Ademola Adebise has over 30 years’ experience in the banking industry (inclusive of four years in management consulting) and has worked in various capacities including in Information Technology, Financial Control and Strategic Planning, before rising to the CEO position at Wema bank. As he leaves this role, he shares insights into what helped him succeed and the future of the bank with BusinessDay’s Folake Balogun.
You have a background in computer technology, how did you find yourself in Mainstream Banking?
During my undergraduate degree, I had friends and roommates in the social sciences who were convinced that they would become CEOs. They believed students in the sciences and IT track would have restricted careers limited to positions such as Chief Technology Officer, Chief Information Officer, or Head of IT. Whilst in university, we had industry experts speak to us which is where I met an individual who worked at Guinness as Head of Accounts and IT. He was a Chartered Accountant who studied Computer Science. Intrigued, I decided to start the ICAN program.
Once I qualified as a chartered accountant, I requested a position that allowed duties beyond technology. I had the opportunity of joining the financial control function where I went on to become the Financial Controller. After that, I moved into several other roles including electronic business, commercial banking, corporate banking, risk management, and treasury.
Can you share some fond memories of your early days in banking and the qualities that helped you excel in banking?
The important thing to know is that leadership cannot be forced, it has to be earned by mutual respect. One should also learn to accept people the way they are, understanding the reality of differences in intellect and temperaments. You should be able to encourage and mobilize people to achieve set objectives. Leadership is about showing empathy, encouraging people, and being a good mentor. From there, people would naturally follow.
Hard work and a steady quest for knowledge is also an important quality for excelling in banking and leadership. There will always be a more efficient or more sustainable solution for achieving objectives and customer satisfaction. Be dogged in your pursuit of those solutions.
How would you describe Nigeria’s banking and financial services sector in the last decade, in terms of growth and prevailing realities?
In the last decade, there have been substantial changes in the banking and financial services industry in Nigeria. To guarantee financial stability and safeguard customers, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has tightened regulations and enhanced oversight of the industry. They have put in place a variety of measures to promote financial inclusion and access to financial services, particularly in underserved and rural areas.
Nigeria has a rapidly growing fintech sector that is home to many innovative fintech companies making significant impacts. There has been a great deal of investment, signaling the possibility of continued growth in the sector. Nigeria has also witnessed a rise in the number of microfinance banks and other organisations that offer financial services to individuals and SMEs. Overall, Nigeria’s banking and financial services industry has advanced and modernised over the past ten years. Nevertheless, some issues still need to be resolved.
You led several exciting initiatives that were not only milestones for the Bank, but also for the entire industry, what are some of the most remarkable achievements for you and why?
I must commend the leadership team before my tenure led by Segun Oloketuyi, that laid a solid foundation that fully supported the growth of the bank. During my tenure, Wema Bank shares outperformed competitor banks in relative terms, achieving triple its balance sheet size.
We paid dividends to our shareholders continuously for four years following a decade-long hiatus. We were also among the first institutions to sign up for the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative – UNEP-FI, a symbol of our strong commitment to sustainable financial services.
In the areas of service, we achieved remarkable milestones including topping the maiden edition of the KPMG Digital Channels Scorecard in 2020 and being a joint-first in the KPMG Banking Industry Customer Service Survey ranking.
Furthermore, we focused on supporting start-ups in developing technology solutions that address societal needs through our annual hackathon event – Hackaholics. Some of our previous participants have gone on to participate in Y-Combinator, arguably the foremost start-up accelerator globally.
I was a part of the leadership team that launched ALAT which has grown to become a foremost digital financial services platform in Nigeria with over 1.3m users and led the bank to sign Davido, one of Nigeria’s greatest musical exports, as our brand ambassador. This audacious campaign led to the opening of over 700,000 accounts in about a week – a record-setting feat.
As the oldest indigenous bank in Nigeria, Wema Bank is now the leading collection bank for state and government agencies. What did you inspire the team to do differently?
The foundations for this are technology and service. Through our best-in-class digital platforms, we have been able to create solutions that meet both the needs of governments/agencies and their customers/end-user delivering value across the value chain. Also, as Nigeria’s oldest indigenous bank, we have carefully built a reputation of trust and resilience for nearly eight decades.
Looking back at your time in the last 10 years, what are some of the hardest decisions you have had to take as a leader and what impact did they have on your career?
The hardest decisions have always been those that have to do with people. As a leader, I’ve had to take decisions that impacted my employees. Though these decisions were taken after careful consideration and sometimes following extensive consultation, it was still difficult knowing that they would affect people, their livelihoods, and their families. Hiring, promoting, not promoting, and firing, are all very difficult decisions but they must be done in the interest of the organization.
These tough decisions helped me grow as a leader because making difficult decisions is a major part of what leadership is all about.
How would you describe the role of innovation in the advancement of the African banking and financial services ecosystem?
The development of the African banking and financial services ecosystem is largely driven by innovation. It can also serve to promote economic growth and development on the continent by enhancing the effectiveness, usability, and security of financial services.
Mobile banking and digital payment systems are two examples of how innovation has acted as a catalyst in the African banking and financial services ecosystem. These technologies have improved financial inclusion in Nigeria by making financial services more accessible, especially in rural or underserved areas.
New financial technologies that cater to the demands of African consumers and enterprises have also benefited from innovation. For instance, a variety of cutting-edge microfinance and peer-to-peer lending platforms are now assisting in giving underprivileged groups access to credit.
In the coming decade, what are some of the innovations that you think will shape the industry as growth drivers?
I believe that several innovations have the potential to influence how the banking sector develops in Nigeria over the next ten years. While things like the Internet of things, Microservices, and Big Data will be major drivers, I also think some of the growth drivers could include:
Artificial intelligence: The adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the banking sector may help to improve risk management, decrease operating costs, and improve customer service.
Digital banking: The use of digital banking is projected to rise as more individuals in Nigeria acquire access to smartphones and the internet.
Strategic Financial inclusion: In Nigeria, a sizable segment of the populace is still unbanked or receives insufficient service from conventional financial institutions. The adoption of technologies like digital payment systems and mobile banking could contribute to a greater level of financial inclusion in the nation.
Blockchain: The use of blockchain technology may make financial transactions in Nigeria more transparent and efficient while also lowering the likelihood of fraud.
Cybersecurity: Cybersecurity will be a major worry for banks in Nigeria as digital banking becomes more widespread. Adopting modern security methods like multifactor authentication and biometric authentication could aid in defending against online threats.
What would your advice be for upcoming and young banking professionals who intend to climb the career ladder as far as you did?
Firstly, I would advise them to get a very good mentor. That has helped shape my career and personal life. As a young officer, I was fortunate to work with the then Managing Director of Chartered Bank who became a great mentor throughout my career at the bank. Till today, I go to him for advice whenever I want to take major decisions.
Secondly, hold tightly to your values. Banking is a business of trust. While we get the opportunity to handle and create so much wealth, we must not get sucked into the deception of cutting corners or committing crimes. It goes without saying but work hard and stay focused. Have a clear focus on what you want to do and pursue your passion.
Also, be patient with yourself, be grounded, and run your own race. This is very difficult in this day and age of instant gratification. It is important though for sustainable progress as your career is not a sprint but a marathon. You are your competition so strive to disrupt yourself and push yourself to always do better than your last achievement.