Adetutu Adeleke

Industrialist and Foremost Female Director

Raised by a widowed father and an initially harsh stepmother, Adetutu weathered various storms in years of childhood. She was later employed by Tate Lyle as an Assistant to the Company Secretary. Although her employment then was novel – as a young black lady in Europe – she rose through the ranks in the organisation to become its head and, in the process, Nigeria’s first female CEO of a publicly quoted company.

Concerning the business of Tate & Lyle, I had just finished my CIS exams in the UK and was in the process of taking up another course when my younger sister convinced me to look for a job, instead. She brought me a copy of The Guardian newspaper to look for job vacancies. Reluctantly, because I wasn’t expecting any invitation from British-run organisations to a young Black woman, I decided to write an application. I applied to more than three organisations for the post of an Administrative Assistant. I was pleasantly surprised to get invitations from all of them. In each one, I was the only female and the only Black.

Eventually, in 1966, against all odds, I was employed as an assistant to the company secretary at Tate & Lyle. I maintained this position for the probationary period after which I was invited to meet the company’s Board. They told me that they were satisfied with how I tackled my job and would want me to continue in their Nigerian office. I wasn’t ready to return home but they encouraged me to give it a try. I told my husband and he offered to investigate the office in Nigeria for me. When he found it somewhere on Broad Street, which was fast becoming the centre of big business in the country, he urged me to return home. Besides, he told me that he was lonely. So, I came back to Nigeria as Assistant Company Secretary in 1967, but soon became the Company Secretary in 1969. I held this position for a decade before becoming a Director.

Married Life

My organisation wanted me to become their Finance Director. I rejected the offer because I was not a qualified accountant; but they were persistent. It was touching to see how much confidence they had in me. In the long run, I became the Corporate Affairs Director. Sometime later, the company started having financial problems. In 1983, the overseas director and chairman came around and invited everyone for separate interviews for the position of Managing Director. Soon, the visitors told me I was now the Managing Director. ‘No! This couldn’t be true. What happened to the others?’ was the question that flooded my mind almost instantaneously. ‘They all resigned,’ I was told.

I immediately rejected the offer. My chairman wondered what could be wrong with me. He asked Francesca Emanuel, his friend and the first female federal civil service administrator, to persuade me to change my mind. My rejection was based on the context of the appointment and the strain and stress the new position would cause me. There was also the domestic consideration: I was still hopeful for more children. My husband eventually convinced me to take up the position.

He assured me that he wasn’t particular about the number of children we might have. God helped me to utilise my gifts at Tate & Lyle. In addition to sugar production, we introduced pipes and flat sheets (used to make files and the back of albums).

We were doing well until the economic depression set in. A business merchant later came into the sugar industry and was the only one getting all the import licences. Things became difficult.

Getting bank loans was a major problem. Several companies then realised they couldn’t operate effectively in Nigeria. Although we struggled on, the situation became unsustainable. We got into heavy debts and one of the banks took us to court. It was a trying time. I wanted to resign my presidency of the Nigeria Institute of Management but the Institute refused to let me go. They insisted I should complete my term. The economic crisis of the 1980s affected Tate & Lyle terribly. More worrisome was the fact that only one merchant got government’s attention and he had the wherewithal to bankroll the production of tonnes of sugar. Critics said the problem was that I was a woman. They forgot

At the Zonta Club–women supporting women.

that I was also responsible for the resuscitation of the company. We eventually won our appeal against being wound up. After the euphoria of the court victory, I resigned because I didn’t see the need to remain in the company. I thought the company needed some new persons to give it some fresh experience. Since then, I have teamed up with my husband’s company, Peter Zion Nigeria Limited as the managing director.

NETWORKS

Over the years I have developed and maintained a close rapport with the professional world, especially with various chambers of commerce, institutes and associations. Among the lot, the Nigerian-British Chamber of Commerce occupies a prominent space. I have a long history with this association which culminated in my ascension to the presidency in 2001. During my tenure, which lasted till 2003, I worked hard to bring the chamber back on its feet from the financial problems I had inherited as president.

My strategy was to rebuild its financial base. We stopped borrowing money to pay salaries, and our activities picked up tremendously. I have also been a member of the Lagos Chamber and was the chairperson of its agricultural trade group that toured India, Malaysia and Thailand in 1986. We submitted a report to the then Minister of Industry, General Alani Akinrinade (Rtd.), who later visited India to understand more about their small-scale sugar production policy. That led to the introduction of small-scale sugar production of the Sunti and Lafiagi Sugar Plantations in Nigeria. Following the ban of cube sugar, I worked closely with the minister to create awareness for the domestic consumption of granulated sugar.

