Adetunji Ogunkanmi: Tribute to an Insurance Whiz Kid, Humanist & Master Strategist


Rasheed Bolarinwa

He would have been 57 years today, December 5, 2017 were he to be alive. But guess that is how his journey was destined. 17 years after his passing, his legacy stands today, as always and his sweet memories linger in the hearts of many practitioners and non-practitioners who crossed his path and the entire industry he touched and transformed in the most dramatic fashion, even when top consultants and experts had dismissed and written him and his ideas off from the outset, as a fluke.

Who says Nigeria does not have beautiful stories to tell the world in all spheres? His was an inspiration beyond measure – graduating from the University at age 23, by age 30 he was a chartered insurer and a Fellow of the prestigious Chartered Insurance Institute of London when he got fed up with the status quo in the sector he so loved and having his revolutionary ideas meant to overhaul the practice for the good of the industry ignored by his superiors in all the places he worked, he made up his mind to go solo and lead by example. He believed he was the change agent needed to wake up the then slumbering sector to take its rightful place. And he had a go at it.

Where to start became a conundrum, but as with all pathfinders, his first port of call to share his dream after committing it to God as a believer, were his known friends and some of his brightest colleagues at the University. However, most of them were otherwise engaged. How do you then convince colleagues already working to join you to start a new company? He summoned courage and visited each of the five pioneers individually – sold the idea and made them an offer. He also met with few non-practitioners, but corporate players, to bring them on board, guide him in the business and offered them equity in the evolving enterprise in return.

As an inspirational marketer, he got five gainfully employed individuals who were more of colleagues – three male and two female: Jacob Erhabor; Lanu Pitan (now Beneth); Funmi Akinbami (now Babington-Ashaye); Sammy Agarry and Toye Odunsi to resign their jobs tos work for an insurance company which was yet to be capitalized, let alone, licensed. The five pioneer management staff were joined by three other foot soldiers: Kofo Ozoemena; Biodun Lawal and Bola Ogundijo; while Tayo Ajibulu served as Company Secretary from outside the firm until he joined formally.

On June 12, 1991 Cornerstone Insurance was born officially through a license granted by the regulatory National Insurance Commission (NAICOM), though the company had started operations three months earlier. And so specifically at 31, Adetunji Akanji Ogunknami was sitting atop an insurance company as Founding Chief Executive Officer.

Fondly called Tunji by colleagues and admirers, his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of one of the nation’s truly home-grown and world class financial services brands, is a lesson in the power of vision. And within five years of founding Cornerstone in a rented apartment on Igbosere Street, Lagos Island, the company grew from a limited liability company to become  a public liability company [PLC] thus setting the pace for competitors.

Ogunkanmi is reputed to have built Cornerstone under four strategic pillars and mandates: Professionalism; prompt claims settlement; superior customer service and adherence to best practices. Under professionalism, he shattered the myth that insurance practitioners must be old, conservative, haggard-looking and poorly paid. He employed young, smart-looking and ably-qualified hands from multi-disciplinary background, and paid them handsomely, almost like their counterparts in other highly paid sub-sectors of the financial services industry, providing them with enablement and the best training available anywhere in the world while working under the most conducive environment with the mandate and latitude to challenge the status quo. He was said to be an equal opportunity employer who believed in the best, allowed people to make genuine mistakes and gave everyone the right to bring suggestions to the table regardless of disciplinary background.

This elicited the best from his staff, who saw themselves as co-owners of the company and worked tirelessly for its growth. As a motivator per excellence, he encouraged open celebration in the organization, marking of milestones, feats and staff birthdays under a festive and convivial atmosphere. Prior to the entry of Cornerstone into the nation’s insurance sub-sector, the perception had been that insurance operators and companies are cons who enjoy collecting premiums, but shy away from paying claims when the insured report losses and want to make a claim. This perception, he was bent on correcting and that he did by examples. Today, claims payment in the insurance industry has become a routine.

Cornerstone under Tunji and till date, not only made prompt payment of claims, one of its competitive advantages, but encouraged other companies through the CEO’s forum of the Nigeria Insurance Association [NIA], as umbrella, for other competitors to follow suit. That to him made lots of business sense. Prompt claims settlement which today has become the norm for serious insurance companies in Nigeria is one of the pioneering legacies attributed to the late Ogunkanmi. He made Cornerstone a customer-centric and friendly company and encouraged all his staff in support functions or market-facing, to see the customer as the livewire of the business, whose needs must be met and exceeded at all times, whatever the odd.

It was no surprise then as many players and competitors – old and new – in the insurance sector started to copy and adopt Cornerstone’s operational model. And being a large-hearted individual, Tunji was said to have opened the doors of the company to many players to learn as much as they could and replicate the company’s modest success story then, across the entire industry. The story is told of how some of today’s big companies in the industry sent their officers across all departments, including Human Resources units on internship to understudy Cornerstone’s operational guidelines; in some instances, such attaches spent between two and three months in the company. For him, what mattered was the transformation of the insurance industry and not so much for the dominance by Cornerstone.

