Published On: Tue, Sep 29th, 2015

Nnamdi Okonkwo, Fidelity Bank’s helmsman steps out of the shadows…

Banks are rolling out strategies to remain in business following tight regulation and declining revenues.
Fidelity Bank is rebranding to reposition itself in addition to evolving far reaching measures to beat competition, even when there are strong fears that profit margins may snap at the end of 2015. Speaking to Richard Mammah and Okey Onyenweaku in this interview; Nnamdi Okonkwo, Managing Director of Fidelity Bank, admits that though the times are tough for the banks, the lender is galvanizing efforts to stay ahead of competition.


Why is Fidelity Bank rebranding now?
In the life of any organisation, there comes a time when you ask yourself questions. The environment is consistently changing. So, you ask yourself whether the brand, what I’m known as, what I present, has it kept up with the speed of developments or changes. So you need to re-invent your brand occasionally to keep in touch with the times. For us, we looked at the Fidelity Bank brand that is respected, very professional, not unnecessarily loud, which is what banking profession dictates and decided to reinvigorate it.
However, in Nigeria today about 42 million or so of our population is made up of youths. What appeals to those people is not what appeals to those in their fifties and above. So your brand has to correspond with preferences and the times to appeal to this generation. But in doing that, we also chose not to forget where we are coming from. So our new brand’s external manifestation is a mixture of both the old and the new. Having done that, we did not just rebrand because rebranding is not just change of colour or your name, logo or change of whatever externalities.
What does it constitute?
First of all you have to start internally. When I became CEO two years ago, I told the board that we needed to rebrand the bank. But you don’t do rebranding, and if I walk into a bank the experience and services have not changed, my information technology is not strong enough to deliver what today wants, so we had to start with the people, cultural reorientation and service excellence because the bank has a vision to be number one in every market we serve, number one in every product we offer.
Is that not a tall ambition?
Yes, that is very tall and that is why you have to create a tall ambition so you are constantly pushing yourself to get there. To actually bring home the import of that in respect of branding you can’t want to be the number one in every branded product you offer and not be ready for that. For example, if I want to be number one in the youth market and the brand appeal as it was will not get me there, my e-banking channels must be ready because the youths do not have time to go to the banks. They leave on the internet and my electronic banking and IT offerings must speak to them, my activities on the social media must show that Fidelity Bank is social media ready; we must be e-banking ready. Those are the things we spent the last one and half years doing internally. Though it never ends, we are currently upgrading our core banking application, Finacle from 7.1 to 10.1.
A team of 50 people just came back from India, where they spent three months training for the new software. All of these we did so that when you say this is a new face of Fidelity you want to come into the banking hall and see that your transactions are easier. You want to see that the customer service experience is better than what it used to be. Once we finished with that then we proceeded to the external branding. You know that to actually rebrand the bank there should be cultural orientation which even extended to such soft issues as our dressing code. We had to even review that, so that your staffers are dressing to fit the dictates while still remaining professional with the banking career dictates.
This is basically why we are rebranding; moreover, you have to have a futuristic ambition. We are looking at inclusive strategy. For instance, our private banking is very strong for such people in the sixties and eighties, if we leave those people they will not even allow you to touch anything. They like the bank the way it is.
Now that you are a change agent, the lesson of history tells us that it is not an easy task to carry out changes internally…
Well, this is not the first time I will be involved in a rebrand. When my former employer acquired a company I was involved in the rebranding. When I was sent to Ghana as CEO we did a rebrand. Human beings just do not like change.
What is responsible for that?
It is human nature and probably fears of the unknown. People get comfortable with the status quo and anything that will shift them from it they might see it as negative. For example, when we did that rebranding in my previous employment we had a very top and respected person in this country who wrote and said, ‘I’m actually not happy that in this merger you are dropping the name of this bank and taking the other one, it should be the other way round’.
Our argument then was that this other bank was 60 years old and we were just about 9 years at the time. This older name connects with people over the years and it is synonymous with savings, so you don’t just come and dump such name for a new one. So people will always resist change. I walked into a pharmacy the other day and the reaction had been all over oh! This colour is good, it is refreshing, it is inviting, oh! We have a different view of Fidelity now. Now this tells us you guys are futuristic in thinking.
Oh, now I can now associate myself with you and open account with the bank. You cannot believe how many persons that have called me to commend or comment on the rebranding. But to the contrary, I have a customer in Port Harcourt who called and asked ‘why did you tamper with that logo ‘F’? You should not have tampered with it’. Meanwhile, a majority, that is, about nine persons out of 10 have said they love the green because it is no longer dull but refreshing.
Human beings will naturally react that way but I’m actually amazed at the level of feedback and goodwill the rebranding is bringing to the bank because that external manifestation is also telling them that something good is going on positively internally. That has been our experience.
How has the staff received the rebranding exercise?
Thank you for that question. That is exactly what I was telling you. I wanted to say that what you are seeing now is the external one. Before we got to this stage we had done trainings, reorientation, cultural change trainings and preparing people for the rebrand. In fact, you will be amazed at the level of excitement among our staff because they actually feel suddenly wow! This is a source of fresh air. From Sokoto to Port Harcourt and all our branches we have had trainings and even explained what the logo means and why we need to rebrand. So it is not just that they are hearing, but they are actually feeling it given the amendment in our dress code to make you feel there is something fresh. Now for instance, we dress down on Fridays which was not there before. These are trendy ways and measures we are taking to make sure that staff are in tune with the processes.
Is what you have said part of the reasons why you think I should change my bank to Fidelity Bank?
Seriously speaking, branding does not give you service, but it tells you that something has changed. Your service experience re-enforces the brand manifestations. So if your bank is not treating you well and you walk into the rebranded Fidelity Bank and the service experience is better than what your bank offers naturally you want to gravitate towards where your needs are being met. Our rebranding is not to make people leave their banks and come to us.
