Wigwe and Access Holdings’ Unquenching Drive for Continental Leadership

Oluchi Chibuzor writes on the recent acquisition agreements Access Bank Plc entered into with Standard Chartered Bank, for the acquisition of the latter’s shareholding in its subsidiaries in Angola, Cameroon, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone, and its Consumer, Private and Business Banking business in Tanzania

From all indications, the Group Managing Director of Access Holdings Plc, Mr. Hebert Wigwe, is not about to slow down on his continental expansion anytime soon.

From Nigeria to Rwanda, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia, among several others, the expansionist adrenaline rush in Wigwe has remained on the rise, in spite of the global headwinds.

Wigwe, who is driving force behind the holding company (holdco), has shown a relentless pursuit for growth, which is why the holding company and its banking subsidiary, Access Bank, have not hidden their desire to leverage the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA) to expand their footprints.

From a tiny bank in 2002, Wigwe who took over from his close friend and business partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, in 2014, transformed the bank and today, he has moved up to be overseeing the holdco. Despite that, he has remained relentless.

As a result of his aggressive continental expansion drive, just last week, Access Bank Plc entered into acquisition agreements with Standard Chartered Bank, for the acquisition of the latter’s shareholding in its subsidiaries in Angola, Cameroon, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone, and its Consumer, Private & Business Banking business in Tanzania.

Each transaction remains subject to the approval of the respective local regulators and the banking regulator in Nigeria.

The announcement was made at Standard Chartered’s Headquarters in London in the presence of senior representatives from both banks.

In a statement signed by the Regional CEO, Africa & Middle East, Standard Chartered, Sunil Kaushal and the Group Managing Director, Access Bank Plc, Roosevelt Ogbonna, the agreement with Access for the sale of the bank’s business in Sub-Saharan Africa was in line with Standard Chartered’s global strategy, aimed at achieving operational efficiencies, reducing complexity, and driving scale.

When the deal is finalised, Access Bank would be able to provide a full range of banking services and continuity for key stakeholders including employees and clients in the Standard Chartered businesses across the five aforementioned countries.

Access and Standard Chartered Bank would work closely together in the coming months to ensure a seamless transition, with the transaction expected to be completed over the next 12 months, the statement explained.

Commenting on the agreement, Kaushal said: “Following on the announcement we made April last year, the project is now substantially completed with the announcement for the sale of the five markets and the furtherance of a partnership with Access Bank

“This strategic decision allows us to redirect resources within the AME region to other areas with significant growth potential, ultimately enabling us to better support our clients. We look forward to working closely with Access Bank’s team over the coming months to achieve a successful conclusion to this transaction while safeguarding the interests of our valued clients and prioritizing our employees.”

Commenting on the agreement, Ogbonna said, “We are pleased to sign this agreement today and express our appreciation for being selected as the preferred partner to Standard Chartered Bank through this transaction, in which it is exiting four African markets and refocusing in one. As a distinguished regional and international bank with a rich heritage spanning over 150 years, Standard Chartered Bank has built a solid presence in these markets for over 100 years.” 

For Access, the strategic transaction represents a key step in its journey to build a strong global franchise focused on serving as a gateway for payments, investment, and trade within Africa and between Africa and the rest of the world, anchored by a robust capital base; a relentless focus on execution; and best-in-class customer service & governance structures.

“At Access Bank, we are committed to reshaping the global perception of Africa and African businesses, even as we continue to build toward our vision to be the World’s Most Respected African Bank. Our 5-year growth plan will see us build a world-class class payments gateway leveraging the power of technology and supported by a dynamic ecosystem of local and international partnerships, enabling us to serve global payments and remittances efficiently.

“With our recent European expansion and our deepened presence in key trading corridors across Africa, we will bridge the gap between cross-border and domestic transfers across all business segments. More importantly, we are committed to impacting our host communities positively,” Ogbonna added.

In April 2022, Standard Chartered strategically decided to divest from a number of markets, namely Lebanon, Angola, Cameroon, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and Jordan, and to exit the CPBB (Consumer Private and Business Banking) business in Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania.

The bank had announced its sale of its business in Zimbabwe earlier in June and in Jordan in March this year. With this announcement, Standard Chartered has substantially completed the divestment process from the markets announced in April 2022, except Côte d’Ivoire where it remains actively engaged in discussions with potential buyers for the sale of its CPBB business in the country.

