AHEAD OF THE CURVE

Ghana 2016 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Prince Kofi Amoabeng, Group President of UT Holdings, on businesses in the group, working in South Africa and Nigeria, and turning things around after a difficult 2015.

Prince Kofi Amoabeng
BIOGRAPHY
Prince Kofi Amoabeng is a retired military officer and an investment consultant. He graduated from the University of Ghana Business School. He is a fellow of the Chartered Institute Management Accountants (CIMA-UK) and a member of Chartered Accountants CA (GH). In 1997, he wanted to establish a finance house to provide timely and appropriate finance for businessmen who found it almost impossible to get such assistance from the traditional banking sector. After 15 years, UT is now a holding company with eight subsidiaries with a staff strength of over 1,000 and 26 bank branches scattered over seven out of the 10 regions of Ghana and others in Nigeria and South Africa.

How did the many lines of business under UT Holdings develop?

UT started as a unique financial services company and a finance house for lending to SMEs and the informal sector. Banks typically avoid serving this sector because it is risky and difficult to quantify due to a lack of data. Unfortunately, 78% of the economy falls into the informal sector, where companies need startup capital and funds to grow and expand. As we began to understand the SME market and its needs, we realized that we needed the support of other structures and institutions. We developed UT Logistics because we could not lend to importers safely unless the goods were first cleared, warehoused, and collateralized. The collateralization process requires a quick evaluation of properties, and we therefore expanded our capabilities further and established UT Properties. We later acquired UT Life to capitalize on synergies with our lending activity. UT Private Securities may ostensibly seem out of place with the rest of our business lines, but it integrates well with our group by supplying personnel and monitoring equipment for our clients, as one of our main concerns is ensuring clients' safety and respect. We had previously outsourced security services for our buildings and car parks, but this presented many difficulties so we decided to develop our own private security resources that fit better with our values.

How receptive has the market been to UT Holding's expansion of financial services in Nigeria and South Africa?

We have experienced a learning curve so far. We have had to review South Africa and start very small. The important lesson that we learned was that it is necessary to work with local partners for this kind of venture. In both Nigeria and South Africa we intend to establish relationships with local partners. Nigeria is interesting because when we entered that market we were being told that our operation would fail within its first year; that was over four years ago.

How would you evaluate access to capital for SMEs in Ghana?

We have been trailblazers in developing a capital market for SMEs in Ghana. We started with lending, but now provide a wide range of services to such an extent that the central bank even finds it difficult to replicate our model in some cases. Successfully providing capital support for SMEs is a matter of ensuring that any credit from the financial sector will be mutually beneficial to the client. We are keen to ensure that our loans are actually going to improve the life of the people receiving them.

The first half of 2015 was difficult for UT Bank. How did you manage to turn things around?

Ghana has had all sorts of economic hardships that culminated in the recent IMF bailout. Our problems of access to electricity, unstable currency, devaluation, high inflation, and high tariffs on utilities have all had a harsh impact on SMEs. Companies in the manufacturing sector recorded losses almost across the board because of the consequent reductions in their working capital. The currency depreciation damaged business in the services and trading sectors, which rely on imported goods. The government was not paying companies in the oil sector and recoveries were not being paid for offshore locations. The government was simply not paying its contractors and this affected us directly, unlike other banks that were not financing SMEs. We wanted to look at the problem from within because we cannot control the external economic environment. The issue became how to restructure our internal processes and systems to ensure that UT Bank can survive these downturns. We changed our management structure and examined the whole market to refocus on the sectors we wanted to be involved in. We identified, in this reassessment, our shortcomings, retrained our staff, and introduced a system to evaluate our risk management function and changed the credit appraisal process. We aggressively mobilized deposits in order to reduce the impact of the excessive rise in interest rates. We built on our existing retail loans to expand our portfolio of cheaper deposits. We recorded losses of approximately $7.4 million and $690,000 in 1Q2015 and 2Q2015, respectively, totaling 1H2015 losses at just over $8 million. We drastically reduced our losses and were back on the right track by 3Q2015 with a quarterly profit of over $950,000. We have the right plan in place and so we have high confidence in the team we have put together.