The Lunch Hour, Chika Mordi, Chairman, United Capital Plc

The Banker Who Started Studying Economics at the University of Ilorin As a 15 Year-Old

Biography: Chika Mordi was an active participant in capital markets, He registered as an operator with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 1991 and was approved as a director by the United Kingdom FSA. Over the next decade, Mordi managed several landmark transactions in sub-Saharan Africa equities, fixed income issues, mortgage securitization, corporate finance, debt conversion, securities trading and privatization. Between 1995 and 2000, he built and managed the investment banking function at three Nigerian banks. From 2001 to 2005, Mordi spearheaded the viable introduction and growth of electronic and consumer products/channels in Nigeria and Ghana. He helped catalyze banking support industries like switches, card processing, captive communications and credit registries, ultimately changing the banking culture in West Africa.

Mordi functioned as either chief executive or deputy to the chief executive in the turnaround of three ailing financial institutions: Standard Trust Bank Plc, Continental Trust Bank and Metropolitan Bank. In 2005, his team at Standard Trust Bank acquired United Bank for Africa Plc (UBA) and retained the name of UBA. UBA remains one of Africa’s leading banks with over 20,000 employees in 21 countries. In 2013 the Nigerian presidency appointed Mordi to run the National Competitiveness Council of Nigeria.

Mordi speaks multiple languages with varying degrees of fluency. He has traveled to over sixty countries. Mordi is passionately committed to poverty reduction, a lifelong goal influenced by early-life experiences in a refugee camp. He regularly consults for business and political leaders, and frequently contributes on international media on financial markets and economic policy. He is chairperson of United Capital Plc and serves on several non-profit institutions. In the past, he served on several government committees, thirty-two companies, a World Economic forum agenda board, and was alternate president of the West Africa Bankers’ Association.

Mordi holds an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, MIPP from SAIS, Johns Hopkins, MBA from IESE Business School, an AMP from Harvard Business School, and an MA in public communication from American University, Washington D.C., and a BSc in economics at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria.

 

“The Central Bank of Nigeria was a strange place. …I found a culture in which my state of origin and ethnicity were magnified as an identity and people were expected to fraternize around co-workers from the same tribe, state, or religion. Citibank, however, was a different and contemporary workplace that exposed me to the world”.

Please talk about what motivated you to select your professional discipline and your career progression.

It’s complex because my career has been multi-track. Initially, as a young boy, I was drawn to the flash of the corporate world, especially banking. However, I was advised by my career counselor to study economics as a springboard for a career in business. After earning my undergraduate degree, I went on to get a master’s degree in Economics and then did my youth service at the Central Bank. I then got a job offer at UBA and from Citibank (formerly called Nigeria International Bank). Citibank offered a much higher compensation and had younger people, so I took their offer. This was the starting point for a career in banking.

After a distinguished career in banking over several decades, I had the luxury of moving up the hierarchy of needs, and reflected on the welfare of average Nigerians. I got disillusioned about the state of the country and felt compelled to play a role in driving the needed change to move Nigeria forward. This informed a switch in my career track towards public policy. I set up a non-profit called Accender Africa, which was created to bring greater transparency to public sector expenditure in Africa. In parallel, I garnered knowledge and experience in competitiveness.

At the onset, I recognised that I lacked the requisite knowledge to craft and drive policy reforms. The Harvard Kennedy School and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in the US are the best places to learn about public sector leadership, domestic and international policy. I therefore enrolled and earned master’s degrees at both institutions. Also learning that communications is a key ingredient in any reform or transformation effort, I registered and obtained a postgraduate degree from American University’s School of Communication.

Following my education at these institutions, I came back to Nigeria as a resource to help the Jonathan-led government lay a road map to improve the competitiveness of the country. I became Nigeria’s Competitiveness Czar, with the creation of the National Competitiveness Council of Nigeria, which I ran as Chief Executive. However, when governments changed, the interest in the initiative was lost.

Harvard Graduation

 

What was the biggest lesson from your experience in University?