His colleagues held him in awe and told of how his humble beginning as a ‘village boy’ from Ile Ogbo, near Iwo in present Osun State never deterred him. He read himself up to prominence and was engaging on all subjects; accounting, finance, business, marketing, politics, insurance, and local and global affairs. Perhaps as an intellectual, who had avid disposition to read wide and encourage those close to him to seek knowledge, also caused him to give equal opportunity to all, their backgrounds not withstanding and moulded them into champions through exposure to the very best function-specific and general training and re-trainings to make his employees dominate their fields, even in unlikely places. He bred brand champions. Tunji was a believer in the total branding concept – inward and outward.

This writer is a beneficiary of his legacy. Though encountered Ogunkanmi as a practicing journalist while working on a feature story on the industry in 1998 for Punch newspapers, the one hour session left a lasting impression among all insurance CEOs I had earlier interviewed. Long after his death and when the opportunity came to join Cornerstone as the Head of Corporate Communications, I took it with both hands and never regretted that decision as the over five years stay at the company and exiting in 2010 as Head of brand management, has been the most defining years in corporate Nigeria. I got exposed to the very best training in Nigeria and overseas in the very best institutions and colleges courtesy of Cornerstone. In less than 3 months of joining the company; while still under probation I was scheduled and sent for the topmost training at Lagos Business School for Corporate Communications practitioners where over 90 percent of participants were drawn from the Banking and Oil & Gas industry. The pattern was consistent all through the years I worked for the brand. In less than two years, I had top exposure in brand management training at one of the prestigious Business Schools in United Kingdom, Ashridge Management College, preparatory to the consolidation exercise in the sector.

In the 1990s, Tunji bestrode the insurance industry like a colossus, bringing into it vigour, panache, style and sincerity of purpose. He was described as a rare gem with an aura that exuded excellence and confidence. He gave his time to teach insurance and encourage all to be professionals. A smart dresser and lover of good life; he loved his employees greatly. He was a philanthropist par excellence who gave freely and never shied away from surprising his staff – visiting those who took ill personally at home; throwing beach parties when the staff least expected it; being mystery Santa by appearing in Santa costume and visiting staff from floor to floor without them knowing who was behind the attire and sharing with staff profit he earns from businesses to motivate and encourage them to give their best.

He also loved his roots, as he rode in a bus with his staff to Ile-Ogbo to witness an event of an Uncle and proudly took them round the village telling them stories of how he started from there and the impact the community had on his life. That was the extent of his connection with his staff.

His personal brand and corporate positioning awareness was second to none. Deploying thought leadership and sponsorship as the two core elements in brand building with overwhelming impact, Tunji became a sought after speaker as he made the podium his platform to impact the world as a subject matter expert, delivering across all audiences. Thereafter, awards poured in torrents – as he won individual and corporate awards for his company year-on-year… back to back. Tunji became the golden boy of Nigeria’s Insurance industry.

He leveraged golf sponsorship to position Cornerstone as an elite brand appealing to corporate leaders who longed for the Cornerstone golf tourney every year on the golf calendar at Ikoyi Club 1938 and later at Port Harcourt Golf club. The tourney became a reference point as one or two other competitors later came on board to replicate the Cornerstone example.

 While preparations were in top gear to mark Tunji’s 40th birthday, having conquered the insurance sector, and looking at the next phase, he had developed a paper on bancassurance and was already in talks with his counterpart in the banking sector for collaboration to cross sell and deepen insurance and financial products in a mutually beneficial manner to consumers of financial products and solutions, the unexpected happened. Specifically on the evening of Sunday, November 5, 2000 the evening newspapers broke the news of his death in a robbery incident around the Falomo axis of Lagos Island at a time when Lagos roads were pot hole infested and violent robbery was a daily affair. As the story went, he ran into an exchange of gun fire between the police and suspected armed robbers who killed an expatriate Bank CEO; and in an effort to avoid being shot in the cross-fire, he crashed his vehicle and subsequently passed on.

 The news of his death – when it came – spread beyond the shores like fire and caught the insurance industry unawares. What followed the news was a combination of torrential tears, gloom and detest for a system that offered little or nothing for the security of her citizens. And not one death has shaken the larger Nigeria financial sector, especially the insurance industry as Ogunkanmi’s. A palpable gloom and despondency descended on the insurance sector at the news of his death.

 Following his death, tributes and encomium flew in from far and near, but one particular tribute that captured the mood of the generation of young insurance practitioners of that era was credited to Chief Oladipo Bailey, the then Commissioner for Insurance. According to Bailey,”… ’Tunji Ogunkanmi was, before his untimely death, a role model, a dynamic young man who came to the industry to play a vital role in its development. One thing is certain, no other person can fill the vacancy that has been created by his death…” Bailey’s words according to some industry practitioners were weighty and more of an assertion, but events it is said, proved that the torch that ‘Tunji passed on to the industry at death, still beams seamless light till this moment as most of his comrades are still playing big roles in the sector; ditto for Cornerstone Ambassadors who are spread across the sector and elsewhere dominating and impacting the spheres of influence.

