by Wilfred Okiche
In February 2016, at the Landmark Event centre, venue of the #YTech100, an annual feature of the Social Media Week celebrations hosted by YNaija.com, honouring the brightest and most promising of Nigeria’s technology space, a tall dark fellow stepped in, accompanied by media entrepreneur and host of the event, Adebola Williams.
The atmosphere was immediately electrified. And not without reason.
Escorted by Mr Williams was Segun Agbaje, Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Guaranty Trust Bank one of the country’s most recognisable and influential institutions.
Speaking to a crowd of mostly under 40s in his keynote address, Mr Agbaje sang a familiar tune, one that has its origins in the Africa Rising narrative and seeks to encourage, but not necessarily empower young citizens to become the best that they can be.
In a nod to his audience, Agbaje noted the pivotal role institutions like the one he heads can play in financing start-ups, but like a skilled salesman which one heading such a massive institution ultimately becomes, he also zeroed in on his mission. “I want to drive GTBank to first place on the continent, and I know we’re capable of doing it,” he stressed.
Slicker than average
The story of Segun Agbaje is perhaps also the story of Guaranty Trust Bank. Long before the bank and its orange colour brand became a Nigerian staple, Agbaje, born in 1964 to the influential family of Chief Julius Kosebinu Agbaje (a former board chair of GTBank,) was a student of the popular Saint Gregory College in Obalende, Lagos Island. He moved to the University of San Francisco in America where he bagged both a BSc in Accountancy and a Masters degree in Business Administration.
Agbaje worked briefly in Ernst & Young’s San Francisco office as a staff auditor before returning to Nigeria to join GTB in 1991, then a fledgling financial institution headed by the charismatic and well regarded Fola Adeola.
As one of the pioneer staff of GTB, Agbaje had a front seat view to all of the bank’s major developmental milestones and in many cases, was directly or indirectly responsible for overseeing GTBank’s output in terms of products, services and innovation. His career experience transcends commercial, investment and international banking.
Serving in various capacities, Agbaje has played a pivotal role in moving the bank’s business dealings from its initial niche corporate banking stronghold to a more mass market oriented retail banking. He has been credited with helping to develop the Interbank Derivatives market among dealers and is also on record to have introduced the iconic Balance Sheet Management Efficiency System in Nigeria. As Head of the Settlements Group of Guaranty Trust Bank Plc, Agbaje supervised directly, the conversion of its operations from a cost centre to a profit centre by the year 2000.
According to his official biography, Agbaje was very instrumental to the introduction of Valucard and Western Union Money Transfer. As Deputy Managing Director, he was also directly responsible for Guaranty Trust Bank Plc’s Initial Public Offer of N2.5 billion in July 2002.
He was also very instrumental in putting together Guaranty Trust Bank’s landmark $350 million Eurobond offering in 2007 and later that year, the listing of its $750 million Global Depository Receipts (GDR) in an unprecedented concurrent global offering in the domestic and international capital markets – which made Guaranty Trust Bank the first Nigerian company and first bank in Sub-Saharan Africa to be listed on the Main Market of the London Stock Exchange.
Agbaje was appointed Executive Director of GTBank in 2000 and his 9 year stint as Deputy Managing Director only continued the bank’s traditional inbuilt succession process where leaders are developed within, following a lengthy period of mentoring and understudying. Immediate past MD, the late Tayo Aderinokun had previously served for 12 years as deputy to Fola Adeola, the bank’s pioneer MD before taking over following Adeola’s voluntary exit in 2002.
Agbaje was appointed Acting Managing Director in April 2011 when Aderinokun, then in the terminal stages of a diagnosis of lung cancer proceeded on medical leave. Upon Aderinokun’s death in June 2011, Segun Agbaje was named substantial MD/CEO of the bank.
Uneasy lies the head
There were murmurs – mostly about the 2013 separation of about 100 erstwhile staff, mostly mid and senior level executives, who showed up at work and suddenly couldn’t access the office intranet.
