The Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Wema Bank Plc, Ademola Adebise, tells TOFARATI IGE about the highlights of his career, family, childhood dreams and other issues
What are the major lessons you think the banking sector should learn from the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic hit the whole world and everybody is involved. So, it is not really a banking sector, or a Wema Bank issue. The banking sector is just a part of a larger community. In the last one year, I have seen a lot of digital revolution. I know that the Managing Director of Microsoft Corporation during the lockdown last year said that the world actually experienced two years of transformation within two months of the lockdown. A large number of things that we all thought could never happen actually happened as a result of the pandemic. ‘Digital’ is not just a buzzword; it is critical to survival. The brick and mortar infrastructure is still important, and that is why we still have to keep our branches open, because our environment is largely cash oriented. Before the pandemic, business continuity was looked at like some kind of rhetoric, but things have gone beyond that. We are now living it. You have to activate your business continuity to ensure that you are able to function. During the pandemic and till now, we have been operating remote activities. For example, our treasury function operates wholly through remote work mode. We have changed our style, in terms of the way we do things. Now, we see people working from home, and having flexible hours. All these changes were caused by the pandemic and we now call them the ‘new normal’. There have also been changes in terms of customers’ lifestyles and preferences. Also, a lot of businesses have gone online and that has changed the business models for many companies. Some companies have gone from 100 per cent to zero as a result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic.
On another hand, the pandemic also showed the vulnerability of our healthcare system. Obviously, the world cannot be the same again. For banks, our attitude to customers was also impacted. We had to show a great deal of empathy because we lost some of our high net worth customers.
You rightly mentioned that our environment is still cash-oriented. Considering the lessons from the pandemic, how does Wema Bank intend to use digital innovations to drive engagements with staff and customers?
With what is going on, engagement has to be done constantly. We need to get across to our customers and manage our stakeholders. So, we are adopting technologies that would allow members of our staff work from home, and allow us engage our customers online. We are also adopting contact-less technologies that would limit physical contact, in form of card-less transactions and the use of Quick Response codes. Of course, a lot of investments would continue in the area of technology because it is work in progress.
On the back of that is the issue of security because as one goes virtual and works remotely, it increases security risks because we don’t know who is on the other end trying to connect to our system. The issues around cyber security have heightened because of heavy reliance on technology. Things need to be reviewed constantly because they change pretty fast. The banking system would implement the QR code later in March and it is going to change the face of payments in the Nigerian banking landscape.
As the CEO of Wema Bank, what do you consider to be your major headache as regards the day-to-day running of the company?
For a bank CEO today, cyber security is the number one (problem) because our business relies on technology. That is one of the things that keep me awake at night.
Closely tied to that is the ‘war for talents’. In the banking sector, people move regularly around and there is a lot of poaching going on. It could be quite tough to keep one’s staff, especially the good ones. So, one needs to constantly engage them. This is exacerbated by the fact that a sizable chunk of the workforce are millennials. It is even worse in the tech space. That is why companies are now looking for ways of outsourcing some of those roles, so that they can engage software developers from India, China or anywhere else in the world. That reduces the headache of having to keep a staff that would create a ‘key man risk’ for one in certain areas.
Another important issue is that of non-performing loans.
Lastly, in recent times, there have been a lot of issues around regulatory compliance. The regulatory compliance risk is quite high and that is a major concern.
What would you say has been the toughest decision you have had to make as the head of the bank?
One is constantly making tough decisions. When I newly took over as the MD of the bank, I took some decisions that had to do with restructuring and moving people around. As a result of that, we had some exits. Of course, it was completely misconstrued. This was against the backdrop of the fact that I was a CEO appointed from within the bank. There are two ways of appointing a bank CEO— it is either from within the organisation or someone is brought from outside.
There is always resistance to change, so a number of people misconstrued my actions to mean something else. But looking back, I think it was the right thing to have been done. It was a tough period for me in my career and I thank God we have crossed that bridge and moved on.
You have been in this position for over two years. What do you regard as your greatest achievements?
When I assumed office, the bank had a balance sheet of about N400bn and deposit of about 380bn. Part of my plan was that we were going to double those key indicators in the balance sheet within two years. The two years ended in 2020, and we largely achieved our aspiration to double the number to N800bn. This year (2021), we probably would be closing with a balance sheet of close to a trillion naira. Our deposits have also doubled, and generally, our numbers have improved. For the first time in 14 years, we started paying dividends back to back. We would also pay the third one this year.
Also very important is the fact that we upgraded our technology infrastructure. The aspiration when I took over was that we were going to be a strong digital bank. We have improved on our digital channels.
Just last year, we were rated by KPMG as the second best in customer service in the retail space.
