Herbert Wigwe, the Chief Executive Officer of Access Holdings, reflected on the preciousness of life just 21 days before his tragic death in a helicopter crash in California, United States.

Wigwe, his wife Chizoba, his son, and Ogunbanjo perished on Friday night when their helicopter crashed near the Nevada border while en route to Las Vegas. According to sources, they were heading to Las Vegas to attend the Super Bowl.

In a poignant social media post on January 19th, the billionaire businessman contemplated the gift of life and the importance of living purposefully and gratefully. “Let us number our days,” he wrote.

In a statement, Access Holdings confirmed receiving inquiries about a US plane crash but lacked specifics on whether its CEO was involved. The company said it is collaborating with US authorities and will provide prompt updates.

Wigwe’s shocking death elicited mourning across Nigeria’s corporate landscape, with many describing the loss of the visionary banker as a huge blow to the banking sector, shareholders, and the nation. His contemplative words on treasuring each day now stand as a tragic reminder to make the most of the time we have.

Wigwe started his career at one of the world’s leading accounting firms, Coopers & Lybrand, Lagos (which has now merged with PwC) as a management consultant, later qualifying as a chartered accountant.

After a stint at Capital Bank, he joined GTBank where he spent over a decade working in corporate and institutional banking, rising to become the executive director in charge of institutional banking.

In 2002, Wigwe and his business partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, bought into Access Bank, then a small commercial bank, positioned in size as 65th of the 89 banks in the country.

Access Bank Plc surprised pessimists that gave it little or no chance for survival when it started operation over two decades ago. An industry leader with group total assets of N20.9 trillion as at June 2023, Access Bank’s success story has proved pundits wrong.

The bank under Wigwe had, from the outset, prioritised raising capital, mergers and acquisitions-based growth. These blueprints were synchronised into the steps it took in the later years and defined the banking giant it turned out to be.

Today, Access Bank is a full service commercial bank operating through a network of more than 600 branches and service outlets, spanning three continents, 12 countries and 36 million customers. This makes it the largest bank in Nigeria and Africa’s leading bank by customer base.

Speaking during the listing of Access Bank as a Holding Company at the Nigerian Exchange (NGX) on April 28, 2022, Wigwe recalled the bank’s success story and support that kept it going.

Access Bank’s future started looking bright in 2012 after it acquired Intercontinental Bank Plc, one of Nigeria’s largest banks by customer base in that era. When the dust generated by that acquisition settled, it returned with another trophy – the takeover of Diamond Bank Plc, a grassroots lender with formidable spread across the country, which was completed in March 2019.

The bank sustained its passion for acquisitions. In 2021, it bought 78.15 per cent stake in the African Banking Corporation of Botswana Limited (BancABC Botswana).

It further invested $60 million to acquire a stake in South Africa’s Grobank; purchased Cavmont Bank from the Zambian arm of Namibian financial services group Capricorn, for a nominal fee of 1 kwacha ($0.0014) and opened a unit in Mozambique.

With 14 subsidiaries in Africa, Europe and Asia, Access Bank grew from an obscure lender to one of the five largest banks in Nigeria in terms of assets, loans, deposits, branch network and profitability.

Aside these acquisitions, Access Bank under Wigwe gained reputation as an aggressive lender with strong loan recovery drive. Its foothold in public sector, especially Lagos State where it funds major infrastructural projects as well as grassroots presence sets it miles ahead of the competition.

In April 2022, Access Bank adopted a Holding Company (HoldCo) structure and named Wigwe the Group Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Access Holdings Plc. This transformed the bank from core banking into full financial service holding company from May 1, and trading as Access Corporation.

Wigwe said: “Our focus is to become an aggregator in Africa as we build a global payment gateway, provide trade finance support and correspondent banking across Africa’s key markets.

“We are diversifying our earnings away from volatile markets and orchestrating operations from the global payments gateway, he explained during third quarter 2021 results announcements in Lagos.”

Access Corporation wants to deepen its African presence and continue to expand its customer base as the core aims of its latest five-year strategic plan.

Presenting the plan in Lagos Wigwe said: “We are setting out a new and ambitious five-year strategy which will put Access Bank at the forefront of Africa’s changing financial landscape by creating a universal payments gateway to dominate international trade and inter-African payments.

“The new strategy will be digitally led, will focus on retail banking growth and consolidation in wholesale markets, be customer-focused and analytics-driven with robust risk management; strong global collaboration in key gateway markets and the creation of a universal payments gateway.”

