So many positive things can be said and views expressed about Elder Urum Kalu Eke, MFR, fondly called UK Eke, and each one would be a good piece about him.
However, like the description and interpretation provided by each of the six blind men of Indostan (Hindustan) on their historic visit to the elephant, as retold from an ancient Hindu fable in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem, each piece, good and compelling as it may be, will be but a small and inadequate view.
And each view will be begging to be pieced together with all other small views to form a composite image, which will then need to be accurately interpreted to give the full portrait of this towering figure in corporate boardrooms. (The fable/poem can be read here: https://allpoetry.com/The-Blind-Man-And-The-Elephant)
One compelling piece or small view and a good place to start would be UK Eke’s education. After all, Sir Francis Bacon argues, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man; and therefore, if a man writes little, he had need have a great memory; if he confers little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.”
Eke’s a great memory, present wit and much cunning (wisdom, common sense and boardroom expertise) attest to his education. Or, more accurately, his continuing education, for he sees himself as a lifelong and continuous learner, ever eager to learn and keep learning. It was this attitude he exhibited when he doubled as Chief Knowledge Officer at FirstBank, to champion learning in the foremost financial services institution. This was while he was serving as Executive Director, Public Sector (South).
For formal education, Eke has Comprehensive Secondary School, Aba and the famous Government College, Umuahia to thank for providing him secondary education.
The University of Lagos, where he studied Political Science, and the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), where he obtained an MBA in Project Management Technology, should also get truckloads of thanks for providing him undergraduate and post-graduate education. Since then, further education and learning have come from numerous courses he continues to attend to remain on the cutting edge of knowledge and expertise.
Several globally-renowned educational institutions have contributed their part in facilitating Eke’s further learning through their executive management and board training programmes. Harvard Business School; Stanford Business School; IESE Barcelona; China European International Business School, Shanghai, China; International Institute for Management and Development, Lausanne, Switzerland; Wharton Business School and Lagos Business School, among others.
Another view of this towering figure is provided by his background in corporate strategy with more than a decade of continuous presence in different corporate boardrooms contributing to charting corporate directions and shaping company policies.
From his time in Diamond Bank where he was on the boards of the bank, Diamond Capital and Diamond Bank du Benin, Eke has served continuously on more corporate boards and continued to bring his vast experience and expertise to bear on the workings and decisions of the various boards.
As group managing director, FBN Holdings Plc, Eke is a director on the board of FirstBank. Also, within the FBN Holdings Group, he serves or had served on the boards of FBN Bank (UK) Limited, FBNQuest Merchant Bank Limited and First Pension Custodian Limited.
On these boards, he has chaired and served on various board committees such as those dealing with human capital, governance, audit, risk management, credit, strategy and finance, compensations and investment, among others.
Beyond the Group, he is on the board of Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (Nigeria’s sovereign wealth fund), where he chairs the Externally Managed Investment Committee. He is also involved in helping the sovereign wealth fund to pursue capital raises among a number of capital market activities. He has also been active in the Chartered Institute of Bankers (CIBN) and the Institute of Directors (IoD), where he has chaired several committees.
Behind every successful man there is a woman, the saying goes. So, there can be no argument about the place of his beloved wife Dr Uganze Eke, a pharmacist, in any list of the top views to be considered in piecing together a composite picture of this corporate boardroom success story. The support Eke receives from home with his wife and their four daughters standing solidly behind him should definitely count for something.
No man is an island and so no man can claim correctly to have become all that he is, by himself alone and without help and support from elsewhere, particularly the home front. The peace, comfort, encouragement and stability that having a family provides is something often acknowledged by successful people. So, a good view of the composite portrait of Eke with his towering status in corporate boardrooms and in the public is provided by his family and especially his wife, Dr (Mrs) Eke.
Just like the saying, “Show me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”, Eke’s circle of friends across the corporate world, church and the community actually reflect him. These people whose company he enjoys, flocking together with them like birds of a feather, are corporate high-flyers who share similar values and worldview with him. They, undoubtedly, influence him, just as he too may be influencing them. His circle of friends and his network deserve mention in any discussion about his successful corporate journey and the status he enjoys today in corporate boardrooms. And they provide another small view of Eke, the corporate boardroom guru.
Talking of his values or principles, the roots or, at least, part of the roots of Eke’s values can be traced to his spirituality and devotion as a Christian elder in his local church. Eke maintains a firm belief in God as being sovereign and in total control of all world affairs. He treasures honest, hard work. He believes in fairness and equity. He is all for merit and competency rather than the usual call for an appeal to political expediency that will not serve any individual, group, institution or nation well in the long run.
A complete gentleman, Eke carries himself with grace and class. He is humble, empathetic and approachable. He is a professional to the core, with such dogged pursuit of professional excellence that ensures that all the staff who work with him strive for excellence as a habit. That way, the staff would be living up to the expectation in Aristotle’s famous quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Eke is a leader among leaders and an astute administrator blessed with sound managerial and motivational skills, which are essential factors for effectively leading one’s troops.
Part of the values of this man with a heart of gold, who is also a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International, is his philanthropy or commitment to charity, which inspired him to establish the Elder (Chief) K.U. Eke Memorial Foundation in honour of his late father, a Scotland-trained nurse. Through the Foundation Eke has been supporting education scholarship, women empowerment, training of clergymen (pastors), mentoring and capacity building. Eke’s values provide another view.
