Insuring your future.
In an era where women of great wit and intelligence have emerged in different fields of endeavours across the world, managing, leading, orchestrating and making vital decisions are not exclusive to men.
In Africa and indeed Nigeria, such women have risen in diverse sectors. Maria Olateju Philips (nee Fernandez) is making waves. As Chairman of Lasaco Assurance Plc, her leadership has helped companies and agencies (both private and public) build better prepositions and become more proactive. Her initiatives have made an enormous difference in the workplace. Also, Philips’ political involvement and relevance have further strengthened women’s voice and place in today’s world.
In this enthralling encounter, Maria talks to AZUKA OGUJIUBA about politics, family support, career, the hopes of Nigerian women, among other important things. She continually keeps up with what she is known for inspiration and hope for the younger generation of women seeking to make a difference in Nigeria and beyond.
With your vast educational experience in the western world (Aston University at Birmingham and Huddersfield college etc.), would you say the education sector in Nigeria is well-positioned for global relevance?
The educated Nigerian is very intelligent and proven to have excelled in virtually all professions globally. But critically and urgently, the education sector in our country needs to be focused upon and developed by injection of high capital to achieve better quality which will be comparatively at par with the Western world. The long and short of it, irrespective of being a developing country, the best, is to thoroughly invest in the education of the youths for future development.
With so much to do professionally, how do you combine your role as a mother in addition to managing your family?
A Professional or a Career woman has to be very focused and highly organized in both home and work affairs. The two must tie in terms of occupation and implementation of responsibilities. The ability to manage both ends successfully must be consciously discerned; one should not suffer for the other. Though it can be quite tasking, I did it, and I’m still doing it, thank God. On the home front, get involved in every aspect and at work. There are no shortcuts but work assiduously hard to excel and maintain the package of brilliancy, teamwork and best behaviours amongst your peers and subordinate.
As a career woman, it could be a hindrance if you don’t have a supportive husband; tell us, how supportive is your husband?
I am grateful I got the support of my husband all the way. The ideology is to create trust in each other, and if that is missing, it will be tough to be successful. My husband doesn’t bother me with my career. He encourages me, checks up on me with the work I’m doing by discussing, and it ends there. Sometimes he makes me see the other side of the coin, and he gives me a free hand, and I operate peacefully.
Where do you draw your strength and energy from?
I draw my strength from the passion and dream I have on whatever I’m doing. I usually have innate desire built upon ultimate strength, energy, perception, vision, dedication and commitment for actualization. I have been able to do the things I love to do, and I try to do them very well with perfections. This is the drive for me.
Which achievement has given you the most satisfaction and why?
First and foremost, becoming the Chairman of Lasaco Assurance Plc. As an Accountant, it is expected of me to ensure the organization is run with a proper system according to today’s accounting standards and practices. The main drive is the company’s growth, to be one of the top five Insurance companies in the country and ultimately, number one in the near future.
Do you believe having women in political leadership provides a different kind of voice?
Yes affirmatively, today’s world believes in the woman’s leadership because of her loyalty, dedication to her work, and political party. She upholds her integrity firmly. She is also seen as an advocate for Gender Equality (50:50), not even the constitutional 30%.
Having more women in political leadership is the voice and the song we are singing now. We are still struggling in this part of the world, but we will not relent all efforts through so many organizations, NGOs, etc. The challenge is that some male leaders are still chauvinistic; there is a need for change.
What legacy do you want to leave behind?
This message is for everyone and posterity; please create a good conscience for everything you do; there is no shortcut to success but hard work. Be consistent, and don’t give up on your dreams. Be your brother’s keeper and consciously be there for the other woman. Above all, fear God.
Also, I want to be remembered as a simple and passionate Lagosian, hardworking, blunt, courageous and never relent.
From your Articleship days, you have worked in several firms. What were your greatest challenges, and how did you learn to overcome them?
The Accounting Profession I chose put me in an environment with a higher percentage of men than women, and it is challenging having worked in such organizations. So to excel over the men, you must double up your performance.
