Some extraordinary individuals reshaped the banking industry with their vision and determination. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe, prominent Nigerian banking figures, exemplify this spirit of innovation and transformation. From their humble beginnings to their pivotal roles in founding Access Bank, their journey inspires and captivates. Join us as we delve into the remarkable story of these visionary leaders and how they redefined the banking landscape.
The Early Years
Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede was born in Ibadan to civil service parents but thereafter moved to Lagos. He attended a Unity Secondary School called Federal Government College in Kaduna. Meanwhile, Herbert Wigwe, also the son of a civil servant, embarked on his career at Kapital Bank after working at Coopers & Lybrand, which later became one of the Big Four accounting services firms, PwC. Aig started his professional journey in 1988, with two types of banking dominating the industry: Merchant Banking and Commercial Banking.
The Banking Landscape
In 1988 when Aig first entered the industry, Nigerian banking comprised of two main sectors – Merchant and Commercial Banking. The Merchant banks had formed technical partnerships with major American financial institutions, bringing an “American corporate culture” that Aig called ‘yuppie’. The four biggest Merchant banks and their US partners then were Continental Merchant Bank with Chase Manhattan, International Merchant Bank partnered with First Chicago, ICON Merchant Bank affiliated with Morgan Guaranty, and NAL Merchant Bank linked to American Express Bank. These Merchant banks operated with a different, more progressive structure than traditional Commercial banks like First Bank, Union Bank, UBA and Afribank. The American influence and partnerships marked the Merchant Banks as innovative within the Nigerian banking system during the late 1980s.
While Aig’s education was in law, he quickly realized the value of this background in his banking career. As he gained experience different from his formal studies, he remarked that “nothing is ever wasted when it comes to acquiring knowledge, experience, and skills.” Compared to his peers, who focused solely on regulatory compliance as lawyers, Aig developed a “solutions mindset.” He built a strong reputation in the industry as the “go-to person” for good counsel and advice. He writes in his book Leaving the Tarmac: Building a Bank in Africa, “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, a decision I never regretted.”
Senior bankers regularly consulted him, and he also provided guidance freely. This allowed Aig to cultivate high-level contacts across the banking sector early in his career. His promise and talent were soon recognized within the industry. By 1989, after just one year of working in banking, Aigboje was recruited to join a prestigious group of bankers aiming to form a new bank called Prime Merchant Bank. While still early in his career, Aigboje demonstrated his abilities and vision, differentiating him from his peers. He brought legal expertise and innovative commercial thinking, making him a valuable asset to the bank’s launch team. This represented another major step forward for Aigboje’s progression within the rapidly expanding Nigerian banking world.
Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede’s Strategic Vision
“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, a decision I never regretted”
As Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede delved into the banking world, he discovered a passion for the practice of banking itself, leading him to transition from his legal officer role to core banking. His “solutions mindset” set him apart from other lawyers in the industry, as he built a reputation as the go-to person for sound counsel. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede’s involvement in discussions with President Obasanjo and the government’s reform agenda opened his eyes to the potential of the banking sector to support the country’s double-digit annual growth ambitions.
Planting the Seeds
As Aig oversaw GT Bank’s growing business operations in Abuja in his early 30s, he gained unique insight into the Nigerian government’s reform agenda. President Obasanjo enjoyed consulting smart private sector leaders for their perspectives, and Aigboje participated regularly in these high-level sessions along with the Vice President, Atiku Abubakar. Through this privileged access, he learned confidential details about the administration’s plans to introduce reforms spearheaded by Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Through private sector-led development, they aimed to achieve unprecedented double-digit annual economic growth over the next decade. Having viewed these ambitious plans first-hand positioned Aigboje to recognize the opportunity within the banking sphere.
“Behold the turtle – he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out”.
Aigboje’s big “Eureka moment” arrived when he attended an Executive Management Programme at Harvard Business School. There, his brother-in-law gifted him a pivotal book titled Buyout: the Insider’s Guide to Buying Your Own Company by Rick Rickertsen & Robert E. Gunther. The book challenged Aigboje’s thinking with questions about whether he wished to rely on salaries forever. The inspirational quote was, “Behold the turtle – he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” This sparked Aigboje’s realization that he could take the risk of owning his own bank. When Herbert Wigwe attended the same Harvard program a year later, the two discussed the vision of what such a venture could achieve at length.
The Acquisition of Access Bank
With their extensive banking experience from GT Bank, Aigboje and Herbert understood the importance of strong fundamentals when selecting a bank to acquire. They worked closely with a team of advisers to scour the market. After thorough due diligence, they settled on Access Bank, founded in 1988. While the bank was currently under investigation for forex issues, they saw past this and recognized its original solid positioning.
“They contributed $1.8 million from their personal savings and shares in GTBank”.
To gain controlling ownership, Aig and Herbert needed $9 million (1 billion naira) to complete the purchase. They contributed $1.8 million from their personal savings and shares in GTBank. In an impressive demonstration of belief and trust in their vision, they convinced family and friends to invest, placing property titles and bank deposits in their care to cover the remaining funds. In March 2002, the takeover was finalized after successfully securing the funding.
Immediately upon completion of the acquisition, Aig and Herbert were approved by the Central Bank of Nigeria to assume leadership as Managing Director and Deputy Managing Director of Access Bank, respectively. This marked the official beginning of transforming the bank through its experienced stewardship.
“I wanted to remove the safety net and test out the strength of my own wings.”
When Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede decided to leave GTBank after 10 years of success, he reflected on this by stating “I wanted to remove the safety net and test out the strength of my own wings.” Purchasing and transforming Access Bank into a leading financial institution provided the perfect opportunity for him to do just that, alongside his close business partner Herbert Wigwe. Their journey in founding Access Bank showcases the power of visionary thinking, determination in executing an ambitious plan, and ability to strategically leverage years of experienced gained in the sector. Through their strong leadership, Aigboje and Herbert redefined the Nigerian banking landscape and left a profound legacy. Their story inspires us that with unwavering focus on our goals and willingness to take calculated risks, we have the power to challenge conventions and forge new paths forward in our respective industries. As we look towards the future, we would be wise to reflect on the remarkable successes of these banking titans and let their journey fuel our dreams of redefining our own paths through innovative spirit and distinguished accomplishments.