Emuwa: Banks Evolving to Align with Customers’ Needs

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The outgoing Chief Executive Officer of Union Bank of Nigeria Plc, Mr. Emeka Emuwa, in this interview speaks about how he was able to transform an old institution into a vibrant, innovative, and technology-driven and customer-focused bank. Nume Ekeghe presents the excerpts:

After about eight years, your tenure as the Chief Executive Officer of Union Bank will come to an end on March 31, 2021. How will you describe your time at the bank?
My time at Union Bank has been one of the richest experiences of my 30-year banking career. I have enjoyed the challenge of leading this institution over the past eight years. I would describe it as a tasking but also very rewarding journey, one with several highpoints along the way. The team and I have managed to successfully transform this 104-year-old institution, and that was no small feat. I am grateful to have had the firm support of my Executive and Senior Management team, all Union Bank employees, and the Board of Directors. I am pleased with the progress we have made over the past eight years, but even more excited about the path we have set the Bank on, and what the future holds for Union Bank.

When you took up the appointment as CEO, were you apprehensive about the journey ahead, especially since Union Bank was facing serious challenges at the time?

I joined Union Bank with a clear vision and mandate to drive its transformation and rebuild it into a leading provider of financial services in Nigeria. Yes, it seemed like a daunting mission, but it was one I looked forward to carrying out, especially considering my penchant for fixing things and solving problems. And so, the team and I set out on this journey, aware to some extent, of the enormity of the task we were faced with, but also excited about the challenge ahead and the success story we were weaving every day as we set about our work.

Union Bank has been in business for 104 years now. What factors would you say have been essential in helping the bank reach an anniversary that several other banks and institutions haven’t made it to?

A solid foundation is essential. This has helped us deliver value and engender goodwill with generations of Nigerians who have come to know us as their most reliable and trusted partner through various stages of life. Another thing that has sustained us and continues to set us apart is the fact that we are customer centric. Our customers are at the core of our existence, so we focus on providing them with the support they need to succeed.

We help them succeed, and in turn they stay with us and they help us succeed. Also, we realise that we live in a highly dynamic world, and any organisation that will go the distance must be nimble, innovative and resilient. As a bank, we have survived and thrived by sheer grit, agility, and a laser-like focus on exceptional service delivery, each time, every time.

There is no doubt that Union Bank has recorded significant progress over the past eight years of your tenure. What are the key highlights for you from the past eight years?

Looking back, I remember many high points and many milestones we achieved in our journey to rebuild this institution. One of the first things we set out to do in 2013 was to focus on redefining our strategy and setting out a clearly defined roadmap to re-establish the bank as a leading financial institution in Nigeria. Following that process, we kicked off a deep and far-reaching transformation programme in 2014, involving an upgrade of our technological platforms, our processes, and a remodeling of our workforce. All these were done to improve the quality of our operations, upgrade the bank’s distribution network and ensure consistent delivery of high-quality customer service.

In October 2015, we unveiled a new brand identity, revealing a vibrant, re-energised brand, ready to serve Nigerians for the next century and beyond. As part of our transformation, we also made significant, strategic investments in innovation and digitalisation, including the launch of a bouquet of exciting digital banking platforms in 2017. We introduced some exciting industry-first features on our mobile banking App, UnionMobile, such as ‘Locate-an-ATM-with-cash’ and ‘Agent Locator’. In 2017, when the bank turned 100, we held our centenary anniversary celebrations across the country. I will always cherish the opportunity I had to connect with our customers and stakeholders from Benin to Kano, Port Harcourt to Ibadan and Enugu. We wrapped up the celebrations with the final event in Lagos where we gave a call-to-action for increased private sector collaboration to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in Nigeria.

In 2019, we raised the largest 10-year bond ever issued by a corporate institution in Nigeria demonstrating the strong confidence the local capital market has in Union Bank. The N30 billion tier-2 bond was fully subscribed from the Nigerian capital market. Another major highpoint for us was paying dividends to our shareholders at the end of the 2019 financial year. That was the first time since 2008, so understandably, it was a major achievement for us. Along the way, we have received validation for our efforts from several quarters. We have seen increased acceptance of the brand – between 2018 and 2019, our customer base increased by 33.3 per cent. We have also received awards in key areas like Retail Banking, Sustainability, Branding and Advertising, Digitisation, among others.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world last year, with its attendant negative impact being seen across several sectors. How has Union Bank been mitigating against the negative effect of the pandemic?

