Interview: Why I stopped being an Arsenal fan – Access Bank MD/CEO, Herbert Wigwe

Herbert Wigwe

The Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Access Bank Plc, Herbert Wigwe, speaks about his career, the banking industry, childhood and other issues

Access Bank and Diamond Bank merged recently. Why did you choose to become one with Diamond Bank?

We had built a very strong franchise around the corporate banking space, since that was really where our strength laid. We have very strong treasury and risk-management skills. We had started our digital banking endeavour to acquire more clients and one thing you will realise is that, in this market, retail is very important. Retail is fundamental for skill and it helps take banking to the last customer. Fortunately, Diamond Bank had built a reasonably strong retail franchise– it had set up the digital processes required for large customer acquisition. It had also built partnerships with various telecommunications companies, and we felt that a combination of both institutions would give us dominance in the wholesale aspect– helping us take banking down to the last person.

We’ve been able to generate low-cost liabilities and we’ve created products to help support the average man on the street, not just the high-net worth people we already serve. This is also of the utmost importance to us. Basically, all Nigerians can feel the power of Access Bank now.

In creating the merger, what were the challenges you faced?

The first challenge I faced was the fact that they had a legacy of some bad loans but because we have very strong risk-management systems and processes, we’ve since dealt with them. The second is related to culture. No two institutions have exactly the same culture but it’s interesting that the principles and values of the institutions are largely the same. In every merger, there will be people who wouldn’t support it. Getting a consensus for us to ensure that the way the costumers see us is consistent was also rather challenging. But, we’ve gone through it and survived. Access Bank is no stranger to combining institutions in Nigeria. We’ve done it at least six times and we’ve built significant skills and competence around it.

Finally, technology was an area we also faced challenges. It was one of the considerations we had in mind at the time we decided to have the merger with Diamond Bank. We shared the same technology platform but even with that, putting it together came with its own challenges. We’ve also been able to handle that well.

How have the customers been able to properly navigate the terms of the merger?

There are definitely some customers of Diamond Bank who had a strong emotional attachment to the bank. Regardless of the offers from the merger, they weren’t open to the fact that their bank, as it stood individually, would be no more. There were also some from Access Bank who shared the same sentiment. We then had to engage customers across the entire country consistently, and we are not stopping. We’ve used tools such as roadshows, market shows, town hall meetings, speaking to critical customers, reaching the high net-worth clients and the middle-income people. The idea is to let the customers and all the different stakeholders understand what we are creating. In every institution, there are regulators who understand what you are doing– those in the stock exchange, and employees, for example, and you must convince and share with them. We’re still on that but we are making good progress. The customers are very vital as they can leave if they choose to. Added to these, we have foreign investors and although they believe in one, one must be able to explain to them the rationale for the merger. This is because, given the growth rate, we were bound to excel from the onset, but one must let them understand the new scale that has been created. Right now, we have 31 million customers and this figure is higher than any other African bank’s customer base. We interpret the scale on which we are trying to operate– to show them that we are creating an institution that is global in scale and scope, is digitally-led and can show that Africans can also create an institution that can stand with other global giants. It may have been tough in the beginning but in the end, a global champion is being created.

What has been your experience being the CEO of two merged banks?

In all fairness, I doubt if anyone has ever run a bank of this size because we are the largest. When I ran a small bank with my partner, I knew every member of staff by name. Now, in running a bigger system with 29,000 staff members, there is a big change. I’m still trying to know their names and faces. I’m also still learning how to navigate such a massive institution. The principles are the same but the personal touch that I had before is somewhat removed, because of the bigger size of the institution. One has to work through the executive directors and others to pass the culture down. I miss spending time with people. But because we are growing across the continent and across the world, each time we set up a new subsidiary, I go there and spend time with them. It’s a rare experience that I really treasure. Being able to create requires a different type of thinking and helping to support them mentally is something of great value to me. It is why some banks are failing and others are blooming. It is all a function of leadership.

What stirred your interest in the financial sector?

My initial love, career-wise, was for investment banking. They (investment bankers) appeared to be people who had an intricate understanding of finance. It also seemed like a rather interesting life. Huge investment banks in Japan were determining the future of countries and continents, and I felt it was something I liked. I also had a very strong quantitative background – I was extremely numerate. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer although I thought they were also interesting fields. But, I found finance more interesting. I proceeded to take my chartered accountancy examination and qualified. I then worked with a firm known as Coopers (now called PricewaterhouseCoopers). I took postgraduate degrees in finance and had the privilege of working in an investment bank which didn’t succeed. It was a great learning process for me. My partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, and I spent a lot of time learning finance and investment banking. In the end, we decided to create a commercial bank that would have a broad base, and have the capacity to also run as an investment bank.

