Wigwe: The Rise of an Extraordinary CEO

Herbert Wigwe


In his relentless quest to fulfil the vision of catapulting Access Bank to the number one position in Africa, Herbert Wigwe continues to raise the stakes and in the process, garner accolades. His birthday, August 15, was another opportunity to celebrate how far he has come, writes Demola Ojo

When the names of giants in Nigeria’s banking sector are mentioned, Herbert Wigwe, the MD/CEO of Access Bank, has a prominent place. Through innovation, visionary leadership and an appetite for bold ventures, Wigwe has continued to make his mark in a sector he took by storm in 2002, along with his partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede.

Access Bank’s current leadership position in Africa – where it is the continent’s largest bank by customer base, with over 40 million users – is awe-inspiring, considering its humble beginnings. Its stratospheric rise to the top in a short period of time is a feat largely due to Wigwe’s ingenuity, expertise and seeing opportunity that many others are blind to.

Just after the turn of the century, Wigwe and Aig-Imoukhuede dared to break away from Guaranty Trust Bank and build what has become a behemoth of an institution that is still growing, breaking barriers and conquering new fronts. They 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 Nigeria.

It’s a partnership which has blossomed ever since, an example of a partnership that works through thick and thin, following in the example of the financial institution which they left to forge their own path.

Prior to the acquisition of Access Bank, Wigwe had spent over a decade at GTBank and had risen to the position of Executive Director. To make the jump into the uncertain waters of building a much smaller bank from ground up seemed like career suicide.

But the two men, then in their 30s, were propelled by their vision and conviction that they could take Access Bank to the very top. They set out a plan to ensure that the bank became one of Nigeria’s leading financial institutions within a five-year period.

But their impact was much more immediate, reflected in the bank’s performance in the first year, when its balance sheet grew by 100 per cent, with an impressive N1 billion profit before tax. This figure was more than the cumulative profit made by the bank in the previous 12 years of operations.

Eighteen years after that acquisition in 2002, both Wigwe and Access Bank have grown in leaps and bounds.

Wigwe, who was initially Deputy Managing Director when the pair took over, succeeded his partner as MD/CEO in 2014. The bank has subsequently become stronger, rising from fifth to first position (by customer base and brach network) in the country and developing into one of the most respected on the continent, after enjoying what is arguably Africa’s most successful banking growth trajectory in the last twelve years. But Wigwe remains humble despite these sterling achievements.

Born August 15, 1966, in Ibadan, Oyo State, Wigwe always had an aptitude for numbers, a fact he attributed to playing “mental mathematics” with friends while growing up. This game involved solving random mathematical questions without the aid of a calculator.

It was no surprise to those who knew him that he enrolled to study Accountancy at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) in 1983, graduating with a Second Class Upper honours degree in 1987.

In 1989, he passed his Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) professional examination and moved on to work as a credit analyst at Capital Merchant Bank.

His commitment to education earned him a scholarship from the British Council to study at North Wales University (now Bangor University) in 1990. He followed up with a Masters in Banking and Finance in 1991 before returning to Lagos to join GTBank, which was then a fast growing new generation bank. Wigwe rose through the ranks and at 32, he was an Executive Director.

Not done with his education, and in preparation for future tasks, Wigwe would go on to earn an MSc in Financial Economics from the University of London. He would also become an alumnus of Harvard Business School Executive Management Program.

Now a globally celebrated banker, Wigwe is 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.

Currently Chairman of the Bankers’ Committee, he is the go-to man when it comes to financial sector interventions of national importance, from playing a major role in the formation of the Coalition against COVID-19 (CACOVID), to taking over the National Theatre for renovation as one of many creative hubs planned around the country.

Above all, Wigwe has brought all his knowledge and experience to bear in propelling Access Bank to the top. Access Bank is now one of the top five banks in Nigeria and ranked among the top 500 global banks. But the aim is to be Africa’s undisputed number one bank.

Over the last six years under his stewardship, Access Bank has continued on its upward trajectory, at a dizzying pace. In the last month alone, it acquired banks in Kenya and Zambia.

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.

A leading full-service commercial bank, Access Bank operates through a network of more than 600 branches and service outlets, spanning three continents, 12 countries and about 40 million customers. The Bank employs 28,000 people in its operations in Nigeria and has subsidiaries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the United Kingdom, a branch in Dubai, UAE, and representative offices in China, Lebanon and India. Access Bank UK branch, is today seen as about the most successful African bank branch from the continent in the United Kingdom.

Access Bank has been accorded recognition by reputable domestic and global organisations over the years. Some of these recognitions in the past two years alone include the 2019 World Finance Award “Best Digital Bank in Nigeria”; 2019 World Finance Award “Best Mobile App in Nigeria”; 2018 CBN ‘Sustainable Bank of the Year’; and ‘2018 Global Banking and Finance Review, “Best Investor Relations Bank in Nigeria”.

Access Bank bagged the award as “Bank of the Decade” and Wigwe was honoured as “Banker of the Decade” by THISDAY Newspapers at its 25th anniversary celebration held earlier this year in Lagos.

While it is without doubt Wigwe shares these accolades of with his partner and friend, Aig-Imoukhuede, it is fair to say he has improved the bank’s standing and public perception index, which explains why he is highly-respected by his peers. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN – FCA), a Fellow of The Institute of Credit Administration, and an Honorary member of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria.

He is sought after globally to share his thoughts, with recent speaking engagements at Silicon Valley and the Financial Times Summit in Mozambique.

Probably most important for the bank’s 40 million customers and 900,000 shareholders though, is that the future looks bright under Wigwe’s stewardship. Among many reasons is his penchant for technology in steering the affairs of the bank.

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.