KOJO MATTAH - MD, ARB Apex Bank Limited
The Rural Banker caught up with the Managing Director at his office and engaged him in the following conversation.
TRB: Good evening Sir!
KM: Good evening, how are you doing?
TRB: Very well. First of all let me find out: more often, people get to occupy the topmost position of an organization when they rise through the ranks. The assumption is that they are familiar with the system and so can deliver to expectation of the employer. In your case, the story is different. Do you see yourself as an outsider?
KM: I find myself to be an insider because my first place of work is a Rural Bank. I started with Dzelukope Rural Bank in 1982, which later became Anlo Rural Bank. After I left, the bank had problems and went under. I did two (2) years there, I left in 1984 for Accra to start training as an accountant. While I was undergoing training as an accountant, I did a lot of restructuring work for Rural Banks. Some are still standing strong; some even after the restructuring could not survive. I can cite Bogoso Area Rural Bank, which is one of the best banks that we have; I can also cite Kwahu Rural Bank which is also doing well.
TRB: You worked at all these places?
KM: No I only did restructuring for them. I spent almost three (3) months at Bogoso, and three (3) months at Kwahu Pepease to do restructuring exercise. Not to talk of the Audits. So for me, I think my natural habitation has been rural banking even though I later spent seven (7) years at Barclays. I’ve seen the high and the low side of Universal Banking. I find this as a natural flow for me and I’m ready to give off my best and to leave a legacy for the rural and community banks. I want to wake up one day, especially the day I will pick my bag and leave, and be proud that I left a good legacy. I believe that will be the joy of the people who came up with the idea of setting up Apex Bank; I believe the likes of Asiedu Mante will be very happy.Having said that, I can say I’m an outsider to ARB Apex Bank. But even that is debatable. I have done some consultancy work for ARB Apex Bank; I have done some works for the Association of Rural Banks. So I don’t find myself to be an outsider, but in the strict sense of it, I am not an insider of ARB Apex Bank as far as staff, payroll, and structure is concerned. So if you look at it that way, may be I’m an outsider. In spite of all that I pray that I don’t disappoint the people, and for me; by the grace of God, failure is not an option.
TRB: Do you actually feel welcome at Apex Bank?
KM: Overwhelmingly welcomed. The first day I met the staff, yes! What I cannot say for a fact is whether they were pretending. If they were, it wouldn’t have lasted this long. So I feel welcome. I don’t also want to be naïve to think that it is not everybody who likes that ‘the man’ called Kojo Mattah is running the affairs. So if I think that, I may be naïve. I don’t also want to be paranoid to think it is not everybody who wants me here” so these are two things I pray against. So I think I have the overwhelming support of the staff and I interact with them a lot, and from the feedback I get, I think they are not pretending.
TRB: You assumed office as the Managing Director, barely nine months ago, but with my own observation you’ve visited almost all the rural banks across the nation. What signs are you picking and what has been your general observation?
KM: I have visited all the regions. I have not visited all the rural banks. I have visited all our offices.
TRB: You mean Apex Bank offices?
KM: Yes as well as having chapter meetings with all of them. I will tell you there is a huge dissatisfaction and mistrust between the chapters or the Association and ARB Apex Bank. One is as a result of the undue delays in the implementation of projects, which could also be as a result of carrying out too many projects at the same time. The General Managers in the Ashanti Region were visibly ‘charged’ when I held a meeting with them. One of them came to me and said “Sir, we can feel you have a good heart, but it’s too late. You’ve come late”. In my recent tour of ten (10) banks in Ashanti and three (3) in Eastern Region, I went to his bank and he told me at that meeting that “if you have to do something, you have to run”. So when I was leaving their office the last time, I asked him “You say I should run.” He said “No! Now you are flying”. From that chapter meeting I visited some of the Directors of the banks, and we went to Brong-Ahafo. They were equally dissatisfied. So I can tell the things I picked on the ground and across board, the image was not the best.
TRB: Are you talking about Apex Bank image?
KM: Yes Apex Bank image vis-a-vis the rural and community banks. And that has resulted in some of them exiting our core banking software. Well, I keep telling them that we cannot force them to remain on the banking platform. Our new approach should be to render the best of services. If they realize that it is more expensive for them to be outside the core banking platform because of the benefits that the platform will be offering, they will reconsider coming back. I want to leave it to the judgement of the banks some three to six months down the road whether they can say it is still business as usual. Some of them tell me; “yeah, we can see a new breeze of life, a new wave”. If you ask me what I have done, I can’t point out anything I am just doing what I think I should do. I can categorize the problems or challenges of ARB Apex Bank into two areas: Leadership and Execution. Once we get a handle on these two things, the rest should be easy. That’s why I’m prepared to provide the leadership and that is what I told the staff on my first day. I know it’s not going to be easy. If it were easy, anybody could do it. It will take a lot of determination, a lot of commitment. And this, I am prepared to offer. I think they want somebody whom they can relate with. And so far I think I’m relating with them to the best of my abilities. We can chat, you don’t need to book appointment to come to my office; at least that’s the message I sent out. As to whether they believe it, some may still be skeptical.