Other bodies I belonged to at various times included the National Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA). I was chairman of both the Association of Plastic Manufacturers in Nigeria, and Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria (MAN), Apapa Branch from 1991 to 1993. I also became the National Vice-President of MAN, Lagos Zone, a position I held from 1992 until 1995. Additionally, I was president of the Association of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Employers from 1991 to 1994. The most tasking of my service in the organised private sector was at the Nigeria Institute of Management, where I was president between 1994 and 1997. Before the end of my tenure, I had faced several challenges, mostly having to do with changes. I had planned to introduce some innovations – like making capacity-building programmes compulsory and having chief executives within the hierarchy of the Institute for easy successions. But many people opposed the ideas. Gradually, however, these innovations are now in place. I believe it is proper for people to have a thorough understanding of their chosen professions. Besides belonging to professional institutes and associations, I am also an advocate for good training. This is because I was a beneficiary of such. I had one of such opportunities in 1998 when the International Labour Organisation sponsored my participation at a workshop on micro-enterprise in the US. In June 2000, I attended a workshop, ‘Women – the Emerging Force’, organised by the Centre for International Private Enterprise in Washington DC. I have also participated in other relevant training programmes which have sharpened my skills as an administrator and company executive.

THANK GOD FOR GRANDMOTHER

My maternal grandmother, Mrs Adeline Mann, played a significant role in my development, which I trace to my childhood. Her mother was from Sierra Leone while her father was from Abeokuta. Very strict and spiritual, she was particular about things pertaining to God or religion. For instance, she ensured that Sundays were observed as days of rest for the whole family, meaning no work whatsoever on that day. In fact, I used to wonder why we ate on Sunday because I felt cooking was also work! We all learnt to say prayers every morning and at night before going to bed. Once the prayer bell was rung, everybody was required to be indoors, whether they were ready to sleep or not. Grandma brought us all up to believe in God. She showed us the way of integrity and emphasised the need for abstinence from sex before marriage. She monitored our movements and saw to it that we never strayed.

As a boarding student, whenever I returned home and had male friends visiting, Mama would tell them I wasn’t around, and I dared not show myself or open my mouth to say otherwise. Her influence contributed significantly to who and what I have become. Mama’s training also meant we weren’t allowed to mingle with other children in the community because she felt we might be negatively influenced. She overprotected us. She never allowed us to attend parties because she wasn’t sure of what or how the meals were prepared. She preached the value of contentment. This made me grow up believing in myself and being satisfied with what I have.

Besides religious and moral grounding, our years with grandmother were decisive in shaping our lives. She played the role of a mother so well we never felt the reality of the demise of our mother until much later.

Once, a woman of my late mother’s age (I guessed they were friends) saw my younger sister and me returning from church and started to cry. We couldn’t understand until we told Grandma, who also wept while revealing to us that our real mother had died two years earlier. Prior to this time, they always told us that she had travelled. Our grandmother remained our mother and whenever any child said their mother did anything for them, we showed them what our granny did for us. She often told us stories, mainly fairy tales, which became very useful for me as I used them for my literary activities in the secondary school. When I was a teenager, Grandma encouraged me to bring friends home so she could assess them properly. Prayer took a significant position in our everyday activities. After attending the prayer meeting held every morning in our neighbourhood, we returned and got ready for school. Significantly, however, childhood also had its fair share of fun.

CHILDHOOD, A BLESSING IN DISGUISE

I was born on 27 August 1939 to the family of Michael Rowland Adeeko and Christiana Adebimpe Obisanya. My mother died at the young age of 32 while I was still a toddler. My father was of the Abejoye ruling house in Idowa, Ijebu-Ode, while my mother was the daughter of Chief David Oladehinde Adefolaju Sopehin-Mann, of the ruling house of Jibodu of Aké in Abeokuta. Surely then, I am a true Ogun State indigene! Following the death of our mother, Dad was reluctant to remarry. In fact, it took him eight years before he eventually succumbed to the pressure. My siblings and I wished Dad never remarried because of the way his new wife ill-treated us.