The challenges are the typical criticisms, unfounded rumours, and uncountable environmental slanderous talks, but once you are focused, the rest is history. There is also the challenge to emerge at the top; again, with patience, I have been able to crawl to where I am, and I look forward to more opportunities to serve the people.
You started your career in Nigeria at UAC Nigeria Plc as a Divisional Commercial Manager of the company’s property division. Having spent several years overseas, how did you adapt to the working environment in Nigeria?
I am very proud to say I love Nigeria. My early years were in the Western Region, then Ibadan and Oyo. Those were my formative years that I sincerely cherished. I don’t think there was any major problem in adaptation. What would have been a challenge, I surmounted from ab initio! I realized a female boss must be very cordial to male subordinates and even other bosses and peers.I try to be at best behaviour to get the job done to achieve the company’s goals. We are family and friends to date; that’s the beauty of all the places I have worked.
Describe one of the most powerful moments you have experienced as a female politician.
I must confess that I naturally have the flair of having and being around people. I enjoy all that pertains to this, coupled with the fact that I’m a free mixer. The opportunity to serve in the government of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu opened these doors for me and brought out the best virtues in me. This is completely different from the Professional experience. I thrived, blended and thoroughly served with satisfaction and contentment from 1999 as a board member in various capacities and now the Chairman of Lasaco Assurance Plc.
Before being appointed as a Board Chairman by Lasaco Assurance Plc, your pedigree and success were witnessed at several other financial establishments in the country, from Keystone Bank to Lagos State Lottery Board, to mention a few. So what should be expected from you with this new role?
As a female Chairman, I want to change the orientation in Lasaco Assurance Plc as a strictly male affair in the board and executive management.
I am already advocating for female inclusion at the top and other allied matters involving female staff.
Branding the organization to top-notch height will be more encouraging for the viability of results that it brings. Lastly, health insurance products which are lacking in the country will be commenced seriously from our end.
With a busy schedule like yours, how do you relax, and what do you most enjoy doing while doing so?
Because I am a people’s person; I definitely have enough time to relax; I love being around people. Even when we are laughing together, we can still improvise in solving situations, dining and winning together. I am a great lover of music, I dance, I sing, and I am full of all coats, and I also read. These are the things I do, and I still make time for my grandchildren. So I do relax the thorough way a busy person should do.
My favourite spot in the world is London, and it’s because I studied in the UK. On the days that I don’t go around during holidays, I love to stay quietly where I reside, go to the park, take my tea or ice cream, read my magazine, and unlike before that I have to do a lot of window shopping on what to wear, I now spend more time on my body. I relax, I do my massage, I go to the face and body clinic. I don’t mind the weather, whether cold or hot; I like to be away for some time and reflect on life to see how I can forge ahead in a better way.
What is your perspective on insurance and the industry in Nigeria?
The awareness of insurance in Nigeria is improving, and we are trying to grow the industry so that everyone will see the risk they are taking over their lives and properties.
The ordinary person does not see the need for insurance. Some businessmen and women do not see why they should take insurance over their activities, and they believe nothing can happen, false illusion, though.
I have noticed that in today’s setting, the middle-class people we find are actually taking risks and insuring the risk. This will hopefully be passed on to the future generation, which are the youths.
The youths these days don’t feel the need and are not bothered about insurance, which is our target market now.
People must always insure, unless you insure your life, assets, and properties, you may find yourself back to square one when accidents happen. I always advise that even over little assets, insure and I hope this is a good sound of warning about one’s life.
The industry is growing fast, and I am proud to say that the Nigeria Insurance Commission is putting the industry together to enable actual growth and a good capital base. For now, there is a re-capitalization which sets me to remember the days when the Bank Industry was growing, the capital base required statutorily kept on increasing, and now we have solid banks in the country. I believe that is what is going to happen in the Insurance Industry. We now have more dynamic businesses or businessmen in the Finance industry coming into the Insurance industry, but the competition is also very good. At the end of the day, production will improve. This is the kind of economy we want to grow in the country, so I am happy that this kind of thing is happening now. To me, re-capitalization is good but must be taken fairly at a stride.
