An Interview With The God Banker: Access Bank CEO Talks Life, Banking And Subsidy Cabal

In this exclusive interview with Vanguard Newspapers, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, called the God banker in some quarters, opens up on his career as a banker. He also talks about life, family, sacrifice, Nigeria and the subsidy cabal.

WHAT was your career path like after you left the University of Benin?
I left Uniben in 1986. My first job was in a bank as a Youth Corper, in Continental Merchant Bank, former CMB. I worked in the Legal Department, and what I found in the bank as a lawyer was that many lawyers in the bank saw their jobs as just that of compliance. This is what the law says, and therefore, you cannot do this, unless you rigidly follow what the law said. I found myself enabling people to do transactions, so it is not don’t break the law or anything like that, but if you do your transactions in this way, the law will support you. I, therefore, found out that more and more, the core bankers were gravitating to me for advice, even at the very senior level, which I gave freely.

Maybe, I got noticed that way, and it was way that my future bosses in Continental, I guess, saw something in me. Again, I went to a bank called Prime Merchant Bank. The good thing that Prime Merchant Bank did for me was that it allowed me see that banking or running a company wasn’t just about putting together a star studded team, because the management team and employees in Prime Merchant Bank were first class. And then, I went to Guaranty Trust Bank in 1991. It was year 2000 or thereabout that I was appointed an executive director. So, it took me fourteen years from graduation to become an executive director of a bank, and in 2002, I was appointed MD of Access Bank. So, that’s a bit longer than sixteen years. So I paid my dues now..(general laughter)

Did you choose banking or was it banking that chose you?
What I did know was that growing up, I tended to think ahead a lot, and I grew up in the home of civil servants. I didn’t know many people in business or even who worked for companies other than maybe in the 70s, then my uncle was very senior in NTC and Felix Ohiwerei was in NBL. Other than that, I didn’t know businessmen, I didn’t know entrepreneurs; I didn’t grow up knowing any. I didn’t know businessmen. So I didn’t even understand the concept of business. But then as I watched the nation massacre its civil service, I saw what they did to civil servants and the committed people who worked and didn’t steal and were contented. People who could, based on the civil service career send their children to very good schools in the past; I am talking about late 60s and early 70s and all of a sudden, were now struggling to do so.

So I said to myself that I won’t work as a civil servant. By the time I was sixteen, seventeen, I saw ambassadors, and I didn’t like what I saw. I thought this wasn’t right. Anyway, I made that choice that I wasn’t going into the civil service and this wasn’t going to happen to me. So, since I didn’t know how to be a business man, I said to myself, by the time I was thirty-five, I said I wanted to be an executive director in a multinational. That’s what I wanted to be. I was clear that I wanted to be in NTC or Unilever as an executive director. That was my position then.

What factors would you say influenced you into what you are today?
I believe that God gives people different gifts; different talents and you pray that you recognise these and you are able to improve upon them and work them to the best of your ability. One thing that my colleagues or people who know me well, people who work closely with me believe is that they say that I can see very far. I can see things that people cannot see. So, it is just a gift. It is not that I can see into the future; it’s nothing mystical. It is just that I am able to analyse a set of scenarios and I can project into what the end result could be. So, sometimes, when people see me do something and they say, ‘this is a very gutsy move or it requires a lot of courage,’ it is not that I am more courageous than they are.

How has the face of banking changed since 1986 when you first entered into industry?
Okay, when I got into banking, the context of banking was that you had several banks…It was the beginning of proliferation of banking following the SAP agenda of the Babangida government. To many people, it was an employment vehicle to give people from your town an employment opportunity. You then also had the former foreign banks that had been indigenised. You had the government owned banks, and then you had one bank that was an owner managed, an entrepreneurially driven structure which was FCMB. As at that time, Nigeria banks were described as arm chair banking. What then happened was that I got into banking when a number of bank professionals who were assistant general managers and above, who worked in the merchant banks of old; I am talking about International Merchant Bank, NAL, had watched what Subomi Balogun had done and wanted to model themselves after this unique owner manager context that Subomi Balogun had pushed. They went into banking, and so you have Atedo Peterside, closely followed by Fola Adeola, Jim Ovia and Pascal Dozie. So, there was this fresh entrepreneurial instinct driving these banks and they all competed based on service.

