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“I believe manufacturing is one area that can push the country…” – Dr Ernest Ofori Sarpong, CEO, Special Ice Ltd

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He exudes the calm confidence of a truly accomplished man without the desperation for money seen in others. He loves to share whatever he has with people. He’s built for himself an amazing business career that has led to the establishment of his footprints in the real estates, manufacturing, mining, media and finance sectors.

He is one of the Ghana’s illustrious entrepreneurs with credible track record. He started his business career from the humble beginnings of trading and moved to imports and currently operates as an industrialist. His God fearing attitude has led him to the current height he finds himself.

He is always grateful to God for how far He has brought him. A man of few words but great accomplishments. He is the current CEO of Special Ice Ltd. In an in-depth conversation with the Vaultz Magazine, Dr Ernest Ofori Sarpong tells his story.

ECONOMIC/ INDUSTRY FOCUS

TVM: As somebody who has played a lot within the Ghanaian industrial sector, what’s your initial assessment of the industry so far?

EOS: Unfortunately, Ghana’s industrial sector hasn’t lived up to expectation. We could have done better as a nation when it comes to industrialization. We still have a long way to go when it comes to industrializing the economy.

TVM: It’s being said that industry contributes about 25% to Ghana’s GPD but we are pushing for more. We’ve seen the current government having a lot of conversation around one district one factory hoping that many of these initiatives will tilt the scale and get us doing more. What’s your assessment of that and how do you see all playing out?

EOS: It’s a nice idea the government has come up with; it’s a good policy. But, what government needs to do is to make sure it materializes and also get the right people to manage and run these businesses, other than that, if it becomes politicized and fails, then we will have a long way to go as a country.

TVM: Is it feasible?

EOS: It’s very feasible if given the needed attention.

TVM: There are those who compare Ghana’s industrial growth to countries like South Korea, hoping to grow quicker. What kind of acceleration do we need to go through? You’ve built amazing businesses. What kind of lessons can we draw from you?

EOS: It’s a matter of time. With time everything is possible. What we also need to do is to be very determined as a nation to understand the fact that the nation needs industries; the nation needs these industries as its backbone. We need to grow more than the 25% we have; we need to grow above that. It’s a matter of us being more determined than we are now. I think then the country will improve.

TVM: The Deputy Minister for Trade and Industry, Hon. Robert Ahomka-Lindsay at the 2nd edition of the Ghana Manufacturing Awards did indicate that Manufacturing is the hope for Ghana and it’s quite critical to our advancement as a country. A lot has been said about building Ghana into an industrial hub to ensure manufacturing is put on a full scale. How do you see it play out? Is it just talk or you see a lot of actions? What kind actions do we need to put in place as country?

EOS: We are seeing signs of actions. It is something we can’t run away from. After independence, our first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, established a lot of industries but mismanagement of those industries led to their collapse. That has obviously made Ghana a more import-based economy and it’s about time we change that trend. We’ve seen some signs of actions but we need to do more.

TVM: Over the past decade you’ve moved from trading to import and probably may have been affected by the dollar at some point. Are there any specific lessons you want the government to pick, maybe one or two that we need to take a look at critically?

EOS: Until we move away from imports and build for ourselves a more industrial-based economy, we will always suffer in the hands of the USD or foreign currencies which is a big issue for any businessman or the country Ghana. I, for instance, started off as a trader and moved into import. I learnt my own lessons as an importer because of the fluctuating rate of the dollar. So, I had to cut down drastically on imports. Currently, I hardly do any imports. You’ll realize that most of the industries that I’ve ventured into are not import-based industries. So, anytime I want to engage in a particular business I try to ensure that, even if it’s an industry, the raw materials needed to be used are mainly obtained from the local market rather than importing them. I’ve had my own fair share of what the dollar can do to a businessman.

TVM: Talking about ‘local’ takes my attention to local content and local participation. In other jurisdictions, let me say Nigeria for example, partnership with locals become a prerequisite for foreign investors in the country. How do you see it play out in Ghana; is local participation or the local partnership working? Is it important; is it working; what should we do?

EOS: It is not working here because government has not made it a policy that every investor has to partner with a Ghanaian. Ghanaians naturally are very honest people and so making it a policy will help the country. What we’re seeing is: most of these investors who are foreigners repatriate their funds back to their countries and all that. This is how come they’ve taken over the economy because the government hasn’t established any policy that stipulates that foreign investors must partner with the ‘locals’.

 

TVM: There are those who have argued that maybe, just maybe, the locals are not stepping up in terms of capital mobilizations needed in key areas; the telecom sector, for instance, is one area; the banking sector as we look at it now is struggling from a low capitalization point of view. Do you agree with this assertion?

EOS: Not really. I think government should make it a policy that investors should partner with Ghanaians and it will help the country.

TVM: It seems as if the State favors more foreign investors than locals because of the kind of treatments foreign businesses get with the Free Zones Board. Do you think it’s an avenue which favors more foreign businesses? Is it working to our advantage or disadvantage as a country?

EOS: For us the local businessmen, it’s working to our disadvantage. Free Zones is a good idea. The incentives that businesses get there; the whole idea is to create employment. It is designed to get this foreigners to set up, invest and create employment. That aside, they are expected to export most of these products to other countries. But, inappropriately most of these companies end up selling their products on the market and make it a bit difficult for local investors to compete because they don’t get a level playing field to compete with these companies. This is because Free Zones’ companies don’t pay certain taxes. So, they import the raw materials, manufacture them and then end up selling probably all of the products manufactured on the market. It’s a big problem and must be checked.