But Agbaje was already focused on the future.
He took to the task of building the GTBank brand into a premier national institution and under his watch, GTBank has enjoyed some of its most profitable years, hitting N100 billion profit before tax as far back as 2013.
In 2011, Agbaje led GTBank to launch the first Sub-Saharan Africa financial sector benchmark Eurobond when the Bank launched its $500 million Eurobond without a sovereign guarantee or credit enhancement from any international financial institution.
In a recent appearance at This Present House’s Business Wednesdays, Agbaje summed up the experience of his rise to the pinnacle of banking: “Even though everybody bet against me in 2011, I knew I was the best man for the job.’’
He has aggressively pursued policies and programs inherited from Aderinokun and Adeola while making time to create initiatives of his own making, in keeping with the bank’s tradition of “innovation, building excellence and superior financial performance.’’
GTBank, long a pioneering presence in Nigerian corporate and business culture with first mover status in game changers like online banking, mobile app, Naira MasterCard, instant notification on money transfers and grooming of entry and mid-level staff in controlled environments lasting weeks before engagement, has under Agbaje’s leadership, kept its eye on the ball and stayed ahead of the curve.
It was under Tayo Aderinokun that the bank first considered a massive push into retail banking, a move that became imperative following the Charles Soludo led Central Bank of Nigeria consolidation exercise that sought to increase the strength and capitalisation of banks. After searching and failing to find a bank meeting GTBank’s very high standards in terms of quality of operations and core values, management made a decision to double down on retail banking, a stark departure from its corporate origins; and then focus on a now most-prized demography: tomorrow’s customer today.
Segun Agbaje has run with, and aggressively expanded the scope of, this vision.
In 2014, GTBank launched its much-heralded SME Market Hub, a service that also has the added advantage of empowering small and medium scale enterprises operating in the country. A first of its kind platform, the hub is a free, secure e-commerce and business directory platform where businesses can list, promote and sell their products and services online.
“The Jumias and the Kongas are very upset that we have the market hub,” Agbaje nodded to the inevitable recently, and then rubbed it in. “I always say they can never beat me. You know why they can never beat me? The market hub is free. It is impossible to beat a business model that is free.’’
In a direct response to global trends, Agbaje also pioneered SMS banking, via the *737# option that allows customers transfer money from their mobile phones via SMS instantly to any other bank account nationwide. This novel service builds on the acceptance of the One Click Top –up service that enables customers purchase call credit via bank accounts from the comfort of their homes. The *737# transfer service has like so many GTBank innovations been adopted unabashedly by the competition, but the entire service enjoys first mover advantage and is still recognised as the *737# irrespective of the various separate codes adopted by different banks.
Bringing sexy back
GTBank has always understood the culture and has been at the forefront of lifestyle initiatives that may or may not in the long run add to its bottom line. One of the most vital partnerships in recent times has been that between GTBank and Terrakulture, the culture hub that has almost single-handedly, been responsible for the revival in Nigerian theatre.
When Aderinokun started Ndani in 2009, it was a well photographed, if mostly ignored, e-newsletter that attempted to tap into the culture zeitgeist with a focus on fine writing, African fashion and breezy photography. Fast forward to 2012 and Agbaje had breathed new life into Ndani, envisioning it as an online television for premium African media content.
Instead of going the safe, trusted route of buying advertising space in established media properties, Agbaje did something unheard of at the time and oversaw a carefully curated team headed by Jadesola Osiberu to create digestible original content that would attract a whole new generation of consumers. The result of this experiment is Ndani.TV as we know it now with sleek original programming like The Juice, Gidi Up and Rumour has it offered side by side with more serious fare like Young CEO. Naturally Ndani.TV has spawned other imitators.
Armed with a charming throaty laugh, a likeable mien and a ravenous need to conquer, Agbaje has said of his competition, “I will never sit back and let other people take what I believe is my own business and my own market share. For every dollar or naira you spend I will spend as well.’’
