Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede: The Nigerian banker who refused to be left behind
As a child, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede missed his flight home and was left stranded on the runway. It was the last time he was ever left behind. Not only did he build a bank when others doubted him, he is also leading the way to transform capital markets in Africa.
The article below tells his story, it first appeared in Forbes Africa.By Peace Hyde, FORBES AFRICA, Photo: Kelechi Amadi-Obi
In 2001, a man looking to buy a bank in Nigeria created a buzz in the financial world. The news caught everyone's attention because this individual did not come from a wealthy background but was a 32-year-old banker who, through hard work, had become one of the most respected financial professionals in the country. His name was Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and he was on his way to creating a legacy in Africa.
His journey began while still a boy, in 1971, just after the Nigerian Civil War, when an epiphany struck him as he was stranded at an airport in Kaduna, Nigeria.
“I went to the airport to come home from school and I remember vividly that Nigeria Airways was the only airline available, which was a state-owned monopoly, and they had atrocious services. I got to the airport and I was left to go get my ticket at the age of 11. With all the hustle and bustle, I didn't get on the plane and I remember standing on the tarmac, with the other losers, with my suitcase and I was crying because I wasn't on it,” says Aig-Imoukhuede.
“People ask me 'why were you crying? Did you think you were never going home?'. But that wasn't why I was crying. I asked myself, 'how come there were other people on that plane and I was left on the tarmac?' I said to myself 'it would never happen to me again and I will never be left on the tarmac'. I surround myself with people who think the same way, people who are not prepared to be left on the tarmac.”
With this newfound philosophy, Aig-Imoukhuede's path started to take shape. At the age of 12, that path became clearer when another realisation dawned on him.
“We didn't have to be rich to go to good schools, go abroad on a holiday, or for your father to own a Mercedes-Benz. But with the economy in very poor shape by 1983 and the structural adjustment programme by 1984, the ability of a civil servant to keep their family in that lifestyle was greatly challenged. So we had to adjust and I noticed that adjustment and that was the first time it dawned on me that some kids came from parents who were wealthy and certainly my parents were not. I observed that my father's brother, who went into the private sector, did not struggle. So I made a career decision at 12 that I was going to work in the private sector.”
Aig-Imoukhuede looked at the leaders of the top multinationals at the time – they all had a legal background so he decided to study law at the University of Benin. After qualifying as a lawyer, he joined the legal department of Continental Merchant Bank in 1988.
“I wanted to be an executive director of a multinational. Merchant banks recruited the crème de la crème. I remember after applying, one of the guys who interviewed me told me that he saw something in me. I was posted to the legal department and that is where everything changed... From that point, people will tell you, that in terms of professional output, I wanted to be number one,” he says.
Aig-Imoukhuede stood out among his peers. When some members of the senior management team were leaving to create a new bank, Aig-Imoukhuede was headhunted to join the team as the youngest member of staff.
“One of the assignments I was given, one year after they took me, was to get a commercial license for the owner of the bank. So, at 22, I did just that. I relished the challenge. I didn't think there was anything I couldn't take on. I was like 'bring it on whatever it is'.”
Aig-Imoukhuede had caught the financial bug; he wanted to move from the legal side of business and immerse himself in the banking game.
“My friends in banking were ten years older than me and most were assistant general managers. But I brought something to the table, so they tolerated me and gave me advice. Some of them broke away from the bank to start Guaranty Trust (GT) Bank and they said I should come over with them. I went to GT Bank and I was given the responsibility of setting up what will later on be called retail banking or commercial banking. I hadn't done it before, I had four people in this team and we started with me leading these people. Very quickly we became the most profitable unit in the bank and every three to six months we were revising our targets,” says Aig-Imoukhuede.
With a high staff turnover in the Nigerian financial markets and a culture of poaching at the banks, those who showed loyalty were able to climb the corporate ladder. Aig-Imoukhuede used this opportunity to work in many areas of the bank, including the treasury, financial control and strategy departments. By the age of 32 he was an executive director who was responsible for running the bank in the absence of the managing director and deputy managing director.
