Herbert Wigwe: Exit of banking whiz-kid

The death of the Group Chief Executive Officer of Access Holdings, Herbert Wigwe, will leave the country, especially the financial sector, in a pensive mood for some time. In this piece, Oluwakemi Abimbola, writes about his strides in banking and the business world

While the Access Holding family and the Nigerian financial sector were still trying to recover from the death of the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the group, Bababode Osunkoya, in November and spokesman, Imoyo Abdul, in December, there came another devastating news:  the Group Managing Director of Access Holding Plc, Dr Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe was dead.

Wigwe had remained unfazed when the emeritus chairman of the Independent Shareholders Association of Nigeria, Sunny Nwosu, decided to go down memory lane at the first Annual General Meeting of Access Holdings in May 2023 in Lagos.

Recalling the history of Access Bank, the flagship subsidiary of Access Holdings Plc, Nwosu likened its growth process to tissue paper becoming cardboard, which can now be used to produce something good.

When the late Access Holding GMD responded to Nwosu’s comments on the floor of the AGM, he used the very same analogy of tissue and cardboard, pointing out that the company had been using its funds to drive its growth over the years.

He said, “I know Sunny mentioned that we started as paper, but we are now cardboard and his expectation is that we will see more payments and bonus shares. I can say to you that you will start to see greater contribution to the P&L as we move on.”

Also, before responding to the comments raised by the leader of the Trusted Shareholders Association of Nigeria, Mukhtar Mukhtar, the late GCEO took time to tease him about his new prefix, ‘Otunba’, which elicited laughter from the gathering of shareholders.

The interaction between Wigwe and the minority shareholders showed a cordial relationship that had lasted decades and was still thriving due to mutual respect and a commitment of both parties to the course of the financial institution.

A minority shareholder, Dr Anthony Omojola, highlighting the robust relationship between them said, “He was very friendly with shareholders and their groups over the years.”

Wigwe, his wife, Chizoba, their son, Chizi and a former Chairman of the Nigerian Exchange Group, Abimbola Ogunbanjo, died in a helicopter crash in California, U.S. on Friday.

It was gathered that the Eurocopter EC130 helicopter conveying them crashed around 10 pm on Friday (7 am on Saturday in Nigeria) near the Nevada border. Preliminary reports suggested that the crash could have been caused by wintry weather and rain, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said after a press briefing on Sunday.

As if he had a premonition of his death, Wigwe on January 19 via his X handle (formerly Twitter) said, “Today and always, let us remember that life is a precious gift – a chance to breathe, feel, love, experience and connect.

“Let’s honour this gift by living with purpose, kindness, and gratitude, making every moment count.

“Let us number our days.”

Before he got to the stage where he was addressing the concerns of minority shareholders, the late Wigwe was a banker, who received a B.Sc. degree in Accountancy from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

He had a Master’s degree in Banking and Finance from the University College of North Wales (now Bangor); a Master of Science degree in Financial Economics from the University of London and was an Alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Management Programme.

Buying majority stakes in Access Bank

In his memoir, Leaving The Tarmac: Buying A Bank in Africa, former Access Bank MD, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, detailed how he and his friend, Wigwe bought the stakes.

Excerpts from the book read, “Once the decision to buy a bank was made, the next question was which one should we buy? I sat down with Herbert in my rented house at 10A Festival Road, on Victoria Island, Lagos, and launched our venture by compiling a list of all the banks that were potentially available.

“There were periods when Herbert and I despaired of ever finding a deal that would match all our criteria, but we kept on going, refusing to give up, which is quite possibly the most fundamental rule of true entrepreneurship. Our faith in our abilities to succeed was sorely tested. The idea that was first germinated in 2000 finally came to fruition late in 2001, when we set our sights on Access Bank.

“Access Bank had been enmeshed in ongoing Central Bank investigations regarding widespread malpractices in foreign exchange, which involved a number of Nigerian banks. In an attempt to turn its fortunes around, Access had in 1999 recruited executives from GTB, engaged management consultants and taken all the typical steps of a company seeking to transform itself. Access was not the only bank to embark on this course of action. Many other industry laggards that escaped being liquidated in the mid-90s by the CBN and NDIC had embarked on corporate transformation programmes. Many of these programmes proved short-lived. The ability to sustain the change required to turn around a distressed bank depends more on the quality of its leadership and the strength of its values than the expertise of the management consultants who are engaged to try and put things right.”

Access Bank in 2001 attempted to raise over N1bn through a public offer for subscription. The public failed to respond positively. The duo came to the rescue.

“While our decision to take up the unsubscribed shares was in effect a leap of faith (endorsed, I would like to point out, by the pastor of my church), it was our belief that since we would be controlling the management of the bank we were recapitalising, the risk of losing our investment was almost entirely in our own hands.

