Owning a successful bank is not a mean feat for anybody to achieve, and owning one while being in one’s early 30s makes it even more exceptional. It takes grit, ambition and business acumen to pull off such an achievement, and these are all traits that Fola Adeola had in excess when he established his bank in the late 80s.
In this week’s Founder’s Profile, we bring you Fola Adeola, the serial entrepreneur who co-founded Guaranty Trust Bank (GTBank).
Born into a large family in 1954, Fola Adeola did not have a privileged childhood. Even though his father was a bank clerk at the time, his income was not enough to go round providing 17 children their necessities.
To supplement the family income, his mother would send him and his brothers to join her in hawking wares on the streets of Surulere, where they lived. While this was not the childhood many would have asked for, young Fola did not allow it go to waste but used it to develop his character and business skills.
He attended St Paul’s School, Breadfruit and Methodist Boys High School in Lagos, before moving to obtain a Diploma in Accounting from Yaba College of Technology in 1975.
He had his trainings at Deloitte, Haskins and Sells and D.O. Dafinone & Company (both Chartered Accounting firms) and became a Chartered Accountant in 1980. He has since then received other professional development trainings at notable institutions including Harvard Business School, INSEAD, and the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland.
He served as Senior Auditor at D.O. Dafinone & Co. before joining NAL Merchant Bank in 1982 as a Manager. In 1986, he moved to Continental Merchant Bank Limited as Deputy General Manager & Divisional Head, Financial Services Division.
It was at this time that he moved to Ikoyi with his colleague and childhood friend, Adetayo Aderinokun, who was also a staff at Continental Merchant Bank.
Barber by necessity
No business thrives better than one set up for the purpose of meeting needs, and Fola was quite conscious of this. As a new resident at Ikoyi, the first challenge he had was getting a place to cut his hair. Along with other professionals residing in the environ, they had to commute to the mainland to get a haircut.
Though this was largely inconvenient, the need to solve a problem did not bore a deep hole in Tayo’s heart until he witnessed a fatal accident on the Eko bridge, one Sunday afternoon.
“The only thing that came to my mind was whether the victim of that accident was also on his way to the barbers! I decided then that we would put barbers in Ikoyi,” he later wrote in his tribute to Tayo Aderinokun.
The two friends pooled funds together and in no time, they put the first barbing salon in Ikoyi – Finishing Touches Barbing salon. Running the salon together, Fola and Tayo discovered they had a similar appetite for business risks.
Years later, Fola and Tayo decided to sell off the barbing salon so that they could concentrate on the infant Guaranty Trust Bank.
As Fola recalled, “One of the terms of the sale was that Tayo, myself, and all our male children, would cut our hair for free, forever!”
Funny clause, you might think, but that said a lot about their shrewd business skills.
When Tayo was heading a branch of the bank in Kano, Fola paid him a visit, and together they decided to arrest the problem of a members-only gym. However, this dream could not materialize as planned. They rented a property and set out to remodel it, but when after two weeks, the landlord could no longer recognize his property, he raised an alarm and the two friends had to look for the money to restore the property to its former condition.
It was a colossal loss for them. With much less loss, some other person may have given up on the entrepreneurial journey, but not Fola. The die-hard businessman in him was ready to make losses if need be, but he was not ready to give up on it.
By the time Tayo returned to Lagos from Kano, Fola was ready to revisit the topic of starting a bank. It was a discussion they had had in the past, but were yet to take action on.
In a recent interview, he noted that a deeper realization of readiness occurred when he received a couple of offers from others seeking to get a banking license. It was a point where he asked himself, why he had to go run a bank to fulfill another person’s vision, rather than his.
Fola Adeola and Tayo Aderinokun were both qualified to run a bank individually, but going together meant that there were less chances of failure. They applied for a banking license and set about rallying the needed capital.
“For me, the idea of a commercial bank never died. I revisited it with Tayo, and told him I was now prepared to go ahead, as I felt the window of opportunity for a licence was narrowing. This was in January 1989. Fortunately, he agreed, and the rest is now history,” Fola later wrote.
They brought about 40 friends into the venture, most of whom were in their thirties and working for different organisations. The likes of Femi Pedro, Akin Akintoye, Gbolade Osibodu, Bode Agusto, and Moses Ochu were involved in the project.
Fola was 34 and Tayo was 33, as at 1988 when they applied for the banking licence. It took countless meetings in Fola’s residence, and later in Tayo’s First Marina Trust office in Victoria Island before they raised the required capital.
August 2, 1990, the duo received the banking licence No. 58, dated August 1, 1990, and signed by the then Federal Minister for Finance, Chief Olu Falae, for Guaranty Trust Bank Limited. Femi Pedro recounted in his 2015 article The Curious Case of Young Generations, “A group of young boys in their early/mid 30s OWNED a bank! We simply dreamt big, and turned this dream into reality.”
The bank broke even in record time, and was listed on the Nigerian stock exchange in 1996.
On July 31, 2002, Adeola voluntarily retired from Guaranty Trust Bank, after 12 years, handing over to his friend and partner, Tayo Aderinokun.
18 years later, he would say, “My joy is that in my lifetime, an organization that I birthed, can stand on its own without any input from me or my partners. That means that in some decades, someone can say, GT Bank since 1990, and 1990 would sound to them the way 1550 sounds to us now”.
— FATE Foundation (@FATEFoundation) July 15, 2020
While still at the bank, Adeola in 2000 established a non-governmental organization, the FATE Foundation. The aim was to encourage entrepreneurship, using a mix of training, mentoring, loan support and consulting to support young Nigerians.
As part of its activities, the organisation opened an innovation centre in Abeokuta, the Institute for Venture Design, in collaboration with the Centre for Design Research at Stanford University. It now runs an entrepreneurship program focused on engineering, technology, and innovation, and which aims to promote development of industry in Nigeria.
In the last two decades, the FATE foundation has served over 30,000 young Nigerian entrepreneurs, with over 65% fully employed by their businesses and employing an average of four staff.
Since retiring from the bank, he has headed the boards of several companies including Arm Holdings, Lotus Capital (where his wife Hajara Adeola is MD/CEO), Eterna Oil, CardinalStone Partners Limited, UTC, Credit Registry Services and MainOne Cable Company Limited.
Fola Adeola also served as board member with Tafsan Breweries and is a member of the Governing Council of Lagos State University.
In public service, Adeola’s activities are quite notable, and this has formed a major part of his activities since he left GT Bank.
He was the Chairman of Lagos State Disaster Relief Committee, a team set up as a result of the January 27, 2002, Lagos bomb explosion, and also a member of the Solid Minerals Committee and the Chairman of Ogun State Development Trust Fund Committee.
Adeola served as a member of the Global Advisory Committee on Philanthropy of the World Economic Forum for four years. In 2001, he was invited to join twenty-four other business leaders for the Aspen Institute ISIB Annual Business Leaders Dialogue in Aspen, Colorado. In May 2004, he was appointed Commissioner on the Commission for Africa by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In 1999, Mr. Adeola was awarded membership of the National Institute of Policy & Strategic Studies (MNI) in Kuru, Jos, after completing a one-year sabbatical at the institute. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria and Fellow of the Institute of Directors of Nigeria.
He was the Vice Presidential running mate of the Action Congress of Nigerian (ACN) in the 2011 presidential election alongside the party’s presidential candidate, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu.
Fola Adeola has bagged several awards and recognitions including the distinguished Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR).