From Tarmacs to Tar Tracks - The Story of Buying Access Bank Plc


Sunday, March 21, 2021 / 12:57PM / OpEd by Olufemi M. AWOYEMI, FIoD / Header Image Credit: LeavingTheTarmac


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Being the review of Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede's debut book "Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa" by Olufemi M. Awoyemi, Chairman, Proshare Nigeria


Book Review

Title:                   Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa

Author:              Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, CON

Completed:       2015

Publisher:         RedDoor (2021)

ISBN:                  HB 978-0992852092

                              PB 978-1913062453

Printing:            FSC-certified Paper

Pages:                 217 pages

Category:           Non-Fiction

Reviewer:          Olufemi Awoyemi


The essence of a well-written non-fiction book is felt through its underlying message, lessons offered and ability of the author to open up himself to scrutiny; and so is this book written by Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, who decided to write and indeed concluded the book in 2015; two years after leaving Access Bank Plc.


Anne Boden, the Starling Bank founder said of her 2020 book debut "Banking On It"; "people at the end of their career write memoirs. I'm at the beginning." This mindset reflects what Aigboje was conscious of in 2015 as he juggled writing the book and berthing Coronation Capital Limited, of which he is the Chairman. There is more to look forward to therefore, if and when he chooses to write an autobiography.


Born six years after the nations independence, Aigboje in this 217-page book offered a first-hand, insightful account of the journey by a young man seeking to rewrite his life story by reshaping an industry; and overcoming many obstacles and institutional resistance to change.


Experience shows that the typical book about a corporation, either written by the ex-CEO of the organization or a third person, is usually characterized by a teaspoon of truths, a dollop of conveniently doctored events, and a pot of reimagined, reinterpreted, and reconstructed hearsay and fiction that creates or sustains a myth necessary for business interest.


Most discerning readers take such stories told in the books with a whiff of pious indignation while the less charitable simply dismiss them for what they appear to be - vaguely disguised efforts at immortalizing 'mediocrity met by uncommon favour' masquerading as a recipe for success. Thankfully, this book does not fall into this category, taking a glance at the past and drawing the courage to face the good, the bad, and the ugly, of a business's history as it sets to meet the challenges of its future; the evidence of which confronts both the industry and the sovereign today; over five (5) years after it was ready for publication as the author states in the introduction. 


The book contains seventeen chapters and starts predictably with a brief narrative of how the promoters of the latter-day  Access Bank Plc came from being run-of-the-mill, clean-nosed bank executives to being culture-disrupting and vision-setting entrepreneurial iconoclasts.   


Tarmacs and Found Causes 

Without going into much detail, the first three chapters of the book represented a whistle-stop story of how a schoolboy, left on the darkened tarmac of the Murtala Muhammed Airport on his way to school in the North of Nigeria decided at that moment to dry his eyes pricked by tears to push back his shoulders and commit himself to a life of never being left behind again. This moment was the defining point at which the author's character and attitude became defined and activated, it became that point when a boy found a cause to take on life on his terms.


The early chapters also narrate how a ten-year stint at Guaranty Trust Bank Plc  and the rubbing of shoulders with some of Nigeria's finest bankers at the time provided the experience and knowledge to begin an entrepreneurial journey enriched by successes, failures, and everything in between.


Chapter three was particularly poignant in its explanation of how corruption had denied Nigeria the benefit of its human and material resources as the culture of corruption snatched the baby of leadership excellence from its cradle. The kidnapping of merit in both the public and private sector had nurtured a society that was long on promises but short on performance.


Most readers of the book would be enthralled by the author's description of  Access Bank's early business model and how the model was developed. Quite instructive was the quality of thought and the rigour of execution needed and deployed to drive the model.


According to the Aigboje, to find the bank's purpose and raison d'etre, both himself and his deputy Herbert Wigwe (the bank's current Group CEO) needed to "deconstruct the entire corporate value-chain in just the same way as management consultants like Accenture and McKinsey would do". However, more importantly, the author noted that "we needed to identify all the points of weakness in our customers' value-chains and think of addressing those weaknesses through the delivery of products and services, not necessarily limited ourselves to the domain of finance".


Balm for the Customers Pain 

In other words, from early on in the transformational journey, the protagonists of the new Access Bank project realized that sustainability required weaving the customer into the central fabric of the bank's strategy by easing the customer's pain points and turning the bank into a solution machine. The critical proposition to corporate clients was that the bank had to either increase the customer's revenues or reduce the customer's cost.


The simplicity and clarity of this goal made the pitch credible as it was easy to measure. This central proposition remains valid to date.


The problem with this kind of simple, clear, and measurable value proposition however is that those that make such a promise live and die on the validity of their commitment. The author admits as much on page 47 of the book when he observed that: "we needed to be savvy enough to find the appropriate products and services to address the problems we identified...we needed to be able to design solutions that consisted of an integrated set of products and services that worked together seamlessly...we then had to deliver on our promise of adding value to our customer' businesses".


This was like taking a boat to the shores of a battlefield and then setting the vessel ablaze - the import of which was to signal the win or perish mindset. In the local Nigerian parlance, it meant "we go die there!".


