People & Money

Leaving the Tarmac: A Flight Review

In “Leaving the Tarmac. Buying a Bank in Africa”, we are allowed some behind-the-scenes insights into this remarkable business story, literally from the horses’ mouth. More than this, we are allowed to witness the story from day one, and through the eyes of its most important participant.”

Early in the morning one Sunday ten years ago (in 2011), I got a missed call from a very senior banking industry professional, who was also a member of the Board of Directors at the Corporation where I was employed. It was a very shocking experience, and I was quite convinced that this important bank owner and CEO must have misdialed me. I was a junior officer of the Corporation, and even though I was serving as chief of staff to the CEO and interacting with all manner of senior industry professionals, they hardly ever called me directly on my mobile phone, and never early on a Sunday morning. I returned the call with a lot of trepidation and quickly came to find out that he was calling to quiz me on the detailed preparations for an important event he was leading and which I was involved in planning for the next week. The right word to use for that conversation is probably “grill”, and not quiz. But let’s just say it was an interesting conversation, which left me in awe of the kind of leadership that focused on such small details usually left in the hands of a junior officer.

This was not my first interaction with the author of a fascinating new autobiography titled Leaving the Tarmac. Buying a Bank in Africa, and it would not be the last either. But one thing was consistent between that early Sunday morning conversation and every other time I ever met him. This was clearly an intense individual who took work very seriously and had zero tolerance for lethargy. 2007 was the first time I had met and written about this high-energy individual, and the bank he took control of in 2002 (when he was still in his 30s).

At the time of our first meeting, I was employed as the head of research and banking sector analyst at a leading brokerage firm in Nigeria. After that meeting, I described him in my report to investors (which was published in 2008) as follows: “[His bank is] …best described in the following terms: ambitious, aggressive and fast-growing. [He] …has received censure for attempting to grow too fast, [He] … has been accused of attempting inorganic growth through potential acquisitions of a scale that could harm the business, and [His bank] …will potentially continue to grow at rates that outpace the rest of the Nigerian banking sector”.

In many ways, it turned out that I was very correct in my assessment. Against numerous headwinds, the market value of Access Bank (in local currency terms) has doubled over the last thirteen years, from 146 billion Naira at the time of my report in 2008, to N288 billion at the time of this review. On every other metric that matters (revenue, market share, total assets, capital, and customer headcount), Access Bank in 2021 is now one of the modern market leaders and is unrecognizable from that aggressive, mid-tier challenger in 2008. To use one example, in the twelve months period leading up to January 2008, Access earned “paltry” profits after tax of about 7.6 billion Naira. At the time, the bank ranked behind such industry stalwarts as Intercontinental Bank and Diamond Bank, both of which had a much higher market share and market value than Access. By comparison, in the year ended December 2020, Access earned 106.0 billion Naira in after-tax profits. More dramatically, neither Diamond nor Intercontinental is in existence anymore, both having been controversially swallowed up by the Access juggernaut during the intervening period. In the process, the ambitious and aggressive owner-managers of Access Bank have become wealthy beyond even their own imaginations at the time they took the original risk of leaving their successful jobs to buy the bank.

In “Leaving the Tarmac. Buying a Bank in Africa”, we are allowed some behind-the-scenes insights into this remarkable business story, literally from the horses’ mouth. More than this, we are allowed to witness the story from day one, and through the eyes of its most important participant.

One of my favorite Nigerian writers is Chimamanda Adichie, and one of her most famous quotes is a commentary on the “danger of a single story”, about which she eloquently declares “…the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. I love Adichie’s truly insightful declaration because it is so relevant for the story of Nigeria. Among ourselves as a nation, and between the outside world and us, the indiscriminate use of stereotypes and single stories is dangerous and does us a disservice. This is as true in terms of our history and politics, as in the areas of business, banking, and finance. A big part of the reason why these single and very often, negative stories have thrived is because the key “movers and shakers” do not like to write books about their lives and times. In the business arena in particular, even when key actors do write, the literature produced is often spectacularly lacking in any kind of depth, self-awareness, analytical rigor, basic truthfulness, or even narrative quality. Happily for all lovers of history, Leaving the Tarmac goes against that trend.

I always like to say that the best books for me are like a time machine. They take you back to a time and place you either once knew or could never have known. With autobiographies, self-awareness on the part of the author, and a deliberate effort to situate their story in its proper national and international context are additional requirements for success. Based on these criteria, the most important Nigerian business autobiography I have ever read was first published in 1993 and is titled Out of Nigeria. Witness to a Giants Toils by Joe L. Brandler. At the time of writing it, the author was an old man of 80 years old. Brandler had been born in Germany in 1912, moved to England as a teenager in 1930, served in the Second World War (on the side of Britain), and then moved to Nigeria as an expatriate in 1947, shortly after that war. He lived here for the next 46 years, doing very successful business as a trader, timber merchant, and industrialist. His book covered the long arch of his life, written in an evocative language, and revealing numerous insights, large and small about the history of business in Nigeria. He produced a very important time machine. I consider Mr. Brandler’s book to be the gold standard for business autobiographies set in Nigeria. It is a really important historical document.

With Leaving the Tarmac, I believe Mr. Aig-Imoukhuede has produced a narrative of similar importance — for the generation of businesspeople who entered the marketplace at around the same time as Mr. Brandler was exiting the scene, in the late 80s and early 90s. Leaving the Tarmac is a much shorter book, weighing in at 208 pages versus Mr. Brandler’s 362, excluding maps. It is also a young man’s autobiography, written in a crisp, self-conscious style that is overly summarized and probably still careful not to offend protagonists who are still alive. By contrast, Mr. Brandler’s is an old man’s story, written at a more leisurely pace and at the end of his life — with more of the freedom that comes from no longer being a player in the great game.