What is important is that we offer value to customers in such a way that they have a reason to come to us. If your bank today is not supporting SMEs, Fidelity is known for supporting SMEs. If you are an entrepreneur looking for the bank to come, even if we are not rebranding, you will naturally come to me. It is about offering value. If my bank does not offer strong corporate banking product, I don’t think that you will leave your bank to come to me. It is about value creation and value addition to what you do as a customer.
I am looking at spread, space and the way forward. Is your expansion tilted toward expanding your market share?
Market share expansion is part of our immediate and medium term strategies. You don’t take them in isolation. We have strategies to grow retails, for example, in the last one year we have added four hundred and seventy-one thousand retail customers. They did not come to us because we have rebranded, they came to us because our retail offering has expanded and refreshed.
How did you achieve such an exponential growth?
We achieved this by just offering the right retail product. For example, just last week about three people approached me, funny enough these people don’t even bank with us. They told me that they are finding it difficult to pay school fees of their children. I examined the companies that they are working for, and I discovered that they are reputable companies that meet our criteria. I told them that all they needed to do was to present their pay slips over the past six months and we promised them that we will pay the school fees for their kids. We gave them and then they opened their salary account with us. Remember after six months their salaries will still be coming to me, even after paying off the debt. Definitely, if that individual earns N100 he is not going to spend the whole amount in his deposit. He would probably spend less than that and save the rest. That means that my savings account will continue to grow. That means if I do this for about ten thousand customers and five thousand people hear about this people, that is fifteen new customers.
Did you have a product that services these markets or is it spontaneous?
We have an array of products, we have salary advance and bridge financing product, like school product for undergraduates and graduates and consumer loan products. If any young graduate gets a job with a reputable company, operates a salary account with Fidelity Bank, we have to get such an individual his first car. These are the retail products that attract young people to us. These are not long term loans, these are pre-qualified products. So every account officer that handles your account just looks at the boxes in order to know to what extent you have met all the various criteria.
You don’t need to go through chains of approvals. Certain levels of officers would just sign off and you get your disbursement, so long as you have met the criteria and done what is expected of you. And we support it with promos, last time we promoted ‘Save for Scholarship Promo’ for six months, where we realized that parents don’t save or it takes them unawares to pay school fees during new school years. We ran a promo for people to save as low as N20,000 with us where you will not only get good interest rate but also will qualify you for a draw either to win scholarship for our kids or to win school fees subsidy. It was a hugely successful promo. That has helped our savings balances grow and added quite huge numbers of retail customers. Right now, we have started ‘Save for Shelter’.
These are value addition to a product. We grow our retail customers by offering what is important to people. We promised them that if you have an account with us, you stand a chance to win a house in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. So it is your money you are saving anyway, but we know that the housing deficit in the country is quite huge so tell me who would not want to own a house through saving money in a bank. There are other prizes besides winning a house some of which include winning a land and other exciting offers.
So rebranding will not bring that kind of growth but value addition would. What rebranding does is to demonstrate who you are and where you are going to for people to easily connect with you before finding out what you have to offer.
We expect that the rebranding will call more attention and we want people to see that it is a new dawn in the bank and that we are doing things better. We are expecting goodwill outcome from that.
There seems to be too much emphasis on consumer products in relation to real sector financing that would give stronger push to the economy?
If there is no demand, there won’t be supply. We create consumer products because there is consumer demand. Having said that, how sustainable is the consumer products, what is the growth in the purchasing power of an average consumer? That would now take us to the sustainability of the practices.
If you have factories producing noodles here, imagine if we have the volumes of noodles that Nigerians consume today that we produce locally being imported into the country. That means that all those factories producing in Ikorodu and Ota will not be there.
There won’t be employment, you are right in saying we should support consumers, beyond this we support industries.
The canning factory and other biscuit factories that we have supported some years ago are doing well. There is shared joy in seeing young Nigerians packing biscuit and being gainfully employed. This has affected the various communities where these factories are located positively.
Ordinarily, if these jobs are not there, these children could have been harassing you and I on the streets. You cannot under play the importance of having productive base in the real sector and that is why we all support that a lot more financing should go to the real sector.
In terms of infrastructure provision, Fidelity Bank is one of the banks that deal with people who are into SMEs, including packaged waters, bakery products, fast foods and all sorts of things.
But then infrastructural challenges frustrate SMEs and that is why Bank of Industry (BoI) and development financing of CBN developed various activities and programmes to support the real sector. But until the basic infrastructure of roads and power are addressed, those companies would continue to have issues.
Apparently, the new government has shown more commitment and focus to making sure that we get power to work. If we get this right a lot more consumers would have more disposable incomes if they are gainfully employed.
So they are inter-twinned, banks don’t just wake up and sponsor real sectors, a whole lot of things come up. How is our credit rating system, how do I lend to people without collateral if I cannot confirm that you are Mr X, if there is only one person with a particular number.
With what CBN has done with BVN, very soon your thumb print would say who you are and no one can defraud different banks by owing all of them as his BVN registration would easily detect whether he is a debtor or not.
These are some of the advances that would make it difficult for serial debtors to get loan facilities. With this development, banks now have the obligations to lend to genuine business men and women that would develop the real sector.
To be concise, we not only support SMEs, we also have commitment toward the real sector development.

