Nigeria: Obituary - Herbert Wigwe, the Visionary Who Co-Built Nigeria's Biggest Lender

The late Herbert Wigwe, Access Bank CEO (file photo).
11 February 2024

At GTB, he allied with long-time friend and business partner Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, also an executive director at the bank at that time, both of whom together made a bid to buy fledgling Access Bank in 2002.

Herbert Onyewumbu Wigwe, the chief executive of Access Holdings Plc who died aged 57 following a chopper crash Saturday in California, helped transform an obscure bank into the country's biggest lender.

From being the 65th largest bank in Nigeria at the point he and his partner bought it in 2002, the bank is now worth N21.4 trillion in assets as of last September.

His death, which happened alongside those of his wife and son, is more than distressing to corporate Nigeria, a big blow particularly to Access Holdings, which only less than two months ago lost its chairman, Bababode Osunkoya, after "a brief illness."

He was born in Ibadan in August 1966 to a civil servant father, who once led the state-owned Nigerian Television Authority, and a mother, who was a nurse. He hailed from Isiokpo, Ikwerre Local Government Area of Rivers State.

Mr Wigwe graduated from the University of Nigeria Nsukka with a second-class upper degree in Accounting in 1987. He started as a graduate assistant at Coopers and Lybrand Associates Limited, becoming a chartered accountant in 1989.

In 1991, he completed a Master's in Banking and Finance at North Wales University (now Bangor University) in the United Kingdom. He would later earn a Master of Science degree in Financial Economics from the University of London and become an alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Management Programme.

He had a remarkable career at Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), where he became an executive director at just 32.

At GTB, he allied with long-time friend and business partner Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, also an executive director at the bank at that time, both of whom made a bid to buy fledgling Access Bank in 2002.

"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 ten years of senior management banking experience at GTB," Mr Aig-Imoukhuede said in his book, Leaving the Tarmac: Buying a Bank in Africa.

"As it was, I had until 2015 to continue growing the bank and prepare for a smooth transition to Herbert."

At 36, both men were deemed too young to acquire a bank by officials of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr Aig-Imoukhuede added, noting that the central bank delayed the approval of the takeover on that ground.

When Mr Wigwe took over from him in 2015, having served as the deputy managing director since the acquisition, Access Bank's total assets were N2.6 trillion. He would help grow that by 723 per cent in less than nine years.

He spearheaded the bank's merger with Diamond Bank in 2019, a business combination which created Africa's largest bank by customer base with over 42 million customers at the time.

Under his stewardship, the bank transitioned into a holding company in 2022, enabling it to diversify into financial services like payments, pensions and asset management.

Mr Wigwe led Access Holdings through several mergers & acquisitions outside Nigeria including acquisitions of banks in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Angola.

Among the deals in the pipeline before his demise were the takeover of Uganda's Finance Trust Bank Limited, and Standard Chartered's banking businesses in Cameroon, the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

The group got the CBN's approval in principle this January for a consumer lending division called Oxygen X Finance Company Limited and previously acquired Megatech Insurance Brokers Limited, Sigma Pensions Limited and First Guarantee Pension Limited.

According to Bloomberg, Mr Wigwe had invested half a billion dollars in building a university in Isiokpo, Rivers State, focusing on management, science and engineering, IT and creative arts and due for commissioning this year.

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