TVM: If you had one advice to give to the government in terms of the operations of the Free Zones’ companies, what would it be?

EOS: Free Zones’ companies must be properly regulated. Not necessarily sanctioning them after they default but making sure they do the right thing first. I wouldn’t say we should deal with them but I think they must see the need to do the right thing. It holds a lot of employment for Ghanaians and that is a plus when it comes to economic development. Aside that, they must be made to do the right thing so they don’t compete with the locals on the local market. Free Zones’ companies have added advantages of not paying certain taxes. They have a lot of incentives and a lot of advantages when it comes to their operations. Unfortunately, Ghanaians have not taken too much advantage of this. Rather, it’s the foreigners who have taken advantage of this with the aim of trying to export most of their products. That’s okay only if they export to bring foreign exchange into the country. But the question is: are they really exporting these products? Government has to do a lot more monitoring to ensure the right thing is done but not just necessarily sanctioning them upon default.

TVM: The government upon assumption of office sought to move the country from a tax-based economy to a productive-based economy. Considering the tax rebate given to foreign companies, some estimates put it that the country loses about $2 billion annually because of the concessions given to foreign businesses. Are these ideas becoming a reality or they are still fantasies because when you cut down the taxes and it’s not leading to the productivity envisaged then it’s like cutting off the nose to spite the face?

EOS: If the essence of cutting down these taxes are genuine, that is fine. But, I believe most of the rules are not being adhered to. Cutting down taxes are to encourage businessmen but we shouldn’t give foreigners a lot of incentives so they don’t overshadow the local players. It won’t help us as a nation. We need to encourage our people to grow because they are here; they won’t repatriate funds to anywhere as foreign investors do! Local players should be given equal incentives and the focus should not be too much on foreigners. Some of us are even better than them. We should also be treated as investors rather than we being seen as locals and as such not deserving certain incentives when it comes to tax rebates.

TVM: As a local business investor, you are obviously looking for a level playing field to have an equitable benefit same with the foreign companies. What one or two things would you request from the government?

EOS: Some of our taxes have to be looked at especially with the introduction of the special tax issues and all that. Special Tax that is fine, Tax too that is fine. But special tax has to be placed on luxury items and not items like mineral water that is a necessity for us humans. What do we categorize as luxury items? Luxury items are, for example, if I decide to take a bottle of beer, I chose to for my pleasure. These are some of the things that we can categorize as luxury items, but not, for instance, I have to drink water that is a necessity. Air is free, also God created water. Water should have even been free if not for the cost of manufacturing. When there is a lot of taxes on water, a daily necessity, what are we trying to do as a nation; are we trying to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; are we trying to expand or create a gap that will forever not even make the poor drink something like bottled water? In certain countries you don’t even see something like sachet water but in Ghana bottle water is so expensive; the tariff on it is too high. So, government should reconsider certain things; things that are daily needs and reduce the taxes on them.

BUSINESS FOCUS

TVM: ‘Special Investments’ has become a household name in Ghana’s business environment. What is special about ‘Special’?

EOS: There is nothing special about ‘Special’. However, Special Investments is a parent company; it’s a real estate company which was formed some years ago. So, when I decided to venture into mineral water I didn’t want to veer off the brand and so went for ‘Special’. So, as for ‘Special’, it is special!

TVM: Why that brand identity?

EOS: I have no particular reason. I just love the word “special”. I wanted everything of mine to be special; I wanted to do some form of special investments. So, when it came to the mineral water, I said to myself let me stick to the name ‘Special’.

TVM: Have you been able to achieve something special?

EOS: Yes, I would say so. I’ve had special patronage from the public on the products. So, at least I have been able to achieve something.

TVM: Is Special Ice doing very well on the market?

EOS: Yes, it’s doing pretty well on the market.

TVM: How would you define the business climate in Ghana? What does the concept of “ease of doing business in Ghana” mean to you; is it working?

EOS: To a certain extent it’s working especially when it comes to power. Some few years ago, we had lots of problems with power. But currently power is quite stable. The problem we manufacturers have now is that the cost of power in Ghana is very high. If you go to certain countries, power is being subsidized for industries. But, in Ghana there is the domestic rate and the commercial rate. The question is: why domestic rate and commercial rate? If government is not even subsidizing the power; why should they make it twice the price when we use it to produce something? This is unfair and it’s not in the right direction. Government should rather be encouraging people to set up industries by giving them constant power and also better rates when it comes to power tariffs. If I have to pay twice the rate for industry consumption and pay less at home, it’s difficult to appreciate. I don’t personally welcome this.

TVM: Under the same heading of “ease of doing business,” there are those who complain about the cost of borrowing in Ghana. They’ve categorized it as “uneasiness of doing business in Ghana”. What’s your thought on this?

EOS: That is very true. The cost of borrowing is very high in Ghana. I believe that is the economic trend of events. We can’t run away from it as far as that is concerned. But I know probably with time, if government continues a lot of what they’re doing now, interest rates may probably come down. We saw a sign in the recent past but quite recently the cedi to dollar has plunged, and we know it will surely affect interest rates.

