Book Review: Leaving The Tarmac

Leaving the Tarmac 2
Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede with his book

Title: Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa

Author: Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede

Reviewer: Phillip Isakpa, Publisher, Business AM

Publisher: RedDoor, UK

Pages: 217

This book is riveting. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede’s book, Leaving The Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa is about ambition. But it is one that is dogged and calculated. There is no randomness about it, as it is laced with audacity, supported by clarity of goal and vision; a purposeful, meaningful desire to succeed.

The Nigerian economy used to have three star-attraction sectors that formed the focus of public and media attention and admiration. These were manufacturing, oil and gas, and banking. This period was before mobile phones came and a wider interface with technology by Nigerians. Technology has since opened so many unvisited spaces that it now sits at the heart of nearly all of human endeavours.

Manufacturing was at this period an undisputed leader with the captains of the sector dominant in the Nigerian economy to the point where suggestions were often made that some of them constituted ‘government outside government’, who had to be consulted by the government of the day in the formulation of economic policy for the country. These were largely multinationals; and their CEOs were powerful and, sometimes, seemed larger than life. In this manufacturing group were large companies such as United Africa Company (UAC), Lever Brothers, as it then was (now Unilever plc), Nigerian Breweries, Nestle, PZ Cussons, Flour Mills, WAPCO Cement, Cadbury, John Holt, Leventis Group, Nigeria Bottling Company, CFAO, Volkswagen, among others.

The CEOs of UAC, Nigerian Breweries, Lever Brothers, WAPCO Cement, were the go-to people in the 1970s and up to the early 1990s. There were also powerful indigenous manufacturing companies, such as Eleganza Industries, Adebowale Electronics, among others, with powerful founders who bestrode the economic landscape of the country.

But many things have since changed. The manufacturing sector and its leaders no longer command the kind of attention and power that they commanded as individuals, but even more so as a group. What exists now with regards to manufacturing power is that there is a small group of founders who have broken barriers as purely capitalist private-sector operators who have made success of their manufacturing enterprise and are so recognised for the role that they and their businesses play in the economic landscape of Nigeria.

What is true of the way that manufacturing has gone is perhaps true also about a number of other sectors. The trouble that befell the Nigerian economy over the years, and which contributed to seeing manufacturing lose its power in the group think way, has visited many sectors. The oil and gas sector has remained constant for its impenetrability; and this has led to it being described as the most opaque of the sectors of the Nigerian economy. But because of what the oil sector has come to represent for Nigeria for several decades, it continues to remain a sector of interest and fascination. 

Yet, as you navigate the labyrinth of the Nigerian economy you will find that the banking sector and bankers have stood out in a special kind of way. And this, in my view, is because of the key intersection/intercessory role that they play across the economic and social life of individuals, organisations, institutions and society at large. But also because, in a special way, Nigerian banks and bankers have managed, over the years to not shy away from engagement with society, with the public.

Understandably, there is an acknowledged conservativeness about the institution of banking, but followers of banking and its many operators, over the decades, will tell you that the banking institution in Nigeria has thrown up people who were positively non-conventional in the truly conservative banking speak that we have come to generally associate with that institution. These sector game changers have come at different points in the history of banking in the country, even in periods when the sector could rightly be described as conservatism personified, to provide a rush, a visage that brought colour to the sector. 

The Nigerian business environment is replete with secrecy. Many people carry the stories behind their businesses to their graves. As a result, it is often scarce to find first hand stories told by founders, owners and key game changers of business enterprises from which lessons can be learned or insights gleaned as pathways to help those venturing out into an unknown world, to guide them from encountering pitfalls that would serve as drawbacks.

As very well known, these are very common in the world of business. For, indeed, this is important, considering the peculiarity of the Nigerian environment, where, often times, no matter what you may find from reading the many books from the Western World, where people take exceptional pleasure to put down their stories for posterity, sharing the secrets of their successes and their journeys; including putting in writing the reasons why they could not accomplish their goals, about failed and successful businesses, you will find that in the case of Nigeria, the success stories of those who navigate local peculiarities provide you with clearer understanding about how to deal with the Nigerian environment.