TRB: Coming from a marketing background, I think image in every corporate organization such as Apex Bank should be very paramount or one of your priorities. What are your immediate plans to raise the image of ARB Apex Bank as well as the rural and community banks?
KM: I would say service. Service to the rural and community banks because they are the only customers we have. The convoluted structure of giving birth to ARB Apex Bank and the RCBs giving birth to Apex Bank and Apex being their mini-regulator, they are the only customers Apex Bank has. We should be able to give them the best of services and that is what can translate into service to theircustomers. That is the reason why they felt some of our projects; especially the leading edge technology products that we wanted to roll out were delaying, some of them became angry and eventually exited the system. So for me it’s service. only customers we have. The convoluted structure of giving birth to ARB Apex Bank and the RCBs giving birth to Apex Bank and Apex being their mini-regulator, they are the only customers Apex Bank has. We should be able to give them the best of services and that is what can translate into service to theircustomers. That is the reason why they felt some of our projects; especially the leading edge technology products that we wanted to roll out were delaying, some of them became angry and eventually exited the system. So for me it’s service. So a customer who complains is gold to you because if they don’t, you wouldn’t know what is in their minds. The next moment, they have voted with their feet and that is what is happening to us. Now I have to be going round, assuring them. The only savior now isthem seeing the things we said we were going to do. I don’t want to take credit for what we are doing because I didn’t come to start them. But I can assure you that it took a lot of pushing and motivating leadership to get some of the things the way they are going. The second thing is that , you need to have timelines. You can miss the deadline.I’m glad we have the ATMs, at least those that we had on the drawing board for the two and half years. For now we are happy that at least the rural banks can heave a sigh of relief that we are doing the right thing. Their customers will feel that being customers of rural and community banks will from now on, go with some pride. So that it is not only the big universal banks that can give them technology driven items or services. I’m looking to the day that the so-called stigma that is attached to being a rural and community bank will be totally erased; when people will be proud, when people will feel like if you don’t have an account with a rural and community bank, you are losing out.
TRB: The so-called stigma attached with having an account with rural banks. Does that worry you?
KM: Yes and no. It worries me because it will be a barrier for winning new customers. People even tell me they want the name ‘rural’ to be dropped from the names of rural and community banks. I have a different view. I want the name to be there. And let’s rebrand, let’s reposition rural and community banks such that if you don’t have a rural and community bank account, you are losing out. You see, the rural areas, they are the drivers of the economy. So if we want to reduce the rural-urban migration, we have to strengthen the economy of the rural areas and the rural banks are the key drivers. So they should feel proud that they are doing something good. On my rounds I have realized that most of the RCBs have very good, qualified staff. Some of them have chartered accountants; not one, not two. Some of them have qualified lawyers; others have qualified marketers. Today you can have a lot of professionals working in rural banks. Some of our CEOs hold PhDs. So you shouldn’t say “I hold a PhD so I am overqualified to work in a rural bank”. Rural Bank is a good place.
TRB: Generally, as far as I know, product innovation and development seem to be a very challenging task. I don’t know what you want to do particularly in the area of rural banking.
KM: Product innovationis necessitated primarily by two things; changes in consumer taste and preference as well as changes in technology. So I keep telling my colleagues that technology is changing so fast that you must be running to be at the same place. So if you don’t innovate, you will be lagging behind and so we have to innovate or we ‘die’. Banking services or service delivery in general is an intangible thing. The difficulty is having it uniformed across board but we have to work at it and make sure that the service delivery across all rural banks is of appreciable quality and can only appeal to our co-workers that we are not doing our customers a favour. We are in business because of our customers. If we lose them we will end up closing our doors so we have to serve them to the best of our abilities. Back to the question; product innovation shouldn’t be a challenge. We have the know-how within the rural banking community. So we will tap it together, that is why I talk about collaboration. We will be able to come up with quality products and services for our customers and with that we will be able to say that having an account with a rural bank should not be a stigma.
TRB: The 25% corporate tax is really suffocating some of the rural banks, what do you have to say?
KM: 25% corporate tax is a huge headache for the banks, especially looking at where most of them operate from. They are very expensive areas. Some of these areas the universal banks shy away from. Rural and community banks are serving a certain niche market for which government must be appreciative of and be considerate. Because some of the places, the RCBs are the only financial institutions there. So this financial inclusion thing we are all talking about, if we do not hold or create the right environment for rural banks to thrive, it will be a difficult thing. So I think government should take a second look at the corporate tax the RCBs are paying and give it a drastic reduction. Even if it will not go back to the 8%, may be 10 or 12.5% should be a more reasonable figure. Some of the banks are doing a lot of corporate social responsibilities. Government can also say that, “if I reduce it for you, the savings you are making on the corporate tax should be redirected to this sector” unless there is a specific thing that government wants to bargain that if I reduce it for you, redirect the difference to this sector. It could be education, health, and rural banks are in education, and they are in health, security etc... so I think we can appeal for reduction in the corporate tax.