TVM: What are some of the biggest challenges confronting industrialists aside the cost of power, forex fluctuations and interest rates which you’ve mentioned?

EOS: These are mostly the issues but we also have labor challenges where the normal Ghanaian attitude towards work is sometimes appalling. I think Ghanaians at a point complain there’s no employment but when given the opportunity don’t live up to expectations. The general Ghanaian attitude towards work has to be looked at. People, especially factory hands, need to improve their attitude. People sit at home for years because of lack of jobs and all of a sudden get employed but still fail to live up to expectation. It bothers a lot because it disturbs employers on what to do. You can’t keep firing them all the time. Sometimes you need to be tolerant a little bit and then maintain them.

TVM: How are you dealing with each of the challenges enumerated starting with forex fluctuations?

EOS: Forex does affect me. Sometimes, as individuals we can’t even control it and that’s why I always try to avoid the dollar or foreign currencies’ complications. It’s not the best for industrialists, especially for those who import raw materials into the country for production. The economy can only be controlled by the government and sometimes there are also external factors that even the government may not have control over. So, controlling the forex is quite a difficult one.

TVM: So, your basic approach to dealing with it is to focus more on businesses which probably enable you to avoid the complications of the forex?

EOS: Yes. Businesses that are not foreign exchange inclined.

TVM: What about the interest rate; that you cannot dodge?

EOS: Yes. That I can’t dodge. But, I try to avoid borrowing as much as possible. My team and I always try to work within our own means.

TVM: So does that mean your capital mobilization has always been internal and borrowing less?

EOS: Yes. I can’t say we haven’t borrowed before but we borrow less.

TVM: Any other challenge you want to share?

EOS: Well, these are the four main challenges.

TVM: You’ve touched manufacturing, media, real estate, mining and finance. What should Ghanaian be looking up to next from you in the line of business?

EOS: For now it could be anything. I don’t have anything in mind currently. Moreover, some of our businesses are quite young and have the potentials to expand to full blown companies. For example, BestPoint Savings and Loans can become a full-fledged bank. Also, the insurance company which currently is engaging in General insurance operations can be expanded. We still have other areas we haven’t explored, for instance, life insurance and all that. We would be looking at exploring all these areas before moving into other areas. I haven’t explored fully everything that I have touched my hands on.

TVM: Do you follow opportunities and take advantages?

EOS: Yes. That’s what business is all about.

PERSONALITY PROFILE

TVM: When the name Ernest Ofori Sarpong is mentioned across the globe, what comes to mind is “the philanthropist”. Does this have anything to do with your upbringing?

EOS: Probably, let me put it that way. I just happen to have that power of sharing. Such that when I happen to have something I always want to share with people. So yes, it’s part of my upbringing; the Presbyterian upbringing I got from my parents.

TVM: By the way, who is Ernest Ofori Sarpong?

EOS: As you rightly said: Ernest Ofori Sarpong is my name. I am the CEO of Special Ice Mineral Water as well as Special Investments Company. I also happen to be a partner in BestPoint Savings and Loans, Best Assurance, Best Ventures, UTV, U2 Salt and a few others. The only person I have had partnership with is my senior brother, Osei Kwame Despite. We’ve had a very cordially relationship so far.

TVM: Currently you have maneuvered, survived, existed and now a ‘power house’. How has that worked?

EOS: It’s just by dint of hard work.

TVM: Does that mean you’re less of a theory and more of practical? What lessons can be learnt?

EOS: I believe as a businessman you should have your own goals and should strive to attain those goals. With determination heaven favors everyman. Along the way you may have some failures but when you’re determined, success will be yours.

TVM: What ignited the spark in you to undertake this journey of entrepreneurship?

EOS: Maybe because I was determined to be a successful man in life. That’s what sparked all this. Also, my relationship with my mom may have contributed because she made me realize I could do well if I kept at it and that’s what has driven me to where I am today. Nonetheless, hard work has been key.

TVM: How have you sourced for ideas?

EOS: I used to read a lot especially books that have been authored by some of the successful personalities and I took a lot of inspiration from them. So, I knew that once I had that entrepreneurial skill, I could make it in life. I relied on it very strongly and at least for where I am, I’ve been able to achieve something.

TVM: Have you been a Presbyterian all your life?

EOS: Well, ever since I grew up.

TVM: Can you tell us how your Christian faith has shaped your business and personal life and the correlation between the two?

EOS: In every business, one should just remember that the key owner of the business is God Almighty. You can’t do business without remembering who has brought you to where you are. I have always been grateful to God for what He has done for me. That’s one of my keys to success.  I always remember that God has been kind to me. I don’t do anything without praying about it and I pray a lot and I think that is one of the things that has made me successful. We should all remember that our successes depend on the Almighty God, once we forget about Him anything can happen to us.

TVM: Is that the discipline that runs through your businesses and employees? Is that something you try to instill in them?

EOS: Yes, I try to but as to whether they take it or not, I don’t know.

TVM: What drives you or keeps you going in business?

EOS: Well, it’s not just venturing into any business because I feel it’s a good venture; no, not at all. I consider certain areas– areas that can support the businesses I’m already engaged in. For instance, when I looked at banking I realized it will support what I’m doing; also when I looked at insurance I realized it will support what am doing; when I looked at the media I realized it will support advertising of my products. So, it’s not just venturing into any business but as to whether it will be beneficial to the operations of the other businesses.