Over the years, Access Holdings, under the leadership of Wigwe, has launched and sponsored several initiatives aimed at developing the continent’s economic and social ecosystems across diverse touchpoints. Furthermore, the institution has stood firm on its commitment to deliver on its promise of social responsibility, strong corporate governance, financial value for stakeholders, a positive and gender-balanced workplace environment, all while setting the pace with the introduction of innovative products and services.

Having identified the immense opportunity in playing at the global stage, Access Bank felt the next thing to do was to transit to a more formidable structure. That ensured that Access Holdings was last year restructured into an ecosystem orchestrator involving five verticals – the bank (Access Bank), Lending Company (LendCo), Payment Company (PayCo), Insurance and Pensions.

Clearly, Wigwe, understands that without embracing change and having foresights, Access Holdings would not be able to compete and would be left behind by their peers. This, would definitely impact customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, and revenue growth negatively.

With over 45 million customers, Access Bank is one of the largest retail banks in Africa, even as it continues to expand.

Wigwe has helped to develop some of Africa’s biggest companies in the construction, telecommunications, energy, oil and gas sectors through Access Bank.

According to Wigwe, across Africa, there is an opportunity for the bank to expand to high-potential markets, leveraging the benefits of AfCFTA.

He said AfCFTA, among other benefits, would expand intra-Africa trade and provide real opportunities for Africa.

According to him, Africa has enormous potential and there are opportunities for an African bank that is well run, that understands compliance and has the capacity to support trade and the right technology infrastructure to support payments and remittances, without taking incremental risks.

“We believe that we are best positioned to basically do all of that. Our focus is to become an aggregator in Africa and we are building a global payment gateway and providing trade finance support and correspondent banking across the continent. We are focusing on the key markets.

“The approach would always be that in the country we wish to go to, that we have the right skills. We would not just be a drop in the country in which we are present, we would make sure that we have an impactful presence in each of the major countries in which we are present.

“In doing this, we are also mindful of the country we are going to so as to make sure that it is of benefit to the bank. As we do this, we are working with our friends and partners.

“We are diversifying our earnings away from volatile markets as well and we are orchestrating our operations from the global payments gateway and ensuring that using Access Bank UK, providing corresponding services from digital platforms, the overall profitability of our franchise,” he had explained.

Commenting further, on AfCFTA, he said the bank would use its digital framework to benefit from the deal.

“We think we need to continue to entrench ourselves in the local market because there is still so much work to be done.

“So, we are doing everything possible to satisfy our customers and also to ensure that our channels are adequately secured. We are also ensuring that our staff are very efficient,” the CEO said.

Wigwe further explained: “We remain committed to a disciplined and thoughtful expansion strategy in Africa, which we believe will create strong, sustainable returns for our shareholders and stakeholders at large, over the medium and long-term.”

Clearly, the massive continental expansion which the Herbert Wigwe-led financial institution embarked upon few years back appears has started yielding the expected benefits as Access Holdings’ first quarter 2023 earnings reflected positive trajectory. The first quarter 2023 results established that the bank got off on the right foot and may end the year 2023 better than its 2022 performance.

Precisely, the first quarter 2023 unaudited results showed that the Holding Company’s (Holdco) gross earning maintained its upswing as it increased to N424.917 billion in the review period, higher than the N295.736 billion recorded in the first quarter of March 2022. Its profit after tax which declined marginally at the end of 2022, improved in the first quarter of 2023, to N71.636 billion, compared to N57.825 billion it realised in the first quarter of 2022.

Also, Access Corporation’s total assets increased to N15.742 trillion as at the end of March 2023, up from N14.998 trillion recorded at the end of December 2022, loans and advances grew to N5.038 trillion in the review period, from N5.108 trillion as at December 2022, and customer deposits of N9.941 trillion as of March this, higher than the N9.2 51 trillion recorded at the end of December last year.

Also, Access Holdings’ full year results showed that total assets as at December 31, 2022, stood at N15 trillion, while its gross earnings crossed the N1 trillion mark to hit, N1.388 trillion, stronger than that of its peers in the league of tier-one banks.

With the latest acquisition move, it is expected that Access Holdings would soon realise its ambition of becoming an aggregator in Africa and a global payment gateway that provides trade finance support and correspondent banking across the continent.

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