Wigwe: Recalibrating for the Future

Herbert Wigwe

True to type, the MD/CEO of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe, is making ingenious moves to maintain the leadership position of the financial institution he helped build to be one of the biggest in Africa, writes Demola Ojo

Just after the turn of the century in 2002, Hebert Wigwe and his business partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, saw a unique opportunity and grasped it, by acquiring Access Bank which at the time, was a small commercial bank ranked 65th out of the 89 banks in the country.

Eighteen years after, both Wigwe and Access Bank have grown in leaps and bounds; the former succeeding his partner as MD/CEO of the bank in 2014, the latter becoming one of the largest banks in Africa.

Starting out as a management consultant, Wigwe, a celebrated banker and chartered accountant, is now renowned for supporting the establishment and growth of African businesses. Through Access Bank, he has aided the development of some of the continent’s biggest companies in the construction, telecommunications, energy and oil and gas sectors.

Armed with a degree in Accountancy from the University of Nigeria, an MA in Banking and Finance from the University College of North Wales, and an MSc in Financial Economics from the University of London, Wigwe – who is also an Alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Management Program – has brought all his knowledge and experience to bear in propelling Access Bank to the top.

Last year, in a show of strength and courage, Access Bank acquired another top tier Nigerian bank, Diamond Bank, in a deal worth $200 million. The acquisition of Diamond Bank positioned Access as the leading retail bank in Africa. At the end of 2019, the bigger, better Access Bank posted an impressive performance with gross earnings rising 26 per cent to N667 billion, up from N528 billion the previous year.

Under Wigwe’s watch, Access Bank has become one of Africa’s leading financial institutions with a strong bias for excellent service delivery, which is attested to by its 2019 scorecard. It has secured a broad footprint across the continent, has spread its tentacles to the rest of the world, and has been ranked among the top 500 global banks according to a report by The Banker magazine.

COVID-19, Challenges and Opportunities

In the midst of a global pandemic that has put enormous pressure on corporations across different sectors of the economy including financial institutions, Wigwe’s experience and expertise will be needed now more than ever, to steer Access Bank into a future replete with hazards and opportunities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many individuals, businesses, and countries floundering. Businesses have had to – and will still need to – take proactive measures to get the best deal for shareholders, staff and customers. The pandemic is expected to fundamentally change the face of banking especially, as market forces and customer behaviour change.

The present times are a test of a CEO’s ingenuity and adaptability, attributes that Wigwe has already brought to bear in managing such a huge and successful organisation. Forward-thinking CEOs are already taking steps to position their organisations to not only survive, but thrive. Communicating measures and getting the buy-in of employees is crucial in these unpredictable times.

Wigwe is making sure to project into the future, prepare and stay ahead of the curve. At the end of last month, he informed shareholders at the bank’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) of measures to reduce expenses significantly. Rather than lay off, a compromise was reached with staff that some personnel would have to take varying degrees of cuts.

During an Employee Town Hall Meeting held online via Microsoft Teams, some strategic moves that the financial institution would take this month to ensure it weathered the ravaging effects of the present crisis were further discussed.

“…We are also looking at a professional cut. I understand that that is very tricky because it comes with pains. I will be the first to take the heat and I will take the largest pay cut, as much as 40 per cent. Everybody may have to make some adjustments of some sort.

“We understand the difficulties people are going through but also understand the higher calling of creating an institution that can continue to provide for us. When things improve tomorrow, we shall revert to normal. We understand the difficulties facing the people but we have to protect our franchise,” Wigwe explained.

Unfortunately, a part of the meeting which became a viral video on social media was misinterpreted to mean that the bank was planning to sack 75 per cent of its workforce as well as close over 300 branches. This is not only false, but further helped in shedding light on the fact that since its merger with Diamond Bank, Access Bank has deliberately avoided laying off staff or closing branches, even when such branches are in close proximity of each other.

Last year’s acquisition of Diamond Bank contributed to a 31 per cent increase in the new and bigger bank’s operating expenses, after the deal boosted employee numbers and resulted in wage harmonization.

Wigwe’s decision to lead by example and sacrifice for the good of the institution in these dire times is surely a boost to the morale of staff, especially as he clearly stated that it was a temporary decision. His predilection to embracing technology in steering the affairs of the bank also bodes well for the future.

He has championed the need for increased digital banking and has forged partnerships aimed at nurturing the next generation of cutting-edge financial-technology firms, while also developing products to support digital payments across Africa.

Innovation Bearing Fruit

In adapting to the present realities, Access Bank is reaping the fruits of decisions taken in the recent past to bring banking closer to the people. With retail banking deeply entrenched in its DNA, it is committed to increase access to services in communities across the country through its CLOSA initiative.

The CLOSA branches are Access Bank branded cabins situated in metropolitan areas offering banking services to its customers, from cash deposits and withdrawals to funds transfer, BVN enrolment, card issuance, card activation, cheque deposits, bills payments, and ATM services.

According to Wigwe, “Access CLOSA was introduced last year, and now, the peculiarities of the coronavirus has made it even more important to bring banking services closer to the people.”

Wigwe’s game-changing moves in the past have prepared Access Bank for these unpredictable times. His ability to recognise opportunities and adapt to the times will surely prove useful in navigating towards a prosperous future.