Wigwe: We Are Creating Truly Global Brand

Herbert Wigwe

The Group Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Access Bank Plc, Mr. Herbert Wigwe, in this interview on Arise TV spoke on the bank’s achievements since its merger, where the financial institution is headed to, among other issues. Nume Ekeghe brings the excepts:

I’d like to start with your achievement where Access bank has gone from the 69th lender in Nigeria as of 2002, to becoming the largest bank in Africa, in terms of customer base, having about 29 million customers, is that right?

That is correct.

What does that mean to you?

It is humbling and for me, I think what is really important is that we have a very strong team and it is as a result of the work of several people. We have about 25,000 staff and having the largest customer base of 29 million is something we are proud of. But what is more important is the fact that we take inspiration from of comparator banks who are also doing great things as far as financial inclusion is concerned and as far as digitalisation is concerned and all of that. And of course, as far the efficiencies of their numbers are concerned.

So, what we are more about now is what we are going to do to alter the customer experience for all our 29 million customers and growing.  And I think that number would approach 50 million or perhaps 60 million over the next three years and we want to show that together, we can actually deepen the market here in Nigeria and across the continent; and show that coming out of Africa, we can create a truly global brand that can stand side by side with global comparator institution like HSBC, JP Morgan, Citibank, etc. Only then can we see true development in our continent and in our country more specifically because the banks would be of sufficient scale, size and scope to ensure that there is great economic development in our country. 



Taking it back to when you were an employee at GTBank, would say you had always had the vision to head a bank or did you stumble on it?

The truth is absolutely, even the choice of banking as a career and I’ll speak to that in a little while. But I think one of the greatest opportunities we had and another thing that happened to us was to be blessed with great leaders. We had very strong ethical leaders and mentors and they were Mr. Fola Adeola and Mr. Tayo Aderinokun. As young as we were in our early 20s, they gave us a plain piece of paper to run a bank and it was unheard of. They empowered us and just let us do what we wanted to do. It created the foundation for everything that we have done. You are always a function of the people you meet, the values you see and all of that.  They instilled in us most of the values we have had as adults in terms of running a bank and how we see our vision for whatever institution we had. Those 12 years in GTBank were great years under the leadership of two outstanding professionals and they truly helped us.  They gave us also at different points in time truly the mantle of leadership to run the bank in fairness and these where clear delegations where they did not call from oversees to question our actions. So, in a way it was a great thing. But of course, the downside is the fact that you are creating monsters who now know how to do it and that was what happened. But we remain ever so grateful and privileged to have worked with them. So the instincts were there in terms of the desire to run an institution, but the confidence-building process truly happened there (GTbank) and having been given the opportunity to do it, it was clear to us that we could truly run a bank even as young as we were. 


And when you say we, who are the other persons you are referring to?

I’m talking about my partner Mr. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and I.


When was that the aha moment for both of you and what time did you decide you were leaving to start your own bank?

I would share as much as possible. Aig went to Harvard for a program, a very interesting program because that program gives you enough time to reflect on your future an all. He was there for about three months. He came back and I was going on the same program a few weeks after. But just before then, we were watching the institution grow and we were asking ourselves if we can create another oasis of sanity and can we replicate what is here, but a bit different and we were just thinking about it. So just before I was about leaving for my program, he (Aigboje) said: “Herbert, I think we should do it,” and it didn’t take me more than one second to say, “I’m all for it.” So, I went on that program which was a three-month program and of course every day, the only thing I thought of doing was how were we going to do this. At that program, we met young people about your age who were doing the same thing internationally. And so it challenges you knowing full well you are as good as them or even better. So a lot of retrospection in three months actually creates and builds that bubble within you. And so I came back, we just decided to proceed. Now, obviously, the next question people would ask is if there was the fear of failure, but the truth is that it never occurred to us that it wasn’t going to work. 


So, the bank unveiled its new identity this year, what would you say was the greatest achievement that came out of the merger between the former Diamond Bank and Access Bank?

It was very clear what we wanted from the beginning and at the beginning of this current five-year strategy plan, we had shared with the market that we were going to approach a very aggressive growth plan and digitalisation. Access Bank had built a strong solid wholesale bank and we had started through digitalisation to pursue our retail banking. Now, what former Diamond Bank had done was that it had focused largely on the retail business particularly as far as financial inclusion is concerned and in fairness to them, they have been the fastest-growing retail bank and had built a strong digital base and platform to support it.

So, we felt that bolting it on to what Access Bank had was going to create an institution that would serve every customer from the very top all the way down to the last man. So for us, this fusion was going to ensure that a couple of things would be done. Firstly, we would be rendering service to the largest corporates and more importantly, the SMEs would be served differently, catered for and supported financially by way of funding, loans but more importantly through capacity building which was one of Diamond Bank’s strength.


In terms of the creative industry, I know Access Bank has a Nollyfund dedicated to the Nollywood industry and the bank has heavily invested in the art scene. Do you have any other funds available for the creative industry asides from the Nollyfund?