However, the regulatory context was not well developed; very traditional Central Bank. At the time regulators were playing catch up vis-a-viz the industry. So, you had a very traditional regulator; you had very entrepreneurial bankers and you had a nation that was going through serious economic structural challenges and these bankers had to make money in the context of these challenges.

Despite the achievements, there is the continuing perception that the banks have not been able to translate their growth to boost the real sector of the economy?

I think that today in most countries, maybe except the Asian countries, both in the developed and developing countries, there is this perennial question, are banks playing the role they should be playing, vis-à-vis the real economy? Even in the UK, you have initiatives like I think there is something they call Funding for Lending, and in the US, the question is being asked and off course when you come to places like Ireland and Iceland, you will understand how deep that question is. So, my point is that Nigeria is not the only place where the question is being asked ‘are banks playing their role to support the real economy?’

Now, there are some peculiar macroeconomic realities that are at play here. If you look at the real economy in Nigeria, you will define it as definitely agriculture, manufacturing and I would say, oil and gas upstream.

Let’s take agriculture. Nigeria was number one or two or three lead producer and or exporter of at least three major cash crops in the world in the sixties – oil palm, rubber and probably cocoa.

Mobilising deposits

If we held those positions I think we would probably earn as much from these three cash crops in foreign exchange terms as we are earning from oil. Now, is it banks that stopped the course of events?

Of course not. At a point in time when these products were doing so well, it was on the back of these that the banks mobilized their deposits, did their loans and prospered. Interestingly enough, pre-independence and post-independence, the Nigerians who went abroad and caught the fervour to be educated and came back to fight for independence were financed to school with  cocoa warrants or warehouse warrants. It was like cash which you could go to a bank and cash and get money. From the point of discovery of oil if you look at the percentage of our spending as a nation that is devoted to agriculture as a percentage of GDP, you can see it dropping and dropping.

Society champions

Beyond that, are farmers viewed with anything other than pity in Nigeria? If you go to Ghana, Zambia and so on, the society champions that are celebrated are farmers. Is it the banks that caused that? The point that I am making is that the nation made certain choices and banks operate within certain ecosystems and banks would move in line with the dictates of that system. Now those choices that we made have made the agric sector more and more risky even for the farmer. If you look at the agricultural sector value chain it is an extremely risky value chain.

So, for a farmer or somebody in that sector, unless you have some very strong comparative advantage or something very ingenious, there is the likelihood that if you go in, you are going to lose your shirt. So, if a bank lends to a farmer, it is likely that when the farmer loses his shirt the bank is not going to get its loan back. Over time, this has been reinforced and reinforced and reinforced and so you find that bank lending to agric dropped to below one per cent of total lending.

Now, let me take oil and gas production. If you look at the productive activities in the oil and gas sector, you find that the drilling takes place here and the maintenance around the drilling like food and provision of computers takes place here, aside from that what takes place here? Nothing! The equipment is not made here, the ships are not made here, the training is not done here, in fact, until recently even the recruitment was external. So, in this case the oil and gas production value chain was externalized outside the country, the banking wasn’t done with local banks.

Indigenous players

Now, changes are coming and it is no wonder that local banks have had to force their way in and even in doing so, what we are starting with is the indigenous players. The truth of the matter is that for the  early indigenous players who got hydrocarbon license, they were not even funded by local banks, they found their funding from outside.

How do you react to allegations that competition among banks is driving staff crazy with many of them not having time for family and socials? Was it like that when you joined the industry?

I believe that every sector of the Nigerian economy that will go through its growth phase, the way the banking sector has gone through, will go through exactly what has happened here. And indeed, that is the frustration for somebody like me. Do bankers work much harder now than they used to do? Yes, they do! Because the banks are much larger, the products and the systems are much more sophisticated, the results are much more sizeable and it’s been done in a very short frame of time. We are leapfrogging.

Twenty years ago, all the banks in Nigeria were not as big as the number four bank in South Africa. I mean all the banks in Nigeria at that time! In 2012, the biggest bank in Nigeria is like half the size of that number four bank. So, how do you think it happened? Every sector goes through a curve. When it is growing and at its early growth phase, it is going to take a lot. Today, the competition is more settled.

The problem in Nigeria is that it is only banking. If banking, manufacturing, infrastructure were bubbling in the same way what do you think will happen to the Nigerian economy?

