How Jim Ovia, the founder of Zenith Bank, went from bank clerk to bank owner

Abu Mubarik August 11, 2023
Jim Ovia. Photo: James Hope University

Meet Jim Ovia; he is the founder of Zenith Bank, one of Nigeria‘s largest commercial banks. He started the bank in 1990 with $4 million with a single branch. Today the bank has shareholders’ funds of $3.03 billion and a total asset base of over $22.8 billion.

What is more, the bank has more than 10,000 staff in its employment globally, opening over 500 branches with offices across Nigeria and West Africa. Some of its West Africa branches include Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gambia, and a branch in the United Kingdom, according to the bank.

The oldest of eight children, Ovia was inspired to go into business by his uncle. After his high school education, he got a job as a clerk at Union Bank, previously Barclays Bank, where he worked for three years before going to the United States for his first degree.

He studied business administration at the Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the United States. He went on to earn a Master of Science in Business Administration at the University of Louisiana in Monroe, Louisiana, USA. He also studied at Harvard Business School.

Upon his return to Nigeria, he joined Union Bank, where he did his youth service before joining Lion Bank in Lagos, where he climbed to the branch manager’s position. His career in the banking industry saw him join the International Merchant Bank (IMB) in 1980 as a financial analyst. Within a year he was promoted to bank manager. 

Ovia subsequently moved from IMB to the Merchant Bank of Africa. Following the liberalization of the banking sector in Nigeria in the early 1990s, he led a group of investors to start Zenith Bank. He led the bank as CEO for 20 years before resigning in 2010. However, in 2014, he became bank chairman. 

Ovia also became the chairman of Prudential Zenith Life Assurance Limited and the Chairman and majority shareholder of Zenith General Insurance Limited, Nigeria’s most profitable general insurance company.

Aside from his businesses, he is also a philanthropist. He is the founder of Jim Ovia Foundation where he has supported over 1,500 students with scholarships. He also established a co-educational boarding school that provides scholarships for over 50% of its pupils in his hometown of Agbor, Delta State.

As a writer, Ovia authored Africa Rise And Shine: How a Nigerian Entrepreneur from Humble Beginnings Grew a Business to $16 Billion, published by Forbes Books in 2018.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 11, 2023


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