Thus instead of sponsoring products or content developed by outsiders, Agbaje would rather an in-house team develop, trademark and showcase their own content.
It helps that he oversees a company with plenty cash to burn but even more important is the foresight and flexibility to constantly innovate, while staying nimble and always ready to change course. The GTBank annual Food & Drink Fair which made its debut in May this year is another opportunity for the brand to engage directly with its client base through a 2 day extravaganza of food, fun and networking. The event promotes the food and drink industry by showcasing business owners and organising masterclasses with internationally renowned chefs.
After sponsoring the Lagos Fashion and Design Week for two seasons (now replaced by Heineken), Agbaje’s GTBank announced the GTB Fashion Weekend for November 2016.
‘’[It is all about] growing SMEs in a sustainable manner that is not driven by profits but focused on empowering our customers and growing our economy collectively,’’ its press release said.
Be that as it says, observers of the global market will see similarities between that announcement and that from Instagram Stories (as an alternative to Snapchat) – it’s not personal, it’s about serving the customer.
In it to win
If there are traps to this aggressive growth and success, they are not visible yet.
All the public can see are impressive decisions, and impressive results: GTBank, in its half year financial statement for 2016, posted pre-tax profits of N91.3 billion, up 45% from the same period last year. Plenty of this is due to FX changes brought on by the floating of the Naira and GTBank still provided about N37 billion in bad loans.
But it is in the e-business figures that Agbaje’s leadership shines the most. According to audited records, GTBank did about N17.2 billion in e-business income (about 2.8 billion Naira monthly). Details of this income aren’t broken down, but customers have tales of countless pesky charges (card maintenance, mobile banking charges etc.) bordering on the worrisome.
For the second time in five years (first was in 2012,) Segun Agbaje was presented with the 2016 African Banker of the year trophy at the 2016 African Banker Awards. Omar Ben Yedder, group publisher of African Banker magazine said “Mr Segun Agbaje… has built an institution that is proudly African and truly international. Since assuming office in 2011, Mr. Agbaje has led the bank to become one of the most profitable banks in Africa with a well-defined CSR strategy that continues to give back to its host communities through its many philanthropy initiatives.’’
Akintunde Oyebode, pioneer Executive Secretary of the Lagos state Employment Trust Fund, and a former banker with Stanbic IBTC, tweeted about Agbaje in August, lavishly describing him as the best bank CEO Nigeria has ever seen.
“The growth of GTB during his tenure relative to peers has been amazing – both in terms of revenue/profit and customer growth,” he says when we ask him why. “The way the bank has leveraged technology to grow its business (specifically mobile telephony). Then there is flawless execution of its strategy – one of the lowest loss rates in the industry and the ability to use its forex balance sheet to maximize profits in a difficult period.”
Some of its 8.3 million customers may complain that 234 (incidentally, the Nigerian country code) physical bank branches have resulted in long queues and overwhelmed staff, but in that also, there is the hint of strategy.
Agbaje has downplayed the role of brick and mortar branches in meeting the needs of the bank’s ever increasing pool of customers but that would be assuming that the bank is capable of providing stress free alternative means with internet and mobile banking – a burden it has begun to bear.
To this challenge, the bank appears to have responded with precision: leveraging its rich history and track record, investing in the media and PR to retain the initial sleek, exclusive packaging despite reaching for the mass market, and innovating constantly with products like the ability to open bank accounts online via Facebook channels.
The long game
An alumnus of the Harvard Business School, Segun Agbaje is a disciple of the Geoff Colvin academy, propagators of the notion that talent is overrated and success comes through hours of deliberate practice. Agbaje who has described himself effacingly as “an average person who can outwork most people’’ – has definitely put in the practice.
It’s throwback (throwback it is these days) to the era when consistency, experience and loyalty were valued qualities in employees.
Having spent virtually his entire career at one place, chipping away at the old block slowly and steadily, Agbaje’s calm, collected exterior mirrors that of the duck, composed at the surface, but paddling furiously underneath.
The competition should be deathly afraid.