Co-founder of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe, in an interview with Peace Hyde on My Worst Day, touches on a wide variety of issues including his experience as an entrepreneur, his worst day in business and advice for young people. You can read Aigboje Aig Imoukhuede’s version of the story here. Here are the excerpts:
What was it like starting out as an entrepreneur?
Interesting, I had the experience a couple of times. I had the opportunity of working in a bank, that didn’t go well very early in my career, having trained as a chartered accountant. I also had the opportunity of working yet again, in another entrepreneurial endeavour, where we started a bank from a plain balance sheet, and grew it into one of Nigeria’s corporate success stories.
So, coming into Access bank was nothing new. The only difference was we were at the forefront of everything. We were at the firing line of all the pressure and the pains that come with entrepreneurship. We put our own capital at risk, so it was a totally different experience.
What was your experience like in Access Bank compared to GTBank (which was then a relatively young bank)?
It’s different when you are doing it under someone else’s umbrella. That’s intrapreneurship. When you are truly on the firing line, everything is up for grabs, you can lose everything in one second.
What gave you and Aig the confidence?
Our confidence was built on the fact that we had done it before. Where I first started as a banker, was an entrepreneurial environment. Getting into the bank which we worked in before we worked in Access (which was GTBank) was also a successful entrepreneurial endeavour. So coming into Access, in my mind, was no big deal.
What was the chemistry between you and Aig like?
My partner and brother shared so much in common with me. His aspiration was the exact mirror of what I really wanted to do for myself. When the idea came up, it didn’t take one second for us to say, “Let’s do it.”
How was your team like back then?
It is never one person’s effort. It’s the effort of a group of people. It’s the effort of a strong team. It’s also God’s blessings because you will meet several landmines along the route. Landmines that you don’t even know how to navigate.
Yes, we both came in, but there was also a strong team that we brought in. They may not have been the faces, but these guys were also entrepreneurs. They challenged our thought processes day in, day out. What they didn’t know was that each time that happened, it got us stronger and made us more confident to do what we were doing.
What were people’s reactions when you and Aig took over Access Bank?
There were people who thought, “How are these guys going to pull it together?” There were those who thought, “Young people don’t work together very well, they are likely to quarrel.” Several people thought like that. Some also people said, “It’s just a matter of time, something will happen.”
In fact, there were some consulting firms that said they were not going to take on our mandate because these guys are just a bit too young for what they want to do. So that was the kind of vibe that we got.
How did you guys felt back then?
Within us, we didn’t feel we were too young because we knew there were people who had done it at that age, perhaps with much smaller businesses or with much smaller banks. We felt we were so much better trained than most people who had done it before. We were infinitely confident in our capacity to what we were doing. So age was a number, but if you look at our track record up until that time, we were not 35.
The journey from small to big
It’s been great. There have also been very trying times. There have been days when we’ve had to roll on the floor and pray, and just beg God that certain things shouldn’t happen, when there’s been big changes in the macro. More days of celebration with each passing thing. Each success makes us so much more confident. So it’s been mixed feelings. On the whole, so much thanksgiving to God and pride.
When will you say was the worst day in business for you
There was some information about an exposure which we had so far. The communication was that it was not a performing loan, and it was not true. Because of the size of the loan, it could have triggered an issue. We were a much smaller institution. And our reputation, particularly in banking, could affect the overall franchise. It could affect our stakeholders, our customers, most importantly our people, because they were going to be concerned about our professional future.
(He later discussed how he fell seriously ill while in Ghana for the opening of the bank’s branch, due to the pressure. In order to resolve the situation, himself and Aig had to embark on a fire sale of assets.)
Did these incidents incite fear of failure in you?
I am absolutely petrified of failure, and would do everything possible not to find myself in certain circumstances. People ask us why we spend so much time working. Apart from the fact that we truly enjoy what we are doing…, so I don’t know anything about work life balance. I enjoy every second of what I do… but the thought of failure is something I don’t want to dream of. So we are perpetually seeking ways to better prepare ourselves for those difficult moments in life.
We like to share it with our people: the only way to continue to sustain a business over time is for you to always be in day one mode, assuming that something can go wrong. And how do I continue to make sure I lift this enterprise to the very next level, so that whatever shocks come up, one year after, is the day one mode, reinventing and coming up with new innovations to take me ahead.
What is your advice to young people?
A couple of things are very important. You must be extremely confident in what you are doing. You must know what you are doing. You must stick to areas of your competence. Don’t do things because others are doing it. Fear and belief in God are very important because there are little things in those moments of despair that would give you comfort. Fear of God and respect of God and religion is critical.