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How A Hollywood Movie Led Kalu Aja To A Career In Finance

For hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter, Kalu Aja’s account (@ FinPlanKaluAja1) is a veritable trove of financial, career and business insights. How does he know so much? Well, in a recent conversation with PiggyVest, he explained that it all began with a film from the 1980s starring Michael Douglas as a corporate raider. 

What did Kalu Aja study in school? 

I was a science guy who was supposed to study Microbiology, but I switched over to Finance. I had to go to the dean to ask if they’d take it, and they did. 

That sounds like an unusual change in course. What happened?

I wrote JAMB and was headed towards the medicine/medical sciences line. But then I saw a film titled Wall Street (1987) and changed my mind. So, when I got to school, the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, I asked for a switch.  

Wow. A Michael Douglas film put you on this path. 

Yes. I saw Gordon Gekko and made the decision. 

A trailer for the movie that swayed Kalu Aja

What about that character made a young person in Nigeria make such a decision? 

He was successful and smart, and he seemed to know what he was doing. I wasn’t exactly sure what the character was doing in the film at the time, but there was something very smart about it, and I wanted to know what it was. So I had to go to school to learn stuff like “leveraged buyout.” 

Fascinating origin story. Did you get into anything entrepreneurial in school?

No. I was focused on my books.

And after you graduated?

I worked for UAC. I’d say they were a bit like Transcorp today. It was a conglomerate. They owned the Canon franchise in Nigeria; they owned Mr Biggs, Nigeria’s first fast food chain; they brought in computers. They basically owned anything you could consider cutting-edge in 1995. It was a powerful company. 

So you got in as a graduate.

Yes. As a management trainee. 

Do you recall your salary at the time?

It was ₦12,000 or ₦14,000 a year. It was a decent sum of money for a different time. To put it in perspective, I got a car for around ₦5,000. It was a very very good job. 

I take it that the company must have provided an opportunity for growth. Was this important to you? 

Yes. They had multiple growth paths, and they had several businesses. It was the kind of place you come into, and you never leave. I learned everything about management and accounting there. 

I had been employed to work in Lagos, but I got posted to Maiduguri, Jos and Port Harcourt, and this was all in my first year. 

How long were you at UAC, and what did you do next?

I think I was there for two years, and then I got into investment banking proper with a company called BGL.     

That’s the late Albert Okumagba company?

Yes. They had a division handling wealth management, and that’s where I landed. The company deployed an American style: mostly first-name basis addressing. It was quite an aggressive place in terms of deal-making. 

We handled quite a number of big deals. We bought bad banks, cleaned them up, and resold them. There was one deal with NITEL that only happened because Albert made a number of calls a few days before the deal was to close and raised capital. 

How was it like being young and somewhat at the centre of such huge deals? 

Well, it helps to do that job when you are young and fearless. You can take risks. One time, I called a very important person and asked for a meeting. I got it. It was not until we got to the meeting that I understood the power this person had. 

It just didn’t occur to me that I should think again about calling such a person. I just did it because I wanted to succeed. But, of course, it is easier if you work with someone that empowers you. For example, I was managing the Canon brand in Nigeria at a young age.

What did you learn while there?

How companies work. Branding, organisation, sales, everything. 

As a former employee and with the benefit of hindsight, do you have a theory as to why both UAC and BGL no longer exist?

I think they didn’t change with the times. And there were other things. For instance, UAC had a policy of not giving bribes. End of story. They would reward you if you lost a contract because you didn’t give a bribe. We used to import ACs and pay the correct duty. 

A competitor was doing the same thing but not paying the tariff. His volume of imports was so much that the manufacturers in Japan told us to work with him. 

Ouch. Nigeria had been Nigeria for quite a while. 

Yes. For a while. 

What happened next for the young Kalu Aja?

I worked in private banking for FSB International Bank run by Mohammed Hayatu-Deen. I was doing the same wealth management. After that, we started Legacy Pensions from scratch and it was bought by FCMB. 

It must have been like a startup. What was the experience like?

That is a whole other interview. I am writing a book on it [In 2022, Kalu Aja published the book, Let’s Talk About Money: A Step By Step Guide To Financial Planning]. It was amazing. Everything I learned I used there. I was the driver, I was the COO, I was the marketing manager, I was everything. 

How long were you there for?

I think I was there for about 10 years. 

Why was the startup thing attractive to you?

It was an opportunity that came. I could leave the bank, and it would be a promotion if it worked. I decided to give it a try. 

What excites you about it looking back?

We got an international bank to partner with what was essentially a startup in Nigeria. How it happened is quite a story. 

What’s your advice for those who want to go into finance but don’t have the background and are no longer as young as you were when you saw Wall Street? 

It depends. The US is different. It’s easier in the US, in a way. You need to get the licence you need and you can work. You can even set up your own shop after that. It’s a bit like ICAN. Outside of the US, you probably need an MBA or CFA or CFP. Get the certification to be a planner or an analyst and you can do anything. There’s a huge market for financial advice. 

The generation Americans call Baby Boomers are retiring, and they own the wealth in America. So there’s a lot of wealth that has to be transferred and managed. 

So what are your income streams now?

I get a salary from the institution I work with. I also get income from investments. I own my own company for my education companies. Property as well. 

Looks to me like you’re well-off. Did you foresee this level of comfort when you were in UNN or are you surprised by how much you have thrived?

I am surprised I don’t have more. It is a cliche, but it wasn’t about having the money per se. I am more of a person after knowledge. I may have made more money if I wasn’t that kind of person. But, sometimes, you want to take it easy. 

What advice would you give anyone looking to succeed?

Find someone you admire and ask how they did it. Then try to reverse engineer it and then add your steroids. What school did they go to? Where do they hang out? What did they study? If the course is no longer appealing, find an alternative. 

If you like Jim Ovia, you know he was an accountant. So do ICAN. You know he worked in a bank, so go work in financial services. Then build your relationships. Don’t reinvent the wheel. You should know how to sell. People run from sales, but you can’t find a big man that is not a salesman. Embrace sales. 

You must be able to deliver. In Nigeria, they say to bring deposits. In America, they say to turn around an industry. If you can deliver, you rise. If you can’t deliver, then become a knowledge expert. Pick a difficult thing and master it. 20 percent of what you know will get you 80 percent of what you need. The rest is hard work that won’t pay anything. 

You must cultivate relationships. People call it eye service, but you must be deliberate. No need to hide it. People can sense when you are fake. If your boss has a target, that is your target. If you want to make your boss succeed, you will get access. If you want to make you succeed, you will be denied that access. So if your boss rises, he takes you along. That’s how it works. Managing your relationships is crucial.  

Before you go, are there any financial tips you swear by?

Yeah. First, you need a plan. Ask yourself this question: What do I want? Then, write it down and set it to a date. It is important that you define success. 

Also, you need to start investing early and keep at it. Don’t get distracted. But before you begin investing, learn all you can. One more thing: as you invest, watch inflation and develop a way to lessen its effects. 

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