Bank chiefs are part of the Bankers’ Committee and with the various reviews and projections in monetary sector, looking at the United States Federal Reserves in terms of the strong roles of banks in giving impetus, in terms of growth objectives of nations in relation to Nigeria’s growth rate and projections, what would you say is an ideal rate given our demands, our practical demands and population issues?
If your perception of growth rate is about the Gross Domestic Products, then it means we are comparing apples and oranges. We have a peculiar situation in Africa that implies that growth rate is higher than what they have in Europe and America. For example, no country can grow without a financial services sector, but if you are talking about credit growth in Nigeria, with reference to the CBN website, in the last two to three decades, you will see huge jump, especially since the banking sector recapitalization. What we needed to have is a strong and sound financial system that has the muscle to finance transaction, which was been achieved by former CBN boss, Charles Soludo, and that is why banks can now support bigger transactions. Nigerian banks recently funded some of the divestments of Shell. In the past, we would have required foreign financing to do this. Year-on-year, our growth in terms of credit growth to the various sectors of the economy has been growing as the bank financial base grows.
Some of these growths are limited to the oil and gas sector and power which are not labour intensive sectors. Is that not a problem to the other sectors of the economy?
Telecom is one of the fastest growing sectors of this economy. It has contributed to the economy as a huge employer of labour and value chain partners, through distributorship on account of monies made through it. Even though oil and gas is our number 1 income earner, but in our GDP the number one contributor is agriculture. So why is everybody in Lagos? I think I have an idea. People move to the urban area because the local infrastructures have not been developed enough. In my village, two federal and state governments’ roads were fixed and this has opened up the economy in this community.
Many businesses have sprung up in this community and this has made people in my community richer than some people that are struggling in Lagos. Imagine if you have a palm plantation with palm kernel processing facilities. Those guys would not come to town and the urban cities would be less congested. These employments can be found in the rural economy. If you see a state with good network of roads, apparently there will be noticeable growth in that state. This is just about roads and not electricity, you can then imagine if the local governments are responsible to their roles in education and construction of roads. The economy cannot be taken in isolation to the financial services sector, remember banks are reflections of what happens in an economy.
What about the double digit interest rate that some institutions are charging which is too high for entrepreneurs to borrow. You buy at completely knocked down rates and sell at a premium?
That is not true. Banks do not produce interest rates. We buy and sell money. If I have one million naira, and you want to borrow at nine percent, get me deposit at 2 percent. With one million naira, I have only N690,000 as a bank to trade with. The cash reserve ratio will take N31,000. If I have paid the deposit for N100 and can only use N69, that cost would have increased. I will still pay NDIC premium on the deposit, pay for diesel and staff salaries would have to be taken care of all from that money. Since I buy money from taking deposit, I have to ensure that I take care of my overhead cost. By the time all of that is handled you would find out that I cannot lend at single digit with the rate of deposit.
Don’t you think that your profits are too high; we think it is wrong to charge 23 percent and 24 percent as interest rate, which kills productivity?
We don’t manufacture rates, remember there is competition. If all of those things you are saying are possible I would rather compete on price. Since others are lending at a particular rate then I can also adjust my rate to attract more customers by lending more. It is simple mathematics. If I can lend at 18 percent and make one percent ten million people would come to me and I can make more profit than my competitor that lends at 24 percent with lesser customers making profit of 2 percent. My own case would be better off.
Why do some blue-chip companies insist on the interest rate they would want to borrow on?