“In the next phase of its transformation programme,” according to the presentation, “Access Bank will embark on series of bold initiatives.

“At home, the goal is to be the number one bank in Nigeria by growing the retail customer base, the Small and Medium-scale Enterprises client base, and by dominating the top 100 Nigerian corporates.”

The bank’s other subsidiaries include Access Bank (Gambia) Limited, Access Bank (Sierra Leone) Limited, Access Bank (UK) Limited, Access Bank (Ghana) Limited, Access Bank (D.R. Congo), Access Bank (Rwanda) Limited, Access Bank (Guinea) Limited, and Access Bank (Mozambique) Limited.

Wigwe was born on August 15, 1966 in Isiokpo, Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

He had a degree in Accountancy from the University of Nigeria and further education in Banking and Finance, Financial Economics, and an executive programme from Harvard Business School.

His career began at Coopers & Lybrand, Lagos before he joined Guaranty Trust Bank from where he later teamed up with Aig-Imoukhuede to invest in Access Bank.

Aside banking, Wigwe was also passionate about education and philanthropy. His passion for philanthropy led him to establish the Herbert Wigwe Foundation, fostering education and entrepreneurship in Nigeria.

The establishment of Wigwe University with a $500 million investment earned him a spot in Nigeria’s educational sector.

With a focus on management, science, engineering, and the arts, Wigwe University was set to provide world-class education, blending traditional methods with innovative technology.

The university, situated in Isiokpo, Port Harcourt, was approved by the National Universities Commission in June 2023. Its curriculum was designed to address critical sectors such as finance and technology, while also nurturing leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

Wigwe University promised not just academic excellence but a holistic approach to education. Sports, arts, and practical experience were integral parts of its curriculum, ensuring that students receive a well-rounded education.

He was a board member of Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Company and a member of the advisory Board for Friends Africa.

He was a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN – FCA), a Fellow of The Institute of Credit Administration, and an Honorary member of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria.

Wigwe was involved in the creation of ‘Thought-Leadership Series’ known as The Access Conference. The biennial event is Access Bank’s response to a global call for corporate involvement in resolving the major challenges facing humanity.

Meanwhile, Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, and the Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, were among those who expressed shock over the tragic death of the Access Holdings Plc boss.

Atiku, in a tweet on his X handle on Saturday night, described the incident as unfortunate.

He wrote, “I’m deeply saddened to hear about the unfortunate incident that led to the loss of Herbert Wigwe, Group Chief Executive Officer of Access Holdings Plc, and his family. Indeed, Herbert Wigwe, consummate banker, education promoter, and philanthropist, numbered his days. On behalf of my family, my heart goes out to their loved ones and everyone affected by this unfortunate incident. May their souls rest in peace.”

Obaseki, on his part, said the death of Wigwe “has left me extremely shocked and devastated.”

In a statement he personally signed, the governor said, “We also unfortunately lost Wigwe’s wife and son, as well as the former Group Chairman of the Nigeria Stock Exchange, Abimbola Ogunbanjo, in the crash. The tragic incident is painful and heart-wrenching, and we pray for God’s abiding comfort in this profoundly difficult time.

“Wigwe was a colossus in Nigeria’s financial sector, leading Access Bank to become an international brand that placed Nigeria on the global map of first-class financial services. I commiserate with the Wigwe family, the Ogunbanjo family, Access Bank Holding, the Nigeria Stock Exchange, friends and associates, and pray that God will grant all the fortitude to bear the irreparable loss.”

The Director-General, World Trade Organisation, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, posted on her X handle @NOIweala, “Terribly saddened by the news of the terrible loss of Herbert Wigwe, Group CEO Access Bank, his wife and son as well as Bimbo Ogunbanjo in a helicopter crash.

“My deepest sympathies and condolences to the Wigwe family, the Ogunbanjo family, Access Bank Group employees and Management and my younger brother, Herbert’s partner, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede. May the souls of the departed rest in perfect peace.”

Also, former lawmaker, Senator Shehu Sani, described the incident as a great loss, tweeting, “It was sad and heartbreaking; a great loss. May their souls rest in peace.”

On his part, a House of Representatives member, Akin Alabi, described the incident as a national tragedy and heartbreaking.

The Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Joseph Johnson, described the incident as shocking.

“His (Wigwe’s) death is confirmed. It is a big loss to every sector, and not just himself, with his wife and son. It is very painful,” he said.

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