The untimely death over the weekend of Herbert Wigwe, the co-founder of Nigeria’s biggest bank by assets, left the lender without its visionary leader, but investors are relying on the game plan he put in place to see it through in the future.
Wigwe, 57, the chief executive officer of Access Holdings Plc died when a helicopter carrying him, his wife and son crashed in the California desert on Friday.
“When there is a loss of this magnitude investors will look at it closely, and I think where they will find comfort is in the fact that the strategy of the bank is clear,” said Samuel Sule, the CEO of Renaissance Capital Africa, who helped Access raise offshore funds for its expansion. “They have always had a very clear succession plan on how to move forward.
Wigwe and his friend Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede founded the lender in their mid-30s, forming a swashbuckling duo that took a tiny bank from a street corner in Lagos and turned it into a sprawling financial empire across Africa.
“They took a small, almost non-existent bank and they built it into an African conglomerate,” said Dayo Omolokun, chief financial officer at Standard Chartered Bank in Lagos. “Herbert together with his business partner Aig represent the young generation of Nigerians. They are people that a lot of young professional bankers look up to.”
Access Bank, with a total asset base of 20.9 trillion naira ($14 billion) as of June, operates in 20 countries, including the United Arab Emirates and the UK, and has four representative offices in China, India, Lebanon, and Paris.
The bank’s fast-paced growth in 22 years has been built around a series of acquisitions, including two local lenders: Intercontinental Bank in 2011 and Carlyle-Backed Diamond Bank in 2018.
“It has a growth trajectory which is ambitious and that ambition has been met over the past years,” Sule said. “It is not one single leader that has driven it but it’s shared among others.”
That has reassured investors, who pushed the yield on its bonds due September 2026 up 7 basis points by 8:53 a.m. in London to 10.04%. That’s the highest since Jan. 10. Similarly, the yield on the perpetual bond rose for the first day in four, climbing five basis points to 12.32%. Access Holdings shares declined 5.5% to 23.40 naira as of 11.25 a.m. in Lagos trading. But that still left the advance for this year at 5.5%, compared with a 0.6% gain by the Banking 10 Index that measures the nation’s biggest lenders.
Access Holdings has said an acting CEO will be appointed “soon.” It has now named an acting CEO but the bank could name Roosevelt Ogbonna, head of the banking subsidiary, to the position if the board decides to go down the path followed by Wigwe, who was appointed group CEO after serving as the head of the bank.
“Access Bank and the set of leaders next level to Herbert will continue the vision,” said Yinka Odeleye, a private equity investor who was previously the head of corporate finance at Citi Nigeria and before that worked with all three men at Guaranty Trust Bank. “One thing that Herb and Aig have done over the years is to train and empower their people a lot. Someone like Roosevelt has been with Herbert since he was an assistant banking officer at Guaranty Trust Bank. He was part of the vision, worked with Herbert and Aig from day one. So I am confident that on the Access side, the vision will continue.”
Wigwe started his professional career with Coopers & Lybrand Associates, an international firm of chartered accountants, before spending a decade at Guaranty Trust Bank. In 2004, he co-engineered the acquisition of local lender Access Bank, where he assumed the post of deputy managing director and eventually became CEO in January 2014, succeeding his business partner and friend Aig-Imoukhuede.
His strategy was to pursue an aggressive growth by connecting Africa in trade and payments and capping risks in its home market of Nigeria.
In 2023, he led the bank’s acquisition of the African assets of Standard Chartered Plc in Angola, Cameroon, Gambia and Sierra Leone, which widened its footprint to at least 17 countries. In the same year he set a target to grow the bank to be one of the top-5 lenders by assets on the continent by 2027 from a ranking of about 12th.
“I believe that they were going too fast and acquiring too many banks at the same time, I was worried that perhaps they were not having sufficient gestation period to put together all of that,” said Omolokun of Standard Chartered bank. “But knowing the kind of people they are, you also felt that they could pull it off.”
Wigwe died just hours before the clock went off at the Access-sponsored Lagos Marathon that draws elite athletes to the humid streets of Nigeria’s commercial center annually. It is the bank’s involvement in such activities that people will now be watching for changes.
Those who knew Herbert said he set “ridiculous” targets, such as demanding that a new digital banking product “that was ahead of its time” hit a million users within three months, said Editi Effiong who worked on the project.
“He set ridiculous targets at all times. But guess what? We hit a million users,” said Effiong who is now a film maker and worked with Wigwe on his personal branding for years. “Every weekend we would meet and we would talk about his life and his work.”
One project that Wigwe dedicated his time to in the last few years is a university that he was bankrolling in his village outside the southern city of Port Harcourt to help students hone the skills needed for the finance and technology industries in Africa’s most-populous nation.
The university’s board of trustees has assured prospective students, faculty and staff that it remains committed to ensuring that the dreams of Wigwe and his aspirations for the project are fulfilled.
Wigwe told Bloomberg in November that he planned to teach and mentor students and engage some of the country’s prominent entrepreneurs, including billionaire Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest person, to teach at the university.
“We need to teach people about the different levels of patriotism and the need for us to change our country and the continent,” he said.