His rapid rise, he says, is down to self-belief.
“Some people call it arrogance and I say no, it is just simply confidence. I believe if I set my mind on something… I can do it.”
“I also had this sense to prove that Nigerian professionals were as good as banking professionals or financial professionals anywhere in the world. I didn't want to be held by Nigerian standards. So if I look at something like a product or an event or a team of people, say I was running the investment bank in GT, I would say how does the investment bank in JPMorgan function and I would say this is how my investment bank must function,” he says.
Aig-Imoukhuede enrolled in a three-month management programme at Harvard University to figure out his next move but he would find the answers he needed in the pages of a book.
“My late brother-in-law who had just finished an MBA at Harvard had a conversation with me and I told him I was not happy professionally and it was difficult to come to terms with that because I had just been made executive director and I was the youngest at the time and happily married to his sister, so why would I not be happy?”
“He gave me this book called Buyout, by Rick Rickertsen, who had left Harvard Business School a few years before I went in for this programme. It's a book written for professionals and there was a paragraph that says if you are the type of professional that wants to continue working for other people and help them build their worth, where you get your nice salary and bonuses, then this book isn't for you. But if you are the type who wants to get into the game and you want to work for yourself then this is for you. After reading the book, I said I know what I want to do; I am going to buy my own bank.”
Aig-Imoukhuede looked at how he would do this and decided he was not going to do it alone.
“Very quickly in life, I determined that there are two types of people you meet, people who enable you and people who disable you. People who disable are not bad people; it is just someone who doesn't impact you in a way that helps you succeed. Somebody who enables you is somebody who, by your interaction with that person, actually gives you leverage to step up. By the time I left university, I didn't have time for people who disable me. I also began to build a portfolio of enablers,” says Aig-Imoukhuede.
One of those enablers was his business partner Herbert Wigwe. The pair initially met in 1989 when Wigwe was a credit officer and later on in 1991 when they worked together at GT Bank.
“He was my closest friend in the bank and the professional colleague I most respected and I believe vice versa. So in terms of selecting a partner, he was the best person I could choose. I told Herbert, 'listen we are doing this and we are doing everything we need to run a bank and the only way we can get that reward is if we are risking our own capital. So let's get out and buy a bank, let's do it together'. So Herbert's entrepreneurial juices started running. We didn't resign immediately, we were still giving GTB 100 percent, and nobody knew and we were talking to owners of banks,” says Aig-Imoukhuede.
Initially, Aig-Imoukhuede was only interested in banks that were doing well but the inflated prices made them rethink this strategy. At the time, a lot of banks were struggling and it didn't take long for these young Turks to find one that was suitable for them.
“I had never [considered] Access Bank and it was never an institution I had an interest in. Somebody said this bank had done a public offer looking to recapitalise and they had not been doing well therefore 51% of the bank was up for grabs if you could raise the money. We looked at it and, with limited due diligence, we said 'fine we can do it'. It took everything we had; we borrowed money and put it together and invested it,” says Aig-Imoukhuede.
Now that they owned a bank, the entrepreneurs had to build trust.
“First of all, the acquisition was deemed to be hostile. We were working somewhere and we were young and we were not the children of rich men, we were 34 when we started and in the eyes of the public, when they knew the full story, all hell broke loose and it wasn't very easy.”
While trying to gain credibility with the public, they also had to win the votes of the board.
“I delivered a presentation I had been practising for one week. We hadn't slept in maybe four days. We came up with a transformation agenda and we convinced the board. We presented our track record and the fact that we were risking our own money and everything we had on this venture, so there was an alignment of goals between what we wanted to do, our personal aspirations, and what the bank needed.”
With a resolution signed, Aig-Imoukhuede was appointed Managing Director and Wigwe Deputy-Managing Director. They could now start to transform Access Bank into one of the top banks in Nigeria within five years.
The impact of the bank's new owners was obvious in just one year. According to Access Bank, the bank doubled its balance sheet, with profit before tax more than the cumulative profit made by the bank in the previous 13 years. The bank's shareholders fund today stands at over N430 billion ($1.4 billion) with an expanded shareholder base of over a million domestic and foreign investors.