There is also the view provided by his ethnic origin. There is no doubt that the man that Eke is today has drawn and benefited from his origin, culture and upbringing as an indigene of Abiriba in Abia State. As a proud son of Abiriba, Eke would happily acknowledge the wealth of mores and ethos that he has drawn from the land of his nativity and how they have contributed to the making of the corporate guru that he has turned out to be.
Generally, men from Abiriba are thought to be enterprising and industrious; they are considered to be some of Nigeria’s most astute businessmen. Eke’s many years of formal education, cosmopolitan exposure, corporate experience and presence in boardrooms have simply built upon and married his native Abiriba intelligence and cultural wisdom to his formal learning and professional experience, rather than completely supplanted his Abiriba heritage. So, this very interesting view is worth mentioning.
Honours received also provide a view. Eke has received numerous recognitions and awards. While these are but the validation of, and praise for, attained accomplishments and already-established and well-known values of Eke’s, they also play an important role in reinforcing the known values and motivating more performance and accomplishments. As people usually say in this clime once the occasion calls for it, “When you praise someone for doing something, it encourages him/her to (want to) do more.” So, the recognitions and awards have their place in discussions about Eke’s success in corporate boardrooms, and they provide yet another view.
On the national stage, Eke has been honoured with two national honours: the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) and Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR). As an ex-staff, he is a recipient of the Deloitte Distinguished Alumni Award. And only days ago, Eke, who is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants, Fellow of the Institute of Directors, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers and Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, bagged the highly-acclaimed Zik Prize in Professional Leadership.
Just for the sake of argument, the question may be asked, given all the views offered of this corporate guru: What is it about UK Eke, who, by the way, turned 57 on 20th November 2021, that makes him the towering guru that he is in corporate boardrooms? The answer? Probably a lot more than can be enumerated and explored in a time-bound article with very limited space.
This write-up has only reflected on the composite picture of Eke the boardroom guru by exploring the views offered by his education and continuous learning; his decades of experience in the corporate world; the support and pillar his immediate family remains to him; his circle of friends and corporate network; his spirituality, devotion and values such as hard work, fairness, humility, empathy, professional excellence and philanthropy, among others; his Abiriba origin and upbringing; and the recognition and awards that spur him each new day to endeavour to be a better version of his yesterday’s self.
But a lot more remains to be highlighted. For example, nothing was said of the view of his knack for doing big things and leaving giant footprints on projects and endeavours he has been involved with. This knack for doing big things probably presents a dominant view of the subject who has consistently maintained his course in the big league and continues to land the big stage of Nigeria’s corporate world – the boardroom.
However, while one trait, characteristic, attribute or aspect of UK Eke’s life may provide a dominant or prominent view of him and his status in corporate boardrooms, it is possible that other views that are less considered probably mask the immense influence and shaping all other aspects of his life have had on the person Eke has been in the boardroom. The total package that Eke is and presents in the boardroom may not be reducible to just one aspect or dominant view of his life.
The total package that Eke is, built over several decades, maybe the sum of all the known and identified aspects of his life in the public domain that this write-up has sought to highlight, as well as the not-so-well-known and the unknown that readers are encouraged to decipher through exploration. And as readers begin their own exploration, they should take the few views of the subject highlighted by this write-up as pointers they could use in decoding a lot more about the subject.
A note of caution, though. Readers should avoid another six-blind-men scenario. They should therefore endeavour to accurately decipher the views of the subject, correctly piece the views together and carefully interpret the composite picture that emerges. If they do so, UK Eke is unlikely to end up in their minds looking like any one or all of the descriptions and interpretations of the elephant offered by the half a dozen blind men of Indostan (Hindustan), according to the poem.
And going back to the poem, is it not remarkable, whether by mere coincidence or some kind of prophetic foresight, that this poem by American poet, John Godfrey Saxe (1816 – 1887), who died seven years before FirstBank was founded in 1894 as Bank of British West Africa (BBWA), had as an important character the elephant which is today the symbol of the iconic institution that UK Eke is a part of? Is it not even more remarkable that the same poem is today inspiring another attempt at accurately piecing together and identifying another elephant (of a man) – speaking in terms of Eke’s status in corporate boardrooms – who is currently in the saddle at the holding company of the institution?
In an uncanny way, the argument about what makes UK Eke tower in corporate boardrooms is analogical to the question(s) the six blind men tried to answer through their visit: What is the elephant (like)? The answer, as everyone (except those six blind men) knows, is not the “broad and sturdy” side or the “very round and smooth and sharp” tusk or the “squirming trunk”. Neither is it the creature’s knee nor its ear nor its “swinging tail”. Saxe’s verdict on their interpretations was clear: “Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong.” All six blind men were in the wrong!
What makes the elephant is the totality of the iconic creature, just as what makes UK Eke the corporate boardroom guru that he is today is the totality of his person – his total package. Eke leaves no side of him outside the boardroom. He delivers his full package in boardrooms. Eke has an unusual if not prodigious ability to bring to bear all the sides to his person, all the traits, attributes, aspects and views of his person in his presence and participation in discussions in corporate boardrooms.
This is part of the reason Eke is being celebrated as observers and analysts reflect on his resourceful stewardship of FBN Holdings Plc. The hope remains that this corporate guru has a critical mass of younger people who have modelled themselves on him, so that going forward, anytime and every time traits, attributes and views of his person, like the ones this write-up has highlighted, are pieced together, the resultant composite portrait will be another UK Eke – a corporate boardroom guru par excellence.