TRB: The Bank of Ghanais asking RCBs to raiseone (1) million Ghana Cedis minimum paid-up capital and the deadline was December 31, 2017. As at December last year not even 50% of the number had been able to meet this regulatory directive. Are you a worried person?
KM: I’m not, not at all.The shareholders knowthat they need liquidityto operate. Much as youmay think that one (1)million is a huge number,in the face ofcompetition I willencourage theshareholders to raise theone (1) million Ghana Cedis. Bank of Ghana didn’t say that that is the capital you should raise; you see, that is the minimum. So I will encourage them to raise the minimum capital. It puts the banks in a stronger position to operate. The only thing is the deadline and even that, Bank of Ghana did not just wake up to say that “31st December raise the capital”. It was a plan. It is good the governor said that they would be flexible. However, he didn’t define the flexibility. I can again appeal to the shareholders that, despite the flexibility, it is in their own interest to raise the capital because the competition is not waiting for us. The increase in the capital requirement for the universal banks, the RCBs should look at it as a threat; Because even if twenty(20) universal banks have to raise fresh half of that amount to be able to cross their requirement, that is about four(4) billion Ghana Cedis. And they may not also have all the businesses in the big areas or the big towns to absorb that. So they will be going to the rural areas. And that is the more reason why we should also strive to increase our capital base. I’m not worried because I believe the shareholders will be able to raise the capital.
TRB: We are winding up, but let’s get a bit personal. How did it all start? Here I will beinterested in your educational background and how you began your working career.
KM: Ok I started by telling you my first workplace but I went to a village school. Do you know what we call ‘Bafuto’? It means “bare-footed”. That’s how I went to school. We were all bare-footed. Those days we used to go to school morning and afternoon. And we had to carry our tables and chairs from the house to the school, and when we vacate we have to carry it back home. There were times that rainstorms would even lift the roof. I believe it still happens, that we had to get rainy season vacation. So I grew up in a small town. I went to school at Vui Zion in the Keta Municipality then to Keta Secondary School. From thereI went to sixth form at New Juaben Secondary Commercial in Koforidua. There is one thing I want you to know: I don’t have a first degree. When I finished Six Form, I started work. I was determined to be an accountant, so after two years at Dzelukope Rural Bank, I relocated to Accra to continue with my education. I enrolled atAccra Polytechnic to pursue the Institute of Chartered Accountants course. That explains why I don’t have a first degree, because I went the professional route. I combined schooling and working in Accounting firms. I chartered in 1990, and in 1992, I left Accounting Firm for Barclays Bank as a Deputy Chief Accountant and later Finance Manager. At one point I was the only chartered accountant in Barclays. I left Barclays in 1999 to Cardiff University for a General MBA programme. I also decided to do Marketing with the Chartered Institute of Marketing (UK) and I’m proud I did. After Barclays and Cardiff University, I had a brief stint with Metropolitan & Allied Bank and left to become the National Director for SOS Children Villages. The key thing that I’m very proud of during my stay at SOS Children Villages in Ghana, was how we built the Kumasi and Tamale villages. It is something I look back at with a lot of pride and satisfaction. That is the sort of legacy I want to leave for ARB Apex Bank. Not necessarily in buildings; I believe we will do so some of that, but in rebranding the image of ARB Apex Bank and the rural and community banks in general. On the family front, I am married to Beatrice, a businesswoman. I have four children; a boy and three girls: Makafui, Lebene, Klenam and Norkplim. They are young adults now.
TRB: You are the president of CIMG Ghana. How did that happen?
KM: I did not intend to work as a marketing person, but to use it toaffect the organisationsI work with in a positive way. I also wanted to contribute my quota to the Marketing Institute inGhana, so I got myself involved in the activities of the Institute here. I think they saw my potential very early and elected me onto the Governing Council since 2004. I have been a council member for two years, Treasurer for four years and Vice President for four years. So becoming President was a matter of course.I have given my best, my all to the marketing profession. I can say I have given more to the marketing profession than accountancy.
TRB: Thank you very much, Sir, for your time, and this is all time will allow us. I think it’s been very delightful having you in this conversation. On behalf of the Editorial Board of “The Rural Banker” I would like to thank you once again and it is hoped that your vision to turn the fortunes of ARB Apex Bank and especially rural and community banks around will certainly come into reality.
KM: My pleasure (Handshakes amidst informal pleasantries)