Chief Tony Aletor is the group chairman of Capital Express holdings. A man of many parts and an insurance guru of great repute. In this interview, he talks about his insurance brokerage business, motivation and the Nigeria of his dream as he turns 60.
Can you give an insight into your early life?
God has been truly merciful to me. My grandmother made the greatest impact on me when I was growing up. My grandmother told me a heartwarming story about the day I was born. When my mother was in labour and taken to the hospital, she discovered that a lot of women were in prolonged labour.
Immediately my mother stepped into the hospital, she delivered me and all others who had been in labour for days began to give birth to their babies.
This incident made people around us see me as a special child. I grew up with my grandmother who inculcated great values in me, who didn’t allow me to be bullied, though a little rascally. I was born in Lagos, taken to Israel and brought back to Lagos to start Primary School in Surulere.
Later, I followed my uncle, who adopted me as his son to Kwara State where I finished my primary school education and had the third best result. My uncle was transferred to Benin and I followed him and started my secondary school education, after which I proceeded to Lagelu Grammar School, Ibadan, where I got my “Advanced level” certificate. I recall one incident that happened to me in class four. An uncle of mine came to stay with us and discovered that I had the tenacity to stay awake all night studying. After our discussions and his counsel I never remained the same in academics.
How did you get into business?
Because of my interest in entrepreneurship, I had an idea of how to run and manage a business before I finished university. Secondly, I took delight in reading biographies of prominent people. The Rockefellers and other prominent personalities fascinated me. When I look back at sixty, I feel I didn’t achieve what I planned to achieve because I had a clear understanding of what I wanted to be, like the Kennedys. I wanted to know what made them successful.
I wanted to study accounting in the University. I went to the University of Ilorin and was told that the accounting department was yet to be accredited. I took my form to University of Lagos and was told every department was filled up except accounting. I registered for banking and finance. I went back to Ibadan and met one of my senior auditors who enquired about my admission and told him what happened at Unilorin and that UNILAG had offered me admission in some courses including insurance.
He said, “why not go for insurance? Look at what Johnson is doing, building the first glass house in Africa” And I said to him, “How much does it cost to set up an insurance firm?” He said five thousand naira and to start a bank is four million naira. I came back to Lagos; I told them I wanted insurance. That was how I got into insurance.
After graduation, I was posted to NICON insurance for my NYSC. During that period, I engaged in part-time lecturing in insurance. At the end of my NYSC, I had made over seven thousand naira, which was a lot of money. I decided to buy a plot of land and I was offered two plots of land at Mende, Maryland for N7,000. But when I told my mother, she discouraged me.
Then I saw an advert in the newspaper for distributors and I applied. That was how I went into the beer business. During my NYSC, I registered Tony Douglas & co for businesses. I would go to Nigerian Breweries, Guinness and other breweries to buy their staff allocation. Before long, I was a big time beer businessman. One day, I saw a trailer packed in front of a building under construction. I made inquiries and the owner said he is a transporter with Nigeria Coastal Agency. The following morning, I went to the Nigeria Coastal Agency and I told them that I wanted to be a transporter. They told me I would need a minimum of ten trailers to become a transporter for them. I went out, looked for trailer owners and merged them together to make up the required number. I processed the papers and became a registered transporter with Nigeria Coastal Agency. With this business, I built my first house at the age of twenty-five years.
What happened to your passion for insurance?
I bought an insurance brokerage agency license. I was an insurance agent for UNIC Insurance and other companies in addition to my beer business because I was already a chartered insurer. In preparation to move the agency towards a proper brokerage firm, I got a letter of interview, which I never applied for. Though I didn’t get the advertised job, I was offered to head the marketing department of Sentinel Assurance. I picked the employment letter and resumed work.
For the first seven days, I thought I made a mistake accepting the offer. People mocked me. The company then had a lot of challenges. I thought of resigning, but something told me “How can you resign from a job, an organisation that asked its head of marketing to retire because of you? Are you not going to let her down?” I gathered my friends to strategize on moving the company forward. We came up with some ideas. I visited many insurance brokerage firms where I had friends to sell Sentinel Assurance and its products. One day, I got to Guinea Insurance to meet a friend who directed me to one Chief who said Guinea Insurance couldn’t do business with Sentinel Assurance because they were not paying claims. I assured the Chief that his claims would be paid and I got the business. In less than no time, business started coming to Sentinel Assurance. The hallmark was the business I got from Hogg Robinson.