This is why Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede has done us a huge favour with his book, Leaving The Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa. In a society where the ingredients of successful businesses are often guarded jealously and details about how business founders and owners achieve their success and lead successful organisations are often never publicly told, Aig-Imoukhuede provides a refreshing departure because he tells it all about how the success of Access Bank, which he led for more than ten years, came about.

He even reveals strategies and, in a no-holds-barred manner, provides details that enable the reader understand every step taken to get Access Bank to where it got to before he stepped aside as chief executive officer.

This is a book about Access Bank and the author sets out to make the point in the introductory chapter, letting the reader know that this is not an autobiography. It, however, just so happens that the protagonist is the one telling the story and it is difficult for us to fully extricate him from the subject of his narrative. In that sense it becomes semi-autobiographical as we are allowed into snippets of his life, particularly the workings of his mind at different moments in his effort to get us to understand the Access Bank story and its phenomenal success. 

Here is why this is particularly so. Running through every chapter of the book is the title I have chosen for this review, to try to describe my own interpretation; for it goes beyond the episodic narrative of the occurrences of events. For as you read through the chapters, you will find calculated ambition, that is activated by audacity and enabled by vision and purpose in the pursuit of excellence. All of this comes together in crystallising the story of Access Bank, which the author has graciously put together and told in this book that today’s generation, as well as tomorrow’s, will find it an aid and propeller of nascent ambitions.

But it is the overarching nature of the ambition and the determination resident in the author that makes every chapter of this book a compelling read.

For those who already know something or have heard a little about the Access Bank story, either as shareholders, investors, customers or just interested persons who follow developments in the Nigerian banking industry, there will surely be a lot of curiosity to make you want to read the story of Access Bank. That curiosity upon reading this book will expose you to many, many things you really never knew about the Access Bank success story. Aig-Imoukhuede has very kindly told the story without leaving you wondering if he has left anything out. 

You are quickly drawn into the nature of calculated ambition in the very first sentence of the first chapter, when the author writes: “When I told my mum I was going to buy a bank she couldn’t understand what I was talking about” (p.5).

The reaction to that ambitious statement, although two-pronged – one, about why the author shouldn’t just try to enjoy being the youngest bank executive director in the country – it is in the second leg of her reaction … “And how are you going to buy a bank anyway?” that helps us understand how such an ambition really seemed a very tall order. We would read later about the environment surrounding bank ownership in Nigeria at the time, the influence of godfathers helping to facilitate such ownership, and this helps us navigate a mother’s thoughts and why she greeted her son’s open expression of an ambition to buy a bank with some skepticism. 

“There was a general perception amongst the Nigerian public that a large proportion of the many banks then operating in the market were backed by wealthy individuals, known generally as ‘Ogas’ or ‘Godfathers’,” (p.6) the writer explains in the first chapter, to underscore the challenges someone without ‘Ogas’ or ‘Godfathers’, but who nursed an ambition of owning a bank, faced. 

If the author’s mother showed a cautious response to her son’s spoken ambition to buy a bank, he provides us with what appears to be his deep state of preparedness for the execution of his ambition by allowing us enter his mind’s workings at the time – which gave him an understanding of how the banking industry in Nigeria was set up, especially how he had come to the realisation that it was banks being run by owner/managers that were the best managed, hence strengthening the resolve to become an owner manager of a bank someday.

But part of the author’s preparation to hit the ambitious target of owning a bank, can be seen from his conscious realisation early on, that he possesses what he calls ‘entrepreneurial juice’, which he said his mother did not understand.

As he writes, “If, in your heart, you want to work for yourself then you will never be happy working for someone else … Entrepreneurs simply have to go out and create things for themselves” (p.15).

