The Iconic Leader AIG- A LEGACY OF BUILDING OUTSTANDING PLATFORMS*
Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, Aig – as close friends commonly call him, investor, banker, and philanthropist, has been able to pack a shelf of startling achievements into his short post-graduation years. And this is a feat that takes many successful individuals a lifetime to accomplish.
This piece is a tribute to a good friend for over two decades, a father, and a gift that never stops giving. Ayo Arowolo attempts to unravel The Icon – Aig to celebrate his 56th birthday. Read on.
“Most of the tremendous cultural shifts – ones that have built great organisations that sustain long-term growth, prosperity and contribution to the world – started with the choice of one person. Sometimes that person is the formal leader – the CEO, the president, etc. Regardless of their position, these people first changed themselves from the inside out. Their character, competence, initiative and positive energy – in short, their moral authority – inspired and lifted others. They possessed an anchored sense of identity, discovered their strengths and talents, and used them to meet needs and produce results. People noticed. They were given more responsibility. They magnified the new responsibility and again produced results. More and more people noticed and sat up. Top people wanted to learn about the ideas – how they accomplished so much. The culture was drawn to their vision and them – Stephen R. Covey.
My first contact with Aig was in 1996. My boss, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, facilitated the conversation. I had just crossed to THISDAY from The News Magazine. The first assignment Mr Obaigbena gave me was to do an INSIDE BUSINESS piece (a special features story published in the early pages of THISDAY, which allowed us to accommodate insights on the subject of focus) on the Discount House business, which had just been introduced into the financial services industry.
As part of my fact-gathering process, I had gone round the offices of the five discount houses then, but when the chairman asked who my sources were, I told him they were corporate affairs managers of those institutions. He was livid. “What of their managing directors? He ordered me back to those places and insisted I speak only to their CEOs. “Tell them you work with THISDAY,” he said as he gave me what looked like an irreversible order. I summoned courage and went back to each of the discount houses – Kakawa, Express, Associated, Consolidated, FSDH and walked straight to the offices of the CEOs, introducing myself as I was instructed.
Surprisingly, all the CEOs granted me interviews. I put the article together, and it was published. I became a friend to the CEOs of all five discount houses. The story generated reactions, and a few of the chairman’s friends called him to complain I was biased in my analysis. One of those people happened to be Mr Segun Agbaje, current CEO of GTB, who was a top management staff of the bank. My chairman instructed me to go to GTB to see Mr Fola Adeola for him to educate me more on what the discount houses business was all about. Mr Adeola did his bit, but he eventually handed me over to Aig and Mr Agbaje, who were gracious enough to share their views on the subject. I became a regular visitor to GTB and got close to Mr Agbaje and Aig.
Somehow, I became closer to Aig as he developed an interest in my writings and offered suggestions from time to time. I have been able to maintain both professional and personal relationships with him from that time to date.
WHY I GOT MORE INTERESTED IN LEARNING FROM HIM
I started to track Aig more intentionally when he took what looked like a surprising move to many by stepping out of his comfort zone just a couple of years after being promoted to become the youngest executive director of a bank. He resigned his appointment from the bank and began an entrepreneurial mission.
Aig and Herbert Wigwe, his soul mate in his early banking years, who also stepped on the same train with him, were able to acquire Access Bank and turn it around. Within a few years after emerging as one of the 25 survivors of the Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Charles Soludo’s consolidation agenda, Aig and Herbert executed what has been described as a replica of the David vs Goliath story, as told in the Bible, by acquiring a much bigger bank, Intercontinental Bank. That instantly shot Aig and his friend into the limelight.
In 20 years, Aig has been able to stamp his imprint on the country’s financial services industry such that he cannot be ignored. Aig has evolved from a banking whiz kid into a respected thought leader in Nigeria’s financial markets, leaving indelible footprints in every single intervention he has made there.
He chaired presidential and national banking industry committees on various monetary policy initiatives and was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Financial Market Dealers Association. Aig was also the strong hand behind the establishment of the FMDQ OTC Exchange, which now specialises in fixed income securities and derivatives, serving as its pioneer chairman. He was elected Council President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 2013, becoming the first African to chair two national exchange platforms. As president of the exchange, he championed its demutualisation, which was completed in 2021.