This could be true, because they offer what most customers don’t have. If I lend money to a brewery, it gives me access to all their distributors across the country. I, therefore, will collect sales on behalf of the company. The brewer had already established letter of credit to import its goods. The money would be coming in zero cost to the bank and I can trade with that money. Later during LC, I will earn LC commission, transfer charges and when they produce, I will use my electronic channels to make payments to vendors by making little monies so that they don’t make draft and all that. That is why I lend to them at 15 percent, as I can sacrifice about 9 percent interest to making huge money through ancillary businesses to cover the costs. Banks don’t discriminate, as we get paid through the value chain fallout of banking multinational giants or large corporates. If total sales of N10 billion of distributors are moved through my account, remember all of them will not take their money in one day, I will have some balances at zero cost.
How has the tight monetary policy of CBN affected the banking sector?
First of all, the CBN is considerate in its policies. It has a role to stabilize the currency and to ensure price stability. In a situation where revenue has dropped by 60 percent and we keep importing all sorts of things including things we can produce here, what do you expect? The CBN has responsibility to stem further slide of the naira that is why they published 41 items that are excluded from official foreign exchange. The CBN would rather encourage importation of the essentials than certain things that have substitutes here. Seriously, with the monetary tightening, banks are greatly feeling it, but we do understand that the economy needs to be stabilized. This is a cycle that would come and go and it is a tight operating environment.
How will the single account of the government affect the banks?
It is another big blow; this is because the huge volumes of deposit the banks would lose to the CBN will increase the challenges. Of course, when supply drops prices go up.
What are your expectations for the industry this year?
It is already a turbulent second half for the banking sector in the country. The fourth quarter would be tougher and rougher than the first three quarters, definitely our earnings would suffer.
How are you brazing up for this challenge?
Well, traditionally, Fidelity Bank has always been a well-capitalized and liquid bank that is why as far back as a year ago, we had increased our retail clients to make sure that we build up enough low cost deposit to help us ensure that liquidity is not a problem. If you are heavily concentrated in public deposit, regulations pronouncements like this could shake a bank.
Presently, our balance sheet is fairly distributed that we may not feel the pains too much. Of course, it has affected us but not to the extent of worrying about liquidity.
Are you comfortable with an expansionary fiscal policy?
I don’t want to comment on this because MPC will be meeting soon. The voting pattern of MPC would decide this.
How does it feel to run a bank in difficult times?
Economically, we are not in recession, this is my 25th year of operating within the banking sector. When in 1990 the Federal Government moved funds of parastatals out of the system and after that there had been turbulent moments in 2007/8.
Over the years, we have been able to build up our balance sheet strongly to ensure that we have sufficient capacity to cushion the shocks that may likely arise in future.
What is it about your bank and you? Are you an ambitious individual?
In Fidelity, we are not offering anything special. It is not about me, it is about the strategic moves of my teams to craft strategy, visions and goals to make the institution stronger.
It is about making strong corporate projections on corporate strategies and policies.
We have agreed on the line of businesses to focus on including other important performance management systems so that we can accurately measure who is contributing what. We also dispassionately make strong decisions when we notice that people are not fitting into the policies. Really, it is not about me as a person, but it is about a group of people having a common understanding of how we want things to be done. All I do is to provide leadership and vision. If I came here without a vision as to how I want to lead a bank, we probably will be in confusion. I have a clear vision which I have properly communicated to the team. All I do is to manage my colleagues and expect them too to manage me as I would not like to take all the credit. As a bigger dreamer you need the strength of a team to thrive. You need interpersonal skills to be able to work with your colleagues to achieve such goals.

