A teary Arnold Ekpe, the outgoing group chief executive officer of Ecobank Transnational Incorporated (ETI), on Friday said the company will not disinvest in a country at any sight of trouble.
In a moving farewell speech in Lome, Togo, during the 24th ETI annual general meeting (AGM), his last as group chief executive officer, Ekpe said the bank must stick to its Afro-centric strategy.
â€œWe are Africa and Africa is our strategy,â€ said Ekpe, who is retiring at the end of this year when he will have reached the conglomerateâ€™s mandatory retirement age of 60.
Ekpe is being replaced by Thierry Tanoh, the former International Finance Corporationâ€™s (IFC) vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Western Europe.
â€œEcobank is not just a bank. It has never been. It is Africa. That is why we do not pull out of Africa,â€ said the award-winning banker.
Nothing symbolises this commitment more than the decision to headquarter the bank in Lome, Togo, at the expense of more glamorous and stable regional heavyweights such as Ghana and Nigeria.
Togo is an impoverished, politically troubled country. The stable presence of such a reputable financial house helps instill confidence in the economy, strengthen its financial system as well as connect and embed the former French colony into a wider and deeply intermediated spectrum.
No wonder, the Togo government treats ETI as an international organisation, with full diplomatic status that saw its guests, including this journalist, whisked through the VVIP lounge on arrival at the airport, like some high profile dignitary everyone knows in Malawi he is not.Â Â
The bankâ€™s founding fathers would be pleased with Ekpeâ€™s parting words, which echo their vision of creating a bank that would integrate Africa.
The bank was formed in 1985 under a private sector initiative spearheaded by the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce and Industry, with the support of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), as a private regional banking institution to counter-weight Western banks that dominated the region at the time and support economic integration.
Having been with the bank for 12 of the 25 years of its existence, Ikpe has presided over the bankâ€™s rapid growth from a bank with an authorised capital of $100 million to the multi-billion dollar continental dinosaur.
Last year, the group achieved double digit growth rates across major financial result areas.
At the end of 2011, Ecobank assets were $17.2 billion, up 64 percent on 2010.
This was largely thanks to a 52 percent jump in customer deposits to $12.1 billion as well as a 40 percent gain in customer loans to $7.4 billion.
The groupâ€™s net revenues grew by 33 percent to $1.2 billion, resulting in a 57 percent rise in profits to $207 million in 2011.
The bank paid a dividend of $0.4 per share, which some shareholders at the AGM complained as too low.
Cross-listed in Nigeria, Ghana and Cote dâ€™Ivoire, the pan-African banking group has a presence in 32 African countries, including Malawi.
Ecobank came to Malawi after buying Loita Bank in February 2008, a move that is in line with the groupâ€™s business model of building scale through organic growth and acquisitions while growing its businesses in existing markets and expanding into new ones.
As a subsidiary of ETI, which is Ecobank Groupâ€™s parent company, Ecobank Malawi benefits from the motherâ€™s pan-African network of 1 151 branches spanning the breadth of the continent and its international operations in London (United Kingdom), Dubai (United Arab Emirates) and Paris (France).
Ecobank Malawi also taps from its parentâ€™s â€œOne Bankâ€ integrated information technology (IT) platform and other core competences in the groupâ€™s award-winning financial and banking services.
Despite this success, Ekpe is not without critics. Some say he is too hungry for acquisitions, especially of troubled banks such as Oceanic Bank of Nigeria and Trust Bank of Ghana.
Others warn that his strategic thrust on alliances such as the one with South Africaâ€™s Nedbank, which has provided Ecobank with a $285 million three-year facility; could in future expose the bank to hostile takeovers.
Be that as it may, as he walked off the podium, shareholders gave Ekpe, who teared up, a standing ovation.
In a typical West Africa tradition, wise words were showered on the Nigerian son they learnt to respect, admire and revere.
â€œYou will end well, you will not fall and you will remain blessed,â€ said one shareholder, a â€˜chiefâ€™, in one of the heavy accents many Malawians hear on Nigerian firms.
Then another one stood, to the surprise of many, to lead the AGM in singing He is a Jolly Good Fellow song in honour of their illustrious son.
Welcome to the Ecobank AGM, West African style.