I went to the University of Ilorin to study Economics as a 15-year-old. I chose Ilorin so I could experience life away from the watchful eyes of my family in Lagos. I wasn’t very mature, but I learned very quickly. I learnt responsibility by being on my own for the very first time and having to navigate the various temptations that such freedom brings. I think I misused that freedom initially to the detriment of my academics. But I got serious with my academics later. I believe we learn far more from failure than success and my experience in university taught me some vital lessons.

Chika Mordi with the former President of Malawi, Joyce Hilda Banda

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If you had the opportunity to go back in time and speak to a young Chika Mordi straight out of University, what would be the top advice that you will give yourself knowing how your career has played out?

Pre-university, I would have advised myself to do my A-levels, allowing me to mature a little more before going to university. I grew up in South-West Nigeria in a culture where age mattered a lot, and it would have helped if I was a little older and more physically and mentally mature going into the University.

If I were to have a conversation with my younger self straight after University, I would have advised myself to start my career at a top consulting firm like McKinsey or Accenture or an organisation like the IMF before transitioning into banking. These institutions improve your resume at that level and they have a work culture that builds in you a work ethic that serves you well over the long term. They also offer an opportunity to learn from frameworks that have been built from resources collected across the world over decades. Such exposure influences your thought process and perception of the world.

With Harvard MPA coursemates

But do you regret your career path?

Emphatic NO!. I derived the utmost satisfaction from my career.  I achieved a lot in personal terms and societal terms. On top of that, I was very well compensated. If I had gone with my heart, I would have pursued a career in Computer Programming because of my interest in the field as a boy. I loved programming and was highly proficient but It was a relatively slower and less compensated career path in Nigeria at the time. Today is a different story.

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

The Central Bank of Nigeria was a strange place. On paper, given its role in monetary policy management, it seemed like a great place for a young economist to work but I found it hyper-bureaucratic at the time. The big benefit for me was that it served as a bootcamp to learn about Nigeria. For good – I met people from all parts of the country, and learned the meaning of “Mama Put”.

On a humorous note, I actually thought “Put” was the name of the son of the caterer. On the flip side  I found a culture in which my state of origin and ethnicity were magnified as an identity and people were expected to fraternize around co-workers from the same tribe, state, or religion.

Citibank, however, was a different and contemporary workplace that exposed me to the world. My boss at the time, Funke Osibodu, was a key catalyst in building the Nigerian interbank money market. She was a tough but fair boss, and instrumental to my interest in financial markets. My learning in that environment was supplemented with excellent courses.

With Aliko Dangote and Tony Elumelu

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

Culture-specific aspects of human nature can’t be learnt in the classroom. Also, learning to manage systemic weaknesses is a practicum, something you learn on the job. For example, how to deal with the absence of basic infrastructure like power, water, communications, and in the case of banking, identity verification and credit registers. As you know, Nigeria had and still has a lot of problems in these areas.

What’s your view on how education should be reinvented for professionals today?

I believe context matters. Think about the world in which the educated will live, and then train the person for that world. The world is rapidly evolving in what is taught, and how it is taught, but – sadly – Nigeria isn’t keeping pace. Soft skills and the capacity to learn, with the flexibility to switch specialization, will become definitional. Things like teamwork, coding, AI collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking will be most relevant as technology redefines industries and the workplace.

Was it hard to work away from a career in banking and how have you pivoted?

It was emotional to walk away from the relationships and institutions I  forged  and built over the years. On a personal level, banking and specifically, STB/UBA had become part of my identity. I joined Standard Trust Bank in the early days and then we grew to become one of the 5 largest banks from number 122 or thereabout. We ultimately acquired UBA. The STB era was a challenging but rewarding time. It seemed like so many institutions and well-resourced people were against us. However, we overcame the challenges. it was an exciting journey.

There were so many people that I had mentored, recruited, partnered, and served over the years; so walking away from that was tough. To those seeking to pivot to another career path like I did, I would say that you have to ensure that there’s no economic anxiety when you make such a decision and so having enough resources to manage the transition is crucial.

 

 

With the then President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

What type of music do you like?

