Aig-Imoukhuede’s “Leaving the Tarmac” is an important but problematic book – Toni Kan

Documented experience and codified knowledge remain the two biggest means of transferring knowledge and ensuring that succeeding generations learn from the preceding one.

A simple google search on Steve Jobs will pop up over 10 titles from the chunky and magisterial Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson to Becoming Steve Jobs to I, Steve, to The Bite in the Apple to iCon and The Second Coming of Steve Jobs amongst many others.

Africans and Nigerians have not fully embraced this need to document in order to mentor others. Look at the class of Nigeria’s business elite from Jim Ovia to Mike Adenuga, Atedo Peterside to Pascal Dozie, Fola Adeola to Tony Elumelu, Aliko Dangote to Abdul Samad Rabiu, Biodun Shobanjo to Newton Jibunoh there are less than five books amongst the lot.

Why is this so? To hazard a guess, one could lay the blame at the doors steps of “gaps in the story”. There are, almost always, unexplained happenstances, when the man of means, as we say on the street, “hammered.” It is those gaps that present what one might describe as potential “errors in the rendering”.

It is for this reason that one considers Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede’s memoir, Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a bank in Africa an important book and vital contribution to the body of knowledge in the business ecosystem, especially banking, where he has played a pivotal role.

As he puts it “there has been very little, however, written about African companies or indeed Nigerian businesses….” (p.2)

But it is also a problematic book in the sense that it is a book by a young man of 55 with skin in the game. So, throughout the book, you find Mr. Aig-Imoukhuede sparring instead of dueling, pulling his punches, bobbing and weaving and generally trying not to roil the waters nor cause offence. The only man he seems not to mind calling out is Ignatius Imala, former Director of Banking Supervision at the Central Bank. As a young banker in the early noughties working in Research and Economic Intelligence I recall Mr. Imala’s memos with their combative tone which I suppose was in keeping with his remit as Banking supervisor. Aside from this exception, Aig-Imoukhuede tries not to ruffle feathers.

By treading softly, he ends up presenting only issues from his own perspective. There is scant attempt to be critical of the banking system, the regulators and players whose malfeasance and connivance led to the rot in the system prior to 1991 and beyond.

What is Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a bank in Africa about? First, it is not about flying a plane. This clarification is important because a neighbour who saw me with the book had exclaimed wide-eyed – Is that Aig-Imoukhuede man also a pilot?

Leaving the Tarmac is not a flying manual. It is a primer on how to start and run a successful business (a bank in this case) in Africa. In that sense , Aig-Imoukhuede could very well have called it “A short history of Modern Nigerian Banking from 1990 to 2013” and it would still have worked but in choosing his title, he wanted to take us on a psychological excursion to a day in the distant past when he was left straned at the tarmac in Kaduna as the plane took off because of a cocktail of reasons  the top of which were inefficiency and corruption.

For a man traumatised by corruption, Aig-Imoukhuede gives a beautiful definition of corruption in the book which everyone must take heed to remember – “corruption is to make bad that which is good. To corrupt is to transform good into bad.” (p.35)

He also makes references to “the Lucifer Effect theory which argues that within all men lies an inherent capacity to do evil” once the environment is conducive for it.

The Nigerian bank industry provided (and still provides) a fertile patch for corruption to thrive. Once government began issuing banking licences in the 80s, many banks sprang up on what he describes as “shaky moral and financial foundations. Some were bound not to last.” (p.37)

And it was easy to see why. Most of these banks were promoted not by bankers but by shady business men with cash to play with. “Some of them with backgrounds in business but others from the political and military worlds with little experience of the financial world beyond their own personal fortunes and those of their cronies and families.” (p.37)

As Aig-Imoukhuede writes “By 1991, over a hundred of these new banks had come into existence bringing the total number of Nigerian banks to approximately hundred and forty. Within nine years, however, there would be less than ninety still in business and by 2005 just twenty five” (p.12)

Most banks prior to the late 90s were owned by godfathers and run by lackeys but the coming of owner-managers like Jim Ovia, Atedo Peterside, Tony Elumelu as well as Tayo Adrinokun and Fola Adeola changed the game and provided case studies for others like Aig-Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe who came later to follow. The forerunner was of course, Otunba Subomi Balogun of First City Merchant Bank (FCMB).