Tell us about quitting paid employment and establishing Access Bank

We had worked with start-up banks in the past, so we weren’t afraid of the unknown. I had worked in a bank which failed and while there, I had shared with the founder of the bank the problems with the company. I then went to work in another start-up bank, which became a success story– Guaranty Trust Bank. And that was where our value system, regarding running a bank, truly got built. At certain points, we had to act for the founders, so at a very young age, we were already comfortable running an institution. The more we did it, the more comfortable and confident we got. So, we thought to create another institution which shared the same values and possibly, do better. It also helped that we spent some time in Harvard with people who were doing great things in their countries.

If you weren’t in the finance industry, what other field do you think you may have worked?

I believe I’d have done well in anything I chose to do because my work ethic has never been different from what it is today. I was clear about what I wanted to be even from my childhood. I studied Accounting and specialised in Finance although I initially got admission to study Actuarial Science. I declined the offer because I wanted to become an accountant. Given the skills I had, I could have studied anything and succeeded, but it was clear to me from the start that I wanted to study Accounting.

Did you imagine yourself attaining the position you currently occupy?  

I have always been very entrepreneurial. I’m also quite restless and I’m not afraid of taking risks. I never doubted that I could create and run a bank.

After retirement from your position as MD/CEO of Access Bank, what further plans do you have?

I have many plans. I’m not scared of any type of challenge. I’m sure my life will be broken into different facets– philanthropy, for instance. I really love children and seeing underprivileged children breaks my heart. All children are the same and are all functions of circumstance. I’ve interacted with underprivileged children for a long time and I’ve realised that they have very huge skills and great potential that most people can’t begin to imagine.

Also, I don’t think I will be too far away from finance. There are several things I can do and I believe I’ll play a very significant role in contributing to our country and growing our economy.

If other banks follow your example and begin to have mergers, do you think you’ll merge with even more banks to stay on top?

There is a bank called JPMorgan Chase which has done 600 mergers. Aside from the Chinese banks, it is the largest in the world. If they’ve been able to do this in the world of banking, then anything is possible. We’ve done mergers about eight times. One thing is sure, though, it is very achievable because we have the template for it. We know exactly what we want and what we are looking for. There is no bank on this continent that can say they understand combinations as much as we do–we have done it many times and they haven’t. If people follow this trend, it is alright because we are creating larger institutions. We must create true African champions– that is my desire. We must create banks that can change our country fundamentally.

About 20 years ago, it was extremely difficult to do deals of $1bn. To put together that sum of money for any corporate organisation, one had to travel all over the world. Today, people do deals worth billions of dollars in the comfort of their homes and offices. The larger the institutions, the larger their capacity to support the country to grow.

As long as it’s done for the right reasons, even if it’s a merger, the creation of large African champions who can truly have a significant impact on the country is critical.

Many Nigerians still don’t understand the relevance of the bank verification number. How best can you explain it to them?

The bank verification number is like an identity which is unique to a person. It makes it difficult to be swindled because your BVN is your identity. The equivalent of it in other countries is the social security number. If you have a BVN, someone must replicate your BVN in order to steal your money, so it’s good from a security standpoint. Also, even as a country, it can stop ‘terrorist money’. If they had used this properly in the United States at the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there could have been a different outcome. However, because they had their own social security system, they were able to trace where the money came from. You need things like these to ensure that your environment is secure. It also protects the entire financial services sector from fraud and other crimes.

Nigeria turned 59 recently, yet the country isn’t still regarded for its growth and development. What’s your take on that?    

We (Nigeria) used to be known for our development. We’ve seen double-digit growth before. We have the largest and most profitable telecommunications company on the continent. The problem was that when we were to switch into more import substitution, we didn’t switch. We have the capacity to produce more cocoa than others because we have the financial resources to support it. But we have chosen not to. We were importing fish and rice until the Central Bank of Nigeria put a stop to it. If we had done the switch, conserved our foreign currencies and used it for other things, we would have seen that double-digit growth. We would have even seen the double-digit growth if we had invested in power early enough. If we used our money to create the appropriate infrastructure, and we lived on homegrown things, we’d see the double-digit growth.

South Africa, during the apartheid, was blocked and they had to develop their products internally. Sadly, it came from a negative circumstance but it became a positive thing. But, we don’t need a negative circumstance. We can address these things ourselves and achieve growth.

I think the government is currently doing things to make it happen but we must realise that it’s not a short-term thing. It requires time and the policies have to be consistent and support local entrepreneurs.

Do you think you’ll ever venture into politics to effect a change of some sort?

I won’t rule it out because, at a time, it occupied a major space in my mind. I think we all have roles to play, even without being in politics. Not all of us must be politicians to be able to achieve the same objective. I don’t think I will pursue it anymore but there are other things I can do to achieve the same purpose and it’d be seen by everyone as service to the country.

