By December 2010, Zenith Bank PLC was the second largest company in the country. In addition to Nigeria, the bank had branches in the Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Established as Zenith International Bank Ltd in May 1990. It became a public limited company in July 2004 and had an initial public offering on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) on October 21 of that year. It is a Nigerian success story and central to it is Jim Ovia. Taciturn. Brutally efficient. These terms have been used to describe Jim Ovia, the high-flying founding managing director of Zenith Bank. Ovia’s story is a rags-to-riches story, which he hardly makes public. As one of Nigeria’s most successful businessmen, the almost total absence of personal details in his profiles raise questions.
Born into a humble family in Ogbemudein Agbor, Delta State on 4th November 1951, Jim passed through the local primary school and attended Ika Grammar School, Boji-Boji-Owa from where he came out with a good West African School Certificate result. Shortly after he finished secondary school in 1973, he was hired by the Ikeja branch of Barclays Bank as a clerical officer. He worked for several years as a bank clerk before he found his way to the United States of America in search of greener pastures. While there, he attended Southern University, Baton Rouge Louisiana and North East Louisiana University Monroe renamed in 1999 as University of Louisiana, doing odd jobs and every other thing needed in the struggle to survive. From these universities he obtained his bachelor’s degree and MBA respectively.
On his return to Nigeria, he joined Lion Bank where he learnt the nitty-gritty of banking. He rose through the ranks to become the bank’s branch manager in Lagos. He later joined the International Merchant Bank, IMB in 1980 where he rose from the position of a financial analyst to manager. He then moved as a general manager to Merchant Bank of Africa where he set up a thriving corporate division. From that point onward things began to look up for Jim Ovia. Following the deregulation of the banking sector by the Babangida administratio in the late 1980s. Jim Ovia teamed up with other entrepreneurs to apply for a banking license. He would be one of the 20 shareholders behind the setting up of Zenith International bank in May 1990. The bank opened for business in July of the same year with Jim Ovia as MD. Zenith International Bank was soon packing in customers as one of the new generation banks where customers were spared the stressful and time-wasting banking practices of the old generation banks.
Mr. Ovia’s knowledge of computer technology became the first Nigerian bank to introduce the online-real time system that enables the networking of all it’s branches. Mr. Ovia is the promoter and founder of Visafone Communications Limited a firm that has amassed a subscriber base of about 4 million and is worth at least $400 million. He is also a renowned motivational speaker. Following CBN guidelines Jim Ovia stepped down from the office of CEO of Zenith Bank after 20-years stint. Apart from being a consummate banker, philanthropist, Jim Ovia is also heavily into real estate where he is also raking billions of naira. He also owns an expansive real estate portfolio consisting of dozens of landmark commercial and residential properties including The Civic Centre in Victoria Island, Lagos and Aquamarine, an exclusive boat club catering to Nigeria’s richest folks. His newly formed Quantum Luxury Properties signed a multi-million dollar deal with Marriott- the New York based global hotel group to develop a 150-room five star hotel on the Ozumba Mbadiwe Waterfront in Victoria-Island, Lagos. He is listed by Forbes Magazine as the third richest Nigerian.
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