This innate self-awareness that he possesses this “juice” appears to strengthen his confidence to the extent that he would actually begin to think of setting out to buy a bank. It is something that is likely to separate one woman or man from another in this dynamic world we live in, the ability to self-recognise and be aware of what is inside of you; and then going further to bring it to life. 

In this journey of self-actualisation, of bringing to life the entrepreneurial juice, we find throughout the book the full demonstration of this calculated ambition (not to be confused for chance occurrences), for which the author needed to be audacious about, not lacking in vision and purpose in his quest for excellence. We will find this play out in two circumstances in the book. The first as a young school boy. And here again, it is instructive to mention that the school – for which I would say the academic world – as a metaphor, may well define the foundational atmosphere of intelligence and knowledge upon which Access Bank appears to be built and is now known for, especially in its many interventions in the society, here in Nigeria and internationally. The author narrates a very poignant story from when he was in high school and being at the airport waiting to catch a flight back home to Lagos from Kaduna.

“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 I reached the bottom of the steps to the plane the door at the top had been slammed shut, all the seats having been filled. As I stood with my suitcase, watching the plane take off without me, tears streamed down my face and I vowed that never again would I be left behind on the tarmac while everyone else was flying off.” (p.18).

From the mind of a young schoolboy, perhaps before he was even a teenager, having started high school when he was ten, came the profound statement-pledge, one laden with resolve and determination, to never again be left on the tarmac while everyone else was flying off.

Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede's new book

We will see the concretisation of this purposeful ambition come up again later in the life of the author, but it is important to state here that this pledge by this young school boy will play out throughout the course leading to buying Access Bank and its evolution and growth afterwards, once the author and his partner took control.

With some years of banking behind him, and far away in Boston, United States, at Harvard Business School, now as a full grown man, who had already made his mark in the world of banking in Nigeria, the author, again with the metaphor of ‘academic’, brings us into his capacity for knowledge: that he is an avid reader and seeker of knowledge, and how this enables him to solidify decisions. 

“The final realisation that I wanted to own and run a bank of my own dawned on me while I was attending an Executive Management Programme at Harvard Business School in Boston, USA. My brother in-law, Ovie Brume, had finished his MBA programme that year, just before I attended the Harvard PMD programme in the autumn of 2000. He gave me a book titled Buyout: The Insider’s Guide to Buying Your Own Company by Rick Rickertsen and Robert E. Gunther, which proved to be seminal for me.

“The book is targeted at professionals, asking the question, ‘Do you want to work for other people, surviving on a salary and bonuses forever? Or do you want to seize your own destiny? If so, then this is the way to do it.’” (p.16)

Talk of inspiration from knowledge! The author goes on to tell us that it was at that moment that he knew exactly what he wanted to do and what he had to do. He even goes further to tell us about a quote in the Rickertsen and Gunther book that, perhaps, stole his thunder and seemed to have nailed it for him; the quote itself taken from another book by James Bryant Conant. ‘Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.’ And he tells us, “That was what I knew I had to do” (p.16); and he went on to do it.

Again, just like we see the schoolboy’s pledge manifest at different points in the Access Bank story, the Harvard story was the final propeller for action. The latter crystalized an ambition formed in the head over a long period, what we can describe as the latent gathering of a vision needing auspiciousness to unfold.

If you try to wrench the author from the book’s primary focus as the story of Access Bank, you will find his attempt at a number of episodic deliveries. So, Aig-Imoukhuede takes the reader through a number of events, activities and actions that lead you to this episodic understanding of the different stages of the life of the bank. I have chosen to call the first one, ‘the road to Access Bank’ in which we are provided the series of events, actions and activities forming the background in the journey of the ship that finally made anchor in 2002; everything here leads up to buying a bank, which turned out to be Access Bank. Once the decision had been made to buy a bank and it was put into motion, the author helps the reader understand the hard work involved in actually becoming an owner of this bank. This can be summed up in what I have called ‘Getting Access’. 