In your own way how much of these visions have been institutionalized to say you want to make future projections. Ten years from now where would your bank be?
Thank you for that question. I give you an example, I have a loan approval limit as CEO, can you believe that I cannot sign a loan and it would be disbursed. The executive director, risk, must agree with me or we don’t disburse that loan, despite the level of my authority. Some analysis must happen through the chains up to me. We have also built strong governance structures and that is what would make the institutions outlive us. Our governance practice is not just internally, we work with KPMG, a respected consultant that actually reviews our governance practices so that we are building a strong institution beyond the present occupant of the bank.
I can’t for instance recruit a general manager, just because I am the bank MD. I have authority to recruit people up to senior managers’ level but anything above that I need my board governance committee. This is just to ensure that the institution continues whether you are there or not. But even at that, I can’t just go to the street to recruit indiscriminately. The human resources manager must do a thorough check on the individual to ensure that the right person is recruited before I can make an input. The institution is built in a way that it would outlive the person that introduces the reform. Reforms are instituted within the corporate governance framework. There is also a regulatory framework that also ensures adherence to good corporate governance.

Some people have the perception that historically Fidelity caters to its clientele on regional basis. Kindly clarify this assumption?
We often laugh whenever we are associated with a particular ethnic region of the country. You will be surprised to know how strong we are in the Northern part of the country. The Northern clients’ deposits are more than the clients’ deposits from the Eastern part of the country. Remember that Fidelity Bank is made up of FSB International, Manny Bank and Fidelity. We have gone way beyond being associated with a particular region of the country, while there is nothing wrong in being associated with a region, if we are associated as the bank for the North, we want to be the best bank for the North, East and in the South/South and South/West. But fortunately for us we are spread across the 36 states in the country. In terms of numbers by deposit distributions, you will notice that we are evenly spread across all the regions. It is just a perception. This is a game where branding and marketing communications play significant roles. Going forward, there are so many things to show how nationalistic we have become over the years. We are not a regional bank because we have international banking licence.

Fidelity Bank has produced two governors, are we expecting to have more?
(Laughs). We are not in the business of producing governors; we are in the business of banking.
Notwithstanding, it is to the credit of Fidelity Bank that two respected individuals, who have passed through our institution, governed Anambra State. If we produce 19 or 36 governors from Fidelity Bank why not. I guess it is about the opportunity. It just tells you that if the citizens of a state find Fidelity Bank staff worthy to lead them as governors, such a gesture is something positive for us as it would spur those working within the system to do their jobs while still in the system well, so that people would also look up to them to play other important roles in the society beyond banking.

Hypothetically, in view of the constraints within the monetary management without the fiscal implication, what fiscal thought should we be considering in terms of plugging the loopholes and taking the economy forward?
I don’t want to start commenting now because President Buhari would soon announce his cabinet. I don’t want to act as an arm chair analyst to start commenting on issues. When the government unveils its economic blueprint, we shall make adequate comments.

Despite the turbulence in the banking industry, what are your expectations in the industry in the short term?
In the short term, the banking industry is fairly strong, we will go through some tough points but I don’t expect it to be in the magnitude of what we witnessed last time that resulted in the collapse of certain banks. What is important is the discipline to manage this economic turbulence, occasioned by the drop in oil prices. Once the various organs of government have their eyes on the ball and cooperate to manage the economic turbulence, the banks should be able to weather the storms. For Fidelity Bank, we shall continue to drive our growth aspirations. In the medium term, in terms of organic growth, we are looking at joining tier 1, between 3 and 5 years. We thought we would have done that when we acquired the two banks, which did not pan out. So if we keep growing and increasing the rate of growth, we should be able to make tier 1 banking soonest.

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