Recently, Nigeria’s foremost financial house, United Bank for Africa Plc, opened its offices in the United Kingdom amid pomp and ceremony, an event which effectively established its full operation in the country, universally acclaimed as the financial centre of the world.
Following the inauguration, the Chairman, UBA Group, Mr Tony Elumelu; the bank’s Group Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Mr Kennedy Uzoka, and Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, UBA UK, Mr Patrick Gutmann, fielded probing questions from journalists and stakeholders on the new venture. They spoke in parenthesis. Excerpts…Why is UBA now launching out in the UK?
TONY ELUMELU: London, traditionally, is the financial centre of the world. To us, we are not just another Nigerian bank operating in the UK. We are Africa’s global bank. I say this because we operate in 20 African countries, and in the US. So, it is important that we support our customers from New York.
To us at UBA, at customer service, most things we do align with our customers’ aspirations and customers’ need to grow. As SMEs need to do well, they want to succeed, they want to do their businesses and pass it in the right direction; we are here to support.
The big businesses come, and we are coming to support them. Back to your question, I feel extremely fulfilled that UBA is living up to its mantra of Africa’s global bank; that UBA is positioning itself to be financial centres and be able to support investors. With over 20 countries in Africa and 17 million customers, UBA continues to help fulfil your business aspirations.
Being a big financial services company in the UK, is there any space for UBA UK to be part of that multi-billion pounds industry?
PATRICK GUTMANN: For sure we think so. And on the back of the strength of the group, and the client base and the calibre of people to be involved and how the group supports its clients, we believe there is a natural synergy with London, and we are still in London. And clearly, we know that many investments flow; many investment decisions have an angle in London and the signs of the financial sector. So, from that perspective, we feel that we want to be the global African bank that supports both investment and trade flow into Africa and, London is a hub that we need to be present and be strong in. We believe that the Pan-African footprint that UBA has, clearly sets us apart from many of the other banks already present in London, that doesn’t necessarily have that footprint to leverage.
What is the big issue about UBA-UK, starting a wholesale banking operation in London?
PATRICK GUTMANN: Telling the big story here is that certainly, UBA has been present in London for many years. However, this is the first time it is present as a full bank. So when we recently received our banking license, we became a full bank subsidiary in the UK. We feel that this is a key part of UBA’s vision in Africa’s global bank. If you want to be a global bank in Africa, you need to have a presence in key financial hubs, and London is one of the hubs that you need to have a presence. We feel that gives us the opportunity to give service as a UBA Group, and all the clients that work with UBA across all the 20 African markets.
UBA acclaims itself as Africa’s global bank. Is the opening of UBA UK part of that mantra?
KENNEDY UZOKA: As you know, UBA operates in 20 African countries and indeed, the only pan-African bank that operates in the United States, a rep office in France and of course, the UK. What we are celebrating today is something that we have worked for, for a very long time. As you very well know, in our continent, because we have a lot of Anglophone countries, that trade link between these countries and the UK is still very strong and it is going to remain like that in a very long time. Before UBA got here, and with the kind of license we had before, it means that, if a business in any of the Anglophone countries is transacting with a partner in England, they have to deal with another bank. But today, with our wholesale license, that is a thing of the past, UBA is interconnecting businesses in Africa, not just UK, but across the world because we have a big franchise in the US. It means that our customers anywhere in Africa don’t need to talk to a third party. What we have done is to prove what we call a UBA one-stop shop, that whether you are in Ghana, whether you are in Nairobi, by talking to UBA in either Nairobi or Ghana, you are transacting without any third party. Because we are a regulated entity here, and indeed, a first-class financial institution. So this is at the heart of our pan-African operation. When we say we are a true pan-African bank, it means we bring our expansive reach and our expertise across the world to the doorsteps of our customers. We are taking away that boundary, that barrier that used to exist for Africans to make their businesses easy. So truly, we are letting them know that it is not just by saying it, but by making it happen. So, this is one of the right steps that show UBA is very unique, and it is the only bank with Nigerian origin that operates in 20 African countries.
What is the size of the trade sector you are looking at in the UK and Africa?