The audacity of the bank's brashness was compelling as the author noted that analysts, had expressed concern about the bank operating at a very high cerebral level whilst seeking to equally maintain a high level of service quality in a challenged environment. Analysts thought that it would take too much out of the bank's executives, but the author noted that "we knew that they were correct to conclude that it would be hard to sustain, but we intended to do exactly that".


Delivering on a Promise 

A clear strategy to help deliver on the quality promise at both a cerebral and service delivery level was the bank's decision to recruit some of the best hands in the industry. The bank was unrepentant in its pursuit of the cream of the banking business by raiding the skills pantry of other banks such as GT Bank and Citi Bank; whilst it continued to groom a crew of young Turks that would learn and take over from the older hands.


Based on the bank's recent financial and service delivery performances the gambit appears to have paid off in spades. However, whilst human capital piracy may have been necessary, it was not sufficient as an important part of the complex alchemy of success in the Access Bank story was be the punishing hours, rigorous attention to deal and the thorough and exhaustive application to meeting its customers at their different points of need. Having good staff is like being dealt a good hand at a poker table, the hand is irrelevant if the rules of the game are not understood. To play the game of finance with skill, the work of understanding the customer's need was and remains central. At Access Bank, this meant putting in a daily eighteen-hour shift; at a material, physical and psychological cost.


In more recent times, Access Bank Plc has become known as 'Masters of Merger & Acquisitions', as a result of its acquisition of Intercontinental Bank Plc in 2011 and lately, Diamond Bank Plc in 2019. These has since been followed by activities within the African continent; all in line with is publicly stated strategic intent to embrace inorganic growth as a component of its strategic plans.


The Rubber on the Tar Track 

Four decades ago, the author may have missed an airplane that was scheduled for Kaduna and was left behind lonely and weeping on a Lagos Airport tarmac, but he has since seen himself drive an institution that has touched the corporate tar track burning rubber. Aigboje Aig-Imokhuede has turned a moment of personal vulnerability into a journey of corporate visibility, sustainability, and power. That little boy on the tarmac has grown into a man on the race track and this book gives readers an insight into how an individual's vulnerability could be turned into a story of accomplishment.


The book shows that the tears of pain can nourish the soil of ambition.


The book is as much a story of the conquest of an individual over the search for self-fulfillment as it is a tale of institutional triumph.


It is thus fitting that the reader should pay attention to the role the author's faith played in overcoming the obstacles faced by the bank. This comes out ever so clearly in passages of the Bible cited; and in narratives about encounters, reflections and outcomes. 


Closing Thoughts 

Finally, it would seem that the book's approach to be unafraid of contradictions and complexity is justified as the author bears out what can be construed as his personal manifesto, philosophies and vision for the nation anchored around his passion and obsession with governance as the foundation block for building institutions that are innovative, sustainable and value-laden.


Assuming the reader is able to declutter the mind from the unending drama that the news narratives around and about the banking industry offers; it will be well worth your time, money and knowledge acquisition to get a copy of this book for reading without break, say during a long flight, a management case-study review, financial system research purpose or as an entrepreneurial guide to overcoming obstacles doing business in Nigeria.


For me, "Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Nigeria" is the most insightful   account of one of the most courageous entrepreneurial decision(s) taken by a new entrant into the banking industry, in recent memory; definitely after the Fola Adeola and late Tayo Aderinokun intervention with Guaranty Trust Bank Plc; the book of which is much anticipated.


The book is written in easily accessible language devoid of the usual large dollops of jargon associated with books on financial institutions. The author adopts a matter-of-fact and a-nose-up-against-the-window pane writing style. He abridges complex stories and chisels them to their barest minimum. This is a strength and a weakness of the book. For non-professionals, it is a wonderful primer on banking management in times of uncertainty, but for finance practitioners, there is little in the book that explains the 'art of the deal' or provides guidance on strategies in a merger or corporate takeover. It also did not address the thinking behind inorganic organizational growth and how it can be achieved successfully, even as it skirts around the nuts and bolts of a corporate makeover.


The book avoids conveying the sizzling emotions, bruising power play, and smack-them-down corporate actions required to navigate Nigeria's bristling business environment. The narrative glides over the drama that accompanied the deed. This weakens the reader's sense of the challenges the author and his confederates in hope passed through in reaching the enviable success they presently enjoy.


However, the book is not mortally flawed by these gaps, even though the story told by the author is gorgeously entertaining and selectively insightful, as expected from a going concern.


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It is most especially a triumph for the financial industry to have this account from Aigboje; and a challenge to his co-founder, Herbert Wigwe, for whom considerable space was devoted to describe his value in identifying risk, exploring opportunities and establishing the business culture of the bank; to write a book detailing his own version of, and understanding of events as well as principles and philosophies that guided him; if only to dispel the myths around partnerships and successful running of a thriving firm in the country.


If there is a lasting lesson for the reader; it must be the stories around 'how' the success of Access Bank Plc came about. The 'why' is to be found in the essence and strong foundations of the author; that which allowed him and his co-founder to dare to dream, to imagine and re-imagine an entire industry; and in so doing offer hope to budding entrepreneurs.


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