One half of the daring partners who took Access Bank Plc from its humble beginnings as a ‘small’ bank less than 15 years ago and built it into the global giant that the Bank is today, Herbert Wigwe is a maestro in corporate Nigeria. I arrive early, sure that he would be eager to wrap up the interview quickly so that he can get on with what corporate geniuses spend their days doing. But he throws me slightly off balance with his genuine welcoming smile when he joins me in the lounge, assuring me to take my time with the interview. I like him already. I decide to start with a random question.***
MM: You’re widely travelled and have been shaped by diverse cultures. Some people wonder what state you’re actually from. Can we know your state of origin?
HW: [smiles] You’re right about that. I’m from Rivers State.
MM: Where are your parents now?
HW: They live in Lagos. Although they spend a lot of time travelling to visit their children.
MM: How many children are there in your family?
HW: Biological children right? Six of us.
MM: What fun memories can you recollect from your childhood and growing up?
HW: [Smiles as he casts his mind back] I come from a middle class background; my parents were civil servants who worked to the very top of their careers. My father worked with the Nigerian Television Authority where he rose to become the Director General. We travelled a lot, but spent most of our time in Port Harcourt, which is home. We lived in Benin, Ibadan and finally Lagos. This made me understand the country a lot better than I might have if I stayed in one location. I attended Federal Government Colleges (Sokoto and Warri) so I am very familiar with those areas. The most interesting experiences come from the fact that growing up, there was absolutely no difference between children from the North and children from the South. Federal Government Colleges are Unity Colleges; by definition. I mixed with children from all over the country and there was absolutely no religious issue. I had just as many Northern friends as I had Southern friends; it was a great time and a much more peaceful country.
You didn’t have to be extremely wealthy to have a decent life. The most important thing then was that you had very strong values, solid education and patriotism. I got into secondary school prior to the initial regime of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo; therefore I witnessed firsthand, the patriotic spirit behind Operation Feed the Nation. When I look at current national problems, I say to myself ‘if only we had continued with all of those policies, we would have been a much better country’. We were on the right track but I guess one of the problems with discovering oil is the fact that it could derail you from normal things as it introduces a whole new lifestyle that can totally destroy the values of a system. That is what is happening right now. Oil is not a curse but its management is important. Take Norway for instance, they keep their oil in order to build their Sovereign Wealth Fund, so it depends on the maturity of the country, the people and its leadership.
MM: Interesting perspective on the oil debate. How do you view the current twist in fortune in the oil price and how do you reckon it is going to affect our economy?
HW: There will be multiple effects. The first stems from the fact that we have run a mono-product economy for a long time and even though oil is not the major contributor to our GDP, it has remained the largest source of foreign exchange revenue for our country. Considering that we are an import-oriented economy, the knock-on effect will be even more since about 75% of industries import their raw materials for production. The fact that oil prices have dropped and national reserves have reduced because of our import dependence, puts us in a grim situation and we have to manage the demand for products. I think several things can be done. First, we must cut down on inappropriate spending, then the government must maintain effective communication across board around a central theme that encourages patriotism. We also have to revamp our schools so that people don’t have to spend money sending their children to study abroad; and we have to cut down on importation. We currently don’t produce a lot but we can start.
Take agriculture for instance; we produce enough rice in the Northern part of the country to support us, it’s not a 100% but we have to start from somewhere. We have to shut our borders to those who smuggle these goods in. When did we start eating rice every day? Before it was once a week but all of a sudden we must eat imported rice everyday. It requires some more organisation, so maybe we need to set up a commodity exchange programme to encourage farmers to produce and guarantee price stability. We have to set up various storage facilities so that goods can be stored. The problem is if you don’t start you can’t get there. The government also has to decide what industries are top priority, and because of our limited foreign currency, ensure that we only support those priority industries.
MM: Quite a switch to serious economic matters. Back to growing up, how have things changed from back then?
HW: The value system we were exposed to no longer exists. Our parents were civil servants and the civil service had the very best people. Corruption was certainly not at this magnitude. I remember that the first time someone was accused of stealing six million Naira it made the Network News and we wondered why anyone would do a thing like that. But now, those values are gone. This is our country and we have to change it. Many people think that it’s about being fast or smart but corruption is something that should be abhorred.
