Great People

Akintola Williams

Exceptional Professional and Leader

Akintola Williams. Credit: The Guardian

Whenever the accountancy profession is mentioned in Nigeria, people often think of Mr. Akintola Williams. He is internationally recognised as the first African to qualify as a chartered accountant. His life is a story of success and fulfillment; the story of a young lad, who, though born with a silver spoon in his mouth, ignored the luxury of wealth to pursue his dream amidst great trials and tribulations and eventually attained the pinnacle of his chosen profession. He brought the profession into obvious existence in Nigeria and laid a landmark for his successors to follow. His dedication and out-and-out commitment to work and development is outstanding. During a long career, the only surviving founding father of the Nigerian Stock Exchange has won many awards and honours.

Akintola Williams was born on August 9, 1919, in Lagos, to the affluent but humble family of Mr Thomas Ekundayo Williams, a successful lawyer and businessman who was also the son of a known Abeokuta merchant and farmer, Zachariah Archibald Williams. Akintola’s father was a Christian, a member of the Christ Church Cathedral (Anglican Communion); while his mother, Muniratu Abeje Fernandez, of a Brazilian-Nigerian descent, was a Muslim. In their days, affluence was a major determinant of the number of wives men married. Akintola’s father married three, and had five children, namely: Kola, Akintola, Rotimi, Soji and Kehinde.

His mother was the second wife of his father and Akintola lived with her until age three when he moved to No. 20 Broad Street, Lagos Island – a posh part of town, to live with his father and siblings. He grew up in a relatively serene environment and he and his siblings had the privilege to go to their paternal grandfather’s farm (which produced vegetables, kolanuts, fruits and reared chicken) at Agege, during holidays. Academic exploits Akintola’s father, Mr. Thomas Ekundayo Williams, had travelled to study law in the United Kingdom in 1923. He returned from England to practice the profession until 1938 when he died at a young age of 48. Akintola was barely four years old when his father went to England. His paternal grandmother, Eleanor Cole Williams, had to ensure that he and his siblings were properly catered for. However, he could not start his education until he was nine years old, when his grandmother finally sent him and his younger half-brother, Rotimi (who later became an illustrious lawyer), to the Baptist Academy also on Broad Street.

Obviously impressed with their progress in the elementary school, one of their teachers, Mr. Michael Oyewole, took keen interest in their academics and helped them secure admission into the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Grammar School, Bariga, Lagos. Thus, Akintola and his brother Rotimi were admitted to the CMS Grammar School, Lagos, in January 1934, to commence their secondary education. They were exceptionally brilliant, especially under the tutelage of Venerable (Dr.) J. O. Lucas, Reverend Thorne, Bishop Odutola, and Mr. John Lewis, among others. At the CMS Grammar School, there were six strict teachers for his class, hence, Akintola was too serious to play pranks. Several times, he and Rotimi kept the first and second positions to themselves. He studied and improved on his knowledge of Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology. He also composed a prize winning poem on the founder of the school, Rev. Macaulay, which was published in the school magazine, The Grammarian. Akintola was among the twelve students who sat the final Cambridge certificate examination in 1938, and passed so well that he was granted exemption from the London Matriculation Examination, a rare record for his time and several decades after. With an enviable record in secondary school, Akintola gained admission the following year to the Yaba Higher College where he studied Commerce for three years, and acquired a Diploma in 1941.

He had actually contemplated studying Surveying, but as it seemed, he was stepping into his grandfather’s shoes by preparing himself for a career in business. Upon his admission to the Higher College, he won the highly coveted scholarship award given by the United Africa Company (UAC) to the most brilliant student at the time. The award was also contingent upon the student maintaining the lead in his or her class throughout the three-year duration of the programme and only two students had won this award before Akintola – Ernest Asika and Adegoke Adelabu. As a student, Akintola demonstrated dexterity in several extracurricular activities, especially in literary and social societies. He was very much involved in the debating society, where he performed creditably, and was a member of the executive council of the literary society. He was also a music enthusiast, and played the piano, an interest that eventually made him learn ball-room dancing.

He played hockey briefly with the Army and Police, even after his graduation. Before the conclusion of his programme at the Higher College, he worked at different times with three different establishments for his industrial attachment, namely the CMS Grammar School in 1939 as a Mathematics teacher; Casselton Elliot & Co, later known as Peat Marwick, Ani Ogunde & Co in 1940; and with the CMS Secretariat, Marina, Lagos, in 1941. Mr. Williams graduated from Yaba Higher College in 1941 with a diploma in Commerce, and secured a job as Assistant Secretary/Accountant the following year at Church Missionary Society (CMS) headquarters in Lagos.

