In a country where business partnership is one big anathema television viewed with deep suspicion, distrust and seen as a cog in the wheel of progress, these two young Nigerian captains of industry stand out to be emulated and celebrated.
Like David and Jonathan in the Bible, like Elijah and Elisha, the story of Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe, his successor as the CEO of Access Bank is pivotal to a bigger narrative that transcends that of two human beings. They are two Nigerian case studies, two masters of acquisition, two friends whose story is straight from the Book of Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10 where it is written: “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labour. For if either one of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.”
Their story reminds me of my own story. My late friend and business partner, Dimgba Igwe of blessed memory through whom I discovered that friendship and partnership are Songs in the Key of Life, if I may borrow from Stevie Wonder’s famous classic double album released on September 28, 1976 when I was entering my final year at the University of Lagos. By the way, I was at the National Theatre when Stevie Wonder came here in 1977 to perform in Lagos at the Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77). It was such an unforgettable experience. Stevie is truly a wonder! But this is not about Stevie Wonder. It is about Aigboje and his bosom friend Herbert who clocked 51 on Tuesday.
I first heard about the bond and covenant of friendship between the two bankers in my days as the managing director and editor-in-chief of The Sun newspaper where we also demonstrated the power of friendship in building and moving a company forward. With my late friend Dimgba Igwe as my deputy, God used us to create a newspaper company that broke all records, soaring high at jet speed into the stratosphere of fame and unimaginable profitability—the type that the newspaper industry in Nigeria had not seen before and difficult to replicate in these harsh times. Well, what else can one say but to give God all the glory? The key to it all was friendship and partnership. Two people armed with vision, passion, self-belief, drive, skill, hard work and the strategy to build from the scratch a media brand which will outlive all of us. Two friends who “stick closer than a brother.” Two friends who sharpen each other like “iron sharpeneth iron.” Two friends who individually bring something of value to the table. Two friends for all seasons—one carrying and strengthening the other to face the storms of life. Two friends who shared the same values of trust, integrity, loyalty and faith in God. Two friends dreaming to be among the best and most sought-after biographers anywhere. But then, the Grim Reaper came to separate us, leaving just one to carry on.
Just as we were making our mark in the media, so were the two friends dreaming and working hard to create an institution that would be at the forefront of banking, not just in Nigeria but across the globe. Before his death, Dimgba and I had sat down to interview Aig Imoukhouede extensively about the untold story of Access Bank. We found the story so awesome, so inspiring, so revealing that we decided to keep it in our bank for a future biography. I believe the story of Access Bank is a story that should be told one day. And for my post-Dimgba Igwe book on Boardroom Leaders, I also extensively interviewed the Chairman of the board of Access Bank, Mrs. Mosun Bello-Olusoga, a woman I found very deep, knowledgeable and so humble. But then, all this is a story for another day.
Today, we are celebrating an obscure bank taken over by two friends who through mergers and acquisitions turned around Access Bank into a respectable global brand with presence in nine African countries, with strong presence in the UK, with subsidiaries or representative offices in the Middle East, China, Lebanon and India. After 12 years in the saddle, Imoukhouede handed the baton of leadership to his friend in a seamless succession. Herbert Wigwe, the Accesss Bank CEO pays homage to a friend who even after he has left still watches the bank from a distance:
“Aig remains my responsibility partner,” Wigwe says. “Because we keep sharing views on how to push the franchise forward. I see Aig as one of the most driven leaders in Africa. And we share exactly the same values. For us, the four eyes are important. You need somebody checking on you. In case I miss the ball, let Aig get the ball. Let there be somebody who could basically get together, work with you, keep you on track, tell you things dispassionately. Because we believe that taking the bank higher to the very next level up to the levels that we envisaged is not something for one person…There must be somebody who is there perpetually as your alter ego and with whom you can share issues. In your deepest moment you can share, at your best times you can share and he is basically protecting your boundaries from outside to make sure the institution is running well. He has impacted me in many ways apart from the very strong personal relationship that we have. He is like my brother. Apart from him, other great people too have influenced me. As I look back, I think of my parents who definitely influenced me because they were very accomplished people in civil service but having risen to the top they felt that the way the civil service evolved in Nigeria did not allow or support them after retirement. They shared with us their experience saying a lot more people need to go into the private sector and build businesses that they control. That is one of the set of people that influenced us. We also had mentors in the previous institutions that we worked for and we can’t take it away from them because they absolutely helped us and gave us the authority and power at the time we worked there and to sharpen our professional skills. And I am talking about Mr Fola Adeola and Mr Tayo Aderinokun who were the founders of GT Bank. So those were people who influenced us, if I am to pick and just mention a few.”
For any friendship and partnership to work and endure Wigwe says: “Trust is critical. You must trust yourselves infinitely. Secondly, your values are so critical. Then there is professionalism. Aig as my brother and partner was CEO for 12 years. And for the 12 years, he ran an extremely professional enterprise. As close as we were, we knew the boundaries of professionalism. It is something that once you don’t tamper with, you would do the right things. So those are the things that are most important as you create a partnership.”
Last words: The friendship between Imoukhuede, Wigwe and Dangote as seen in this picture is a subject for another day and another project. By the way, the poet in me tells me the name Wigwe rhymes with Igwe. Herbert Wigwe and Dimgba Igwe. Both were once deputies in this ode to friendship.