Also, it is hard to trace the origin of this ethno-religious problem because we used to live together harmoniously (Christians and Muslims alike). Living in the North, I experienced firsthand the good attributes of my Muslim neighbours. If you take a look at the delicate situation now, you just wonder how far off course we’ve veered as a people. The ethno-religious issues never existed. It is true that the civil war in its own way brought its issues, but the concept of unity schools was to bridge those gaps. Children at the time were oblivious of some of the issues that existed prior; and more importantly, we had our closest friends from all parts of the country. Things have changed so drastically now.
MM: What lessons did you learn from your father that still helps you today?
HW: Great values. These are the values that we stand for and also the values that the institution I work for stands for. They are: integrity, honesty, fairness, excellence. These are critical values and upholding them is something that we share. We lived an extended family life. Several cousins grew up with us and we were exactly like siblings. We were all treated the same, and nobody was given more money or attention than the other. We all learnt how to be our brother’s keeper and to understand we are all born equal.
MM: Great inspiration from your dad. Lots of people will be wondering how banking surfaced in your journey. How did you get into the world of Banking?
HW: I’m an accountant by training. I worked in Coopers & Lybrand, became a Chartered Accountant, and did a bit of management consulting. There was a proliferation of banks in Nigeria at the time. We had the likes of CHASE and IMB, and several licenses were given out because the regime was seeking to liberalise the financial sector. I had friends who were investment bankers and I found banking interesting, moreso than accounting as it allowed me express myself a lot more. I also have a very strong entrepreneurial streak and as I saw banks spring up, I felt it was a good time to forge a great partnership and try this new venture. A close friend of mine, also a banker and an accountant, shared my values and the fact that there was so much more that could be done in banking. I was about 24 years old when I started that journey.
MM: Did you always have interest in finance growing up?
HW: Always; I just loved finance. I read about several interesting events that occurred in the world at that time. There were interesting trades and junk bonds that I thought we could emulate. I wanted to be an accountant but after I started accounting, I found finance a lot more exciting. The two fields are interrelated and so I could transition quite comfortably. My parents were only interested in the fact that one studied a professional course, and in fairness to them, they didn’t dictate what one studied as long as it was professional.
MM: Now let’s talk about Access Bank. How has it been since taking over and what is your vision for the Bank?
HW: The former C.E.O and I are partners so we divided responsibilities according to strengths; and so the issues around succession that people usually have was not present in this case. It was simply a case of continuity because we share the same values, same beliefs, and we come from the same background. We attended the same institutions; our patterns are very similar. It is different not having him around because the process of sharing your thoughts with someone who was there with you from the beginning is unique. That’s not to say that I don’t have similar relationships in the bank today, but he’s by far the closest. We started this dream together. I still call him every now and then because I believe that there are certain stakeholders you must continue to reach out to and tap from their wealth of experience; he is such a person.
MM: It is on record that you worked at GTB. What did you learn from GTB that has helped you with Access Bank?
HW: Well, my foundation started at GTB. I got in when the founders were still there on a blank piece of paper. As an institution, our values are pretty much the same. It is a good bank; we are part of their history, as they are part of ours.
MM: I’ve read good reviews about the women-focused W initiative. What brought about the support for women and what do you hope to achieve with it?
HW: Women in our society are not given enough attention. I attended a mixed school, and they are just as bright as men (honestly, even brighter). Not just in Nigeria, but all over the world. In our world today, we make it look like the men are sole contributors just because we live in a male- dominated society. I believe this whole situation doesn’t encourage proper economic development because you are discriminating against a sex who have the intellect and dedication to contribute meaningfully to our nation. Secondly, when you support a woman, you support a household and by extension, a community. So if you support the woman, even an uneducated woman, she is able to contribute moral, emotional and social support for the children, thereby instilling great values in them. Thirdly, women are more prudent than men. From our experience, the default rate on loans to women is very insignificant. Our initiative is a testament to this as we have never had a single default. If you go to SMEs, there are more women than men; so if you want to support economic growth, you should support the women. Also, we have pushed ourselves into a retail market, and as we know, more than half of the Nigerian population are women.
However, W is much more than all these. Much more. W is about inspiring, connecting and empowering women. We have an online community, theWcommunity.com, where women can reach out and engage with one another. W has several training programmes that cater to all categories of women, from big business women who are thinking about succession in their businesses, to small-scale traders. For me, the most remarkable thing about W is the Maternal Health Support Scheme which is designed to assist women financially in their quest for motherhood and good health. This brings me great joy.