What did the owner-managers do right? They were entrepreneurial, “had an understanding of how technology could enable high levels of customer service.” Online real-time banking was the mantra. They also backed it all up with “heavy advertising campaigns.”

The problem with Aig-Imoukhuede’s story telling rears its head again because while he seems to issue a blanket endorsement of owner-managed banks he fails to note that not all were successful and examples abound from Oceanic to Bank PHB and even the Intercontinental bank that Access Bank would eventually merge with.

The coming of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) in 2001 democratized access to telecommunication services and also helped Nigeria step into the information super highway. Banking was revolutionized.

That was the state of play in the new millennium when Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, during a visit to his mother told her he wanted to “buy a bank”. The old woman was incredulous. Her son had studied law before choosing a career in banking and was already an Executive Director at GTB before he turned 35.

“You are the youngest Executive Director in the country, why can’t you be happy with that? And how are you going to buy a bank anyway? …if you have a godfather you certainly have never told me about him. So how are you going to do it?” (pp.5-6)

But her son Aigboje was dancing to a different tune. His entrepreneurial juices had been set flowing when he read a book – Buyout: The Insider’s Guide to Buying Your Own Company co-authored by Rick Rickertsen and Robert E. Gunther. The first chapter of the book, according to our author opens with a quote by Bryant Conant – “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” (p. 16)

Aig-Imoukhuede wanted to stick his head out and he did not need a godfather to make progress. He had studied the lay of the land and was clear in his mind that he did not want to work for other people and draw a salary for life, he wanted to build something that would create value and outlive him. And he had seen it done by people he admired.

“The owner/managers were insulated  from the need to depend on the godfather, free to express their entrepreneurial and managerial visions and they then worked hard to bring them to fruition…it was obvious that the best managed banks in the 1990s were those run by owner/managers. These were the people I admired and wished to emulate, compete with eventually best if possible.” (p.14)

His mission clear, Aig-Imoukhuede partnered with Herbert Wigwe, a chartered accountant whom he had met at GTB and together they put in a bid for the troubled Access Bank which was heading into its second decade.

In their first year of running the revamped Access Bank, Aig-Imoukhuede and team reported N1billion in profits, became one of the 20 largest banks in Nigeria, benefited from an FMO facility, become one of the most actively traded stocks on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, was nominated as Bank of the Year by Thisday Newspapers and was conferred “A” rating by the Global Credit Rating Company. The two young men at the helm were making their mentors and investors proud.

What did they do right? They were aggressive in their pursuit of their mandate and vision which was to transform their bank into a world class financial services provider but beyond mere platitudes, Aig-Imoukhuede says they employed a “value-chain” business strategy in which they became more than just bankers to their customers; they became business consultants who provided money and then helped the client apply the funds to areas of the business that would provide the best returns. In doing that they bagged Dangote and MTN and ended up becoming the “country’s largest telecoms bank.”

As a business leader and banker who helped build one of Nigeria’s leading banks, Aig-Imoukhuede must be applauded for his business acumen and leadership qualities. On page 60, he drops a gem that must not be glossed over – “products can always be imitated by competitors but service delivery cannot” and on page 53 he writes that “I remember the first three recruits from GTB being Okey Nwuke, Obinna Nwosu and Roosevelt Ogbonna (all of whom rose to executive director positions in Access bank)” underlying the fact that, as a leader, he did not just lead men he also rewarded loyalty and service.

One wishes, however, that he had dwelled a bit more on Herbert Wigwe’s contribution to their success story but I suppose we must await Mr. Wigwe’s own book.

But buying Access and turning it around was just the beginning. To extend the metaphor in the book’s title, the plane was just gaining altitude; to begin to cruise they had to do more and so they would ultimately set their sights on either Union Bank or Intercontinental Bank, two banks run by seasoned bankers old enough to be their grandfathers. It was a generational battle of wits.

Professor Charles Chukwuma Soludo was CBN Governor in July 2004 when he announced without preamble that “any bank that does not have twenty five billion naira [close to US$200-million) in capital will have its licence withdrawn.” (p.100)

With deadline set for December 31, 2004 the banks had four months to do magic.