TVM: Does it mean your business model is an ecosystem that reinforces one another?

EOS: That is perfectly right.

TVM: Your hard work has paid off through the numerous laurels you’ve received both locally and internationally. How do they make you feel?

EOS: They make me work harder; they inspire me. It’s not every award that I even accept. I’ve had a number of them come my way but I try to be as selective as possible. When I receive these awards, right from the very first one that I was given, they have inspired me to whatever level I am today. It makes me work harder and harder by the day.

TVM: What will make you say no to an award?

EOS: It depends on where it’s coming from.

TVM: You are described as “absolutely a man of his word, seeing through every single promise that he makes during an entire transaction, all his documents are legitimate, intact and well-kept and he exudes the calm confidence of a truly accomplished man without the desperation for money seen in others.” Is this true; do you concur to these descriptions?

EOS: Well, I think it’s true and I do

TVM: With the afore-mentioned description, what are your ideals in life?

EOS: To be honest as possible. Honesty, that’s the key word that I would use.

TVM: In the very distant future when all is said and done, how would you want to be remembered?

EOS: Well, probably to be remembered as someone who helped a few others to come up to certain levels in life.

TVM: If you had the chance to start your life over again, what would you have done differently?

EOS: Nothing much. Because I don’t think I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. Probably, I will go through the same process.

TVM: If you had a chance to rewrite a wrong, what will it be; is there any you can pinpoint?

EOS: Not necessarily. For instance, look at the number of businesses that I own, some are doing better than others but I wouldn’t necessarily say, I wouldn’t have gone for those ones. Almost everything that I’m doing is for a purpose. I wouldn’t write any of them off; I would go through the same thing.

TVM: You sure there’s nothing you wish you could make right?

EOS: I would have corrected a few things and probably done certain things better than I did them when I didn’t know too much about those things. I would have corrected myself, if I had the chance to go back. But I wouldn’t run away from the things that I have done. I would have made a lot of corrections then vary it a little bit better.

TVM: Who has been your greatest inspiration both in business and in personal life?

EOS: Probably, I would say Osei Kwame. My wife also inspires me a lot and above all the biographies of other accomplished personalities.

TVM: What is your hobby?

EOS: My business has become my hobby.

TVM: Aside your business, what else?

EOS: I will prefer to be on the football field. Football is my hobby, both watching and playing it.

TVM: Any favorite team?

EOS: Non in particular. But on a good day, I’ll support Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga and Chelsea in the English Premier League.

TVM: It is on record that you are an ardent auto fanatic. Which is your favorite?

EOS: My favorite car is Bentley, and a second choice would be Mercedes Benz.

TVM: What’s your favorite delicacy and wine?

EOS: My favorite delicacy is rice; all sorts. While a red wine is good. My favorite wine will probably be Chateau.

TVM: What genre of music do you love and listen to most?

EOS: I like to listen to old school. But if it’s Ghanaian music I’ll possibly go for Daddy Lumba. But, I like to listen more to old school.

TVM: What is your advice to the government?

EOS: Government should make the atmosphere a bit more conducive for manufacturers. I believe manufacturing is one area that can push the country forward and so government should focus critically on that area to develop the economy.

TVM: What is your advice to the youth?

EOS: To the youth, I would say they should set their own goals and strive hard to achieve those goals and work towards them.

TVM: What is your advice to your peers; industry players and business community?

EOS: To my peers, I would say everyone should work hard. They shouldn’t let peer pressure have an effect on them. They should just work hard and try to move according to their own pace.

 

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  • Sir i salute your thought that manufacturing is bones of any country who is growing

Profiles

“Technology, though very important, thrives on distinguished Customer Service” Mrs. Marufatu Abiola Bawuah (Regional CEO, West Africa 1, UBA )

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Coming from “not a best of background”, experiencing diverse adversities, selling toffees just to make ends meet greeted her whiles growing up but today, she has weathered the storms to become a regional CEO of a prestigious bank and the first indigenous CEO of a Pan-African bank as well as the first female to be appointed CEO of a bank in Ghana. Under her supervision as the Regional CEO for UBA West Africa 1 are six countries namely Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin and Burkina Faso.

Her story is a true reflection of “from grass to grace” and she’s always quick to be grateful to God for bringing her this far.  Coming from an upbringing that birth a resilient achieving spirit in her to a place that gives her the opportunity to rope and encourage others into her success story, Mrs Marufatu Abiola Bawuah (MAB) believes that “whatever we go through in life, good or bad, is usually a platform for tomorrow”.

As the Regional CEO for UBA West Africa 1, she reveals “Banking is borderless and that banking is no longer beautiful walls with paintings”.

Now, forging forward to move her bank to greater heights she embodies a ‘people first rule’ where she strongly has confidence in ensuring that, her customers are topmost priority and her staff are entwined with the vision of the company to give their utmost performance.

Industry (Economy) Focus

TVM: With your vast experience in banking on the continent. What is your overview of Ghana’s banking industry compared to other African countries?

MAB: Unfortunately, I’ve not been to all the African countries. However, the banking sector as far as I know has developed. Today, we have a lot of foreign banks in the country and looking at the various interventions of Bank of Ghana, I think Ghana is among those recognised to have a very sanitised environment if I must put it that way. There’s been clearing of a lot of banks and other things, the balance sheets are stronger and so gradually we are getting a lot of foreign investors who are interested in participating in our market. So, in all, I think it’s good.