MM: The Bank seems to be at the forefront of supporting the arts. What is the reason behind this new interest?
HW: It’s not new; we’ve been supporters for a while and for several reasons. First, art is a very interesting way of expressing beauty. Secondly, depending on what aspect of the arts you are interested in, it expresses all the things that you see in life in subtle but interesting forms. When you watch Kakadu for instance, it is amazing what it teaches you about our country. My children enjoyed it. It is educative for those who know nothing about the Civil War and they got to ask questions from what they saw. I enjoy the different parts of art; visual art or drama. Even Nollywood. It is not generally known, but we do a lot to support it. We created Nollyfund and it’s been quite successful in providing financial support to the industry. Nollywood has come a long way and it’s a big contributor to our GDP. Not everyone must be a lawyer or banker; people have different callings. Anything you do, if you do it well, you’ll do well.
MM: What are your views on entrepreneurship?
HW: I have a passion for entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs and as such, I deeply appreciate the innovative potential of the young people of this generation. They are extremely creative and have the drive and the hunger to see an idea right from conception down to execution. Consequently, I have taken it upon myself to actively invest time and money in the development of the youth. I also make out time to mentor aspiring entrepreneurs.
MM: What measures would the Bank be embarking upon to help young entrepreneurs in 2016?
HW: We’ll continue to push our SME business to help young entrepreneurs in the society. But the truth is that a large number of businesses will have problems because of the current situation in the country. As a bank, you cannot afford to make mistakes and so people have to be more careful in 2016 than ever before. However, we’ll continue to support entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs through trainings and in some cases funding (at relatively cheap and affordable rates). We’ll continue to push W (Business and Support for Women) and focus on agriculture which I see becoming a great a source of employment for the youth in our society.
MM: Let’s talk about your family life; How did you meet your wife and do you cope with the busy CEO schedule and family?
HW: I met my wife when she moved back to Nigeria from the US to do her NYSC. Interestingly, I was completely unaware that our parents knew each other. It took a total of 5 months from the day I met her until the day we got married because very early on, it was clear to me that she was ‘The One’. I am immensely satisfied and really grateful because in her I have found a partner, a friend and an exceptional homemaker, thus making it easier for me to cope with the challenge of balancing work and family. Truth be told, I am quite a handful but she’s doing a great job in spite of my busy routine. Generally, challenges in marriage are inevitable, but learning to accept this reality and developing a coping mechanism helps a great deal. Even siblings have problems; once you see life like that, things should go on fine. It helps to leverage on the support that comes from parents.
MM: What were the traits that you saw in her?
HW: I found her extremely attractive, her smile was the most genuine I had seen in a while, extremely intelligent and we had and still have the best conversations. Without a doubt, I just knew she was the One. (smiles)
MM: What does your wife do?
HW: She worked with Shell right until we started having children and she became a homemaker. She runs her own business now.
MM: When are you happiest?
HW: When I spend time with my family.
MM: Are you a religious person? What church do you attend?
HW: I believe in God and I attend The City of David. I grew up knowing God and that has not changed. I did the catechism to be Catholic. I was baptised in the Anglican Church. I got introduced to Pastor Adeboye in 1987, and there was something spectacular about him. I’ve met other strong men of God. Their lives made me realize that some people are truly gifted and very simple, honest and transparent. I found myself going to his (Pastor Adeboye’s) church even though at that time I was Anglican. I used to attend a parish at Ebute-Metta before I moved to one at Apapa, and now it’s The City of David.
MM: Now let’s focus on your sense of style. Did anyone influence you while growing up?
HW: As funny as this may sound, I do not consider myself stylish. I hear it a lot and I look at myself like where is the style? I don’t give much thought to style but I like to wear what looks good on me. When I’m abroad, I sit with people who are doing interesting things in fashion, and pick a couple of things. There were people from different professions whose fashion sense left a strong impression. I loved what they wore although I may not have been able to wear them. There was a man called Aristotle Onassis; his fashion sense was out of this world and I am yet to see someone else look that good in a tuxedo.
MM: What do you find essential in a man’s wardrobe?
