The governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 1999 had been managing director of First Bank.
‘His tenure at some of the “Big Four” banks,’ Seth Apati wrote correctly in his book, The Nigerian Banking Sector Reforms, ‘was instrumental to his understanding of the banking system and the inner workings of banks in Nigeria.’
Sanusi had brought in outsiders, highly respected former CEOs namely Ernest Ebi, Shamshudeen Usnan and Tunde Lemo to join his board of Governors at the CBN. This was very helpful to our cause since they knew Herbert and I well, but at the same time we still had to convince those below them that we were qualified to run a bank, including the Director of Banking Supervision, Ignatius Imala, who was known for his conservative thinking and a tendency to be very suspicious of young bankers.
Members of the board of Governors at the CBN knew us personally and I believe they were all confident of our ability to run Access Bank. One of them had tried to hire me over the years, as his number two man. Banking is a fairly small world and so anyone with a good professional track record is soon known – as are those who do not have such good track records. They knew our family backgrounds, which suggested that we would be hard-working and honest. Nonetheless, though I had acted as CEO of GTB in the absence of the MD and the DMD, even though both Herbert and I possessed strong professional track records, Mr Imala still had his doubts and refused to approve our appointment as MD and DMD.
In colonial times there used to be a test to see if a child was old enough to go to school, which involved asking the child to put one hand over their head and touch the ear on the other side. No matter how intelligent they might be they could not go to school until they could pass that test. It always seemed to me that Imala adopted a similar thought process when it came to deciding whether or not to approve our appointment.
He stood alone against everyone else around him resolutely refusing to give an explanation for his decision and without his approval we would remain in limbo. Luckily for us he didn’t ask us not to run the bank, he simply said he would not ‘approve it. Eventually, on 17th April 2003, over a year after we assumed control of the bank, he approved our appointments on an acting basis for two years.
We were two young men with no godfather behind us and I think Imala found it hard to believe that we had managed to pull off the acquisition of Access Bank without some hidden power pulling the strings behind the scene on our behalf. He suspected there was a catch to this seemingly audacious acquisition and chose to take his time approving our appointments, assuming if there was a catch it would soon reveal itself. How wrong did we prove Imala to be.
Despite this hitch we had become the owners of the bank in March 2002. At that time I was still only thirty six years old, but I already had had ten years of senior management banking experience at GTB, where I had risen from being middle manager to working next to the managing director at the top of one of the best-run banks in the country and had been privileged to learn the secrets of building a highly successful business. My responsibilities had covered almost all the key functions in both profit and cost centres. I knew that I was ready to run my own bank, but the policies regarding regulatory approval for me to become chief executive were then rather obtuse and for over a year I ran Access without the stamp of the Central Bank’s formal blessing.
After the approval on an acting basis of April 2003, I was not confirmed in the post until 2005, at the end of the two-year period. Although this delay was enormously frustrating at the time, it would eventually work to my advantage when the CBN changed the rules and announced that no one could run a bank as CEO for more than ten years. Had I been approved and confirmed from the start in 2002 I would have moved aside in 2012, before seeing my plans come to full fruition. As it was, I had until 2015 to continue growing the bank and prepare for a smooth succession to Herbert.