All these are outcomes of the actions we took to upgrade our technology, improve the skill set of our staff, and also rejuvenate our business processes. The last two years have been quite tough but they have also been performance-driven and results-oriented.
How did your time as the Deputy Managing Director of the bank prepare you for your current position?
Being appointed as a DMD of the bank was because my predecessor (as MD/CEO), Mr Segun Oloketuyi, was quite supportive. He exposed me to training opportunities, such as a programme at Harvard Business School.
You are on the boards of AIICO Insurance Plc, AIICO Pensions and NIBSS. How do you ensure these duties don’t clash?
I am on the board of those three companies in non-executive capacities, so my day job is at Wema Bank. My acceptance of those roles on the boards was because they are quite complementary. There is an insurance company and a technology switching company. To manage the roles, I plan my time properly, to ensure that our quarterly meetings are well planned. There is really no clash per se, and it has been quite exciting.
However, I would be exiting one or two of the companies shortly, but so far, it has been a worthwhile experience.
What do you regard as the highlights of your time as the Head of Finance and Performance Management Practice at Accenture?
Oh, you are taking me back to my days at Accenture. Being at Accenture was an opportunity to redefine my career. I had the opportunity of going into consulting as a subject matter expert. When I joined Accenture, my outlook and practically everything about me changed. It was like repackaging me for the banking industry.
I was also a member of the financial services operating group so I had a dual role of delivering on projects, and also going out to look for business. It was an exciting time for me because it allowed me to use my technology and accounting backgrounds effectively. I got a lot from the company and I was also able to make an impact.
You have a background in computer technology. How did you find yourself in mainstream banking?
I qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1993. Then, I switched over. That actually was a break for me from technology into mainline banking. Most technology people only rise to become the head of technology department. They don’t go beyond that but I was able to break that ceiling. With my accounting background, I was able to go into mainline banking, and that positioned me very well.
How easy was it for you to make the switch from technology to mainline banking?
When I qualified as a chartered accountant, I requested that I wanted to do more things beyond technology. I had the opportunity of moving into the financial control room, and I went on to become the Financial Controller.
After that, I moved into several other roles, including electronic business, banking, corporate banking, risk management and treasury. Over the course of my career, I supervised those areas and that prepared me robustly for the position I currently hold. There is practically no part of the bank I have not worked, except internal control.
What fond memories do you have of the early days of your banking career in Chartered Bank (Now Stanbic IBTC Bank)?
At some point, I was in the technology space as the head of operations in IT. I was also the head of development. I had a very interesting technology career in Chartered Bank. I was part of the team that developed the banking application the company used for 10 years before they switched to the system they are currently using. As the CFO, I made inputs into the formulation of strategy for the bank.
I was the head of technology before I left for National Bank to head the finance and performance management department.
A lot of small and medium scale enterprises in the technology and digital space complain that they don’t usually get loans from banks. Considering your background in technology and taking cognisance of the fact that technology is believed to be the ‘new oil’, how is the bank, under you, tapping into this important ecosystem?
That is a very interesting question. In recent times, there have been a number of players coming into the financial services ecosystem. There are the financial technology companies that are providing financial services to the SMEs. We do know that a number of challenges SMEs face revolve around financing, investment and corporate governance.
At Wema, we see ourselves as a SME bank. Over the years, we have come up with products to address the SME segments. We have also been using our digital platforms to target the SME segment of the market. They can access finance through our platforms. We also have partnerships with development finance institutions, such as the Bank of Industry and the Development Bank of Nigeria, to provide cheaper funds to SMEs. In addition, we have partnered with fin techs to provide a number of services to SMEs. We are doing quite a lot and there is still more to come.
As a business leader, how would you describe the ease of doing business in Nigeria?
Thank you for that question. While we agree that a lot of efforts have been put into improving the ease of doing business in Nigeria, a number of other factors still affect the ease of doing business. The government has done quite well, in terms of trying to ease tax policies; making it easier to register new companies at the Corporate Affairs Commission. The CAC has gone through a transformation. The country has also entered into some free trade agreements, so there are a number of initiatives the government has put in place in trying to provide an enabling environment for doing business.
Unfortunately, we still have quite a number of challenges, including insecurity.
The issues around corruption are also still there. There is the problem of multiple taxation. There are several bodies taxing one on the same things. Recently, the tax laws were reviewed, and hopefully, that would improve the ease of doing business in the country. Generally, I think the atmosphere has improved, but the cost of doing business is still quite high. Inflation has increased and has made things more difficult.
Access to power has improved but we are not there yet. Neighbouring countries have better power supply than Nigeria. We still have quite a lot to do because other countries are not slowing down. They are also making moves.
Our court system is another major issue. The judiciary needs to carry out some reforms.
The issue of transportation is also there. Movement of goods and services can be better. Yes, the government is trying to fix the roads, but we still have challenges with moving on them.
