Tenacity of purpose, survival, and a resolute spirit to break parity best tells the story of the Chairman of Tricontinental Group, Chief Olabintan Famutimi’s life’s odyssey. From the backwoods of his father’s cocoa farm, he’s grown from a mischievous, rascally and hyperactive child to a restless adult with renewed strength, even at 71, working round the clock. Although untrained in all jobs he’s undertaken, his penchant for knowledge has seen him grow exponentially from a small one-man business to a conglomerate with well established presence in key strategic spheres of business: energy, power generation, industrial technology, properties, and investments. He’s not without fault, he often admits. And he has fallen, got up again, learnt the ropes and risen to such an enviable pedestal worthy of emulation and celebration. The intelligent businessman who feigns being dogmatic and inflexible, believes in legacies, succession and impacting mankind positively. Unknown to many, he is a prayer warrior who believes God answers his prayers. The voracious reader and prolific writer always finds time to read everything despite his unbelievable schedule. He tells Damilola Ogunnaike why he never thinks within the box, how he survived his first year at the University of Ibadan squatting around, his commitment to good causes, his appointment as national President of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, why his first wife left him and how he married a new and younger wife who calls him ‘handicap’ because he can’t boil water…
Background, First Pay of the First Child…
His first pay of 960 pounds and this put him on the king’s spot. He was confident that with a roof over his head, and married with three children, life had just begun at 40. And that is why till today, people still marvel that he is in the oil and gas business and that he has developed a company that is so highly respected in the industry yet, he is not an engineer. And yet again, here is a man who, at a stage, his father was borrowing money to pay his school fees. But he has a shocker for his children:
“I tell my children you can go to anywhere in the world for your education, it will be paid, for but once it’s done, don’t wait thinking when I am dead my properties will be inherited. Everything will be sold and put into the Foundation for children who want education and do not have the money.”
Memories from the Good School Days…..
He was at the University of Ibadan. Then, the country had about six universities namely: University of Ibadan, University of Lagos, University of Ife, Ahmadu Bello University, University of Benin and the University of Nigeria at Nsukka.
“I have a very good background in secondary school because I have always been extremely brilliant. As a young man, I was hyperactive. I had no inkling of what I wanted to do. I just wanted to have a university degree. More so, because by then, University of Ibadan was regarded as a big university, so everybody wanted to attend. I didn’t think of any career path, as I just wanted education because the University was established to produce man-power to run the Nigerian government. Then we only had two professional courses in our days: Geology and Agriculture. Others were either Sciences or Arts. I had a fantastic result in my HSC which was GCE Advanced Level when our result came out in 1967. I had the best result in the whole of Ijebu Province.”
He then forged ahead to study geography. Even though he didn’t know what he was going to do, but he was sure of one thing: he was not going to work for the government and was never going to teach. At that time, different companies were always coming to campus to interview bright students for job offers. By the time he was graduating in 1971, he had three job offers.
Cutting My Teeth in Business…
Olabintan Famutimi is very tenacious person. When he made up made his mind that it was time to go to business, he did not look back.
“When in paid employment, I made up my mind to leave paid employment and go into business and that has been what I have been doing. And I have tried my hands on a series of business until I eventually, in 1997, started Tricontinental Oil Services Limited and focused on that. It has become our number one business.”
Famutimi believes that a fool 40 is fool forever. Besides, he came from a polygamous background where he was the first child in a family of four wives and 23 children. And so there was never a time that he could start early because of his background.
“In those days when you have education, you looked forward to getting a good job and trying to build your career. Then, I was the career type because I got a job as a marketing director, but I had made up my mind early that I was going into business. What equally also quickened my resolve was that I was well travelled and had built and moved into my own personal house at 36 . So I had my legs on ground and felt I could venture into business. I was confident that with a roof over my head, married with three children, I thought life had just begun at 40.”
The Familwy Demi-god…
As a first child, he was treated like a semi-god; which to some extent contributed to his being useless when it comes to house chores. His wife calls him handicap because he can’t even boil water. He has never learned how to live on his own. But even at that, life was not that easy because of the sheer number of children and the struggle for survival.
“It was tough in a big house like ours, because there was never enough. It was a big competition for everything. We struggled to survive and having a father like mine who saw all his children through basic education, I would have been considered selfish should I have approached him on my determination to get a university degree. At a stage my father was borrowing money to pay school fees. He was a cocoa farmer and he would take advance payment for cocoa that had not even germinated because cocoa is a yearly seasonal produce. So I saw what it was always a struggle and that’s why in my time, I determined to get university education with the little money I earned from my teaching job then as a young school leaver,” he enthused.
Life at the University of Ibadan…
“I spent my first year more like a fugitive at the University of Ibadan. They didn’t drive us out of classrooms but they expected us to vacate the hostel, and they wouldn’t give us meal tickets. I managed to arrange with my friends and ate food from those who had meal tickets. That was how I was able to survive for a year and by the end of the year I managed to get an academic scholarship and that was how I managed to see myself through school.”
Rascality Like no Other…
Famutimi admits he was almost incurably rascal when he was young.
