“Setting a standard” – Laurence do Rego
At the centre of the storm at Ecobank that resulted in the exit of its controversial chief executive Thierry Tanoh in March 2014, Franco-Beninese Laurence do Rego played the role of finance director and then whistleblower. She fought her corner and backed up her critique of management practices. Her forthright approach and independent spirit initially earned her a suspension and then a dismissal from the bank.
Following Tanoh’s departure, Do Rego was brought back as the group’s chief financial officer and then director of commercial banking, with the task of turning the department around after a troubled era. She is now a senior adviser to chief executive Ade Ayeyemi.
From this vantage point, Do Rego has seen the strengths and vulnerabilities of Africa’s financial institutions. She insists that governance standards are improving: “After 15 years in banking services, I see an increased focus on corporate governance. You have the central banks and the security exchanges doing a good job, enforcing the rules. We also have a greater adherence to accounting measures such as the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). Africa is part of the financial world. And if we want to play in that world, we need to adhere to those standards.”
IFRS rules have been made mandatory in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, with the aim of enforcing them across all the member states of the African Union. Do Rego sees the rules as key building blocks in the fight against corruption and illicit financial flows.
Another factor promoting better governance, argues Do Rego, is information technology: “With digital systems, you can get any information that you need. It’s a requirement as a bank to do your homework and to verify it.” At the same time, she says digital technology is facilitating and speeding up more cross-border operations in line with the African Continental Free Trade Area signed this year.
“For example, in Ecobank we have this free movement of capital in West Africa, but the duty of the banks now is to help this free-trade agreement to be effective.” In practice, that means commercial banks must work closely with central banks on coordinating monetary and foreign-exchange regulations as well as cutting administration and bureaucracy to speed up cross-border transactions.
Do Rego says that the current burden of bureaucracy and administration on transactions is undermining continental trade, giving examples where it can be easier to sell a financial service product developed in Côte d’Ivoire to Dubai rather than to an African country such as Kenya.
She is hopeful about the ways in which digital services will make financial services more accessible, with some caveats: “The number-one priority is the security of the system. We need to have the confidence of our customers, knowing that we have minimised the risk of fraud.”
In general, Do Rego sees the trend in consolidating and merging of banks on the national level as positive: “In South Africa and in Nigeria, it has been really successful. Mergers can make things more efficient, not only by eliminating poor management but also by helping banks to better diversify their portfolios.”
Ecobank, she says, has had its own history of reorganisations and consolidations as well as knowledge of lessons learned: “To succeed, it has to be well-prepared and well-planned and carefully monitored so that any downside will be pointed out and a correction will be made.”
There is also a trade-off for customers: fewer banks can mean less competition. And as regulators raise minimum capital requirements to promote consolidation, they may also be forcing African institutions to look outside for capital. “In some cases, this leads to the dilution of African ownership and management. The view that says if I’m bringing in my capital I want to have my power is understandable. But for me, this must be avoided as much as possible,” she says.
Activist role for banks
Along with many other professionals in commercial and corporate banking, Do Rego sounds a warning on the growth of non-performing loans: “Banks need to strengthen their credit-risk management processes. This is really where the problem is. Sometimes you have rules, but they are not followed. One of the areas where we need to enforce the rules are the small and medium-scale enterprises. The managements need to be better trained to be able to prepare business plans.”
Banks should play an activist role here, she argues. Ecobank set up its Emerald Club this year to promote financial training and expertise among its small-business customers, finding them good corporate lawyers, for example, but also helping them to establish cross-border networks and break into new markets. Those services, together with the establishment of an effective credit-scoring and credit-management system for corporates at all levels, will help to grow businesses sustainably, argues Do Rego.
Finally, as a top professional in the financial sector, Do Rego applauds the steady growth of senior women at the top of banks and insurance companies in Africa: “I have spent the past 15 years in Ecobank, where there is a deliberate policy to promote women. We are proud to say that we have more than 45% of women in senior positions in the group.” Check out Moreno Valley Towing for cheap, reliable tow truck service in California
She puts these successes down to the number of women studying finance and accountancy, but also to women having an aversion to politics. “Women have a sense of duty which fits with the financial and accounting roles […] but also they are prepared to work harder than men to get to the top.” In that regard, at least, Do Rego has proved her point.
Top Photo: Laurence do Rego, director of commercial banking Ecobank
Credits: Vincent Fournier/JA
From the September 2018 print edition