KENNEDY UZOKA: As you very well know, most of the Anglophone countries deal directly with US or UK, because of traditional business trade, and you know what I mean by that. So, it is not about $20 billion, but in its entirety. UBA has done that with a limited license and today, with this licence, what we have is like a bird that has been in a cage, being disposed. You can imagine what will happen. So, in terms of foreign direct investment, inflows, and because UBA has been in operation for a very long time, we are again going to celebrate 70 years of uninterrupted operation, which is very difficult on our continent. Like I said before, in the US, we are the only pan-African bank that is licensed there that is 35 years old. So it is a generational bank with modern banking.
What competition are you looking at as you have this expansive license that allows you to do everything from investment to trade, and every other thing that you love to see expand between Africa and Europe and indeed the entire world?
KENNEDY UZOKA: First and foremost, you have to be UBA to compete with UBA because we are unique. Our market is defined. We have had customers we have been dealing with for decades and we know them very well. As we say, we know Africa very well like the palm of our hands. With this expanded license, those restrictions, frictions that Africa had must be eliminated, so UBA has come to change the landscape right now.
Africa is pursuing the continental free trade and some major geo-political shakeups in Europe as well. Do you think it is a very interesting time to start business full scale in London?
KENNEDY UZOKA: This is the right time. We are not involved in politics, we are involved in business, regardless of what happens, Brexit or no Brexit, businesses will always be between Africa and Europe, and of course, we have a rep office in France, so which ever direction it goes, UBA is ready.
Brexit is around the corner. How is UBA being positioned for that major political, financial and economic development in the UK?
PATRICK GUTMANN: From our perspective, our view is that Brexit, whether it happens or doesn’t happen, the impact will be minimal. And the reason I say that is because we are not a bank that deal across European borders, and as such, we are a bank that deals in the emerging markets, and in our case, the African continent. And those flows are not going to be necessarily interrupted by Brexit, if there is going to be Brexit or no Brexit.
Our business module and our clients will not be necessarily affected by Brexit. What could affect us is any changes politically in some of our key African markets. With Nigerian elections come and gone, gradually, investments are coming back to Nigeria and we are ready to play a part in that. Our view is that London remains a significant financial hub, and we don’t see Brexit discussion having a serious impact on our business.
Is your vision for UBA Group being fulfilled within the context of the launch of the UBA UK?
TONY ELUMELU: I am very impressed with the board and management of UBA UK, for this wonderful attainment of the procurement of license to operate full banking services in the United Kingdom. Now is the first time we are operating in UK as a full-fledged bank. I am happy that this is happening. The UBA Group is Africa’s global bank, with operation in 20 countries in Africa and over 17 million customers. But one thing that is important to us is helping to link our customers to the financial centre of the world. We are the only African bank that operates in the US that is regulated in the US.
Is it not interesting that you were a boy when UBA was formed, only for you to be the one to take the bank to the 70th anniversary?
TONY ELUMELU: I was not even born then, but I recall in those days, when we were still in the University of Lagos, when we opened UBA bank accounts. It is interesting that today; one is opportune to see the future of the same bank. UBA is about Africa’s heritage because in everything we do, it is about how to protect Africa’s culture and further help to develop our countries. In African countries, both Francophone and Anglophone, we support the businesses. We support infrastructure, SMEs and now, we are setting up a global financial movement. So, UBA UK is not just a bank.
You are launching UBA-UK today; where is your next port of call? Will it be Canada? Where exactly are you taking this bank to?
TONY ELUMELU: Between 2006 and 2010, UBA Group tried to consolidate; that was actually the second phase of our growth campaign. And just this month alone, this is the second one we did. On February 4, we were in Mali to commission UBA Mali. February 28, we are in UK London. We do have aspirations. Our intent is to follow our customers, to continue to support our customers and Africans. We have been in New York for quite some years. Let’s see what happens in China and other European countries. Let’s see what happens in other African countries. We want to help our customers. We want to be around our customers, and we need to help support our customers.
How about acknowledging some institutions and individuals?
TONY ELUMELU: I want to say a big thank you to the young men and women who make up every day our great and tedious departments, who work to make to make the UBA dream come true. We say thank you. You are the reason we are in business today. Together with you, we will be able to fulfil and surpass our customers’ expectations. A strong workforce and the 17 million customers of UBA customers in Africa, we owe everything to you, we thank our customers for the patronage and we also thank our supporters.