His employment was facilitated by the good recommendation he got during his time as an intern from the College. Six months after leaving the Higher College, he prepared himself for the intermediate examination of the Bachelor of Commerce degree of the University of London and passed in 1942. He, however, did not travel to the UK because he felt he was rather too young. He worked at the CMS headquarters until 1944 when he decided that it was time to pursue further studies. . His intention for going overseas was to study Actuarial Science, but that changed when he met a friend in the Scout Movement, Mr. John Selby, who was a British chartered accountant and a deputy commissioner at the Inland Revenue Department in Lagos.

Following Selby’s encouragement, Mr. Williams left Nigeria for the United Kingdom in 1944 on a government scholarship in order to train as a chartered accountant. Mr. Williams, however, encountered serious opposition and rejection for three months in London, when it was time for his Articleship, which would qualify him as a chartered accountant. Most firms were unwilling to take him in because he was black. Determined, he discussed the issue with Mr. Bankes, Secretary of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, who sympathetically sent him to one Mr. Ralph Hamlyn, a senior partner in the Binder Hamlyn & Co. In 1946, whilst serving his Articles and studying for his accountancy examinations, he completed his degree in Commerce at the University of London. In due course, he completed the accountancy programme, and qualified as a chartered accountant. He was admitted as an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in 1950, having passed the final examination in 1949.

He was the first Nigerian to be thus admitted.In the meantime, Mr.Williams and the young woman, Oye, he was courting before he left Nigeria in 1944 met again in London and were married at the St. Pancras Registry, London, in December 1947. The ceremony was attended by about fifteen guests as there was no opportunity for a lavish marriage ceremony. They lived the next three years together in Britain but decided not to have babies then because money was in short supply. Williams was on a scholarship, while his wife, Oye, had to work to support her own training.

Life in London was mostly work-filled and the young couple had to manage their resources as much as they could. However, they still made many friends, Europeans and Africans alike. It seemed the two of them were somewhat equally gifted academically, because while Akintola was performing brilliantly in his accountancy examinations, Oye received her Diploma in Education in one year instead of the usual three years. While she completed her diploma programme in 1949, her husband finished in 1950 and they returned home in that same year.

Like a true patriot, Mr. Williams wanted to work in his country. He enthusiastically presented his credentials to the colonial office in Lagos but was rudely rebuffed. This experience almost caused his ambition to suffer a temporary setback. The colonialists offered to employ him, but would not do so based on his professional qualification. He subsequently got a contract job at the Inland Revenue as an Assessment Officer because the officer in charge was rather sympathetic. Williams fulfilled his eighteen-month contractual agreement in early 1952.

He vacated his official residence at McDonald Road, Ikoyi and resettled his family in a six-room flat at 63 Toyin Street, Obalende. It was then he decided to venture into private practice by establishing the first indigenous firm of chartered accountants in Nigeria, Akintola Williams & Co. It was a tough decision, but it was worth it as he converted his six-room apartment into both an office and a home, just to actualize his objective of setting up an indigenous accountancy firm in Nigeria. The firm occupied three rooms; his wife’s dressmaking business occupied one, while the family – himself, his wife and their only child then shared the remaining two rooms. Akintola Williams & Co started in May 1952 as a sole proprietorship. The firm’s only equipment at inception was an imperial typewriter bought with a loan from a friend, Dr. Folorunso Salawu – proprietor of Shanuolu Hospital, Lagos – who was soon to become one of his earliest clients. Other early clients included Sir Louis Ojukwu’s transport firm, Mr. S.I. Fawehinmi, founder and proprietor of Fawehinmi Furniture Factory (FFF), the West African Pilot, and Chief K.O. Mbadiwe. Czechoslovak (Nigeria) Import & Export Company (CNEICO) was his first expatriate client. Williams’s first full-time assistant was Mr. Francis Marizu, a typist.

In 1957, the firm moved from sole proprietorship to partnership through the admission of Chief Charles Sankey as a partner, and acquired a larger office space at 11, Martins Street, Lagos. Akintola Williams & Co was quickly an action in sync with the political tide within Nigeria which was seething with nationalism and edging towards Independence. There was a ready market for his services and he could succeed exceedingly if he worked hard. Also, the nation’s transition to Independence implied that his firm would be playing a pioneering professional role in the emergent independent state. In 1959, Williams served as a member and subsequently Chairman of the Body of Income Tax Appeal Commission set up to look into tax assessment complaints.