If raising N1 billion to buy Access was a herculean task for two young men who had between them cash and assets worth no more than N200 million  when they started raising N25million was grey hair inducing. But they did it beginning with a public offer of shares priced at N2.90k in what they called “an offer you can’t refuse” (p.105) with a target subscription of N8bn. The nod to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was clearly in keeping with Access Bank’s take-no-prisoners aggressiveness.

To drive the offer, Access bank unveiled “the award winning Bullet train television advert”. The offer raised N15bn and was 133% over subscribed netting “one of the highest amounts of any of the other banks seeking capital during that period.” (p.107)

Access Bank, as per Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules could only keep N15billion which took their capital base to N17bn. They still needed another N8bn to meet the new N25bn requirement.

To raise the N8bn Access bank engineered a merger with Capital Bank and Marina International Bank. The process of integrating the three entities took 60 days which according to Aig-Imoukhuede has become “a model for integration in the Nigerian banking sector” (p.108)

Marina and Capital were supposed to bring in N4bn each but post integration they discovered that there was a shortfall in Capital Bank’s contribution and with the N25bn deadline just a few weeks away, Aig-Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe had to put on their thinking caps.

They headed to Europe. Access Bank had a $15m convertible debt investment from FMO in the Netherlands with an option to convert to equity if the time was right. As they boarded the plane, Aigboje and Herbert were hoping to convince them that the time was right to make that conversion.

It was Christmas and the financial world was snoozing but they met the bankers waiting at the Hague. There was a quick meeting and then a long wait before the news came – “the board of directors had given them approval to convert.” (p.111)

And so the duo flew back to Nigeria and to the waiting arms of an incredulous Ignatius Imala whose only questions was “They agreed to convert just like that?” (p.111)

Aig-Imoukhuede took ill shortly afterwards. The process of raising money via a public offer, a merger of three entities and trip to convince the FMO in order to meet Soludo’s deadline had taken a toll. “One day in 2005, my body gave up and I ended up in a Nigerian hospital losing blood as fast as my family members (including Herbert) could donate it.” (p.111-112)

With money in the kitty, it was time to pursue growth in the true Access bank fashion. It was aggressive and it was that (blind) pursuit of inorganic growth that once again showed the chinks in their armour.

Access Bank was and has remained big on corporate governance and risk management, two key factors that determine the health of a bank and it showed in the composition of their board. But from Aig-Imoukhuede’s telling it is clear that due diligence may not their strong suit at Access.

In the integration process, they failed to see that Capital Bank could not meet its N4bn mandate. In their international expansion they acquired Omni Finance in Cote D’Ivoire as a means of gaining entrée to the francophone market. It ended in tears and when they went for the Intercontinental Bank acquisition they failed to notice at the outset that “Intercontinental, had a N500 billion plus capital deficit that was still growing…” (p.162)

Aig-Imoukhuede tries to put things in perspective when he notes that “my experience of mergers and acquisitions has taught me that … the gap between expectation and reality will depend on how well you did your due diligence.” (p.166)

By 2011, Aig-Imoukhuede having realized his dream of transforming Access bank into a world class financial services provider served notice of his decision to step down by 2013 even though he could have stayed till 2015 on account of an administrative snafu from the CBN which did not confirm him as substantive Managing Director of Access Bank until 2005.

As he prepared to leave he began to moderate some of his sentiments. He no longer wished Access to be seen as “Aggressive” and he also wanted Access to become “The World’s Most Respected African Bank” which was fitting since it now had footprints across Africa and even in London.

Like all men who had become successful from building successful businesses he began to give back to his community his eyes focused on posterity and legacy but guided by enlightened self-interest from the Oyin Jolayemi street rehabilitation to GEM which focuses on Women Empowerment to “Mirror the Masters” art initiative and many others.

To conclude, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede has written an important book which while being presented as a personal memoir tracks the trajectory of Nigeria’s modern banking industry.

But for an important book such as this more care should have been taken in its production and editorial process. There are typos, misspellings and omissions aplenty and the biggest howler in a book by a banker occurs where “overpaid” is spelt as “overpayed” on page 129

“Past” is used instead of passed on page 187; attracted is spelt as “attached” on page 30; accrue is pluralized on page 41; dint is used where “virtue” would have sufficed on page 41 while led becomes “lead” on page 44.

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