I like a wide variety of music. Heavy metal, afrobeat, hip hop, reggae, classical music and opera. The music I listen to is shaped by context and mood. But I listen to music every day. I am positively fascinated with fusion from collaborations. The recent Afrobeats collabs with Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran et al are really cool. Metallica’s album with the San Francisco Symphony, Jay Z and Linkin Park, Enigma’s early works,  Lil Nas X and B Ray Cyrus, Paul Simon’s Graceland, are some of my timeless albums.

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Who are your favourite authors?

I read a lot but I will say the most profound recent influence that is non-fiction and not from my academic field is Yuval Noah Harari’s books Homos Deus and Sapiens. I am also partial to Nigerian authors. Achebe, Soyinka and Clark are classics.  Adichie leads a new generation of authors in my collection.

Who’s your best boss ever and why?

I have had some amazing bosses, each one with their strengths and weaknesses but I will have to highlight Tony Elumelu because of what we achieved together. He has an uncanny ability to see a picture very quickly when listening to ideas. He is a very hard worker, intense, and a ruthless executor. I found him inspiring and he remains a great friend.

With Wife, Kingsley Moghalu, Tony Elumelu, and Professor Sylvester Monye

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

Authenticity. I learned that formal authority is not enough. You should not rely on your designation and authority, but earn true power through trust.  Informal authority determines the quality of your leadership. People believe in you when you can align their own objectives with yours and the organisation. Your co-workers are motivated if you are competent, transparent, fair and predictable. That in my view is authenticity.

Nigeria is navigating a very difficult patch economically. What’s your perspective about the prospects for professionals in the current environment?

As a professional or entrepreneur, I think you have to think short-term as well as medium to long-term. Some professions will become extinct in the medium to long term. For those who have the luxury of choice, I recommend that professionals in the short term consider industries that are externalized and therefore less impacted by local factors such as fiscal and monetary policy outcomes in the country.

Some externalized industries are Agric export, minerals, and intellectual property such as music and movies for example are less impacted by local factors as the products are also consumed by a foreign market.  Long-term, careers and businesses that are flexible enough to endure the AI revolution. Better still, businesses and careers that will take advantage of the AI revolution. The best way to predict your future is to create it.

What things do you value the most in a candidate when hiring?

Curiosity, teamwork and capacity to learn is key if you want to go far with me. However, you also have to be competent in terms of technical skills for the job.

Your favourite Nigerian brand and why?

The Heirs Holding Group and its subsidiary companies such as Transcorp are very impressive in both their business performance and brand deployment. I also like Dangote because it is a national champion. Its operations redefine Nigeria’s imports. Cement and now fuel.

 

Interest in sports?

I am a big Arsenal fan and I also actively support the Super Eagles. I am a middle to long-distance runner, and enthusiastically follow track and field events.

Chika Mordi With Arsene Wenger

Best use of money ever for you.

I would say the opportunity cost of spending time with my family is the best investment I ever made.

Who will you like to spend a holiday with within Nigeria and abroad?

No contest – My wife and kids. In Nigeria, the Obudu Cattle Ranch is a great destination. Outside Nigeria, it will be New Zealand.

Where do you see Nigeria in the next decade?

The eternal optimist in me tells me that we are going to overcome the current difficulties, and go through a rough patch that will set the stage for transformative change. The broken social compact between the citizens and the leadership will be inverted such that the leaders serve the people as opposed to the current state where the citizenry serve the leaders.

Also, Nigeria’s youth will acquire skills to thrive. However, the base case suggests that things will be rough. The current government has made some changes to try to resolve the fiscal pressures but we continue to struggle. At the moment, the country is not structured to create more revenue than we spend. We need to change that. If things don’t change, we may be heading more towards a Sri Lankan situation than a Korea/Malaysia situation.

What was your worst day at work?

In my STB days, we were growing rapidly but mistrust with new generation banks was a persistent threat. One day a major newspaper headline read “STB and two others sanctioned by CBN, licenses revoked”, at the same time a false email from an employee of Shell in Port Harcourt was going viral that the bank was failing and about to be closed by CBN. It was an unimaginable nightmare. There was a run on the bank. We had to think strategically but stay in the moment. We eventually resolved the crisis, and the rest as they say is history.

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