“The first challenge which we needed to overcome was raising the necessary capital to purchase the shares. We needed a billion naira, ($9m), and Herbert and I had just two hundred million between us, comprising our shares in Guaranty Trust and the sum total of our savings.”

At the time that they became owners of Access Bank, both Wigwe and Aig-Imoukhede were in their 30s with years of senior management banking experience at GTB under their belt.  Wigwe rose to become an executive director in charge of institutional banking at GTB. Before then, he was a management consultant for Coopers & Lybrand before qualifying as a chartered accountant.

After they bought Access Bank, the bank’s board appointed Aig-Imoukhuede as managing director/chief executive officer and Wigwe as his deputy.

They had the mandate of repositioning the bank as one of Nigeria’s leading financial institutions within five years (March 2002 to March 2007). At the end of the first year of the team in office, the bank grew its balance sheet by 100 per cent and posted N1bn in pretax profit. At the end of the seven years, the lender was recording a triple-digit growth trend.

In 2014, Wigwe took over the leadership of the bank and oversaw its transition into a financial holding company, expansion to several countries, and business segments, and becoming one of the largest banks in Nigeria today.

In late 2018, he spearheaded the Access Bank and Diamond Bank merger, which led to the birth of  Nigeria’s largest retail bank and the largest bank by assets.

The merger involved Access Bank acquiring the entire issued share capital of Diamond Bank in exchange for a combination of cash and shares in Access Bank via a Scheme of Merger. Following completion of the merger, Diamond Bank was absorbed into Access Bank and it ceased to exist under Nigerian law.

In his condolence message shared on his X handle, Femi Otedola revealed that two weeks ago, he and Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, had been guests of Wigwe at his new house in Lagos.

He said, “I am shocked and saddened to hear of the loss of a banking genius Herbert Wigwe, his dear wife Chizoba and first son Chizi. Exactly two weeks ago Herbie and his wife hosted myself and Aliko to dinner at his newly built home in Lagos. I will cherish and fondly remember my memories of time spent together with him over the years. Herbie, we will all miss you.

“Your legacy will live on forever. My heartfelt condolences go out to his children Tochi, Hannah and David. I pray God comforts them during this tragic time. May the souls of the departed rest in perfect peace… F.Ote.”

In a tribute to the late businessman, Tunde Moshood, the Special Assistant (Media and Communications) to the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, described him as a luminary in the banking and financial sector, “Who was not merely a tycoon chasing profits; he was a visionary leader with a fervent dedication to his nation’s progress.”

Moshood recalled a recent meeting between the minister, Festus Keyamo, and Wigwe to take the country’s airport to international standards.

He said, “A scene was set recently, specifically on Tuesday, February 6, 2024, at the office of the Honourable Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development,  Festus Keyamo SAN CON FCIarb (UK), as Wigwe, accompanied by his topflight team, engaged in discussions with the Honourable Minister.

 “Their mission: to forge a groundbreaking synergy that would elevate the nation’s airports to global standards. Access Bank, under Wigwe’s astute leadership, pledged to undertake the refurbishment of vital airport facilities, including toilets, lifts, and other visible infrastructure. In exchange, the bank secured a visibility barter agreement, signalling a strategic partnership aimed at enhancing both customer experience and national pride.”

Shareholders reactions

From the minority shareholders community, the death of Wigwe was a huge loss. Recounting some of his achievements, an investment banker and capital market consultant, Dr Anthony Omojola, said, “The sad news of the demise of Herbert Wigwe came to us as a rude shock.

“Herbert was a good chartered accountant and banker. I have known him for about 23 years from GTB to Access Bank Group. He was a good businessman having been involved in multiple negotiations of merger and taking over of banks and organisations that make up the Access Holdings Plc today. The Finance Industry and the Nigerian economy will surely miss him.”

Omojola lamented that Wigwe would be unable to manage his newly established university in Rivers State.

The deceased launched the Wigwe University in 2023, declaring it an opportunity to give back to society by “Providing world-class quality education that will foster the development of Nigeria and Africa.

The National Coordinator of the Independent Shareholders Association of Nigeria, Moses Igbrude, in a chat with The PUNCH said that the banking sector would feel the impact of the death.

He said, “It is a great loss to the banking sector and Nigeria as well as the shareholders’ community, a great guy, a merger specialist and expert who with his colleague Aig brought a small Access Bank to mega a bank;  local bank to international Bank. It is a great loss; I sincerely wish his soul and others peace.”

While the financial sector mourns, AccessCorp has announced that “In line with the company’s policy, the board will soon announce the appointment of an acting group chief executive officer even as we remain confident that the Access Group will build further on Dr Wigwe’s legacy of growth and operational excellence.”

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