What should people know about Lasaco Assurance and the insurance as a whole?
Lasaco Assurance Plc is a composite company; it is doing its business reputationally, meets claims at the earliest time possible, and forging on in the industry to be the best. If you take the #endsars as an example, claims came, and the company paid immediately. This is the sort of reputation earned by Lasaco Assurance Plc. Growing, meeting up with the statutory regulation requirements, we hope to be one of the top five insurance companies in Nigeria. I believe that Lasaco Assurance Plc is going places, and our next leg of growth will be to have international branches.
Are there issues around women’s political leadership that concern you?
Women around the world are still struggling to be highly relevant, and this concerns every top female politician, but the stage is getting better, we are being noticed, we are being informed, we are being chosen in rightful positions, and the concern is to have female Governors and female Presidents. That’s when we will know the gender issue in politics is being addressed.
You are the daughter of the late Ambassador Chief Antonio’ Dehinde Fernandez (His Imperial Highness, Garsan Fulani and Princess Ibilola Lipede of the Royal Ruling House in Abeokuta, Ogun State. Can you describe your childhood and your parents’ impact on your growth and life generally?
To start with, I want to thank my parents for the exposure they gave me from childhood. I have been an independent child and an independent child from a very early age. I have been in boarding school from a young age, and I come home sometimes on holidays, so I am used to an environment where people study and you have the opportunity to develop yourself apart from being given discipline in life from a very young age. From primary to secondary school to university to coming home after I got qualified was a period of tutelage that shaped me to be who I am today. I do things on impulse, and sometimes it looks as if one is not a conformist, well it is only an impulse that develops into an individual with her own style, and that is what it has been for me. I grew up in the West before I travelled abroad. I came back and worked in Lagos state. My parents, from an early age, impacted the passion from their linages on me. I am very passionate about where I am from and my parents’ royal background. My dad was from Olumegbon, my mother from Lipede. Despite all that and the affluence, I’m still myself, an individual that believes in self-development. So irrespective of my parents’ background, I remain myself.
My father was a philanthropist; I think I got that from him. My mother was a simple, beautiful woman and quiet, but I am not quiet. They both loved people around them, and they were entertainers, of which I am. My father was a disciplinarian, and my mother was a fantastic cook. A mixture of all these virtues, I can see in me, and I thank God.
You are always beaming, which greatly compliments your looks. What is your beauty secret?
A-My father was very handsome, my mother was very beautiful, and l am a good combination of them. I learnt from an early age that whether you are beautiful or ugly, you must look after your body, and that’s what informed me to concentrate on keeping the looks and improving on it from time to time. As I said, it just didn’t happen; I worked on it, I am steaming, doing the body massage, my oil, my moisturizer, I do a bit of toning if necessary, and I don’t joke with the heat therapy and a bit of exercise. That is what keeps me looking good. I also watch what I eat, take my vitamins, and get the best treatments for my body. That’s the secret.
What are your hopes and aspirations for women in politics?
For the younger ones, please see political involvement as a service, do it with good conscience and be kind to people. On top of it, you must not compromise your integrity in any form. Being a woman in the stage, we are in the country, be prepared for all sorts of ugly comments, but remain focused and do your best. The sky is the limit, and I see the light. Prepare your mind and have the dream that you will be there, but it takes a lot of hard work. We are a developing country; you must contribute your quota devotedly and ensure that it’s not just for the gains from it. It is to develop the people, develop the country for the people, you are there for the people, and definitely, we will reach the ultimate.
My hope is that more women will get involved and lend their voices; we mustn’t sit back. We need to be on stage, get involved at all times. My aspiration for women is to be in the highest position in the shortest time in the future.
Given your success and growth on all fronts as a woman, what advice would you give to the younger generation of young ladies who look up to you?
It is good to be educated. But educated or not, please manage your home and your aspirations properly, see each one as a project to be completed and do your best at all time. God help us all.