HW: I think it depends on what you like. Sometimes it’s the little things. Some people collect timepieces but for me, a good pair of cufflinks is everything. I love them because sometimes when you are not sure of the nature of the event you are going to, you can just put on a shirt that has cuffs and throw on a pair of good cufflinks. If the event turns out to be informal or semi-formal, you’d still be appropriate. Shoes are essential for me as well.
MM: Which three people would you like to have at a dinner table and why?
HW: [laughs] I already have them at my dinner table. My concept of having people over for dinner is to have a great time. I enjoy Alh. Dangote’s company a lot. People may be surprised to know that he is extremely funny and when we get together we discuss things other than business. I enjoy dining with my partner, Aigboje, his company means a lot because we talk about anything and everything. We talk about the children, vacations, politics, the economy and so many other random things that give us joy or pain; and for me, that’s what makes it genuine. I’ll definitely grab an opportunity to dine with George Bush (41), I find him quite interesting and I definitely have a couple of questions to ask him.
MM: Do you make out time to read? What were the last three books you read and what did you take from them?
HW: The last one I read was about G.W. Bush (41). I’m currently reading about Israel (The Creation of a Great Nation) and before 41, I read a book about Ronald Reagan. I don’t really read fiction; I prefer biographies and autobiographies because I get to learn a lot about people. I have read about all the American Presidents. In my opinion, 41 was a great read! I really enjoyed learning about his history, and was particularly surprised to see that he has a great sense of family, which is evident in the supportive role he played when his son became president. Bush is undoubtedly an accomplished man with strong values; I can relate to that and I’m inspired by his legacy.
MM: If you were to be an animal, what animal would you be and why?
HW: I was born August 15th which has Leo as its Zodiac sign, so lion it is. I don’t think it’s a bad animal to be [Laughs]
MM: If you were to be another person in this world, who would you be?
HW: I can’t think of anyone. I’ll always be myself.
MM: If you were to live in just one place anywhere in the world, where would you live?
HW: Lagos, of course. Eko o ni baje.
MM: Who are your favourite writers?
HW: I’m not sure I have a favourite. There are so many good writers out there and I just go ahead to read what comes my way as long as I am learning from it.
MM: What character in history do you most admire?
HW: Bush 41
MM: What talent would you want to acquire?
HW: Playing the piano properly. I learnt a little when I was a lot younger but if I could find the time, I’ll definitely jump on it.
MM: Favourite food and drink?
HW: Pepper soup.
MM: Favourite slogan?
HW: Take Tomorrow
MM: What phrase do you overuse?
HW: No problem!
MM: Do you have any regrets?
HW: No, not really
MM: What is your most treasured possession?
HW: My Wife and children. Family is everything to me!
MM: No treasured material?
HW: Material things will always come and go. Nothing is indispensable to me.
MM: After your children and your wife, who next?
HW: There are some friendships I cherish; so friends and family.
MM: We heard you are a Nollywood fan and you like Nkem Owoh (Osuofia). How did that come about?
HW: He is without a doubt, the most interesting person to watch. I was travelling one day and I got bored so I asked them to play a movie in the airplane and it happened to be one he starred in. At the initial stage, I was like ‘What is this?’ But after about five minutes, I found myself laughing uncontrollably at what he was doing and I had to watch it to the end. From then onwards, I started watching his movies. Let’s be honest, Nollywood is improving; better equipment and great talents. Nkem Owoh is different and his talent can’t be hidden. I attended University of Nigeria, Nsukka so I can understand how he thinks.
MM: You are very active on social media; tell me about that.
HW: Social media is the future. It has triggered a paradigm shift in the way the world communicates. A decade or two ago, if you couldn’t afford a telephone you relied on the postal service to deliver letters to loved ones and would wait weeks to get responses. Even communicating to customers – TV, radio, billboards and print media – was one way. It was almost impossible to get instant feedback. All that has changed. You can now communicate with customers or prospects, and get feedback at the speed of light. The world has become a smaller, connected community. Social media has helped to improve how corporate organizations evaluate customers’ perception of their services and improve service delivery. Before the advent of social media, one generally created new products based on perceived needs of the consumer. Today, if you are listening, consumers will tell you what they want. It is important that the 21st century executive is a better listener, than a salesman. Social media gives you that edge. I find the engagements on Twitter so interesting and it’s the major social media network I’m on. I think I’m getting much better at it – all thanks to my social media mentors, Amaechi and Segun. I believe the future of communicating with customers resides in engaging them through every possible channel with social media being the most effective in terms of its illimitable reach and the honest feedback from users, which is very important to us. We have our customers discussing our brand and products in real time and I feel it is important that I am part of that conversation. I enjoy retweeting interesting articles, sharing my thoughts and sometimes using the platform to drive support for social issues.
