Home Banking Zenith Bank’s Changing of the Guard Accentuates CEO Onyeagwu’s Legacy

Zenith Bank’s Changing of the Guard Accentuates CEO Onyeagwu’s Legacy

by internationalbanker

By John Manning, International Banker


As Nigeria’s undisputed digital and sustainable banking powerhouse, Zenith Bank has arguably never been in ruder health than it is today. Its unbridled success cannot be more clearly demonstrated than by the Lagos-based lender’s most recent audited financial results for 2023, which registered stellar growth across virtually all major metrics, including gross earnings increasing by 125 percent to NGN2.132 trillion (around US$1.67 billion), profit before tax rising by 180 percent to NGN796 billion and the group’s customer deposit base soaring by 69 percent to NGN15.2 trillion.

This remarkable performance can be primarily explained by the surges in both interest income and non-interest income during the 12 months—the former by 112 percent and the latter by a mammoth 141 percent—driven mostly by gains in the sizes of risk assets and revaluations of foreign currencies, respectively. But it is also just as much a testament to the exceptional leadership and management skills of hugely successful outgoing Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr. Ebenezer Onyeagwu, who, during the challenging operating environment over the last few years, guided Zenith Bank to perhaps the strongest position it has commanded during its 34-year history.

When asked about the single most significant accomplishment achieved under his successful leadership, Dr. Onyeagwu cited implementing the bank’s digital and retail transformation strategy.
“The past five years at the helm of affairs at Zenith Bank have been an incredible journey, filled with both immense satisfaction and various challenges that pushed us to new heights,” Dr. Onyeagwu said, reflecting on his time in charge, which will end on May 31, and hailing the progress made as he leaves the bank in arguably its strongest-ever position. When asked about the single most significant accomplishment achieved under his successful leadership, Dr. Onyeagwu cited implementing the bank’s digital-transformation strategy, through which cutting-edge technologies were openly embraced to make banking more accessible and convenient for customers. The transformation has also done much to streamline operations and open doors to new segments of the Nigerian market, he added.

Initiatives such as SME Grow My Business (SME-GMB) demonstrate this innovative spirit—particularly SME-GMB’s Google Business Profile (GBP) service (formerly known as Google My Business), for which Zenith Bank partnered with Google to help the bank’s SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) clients gain exposure to the digital world through free Google listings. With small businesses needing to boost their visibility across the market to spur the desired demand for their goods and services and track customer engagement, GBP’s platform has proven extremely fruitful by combatting challenges around visibility, demand creation and measurable customer interaction, especially by leveraging such crucial applications as Google Maps and Google Search.

GBP also allows businesses to share information, secure reviews and provide location directions, contact phone numbers and email addresses for ease of reach. And it offers subscribers analytics from the businesses, giving owners insights into their businesses’ performances and how they can successfully build digital assets, as well as providing frequent training assistance on optimising the benefits accruable from the platform.

Of course, GBP represents only one of Zenith Bank’s innovative, digitally minded solutions that are positioning it today among Nigeria’s elite digital-banking lenders. Indeed, with artificial intelligence (AI) proving a hugely disruptive influence on the global banking sector in 2024, it should come as no surprise that Zenith is also rolling out several innovative AI solutions that are being met with considerable customer satisfaction. For instance, the bank currently leverages this technology through its AI-powered chatbot, ZIVA (Zenith Intelligent Virtual Assistant). Offering banking services on WhatsApp and other social-media platforms, ZIVA provides transactional services such as bill payments, fund transfers, account openings, balance checks and dispute logs.

ZIVA thus enables an increasingly reliable, convenient and personal environment for customers to perform basic banking transactions on their mobile devices. It also significantly raises the quality of service that Zenith Bank can offer via its social-media channels. With AI set to undergo even deeper integration into the banking sector as the technology evolves, Zenith seeks to further leverage this smart technology across key operational areas, including fraud detection, risk management, product development and data-driven decisions.

