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Herbert Wigwe: Citius, Altius, Fortius

At 54, only a few on earth today have achieved in their lifetime what winsome, wondrous and wise Wigwe has achieved. Precocious and perspicacious, as a wunderkind, Wigwe has always had a head for numbers, playing “mental mathematics” with friends, solving random mathematical questions; without the aid of a calculator.

At 16, he became interested in finance largely influenced by the story of Michael Milken, high-yield bonds (junk bonds), among others. Today, Wigwe sits atop the biggest bank in Africa’s biggest economy and most populous black nation on earth. Unassuming, unpretentious, and undeterred, the Access Bank boss remains a larger-than-life character.

He possesses the skills, shrewdness, and sentiments that people in high places crave. In this universe, Wigwe is king. How he and his partner, Aigboje Aig Imoukhuede contributed their quota to build the Gtbank brand, acquired Intercontinental Bank, and turned Access bank from the fringe to total transformation and made a business behemoth that acquired one of the most forward-looking banks in Nigeria, Diamond Bank, should be a case study in national and international business schools.

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Young and vibrant, athletic in heart and body, as a younger man, Wigwe enjoyed running. He’s built to last. Like an Olympian, he has stood tall, eyes on the prize, and always rising above limits.

Citius, Altius, Fortius: Wigwe is always faster, higher, and stronger.

Access Bank, one of the largest financial services groups on the African continent, recently executed a merger that has greatly increased its scale, retail expertise, and footprint, with more than 10 million mobile customers. With Wigwe’s adrenaline- like drive, the bank’s digital transformation journey has enabled the bank to remain agile and consolidate its position in this space.

“I cannot change the world overnight .but if I can empower even one youth today, tomorrow, they could join me in empowering others.with time we could change the world,” says Herbert Wigwe, the group managing director, and chief executive officer of Access bank.

Its strategy is digitally- led, supported by collaborations with reputable fintechs, and the effort to transition to digital has been massive. He has led the training and re-skilling of staff because they need to demonstrate strong digital skills to adapt to the new world.

Wigwe has led the bank’s transformation in using AI for insights and decision making.

He understands that as a CEO to thrive in a fast-paced and dynamic environment, he must be digitally and technology savvy, understanding the implications of new technologies for industries and businesses.

The Access boss has embraced, sought and created change with a passion, ‘tragile’ in his approach – maintaining the right balance between the traditional way things are done and still be agile.

Following its merger with Diamond Bank in March 2019, Access Bank today is the largest bank in Nigeria and Africa’s leading bank by customer base as it operates through a network of more than 600 branches and service outlets, spanning three continents, 12 countries, and over 40 million customers. The bank employs over 28,000 people in its operations in Nigeria, subSaharan Africa, and the United Kingdom, with representative offices in China, Lebanon, India, and the UAE.

In all this success story is the indefatigable Aigboje Aig-imoukhuede. Together, have strode the financial industry like colossuses since 2002.

He admitted, “It is never one person’s effort. It’s the effort of a group of people. It’s the effort of a strong team. Yes, we both came in. But there was also a strong team that we brought in.”

Wigwe added, “My partner and ‘brother’ shared so much in common with me. His aspiration was the exact mirror of what I really wanted to do for myself. When the idea came up, it didn’t take one second for us to say, ‘Let’s do it.’”

When the duo left Gtbank and decided to take on a bank ranked 65th out of the 89 banks in the country at the time, their confidence was built on the fact that they had done it before. Wigwe had worked in an entrepreneurial environment. Taking on Access was not a big deal to him.

At a young age, Wigwe has acquired the experience and fortitude to deal with a situation like acquiring Access. “I had the experience a couple of times. I had the opportunity of working in a bank, that didn’t go well very early in my career, having trained as a chartered accountant,” he explained.

He had started a bank from a plain balance sheet and grew it into one of Nigeria’s corporate success stories. So, coming into Access bank was nothing new to him. The only difference was that as young men they were at the forefront of everything. That made some people doubt them. Wigwe was not ready to doubters define them.

“There were people who thought, ‘ How are these guys going to pull it together?’ Young people don’t work together very well. They are likely to quarrel.’ Some also said, ‘It’s just a matter of time, something will happen.’”

Even some consulting firms were not going to take their mandate because they felt Wigwe and Aig-imoukhuede were a bit too young for what they wanted to do.

Yet, the duo, then in their 30s, driven by conviction and camaraderie rose to the very top turning a seemingly impossible venture into mission accomplished.