In 2012, Aig was appointed Chair of the Presidential Committee on the Verification of Fuel Subsidies. His oversight of the process has been widely credited with saving Nigeria billions of dollars in fraudulent fuel subsidy payments. Aig was conferred with the National Productivity Award before becoming a recipient of the ‘CON’ honour, one of the highest national honours to be given to an individual. So much in such a short period.
AFTER ACCESS, WHAT NEXT?
Not a few people conjectured after Aig indicated he would be stepping out of Access Bank as CEO that he would probably retire into non-executive director roles and charities just as some other successful individuals have done. But at his Access Bank farewell dinner, Aig announced that he was ending a chapter of his adventurous journey and stepping into a brand new one. He said without mincing words that in his post-Access adventure, he would focus on three areas: his family, philanthropy and strategic investments. And that he was no longer interested in running any company as CEO. And so far, he has kept his focus.
THE AIGBOJE AIG-IMOUKHUEDE FOUNDATION
The Aig-Imoukhuede Foundation is the philanthropic platform cofounded by Aig and his wife, Ofovwe, to improve the lives of Africans through transformed public service delivery and access to quality primary healthcare. Their philanthropy commenced with the African Initiative for Governance (AIG), a non-governmental organisation, which was launched in Oxford in 2016. Interestingly, it was launched in the presence of Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general. It has evolved into a major regional force for good. The hallmark of his legacy approach is now evident, forming a strong partnership with his wife, who plays the role of CEO at the foundation, while he serves as the non executive chairman.
The Aigboje Aig Imoukhuede Foundation is in partnership with the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The school says it is immensely proud of the partnership with the foundation, as the partnership has enabled the school not only to support and inspire better public leadership in Nigeria but to enable other countries to learn from Nigeria in an increasingly complex and dynamic world. According to a statement credited to the school in a recent publication: “Our partnership has enabled us to attract, educate and network outstanding Nigerian students and public servants and to enable them to learn from Oxford University – something neither of us would otherwise be able to do”.
Aig’s role is like that of coach and catalyst, inspiring courage and action from the foundation’s team and the hundreds of high potential public servants, who are receiving world-class education on public policy and management from top professors in world-class universities. The foundation is becoming a major partner in the ongoing reforms of the civil service.
Apart from the billions of naira he is channelling through the foundation, he is spending a chunk of time mentoring and coaching public servants – senior, middle and even junior. Aig said during the inauguration of AIG in 2016: “The goal is that by the time AIG is 20 years old, 80% of Nigerian top 3000 civil servants must have benefited from the series of capacity building through our foundation. Already, almost 200 have been touched. By that time, Aig’s goal of creating a critical mass of change agents in Nigeria would have been achieved. His goal is that ultimately, as Access Bank has been able to interact with its 50 million customers digitally, hundreds of millions of Nigerians should be able to interact digitally with the civil servants using their mobile phones.
AIG INVESTMENT STRATEGY
In a short zoom meeting I had with Aig last week, he described his investment strategy in this way: “My investment strategy is all about building platforms. From my conversation with him, Aig said he would like to be seen as a flag bearer of platform growth in Africa, despite having successfully deployed linear growth strategies in most of his earlier professional and entrepreneurial ventures. He has embraced the platform growth model as his chosen path. “I have no future interest in backing linear growth models. You would observe that these are the companies described with words like ‘Empire’ I am done with that. I don’t want to be called an emperor”. I would prefer to be known as an Orchestrator.
Aig said the foundation is a platform for his philanthropic legacy that is being built to outlive him. The business platforms are being built in the same way to survive him.
ANCHORS OF AIG’S ACHIEVEMENTS?
Many people have been curious about the business strategies or templates that Aig has been deploying to enable him to achieve so much within a very short period. I was curious as well. I found the answer in the story of a guy called Nehemiah in the Bible.
Thoughtfully considered, Aig’s story reads like a script from the Nehemiah playbook. As described in the Bible, Nehemiah was a young Hebrew, who was captured and made a slave along with others. His job in captivity was as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, who captured and enslaved them. A situation occurred when Nehemiah, on an enquiry, got disconcerting news from his visiting Jewish brothers that the wall of Jerusalem had been broken down and that all his people were in distress. On the spot, the description from his colleagues became a divine burden to Nehemiah that eventually developed into a passion, which graduated into purpose and ultimately unlocked the resources (visible and invisible) that made the plan of God as unfolded to him come to pass in a record time. He rebuilt the broken-down wall in 52 days.