He was also a member of the three-man Coker Commission of Enquiry set up in 1962 by Chief (Dr) M.A. Majekodunmi, the then Administrator of the Western Region, to investigate allegations of improper conduct during the troubled times of the Western Region. Once, he appeared before the Forster Sutton Tribunal on the Affairs of the African Continental Bank Limited and the part played by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in the running of the Bank, but certain elements in the Western Region felt aggrieved at the evidence he gave. In retaliation, they persuaded the Western Region Government to withdraw its patronage of his audit firm, which was barely five years old then. Rather than discourage him, such action only buoyed his determination to spread his practice beyond Lagos and the Western Region.

In 1971, the Federal Government drafted Mr. Williams to serve on the Gill Commission set up to advise it on a new job evaluation and staff grading system for the Post and Telegraph Department. In 1975, he was Chairman of the Public Service Review Panel, otherwise called the Williams & Williams Committee set up by General Yakubu Gowon. He had, however, earlier served as Chairman of the Lagos State Revenue Collection Panel appointed in May 1972 to investigate the revenue options available to the Lagos State Government and explore ways and means of improvements as well as offer advice on fresh revenue options. He was always in the public eye, serving his country in various capacities.

In quick succession after the admission of Charles Sankey as a partner, other partners were admitted and the growth of the firm was further boosted with the promulgation of Companies Act in 1968. The Lagos Stock Exchange, which was established in 1961 and which later metamorphosed into the Nigeria Stock Exchange, was also growing and several firms that wanted to be listed on the Exchange contracted Akintola Williams & Co. to prepare their prospectus. Other companies were subsequently carved out of the firm when it could no longer cope with market demands.

The same situation also warranted the establishment of offices in Port Harcourt, Enugu, Kano, Kaduna, Maiduguri, Jos, Benin, and Warri. Outside Nigeria, Cameroon was the first port of call in the expansion drive of the firm, followed by Swaziland and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1983, after thirty-one years as CEO, Mr. Williams bowed out of the company. The firm at that time had about a few hundred partners around the world. It had grown to the point of eventually becoming Nigeria’s largest professional services firm, following two mergers between April 1999 and May 2004. With members of staff running into several hundreds, it has been operating under the name of  ‘Akintola Williams Deloitte’ since July 30, 2004. It is a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and also a part of Deloitte Africa practice which has a presence in 34 countries in Africa. Mr. Williams did not only promote himself to the peak of a pioneering accountancy and audit career in Africa, but also trained or had a hand in the successes of many first-generation chartered accountants and other professionals on the African continent. Achievements and laurels Mr. Williams was an integral part of the formation of ‘Egbe Omo Oduduwa’, a Yoruba socio-political organisation founded in London during his student days, and which had Dr. Oni Akerele as President and the legendary Obafemi Awolowo as Secretary. He was a germane contributor to the establishment of the Association of Accountants in Nigeria (AAN) in 1960, and served as the first president of the body. He was also very instrumental in the formation of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), which is an offshoot of the Association of Nigeria Accountants. ICAN is Nigeria’s foremost professional accountancy body, and its national secretariat in, Abuja, the nation’s capital, was commissioned on May 6, 1999, and named Akintola Williams House.

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The Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE), The Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON), and the Lions Club International District 404 all came into existence through the key role played by Mr. Akintola Williams. He is a co-founder of the first hire purchase firm in Nigeria, Bentworth Finance (Nigeria Limited). He has served as a member or chairman on the board of many blue-chip companies in Nigeria and overseas. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to society, Williams has received several national and international acknowledgments and honours, the first coming as early as 1966 when he was appointed a trustee for Nigeria on the Commonwealth Foundation. He received the OFR (Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) in 1982, but rejected the CON (Commander of the Order of the Niger) in 1999 because it is lower in status to the CBE (Commander of the British Empire), which Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him on April 14, 1997 in recognition of his services to the accountancy profession and for his promotion of arts, culture and music.

He also received the first-ever gold medal of the ICAN in 1988. In 1992, the Howard Business School Association of Nigeria named him the Businessman of the Year. He received another award from the Nigeria British Association on May 8, 2011, alongside the past president of Ghana, John Kufuor, for their contribution to democracy and development in Africa. Presently, Mr. Williams conducts most of his activities from his home office and promotes the activities of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF). He plays a leading role in developing national capacity in the fight against cancer in the country. He regularly ruminates on his Christian faith, listens to classical music, plays the piano, and reads poetry.

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