What’s your schedule like when you’re not at work?

I run, go to the spa, and spend time with my kids and friends. I enjoy travelling but I figure that’s more infused into work. Before my knee got rather tired, I used to run in the half marathon but I just do the 10km marathon nowadays or I cycle. As one grows older, one has to switch the sports one does because if one runs often, one’s knees would start to hurt after a while. Running is still the best sport for me though because of the adrenaline rush it gives me.

Are you a football fan?

I used to be an Arsenal fan until I had a devastating experience. I don’t remember what year it was when my partner and I were watching a match and we were up 2-0, beating Manchester United. Manchester then scored twice and won the match. I brooded over the loss for three days and I realised I couldn’t deal with such again. I’m very sentimental about everything I do. If my team loses, I’d stay sulking over it while others would have moved on. However, I enjoy when Nigeria is playing.

You have the access to drive a bullion van. Have you ever driven one?

I have a brother who has been in one but I haven’t driven it. At this point, it’s rather late. I’m not sure I’ll be allowed to try such if I were to attempt it now.

What has been your biggest achievement in life?

My children definitely come first. Superintending my kids and ensuring they grow up to become responsible is really an amazing feeling. I remember all the times I laid eyes on each of my kids for the first time. As they were growing up, all my kids slept with me on the same bed till they were old enough. Till they became young adults, I could account for almost every detail of their lives.

How would you describe yourself as a husband?

I’m very lucky to have married my wife. She’s very understanding as regards what I do and the amount of time I spend working. I’m sure other women would have had an issue with that. Although we didn’t date for long before we got married, I can say I married my friend. Maybe also because of the time she met me and she knew what my work ethic was like. I am very blessed to have her. I think I also played my role as a husband and head of the family. I have been (and still am) able to juggle domestic activities and balance them with my work.

How did you meet your wife?

She had come to Nigeria for her National Youth Service Corps programme when I met her. One Friday evening, I was hanging out with a lady friend when I saw her. She was also the lady’s friend. I asked my friend about her and she made the introduction. We got married between 90 and 120 days after we met.

How did you propose to her?

It was quite simple– I just asked her to marry me. I could have pretended and spat sweet words but I had the intention of marrying her and I went for it. It was during Easter and I had spent about a month with her. I was very comfortable with her and knew she was the one for me. It helped that our parents knew themselves, which we found out much later. It helped the marriage process go smoothly.

How would you describe your childhood?

I was restless and troublesome, but I’ve always had the fear of God. My parents were civil servants, and we grew up in different places including Port Harcourt, Benin, Ibadan and Lagos. I had only five siblings but there were never less than 10 kids in the house, and we all regarded one another as one family. Interestingly, we were all in the same age bracket and were treated equally. We were very studious and took school very seriously. We were also not entitled kids and the values of honesty, friendship, loyalty and family were ingrained in us.

Is there any memory of your childhood you can never forget?

I used to have a brother who was a maths genius. One day, he was studying on the dining table in preparation for an exam and he fell asleep. My dad came back home while my brother was still sleeping and it got him furious. He struck my brother’s head with his briefcase because he believed that him falling asleep meant he wasn’t focusing enough– knowing he had exams coming up. It occurred to me that if my brother, who unlike the rest of us, was very good at maths, could suffer such a punishment, I had to reorder my path. From that moment until I graduated, I was almost always the best mathematics student in every class I was. The thought of such a problem (with my dad) befalling me was very terrifying. I saw the point in my father’s action– it didn’t come from a place of wickedness, rather, love.

What life lessons have impacted you that you’ll be passing to your kids?

Anything that one finds to do, one should do it well. Whatever profession one is into, if one does it well, one would excel. That is the most important thing to me. I also believe that character is important. This is in terms of one’s values. If one truly lives by the values that are important to one in life, even if one faces difficulties, one’s character will take one through life. The day the truth finally prevails, people will see what one truly stands for.

Over the years, I have had my fair share of pain but when I get to the end, people would have seen that I remained true. This is also true for my partner.

How do you like to dress?

It depends on where I’m going to or what I’m doing. If I’m in a place like Miami, I could wear orange shorts but once I’m in the formal mode, I dress corporately.

What’s your favourite food?

I love amala and okra soup.

Can you cook?

I can’t cook now though I used to when I was at the university. I can cook what I’ll eat but I’m not sure someone else will be able to eat the food.

What’s your favourite movie?

I have many of those but I really enjoy The Godfather because it teaches many principles about life. It teaches about decisiveness, family and real world problems. In fact, it is used in business schools.

What is your biggest fear in life?

The only thing I really fear is failure. I can’t have a bank that will go under. Punch


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