Between 2017 and now, I have read the book of Nehemiah more than 20 times, using different translations of the Bible to fish out the strategies he used to accomplish the feat. I have identified 13 of such, many of which interestingly bear similarities to the strategies Aig has used. Let me share seven of the strategies:
STRATEGY # 1: TURNING AN IDEA INTO A HOLY BURDEN AND PASSION
Just as Nehemiah did, Aig did not see his adventure in the banking industry as just a career. From personal observations, Aig has always seen his intervention as a national burden which eventually welled up an unquenchable passion in him. With that orientation, he took on national assignments as his own and this graduated into a passion and a purpose bigger than him. The Yoga Sutras of Pantajali puts it more accurately: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world.”
It has been said that when you pursue a vision that is greater than you, the universe will orchestrate a series of events that will conspire to make circumstances and resources gravitate towards you.
STRATEGY #2: STRATEGIC HIBERNATION AND SILENCE
Just as Nehemiah did before he launched his wall rebuilding campaign, Aig is known to have regularly gone into what could be described as strategic hibernation and periods of studied silence. It has been observed that almost always after each period of such silence, Aig births something greater than his previous engagement.
STRATEGY # 3: ENGAGEMENT OF PARTNERSHIP AND MEMBERSHIP OF INNER CIRCLE.
Successful leaders recognise that while one person can chase 1,000, two carefully combined shall put 10,000 to flight. And the preacher puts it more accurately:
“Two are better than one because they have a more satisfying return for their labour, for if either falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and does not have another to lift him up.”
“Again, if two lie down together, they keep warm; how can one be warm alone? And though one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-2 (AMPL).
By accounts of personality type experts, Aig would fall into a classification called Plant (PL). Plants, as they are called, are very creative individuals who are known to invent things and provide seeds and ideas on which major developments spring. According to one such author, plants are needed at the initial stage of a project or the tail end, when a project fails to progress as intended. They conclude that in most cases, plants have made their marks as founders of companies or originators of new products.
Over the years, Aig has built amazing partnerships across diverse industries. One amazing example is his partnership with Herbert Wigwe. Aig said of Herbert:
“During the 12 years that we worked together as CEO and deputy, Herbert and I have never had a divergence of views or positions on issues of corporate governance and risk management and I am constantly thanking God for giving me wisdom in the choice of my deputy. He was my friend and professional colleague for 10 years before we came together at Access and he is a tremendously gifted and respected banker but the basis of my choice for this ‘second pair of eyes’ was my confidence that we shared the same beliefs and values regarding how a bank should be run”
He is doing this again with his foundation forming a formidable partnership with his wife, which has seen their complementary strengths position the organisation to be seen as an alternative to solutions typically provided by multilateral organisations.
STRATEGY # 4: LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Aig has always seen himself as a leader who leads in the front and demonstrates, personally, what he wants his subordinates to do. In his book, Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa, Aig says while at Access, Herbert and himself gave themselves targets just as they gave the other staff targets, and they held themselves accountable for meeting the targets they set for themselves.
STRATEGY # 5: INSTALLING A SOLID SYSTEM AND STRUCTURE AND STRATEGICALLY RECRUITING AND TRAINING PEOPLE TO MAN THE CREATED STRUCTURE
He has been known to be a system person. He is always known for developing systems, structures and systems of rules and training people who would operate the system. Aig believes that the only way you can test if the system is working is to hand it over to the team you have trained and mentored while you detach and focus on strategic issues. Most leaders tend to micromanage at this stage and this stifles the creativity of members of the team, who always see the shadow of the visioner behind them any time they want to initiate ideas. Aig confirms this in an informal chat with me: “I think the strength I have is that I embrace frameworks, science and theory that allow me to express my instincts in a much more effective manner. This is what I mean: I have instincts that allow me, for instance, to buy companies that many are scared to touch. But I don’t just buy companies, I build a pool of outstanding women and men to operate my investments, i make sure the have access to the very best training and on the job exposure and then try to inspire them to be the beat they can be.
Aig adds: “People who worked with me at Access Bank knew that I always talked about frameworks. What is your framework for doing this? What is your structure to manage this opportunity? God has blessed you with the opportunity to excel, but that does not mean you can manage what you have and create opportunities out of it. You need a framework to determine what it is that you can achieve and reduce it to simple numbers or finance. You need to be able to ask and answer some strategic questions: What is the likely return and risk associated with the venture? Not many people can do that. That is what I do. People sometimes say this guy does not fail; what people don’t see is that my investment in systems, people and structures to guide what I do reduces the risk of failure to manageable levels.”
