Africa’s Hidden Billionaires: Nigerian Banker Reaches Zenith With $1 Billion Fortune

Jim Ovia

Editor’s Note – Last year, Mark Mobius, a renowned emerging markets investor and Executive Chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group announced that there may be up to 200 hidden billionaires in Africa. He’s probably right. VENTURES AFRICA’s Intelligence unit is on a mission to traverse the continent and uncover some of these billionaires you’ve never heard about.

VENTURES AFRICA – There’s a new dollar-billionaire on the block, and he’s Nigerian.

Jim Ovia, 58, made his fortune providing financial services to Nigeria’s richest middle class. He is the founder and largest individual shareholder of Zenith Bank, a $4.5 billion (Market Cap) financial services conglomerate after a successful stint in finance in the United States.

Banking was always in Jim Ovia’s blood. Even before he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Southern University Louisiana as a teenager in 1977, he had already enjoyed a stint as a clerk in Barclays Bank, DCO (which now operates under the name, Union Bank). After obtaining his MBA from NorthEast Louisiana University in the United States in 1979, he joined International Merchant Bank as a financial analyst, subsequently rising to become a senior manager in 1987.

In 1990, he co-founded Zenith Bank in Nigeria. Within two decades, Ovia transformed Zenith from a small commercial bank into a fully-fledged financial services conglomerate with operations in Investment, Private and retail banking, staff strength of close to 4,000 people and assets in excess of $8 billion. He was Chief Executive of the bank from 1990 to 2010 when he was compelled by the Central Bank of Nigeria to step down following a directive limiting the tenure of bank chiefs to 10 years.

But Jim Ovia is still the largest individual shareholder of the publicly-listed bank. Through his own name, Ovia owns over 2.7 billion shares (which translate to an 8.75 percent stake in the bank). That stake is currently worth over $360 million.

In 2007, while he was still serving as CEO of Zenith, Ovia founded Visafone – a Nigerian mobile and fixed telecommunications provider. Visafone has become a runaway success. The firm has amassed a subscriber base of about 4 million and is worth at least $400 million according to data compiled by VENTURES AFRICA’s Intelligence unit and our Investment Banking analysts. Jim Ovia owns the company completely. Add these to Ovia’s ridiculously expansive real estate portfolio consisting of dozens of landmark commercial and residential properties in some of Nigeria’s swankiest neighbourhoods (such as The Civic Center in Victoria Island, Lagos) and Aquamarine, an exclusive boat club catering to Nigeria’s richest folks and Jim Ovia is conservatively worth $1.1 billion. By VENTURES AFRICA’s estimates, Jim Ovia is the fourth Nigerian to legitimately attain USD billionaire status after Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga and Folorunsho Alakija.

The Nigerian billionaire shows no signs of slowing down. Last November, Ovia’s 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 elitist Victoria-Island, Lagos. Construction of the property is expected to kick off later this year.

Ovia is as philanthropic as he is wealthy. Last year, he donated $6.3 million to assist the Nigerian government in its relief efforts for the rehabilitation of victims of the various flood disasters across Nigeria last year. He also runs the Youth Empowerment & ICT Foundation, a non-governmental organization which encourages young Nigerians to embrace information & communication technology (ICT) as a tool for socio-economic change.

Jim Ovia refused to return phone calls to discuss his wealth.

 

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