As we navigate these unusual times, we are focused on our customers, employees, and the communities within which we operate. We also continue to promptly address business risk and ensure business continuity through our strong operational risk framework. To safeguard the health and wellbeing of our employees and our customers, we have adopted strict health and safety protocols at our operating branches and offices. We were one of the first in the Nigerian banking industry to adopt the work-from-home model, with over 70 per cent of our workforce operating remotely at the height of the pandemic. This seamless pivot was possible due to strategic investments in our digital technologies pre-Covid. To support our customers, we upgraded our digital channels to ensure reliable, uninterrupted service and continue delivering value.

We also developed new features on our platforms including straight-through account opening on our mobile banking app (Union Mobile) and a home delivery option for cards. In addition, we offered temporary and time-limited restructuring of tenor and loan terms for businesses affected by the outbreak of Covid-19 particularly in the oil & gas, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors. Supporting our host communities is also at the core of who we are, and so remains a major focus for us as well. We supported the government, private entities and our communities in the fight against COVID-19 with a total donation of N350 million towards the fund for Private Sector Coalition against Covid-19 (CACOVID); 54gene to support testing and research, working with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC); and the Lagos State COVID-19 Emergency Food Response programme to support families affected by the pandemic.The #UnionRiseChallenge which we launched in June last year, recognised and rewarded individuals and small organisations, who, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, rose to support their communities.

The bank awarded N15million to 90 winners, enabling them to do more. As a bank, we are focused on raising long term liability offshore and onshore as we continue to engage with our foreign currency funding partners to maintain existing credit lines. We have continued to review our credit portfolio and obligor engagement in vulnerable sector like. oil & gas, agriculture, and manufacturing, towards collateral strengthening and restructuring, leveraging CBN’s forbearance.
With a deliberate effort to grow our digital efforts and incentivise usage of channels to grow fees and commissions while reducing costs. Finally, we have also intensified cost optimisation efforts to reduce OPEX and improve cost to income ratio.

How has the pandemic affected your risk assets and what impact has it had on Union Bank’s bottom-line and balance sheet at the end of the 2020 financial year?

At the start of the pandemic last year, there was initial pressure on oil prices and foreign exchange availability, impacting oil & gas, import dependent manufacturing and general commerce and consumer segments. Thankfully, the Central Bank proactively introduced COVID-19 related forbearances on loans which allowed for short term moratoriums and extensions in impacted sectors. This cushioned the impact of the pandemic especially during the lockdown when economic activities slowed. With relatively more stable oil prices the portfolio outlook is positive, and Union Bank continues to grow its portfolio in resilient and focus sectors and areas where there are opportunities in line with its appetite. Close monitoring of the loan portfolio with emphasis on high-risk sectors and implementation of the CBN programmes has also led to an overall improvement in asset quality over the period.

Through your eyes, how has banking changed in recent years and how would you describe banking of the future?
Over the years, we have seen the banking landscape evolve from a dominant player industry with only a few big banks, through a period of rapid change where we saw many new entrants into the market. Then there was a consolidation phase, and now I see where we are at a period of revolution driven by technology, rapidly changing consumer needs and financial inclusion. In today’s world, banks need to think critically about the role we play in lifting our citizens up – both the banked and unbanked. The more Nigerians we can lift out of poverty, the larger the pool of potential customers we all have.

Collaboration, partnerships, and collective responsibility are key to tackling the big issues facing us as a people. I see the future of banking as heavily customer led. We already see banks evolving to align with customer needs. I expect to see a change in the role of brick-and-mortar banking establishments as adoption of digital banking platforms continues to increase. The concept of a bank in the traditional sense of the word will take on a new meaning as banking evolves over the next decade and beyond.

What’s next for you post Union Bank?

After my last day at Union Bank on the 31st of March, I look forward to taking a well-earned break and catching up on some much-needed sleep!