Zenith, GTBank & First Bank: How Culture Affects Business Outcome

Matthew 19:30 Prophesy of Z to A

Once upon a time, you couldn’t mention these 3 banks in the same breath. Rather, people would refer to the big 3 – First Bank, Union Bank and UBA. Yet in 10 short years or so, the banking landscape has changed almost unrecognizably. The 3 big banks are now more like the 3 old banks.

As this article falls under the ‘weekend musings’ section, we will avoid the hard-nosed analysis of what the different CBN governors did to the banking industry, or how government policy changes affected the banks.

No, instead we will look at what we as laymen noticed as the different cultures in each bank over the years, and how these cultures may have affected the perceived bank rankings of today.

It is rumoured that there are only 2 truly strong banks in Nigeria today…2 of the 3 banks listed above. But which 2 you may ask? Lets find out:

Bank culture – GTB, Zenith, First Bank: deliberately planned or inherited…

GTBank came on the scene in the 1990’s with what seemed a clear branding strategy. The bank promoters were bent on defining themselves as young, cool and professional. In other words, they were everything the old banks like First Bank, UBA, Union Bank, Wema Bank, ACB, NNB, and Afribank were not.

GTBank had bonding camps, retreats, even dress-down Fridays. And not the ‘let’s all wear traditional type”. New entrants were sent to training school for months where they were encouraged to ‘learn the GTB way of things’. They dressed well, and they were better paid than most other bankers. Certainly better paid than the intakes at the old brigade.

They even had top management including the founding MD, Fola Adeola serve as cashiers once a week just to get a feel of the shop floor. Interestingly, they shied away from the dirty game of ‘public sector’, which at the time was bedevilled by underhand manoeuvres by banks trying to get the largest government accounts.

These antics were unheard of in the Nigerian banking industry. But did they work? Absolutely. For the very reason that there had been nothing like this before, the antics worked. It was refreshing, and people liked it.

Zenith Bank had an altogether different approach. They paid far less emphasis on the cool side of things, and maybe even less on the professional. Instead, the went after our shallow alter egos. Every market-facing Zenith staff was attractive. The ladies were not just sharply dressed, they were light of skin and so very easy on the eyes.

It was said during the early years that the Zenith Bank MD personally interviewed every new entrant to ensure that they were the right fit for his new-age army of bankers.

And with this band of beautiful bright-eyed foals, Zenith took on the banking world, aggressively. In fact, the term ‘aggressive marketing’ was synonymous with Zenith Bank for a very long time.  Criticisms followed, with many people uncomfortable with the in-your-face style of banking Zenith had introduced into the market. But many more appreciated it. Or maybe they just willfully surrendered to the beautiful bankers from Zenith.

Whichever it was, the bank thrived. Zenith’s use of a large branch network meant there was a branch near you. Whoever you were. Strong focus on a fast payment system meant that Zenith made a compelling case for the non-borrowing public who needed improved efficiency in their banking operations. That and a pretty face attending to your every need.

A brief pause: both Zenith Bank and GTBank had strongly defined strategies for business. They set out to do things differently from everyone else and were able to carve niches for themselves very early in the game. Many tried to follow suit – Bond Bank tried to be the new cool but failed. Meanwhile, Standard Trust Bank was just as aggressive as Zenith Bank, but lacked the branding vision, and certainly lacked the beautiful army to support its campaign for world domination.

First Bank in the meantime, was the undisputed champion of Nigerian banks. In the 90’s and early 2000s, there were First Bank branches with bigger balance sheets than other banks could boast of. And with the Century II makeover with their consultants Accenture, First Bank looked set to extend the gap between the old banks and the new crop who in many instances, could barely support their wage bills.

But there was no real strategy. At least, none was evident. First Bank remained slow and bureaucratic, relying on its reputation especially with government and big business. Where GTB staff spoke like they had crammed banking textbooks and learnt power dressing from Elle and GQ magazines, First Bank personnel were downright dowdy in comparison.

And if the Beautiful Bankers from Zenith were wearing people down with their aggression, their slow turning First Bank counterparts were seemingly unimpressed; and sadly unperturbed.

Fast forward 15 years and yes, Zenith Bank and GTBank are the top rated Nigerian banks. Worse still, First Bank seems to be struggling to stay afloat with worsening financials and poor outlook for the future. In truth, First Bank seems to have been struggling for several years now, with lower and lower dividend payouts to shareholders.

So what are the lessons here: established businesses must remain fresh. They must re-create themselves and keep in touch with changing trends. The buying demography in Nigeria changed many years ago, heralded by the growth of mobile telephony. Now, young people have a voice. Literally. And they have buying power, even if only secondary ability from parents and guardians.

GTBank expectedly reacted fastest to this change and has by far the strongest and most potent presence online and on social media.

Understand your market. Bankers the world over are expected to be sharp. Confident. Outlandish even. It is their peculiar way of branding, or as we say in Lagos, packaging. A conservative banker driving around in his cheap suits and old model Kia says all the wrong things about him and about his bank. Yet, this is exactly how the old banks like First Bank insisted on ‘selling’.

And then there were the entrepreneurs. Messrs Adeola and Ovia were hard fighting visionary entrepreneurs who saw the future and saw their roles in it. With sheer strength of personality, they broke barriers where others shied away, and with a strong team, gave all and more to their new enterprises.

Worse still, the old banks had salaried employee-CEOs in the face of the fearless young turks, who had everything to lose.

It would seem then that the lessons for the turnaround of the old banks are everywhere.

They only need to come off their high horses and large elephants to start the journey. This is ‘truly the first’ step forward.


Ifeanyi Maduka

Next up: we shall attempt a look at Diamond Bank, FCMB, and Sterling Bank. What do these 3 banks have in common?

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x