The Central Bank of Nigeria recently banned crypto currencies but some people opined that proper regulation would have been a better option. What are your thoughts on that?
It is important to understand where the regulator is coming from. There are quite a number of challenges facing our economy and we need to respond to each of them accordingly. The CBN did not ban crypto currencies, it is only saying that it is not a legal mode of transaction in Nigeria. It is important to have a clear understanding of the way it works before they can come up with policies to manage it. It is still evolving and from time to time, the CBN would come up with other policies on crypto currencies. It is also necessary to have an understanding of the peculiar challenges we face in the country, such as money laundering and corruption. Indeed, there is a need to be very careful. However, engagement is ongoing.
What are some of the personal qualities that have helped you get this far in your career?
It is important to appreciate people that one works with. One should also understand that one is not an island unto oneself in terms of knowledge. One should also appreciate the fact that objectives are achieved through people that one works with. It is also important for one to value the output of people that one works with.
One should know that leadership is not by force. One has to earn it. Mutual respect is key as well. One should also learn to accept people (the way they are). Not everybody has the same intellect or temperament, so one needs to understand the people one works with. One should be able to encourage and mobilise people to achieve one’s objectives.
Once one does all that, people would naturally follow one. It does not need to be forced.
Leadership is about showing empathy and encouraging people. It is also about mentoring people. A good leader leads from the front.
Moving away from banking and business, do you recall how you met your wife?
She was a younger sister to one of my classmates. One thing led to another and the rest is history.
What were some of the qualities that endeared you to her?
She is God-fearing and smart.
It is commonly said that African men are not romantic. Do you agree or disagree?
I think women would be in a better position to answer that question. Honestly, I think we do our best, but women would be in a better position to say it.
Do you consciously make efforts to be romantic?
Yes, I believe so.
How do you achieve a balance between your career and family time?
It is a tough one. But, I had some form of mentoring and I learnt early in my career that it is important to pay attention to one’s family. In the early days of this job, one worked very long hours. One still works long hours but these days, one does some work remotely and invariably spend more time with one’s family. Over the years, I have tried to spend quality time with my family on weekends though we stay engaged every day.
Beyond banking and technology, what are your other interests?
Other than spending time with my family, I have tried to pick up a few things here and there. Currently, I am learning to play the piano. Whenever I am less busy, I spend some time with the piano.
I also take exercising very seriously; I have a gym at home. I do a lot of walking too within the estate where I live.
Perhaps, after your stint as MD, you would be releasing an album?
(Laughs) Yes, watch this space.
What advice do you have for young people, especially in the area of career development and growth?
Hard work and a clear focus are very important. It is also very good to have a mentor early in life. That was something that helped me a lot. I had the privilege of working with the then Managing Director of Chartered Bank as a young officer, and as I grew through the ranks, he mentored me all through. Till today, I still go to him for advice whenever I want to take some major decisions.
It is said that a rolling stone gathers no moss, so you need to be well grounded in everything you do. Be a subject matter expert. Have a clear focus of what you want to do and pursue your passion.
Do you see yourself ever contesting for public office?
You never can tell, so I would not shut that door. But quite frankly, delivering on this job is the most important thing as of now. I don’t see myself being a politician but I would not rule it out. I would be willing to serve my country if the opportunity arises.
How do you unwind?
I unwind by spending time with my family. I am also very active in my alumni association. I take part in church activities as well.
Bankers have a structured way of dressing in dark suits. How do you like to dress when you are not working?
I like to be simple and casual. My wife is actually my mirror when it comes to dressing.
Why did you decide to study Computer Science at the University of Lagos?
I had wanted to study engineering because my father was an engineer. My father was well read and smart. He exposed me to computers when nobody knew about them. I went to a computer school during the long holiday when I was moving into the final year in secondary school, and that was it for me. I fell in love with it. I was programming then in basic language. I found it quite interesting that I would give a command to the computer and it would obey me. So, that changed my perspective (from engineering). I then decided to study Computer Science.
What kind of student were you in school?
I was very studious. I was what you would call a ‘triangular’ student. I usually only went from the classroom to the library then cafeteria. I ended up being the best graduating student in my set.
What are some of the fondest memories of your childhood?
In those days, we used to have a lot of fun when our father would take us out to the Federal Palace Hotel and Bar Beach, both in Lagos.
I grew up in the Baptist setting and it was a lot of fun. I attended Surulere Baptist Primary School, and from there to Baptist Academy. I have fond memories of friends that I met there who become respectable members of society today. We still throw banters. Growing up was very exciting for me. These days, people are always indoors with their games. In those days, we were out there playing football and doing all sorts.
What were your childhood ambitions?
I wanted to be an engineer like my father.
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