Johnbull Okpara Is a Change Agent

Thirty years into his career, Citigroup’s
Johnbull Okpara is focused on mentorship and
making a difference in the lives of others.

By Donald Liebenson
Photos by Peter Garritano

Johnbull Okpara, chief accounting officer and controller at Citigroup, recalls a defining moment from earlier in his thirty-year-career. He was working at American Express and doing pretty well—or so he thought.

The CEO had organized a lunch meeting for high-potential employees, and he asked Okpara what feedback he was getting from his own team. “I told him that I had not received any constructive feedback, and that everybody said I was doing a great job,” Okpara recalls. “On top of that, I had recently been promoted. He said, ‘Listen, if people are telling you that you are perfect, then they are lying to you, because if you were, you should be the CEO. Even beyond the CEO, perhaps retired already.’”

Feedback, Okpara says, is a gift. “I encourage young folks to seek feedback, take it on board, and leverage and work on it. I call it ‘feed-forward,’ which translates to, ‘What am I going to do next time?’ To me, that is much more important than ‘What did I do wrong the last time?’”

Born and raised in Nigeria, Okpara is the middle child of nine. This, he says with a laugh, might account for his competitiveness. He credits his parents for his work ethic and intellectual curiosity. His father was a professional photographer. His mother, a lifelong chef, ran the most popular restaurant in town. “She was up at 5:00 a.m. and went to bed past midnight,” he says.

“I take the most pride in hearing that I have made a difference in someone's career or in their personal situation.”

Johnbull Okpara

Okpara devoted himself to his studies. “Studying was my escape from working in the restaurant,” he jokes. Initially he earned a degree in applied chemistry. “As a photographer my dad had a stint with Shell Oil early in his career,” he says. “The degree was supposed to position me very well to work in the oil industry as an engineer.”

Enter Arthur Andersen. Fairly new to Nigeria, the global accounting and consulting firm focused its recruiting on candidates who came from a variety of discipline but had one thing in common: they were the best and the brightest. “They had a broad array of career paths in consulting, accounting, tax, and advisory, and offered the best training and development,” Okpara says.

The company also had a very competitive recruiting process, Okpara adds, which appealed to that side of his personality.Joining Arthur Andersen was foundational for Okpara’s career. “I was not a natural accountant,” he recalls. “I remember arguing with one of my instructors at our induction training about debits and credits. I could not see why debits were a good thing for ledger balance sheet and asset perspective when it is a bad thing for my bank account. Suffice to say, it is now very clear.” His experience at Arthur Andersen in Lagos, Nigeria, and subsequently in New York, he says, was instrumental in building his foundation in accounting, financial statement analysis, business writing, client communication, and other areas.

While working at the company, he obtained his Certified Public Accountant (CPA) qualification in Pennsylvania and earned his MBA at New York University, Stern School of Business, majoring in finance and management.

Okpara joined Citigroup in November 2020. His previous role was head of financial planning and analysis for Morgan Stanley as well as CFO for the infrastructure groups. Other career milestones include stints with Ernst & Young’s Business Risk Services practice and American Express, where he spent a combined six years in New York and about four years in London in various financial management and controller roles.

He then returned to the United States, where he oversaw M&A related activities at American Express and then served as a deputy controller at Capital One.

“I’m voracious when it comes to learning,” Okpara says. “An organization is like a house, and the more rooms in that house you’re familiar with, the better prepared you are to one day be the keeper of that house. My intellectual curiosity has led me to do different things.”

As chief accounting officer and controller, Okpara is the guardian of Citi’s galaxy, overseeing financial and regulatory reporting, valuation of financial instruments, accounting policy, and transformation of finance operations. He also leads the CFOs of most of Citi’s international markets, insurance risk management, business unit controllers, and internal controls management including Sarbanes Oxley Compliance, credit controls, and corporate accounting.

But he considers mentorship to be among his most important roles. He leads a team of more than three thousand individuals and oversees approximately five thousand people in total. “I take most pride in hearing that I have made a difference in someone’s career or in their personal situation,” he says.

As far as work/life balance, Okpara views it like an investment portfolio: he seeks balance on average and in chunks over time, not necessarily daily or weekly. That’s how he is able to juggle his very busy work life and, along with his wife, Jacklyn, focus on their four children (who are all active student athletes).

Inside and outside Citigroup, Okpara strives to be a “change agent.” A few years ago, he served on the board of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the world’s premier modern dance theaters. He is on the board of the Nigerian Higher Education Foundation as well as a Nigerian American foundation in his own name that focuses on healthcare screening. He has also been a member of the Executive Leadership Council, an organization committed to increasing the number of global Black executives, since 2014.

Okpara is a subscriber to the two R’s: relationships and results. “I like to get to know the people who work with me,” he says. “One of the first things I did when I got here was to undertake an organization redesign. I did a survey of who’s who and what they did. It’s important to put people where their strengths are maximized. I am anchored in making everything and everyone I work on and with better, including myself!”

“I’m voracious when it comes to learning. An organization is like a house, and the more rooms in that house you’re familiar with, the better prepared you are to one day be the keeper of that house.”

Johnbull Okpara