Such rapid technological progress thus requires Zenith’s staff to be equipped with the necessary skills to capably represent the bank at the forefront of this digital revolution. The bank places employee training amongst its highest priorities, ensuring staff remain fully abreast of the latest digitalisation trends. With cybercrime a particularly significant consequence of the rapidly changing digital-banking environment, for example, a major chunk of Zenith’s response to this serious threat has been to leverage digital learning solutions to deploy information, as well as cybersecurity and micro-learning interventions to upskill the bank’s employees efficiently.

Zenith’s learning ecosystem is largely characterised by a multi-layered evaluation process that aims to ascertain learning impacts, as evidenced by changes in behaviour and effective performance. Training resources are also continuously monitored and updated to ensure that employees are equipped to navigate the evolving and turbulent financial-industry landscape ahead of the competition, while the bank relies on feedback to gauge and address gaps in training initiatives.

It is against this backdrop of a highly skilled workforce at an elite-performing financial institution that Dr. Onyeagwu will step aside as Zenith Bank’s Group Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer and commence the mandatory regulatory cooling-off period.
It is against this backdrop of a highly skilled workforce at an elite-performing financial institution that Dr. Onyeagwu will step aside as Zenith Bank’s group managing director and chief executive officer (GMD/CEO) to commence the mandatory regulatory cooling-off period. His successor, Dame (Dr.) Adaora Umeoji, will take over on June 1—a landmark appointment and a key milestone for gender diversity, installing the first female CEO since the bank’s inception.

To discuss key aspects of this hugely significant changing of the guard and Zenith’s phenomenal success in recent times, Dr. Onyeagwu recently joined International Banker for an in-depth question-and-answer session….

Dr. Ebenezer Onyeagwu, Chief Executive Officer, Zenith Bank

Looking back on the bank’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, would you say you are satisfied with how you handled this unprecedented challenge as chief executive? And what are some of the key lessons you learned as a banking leader during this turbulent period?

The COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria disrupted the global business and financial landscape, forcing banks to temporarily close branches and offer skeletal services. As a dynamic brand, rapidly tackling and responding to this disruption effectively was a major priority for us. We responded by improving our remote-work capacity, activating a business-continuity plan and enhancing digital channels and payment platforms to handle the increased volume of electronic transactions during the lockdown period. We also granted moratoriums on loan repayments, restructured some for longer tenures and made available single-digit CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria)-backed loans to qualifying customers.

No doubt, we adopted a resilient approach in response to the changes brought about by the pandemic, showing us that to remain relevant as a business, we must be dynamic and ever-ready to respond to the variations in the market.

From an economic perspective, Nigeria has done well to recover from those turbulent years, with its gross domestic product (GDP) in the fourth quarter of 2023 surging to 3.46 percent year-on-year and also growing by 2.54 percent from the third quarter—well above analysts’ expectations. Do you see the economy continuing to expand at such an impressive rate over the coming quarters?

The Nigerian economy showed a positive trajectory in the fourth quarter of 2023, with a growth rate of 3.46 percent in real terms. While the NBS (National Bureau of Statistics) has yet to release the GDP figures for the first quarter of 2024, the economy is expected to continue its upward trend in 2024. As per the latest “World Economic Outlook” by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the Nigerian economy is projected to grow by 3.3 percent in 2024, up from its estimated growth rate of 2.9 percent in 2023.

The government’s reform programmes are expected to trigger an uptick in economic growth by addressing investment strains and resolving low productivity in critical sectors. The services sector will continue to be the key driver of the economy, while the expected rebound in the country’s oil sector will push stronger real GDP growth in 2024. It is important to state that Nigeria is a huge market with enormous potential, but we need to expand the productive capacity of the economy to build momentum for sustained growth.

Do you believe Zenith Bank is well positioned to capitalise on this growth?

Zenith Bank is well positioned to take advantage of this growth. Zenith is the most capitalised and liquid bank in the country. This provides us with the massive firepower to capture huge and significant opportunities in the market. With the transition to a holding-company (HoldCo) structure, the bank is set to explore emerging opportunities in the fintech (financial technology) space and reinforce its digital- and retail-banking initiatives. The HoldCo will enable us to unlock opportunities in the domestic and external market. The HoldCo will improve governance and we will become more nimble.

