Profile picture of Olayemi Cardoso

From his days as a student of managerial and administrative studies at Aston in the 1970s to his 30-year career as a financial sector and development policy expert, we catch up an alumnus who has never given up the quest for high standards. 

What was your time like as a student of managerial and administrative studies in the late 1970s?

At the time, we were located in a place called Maples House, which was above a furniture store on Corporation Street. Sometimes you’d have lectures on campus, but mostly at Maples House. But something far more significant, in my view, is that in the mid-seventies it was rare for universities in the UK to have business degrees at undergraduate level. I think Aston was one of the first to do this. We were the guinea pigs in some respect because we were the second set to start managerial and administrative studies. The course had mostly British but a good international mix of students. We worked very hard and there was little time for socialising. Happily, I have some classmates who I continue to keep in touch with. In fact, when I had the privilege of accepting an honorary doctorate from Aston, one of my mates at the time happened to come along. I knew him back from 1976 when we all started that programme together. The experience helped us to build a sense of esprit de corps. We were, as I said, a new discipline. It was tough, and we knew we all had to get through it together.
You came back to campus in 2017 to receive your honorary degree (Doctor of Business Administration). Were you surprised to see the changes on campus?

Yes. I told my former classmates, it’s completely different. That goes, by the way, for the city as well, because don’t forget that Aston is pretty much a city university. It’s much wider, greener. Of course those buildings [the towers] have come down and it’s all changed. And of course, proudly, very proudly, we have the business school. I think it’s moved from being a relatively small, compact university to less small and compact, but you have a place which is well and truly yours. In those days Birmingham Polytechnic had a building on campus right next-door but now, happily, Aston has bought it and expanded the space that you have.

You were the first cabinet member for economic planning and budget for Lagos state. How did it feel taking on that important job? 

Well, I think context helps to explain a lot of this. It was 1999. At that point we were at a critical stage in the country’s history because we had had several decades of military rule and now people genuinely wanted democracy. At that time people were unsure that it was going to last. And, more importantly, business people traditionally didn’t go into government. Now, it could seem like a high-risk opportunity - in the sense that I’d never done it before - but I felt that I needed to blaze a trail and encourage more people who had the skills to come into government, make their contributions and improve matters. 

The ministry of economic planning and budget was started from scratch. It became the think-tank of the administration. Remember, Lagos is one of the largest megacities in the world with a population of over 20 million people, then maybe about 15 or 16 million. It’s the economic nerve centre of West Africa, so, to all intents and purposes, it was a place that everybody looked to. At the time it was under crisis; nothing worked and the infrastructure was dilapidated. We had to understand what the problems were and reach out to international bodies like the World Bank and the UN-Habitat, before coming up with plans that would help to solve those problems.

Nobody really believed it was possible, then suddenly you’re the gatekeeper of the government. It’s not a job for anybody who wants to be popular and that’s the reason why they don’t look for politicians to occupy these positions. It was the first time that such a ministry had been set up in any state in the federation. I’m happy to say that now, years later, almost every single state (with the exception of one) has a ministry of economic planning and budget fashioned along the lines of the one we started in Lagos. 

As chairman of the board of directors at Citibank Nigeria Ltd., what do you see as your primary role?

My career in Citibank started in London. Frankly, I went in and out of Citibank about two or three times but Citi is good like that, it doesn’t hold it against you. If you’ve got experiences elsewhere, they are happy for you to bring them back into the organisation. The last time I went back as a non-executive, and now I’ve been chairman of the bank for almost ten years. 

It’s easy to feel that there’s a disconnect between you as chairman and everybody else but, in my case, it’s not like that because it’s an institution I know very well. It has gone through enormous changes but it’s where I cut my teeth. One of the things that’s important to realise is that people look up to you. You always try to conduct your activities in a way that conforms to very high ethical standards. Citi, for example, is the only US bank on the African continent. There are American companies who come into Nigeria looking for banks they can deal with. We have to show that we can provide the services they are used to in any other part of the world. 

As chairman of the board, my responsibilities are also to ensure that we are able to think globally, act locally. Those are very important issues for us. Culturally, to blend in; and to ensure that gender sensitivity is properly catered for. I ensure that all those different pieces of the jigsaw come together, enabling Citibank to be run in the most effective way possible.

What advice would you give to young alumni just starting out on their careers?

First and foremost I would say be true to yourself. Know what your strengths are and stick to that path. Two: never give up on the quest for higher standards. You may feel that you are at a position in life where everything is spick-and-span and you've done it all well. Don't rest on that. Redefine the standard and set an even higher standard. It should never stop. Three: keep learning. Keep looking for ways to get new skills. Go back for short courses; take them online if you can. Finally, I will say keep professional friendships. Keep them, nurture them. In this day and age, the world is interconnected. When you travel, keep in contact with your friends. You just don't know how you could be useful to each other.