TVM: As you rightly said, the banking industry has been sanitised and currently left with only 24 of them. The utmost consideration of the sanitisation process was to boost the minimum capital in order to make the banking industry bigger and better. How has this new minimum capital impacted on the operations of the banking industry?

MAB: Of course, positively! What has happened now is that banks’ capacity is bigger; shareholders have been forced or asked to increase their base. For instance, if the banks’ working capital was GH₵2, now it’s GH₵4. With that increase in Balance Sheet, a bank can now lend more and do more. Prior to that recapitalisation, banks could only do GH₵15 million but now can do GH₵30 million. Before this, when people came for loans to the tune of GH₵20 million, banks declined because there was a ratio of the capital that one could lend to just one person called the single obligor limit. Currently, however, bank’s single obligor limit has become bigger and as such can only get better.

TVM: Now that banks have become bigger and better with higher single obligor limit, how is the industry curtailing the issue of Non-Performing Loans as single individuals’ can now have access to higher facilities and higher tendency to default?

MAB:  There’s been a lot of development in that respect. Currently, there’s the XDX Data that collates information on customers that banks are lending to and Bank of Ghana is monitoring that. Also, banks are collaborating more with one another; can write and can find out about one another. As a result, it’s working better and hardly can any one person owe all the banks because information is available and every bank is expected to feed into that data. So, Non-Performing Loans can only reduce in the books of banks.

TVM: A lot of the people have lost confidence in the banking industry as a result of the crisis experienced between the 2-year period. How is the “new crop of banks” managing this challenge in order to restore confidence in the people?

MAB: I think otherwise. Rather, more people are getting into banking. Today, we have a lot of online products; a lot of digital products. People who prior to now may not want to come to banking halls for one reason or the other now bank on their phones, bank on their tablets or their computers. So banking rather, has expanded and instilled more confidence in the people. For instance, in our banking halls, you won’t find queues but that doesn’t mean we are not transacting businesses every day. Today, one can open account without entering a bank and this simply signifies that banks have come of age and financial inclusion has come to life.

TVM: Currently, there are about 7 Pan-African Banks operating across the continent and UBA happens to be one of them. How has these PABs contributed to the course of banking and the various economies they operate in on the continent?

MAB: In Ghana, for instance, UBA was the first Pan African Bank (PAB) to enter the market and that was the first time Ghana had what we call revolutionary banking. It was UBA that introduced it. It was the first time we witnessed banking moving to customers; usually it was customers that came to banks. So, Pan-Africanism of banking started in Ghana with UBA. It was the first bank to implement accounts opening without any money (deposit). Prior to that, accounts opening required GH₵50 to GH₵100 (₵500, 000 to ₵1, 000, 000 in the old currency). It was during UBA’s entering strategy that the bank said no, one did not need money to open an account; if one didn’t have money but wanted to open an account, one could still go ahead. And the bank opened accounts for huge number of people without initial deposits. The Pan-African Banks that also came afterwards are banks that have strong “parents”, so whenever there were transactions that ordinarily a PAB could not handle as a “local branch bank”, its parent bank came to its support.

On contribution to the various economies, UBA for instance, has supported governments in a number of ways and also the Central Banks. In Ghana, for instance, the bank has supported a number of projects including road constructions. There was a time the bank gave the government of Ghana an amount of 350 million dollars for road network; one can’t discount that. The minimum anyone of these Pan-African Banks have employed is 600 Ghanaians in each of their institutions and that also one can’t ignore. These staff are paid, their families are taken care off and just imagine the ripple effect. So, I think that PABs have done a yeoman’s job and should be encouraged.

TVM: You mentioned earlier that presently the banking system is expanding as a result of the introduction of technology and other innovative mediums that allow people to easily transact their banking activities. Contrary to that, it is evident that the rate of banking in Africa remains extremely low, with only 43 per cent of adults having a bank account according to AfDB and even more worsening in Ghana. How does the banking industry, especially in Ghana, intend to address this worrying trend of banking among the populace?

MAB: Today, banking is not coming to banks because it’s gone beyond that. There are a lot of people who use digital banking and have their accounts on their phones. One can’t tell me that is not banking. So, if a farmer has all his money on his bank card or his phone; that is not banking? Banking is no longer account opening, cheque book, savings book; no! Banking is borderless! In fact, banks are looking at ways of not even opening branches. So, one can be in Wa and be a bank’s customer without the bank not necessarily positioned in Wa; one can also be in Brong Ahafo as well and so on. UBA banks so many people in regions that it’s not present physically. At UBA, we can credit any customer anytime anywhere and the customer can spend the money in his or her account whiles in south Africa, in Holland and so on. That is what UBA has brought; digitalization of banking. Banking is no longer beautiful walls with paintings; no! In fact, banks are trying to break down those walls, so the figures may not be the correct reflection of what is on the ground.

Business Focus

TVM: When UBA initially incorporated in 2014, it was known as Standard Trust Bank. When did the change of name take place, and how has the bank performed over the years, since its incorporation?

