Wigwe, Access Bank and transformational leadership

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Access Bank is currently among the top five banks in Nigeria and was in 2015 ranked as one of the top 500 banks in the world by The Banker’s magazine. But it was not always so. Analysts are quick to point to the transformational leadership of Herbert Wigwe as reason for the turnaround.

Only in 2002, Access Bank was a small bank ranked 65th in the crowded hall of 89 banks in Nigeria. That was when Wigwe and his friend Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede acquired the bank. From that point, what was once a small financial institution revved into life to ride the competition and survive the consolidation years during which many banks lost their identities through acquisition by bigger banks. Access Bank was not swallowed by the hurricane called consolidation; neither did it lose its identity. Rather, it turned the uncertainty of the consolidation into opportunity for growth. As chief executive officer, Wigwe positioned the bank as a nimble, value-focused financial institution. And it has remained ever so, most times setting the pace in corporate governance, fiscal prudence and as a fiducially sustainable model.

Wigwe, a chartered accountant, financial economist and banking and finance whiz deployed his unassailable skills in the management of strategic uncertainties into action. Not only has he improved the bank’s balance sheet, he has restored investors’ confidence in the bank, shoring its brand equity and giving shareholders more reasons to believe.

In recent years, the Nigerian banking sector has had to contend with fierce headwinds. The economic storms that buffeted the global economy caught up with many countries. Nigeria was no exception. Economic growth slumped below projections from both World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Many corporates shrank in revenue-takings and defaulted in profitability.

Wigwe, an apostle of innovation and strategic leadership, has succeeded in riding not only the global storm but also the local economic tidal waves to the acclamation of shareholders. Now a first-tier bank, Access Bank’s fundamentals are healthy, all thanks to the purpose-driven leadership of a man who believes that “if banks cannot truly be customer intimate, they are doomed to be just dumb commodities acting behind the scenes like utilities” – apologies to JP Nicols, the maverick banker and financial advisor famed for his rich toolkit of innovation.

Access Bank has been groomed to set the pace in customer-centric innovations. This has reflected on its growth and expansion with profoundly strong performance in the first half of last year. Profitability increased within the period especially within the bank’s core banking business. Maintaining a culture of cost efficiency, Access Bank under Wigwe expanded its net earnings and profitability indices. It’s of little wonder that among the banks which declared interim dividend on the basis of audited report and accounts for the six-month period of 2019, Access Bank is one of them.

It declared an interim dividend of 25 kobo per every share of 50 kobo, for the financial period ended Sunday, June 30, 2019. The declared dividend was predicated each on the 35,545,225,622 issued ordinary shares, which works out to N9 billion.

The bank’s half year report showed strong fundamentals of a financial services solution institution on the ascendancy. Compared to the same period in 2018, it was a growth that trips investors. Teaser: Gross earnings for the half-year 2019 period stood at N324.3 billion, compared to N253 billion recorded in 2018, representing a 28.1% increase. Earnings Per Share (EPS) grew to N1.94K, up from N1.38K for the same period in 2018.

The bank simply stayed bullish in the midst of bears. It’s a manifestation of the managerial acumen of Wigwe, a man who embraced influence and affluence at early age and still remained humble and simple, detached from the swashbuckling brigandage associated with some young successful bankers and corporate leaders. He’s shorn of the aristocratic aloofness that negatively defines some corporate moguls of his status.

Rather than lead the life of wanton ostentation and vainglorious brazenness, Wigwe keeps it simple and humane. The master of corporate acquisition prefers his works to speak for him rather than mount the soapbox to mouth his accomplishments in bombastic showiness.

Indeed, Wigwe and his Access Bank team deserve a disquisition in matters of acquisitions and mergers. Both are usually thought to be risky just like any marriage or alliance. Whether in acquisition or merger, there is always a shadow of risk lurking in the horizon. Global examples abound where an otherwise healthy company acquires another only to be infected and infested by the toxic virus embedded in the acquired company.

Financial advisors also counsel buyers to beware. Some organisations are not usually what they are presented to be. Even with the most meticulous of due diligence, cases abound where both the acquirer and the acquired do not produce the desired hybrid organisation. The same virulent corporate virus that stymied the growth of the acquired company may insidiously creep deep into the resultant ‘union’ and deposit sludge in its engine. End result? Inefficiency, poor corporate governance and ultimately corporate fatalism.

This is the sense in which Wigwe and his team deserve not only applause but a deep study of the whys and wherefores that kept them riding gloriously the cusp of acquisition. Here’s a bank that in the wake of the consolidation era acquired Intercontinental Bank, later Diamond Bank and has just acquired Transnational Bank of Kenya with its eagle eyes set on Sierra Leone and Mozambique. It’s bullishly driving its big feet farther into the Africa market.

In less than two decades, Wigwe and his crew have pushed Access Bank far beyond the frontiers of Nigeria with network of over 600 branches and geographical spread spanning three continents (Africa, Europe and Asia), over 12 countries and boasting employee pool of over 28,000. Access Bank is deliberate and intentional in its choice of employees. And this has much to with the leadership.

When the CEO is a young and target-driven smart man, it follows that other employees must, as a matter of routine, be smart (both street-smart and book-smart). Wigwe has engineered a culture of strategic recruitment, a recruitment culture that focuses on today and tomorrow. One of his innate strength is his capacity to forecast the market. This helps immensely in deploying the right people using the right technology to achieve and sustain competitive position in the marketplace.

He has positioned the bank to consistently maintain acquired advantage over competition through its unrelenting churning out of a potpourri of banking products that meet customers’ needs and expectations. A proponent of innovation and creativity, it reflects in his unfading pursuit of excellence in whatever he does and he drives this spirit into the subconscious of those around him.

Wigwe likes to drive young people. He pushes them to challenge themselves. He believes that innovation is the engine of growth, the ladder to reach the top. He got to the top at a very tender age and he’s not afraid to mentor as many young people as he could find and help them hit the summit of their callings.

One of his favourite quotes is: “Be empathetic, considerate, kind, and respectful. People may forget what you gave to them but they won’t lose the memory of how you made them feel.” This sums up his personality. A man of deep reflective empathy, he once said: “When I look at the faces of children, I see endless possibilities. All they need is a little help, a little hope, a little love, and someone who believes in them.”

And for his toil, love for humanity and uncommon success of making Access Bank a multiple-awards winning international bank, humanity has also returned to him a good measure of appreciation through awards and sundry garlands. A few would suffice here:

CEO of the Year at the BusinessDay Banking Awards in Lagos – 2016; Karlsruhe Outstanding Business Sustainability Achievement Award at the annual Africa Banking Awards – 2016; Banker of The Year by The Sun newspapers– 2016; Banker of the Year, Vanguard newspapers – 2016;Karlsruhe Outstanding Business Sustainability Achievement Award at the annual Africa Banking Awards – 2017; Most Reputable Bank CEO by the Reputation Poll – 2017; Honorary Degree for good works towards humanity by Gombe State University – 2018; Honorary Doctorate from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka – 2018; Outstanding Individual Award for HIV/AIDS response in Lagos State by the Lagos State Aids Control Agency (LSACA) – 2019; again for the second time Karlsruhe Outstanding Business Sustainability Achievement Award at the annual Africa Banking Awards – 2019.

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