Aig-Imoukhuede attributes the success to three things.
First was the vision.
“Initially our vision was to transform the bank into a world-class financial institution. The idea of this horrible institution taking on the renowned banks was mind-blowing and our mission was to go beyond the ordinary and deliver the perceived impossible and quest for excellence.”
The second factor was the people. Between 2002 and 2012 Aig-Imoukhuede interviewed every person the bank recruited, ensuring they hired the best of the best. Then, finally, the timing was perfect.
“I was in GT Bank representing the bank for the interaction with the government. I could see from what President [Olusegun] Obasanjo was doing that Nigeria was going to enjoy an economic renaissance that was going to be phenomenal. I said to myself if I am going to buy a bank, I am going to do it before these changes in government take off, because otherwise the train would have left the station and it is not that you can't do it, but it would be much more expensive and difficult to do it if you got your timing wrong.”
With his objectives achieved, Aig-Imoukhuede stepped down as CEO of Access Bank in 2012. He wanted to try something new.
“I am so entrepreneurially driven and not just in the sense of making money, but I knew I would get bored eventually. Also from the perspective of managing an institution as CEO, I don't think anybody can successfully manage a business beyond 15 years; you will begin to make more mistakes than you should. You will begin to experience diminishing returns. I think a CEO owes the responsibility to his stakeholders to leave at the top of his game. And I knew 15 years would be the maximum. The third reason was that there was a requirement that had been put in place by the central bank that, after 10 years as CEO, you had to leave”, he says.
Aig-Imoukhuede needed to figure out what life after the bank would look like. He knew it had to involve helping and transforming people.
His next venture combined his belief that nobody should be left behind with his vision to build something that lasts for generations. This led to him founding Coronation Capital, a Mauritian-based private equity investment management and advisory company.
“I like sustainability and I don't like one-hit wonders, things that come and go or a shooting star. I believe in generational institutions, it has to be sustainable and something that would last and leave a legacy.”
“In Coronation Capital you have people that we have told 'this is how we do it, look at the Access Bank story and let's find out if there are any more opportunities'. So, when we find the opportunity, we see if we can come up with any compelling stories and then we look at the vehicle we invest with and we attract the people to that investment. We call it the Coronation way,” says Aig-Imoukhuede.
One of those opportunities is Wapic, a company that Coronation Capital is trying to turn into an insurance giant. It is currently the second fastest growing insurance company in Nigeria, says Aig-Imoukhuede.
Aig-Imoukhuede believes that efficient management of the capital market is the only way for Nigeria to become an advanced economy. As the current President of the Nigeria Stock Exchange, Aig-Imoukhuede is well placed to develop the country's capital market.
“If you are worth $1 million, it will be represented by financial assets of some sort which you will keep somewhere. It could be your pensions or your savings account and you earn and continue to build. If I am someone in Kogi State who needs money to build a factory, I am not going to be able to find you and you are not going to be able to find me to get access to that $1 million. So the capital markets create the infrastructure by which the sources and users of these financial resources interact. The more developed the financial markets are, the more developed the economy becomes.”
Having just turned 50, Aig-Imoukhuede is launching the Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG) to attract talented people to the public sector.
“I have had a front row seat and seen how the public sector works and I know its weakness and what is clear to me is simple, whenever you have gifted people in the public sector, just like you have gifted people in the private sector, transformation takes place. The difference is that in Africa every gifted person is going into the private sector and nobody is going into the public sector. So I am dedicating resources towards a scholarship and a fellowship, which we have signed with Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government who have a fantastic one-year post graduate programme, called the Master of Public Policy (MPP).”
Those given scholarships for the MPP course are required to work for the public sector in their respective African countries for five years.
Aig-Imoukhuede is humbled by how far he has come. Spending time with his wife and three children is a priority for him but is not ready to relax yet. For Aig-Imoukhuede it is all about building a legacy and creating an advanced economy in Africa.
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