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Interview with Dr. Herbert Wigwe (CEO) of Access Bank Plc

Dr. Herbert Wigwe

Nigeria’s Access Bank began operations in 1988 as a privately owned commercial bank and, over the subsequent years, grew into a top-notch, world-class financial institution with ambitions to be not only Africa’s most successful bank but the continent’s gateway to the rest of the world.

Global Brands Magazine was pleased to have the opportunity to interview Dr Herbert Wigwe, an entrepreneur and one of Africa’s banking titans. He is currently the CEO and Group Managing Director of Access Bank Plc.

In acknowledgement of his stellar leadership in the market expansion of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest bank and navigating the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Herbert Wigwe has been recognised as the Best Banking CEO at the 2021 Global Brand Awards.

1. What milestones in your life led you to become the CEO of Access Bank?

I’ve been in the banking sector for over two decades. I will say my journey began when I was very young. I knew I wanted to be in finance, so I decided to study Accounting at the University of Nigeria, and furthered my studies in Banking and Finance at the University College of North Wales, and later on, Financial Economics at the University of London.

I was fortunate to have started my banking career early at Coopers & Lybrand Associates, an international firm of chartered accountants. From there, I moved to Capital Bank for a brief period of time before moving to Guaranty Trust Bank, where I spent over ten years managing several portfolios, including financial institutions, corporates, and multinationals.

In 2002, I left Guaranty Trust Bank as an Executive Director to co-lead the transformation of Access Bank Plc. My business partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and I saw a business opportunity looming and decided to grab it. We acquired a small bank all those years ago which has obviously now grown to become Africa’s largest retail bank.

I started as Deputy Group Managing Director before taking over from Aigboje and becoming MD/CEO in 2014. It has been a terrific journey, and despite the incredible challeges, we have scaled through.

2. How is your leadership style different from your predecessor’s?

Aigboje and I got into corporate banking at about the same time and we have been together ever since. He is one of the greatest corporate leaders the world has ever known, and working with him over time, our ideologies have merged into one. We have a shared vision and a common value system that has formed part of the culture of Access Bank. This is what I will transfer to the upcoming generation of Access Bank CEOs and team members. Besides our different personalities, I don’t think there’s a marked disparity between our leadership styles.

3. What does your average workday look like?

I typically start my day with some exercise and then a skim through the current financial news to get a quick rundown of what’s going on around the world. I also study a devotional to ensure that I am in the best possible mind frame.

Based on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, I now prefer to meet with my team through video conference calls to receive a comprehensive report on the company to get a grasp of the Group’s performance. I have leadership calls with various units of the Bank to ensure the smooth running of all our processes, followed by in-person meetings with executives, where necessary.

Occassionally, I like to make my rounds to various departments in the office throughout the day because it gives me the opportunity to catch up with my team and introduce myself to new team members.

Despite my somewhat tasking schedule, I make a conscious effort to maintain work-life balance, unwind, and spend quality time with my family.

4. What do the next two years for Access Bank look like?

The next two years will include further expansion, and more importantly, innovation. We want to focus on digital payment strategies and bridging the payment gateway between Africa and the rest of the world.

We also see opportunities coming from the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA). It is expected to expand intra-Africa trade to 53% by 2022, eliminate tariffs on qualifying trade and increase financial flows. On the domestic front, Nigeria presents several opportunities due to its large population, huge payment and remittance flows, and emerging insurance market. Over the next few years, we will be working to tap into these opportunities.

Furthermore, we plan to transition fully into a holding company structure that will enable us tap into the market opportunities available in the regulated banking and consumer lending market, the electronic payments industry, and the retail insurance market.

Through this restructuring, we will create new product revenues without taking more risks for the enterprise, ensure diversification of earnings, and support our expansion drive.

5. What makes Access Bank better than its competitors?

While we all contribute significantly to the development of the continent’s financial sector, I strongly believe that our commitment to Sustainability stands us out from other commercial banks in the market. This has paid huge dividends, particularly last year during the epidemic. Despite the continuous need to understand and manage the uncertainties that came with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Access Bank proactively developed effective and timely solutions to guarantee zero disruption in service delivery to all stakeholders.

It is also worth mentioning that last year, Access Bank became the first African commercial bank to be granted a sustainability certification by the European Organisation for Sustainable Development (EOSD) under its Sustainability Standards and Certification Initiative (SSCI).