STRATEGY # 6: DETACHING FROM THE SYSTEM BUT NOT ABDICATING RESPONSIBILITY
According to the narration of the Bible, after Nehemiah had finished building the wall, he created structures and a system of rules and installed individuals he had trained and trusted to work the system. At the same time, he returned to his official work as a cupbearer. But significantly, Nehemiah did not abdicate the vision. While he was back at his post, he created an effective monitoring system that allowed him to step in from time to time to correct infractions.
In this phase of his life, Aig sees himself playing the same role. This is how he put it in my zoom chat with him: “I am not interested in empire building. I focus on building ecosystems I empower people to run the platforms while i focus on the role of orchestrator.
STRATEGY # 7: RECOGNISING THE ROLE OF UNSEEN HANDS
At every phase of the journey, Nehemiah recognised the role of God in his accomplishments. Beyond strategy, beyond education, beyond deployment of structures and systems and frameworks by himself and other people to take advantage of opportunities, Aig says there have been too many coincidences that make him see the hands of God in every facet of the journey so far: “The more I reflect, the more I conclude that I am just fulfilling God’s well-laid out plans. He just arranges for me to be at the right place at the right time.
“It is obvious that God has played out in most of the things; they have not been the work of men, but I don’t glamorize my faith and make my place of worship a public spectacle. My approach to life is to find deep fulfilment in what I do, It is a turn-off for me for people to begin to say this is where Aig worships and this is where he pays his tithe. I worship in a modest ministry in Surulere, and I am happy there”.
When I remarked that he seemed to have packed into his years the kind of achievements that take some people a lifetime to build, his reply: “Don’t forget that I started young and I have been very deliberate in the things i devote myself to. When i make investments we have a pipeline of talent to make sure our businesses do well. We have a training academy that produces data scientists, financial planners, chief financial officers, and and investment managers. We recruit brilliant young men and women and train them intensely for one year. This year, the school graduated seven classes of 20 students each. Next year, we anticipate 10 classes of 20 each. Every year, I want to produce a minimum of 200 Nigerian technology and finance professionals ,” Aig said.
AIG’S ROLE MODELS
I had asked Aig a couple of times who his role models were and he had always given the same answer: “I don’t have role models, but I have individuals I admire.” When I asked him the same question last week, he volunteered a few of those individuals he admired: Warren Buffet on investment, Lord Cadbury, Mo Ibrahim for their courage and impact in philanthropy and The 3 Chinese Ma’s Pony, Jack and Peter of Ping An fame for their exellence in building platforms.
But who has been Aig’s real mentor who provided the world views from which he has been able to navigate his journey?
Last week, while reading a short speech given by Aig at his mum’s burial, I observed something interesting in the 342- word, and 5-paragraph long speech. I counted that Aig devoted 179 words (52%) to eulogise his late mum, and the content reveals a lot of where Aig had drawn his inspiration. I quote his exact words:
“After God, you have made the greatest impact on my life. You are my most significant mentor and role model. You made me proud of my country and insisted I build strong relationships across Nigeria regardless of faith and ethnicity. You taught me to love and appreciate the arts and virtues of understated elegance. You showed me the full potential of women and why they must be promoted to the highest positions of authority. Through you learned how to earn the trust of leaders in government and business and be a positive influence in the affairs of mankind. You inspired me to be sensitive to the needs of the vulnerable and the less privileged and to devote time and resources to serving humanity. You taught me the importance of loyalty to family and friends. You taught me how to love and protect my father and siblings. You taught me what it means to be a husband to Ofovwe and a father to Zojo, Aima, Mo and Renuan. You taught me how to love and honour my God.” Need I say more?
SO, WHAT NEXT?
In the concluding part of the article, I did on Aig, which was published in THISDAY (Click here to read), I wrote this: “While much may not be known on the details of Aig’s next move, it is only logical to predict that they are likely to enable another string of enduring successes.
I choose to end this article with the same statement, for no one can predict what is next on his sleeve.
Happy birthday in arrears, Aig. May the world remain kind to you.
“I have no future interest in backing linear growth models. You would observe that these are the companies described with words like ‘Empire’ I am done with that. I don’t want to be called an emperor, rather call me the Orchestrator”.