome and the Vatican last year as a family and it was so enlightening to be shown around by a professional guide. Well worth the additional cost.

Where do you see Nigeria in the next decade?

We hear so often that Nigeria has so much potential, but it has not been able to live up to that potential for several decades, arguably even since independence. Sadly, I do not see much changing radically at the “macro” level, that is as a country as a whole. Something very different will have to happen for the nation to be able to reach its full potential. However, I am very positive at the more “micro” level. Technology is making it more feasible for individuals and groups of individuals to maximise their own potential – for example by going off-grid using solar technology, or by using the internet to sell services offshore. Our youth who are well connected globally, who are very enterprising and energetic are making full use of these opportunities. However, this means that the gap between the “haves”, who have access to all this, and the “have nots”, who don’t, will continue to widen. Large scale government intervention would be needed to lift the capacity and productivity of the mass population, mainly through education, both academic and vocational. The positive thing is that, as we saw in the period from 2003 to 2007, is that if we have a decent theory of change which is executed decently, we can see things turn around very quickly at a national level.

The Lunch Hour was over a zoom meeting because of the restrictions on public gathering due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

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