With the objective of securing the ownership of a bank realised, one question appears to pop up – what are you going to do with it? Luckily, the author provides us with enough evidence of the good old Boys’ Scout motto – “Be Prepared’. 

Everything was done to the detail. “On 22nd March 2002, we arrived at our new place of employment at Plot 1669, Oyin Jolayemi Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, as managing director and deputy managing director of Access Bank, only about five buildings down from the head office of our previous employer, GTB (p.42).

“Herbert and I sat down in my new office and just looked at each other, both of us thinking the same thing. Now we had a bank to run, what were we going to do next? How were we going to turn Access Bank around? What was our ‘go to market’ strategy going to be?” (p.43).

And they quickly set out to work. As you read through the chapter on Business Model (pp.42-60) you will come across the creative ingenuity of two banking executives, now bank owners, as they produce in less than a day, a turnaround strategy, the basis on which the rebuilding of Access Bank to the institution that we see today was underpinned. 

We learn too that generating ideas for the rebuilding work at Access Bank involved going to the bush. For that was exactly what he and his team did, they went to the ‘Bush’. The author writes: “Our first important step, however, was to articulate what our vision and mission were going to be. Commencing in April 2002, every weekend ‘we went to the Bush’, repeatedly taking over a small hotel in Lekki the coastal corridor which runs across the Atlantic beach from Victoria Island in Lagos (one star all we could afford). Week after week we would arrive on a Friday evening and not sleep more than five hours on any given day. These sessions produced endless streams of ideas, many of them quite outstanding. We would then be back when the office opened for business at 7.30am on Monday morning, ready for work once more, our heads buzzing with new ideas” (p.74).

So, in this book you will not find anything suggesting an accidental journey, hence my choice of the descriptive phrase ‘calculated ambition’. We see a lot of “preparation meets opportunity” in this book, perhaps driven by that school boy’s pledge to never again be found left on the tarmac. 

When we leave this phase, we move to the next, and to paraphrase another expression popular with bankers and people in the world of finance, we can see something I have chosen to call ‘Sweating Access Bank’.

I liken this to the same way when finance people talk about a business ‘sweating its capital or equity’ to produce returns for shareholders. This has to do with the challenges of turning the small bank around quickly and getting it to rise to the enormous ambitions that are the driving forces behind its buyers. Just as it is taken for granted that pilots fly airplanes, faced with putting the small bank into accelerated forward gear, the author and his team find that they now have a building project in their hands. For although Access Bank already existed and only changed hands with the acquisition by the author and his partner, going into the bank meant going in to rebuild it to the institution of their dream and all the excellent pursuits they had wanted to emplace in something that was their own.

As the author puts it, when he had that long discussion with his partner, Herbert Wigwe, to have him “…work side by side in the adventure of buying a bank and building it into a truly world-class institution” (p22). Here you can take a pause, have a very quick but deep reflection. Do you recall the James Bryant Conant quote? ‘Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out’ (p.16) That was very early on in the first chapter. 

As you read on you will see that the ‘sticking your neck out’ metaphor finds appropriation in a different kind of way after the acquisition. There is a table on page 193, Chapter 17, the last chapter of the book, that highlights in a comparative way some numbers of the bank in the year of acquisition, 2002 and the year the author retires from the bank, 2012.

While those numbers serve to tell the growth and transformation story, there is something more poignant, expressed in the book; and that is, the bank’s industry position of 70th at the time of acquisition. This would later form a key item of promise in the Enterprise Transformation Agenda the author presented to the board of the bank at their first meeting after the acquisition. 

“The decision as to whether or not to appoint us [that is, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe, as managing director and deputy managing director, respectively] came down to the Enterprise Transformation Agenda that we shared with the board, the key highlight of which was our plan to take Access Bank from the seventieth position to rank amongst Nigeria’s Top Ten Banks in five years.” (p.43).

It was based on this promise that the board goes ahead to approve their appointments and endorse their proposals. Again, here you can see the point I have made about calculated ambition that is purpose driven. You can see audacity that is built around vision. Which board member would be presented with a promise to move your business from number 70 to Top Ten in five years and then say no? 