Banking, the most successful sector

The reason why banking stands out is because it has been the most successful sector. So, the question you should be asking is why can’t we experience this at the same time in about five or six sectors? Then you will see this nation operating at its full potential. It is a sacrifice that must be made.

I asked the IMF CEO, Lagarde, ‘you have a family and that I see you the way you work, what are your comments on balanced life’ and she said, ‘would she like to spend more time with her family? Yes. But is there a sacrifice that has to be made? Yes.’ Then you make a choice. I will like to spend more time with my family. But must the sacrifice be made for Nigeria, either the banking industry or the telecoms sector to be great? Yes. Would the Nigerian banking industry be the same in twenty years? No, because the nature of competition would be different. Greatness must come at a cost. We are building great banks in Nigeria and it comes at a cost. Nigeria’s greatness will come at a cost.

What advantages did you bring or lessons from your career that helped you to leapfrog to the top of the industry?

First of all, I think I was fortunate. For whatever reason a lot of the bosses that I worked with decided to invest heavily in my leadership skill. They invested by either mentoring me, sending me on assignments and exposing me very early. For most of the challenges I have come across, I have either done case studies in either banking or other industries as to how leaders of companies dealt with these issues or actually have been taught. I used to ‘dread’ travelling with Fola Adeola. If you travelled for two days every minute was a lesson, literally drumming it into you, how would you do this? If you are in this position what would you do and so on. So, I had very early exposure to leadership issues.

The other thing is that I had been trained by my parents, that no sweat, no gain. That you must have to work very hard if you want to get results. There is a reality that if you want to beat the guy next door, you have to read longer than him. It is the same thing that we do now. I cannot say that we want to be more profitable than another bank and I am working half as him!

The reason why we excelled as a nation in the past was that we were clear about those consequences. Those consequences created the hurdles that we know that we had to pass. So, if in a football tournament you cheat to win the local league without your players knowing how to play well, when you go to the continent and it emerges that Nigeria’s best team was beaten 12 – 0, then you will start wondering what happened? And this is what is happening! That is the issue.

You mentioned that you were influenced by a number of people. Would you describe these as role models?

You can call them role models from whom I think I learnt a lot, some of them are alive, some of them are late. I have told you one, Fola Adeola. Another is Alex Ferguson. I read about him.

So, you are a Man U fan?

Yes. But I was a fan of Alex Ferguson before I became a Man U fan. In fact, I wonder when the coach changes what will happen as inevitably it will change. But I am a fan of his man management, his approach to leadership. I have read every book that have been written about him or that he has written himself.

Significant impact

Somebody who has, more recently made a significant impact on me is Lamido Sanusi. The strength of conviction that makes a man do the right thing or do what he believes is the right thing even in the face of what you can call overwhelming odd is something that I have learnt from him.

But do you also admire the man management of Chelsea owner, Roman Abrahamovich?

Abrahamovich?  Abrahamovich is someone that is clearly very driven, but is not very patient. Maybe with time, he would learn to be more patient. Also, maybe with less money, he will be more patient. Maybe people who have significant resources tend not to be very patient. I don’t know.

When you were appointed as Managing Director did you foresee the kind of global economy crisis that happened in 2008/2009?

Not at the time it happened. However, did I ever see that Nigerian banks could find themselves in this kind of situation? Yes. I did and I wrote about it. Just that I never knew where it would come from. When I moved into GTB in 1991 there were 130 banks, by 2008 there were 25 banks. So, by any stretch of imagination, you are looking at mortality rate that is very high. So, different things have caused these casualties.

Missing the plane at tarmac

So, did I expect this to happen? Yes, I did. The most important to me is the institution I run or the institution I invested in will not be one of them. I don’t know if you have heard of the Tarmac Story? It is the story about my first year in secondary school coming back from Kaduna for my first holiday, and I missed the plane. I was standing at the tarmac when the plane took off. I was ten or eleven then. That was when before you board Nigerian Airways, you had to fight your way in. I tried fighting my way but only for the plane to take off. I cried. But since then, I said I would never remain at the tarmac again. I shared that story with many of my colleagues.

Your bank tried taking over Union Bank, but it didn’t work out.

There was no attempt to take over Union Bank. There was a discussion with the leadership of Union Bank.