MAB: Standard Trust Bank became UBA simply because the latter acquired the former in 2005; it’s as simple as that. I think the bank has done relatively well; we’ve done very well I must say. The bank has remained very relevant to the economy of Ghana; supported the government in various sectors, employed numerous Ghanaians, supported a lot of businesses, and among its peers the bank stands tall. Above all, Bank of Ghana has always rated the bank as stable for a very long time. So, the bank has no problem with stability. The bank had met its capital long before the deadline and it’s poised to do more. UBA Ghana is poised for growth and it seriously believes that, in the next few years it should be strategically very important to the Ghanaian economy.

TVM: The business strategy of the bank is built on being the bank of choice for businesses across the African continent. How has the bank been able to achieve this over the period or how does it intend to continue to achieve this?

MAB: We will continue to achieve. The Group just opened Mali last year and so today UBA Bank outside of Nigeria is in 19 countries. The Bank has presence in the UK, US, France, among others and it will continue its expansion works. Moreover, the bank’s strategy is to become a top three bank in every country it operates in. That’s what we are all working at and we will get there.

TVM: In 2014, UBA Cameroun launched the ‘UBA Connect’ in the CEMAC region for customers in that region. Currently, the idea of the single currency for the West African region which is moored to the single European currency is expected to be operationalized in 2020. In your opinion, what will be its impact on the banking sector in the sub-region?

MAB: I don’t foresee this to be negative because today I manage three francophone countries that use the same currency and have the same central bank in Senegal and there’s no problem on their economy. So, I don’t foresee the introduction of the “ECO” as collapsing economies; it can only make the sub region stronger. I anticipate growth in trade across the region, easy movement across the region and once there is growth in trade and easy movements, its banks that will thrive. So, for me, I look forward to a positive impact.

TVM: “Our people remain our most valuable assets” states the Bank. Why are people the most valuable assets and not anything else such as technology?

MAB: Can machines work without people? Can technology function without people? Can customers be served effectively and efficiently without people? All these place people as premium and the most valuable assets at UBA. Once you get the people right, technology that has been implemented will function. If the person in charge of that technology decides not to do what he or she is expected, the machine is useless! You will invest so much and the customers will still not be happy. But when your staff is happy and you have good technology, your customer will be happy. Technology, though very important, thrives on distinguished Customer Service. So, I think that the fundamental of everything is the people. That’s why at UBA, we think our people should come first.

PERSONALITY PROFILE

TVM: There’s a description of your journey in life that states “from a table-top groundnut seller to a regional CEO of the prestigious bank and the first indigenous CEO of a Pan-African bank as well as the first female to be appointed CEO of a bank”. Beyond all this, who is Marufatu Abiola Bawuah?

MAB: Marafatu Abiola Bawuah is a lady. I started primary school in Aflao and progressed to Datus International School, then proceeded to Achimota School. I read Actuarial Science at the University of Lagos, and had my MBA from University of Ghana. I started banking in 2001 and UBA Bank is my fourth bank. I initially traded on Ghana Stock Exchange briefly before joining the banking industry. I’m married with three kids. I joined UBA Ghana as the Deputy Managing Director in 2013 and later became the MD/ CEO in 2014. Sometime last year, I became the Regional CEO for UBA West Africa 1 and presently manage six countries namely Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin and Burkina Faso.

TVM: Sources have it that you underwent a lot of challenges whiles growing up. How were you able to weather the storms you experienced in your growing up moments?

MAB: Determination and Grace! Because, there are times when I look back I can’t understand why I took some decisions or how I survived such decisions; some of them are difficult to explain. But, I think generally, I’m a very determined person. In life, if you don’t know where you are going, you must know where you’re coming from. I do acknowledge I don’t have the best of background and so whatever I do now is a privilege. I keep saying that whatever one finds to do, one must do it well because one just never knows the outcome. One’s work must surely announce him or her no matter what. Thus, whatever I find my fingers doing, I do it well to my satisfaction as if there couldn’t have been any better opportunity.

TVM: As a result of your upbringing, do you reminisce any fondest childhood memory?

MAB: I didn’t enjoy my growing up because I had to sell and look after my siblings and such I was too serious minded. I didn’t know how to have fun. I couldn’t think of anything other than work and school. If there was anything fun, maybe after I had passed my common entrance. Even that, I will still decline. At form 1, I had to sell toffees, had to pay school fees; just too busy to make ends meet. I didn’t attend any entertainment program while in school. But, I’m grateful to God for bringing me this far. The sweetest memory I can recall in my life was the day I graduated from the university with a second class upper. Most of my mates thought I wasn’t going to graduate because of the challenges I was going through and moreover, the difficulty of the course but I ended up the best in class. It’s worth mentioning.

TVM: Can you briefly share one significant childhood experience that has contributed immensely to the woman you are today?

MAB: I think whatever we go through in life, good or bad, is usually a platform for tomorrow. When I look back, the resilience I developed through the sales I undertook whiles growing up has contributed to what I am now; definitely! As a result, I love marketing; I love to sell, I love to achieve, I love to conquer and I love customer service. It’s not something I joke with and I think it has taken me from one level to another. In terms of also being frugal; I think that those upbringings have helped me to manage myself as far as finance is concerned; I don’t strive for what I don’t need. I have learnt to stay where I am. Truly, they have helped me.

TVM: Growing up in a rather challenging environment where the only person ‘the community’ saw as a role model was a messenger. What was your aspiration for the future in those moments?