One day, my Managing Director returned from England and was looking dejected and I asked her why, she said her husband told her not to rely on me. That I am not going to last long in Sentinel Assurance. I tried to reassure her that I don’t even know how to write an application and I am not going anywhere. Surprisingly, within three months, I got a call from Crusader Insurance for a job offer. Crusader was the desire of every insurance professional in Nigeria especially graduates of University of Lagos. I was given the job with promotion above my peers, which created enemies for me. I was later sent to Benin, which was a difficult market for Crusader Insurance. By God’s grace, I turned Benin into a profitable sales territory for Crusader insurance. Then, I was promoted and transferred to Ibadan as a zonal manager. I had already set a target of three years to quit paid employment. So I sold my beer business for two hundred and fifty thousand naira and loaned the money out at N50,000 per trader at ten percent interest rate per month.
Each month, I made a gain of N25,000 from the proceeds of the beer business. Then I ventured into a finance house. I got funds from people in my Ibadan zone at three percent interest and deposited it in a finance house in Lagos at ten percent.
I rented an office after my resignation from Crusader Insurance to pay attention to the finance business. I had a portfolio of thirty-two million; Seventeen million naira of my own and fifteen million naira of other people’s money. When the June 12 disturbances came, I invested the money in 32 finance houses, thinking that all of them can’t have problems at the same time. Unfortunately I lost thirty-two million naira. If I had lost the seventeen million that belonged to me, it could have been bearable. But, I lost fifteen million that belonged to others.
In that confused state, I went back to Ibadan, called my clients together and assured them that their money would be paid. I had fifty plots of land somewhere, which I sold to some of the clients at discounted rates to recover their money.
I came back to Lagos and got listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. With the money I made from the stock exchange, I bought a brokerage firm. We didn’t pay anyone until after five years. The fifteen million-naira debt had been reduced to ten million naira through the sale of my fifty plots of land. I liquidated the debts in 1998, made money in the stock market, and started an MBA program. Life became normal for me as I was making money from stock broking. All I passed through, I considered it a test from God. Nobody becomes God’s treasurer without being tested. The father of faith, Abraham was tested. During the test of life, Satan will make it difficult for you.
Any advice to the youths?
I advise the youths to believe in God because only a fool would say there is no God. Also, work hard. Don’t be envious and whatsoever you cannot achieve today, you will tomorrow. Be a good person in society. Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you.
What is the Nigeria of your dreams?
I want to see a Nigeria where a decent family can be raised. I want to see a Nigeria where people are happy, where merit is rewarded. A Nigeria where lives and properties are secured. I want to see a united Nigeria. I do not want to see a state of origin in our profiles rather a state of residence. I want to see a better Nigeria.
What is your emotional attachment to Lagelu Grammar School, Ibadan?
Lagelu Grammar School planned her golden jubilee, and my friend, HRH, Dr. Oyedapo reached out to me for a fundraising event scheduled to hold at Sheraton Hotel, Lagos. At the venue, when I heard the amount to be raised, I decided to donate the money. Then came 60th anniversary; my name came up again for the renovation of the school. Out of respect for my friend, Dr. Oyedapo, I accepted. But when I reached the school and saw the level of dilapidation, I shook and told my friend that this is not what I bargained for. However, I provided leadership, coordinated the various interest groups of the school, and at the end, the sum of three hundred and fifty million naira was raised. The buildings were renovated and a three-kilometer road was tarred.
What do you say is your happiest day?
I can’t pin down a particular day as my happiest because every day is a blessing. Any day I get a good deal is a good day. If my wife were to be here, I could have said the day I got married or if my daughter were to be here, I would have said the day I had my first daughter so that they can hear what they have tuned their minds to hear. Days come and have their challenges. Every day you live, thank your God.
Things happen, I cannot narrow down any day as my saddest day. Maybe the day my dad passed on. But on the other hand, it was his time to go. There is no mistake in the diary of God. Everyday is a blessing. Whatever it brings, take it in good faith. Learn to trust God and move on with your life.
Why are you not in politics?
I was into politics while at Unilag. On graduating, I said to myself, “It’s either I’m into politics or a businessman”. But I can’t be both at the same time. I was at NIPSS, Kuru, Jos and I developed a document that has the solutions to all our challenges. I am passionate about Nigeria because the nation has been good to me.
'At 60, I want to see a Nigeria where lives and properties are secured' – Guardian Nigeria