MM: Twitter or Facebook
MM: can I follow you on Twitter right now?
HW: Of course, follow me right away and tweet at me @herbertowigwe. I’d probably put up pictures from this interview before you do (laughs)
MM: What do you make of the Nigerian music scene?
HW: Nigerian artistes are great, so much so that even the American artistes listen to them. I spent some time with a couple of friends in Miami who are not Nigerians neither do they live in Nigeria but they were all listening to Nigerian music. It was beautiful Nigerian music and whether they understood what they were listening to or not, they seemed to have been enjoying it. Artists like Don Jazzy and Wizkid have definitely put Nigerian music on the world map.
MM: What’s your favourite Nigerian song?
MM: How passionate are you about artworks?
HW: I’m a collector and I’ve picked up quite a number. It got to a point where my wife was not too happy with me because I had tons of artworks in storage at Signature gallery.
MM: Do you have a favourite piece?
HW: Hmmm… I enjoy all the pieces in my collection; each one has a backstory that is meaningful to me.
MM: Plan on retiring from banking?
HW: I’ve been doing executive work in banking for about 17 years. After a while, it starts to tell on you. I’m certainly not the same person I was when I started. For most people who know, you have to adapt your lifestyle. Your diet has to change, and it’s not because we’ve gotten older. Anything that happens in the economy hits you first. It’s not like selling Fanta or Coke; everybody’s problem is your problem. I’m turning 50 in August, by the grace of God. I want to pursue philanthropic exploits. I want to spend more time mentoring young people. There are so many books I want to read. I want to enjoy beautiful sunsets with my wife by my side. (Smile). Yes, I’ll definitely retire from banking and take on new and exciting challenges. As for When? Time will tell.
MM: You’re going to be 50 this August; what are your plans?
HW: Victor Hugo, the French poet, once said “forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” I’m definitely going to enjoy myself because you don’t get there twice. I’ll focus on all the amazing things God has done in my life, and have a good time with family and friends. I’ll post some pictures on Twitter. Only some, though. (Smile)
MM: What is your definition of accomplishment?
HW: I think when you lead people or an institution to a certain height, it is an accomplishment. I happened to be in the United States on the day of 9/11. I saw how Bush 43 came out with a strategy to solve that problem and I said to myself, ‘This is a great man’. He wasn’t complicating issues and the way he went about it was very clinical. His father was also a great man if considering his numerous contributions to America.
MM: If you could do three things to make the world better, what would they be, and how will you go about it?
HW: I’ll get child hawkers off the street and cater to them. No child should be selling on the streets; they should be in school and that’s the most important thing. Secondly, I’ll do anything to fight against injustice. Lastly, I’ll do my utmost to have a corrupt-free society.
MM: Being a role model to so many young men and women out there, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers and those trying to figure out what to do?
HW: There is no easy way to success. It takes a lot of determination, discipline and patience to be successful. I heard someone once say “Keep on going and chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it”. I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something while sitting down. Get up, keep going, stumble on something and do it well! Whatever the case is, just make sure you Take tomorrow!!
MM: Now to some fun quick-fire questions. Are you ready?
- What new technology will transform the future?
- Who is your favourite James Bond?
- Favourite sports figure?
- Morning person or night person?
24hour kinda guy
- Rolex or Audemars Piguet?
- Rolls Royce or Bentley?
- Tablet or laptop?
- BBC or CNN?
- Summer or winter?
- Outdoor running or Treadmill?
- Outdoor running
- Tie or Bowtie
- Football or Tennis?
- Coffee or tea?
- Double breasted or Single Breasted.
Mr Wigwe showed himself a truly balanced personality. His intellectual depth, business intelligence, managerial experience and international exposure combine with a simple disposition shaped by faith, family, friendship and an enduring humanity. He is indeed a role model.
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