MAB: Well, the community then just saw a smart guy who was well dressed, walking smart, moving every morning and the women wanted to greet him. They referred to him as “the most learned” but when I got to form 4, I realised the man was a messenger. By then I was enlightened and more educated.As a result of my education I then knew the difference between good and bad so I was already on that pedestal to go forward.

At Achimota, I had gained more exposure after mingling with the children of the affluent and elite. But there was still a pull and push effect between myself, the elite and my background. Fortunately, my friends’ mothers stood in and encouraged me to stay and spend time with them. Despite the force of home pulling me, they tried to pull me also though they didn’t know what I was going through. I started observing their ways of life. As children, we were all thinking of hotel management, air hostess because we wanted to be in the air. Then along the line, I realised I had more flair for Mathematics so I wanted to do Actuarial Science, Mathematics or any of the mathematics related courses. Thus, I ended up studying Actuarial Science in the University.

TVM: So, when did the thought of coming into the banking industry come in?

MAB: It was by default. After graduating, I tried getting employment with the insurance companies but to no avail. I tried other avenues including SSNIT but also to no avail. Then a friend revealed to me that government was recruiting for NADMO to undertake a survey; so I started with NADMO. I performed my task diligently as expected and presented my findings. After presenting my results, I was invited and asked what I studied. I responded and that was my first job breakthrough that earned me an accountant and investment officer with a law firm. From there, I moved on to a stock exchange company where I traded on the stock exchange as an Authorized Dealing Officer or Broker. After a while, for personal reasons, my boss disclosed he didn’t need my services any longer. So, I had to hit the streets again sharing my CVs. Whiles sharing my CVs, then fortune smiled on me and CAL Bank employed me. So, it was by default that I joined the banking industry.

TVM: When people acknowledge you to be successful, you decline by saying “no, I am a product of grace”. Referencing your memoir “Chosen from Darkness”; Why do you see your success as a product of grace and not a dint of your hard work?

MAB: Success is not a lift that one stands in and gets to the top and says I am done. It’s a step by step event and I think I’m still en route, climbing and hoping that grace will take me there. Since, I haven’t gotten there I will not assume I have arrived so I need more grace. Truly, one needs to work hard for grace to beautify it but there are people who also work harder than I and they are not where I am and also there are people who are not working as hard as I am, but are in higher heights. So, it is a combination of the two; you do your part and leave the rest to divinity. I just don’t want to put myself in such an assumption. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate such comments, I really do. I think that, even if I’m not where I’m supposed to be; I’m en routing and I know I’m on the right path and I’m working at it every day. Consequently, I don’t want to pollute my system and get that into me and think that, after all, I’m the first woman here; No! I don’t want that. I’m still moving.

TVM: Your book, “Chosen from Darkness”. What informed your decision to put together this book?

MAB: The reason is simple: To put my story out there to encourage a lot of young girls. It has encouraged a lot of men, a lot of boys, and a lot of women also. It highlights four things everyone needs to understand about life. Firstly, it talks about one not needing to have a good background to be where he or she wants to be. Secondly, it reveals everybody needs to hold somebody’s hand. I wouldn’t have been here just because my parents wanted me to be here but because people lent a helping hand. So, in this our ecosystem, especially women, look around and you will find a lot of people you can hold their hands. If everybody can hold everybody’s hand, we will have a very developed country. Thirdly, one doesn’t need to bend his or her values or principles in life to be able to make it. One doesn’t have to do that! And finally, people must know that the road to the top can be rough, and the fact that you are in a valley today, does not in any way make you a failure. These are the simple messages I tried to put across in the book.

TVM: You are so passionate about girl-child education and that has led to the establishment of the Abiola Bawuah Foundation. How is the foundation helping to change the girl-child education challenges in the most deprived communities?

MAB: We are in the deprived communities and I have people all over the places: villages, deprived communities, rural settlements and so on across the country trying to identify such girls. We have a lot of girls in our books now that we are supporting. I don’t know them from anywhere. We support also people in the hospitals, helped some to go back to school, supplied books, paying school fees, buying wheels, buying chairs; doing everything for them to make sure they are in school. Unfortunately, the resources are limited. The only one who is paid is the young lady who is running the errand; I am not paid and I don’t take money from the NGO. I strongly believe that if I get more support, I will be able to do more than I’m doing currently.

TVM: Being at the helm of affairs and having oversight on UBA Plc West Africa 1, your transformational leadership style is expected to come to the fore. What do you hope to achieve in this new position?

MAB: With this new position, we will take over the West African market; we will become the strongest bank!

TVM: How?

MAB: To become the most systemic and important bank in all my jurisdictions. So, for any decision to be made in any of those countries, we would have to discuss it first.And it will happen. I’m embarking on that.

TVM: In a previous interview you said “When I focus on the people and I show interest in the people and they connect to my vision, while I’m sleeping they’re working”. Can you explain what you meant by the statement?

MAB: Once you get your people right, they dream about your vision. As a leader, part of my responsibility is to make sure that those who work with me buy into my vision and when they do, their energy levels go up. Hence, they are willing to go the extra miles; they want the vision to come life, they want to replicate what you do. Therefore, beyond believe– conviction is what a leader needs to get his or her people to go the extreme to actualise a dream. It is when you move your staff to have conviction that they go to work when they should be resting. They will be willing to go the extra mile; they don’t have a closing time, they don’t have weekends; you didn’t ask them to do it; you don’t need to tell them; if you start asking them, then you don’t have them. So that’s what I mean by that statement.

