By Ebenezer Onyeagwu – Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at Zenith Bank
Founded by Jim Ovia in 1990, Zenith Bank has grown enormously to become one of the leading financial institutions in Africa.
From its headquarters in Nigeria’s largest city of Lagos, the bank has distinguished itself in the financial services industry with its focus on superior service quality, unique customer experience and sound financial indices. It became the first Nigerian Bank to cross the N200 billion profitability mark with a profit after tax of N208.8 billion in its audited financial results for the 2019 financial year.
Consistent with the bank’s tradition and succession strategy of grooming leaders from within, Zenith appointed Ebenezer Onyeagwu as its managing director and CEO in June 2019, taking over from the departing Peter Amangbo. Onyeagwu joined Zenith back in 2002 and was named deputy managing director of the bank in 2016.
Here, Ethical Boardroom chats to Ebenezer Onyeagwu, managing director and CEO at Zenith Bank, about the importance of adapting to changes in the industry and evolving technologies.
Ethical Boardroom: You have been at the helm for less than eight months, following in the footsteps of Godwin Emefiele and Peter Amangbo. How are you going to continue the strong legacy and winning strategy of your predecessors?
Ebenezer Onyeagwu: It has been a wonderful opportunity and privilege leading Zenith Bank since June 2019. The bank has a rich history and solid foundation laid by our visionary and inspirational chairman and founder, Jim Ovia, which has continued to be a strong anchor and guidance in leading the team.
The Zenith brand is known for tenacity, resilience and deep strategic insights, and we intend to continue with these values. But, given that the operating environment is a very dynamic one, we are steadily building new capabilities to adapt to the changing environment and to take advantage of emerging opportunities and explore new growth frontiers. So, you see, our strategy is staying true to the values that have made us successful while cultivating dynamic competencies in adapting to changes in the industry and the operating environment.
EB: Transparency and good corporate governance are inextricably linked; would you say this is the case at Zenith Bank?
EO: It is definitely the case at Zenith Bank. Transparency is at the centre of our core objectives and relationship with our shareholders and other stakeholders.
We continue to make robust and detailed disclosures in our financial statements, which include the challenges in our operating environment and how they are being addressed. We understand that the banking business is built on trust, so we take extra care to ensure that the information we provide is factual.
EB: Jim Ovia, Zenith Bank’s chairman and founder, is a fintech visionary in Africa who believes that with an operational fintech system in place, there would be more inclusiveness. Please tell us about Zenith’s financial inclusion strategy and why it’s at the heart of business operations?
EO: Our chairman and founder is a firm believer in leveraging fintech to drive financial inclusion, a sentiment we strongly share. As a bank, we see the opportunities presented as a result of mobile telephony, improved internet access and ubiquity of smart devices in terms of helping us to reach the unbanked, who make up about 42 per cent of bankable adult Nigerians.
‘As a bank, we see the opportunities presented as a result of mobile telephony, improved internet access and ubiquity of smart devices in terms of helping us to reach the unbanked who make up about 42 per cent of bankable adult Nigerians’
As part of our financial inclusion efforts, we are leveraging a broad range of measures, including ‘no-frills’ savings accounts, unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) banking and agent banking. We are also making investments to boost financial literacy. Many of our efforts in this regard target primary and secondary schools in collaboration with the Central Bank of Nigeria. These initiatives are already yielding positive results for our retail banking drive.
EB: Gender board diversity is a very hot topic globally. What progressive steps has Zenith Bank taken to ensure that equality is at the forefront of its business?
EO: At Zenith Bank, we recognise the need to boost gender diversity by creating more opportunities for female participation in the workplace. As at year end 2019, women accounted for 49.80 per cent of our workforce while men accounted for 50.20 per cent.
We are making efforts to address the challenges encountered by women in their journey up the corporate ladder. We have continued to promote gender-diverse recruitment, equal pay, and gender-diverse management and executive committees within the bank while working towards a more gender-diverse board.
EB: Cybersecurity is the number one risk management issue for financial institutions globally, so what is Zenith doing to mitigate this risk?
EO: We recognise that cyberattacks pose a significant threat to the financial services industry globally. Within our enterprise risk management architecture, we have made provisions to mitigate this risk. We have taken measures in line with international best practices to prevent and protect against cyberattacks. We have deployed various security solutions to protect our IT infrastructure, networks and data.
In addition, the bank set up a 24/7 security operation centre to act as the first line of defence in threat identification and mitigation. We will continue to update the measures we have taken to stay ahead of this threat.
EB: Do you perceive the upcoming payment service banks as a threat or an opportunity?
EO: The Central Bank of Nigeria approved the establishment of payment service banks to provide financial services to individuals and small businesses in rural areas to boost financial inclusion. Will their activities deepen the competition in the retail space? Most likely. What I will say is this: we will compete and/or collaborate if that is what the situation demands.
EB: What are your expectations for the national and regional banking sectors in the short to medium term?
EO: The short to medium-term outlook for the national and regional banking industry appears optimistic. The market is still open for new entrants, particularly in the retail banking space, given that a significant portion of our adult population is still unbanked. Also, there are opportunities for mergers and acquisition, both at the national and regional levels. Disruptive technologies and the activities of fintech companies will continue to impact the entire industry in a significant way.
EB: How has Covid-19 impacted Zenith Bank?
EO: Like all institutions, we were impacted by the shutdown and restriction in movement. Nevertheless, we activated our robust business continuity plan, which meant that critical systems remained operational with our personnel working remotely from home.
We also enhanced the efficiency and effectiveness of our digital platforms, which enabled us to engage our customers, enhance service delivery, and provide our customers with the capability to carry on their banking transactions seamlessly.
EB: Do you think Covid-19 has accelerated the need for digital transformation?
EO: Absolutely. As private and public institutions implemented measures to reduce exposure to the virus, we have witnessed a preference for digital channels compared to traditional in-person channels. This is reflected in the increased roll out and adoption of remote work, telemedicine and virtual learning platforms.
Digital financial services and e-commerce also received a significant boost. Businesses now see the need to change their strategies to incorporate enhanced digital capability to remain relevant and competitive. There is no doubt that we are going to witness increased investment in Cloud services and digital infrastructure to support digital transformation that has been recorded.
EB: Finally, many congratulations on scooping an Ethical Boardroom Corporate Governance Award for 2020. What does it mean to Zenith Bank to be recognised as a regional governance champion?
EO: I am elated that Zenith Bank won the Ethical Boardroom Corporate Governance Award for the Africa region this year. The award speaks to the strong commitment and dedication of the bank to the principles of good corporate governance. It is what our board has always stood for, and we will continue to embrace it.