You mentioned “retail-banking initiatives” there. Which specific initiative of Zenith Bank is most effective in bolstering financial inclusion across Nigeria?

Our agency business, ZMONEY, is our innovative solution to bridge the gap between the unbanked and underbanked population and the bank. This is in line with the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN’s) efforts to drive financial literacy and inclusion to reduce the country’s poverty level.

The bank partners with third parties across 774 local government areas to provide minimal banking services, including account openings, card issuances, cash deposits, withdrawals, transfers, bill payments and airtime vending. These third parties usually comprise MSMEs (micro, small and medium-sized enterprises), chain stores, general retailers, convenience stores, school ventures and petrol stations.

Since its launch four years ago, ZMONEY has onboarded over 100,000 agents, who have facilitated the opening of over five million accounts and consummated NGN2.65 trillion in transactions via their channels. Our ZMONEY initiative has proven successful in our retail drive, as it is cost-effective and allows for increased outreach to areas where the bank cannot operate independently.

Zenith Bank Headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria

I suspect that boosting financial inclusion has been just one of many pertinent challenges you have faced during your five-year tenure as Zenith Bank’s chief executive officer. As your time in charge draws to a close on May 31, what would you say has been your biggest single challenge?

Our biggest challenge was navigating the ever-evolving global economic landscape faced with numerous headwinds. External factors like fluctuating oil prices, the naira redesign and global market volatility demanded constant adaptation and strategic decision-making.

Yet, through it all, Zenith Bank remained a pillar of stability, a testament to the resilience of our team and the soundness of our financial practices. I leave with a deep sense of accomplishment and an unshakeable belief that Zenith Bank is well positioned for continued success.

Regarding that “continued success”, it was recently announced that Dame (Dr.) Adaora Umeoji will be your successor from June 1 onward. What qualities do you believe Dr. Umeoji will bring to the role?

Dr. Umeoji’s appointment as the next GMD/CEO of Zenith Bank is a positive development for both the bank and the Nigerian banking sector as a whole. She brings with her a wealth of experience, expertise and vision that will bring fresh perspectives and innovative strategies to further champion the growth of the Zenith brand. She has a long and successful banking career spanning three decades, and having served within the bank for 26 years, she is well positioned to sustain our institutional memory and maintain the pursuit of the vision set forth by our Founder and Chairman, Dr. Jim Ovia, CFR.

Her educational background is equally brilliant, boasting degrees in sociology, accounting and law alongside prestigious qualifications from Harvard and Columbia Business School (CBS). This blend of financial expertise, strategic thinking and legal acumen provides her with a well-grounded foundation for navigating the complexities of leading a major financial institution.

Furthermore, Dr. Umeoji is known for her commitment to ethical practices and social responsibility. Her founding of the Catholic Bankers Association of Nigeria (CBAN) highlights her focus on ethical banking, while her recognition as a United Nations peace advocate (UN-POLAC) and national honours for nation-building demonstrate her broader social conscience. These qualities no doubt translate into a leadership style that prioritises not just profit but also the well-being of stakeholders and communities.

As the first female CEO of Zenith, would you say this appointment represents a significant milestone for gender diversity?

Regarding inclusion and gender diversity, undoubtedly her appointment marks a significant milestone for this cause—not only in the banking sector but also across major industries, which have traditionally been known for having mostly male-dominated leadership structures. By shattering this glass ceiling, Dr. Umeoji serves as an inspiration to aspiring female leaders. Her success paves the way for a more equitable future where talent and qualifications are the true determinants of leadership.

Looking more broadly at diversity and inclusion across the entire Zenith Bank organisation, what are some key ways this framework is being formally promoted?

Zenith Bank is proud to have a diverse and inclusive workplace that fosters collaboration, innovation and growth. Our workforce is made up of a mix of young, aspiring professionals and established leaders and experts in their respective fields, regardless of gender, fostering an environment where mentorship and fresh perspectives thrive. Our total active force stood at 10,014 as of December 2023. Out of which 5,628 (56.2)% were female, while 4,386 (43.8%) were male. Five out of our thirteen board members are female and the boards of three of our six subsidiaries are headed by females.