The author then takes readers through what I determined to be three other phases, namely ‘Growing Access Bank’, involving the moments after they had sat down to build the building blocks of stabilizing and putting the bank into their own proper gear. For to move from 70th to being one of the top ten means emplacing all the engines of growth to fire up all the parameters of a top ten bank.

Then there is the ‘Pursuit of Excellence’ which, although runs throughout the book, especially with regards to the vision and the mission crafted, becomes even more apparent as they begin to look beyond the borders of Nigeria as an institution worthy of global respect. It is perhaps this also that dovetails into setting the scene for the future, a future in which the bank is fully transformed into an institution, taken on and taken up issues beyond developments in the banking hall, but those that concerns the immediate and global society. Indeed, looking into the future helps present a much wider view of the dream, the vision and the legacy of the Access Bank that would live beyond the author, something that calls for even much more work.

There are different moments in the book that shine a lot of light on the title I chose for this review. In the case of preparation for the journey, the author lets you into parental influence, how being upright civil servants earned what “afforded them comfortable standard of living and allowed them to send their children to good Nigerian schools” (p.10)

But this was until damage was done to the Nigerian economy in the 1980s, which “had decimated the living standard of such honest civil servants” (p.10). In comparison to those in the private sector of the economy, things were different. 

“We could also not help but notice that our peers, whose parents worked in the private sector for companies like United Africa Company (UAC) were not affected in the same way. The choice of career path seemed to be a no-brainer; once we graduated we were heading for the private sector” (pp.10-11). That is how the author, who trained as a lawyer, ended up in banking, first in the legal department, before becoming a core banker. 

If you are talking about calculated ambition, then read this: “I soon discovered that I enjoyed the practice of banking far more than functioning as a legal officer and DECIDED that at the RIGHT TIME I would make a move to core banking” (p.11).

And talk about preparation? Read this too: “I approached my responsibilities with a solution mindset, always seeking ways of enabling core bankers to serve their customers better, and soon built a reputation as a lawyer to whom bankers could go for good counsel. I was consulted even by very senior bankers and I gave advice freely, taking full advantage of the opportunity to build high-level contacts within the industry. Some of these senior bankers must have noticed something promising about me because within a year of joining Continental [Merchant Bank] I was recruited to join a team of bankers, several of whom I had worked with in Continental [Merchant] Bank, to set up the new Prime Merchant Bank” (p.11).

He also writes about early preparation for leadership, about learning from the masters, especially Fola Adeola, the founder of GTB.

There will be many who will read and love this book for the author’s frankness, and his willingness to share the strategies, the secrets of the successful journey that led to Access Bank. You will learn how to use opportunities because you are prepared, because if you aren’t prepared you probably wouldn’t see these opportunities. The author lets us into this thing about seeing opportunities in many instances in the book.

In 1999 Chief Olusegun Obasanjo became President after an election. He likes to pick the brains of smart private sector people and so Fola Adeola, the managing director of Guaranty Trust Bank, is one of those whose brains get to be picked. The author, as head of GTB’s Federal Capital Territory, Abuja business is made to go along to these brain picking meetings. And here he is privileged to hear all the stuff about a reform agenda. And when Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is appointed to head an Economic Management team with the mandate to implement a series of macroeconomic and structural reforms, the crescendo around the phrase ‘reform agenda’ is taken up two, three notches.

“I kept hearing phrases like ‘reform agenda’ and ‘private sector led growth’. People in government were talking about achieving double-digit annual growth over ten years, and they kept saying that the Nigerian banking industry was too small to support the sort of transformation that was needed. They believed the banking industry was too fragmented and in need of consolidation” (p.19).

At this point one can guess what the author may have been sensing, because he goes on to tell us the workings of his mind at this time. “I could see that if this economic team could achieve half of what they had put on the table this would mean the Nigerian economy would take off, pulling the banking sector along with it.” (pp.19-20).