She was harsh to us, compared with the way she treated her own children. But for her hindsight, I might have continued with that bitter spirit which ultimately does no one any good. When I was in Form 2 in the boarding secondary school, she requested to see me and apologised for her past actions. She claimed she never wanted to ill-treat us but to make us grow up well. Dad was always in a three-piece suit, despite the heat, and spoke only English at home. Almost everything he wore was imported and he was very sophisticated. We dressed well for any outing. Despite his sophistication, however, he was highly disciplined. He was strict with his children and asked questions if we got home late. He didn’t over pamper us. We were members of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, which we attended regularly. Dad was a thorough churchman. He never joined any society outside the church and he encouraged us to do same. He delighted in church music, and loved playing the piano. His love of music obviously influenced my joining the choir of my school, Reagan Memorial Baptist Secondary School. The school’s choir always looked forward to and participated actively in the yearly Baptist Convention. Perhaps as a result of his religiosity, he never allowed us his daughters to use make-up. He argued that we were okay the way God created us. He gave us the opportunity to ask any questions that bothered us and told us about our mother and how he missed her. Without doubt, my father also contributed to who and what I have become.

LEARNING AND GROWING

Formal Primary education for me started in 1948 at the CMS Girls School on Broad Street, Lagos. It used to be called Seminary, and was initially for boys and girls until the Anglican missionaries introduced one for boys before establishing the CMS Grammar School, where the boys graduated to. My primary school years were spent in Grandma’s home. Memories fade because it’s a long time ago but one of my classmates was Professor Ronke Akinsete, while Mrs Abisogun Alo was a senior. I remember these among others because we became closer as we grew. Seminary was a day school which closed at 2.30 p.m. Back home from school, we undressed, washed our legs and hands and changed into our play clothes. We then had lunch, studied or did homework, after which we could play within our vicinity. This was a routine we considered fun because it was what everyone else did. I was eager to go to secondary school because of the constant encouragement I received from both my father and grandmother. Reading was a favourite hobby I inherited from my father and which helped my appreciation of art subjects, particularly literature. My secondary school education was at Reagan Memorial Baptist Girls Secondary School, Lagos between 1953 and 1959. It was a Baptist missionary boarding school and that made me happy whenever it was on session but sad when it was time for holiday.

I loathed going home because of my stepmother. But I still had to contend with the biblical teachings we received from school about showing love to those who hated us. We memorised scriptures and took on the identity of the virtuous women in the Bible. The management of my school apparently saw leadership traits in me, as I was made a prefect and asked to head several groups, including the literary society. The school saw my fellow prefects and me as beacons of hope. The principal, Miss Hardy, and one of my teachers, Miss Roper, were very helpful. With their encouragement, I passed the entrance examinations into both Queen’s College and Ibadan Grammar School for my A’ Levels. I chose the former, but this did not deter Miss Hardy from monitoring my academic performance and welfare. She kept contact with me, encouraging me to be a teacher. There was this day I saw her with the Queen’s College Principal, Miss Gentle. I thought they’d been friends for a long time. But I learnt they just knew each other because my former principal came to her colleagues to notify them that I was her student (I had scored the highest in one of the three subjects in the qualifying exams). They then called me out to congratulate me.

The relationship with my former principal, Miss Hardy, continued even when I went abroad and returned, as the school followed my progress, and pasted anything about me on the board for the students. After my A’ Levels, I was to proceed to the University of Ibadan to major in a literary subject. However, my father decided I should go to the UK to read law, while my fiancé dissuaded me from law because he felt I was too shy. I then chose to become an administrator. I studied at the North Western Polytechnic, London, between 1962 and 1965, where I came in contact with both White and Black teachers. This wasn’t strange to me because I’d been taught by expatriates while still in Nigeria. Strangely enough, the Africans were better in English than the native students. I found that the rigorous processes we passed through back home had prepared us for the challenge. My stay in the UK enabled me to continue my education at Ashridge Management College from 1974 to 1975, and Sundridge Park Management Centre from 1977 to 1978. These were all critical background experiences that inspired my success in management in Nigeria in later years.

OF SISTERHOOD AND WOMEN’S ADVANCEMENT

I owe my achievements to God. He has been and remains the main source of inspiration since my childhood days. He is my reason for everything. Being reared in a strong Christian background was instrumental to my grounding during the formative years. My grandmother played a major part in the success I am today. She made me to understand that whatever I have is given to me to benefit others. People like Professor Bolanle Awe, Mrs Gbemisola Rosiji (my aunty), Dr. Abimbola Silva, Magistrate Akerele, Mrs Teju Alakija (daughter of the former Ooni of Ife) among others, also made unforgettable impacts on my life. The values learnt over the years have carried me through. The friendship, love, strength and encouragement that I got from these sisters have motivated me tremendously into giving back to my society. For instance, my desire to see better, motivated me and successful Nigerian women got me involved with Zonta International in 1972.