 One of his comrades and founding managing partners of Cornerstone, who now sits atop Custodian & Allied Insurance Plc., Toye Odunsi, bare it all on how it all began: “When I got my letter of employment on the letterhead of Merchant Alliance Insurance Brokers, I asked him about the insurance company we discussed about, he said not to worry… I was not worried, after all I was earning only N970 per month from where I was coming but now offered N2,041 per month, so technically speaking I had not made a loss…

 “Interestingly everyone I sought their opinion about this new job I got, (including some consultants working with Arthur Andersen then) told me not to accept it as it was only going to be a fluke. I had known Tunji in Unilag during my school days as a brilliant young man, I had no doubt in my mind that it was going to work… I was too excited about the once in a lifetime opportunity to head marketing for an upstart/new venture… I guess the adrenaline pump was too much for me to think otherwise.”

 “Tunji helped me to succeed, as he kept telling all who care to listen to the positives that were apparent about me… I was always proud to introduce an Ilè Ogbó man as my MD, because no one expected such articulate and logical flow of intelligence from such an individual. Having passed through the foundations of Cornerstone, going into similar ventures much later was easy, because technically we were not reinventing any wheel, just doing the right thing and it was always going to translate to success”.

 Adegbola Sogbogun, a junior colleague: ”Tunji adored knowledge, worshipped it, and encouraged those around him to seek it. Though not a trained accountant, he often took up his accountants on figures. He was at home with Law and Philosophy. A very humble person, he fell in love with golf in the late nineties and was a prominent member of Ikoyi Club (Golf Section). Ordained a deacon in 1999, he ran the race well and kept the faith until he passed on to Glory. A very pleasant and amiable senior colleague, Adetunji Akanji Ogunkanmi (1960 – 2000) bowed out of the stage when the ovation was loudest. May his soul continue to find favours in the presence of the Lord.

 Tunji in the eyes of another of his former staff, Niyi Akintunde, is irreplaceable. At his 17th remembrance tribute by ex-staff, he said Tunji left the world in 2000 and “went with all the dreams, the vision, the cerebral style, the wisdom that was not of this world – that your amalgam of local knowledge and incontrovertible grasp of modern issues. Continuing, he opined that “Your likes come in only 1 spec. Tunji, you’re simply irreplaceable. Every November 4th we celebrate our wedding anniversary and the date also reminds us of the 5th when you travelled all the way to Iloko ijesha to drop off your son in school and did not die even though scores of wedding celebrants died in a tanker fire on your route but you escaped that carnage only to come and die on Falomo here at your backyard”.

 Many young people according to Eddie Akagbosu, another ex-staff, took to insurance as a career because of Tunji. He noted rightly that: “Indeed his life time symbolises so many things to different people, having seen him once in 1998 at our graduation seminar at University of Lagos, giving speeches as an alumni of our great University.  His words where filled with possibilities not impossibilities.  He said something that touched most undergraduates at the time that no insurance company in Nigeria would pay a better salary compared to what Cornerstone Insurance was paying then.  That alone encouraged so many of us to consider insurance as a career after school.”

 Kunle Ogunmefum, the Executive Vice-Chairman, Bluebird Communications is one man who has stood by the immediate family of the late Ogunkanmi like the rock of Gibraltar and demonstrated in practical terms, the true meaning of friendship, even in death. He traced his friendship with Tunji thus: “when he signed up for appointment at Nicon Insurance, we instantly hit it off.” Tunji loved God with great passion and was always guided by His doctrines and teachings. In his life time, he coached, mentored and developed a whole lot of young insurance professionals most of whom today occupy respectable positions in the industry and beyond. He believed in people and always had encouraging words for those around him. Tunji was an enigma. A rare gift to mankind, he touched several lives within a short time. He was a trusted friend that can never be forgotten.”

 Born on November 5 1969 in Ile-Ogbo, a small town near Iwo, in the then Western Region of Nigeria, shortly after the country’s independence in 1960, ‘Tunji, who had his secondary school education at Iwo Grammar School, Iwo (1973 – 1978); and later Higher School Certificate (HSC); got admitted to University of Lagos and graduated in flying colours bagging a B.Sc (Hons) degree in Insurance & Actuarial Studies in 1984. He was a Fellow of the prestigious Chartered Insurance Institute of London in 1990, he had a diverse working experience within the insurance industry, culminating in his founding Cornerstone Insurance Company Limited in 1991.

 To immortalize his name, ex-staff of the company he founded, under the umbrella of ‘Cornerstone Ambassadors’ are holding a memorial 57th post-humous birthday lecture today in Lagos with the theme: Building a Community of Brand Champions: How Leaders create a winning mindset’ to be delivered by the man who read his passage rites at his burial and a bossom friend, Tunde Ojo, Managing Director, Touchstone Communications Limited.

 As we relieve and celebrate his legacy, we take solace in the belief that the late Tunji Ogunkanmi is to Nigerian insurance what Albert Einstein is to Modern Physics and Steve Jobs is to Mobile Telephony.


 Rasheed Bolarinwa, a Lagos-based PR/Brand Communication Specialist, was former Head, Brand Management of Cornerstone Insurance and currently Secretary General, Association of Corporate Affairs Managers of Banks (ACAMB).