With this knowledge the author shares with his readers the story about being purposeful and visionary. “By early 2000 I knew that if the banking sector took off without me in it as an owner I would be left standing on the tarmac, a very frustrated professional with little hope of making my entrepreneurial vision a reality … As the reform agenda began to take shape I was certain the banking industry would undergo rapid growth and transformation and the ‘family-owned’ bank model … would become untenable … At that moment it was still possible for someone to buy a bank of their own, but as I listened to these powerful people talking I could see clearly that this opportunity would not last forever. If I did not take a positive entrepreneurial step very soon then the door would be slammed shut and I ran the risk of finding myself on the tarmac again” (p.20). You can call that ‘the fear of the tarmac is the beginning of bank ownership’. 

There are astounding critical moments in the book which provide lessons in strategic thinking – such as in the crafting of the business model, the ‘go to market’ strategy, presented, surprisingly, in some great detail; transparency – such as when they take the decision to investigate past foreign exchange dealings and reported the bank’s malfeasance to the regulators without prompting; ensuring clarity from DAY ONE, to play in the Champions’ League of banking. 

In Chapter 6, which the author titled ‘A Vision for Transformation – Mission Impossible’, the reader will find everything upon which the bank is built and standing. They go to the Dutch development finance institution, FMO, and say to them, “we are a small bank with no track record and we need your help” (p.70) and they came back with a $10 million line of credit because the people at FMO liked what they heard. More importantly, “it was a sign of their faith in us as individuals” (pp.71-72).

This is demonstrated in the condition they gave for advancing the line of credit – that should both the author and his partner in this enterprise leave the bank, the loan would have to be repaid immediately. The importance of that first visit to FMO in The Netherlands would play out years later when the relationship that it nurtured became the saving grace during the 2005 Professor Chukwuma Soludo-led CBN’s N25 billion bank recapitalisation exercise. 

Running through pages 88-102 are crucial junctions which were seized upon as opportunities to continue the growth and development of the bank. Apart from acting on the information provided by Soludo when he met with bank CEOs, there was before then a meeting called by the CBN’s Director of Banking Operations to announce a change in banking operations, relating specifically to the nature of settlement banks for cheque clearance.

“I had projected that such a move was ten years ahead, by which time I believed that Access Bank would have grown large enough to be an automatic choice as one of the settlement banks,” (p.94) he writes. It was a decision that threw him off balance. But how did he respond?

“Based on what they were telling us I could see that Access Bank was not close to meeting the criteria needed to become a settlement bank. This would be completely contrary to all our carefully laid out plans” (p.94). This had been factored into Access Bank’s corporate objectives, but they had given it a period of ten years to happen. So they went to work such that between 2003 and 2007, Access Bank had prepared itself in all the criteria, except for branch spread, he writes. They then worked to get approvals to open branches in all required locations; and by the time another window opened to admit settlement banks, Access Bank ensured it was not left on the tarmac.

“The day we were appointed to be a settlement bank was an important milestone for everyone within the bank. Our hard work had paid off and we had taken another major step forward” (p.99).

This had mattered because as the author notes, being chosen as a settlement bank was a prerequisite to becoming a leading bank in the country. Again, calculated ambition meets purpose. 

In Chapters 14 and 15, the author goes into one of the most significant episodes of the fallout of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, which also had its Nigerian peculiarities.

Across the economy, especially in the media, the acquisition of the assumed big Intercontinental Bank by the relatively small (public perception, perhaps) Access Bank was a much talked about story. In these chapters, readers will learn what they didn’t know. If they were part of those who speculated wrongly at the time, they would be educated. Again, they will see how everything points to calculated ambition, being audacious, driven by vision and having a purpose. “… one key outcome of our December 2008 board Retreat was the mandate I was given to review various countries’ responses to the domestic financial crisis. I was also asked to ensure that Access Bank was prepared for any opportunities and threats which may arise” (p.155), the author writes. 