Zonta is an international association which began in the US with the purpose of helping women grow and ensure they give service to their communities, particularly to the handicapped and underprivileged. Membership then was through invitation and I became one of its international directors, before becoming a vice-president from 1984 to 1987. There is also the Inner Wheel Club of Yaba, which is a club of wives of members of Rotary International in that area. We only complement the services of the Rotarians, holding meetings once in a month on a Sunday. Perhaps because of what I have been able to achieve, I have sometimes received offers both from my husband’s state and mine to serve in one capacity or another.

I have found that a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to get to the top. Although the United Nations specified at least a 30 per cent slot for women, and there are agitations for more women in positions of authority in Nigeria, I don’t subscribe to the idea of decreeing such an issue. Women should be able to earn their positions on merit or they won’t command any respect. Most men saw me as a threat at first, but when they found that I was willing to learn as well as excel, they were won over. Being a ‘first female’ is actually one description that has stuck with me over the years. Diverse opportunities have continued to come my way in various forms during my long career. In 1990, I was guest of the Canadian International Development Agency to show the capabilities of women entrepreneurs in developing countries, and to encourage business ventures with Canadian counterparts. I was the first Nigerian businesswoman to be invited. I was the first female company secretary of a publicly quoted company in Nigeria, as well as the first female executive director. I was also the first female President of the Nigerian Institute of Management, and the first female President of Nigeria– British Chamber of Commerce, as well as that of AFBTE (Association of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Employers).

ROSES AND THORNS

It is important to recall that I became a bit rebellious towards my father at a time during my growing-up years. Firstly, I jettisoned his suggestion to read law by majoring in a company-related course in London. Secondly, I got married to someone he objected to without giving me any convincing reason. He reacted to these by stopping the payment of my school fees; but that did not deter me because I was determined to work and excel. The academic programme was such that one had to pass all subjects entered for as failure in one course meant failure in all. I was initially scared of the situation, but I eventually passed as a result of self-organisation, hard work and perseverance. I then got wedded to my fiancé, Bola Adeleke, an engineer by profession. Dad was not happy at my disobedience. Besides stopping my fees, he returned the piece of our wedding cake we sent to him. When we wrote to him to suggest a name for our first child, he didn’t even bother to reply to us or to offer us congratulations. My husband and I then realised we had a lot on our hands to convince him.

So, I advised my husband, who returned to Nigeria first, to always go to him and try to be a good son. The strategy didn’t work for a long time but when it eventually did my father wholeheartedly accepted my husband and they became very close. It was incredible for me to later hear Dad encouraging me never to monitor my husband. I guessed he finally realised we had married for love. He also told me later that he was proud of my chosen career and how I made a success of it. Only then was I glad to have been ‘rebellious’. My marriage has been successful because of love and understanding between my husband and me. We make sure we never monitor each other and do not allow people to come between us. We became closer when people thought we would be separated due to our inability to conceive more children. In the midst of the heat, I told my husband that he had my permission to have a child or as many children as he wanted outside matrimony. But he told me he wouldn’t rock the boat. I was amazed. Here was someone from a large Muslim family (although he had become a Christian before I met him) who chose to remain monogamous despite pressures.

He even sent his sister out when the latter proposed the idea of another wife. I had to kneel and beg my sister-in-law to disregard the threat. My father-in-law took me as a daughter and not as a wife. We were quite close and there were things he would tell only me. Today, my in-laws accept me as a mother, since my husband is now the head of the family. Whenever critical family issues are discussed, I am asked to participate, while other wives are excused from the meetings.

Without doubt, my marriage has been blessed. Even though we had our problems, like my son dying in my arms, my not being able to have more children, or my husband suffering a stroke, we have been able to pull through, coming out stronger each time. Our only child, our daughter, and her father naturally look alike. They were inseparable friends and played football together. They were so close that one started to feel ill whenever the other was, which I prayed against. She later read Engineering against my wish because she wanted to help her dad. While still growing up, she was closer to him than me probably because I was very strict. Although she didn’t understand my actions initially, she later expressed how my counsels became invaluable. It is a joyful experience to know one’s grandchildren, and mine is no exception. I am happy my daughter has been able to give me the children I couldn’t have myself.

I am happy because my husband and I were together in her training. We did our best because we didn’t know how long we would be available for her. I guess the training I received from people like my grandmother, dad and stepmother proved to be priceless. These are people whose thoughts always fill my mind whenever I think of my modest achievements in life.

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