We are cutting across the whole spectrum; let me share with you how we got into all of these. I keep saying that we are always a function of our experience and our history. And we have to rewrite the narrative about how Africa is looked at more specifically in Nigeria. When you go out, the only thing people think about Nigeria is around corruption, poverty, disease, and sickness, etc. which are not true. Several things have been said and done in Nigeria that the world needs to emulate. If you go out of this country, you have several Nigerians who are doing great things across the world and not written about them. So we have to change this narrative through which we are looked at. So even before the central bank started pushing aggressively, we felt that the best way to do this was to use the creative arts; music, Nollywood and others. So we started the ‘Born in Africa Festival’ that picks great Africans who have done things around the world and most especially, within the continent and we do this at Christmas; and it brings thousands of people here. So, if well captioned, people would start to see Africa differently and people would now visit Lagos and other African countries seeking for our entertainment. And then, apart from that, our artists are exposed to world-class best practices and they meet their colleagues internationally and they grow. So, apart from the Nollyfund, we do the same thing with ArtX, with Tokini Peterside, showing great artists who can stand and hold their own anywhere in the world. And we have done the same thing for the music industry and Nollywood as I’ve mentioned earlier. So it’s not just the Nollyfund, we have things that cut across the entire sector. We have the same thing for fashion which wasn’t our focus in the past, but it is now something we are pursuing aggressively now.  In pursuing all of this, we have also seen a lot of countries coming here to start making a great effort in terms of collaboration. 

In return, this industry can employ a huge amount of people and people don’t understand that if we pursue the creative sector properly, I think you would see it generating employment for five to 10 million people over the next five year, particularly in our entire industry, does this.

Secondly, you have great Nigerian talents doing great things in IT sector which can also be a huge source of foreign exchange. So, little things like that can help support the growth in our Gross Domestic Product without necessarily taking money from oversees. And of course, making sure people are employed has a social benefit.

Also, the central bank is now formalising it within their entire financial services sector and under the auspices of Governor Godwin Emefiele, the whole idea is that banks must start to support this actively. Not everyone has the same strength or the same passion for it, but some of us have always loved it.


You have a Foundation that is focused on education, health, and youth empowerment; can you talk to us about that? 

 I have a few things I am passionate about and children is one of them. I have spent time with the less privileged children and I have seen the pain that they go through and I know issues around health and so on. So, I basically decided to do something along the line where I do have some form of passion. The other area I would speak to is on enterprise-level, which kind of mirrors what I’m doing at least while I’m still in a formal executive position. I believe that every child is the same and that, that child you see begging on the street is not any different from any other child. It is opportunity and exposure. Just double click on your life, two or four generations, you would find that you are not different from those children. And if given the opportunity, they can be anything.  If you take them and show them, love, they wouldn’t be any different from you. So when you are faced with certain circumstances and you go to those places and you see these children who are going through great pain, depending on the kind of person you are, you will be sufficiently moved to do something to help. Health issues are also important to me and also education still fits in with these same children, which is critical.  We have done things in some interesting neighbourhood in Makoko where sewages are running through schools. And you can see the difference between a child who just started going to school even for one week, from other kids who aren’t going to school. The difference is 100 per cent. So, all of those things are intertwined, but it is more geared towards children.


You also have funding for female empowerment and also former Diamond Bank was focused on the same thing. With this merger, what kind of programs do you have for female entrepreneurs?

We cover the entire spectrum. We cover female professionals. We help women who have just gone to have children on coming back to employment to set up their own business. We have the maternal healthcare support scheme which basically helps people complete their families. In Africa, if you have a problem completing your family, they tend to blame the woman, meanwhile most of the time, it is actually the man’s fault. So we help couples by providing facilities at subsidised prices to enable them complete their families. The issue of female empowerment is something we have always done. We have come from a continent where depending on where you come from, women were seen as a weak gender, meanwhile, that is not exactly true. Educationally too, it is not true because, in terms of performance of female children, they tend to excel more.  And we felt that we needed to champion the whole thing and we worked with some other institutions that were doing female empowerment in other parts of the world and we came back and created what is now the ‘W’ initiative. The ‘W’ initiative is about inspiring, connecting and empowering women. So it goes completely beyond money. So, we are helping women in distress to achieve all that they truly desire. It also goes down to the workplace by making sure women are kept in the most appropriate circumstance. So those are all the things we have done. Now, we are pursuing this agenda and clearly, I think we are the leaders as far as all of these is concerned. And we also have a very interesting proposition; women represent 50 per cent of our population and they determine the income of the family or at least they save it for most people. So, if you capture all of them, by definition, you have locked down 50 per cent of the country. Diamond Bank, in fairness they were also trying to do the same thing and so this combination has basically locked down the entire female population. If you are a woman and you don’t bank with Access Bank, honestly I don’t know where else you can be doing your business. 


You have been able to manage a successful family and how are you able to merge having a great family life and run such a successful bank?

I think I’m lucky and privileged to have a great wife who tolerates me because I don’t think I’m an easy person given the number of hours we put at work. Obviously, you have to marry someone who understands your aspiration and understands what you want to achieve in life and identifies with it. If you have someone who is diametrically opposite, then obviously you have a situation. So I think that is the beginning and foundation for everything. And once you have the right value system, I think it would work.

 However, everybody would have pressure from time to time, certainly with the number of work hours. But I think if there is trust, if there is love and if there is companionship it would help to mitigate those situations. I believe I have been fortunate that I have someone who truly understands me.