TVM: There’s nothing on leadership journey that can be attributed to only the leader” you averred; how will you describe your leadership style?

MAB: I’m not permissive. I am a disciplinarian but also believes in reward system. I am an amiable leader as well and have an opened door policy but at the same time what binds my colleagues and I or what is common to us is the institution. So, I would not allow one to destroy what he or she finds in the organization. One must do his or her work. But in doing his or her work, I shouldn’t abuse him or her, I shouldn’t misuse him or her, I shouldn’t destroy him or her; He or she should grow in his or her own personal life. Thus, I show interest in them and they must also go the extra mile for the job. We should not compromise on the work that binds the two of us. And so far, it has worked.

TVM: What is your management philosophy? 

MAB: Reward the people! Reward what you want. What gets measured is what is done. If somebody has done something, reward the person; if someone has done it wrongly, punish the person. In all, my philosophy is “what gets measured gets done”. Most often leaders are quick to punish but slow to say thank you. We need to reward what we want. If it is coming early, reward those who come early and all the others will follow. If it’s sales, or whatever you seek to get into your staff, you need to reward for it.

TVM: Growing up, did you have any mentor or mentors that influenced your thinking in life?

MAB: I once worked with a boss called Andy OJ; he was my MD at Zenith Bank Ghana where I worked some years back. He was a fantastic boss and in my dealings today, I try to put myself in his shoes and try to imagine how he will deal with situations and I think he is one of my mentors. Another is my current Chairman, Tony Elumelu. He is outstanding; his leadership qualities are wow! He’s a realist; one just knows where he or she belongs and he tells one exactly how he feels. He celebrates everyone, and so if there’s anybody who has tapped the apex of my energy, he is the one; so he is my foremost and priceless mentor.

TVM: What enduring principle(s) guide you in all facets of your life?

MAB: Hard work works! One may not reward me today but I believe somebody is looking at what I am doing and at the right time, he or she will reward me. All the cheatings I have suffered from my previous boss(es) or firms, the new person or company will recompense me for them.

TVM: What do you do outside of work to release the stress you experience at work?

MAB: I love to watch crime documentaries. I watch TV a lot also and I love to be with my children and my family. I love to be with my kids at home so I do a lot of ‘sit home’ when I’m not travelling or not working. I love to be home and want my family around me. I like cooking as well.

TVM: What kind of books do you read; is there any particular book that has significantly shaped or influenced your life?

MAB: I love reading leadership books. One book I read and continue to read is a book written by Bill George; it’s about authentic leadership. I just love reading leadership books.

TVM: What is your favourite meal??

MAB: I like the swallows; Tuo Zaafi, a meal mostly known to the northerners in Ghana, Banku, fufu. I love my banku with okro soup. I also love fresh tomato jollof rice.

TVM: What genre of music do you listen to?

MAB: I’m a lover of jazz.

TVM: What kind of sports do you love?

MAB: Football

TVM: Which team is your favourite?

MAB: Arsenal.

TVM: When it’s all over in your working career, how do you want to be remembered?

MAB: I wish to do hundred girls a year. I wish to go to the most deprived, poverty stricken areas, bring people without hope and give them hope and long after I’m gone, some of them will be Managing Directors, others too will be top government officials; positions they wouldn’t have been able to attain but for that education; that seed sewn, they were. That is what I want to be remembered for. They will be able to tell my children “oh your mother found me”. Ghana will reap the benefits afterwards and say “we have 90% of our ladies in schools” because I believe those girls will also cater for some others, and as such we’ll be able to say that majority of girls are graduates; that is my dream!

TVM: What does the future hold for you beyond UBA and banking?

MAB: Beyond UBA and banking, I want to focus on my NGO. I want to concentrate on that when I leave banking.

TVM: What advice would you give to banking industry players?

MAB: Whatever they are doing, they should do it well. Well, there is still a lot of collaborations to be done among banks. Banks need to come together instead of fighting one another in order to manage the loop holes’ customers capitalize on. Banks still need to be able to share information and continue to support government’s initiatives, especially the plan to have an all inclusion system and to continue to reach out to the local communities. Banks also need to continue to come out with products that will serve humanity and cause the banking space to become more relevant than it is now. But above all, banks should find a way of stamping out the unhealthy competition where when a staff commits crime in one bank, goes to the other bank and is accepted. I look forward to healthy competition among the banks.

TVM: You once said “failing is part of the story”. As a mentor to many young women and girls, how would you advise them to cope and deal with challenges and failures in life?

MAB: Accept it and take responsibility. It’s not about crying; it’s not about condemning oneself. Yes, some are mistakes; purely one’s mistake and so must take full responsibilities for them. It should not be about anybody or a blame game. One needs to ask questions and see how he or she can move forward. Therefore, the most important thing is to take yourself less seriously, take responsibility, and always look for that small light in that darkness and move towards that direction. In a short while, one will find fulfilment.With failing, those who condemn themselves will never be able to get up. That’s my story!

TVM: What is your advice to the current youth of Ghana?

MAB: Hard work works; there’s reward in hardwork so work hard.

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