Perhaps, what would put to rest some of the rumours that swirled around at the time is the revelation in this book that after the CBN conducted a stress test on the industry (of which Access Bank passed in flying colours) and put eight banks up for sale, Access Bank wanting to seize the opportunity for a significant acquisition, appointed Citibank as advisers.

“Along with the Citibank team we analysed the pros and cons of acquiring each of the affected banks and eventually narrowed the field to three potential targets. We were clear that any acquisition that did not have a transformative impact on our industry position was not worth the trouble… and narrowed our choices down to Intercontinental Bank and Union Bank.” (p.157).

Clearly, every action was driven by a purpose, and every purpose guided by the vision, nurtured by this burning calculated ambition.

There is a lot to learn also from the book about the internal dynamics of Access Bank, especially the building blocks that have been put in place to guide it towards the giant that it is today. The author writes that in building the organisation a conscious step was taken to avoid paternalism; building an institution based on values, the core of which is EXCELLENCE, which to Access Bank means “surpassing ordinary standards to be the best in all that we do, setting a standard for what it means to be exceptional and never losing sight of our commitment to that standard, even when the going gets tough and there is a temptation to cut corners and take shortcuts” (p.78).

They were mindful of the role of banking in society, especially as enablers, vehicles of economic empowerment (p.79); and they set out to seek out the best people, fine tuning them through the Access Bank School of Banking Excellence and making them imbibe the corporate culture so that they follow the Access Way. 

Choosing to work for Access Bank means a readiness to make sacrifices. 

The reader will learn that this was an institution that is a champion of good governance and risk management; operating on transparency and disclosure. We learn how they pushed on growth outside of Nigeria, setting up in the United Kingdom, across Africa – the challenges and successes, especially getting some hiccups in Cote d’Ivoire. There is also the integration blues after acquiring Intercontinental Bank, which should serve as good lessons for both students of mergers and acquisitions and investors getting ready for M&A. 

The calculated ambition that has driven Access Bank to its present industry position in Nigeria and Africa is all laid out in this book, and we are allowed into how it is positioning itself for the world stage – as the World’s Most Respected African Bank.

Whereas the reader would be looking for this in hardcore banking operational practices, she would be wrong because the author then leads us into a whole new way of seeing Access Bank, beyond banking. Here we are led into how it came to enshrine sustainability as one of its core values, for as the author writes: “It was easy to embark on the quest for ‘excellence’ as a goal, but quite difficult to sustain it day after day, year after year. We were quite mindful that excellence would require high levels of dedication and commitment, but sustainability was teaching us that our approach could not be one of ‘excellence at all costs’, but more of ‘excellence on all fronts’. We needed to ensure that whatever endeavour we undertook delivered outcomes that were economically, environmentally and socially responsible” (p.182).

The author drives home the point that the new quest of ‘Becoming the World’s Most Respected African Bank’ anchored on sustainability, which it changed its vision statement to, now underlies the basis of its engagement with the world. And that is because “respect is a function of the value you bring to people, to society, to the world. If we have products and services that bring value, conduct our business in an ethical manner, value our environments and our society, if we can lead that society and if we are successful in whatever we do, that will bring us respect” (p.190).

This is not in the realm of corporate banking or project finance or even retail and customer service banking. It is not the creation of a randomising mind. This is global thinking and it supports my appellation of calculated ambition, driven by purposeful vision. 

This book was written at the time the author was stepping aside as chief executive of Access Bank in 2012. It was ready for publication in 2015, but was held back; and the author has graciously promised to tell us why when he, indeed, decides to write a book about his own life. But let me end by drawing attention to the sustainability pursuit that the author takes us through in the book.

Vision is not yesterday’s talk, today’s play thing or even tomorrow’s expectation. Now, do you wonder why today, following the merger with Diamond Bank in 2019, the payoff line of the bank is this? ACCESS … MORE THAN BANKING.

I commend this book to all who want to achieve enduring success in their genuine pursuit of excellence.