You obviously wanted your bank to be big but you did not want to wait to do it organically like some prefer, but take over other banks?

I think that if you look at the capital market, the concept of capital formation, all things being considered, capital should gravitate to those who need them. At the point in time we came into Access Bank in 2002, there were 89 banks, we were clear, very clear that at best not more than 40 per cent of the 89 banks would survive. I didn’t know how the shake-up would take place. The problem was that most other banks didn’t see it that way. So, a small Access Bank, when we got in was already struggling.

Now, the most interesting thing about this was that, the first signal was when Joseph Sanusi said we were going to have settlement banks. That was the first signal. From the minute he said so, our game plan then was that we needed to rank among the top ten banks in this country, in fact top seven, otherwise, that means that we would be left on the tarmac.

Now from part of the discussions we were said to have had with Union Bank, it was clear that the concept of merger and acquisition was still at its early stage in Nigeria. Banks ego and fear of the unknown and so on would not make people readily dispose themselves to this. So, in 2004, when we walked into a room, the then CBN Governor, Charles Soludo said if you don’t have N25 billion capitalization base by certain date…

Other people were dazed and confused, but I sent a text to Herbert (Deputy MD of Access Bank), I said Herbert, the CBN Governor has just made an announcement that would make our dreams come through. Because it meant that, merger and acquisition was no longer seen as an untasteful thing, you have to do it.  And that was why on the plane, when the entire bank MDs were coming back, before the pronouncement, we had already briefed HSBC to advise us on mergers and acquisition. Atedo Peterside was on that plane and I told Atedo, I said look, you are going to take us to the market and we would be the first to do merger and acquisition. He said somebody had already done that (told him) and he couldn’t bring two people out. I said ok, since you said someone has already given you a mandate, I am going to be the second. This meeting with Soludo was on July 4 and we came out in September. Do you know what it takes to come out in September? And the next is history.

What is your assessment of the industry in 2012?
I think we have restored confidence in the banking system. And I think the kudos should be given to the regulators and operators. We have shown through the bankers committee that banks can be partners with government and the real sector towards building a stronger economy. I think that the bankers’ committee has become an extremely strong tool for advocacy on how things should be done as far as the Nigerian economy is concerned. I think there is a lot more co-operation and collaboration among the banks. And I thing this primitive competition is a thing of the past in this generation of bankers.

There is a cloud out there on how this small bank, called Access Bank took over a big bank like Intercontinental Bank, given the assertions that Access Bank was at that time indebted to Intercontinental Bank. Can you please clear the cloud?

You know that Access Bank did not owe Intercontinental. If it was, it would be in the books. You know that frankly speaking, up to January last year, Access Bank was never a taker in the interbank market; we were always a placer. Sometimes, we do favour to the bigger banks. We have always been an extremely liquid bank. This is one of the things we are extremely known for, is to be extremely liquid. This is one of our ‘paranoid’ philosophies. What was being alluded to then was that some executives of Access Bank had interest in the companies that had loans in Intercontinental Bank. And Intercontinental never lost a dime, as far as I know, as those loans were some of the best in the books of Intercontinental Bank. They never lost a dime, never forgave interest. I think the more fundamental issue comes from the fact that in Nigeria, mergers and acquisitions are not well understood.

Secondly, you know that the acquisition of Intercontinental Bank came as a result of the fact that Intercontinental Bank was affected bank by the financial crisis and the CBN had to intervene in various ways through AMCON and some other means.

The issue is that at the point in time that Access Bank merged with Intercontinental Bank, Access Bank in financial terms was bigger than Intercontinental Bank. The issue was that Access Bank had 120 branches while Intercontinental had 300 or 400 branches. But financially, a lot of damage had been done to the balance sheet of the bank.

The reality is that at the point in time when we did our due diligence for Intercontinental Bank, everybody ran. When we submitted our bid, the CBN has this supervision process where a team is allotted to each bank; our team called us and said, ‘the way you people are thinking of this thing, are you people well?’ So everybody ran.

500 risk points in transaction

Nobody other than Access bank showed their interest. And until the day we did the deal, up to the last minutes, we could have walked away. Even our share price started to fall when the news came that we wanted to acquire the bank. Most analysts felt it was a stupid thing; most of them said we should not do it.