So, are you satisfied with the range of voices and perspectives represented across the bank’s workforce?

We believe that having a diverse and inclusive workforce promotes representation, or a wide range of voices and perspectives, leading to better decision-making, innovation and overall business success. In recognition of our efforts, the bank was awarded Best Company in Workplace Practice at the 2022 SERAS (Sustainability, Enterprise, and Responsibility Awards).

At Zenith Bank, we prioritise diversity in our recruitment efforts. The bank actively seeks out candidates from diverse backgrounds and experiences, ensuring that its talent pool reflects the communities it serves. Likewise, we constantly educate our people through workshops and online resources on the significance of an inclusive and diverse environment with equal opportunities to thrive and succeed.

By fostering a culture in which every individual feels valued and respected, Zenith Bank demonstrates a steadfast commitment to promoting inclusion across its workforce as specified in our human-rights policy.

You mentioned in our previous interview that in the year to June 2023, 216 customers accessed Z-Woman loan products, specifically targeted at women-led businesses across all sectors, leading to disbursements totalling NGN1,024,050,000 to women-led businesses. Does the bank have a formal target for Z-Woman products for 2024, and if so, are you on track to achieve it?

The bank’s target for Z-Woman products in 2024 is NGN5 billion for between 500 and 1,000 Z-Woman customers. A percentage of this customer base will be returning borrowers with standing track records with the bank who have optimised previous credit facilities in growing their businesses.

The bank leverages every opportunity to create Z-Woman awareness and enlighten our community about the opportunities that are available through campaigns, the monthly SME Learning Series, media publications and our branch network. The bank is focused on meeting its 2024 target, despite the trend of challenging economic headwinds, and ultimately supporting women’s economic empowerment.

One of Zenith Bank’s Branch Interior

How has the bank sought to promote environmental sustainability across its internal operations? And do you believe this particular method has proven successful to date?

In line with relevant regulatory requirements, we continue to promote environmental sustainability across all our operations. We adhere to existing and emerging local regulatory requirements from the Federal Ministry of Environment (FMoE), the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) and state waste-management agencies. Environmental compliance at Zenith Bank extends to our business partners, suppliers and investees. Through our engagement with these stakeholders, we ensure they continuously monitor and mitigate environmental risks across their operations. Zenith Bank is a founding signatory to the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), the Nigerian Sustainable Banking Principles (NSBP) of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) Principles, the Equator Principles, the IFC Performance Standards, the NSE-GRI Sustainability Disclosure Guidelines, and the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs).

Another way we promote environmental sustainability is through improved automation of our processes. This has helped to promote sustainable paper consumption and environmental sustainability.

As you commence the mandatory regulatory cooling-off period, what would you like your legacy at Zenith Bank to be, or how would you like to be remembered, say, five years from now?

As I forge ahead in my journey, I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved as a team during my tenure of service. My legacy, ideally, would be one of growth and stability, and continuous sustenance of the legacy and values that drive the Zenith Brand. During the period of my stewardship, the bank was able to garner fifty-one prestigious awards, both locally and internationally signifying our unwavering commitment to excellence, and success in our strategic direction.  Five years from now, I hope people remember Zenith not just for our financial success but also for the positive impacts we are making in sustaining the vision of the bank, which is to become the leading Nigerian, technology-driven, global financial institution that provides distinctive range of financial services.

We championed retail expansion and financial inclusion, making banking accessible to all Nigerians and Zenith became the biggest non-oil export bank in the country. We fostered a culture of innovation, embracing new technologies to better serve our customers. And most importantly, we prioritised ethical practices, earning trust and recognition for corporate governance. Of course, we owe a huge chunk of our success to our Founder and Group Chairman, Jim Ovia, CFR (Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic), for his visionary leadership, mentorship and establishing the basis for a resilient and highly successful institution.

And, finally, what is the single most important piece of advice you can give to your successor?

For my successor, my most important piece of advice would be never to lose sight of the bank’s vision, mission and growth aspirations.


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