Nonetheless, I consider Leaving the Tarmac to be the most important business autobiography of its generation, and certainly the most important that focuses on a critically important segment of Nigeria’s economic history — the spectacular banking sector revolution of the last thirty years.

Mr. Aig-Imoukhuede entered into banking (as a National Youth Service Corp officer) in 1988, at a truly exceptional time in terms of the transformation of Nigeria’s economy. Following some tragically ill-advised misadventures in state-led economic mismanagement since the early 70s, a wind of change was forcefully blowing across the country, and the financial services arena was one of the first areas to benefit in the late 80s. Leaving the Tarmac sets out this important context very eloquently, and also provides the prequel to our protagonist’s career as a banker, narrating some of the more formative experiences in his childhood. One of the possible areas of improvement for the book would have been more time spent on this prequel, to give readers a more complete understanding of the forces which had already shaped the author’s character and personality by the time he arrived at the local affiliate of Chase Manhattan Bank as a Youth Corp member.

Also Read: 2020 Reading List: All-Time Best Business Memoirs

That being said, the political and economic context of his career is well laid out, and this is the first great success of this book. Economic transformation, job creation, and growth in businesses do not occur by chance. This book demonstrates this point again and again in very practical terms, through the unique lens of the author’s life and career. Similarly, economic revolutions do not happen overnight. They are often the product of careful evolution and previous transformational actions in other sectors or areas of the same economy. Again, Leaving the Tarmac excels in making this point to the discerning reader. Banking sector liberalization in the late 80s created the opportunity for broader economic reforms after 1999. This in turn created the growth that made the “big bang” banking recapitalization revolution of Professor Chukwuma Soludo in 2004 possible. This in due course created the conditions for Access Bank and others to thrive. Without their success, many domestic borrowers: state governments, industrials, telecoms operators, electricity utilities, small and medium enterprises, and even individuals would not be able to operate as they do today. Even the pan-African multilateral Corporation that has employed me since 2009, financing infrastructure projects across more than 30 African countries would not exist without the above chain of events. Cause and effect. The biggest triumph of Leaving the Tarmac is establishing this sequence of affairs through the unique perspective of the authors life and career.

Secondly, if you are a corporate finance and business nerd like I am, you will appreciate a lot of the clarity, honesty, and illumination that this book offers. Leaving the Tarmac is a genuine attempt to reveal and not to obfuscate. The book answers the question “how did you make your fortune” in clear and unequivocal terms, revealing key inflection points in the journey and naming the most important family members, bosses, colleagues, partners, advisors, and collaborators that made the safe landing possible. I think this point cannot be overstated. Too often, stories of business success in Nigeria are shrouded in secrecy, mystery, and intrigue. Rumors swirl about divine happenings, dark dealings, and unsavory characters, too little is brought into the antiseptic glare of sunlight. In the process, much is lost in terms of forming a national consensus about who our correct role models ought to be, and what are the acceptable options and strategies for business competition. No reader will put this book down without being clear in their mind about the sources of success and competitive advantage for Access Bank and its now exceptionally wealthy leading lights, and this is a great thing for Nigeria’s progress.

Thirdly, if you enjoy personal anecdotes about key people, events, and chance occurrences in the economic and business history of Nigeria, Leaving the Tarmac delivers as a time machine, transporting the reader into rooms we simply could never have been in. Too often we understand people and events as they exist today, without giving full recognition to the path traveled to arrive at the present location. A good autobiography will reveal intimate details of how things used to be so that we better appreciate present reality and never take the journey for granted. Growth (whether individual or national) must never be taken for granted. It does not happen just in the normal course of human existence; deliberate, often painful, and personal effort is required to make it happen. Several examples illustrate this practical reality in the book: from candid details of the personal, financial (down to actual sums invested), mental and physical health commitments made by the author to the success of his business; to insider details of the high-level conversations in government and regulatory circles at key inflection points in Nigeria’s economic history over the period. Most dramatically, the blow-by-blow accounts of the events leading to the consummation of some of the most controversial mergers and acquisitions transactions in Nigeria’s corporate finance history are well laid out in this book. As someone who still works in the highly secretive area of mergers and acquisitions, I can tell you that this alone is worth the price of the purchase. All told, the book delivers as an important economic history document not only in the narrow area of corporate finance and banking but also in terms of a broader understanding of Nigeria.

Finally, the evident self-awareness of the author shines through the narrative. Mistakes are readily admitted, and the reader can easily trace the progression of his character and leadership style from ambition and aggression, through to corporate governance, caution, sustainability, and stability. These are all elements that are essential for success in business and banking, and the book does a good job of making this evident to readers in practical terms. Over the course of my career, I have been lucky to experience work with the author and several other senior and junior people at Access Bank. On the strength of that experience, I can confirm that Leaving the Tarmac does an excellent job of revealing some of the factors that drive these enormously talented and hardworking people. But no single book can ever capture the full trajectory and experience of building any leading institution.

As with every autobiography, this one also leaves out more than it includes, and the picture we are left with is not a complete one. But it is an excellent screenshot nonetheless, and our understanding of Nigeria and its notoriously inscrutable business and financial community is much better off for this important contribution.

Long may it continue.

Fola Fagbule is the Senior Vice President and Head of Financial Advisory, Africa Finance Corporation and Co-Author: Formation, The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation.

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