Has it turned out for the good of the bank?
Yes but we worked very hard. And I thank God because it was risky. There were 500 risk points in the transaction and we had mitigants for each one of them. And we had  people in this bank responsible  to make sure that those risks do  not crystalise.

What did you discover during your assignment in the fuel subsidy payment verification committee that made a very strong impact on you as a person?

You must have observed that the committee and I myself as the chairman conducted ourselves with dignity and utmost discretion. So public comments on the way we worked and so on are something that we have avoided and we would continue to avoid. There were just two things that we said, we said that look, we would be driven by the fear of God and love of our country. We said that on those two things we would not compromise under any circumstance. So those are the philosophies behind the way we worked.

So we would be transparent in every respect, we would be fact driven in every respect and we would follow best practices. Our committee members laugh when people try to rewrite history because everything that was done, every letter, every memo, every meeting, every minute, everything was recorded, transcribed, and archived completely. Every interaction with every agency, everybody, and everything is recorded complete. And it is available, that is why we don’t need to join issues with anybody. If you want to know what happened ask the relevant parties and they will show you what happened.

The only thing is that we realised very early, as we began to see the scale of what was happening, we did not even care who the people were,  we were just looking at companies and yes their principal officers would be held accountable for the actions of their companies, but we were looking at companies.

Documentation and processes

But it was clear to us that the individuals who have done this, what was at stake in financial terms was frightening, and obviously what they have also amassed was frightening, and that was why we even took greater pains in terms of our documentation and processes, because it was clear to us that some of them would try to use whatever resources they have amassed overtime to try to lash out, or lash back at us.

So much so that you will be surprised that as far back as July, in view of the concept of kidnapping, we took steps against that in July. I am talking of family members not of us. So now, around October when people started calling me, where is your family, your wife or children, but they had left the country in August. You remember this thing of seeing, but it was as a committee. I was fortunate that we saw it. So by the time the threat started coming, the threat, came, if you don’t think they come, of course they came, and they are still coming, they come to even officers of the bank.

The most worrying thing is that, somebody used the phrase that just got it, for some of the people who abused the system, ‘they are addicted to it’, and you know when somebody is addicted to something… So my worry is not even about their being addicted, but to take it away, to stop them from doing it, that is what they are fighting. The issue is that they want to continue. That is why sometimes I pity our country. Because they are addicted to it, their idea is that this thing must remain; we must continue to chop it.

You will be retiring end of next year, (2013) what is you post retirement plan?
Well I think there would be a lot of speculations, which is not strange, as to what one does next. And you have different thoughts from different quarters as to what I should be doing. Let me summarise those thoughts as, when a banker typically retires there is either the thought that you go and serve your country in the public service or you continue in the private sector. It is either you leave banking completely and become maybe a farmer, or something.

Like a priest?
I like the thought of it but it is the most challenging and I have to be clear I am ready for it. I don’t know, but I have told you which one I am most comfortable with, but if you ask me which one I would be doing or which direction I would be headed come 2014, I can’t tell you.

So what legacy would you be leaving behind?

I think I want to have put in place the foundations of Africa’s most respected bank or the world’s most respected African bank. That is what I want to have put in place firmly- the world’s most respected African bank.

Who is Aig? Can you describe yourself in one sentence?
A driven individual who fears God, loves his family and like to dominate his environment.

There is this assertion that you like to dominate your environment. Is that why some people say you are arrogant? I am sure you have heard such statements?

Yes, over the course of time but what tickles me is that if you ask most people who come in contact with me, something that they say is that, ‘It is because of your humble nature’.

I find it funny, in one minute I am arrogant, the next minute I am humble, I don’t know. I am not arrogant; I definitely know I am not arrogant. I know I am not the most patient person and I speak very frankly. So in an environment where people are used to culturally enveloping their feelings and emotions, when you see somebody speaking frankly you might say it is because the person is arrogant but I am not arrogant.

What would you say was the most unpleasant moment of your career?
Most unpleasant moment is probably when I was flown out of Nigeria in an air ambulance. Yes, most people don’t know that. There was something that an arm of government was being extremely bureaucratic about and which I had to solve myself and it was at a point of heavy stress as I was going through a medical process that was very challenging. I was not meant to be moving around, or be fighting with people to approve certain things.

I was not meant to be doing those things that I was doing, I remember telling those people, “you people are killing me, you people are killing me oh”.



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