Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede’s memoir of how he and Herbert Wigwe set up and made a success of Access Bank should serve as an inspiration to young entrepreneurs all over Africa. Review by Anver Versi.
The sub-heading for this book is: Buying a bank in Africa; it tells the fascinating story of how the author, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and his trusty deputy, Herbert Wigwe left their cushy and very prestigious jobs as Executive Directors of Nigeria’s highest-ranked bank, Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), and set out into the unknown, driven by little more than a burning desire to be masters of their own destiny.
They had decided to plunge into what was then perhaps the most chaotic and treacherous banking industry in Africa, if not the world, and buy a bank. This book is a chronicle of that adventure and how they turned a bank that was on its last legs into one of the top five banking institutions in the country over an incredibly short space of time.
Yet when Aig first announced his intention, his mother, who was a major influence on his life, was not only taken aback but crestfallen: why on earth did he want to leave a very well paid, secure and highly regarded career and take his chances in the rough and tumble of a cut-throat industry where banks were rising and crashing with the regularity of ocean waves?
“(What) my mother did not understand was that I had entrepreneurial juices running in my veins and there was nothing I could do about it,” he writes. “Entrepreneurs simply have to go out and create things for themselves. It’s the way we are built.”
But it was not a spur-of-the-moment decision nor one based entirely on an emotional fantasy. He was young, but not inexperienced and his background was solid enough to give him the confidence to go it alone.
Although he had studied law, he decided to go into banking and joined the Continental Merchant Bank, “one of the yuppie” banks that had technical partnerships with the cream of US merchant banks, in this case Chase Manhattan. “Embracing the ‘yuppie’ culture, the merchant banks recruited the best and brightest Nigerian graduates from local and foreign universities and exposed them to the best training,” he writes.
In 1991, he and Herbert Wigwe, who had also cut his teeth in merchant banking, joined the newly founded GTB, one of the new breed of banks run by owner/managers rather than wealthy Ogas (Godfathers). Merit, rather than personal relations, was the watchword and both rose relatively quickly to executive director levels.
But there was another force behind Aig’s drive, propelling him as he says, to make the impossible possible. He told me about it when I met him for the first time circa 2008; and it also gives the book its title.
In 2007, we launched African Banker magazine with me as editor. This had been in response to several bankers, from all quarters of the continent, saying that the industry was in chaos everywhere (except perhaps in South Africa) and that bankers were too insular, locked into their own national silos and totally unaware of what else was going on in the industry in Africa. They needed a platform that would bring them together to share views and compare notes.
In fact, the strongest push had come from Professor Charles Soludo, who as Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, had a couple of years earlier, lit the fuse for what was going to be the biggest explosion in the country’s banking history. He raised the minimum capital requirement for banks from N2bn to N25bn and wanted it done ‘yesterday’.
All hell broke loose as banks scrambled to raise the capital and there was a flurry of mergers and acquisitions. When the dust had settled, a large number of the more chancy banks had vanished. Only the most solid and well-run were still on their legs. One of these was Access Bank. (In the book, Aig’s description of these events reads like a thriller.)
It had become clear to observers like us that what distinguished one bank from another after this exercise was the quality, calibre and personalities of the people running the institutions. We set out to meet, interview and write profiles on as many of these captains of industry as we could. There was a hunger from all over the continent, as well as outside it, to know more about this new breed of Nigerian banker.
At some point I was introduced to an immaculately dressed, tall young man with an easy smile and twinkling eyes. “This is Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, the CEO of Access Bank,” my intermediary told me before whispering in my ear, “they are going places”.
They managed sufficient funds to buy the bank in 2002 and had instituted a complete change of culture. Over a short space of time, they continued to rise inexorably and eventually expanded to over three hundred branches and established subsidiaries in six African countries and in the UK.
Left behind as others took off
On that first meeting, as we delved into his background and his motivation, he told me about a curious incident which he said had shaped his view of life and work. He retells it in the book thus: while a schoolboy, he was travelling alone on a flight to Lagos – “just me and my small suitcase sitting in the departure lounge, waiting nervously for my flight to be called.” This was in the bad old days of Nigerian airlines when “getting on board a flight required connections with the ground staff, and a confirmed ticket never guaranteed you a seat on the plane.” But the small boy knew nothing of this.
“When the airport staff announced that the plane was ready for boarding, there was suddenly a mad scramble as the more experienced passengers leapt to their feet and dashed out to get on board. As I struggled towards the plane with my suitcase, I was elbowed out of the way by many people much bigger and stronger than me.”
By the time he reached the foot of the stairs, the doors of the aircraft were closed. “As I stood with my suitcase, watching the plane take off without me, tears streamed down my face,” he writes, “and I vowed that never again would I be left behind on the tarmac while everyone else was flying off.”
The rest of his life, as the book attests, has been him leaving the tarmac and flying. He writes that one of the reasons he had decided to buy a bank was because economic reforms introduced by President Olusegun Obasanjo, with input from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, had set the country on a path of economic upliftment. He felt that banks would ride the wave as well and was determined once again not to be left on the tarmac while others were flying off.
An enjoyable and inspiring read
Following that first meeting, I interviewed him several times – in Singapore, in New York (when he became the first African to be appointed as co-chair of the Global Business Coalition on Health) and at his pile in the English countryside.
He always picked up the conversation as if we had just talked the day before, although in the meantime, he had met hundreds if not thousands of other people. He retired from his position in 2013, two years before the CBN’s 10 years’ maximum executive tenure kicked in. He is still very active in several businesses as well as charitable and educational ventures.
Leaving the Tarmac is one of those rare books by African achievers that is not only readable, it’s a page-turner. He takes us on a painless journey into the highways and byways of the world of Nigerian banking where we can sit in on all the drama and the high-stakes negotiations that characterise this world. It is an essential and enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in Nigerian (as well as African) finance and economies – and it is deeply inspiring.
As Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede says in the introduction: “I hope the story I am about to tell will be an inspiration to other young entrepreneurs who are setting out with big dreams, great visions and high hopes.”