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Emeka Emuwa: The Quiet CEO who Rebuilt Union Bank

By Njideka Agbo
21 March 2021   |   6:00 am
It was the year 2017 and Union Bank had just won ‘Best Brand Development to Reflect Changed Mission / Vision / Positioning’ at the Transform MENA awards in Dubai. This award soon became a subject of conversation within and outside the Bank. For years, Union Bank, while upholding loyalty at its core, was in competition…

It was the year 2017 and Union Bank had just won ‘Best Brand Development to Reflect Changed Mission / Vision / Positioning’ at the Transform MENA awards in Dubai. This award soon became a subject of conversation within and outside the Bank.

For years, Union Bank, while upholding loyalty at its core, was in competition with new generation banks, who were also not resting on their oars. Only a few years before, during the banking industry crisis in 2009, Union Bank was among five banks that were almost closed/liquidated for insolvency. Only Union Bank survived the engulfment, but that stand meant that the institution would fight to keep its customers.

While they were ready to stand by ‘loyalty’ and had a mastery over customer retention, it also meant that Union Bank had to be more innovative to attract new customers in a society where the younger generation was quickly becoming a part of the “banked” community.

This innovation saw Emeka Emuwa appointed as the CEO in 2012, following a $500 million investment by Union Global Partners Limited – an international consortium of private equity investors. An experienced banker with over 30 years’ experience under his belt, Emeka is the first Nigerian to have been appointed Country Officer and Managing Director of Citibank in Nigeria; a position he held until he was appointed the Chief Executive Officer of Union Bank.

Emeka Emuwa

Emeka Emuwa | Image: Kelechi Amadi-Obi

When he took over, he didn’t realise how much work was on the table. Although he was certain he was capable, he couldn’t possibly fathom the challenges ahead of him.

“When I took on this role, I knew what the Bank had gone through, but I didn’t quite know the depth of the challenge. I felt I was ready and able to take on whatever came my way, but what I didn’t get quite right or what I underestimated was the extent of the challenge. Getting in here, it was a question of the more you looked, the more things you found that needed fixing (chuckles). But we’ve looked, we’ve seen, and our sight is still good.”

“In the first two years, we had a fair measure… there were things that were happening and you know, don’t forget that this is a 100 + year-old establishment; there were things that were buried in the fabric and were popping up… that were existential, but in each case, we have been able to weather the storm. ”

Describing himself as a person who likes to solve problems, he quickly identified the problems that needed addressing including investments in people, systems and processes. The Bank was witnessing a high customer turnover because, for a long period (pre-2009), there had been gradual decay.

“In 2013, one year into the journey, I realised we needed to deliver that simple service to the customer consistently. And in order to do that, we had to bring together the right people, processes, and infrastructure in place, and make them all work for one person – the customer. We needed to be in the position to serve the customer well. Only then would we be able to re-acquire old customers and bring in new ones.”

Emeka Emuwa

Emeka Emuwa | Image: Kelechi Amadi-Obi

“…And we simply did not have the ability to deliver quality services in the way and manner we wanted and consistently too. So, we got to work correcting that through a robust transformation and when we did that, our belief was that people would give us the opportunity, accept the challenge to test us. We knew they would only give us one try, so we had to get it right,” he said.

This informed the Bank’s strategy and new positioning – the customer became king, and then the awards came knocking: Most Improved Bank in Retail Banking 2018 at the Business Day Awards; the ‘Fastest Growing Retail Bank, Nigeria 2017’ at the International Finance Magazine (IFM) Awards. Emeka didn’t go unrecognised either; he has won both ‘Bank CEO of the Year’ and “Banker of the Year” awards during his tenure.

These awards were not the only reasons Union Bank became a hot topic in the industry: their revamped logo – a more gallant stallion – spoke volumes of their refreshed, more vibrant stance in the financial industry. Their modern, upgraded branches were also the subject of many conversations.

Emeka Emuwa

Emeka Emuwa | Image: Kelechi Amadi-Obi

When the transformation process started in 2014, it was greeted with mixed reactions. As is common with processes involving change, the idea of a transformation was first received with scepticism by many even within the Bank, but with a firm resolve, Emeka and the management team executed a successful transformation programme. Not only was it an important factor for the Bank’s success, it also restored the customer’s faith in the Bank’s systems and service delivery.

Emeka admits that much of the success he has had is because he had the opportunity to put the right people in the right roles, each time opening himself up to the consistent surprises they pulled.

Now back on a solid footing, Union Bank’s quest continues because the customer’s needs and requirements are ever-changing, hence the need to evolve with the customer. “The notion of transformation that says ‘start today and finish tomorrow’ doesn’t exist. Every single day, there is something new coming up, which is why whatever systems you are building, must have the right levels of flexibility and agility to respond to developments that would continue to come. We, as a Bank, have to find out, what are the changes coming down the road? What could be different? And in some cases, propose that there is a better way of doing this because ultimately, those changes will come.”

How does Emeka Emuwa describe himself? Before this, he recalls a time when one of his children asked him, “what do you actually do?” Emuwa is “a builder (laughs), someone who is fortunate enough to be doing something that he enjoys doing.” And what I really like to do is to solve puzzles, to solve problems, to fix things, all together building things that would stay built for a long time.”

The interviewer points out that for someone who was ultimately responsible for the Bank’s rebuilding; he is not in the public eye, and this is despite his enormous amount of knowledge. He agrees and adds that she is not the only one who has mentioned this to him. “I know myself, and what I do is – the things I believe I am strong at and good at, I project that as much as I can; where I am not so great, I project other people to compensate on my behalf, and that is what I try to do.”

“Let the output [product for the customer; service for the customer, and people in the bank] speak for itself because that is infinitely more sustainable over time. If Union Bank was all about me, now that I am leaving, they would say that is the end of Union Bank.”

Emeka Emuwa | Image: Kelechi Amadi-Obi

In a previous interview, he described Union Bank as the richest experience in his career. Referring to the Bank as a microcosm of Nigeria, he notes that it was a matter of “something that was broken and needed to be fixed.”

With all the landmark achievements, the interviewer is curious to know what legacy he is leaving behind for #TeamUnion as he steps down on 31 March 2021. He responds, “you’ve said it, the legacy is #TeamUnion. They are the legacy I’m leaving behind – truly outstanding individuals, and outstanding is not a just function of super-bright people, there is an attitude as well. Let them continue to do what they know how to do which is moving fast or faster in some cases.”

So, what’s next for the man who has been behind the success of Union Bank? He says with mirth that sleep is high on his list. In fact, he cannot wait to spend the next few months sleeping. The self-professed “husband of one and father of two” also looks forward to enjoying more time with his family.

Asked what quote resonates with him, he emphatically responds: “the journey is the destination!” Listening to his story, it is clear that he has lived out this mantra through his years.