“Within us, we didn’t feel we were too young because we knew there were people who had done it at that age. Perhaps with smaller businesses or with smaller banks. We felt we were so better trained than most people who had done it before.

“We were infinitely confident in our capacity to what we were doing. So age was a number, but if you look at our track record up until that time, we were not 35,” recalls Wigwe.

But their impact was more immediate, reflected in the bank’s performance in the first year, when its balance sheet grew by 100 percent, with an impressive N1 billion profit before tax. This figure was more than the cumulative profit made by the bank in the previous 12 years of operations.

Not many business duos have endured as Wigwe and Aig-imoukhuede and their relationship seems destined for eternity.

Wigwe’s leadership is exceptional. When he ran a small bank with Aig-imoukhuede, he knew every member of staff by name. Will he be able to do so with Access Bank that has 29,000 employees?

“I’m still trying to know their names and faces,” he admits. “I’m also still learning how to navigate such a massive institution.” Wigwe is a man of the people, for the people and with the people.

“I miss spending time with people,” he admits. “But because we are growing across the continent and across the world, each time we set up a new subsidiary, I go there and spend time with them.”

For him being able to create leadership with a human face is of high value. “It is why some banks are failing and others are blooming. It is all a function of leadership.” It is true that there are many young Nigerians doing great things in the business world, but Wigwe and Aig-imoukhuede are a world apart in their conviction and vision. They have become genuine role models for Nigeria’s teeming youths.

At 54, Wigwe is at the peak of his career and leadership, intervening in critical moments for the country with his bank championing the financial sector interventions in the formation of the Coalition against COVID-19 (CACOVID), and the takeover of the renovation of the National Theatre as one of many creative hubs planned around the country.

About 20 years ago, it was extremely difficult to do deals of $1bn. To put together that sum of money for any corporate organisation, one had to travel all over the world. Today, people do deals worth billions of dollars in the comfort of their homes and offices. Therefore, Wigwe, believe that the larger the institutions, the larger their capacity to support the country to grow.

“As long as it’s done for the right reasons, even if it’s a merger, the creation of large African champions who can truly have a significant impact on the country is critical,” says Wigwe.

It is little wonder that Access Bank was awarded at the 2019 World Finance Award ‘Best

Digital Bank in Nigeria,’ ‘ Best Mobile App in Nigeria,’ 2018 CBN ‘Sustainable Bank of the Year,’ and ‘2018 Global Banking and Finance Review ‘ Best Investor Relations Bank in Nigeria,’ ‘Bank of the Decade,’ and Wigwe honoured ‘Banker of the Decade,’ by THISDAY Newspapers this year.

Wigwe attended Federal Government College (FGC) Sokoto before moving to FGC Warri and graduated in 1982. Thereafter, he studied Accountancy at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) in 1983 where he studied Accountancy, graduating in 1987.

Wigwe became his professional career Coopers and Lybrand Associates Limited and was promoted within a year. In 1989, Capital Merchant Bank as a credit analyst. In 1990, he won the British Council Scholarship to study at North Wales University (now Bangor University) and earned M.A in Banking and Finance in 1991. He has an MSC in Financial Economics from the University of London and is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Management Program.

Wigwe is not only an entrepreneur and businessman. He is also a philanthropist. In 2015, under the aegis of Access Bank Plc; he launched the W-initiative. A scheme meant to support and encourage more women to venture into business.

The W-initiative also supports a Maternal Health Scheme. This provides women facing fertility issues with support. The Scheme gives women support for fertility issues such as In Vitro fertilization (IVF), Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), Endometriosis, Hysterectomy, and many others.

Wigwe is also passionate about the arts. At the 2015 edition of Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), the Nollyfund was announced. The Nollyfund is a brainchild of Access Bank and the Bank of Industry (BOI).

The Nollyfund is a loan scheme designed to help Nollywood stakeholders with the production and distribution of films.

Nollyfund has an initial program limit of N1 billion and a single limit of N50 million for individual loans. Notable beneficiaries of the fund include the veteran filmmaker, Kunle Afolayan who obtained a loan for his movie, the CEO. The CEO is pegged the best pan-african film to come out of Nigeria in recent years.

In Early 2016, Herbert launched his own charitable foundation, The HOW Foundation with the aim of using this medium as a way to continue to make a positive impact outside of his work environment. Wigwe’s foundation reflects his key passions around youth empowerment, leadership, and mentorship, malaria, prostate cancer, and children.

There’s only one way forward for the debonair, dependable and dexterous Wigwe: Citius. Altius. Fortius.

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