Additionally, our robust technology (digital platforms) has allowed us to deliver uninterrupted services to customers through our African expansion project. Thus, Access Bank remains well-positioned to maximise opportunities, given its significant traction in Nigeria and, more recently, Africa. In addition, the Bank’s existing commitment to sustainable business practices and the demonstration of its ability to re-engineer the face of Africa by engaging in transactions, processes and partnerships that enable future generations to meet their needs, sets us apart in the industry. After all, our digital vision is to be the clear-cut digital leader in Africa even as we move closer to becoming Africa’s payment gateway to the world.

6. How do you plan to navigate the challenging landscape presented by the Nigerian banking system at present?

The challenging macroeconomic environment makes attaining financial targets very difficult, particularly given our moderate appetite for risk. Nevertheless, we strive to cover more than our cost of capital and keep costs under control. We will grow our businesses and continue to invest in IT capacity until we become an incredibly strong bank for retail and wholesale customers around the world.

As we continue to consolidate the gains from our decisive approach to pushing our retail franchise, we have identified several opportunities within Africa and beyond for Access Bank to deepen its financial service offerings to banked customers as well as extend financial services to the unbanked.

7. What impact has the pandemic had on Access Bank and the Nigerian banking industry as a whole?

The Nigerian economy, just like many other global economies, had to endure the global economic disruption caused by COVID-19, particularly due to the pronounced decline in oil prices and risk aversion in global capital markets. Expectedly, this led to the devaluation of the Naira.

As a result of the pandemic, the banking industry, including Access Bank, faced several challenges, including asset quality, profitability erosion, capital and liquidity constraints. All of which we quickly began to resolve.

Even though the Bank quickly adjusted to accommodate the expected after-effect of these factors, we were faced with some tough decisions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and manage the attendant financial headwinds. In line with our mission to support our people, customers, and communities, we implemented several Business Continuity Procedures (BCP) in addition to the measures already put in place by the government. The BCP measures were deployed to ensure the safety of stakeholders whilst we continue to deliver value.

Fortunately, it turned out to be a very successful financial year. This achievement is attributable to the resilience and dedication of our people and our sustainable business model.

8. What are your thoughts on cryptocurrency and the application of decentralised blockchain technology to fintech?

Without a doubt, blockchain technology and particularly, cryptocurrencies, will disrupt the way we approach conventional banking and trading, be it local or international. The price of cryptocurrencies have generally been volatile, and while there are many reasons for this, including market size, liquidity, and the number of market participants, banks have widely seen this as too big a risk to be used as a stable investment vehicle over time.

That said, we will support the Central Bank of Nigeria’s drive to develop the modalities of issuing the country’s digital currency, which could be the electronic version of the Naira.

The Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) are currencies that will be issued by the government and while they might share similarities with cryptocurrencies — running on a blockchain, for example — they are not necessarily cryptocurrencies. For this venture to be successful, we will have to maintain the interconnected nature of the payment landscape, meaning the traditional banks and the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System (NIBSS) will still have a role. Of course, fintechs will also have a role and the Central Bank will serve as the regulator.

While the planned digital currency would operate alongside other virtual currencies, the most crucial conclusion is that we will be welcoming local regulation in order to enhance efficiency of the payment system and conserve foreign exchange earnings.

10 Will Nigeria ever fully embrace online banking in the near future or is the country too entrenched in tradition?

Although internet penetration is yet to hit the heights envisaged, Nigeria is already embracing online banking. The pandemic resulted in customers being more open to transacting digitally.

For example, our digital lending portfolio witnessed a 40% year-on-year growth in 2020 and an unrivalled dominance in the industry, disbursing approximately four million loans, generating an all-time-high of N100 billion in value in 2020 for the masses, affluent and youth customers.

Today, the Bank houses approximately eight million pre-qualified customers for digital loans, amounting to approximately 19% of the active Nigerian working population. We aim to maximise our in-house potential and expand the eligibility funnel by another two (2) million customers before the end of 2021 and to 30% of the active working population by 2023, by extending digital loans to third-party customers.

Notwithstanding the challenges posed by internet penetration, we are also driving financial inclusion by providing seamless payments and championing the cashless policy and digitisation of services through fast and highly secure payment platforms. Through the simple, secure and user-friendly USSD service (*901#), which requires no internet connection, low-income earners, who are underbanked, and the unbanked have access to basic banking services on their mobile devices.

10. What advice do you have for someone who wants to become the CEO of a bank?

For everything that you do in life, if you do it well, you will do well. Don’t expect it to be all rosy, though; you must  do your part. Be extremely confident in what you do and strive to improve. If you’re working under someone, give your best, look for new ways to move the company forward, and before long, the doors will open.

One other thing I will like to mention is that belief in God is vital because that is what will give you hope in those moments of despair where your intellect cannot help you. How I have gotten to the heights I have today, is through the help of God. So, I believe that belief in God is critical.

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