Review: Leaving the Tarmac by Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede

We review Aig-Imoukhuede's remarkable narrative describing the rise of Access Bank to become one of the top five institutions of Nigerian banking.

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Image : Aigboje Aig Imoukhuede

When Nigerian bankers Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe led the acquisition of Access Bank in 2002, few could see the business logic of the move. Yet the next decade would vindicate the duo.

Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede’s narrative describing the rise of Access Bank from a struggling, crisis-ridden bank in the nether regions of the Nigerian banking fraternity to become a top-five institution in the country is a remarkable one.

Left on the tarmac 

During his schooldays Aig-Imoukhuede had a formative experience which gives rise to the book’s title.

He recalls how as a schoolboy he was travelling unaccompanied from his school in Kaduna to his home in Lagos. He recounts that he was due to fly on the now-defunct Nigeria Airways, “a bloated state-owned monopoly that personified all that was bad about government running a business”.

The boarding procedure, even with a confirmed ticket, was a dog-eat-dog affair – first come, first served – and he did not get on the plane.

Left on the tarmac, tears running down his face, the young Aig-Imoukhuede vowed never to be left behind, anywhere, again. Imbued with a life-long determination to succeed and fend for himself, he excelled at school and university, where he studied law, before joining GT Bank (GTB) as a legal officer.

It was at GTB, established in 1991, that he met Herbert Wigwe. The two men both had the same dream – to own their own bank.

Aig-Imoukhuede writes: “By 2000, I knew that if the banking industry took off without me in it as owner I would be left standing on the tarmac, a very frustrated professional with little hope of making my entrepreneurial vision a reality.”

But Aig-Imoukhuede’s mother was less convinced – at the time, most financial institutions were typically bankrolled by a high net worth individual. “Why, my mother was wondering, would I be even considering buying a bank when I had no such person to back me?” he writes.

The ambition was freighted with risk – Aig-Imoukhuede had carved out a successful and stable career. Now he was putting that on the line. But the two partners were not to be dissuaded, and after trawling through a long list of candidate banks, which were either too expensive or mired in a culture of questionable practices, they decided to focus on the possibility of acquiring Access Bank.

Access Bank had been first issued with a banking licence in late 1988 and listed on the Nigeria Stock Exchange almost 10 years later. Aig-Imoukhuede does not detail all the steps they took to raise the capital for the purchase, but discloses that they raised a $100m line of credit from FMO, the Dutch development agency. Under the terms of the deal, should Aig-Imoukhuede or Wigwe leave the bank, FMO would require repayment of the credit that it had extended.

Taking to the skies 

When it came to defining the bank’s new strategy, Aig-Imoukhuede and Wigwe realised that they would be hard pressed to compete with the larger banks because their cost structure was much higher. Instead, they hit upon the idea of analysing clients’ corporate value chains and identifying all the points of weaknesses.

“If we could demonstrate to them the benefit of our value chain strategy, then they would feel sufficiently compelled to commence a banking relationship with us,” Aig-Imoukhuede writes. 

It was a bold strategy, and quite unusual for a bank of its size. Access had been 70th in the league table of Nigerian banks at the turn of the millennium. Many of the smaller Nigerian banks at the time were involved in margin trading in the equity and currency markets, and dubious practices were rife. But important reforms took place under the tenure of  Central Bank of Nigeria governor Charles Chukwuma Soludo, who introduced a clampdown on malpractice and new capital requirements.

To comply with the new capital requirements, Access decided to go to the market with an IPO that raised N15bn and merged with Marina Bank and Capital Bank (formerly Credit Lyonnais Nigeria).

But Access was still shy of the minimum N25bn capital requirement, so Aig-Imoukhuede and Wigwe flew to Holland in a last-minute bid to persuade FMO to convert a $15m debt instrument into equity. FMO agreed, and Access Bank met the new capital requirements.

From then on, Access Bank focused on attracting business from corporates and developing an international network. By the time the bank concluded its second five-year plan, it had 20,000 employees and more than 6m customers in 10 countries.

Aig-Imoukhuede stepped down as Access Bank’s chief executive at the end of 2013, handing over the reins to Herbert Wigwe, who was named African Banker of the Year in the 2020 edition of the African Banker Awards. Having reached the commanding heights of Nigeria’s banking sector, the airport tarmac must now seem a very long way away for him.

Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa by Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede is published by Red Door Press.

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