“My children are lucky and brilliant, but none of them match up to my rascality. I never had any child that became as troublesome as I was, but they are brilliant. There was a time I sneaked out of hostel and went to town. But instead of taking the bush path, I was bold enough to walk on the main road. The principal approached me, carried me back to school and then he gave me field to cut the grass around his house. Once I got to where he had his chicken which had laid eggs. Instead of cutting the grass, I deliberately slashed the eggs. I was that mischievous. The man got to the place and was furious. As a child, I was restless, with so much energy.”
The businessman has six children from two marriages. He admits his first marriage collapsed. There are four children from the first marriage and two children from the present marriage and they are quite young.
“These children don’t have the time to face all the challenges I had because they were born into money. All they know is comfort virtually all their lives and they have not struggled to survive. I am a survivor.”
He, however, has a shocker for his children: they won’t have any stake in his estate when he dies.
“I tell my children: don’t sit down thinking you have a rich father because their legacy, which is education, has been given to them. I’m setting up a Foundation, Olabintan Famutini Educational Foundation. My will is written, once people who have school fees to pay are taking care of, everything left is going to my educational foundation which is structured to provide education for less privilege children. I will start from my local government, Ondo East and West Local Government. I thought they should do it after I’m dead but I thought about it. I’m already 71 now. Who says I can’t set up my foundation and manage it in my lifetime? I tell my children you can go to anywhere in the world for your education, it will be paid for. But once it’s done, don’t wait thinking when I am dead my properties will be inherited. Everything will be sold and put into the Foundation for children who want education but do not have the money.”
Succession Does not Mean Children Taking Over…
Succession plans has already been put in place, Famutimi says. And that does not mean it has to be any of his children. That is the strange way the man does his things.
“I brought Professor Ashiru to take over from me to run this company. By the end of next month, it will mark six years he has been working with me. We have operations here in Nigeria, Ghana, Chile and we have offices in the United States of America. So that’s the succession. It doesn’t necessary mean it will be my children that will take over. I don’t subscribe to the idea that it is only your children that can run your business. If they want to work inside, they will get employed, we will develop them, we will put them at the level they ought to be. If they are able to survive and grow, so be it. My first son initially said he will be coming to Nigeria to work here, but later he changed his mind. I think he is quite happy consulting all over the world. My two daughters are married and doing their things. My second son did law and he said he wanted to write and he is writing and I left him to do. So it is not compulsory.”
He says he has set up a situation whereby employees will have access to buy the company’s share. He is currently working on that with the stock exchange and it will be quoted so that people will be able to benefit from it. “I am interested in just creating legacies,” he declares.
I’ll like to be remembered for touching lives….
I want to be remembered for touching lives mentoring, helping, developing people and I will continue to do it till I die. God didn’t bless me for myself alone, He blessed me so that I can use it to touch other people’s life and that’s what I have been doing.
Faith, God and Relaxation…
“I’m a big believer in God and a Christian. I am a member of the Anglican Church I hold a key position (Baba Ijo) in my church in Ondo. I believe everything that has happened in my life is for a purpose by God. So I take my religion seriously. I am a strong worshiper and believe that as long as I continue to do good, God will also answer my prayers so I don’t have to struggle.”
Famutimi says he is a workaholic and says he works round the clock.
I am here Saturdays and Sundays till night. All my time is occupied and I still have a viral social life. I belong to clubs. I unwind even when I’m working. I go to the gym every morning and I swim, at least once in a week. I am an extreme extrovert. I relate to people. I have a good jolly life, never had high blood pressure in my life. The first time I was placed on drug is after I turned 70 and they say it was not permanent and I am very healthy.”
The Ondo chief is the current National President of Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and has been on the board for 10 years.
“It is an opportunity for me to do what I know how to do best which is providing linkages, helping businesses, promoting healthy relationship between Nigeria and America and I am doing my best. The sitting consular of the American Consulate is a board member of the Chamber. We are consulted about programmes and we advocate for businesses to go to the Nigerian government and American government where we think things should be going. Our biggest programme we want to pursue right now is African Growth and Opportunities Act, AGOA, and we are working on it heavily to compel all that is the single product and commodity that form the basic business relationship with America.”
A Broken Marriage and a New One…
He says his wife is his friend and they are permanently laughing because “she pokes fun at me and I poke fun at her too. We are permanently laughing and joking in the house and that’s how we live our lives.”
But it has not been a smooth route. His first wife left him in1984 and for 10 years he didn’t re-marry and did not have children outside. However, a new wife came in a fortuitous manner.
“A friend was marrying a girl from Oron and invited me to be the chairman of the wedding and I flew back from the UK to attend the wedding in Oron. When I got there, the girl that was marrying, Comfort, introduced her friend to me that she came from Lagos and she was a University of Lagos undergraduate. I watched her I didn’t tell her I had a broken marriage. She was in Unilag and they were always closing down the school. So I’d invite her to come to Ondo and she will come, but I never took her to my house. I was watching her; the way she cared and so on. At a point, I thought that she was a woman I could marry. So I made her know the truth and we started dating and that was how we ended up becoming husband and wife.”
Famutimi says relationship between her and his children from the first marriage has been wonderful.
“She has been a wonderful person. She relates with them closely and manages the relationship very well.”
And it goes beyond that. She is also his barber today. He has some tailors who sew for him but he does not regard himself as fashionable and he is a native dresser.
“I rarely wear suits. You can only see me in a native dress and when I am going nowhere I wear shirts occasionally so I wouldn’t regard myself as fashionable.”