Africa Leaders Magazine

BUKOLA SMITH – Chief Executive Officer of FSDH Merchant Bank

Bukola Smith holds an MBA from Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, U.K, and a B.Sc. Economics from the University of Lagos. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accounts of Nigeria (ICAN), Honorary Member of the Chartered Institute of Bankers and an Associate Member, Certified Institute of Pensions (Nigeria).

BUKOLA SMITH - Chief Executive Officer of FSDH Merchant Bank - African Leaders Magazine

Bukola became the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of FSDH Merchant Bank in April 2021. She brings 29 years of progressive experience in the banking industry with a track record of strategic execution and leadership. Before her appointment as Managing Director, she was the Executive Director, Business Development at First City Monument Bank and held several other leadership positions since joining in 2006. She was responsible for the banks over 200 branches across the country, Public Sector, Business Banking, Agriculture and Transaction Banking Divisions. Under her, the bank’s SME focused team in 3 years moved from 5th position in the industry to 1st position in 2019 (KPMG Customer Service Report 2020). In addition, she established the FCMB Women in Business Desk (branded SheVentures) which supports female entrepreneurs; and set up FCMB Trustees and FCMB Custody.

Prior to joining FCMB in 2006, she worked with FSB International Bank from 1992 to 2000 and Fidelity Bank plc from 2000 to 2006 gaining experiences in several areas of banking including treasury operations, international trade services, foreign and local currency trading, bond trading, Correspondent Banking and relationship management of Non-Bank Financial Institutions and Private Banking Clients. Bukola currently sits on the boards of Women in Successful Careers (WISCAR), and the Toyin Oni Foundation (NGO for cancer awareness). She serves as a mentor to several young women within and outside these networks.

First Securities Discount House Limited, the precursor to FSDH Merchant Bank Limited, was incorporated in June 1992 as the first discount house to operate in Nigeria. In the new era, FSDH Merchant Bank Limited was one of the first companies to be granted a merchant banking license in the country.

Over the years, the FSDH Merchant Bank has become a financial services supermarket that delivers expert financial services within Nigeria and to select clientele, in order to create long term sustainable wealth.

She had an interview with ABIODUN SANUSI about her career, childhood, family and other issues

BUKOLA SMITH - Chief Executive Officer of FSDH Merchant Bank - African Leaders Magazine

Were you born into a wealthy family?

I find this question very interesting. I was not born into a wealthy family per se. However, I was born into a privileged middle-class family. I was privileged in the sense that I grew up in a very loving and united family where all the children were allowed to express themselves as they felt necessary. I was also privileged because my father was a civil servant and my mother was a banker. Coming from such a background, one was always encouraged to do one’s best.

What are some of your fondest childhood memories?

I have many and I can talk endlessly about them. In those days, there were no fences in (many) houses, so one could jump from one neighbour’s house to the other.

As a child, we also used to pretend to be ‘daddy and mummy’. We would make imaginary meals, then pretend we were cooking and eating. Meanwhile, the times we were playing those games were supposed to be spent observing siesta. Back then, my father had a habit of honking whenever he drove into the street. Once he did that, we would know he was around, so we would run back home and jump on our beds, pretending that we were sleeping.

My parents were an integral part of my life. My father used to accompany me to take exams such as the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Exams and Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination. Even when I was in the university, my parents would take me to school, at least in my first year, and make sure I settled in well. Those are memories I cherish.

How would you describe your experience as a student of the University of Lagos?

Studying Economics at UNILAG was an amazing experience. Again, this was influenced by my background. My father is an economist, while my mum was a banker.

Attending UNILAG was exciting. At that time, my older siblings were also students of the school. I made a lot of friends that I still keep in contact with. Being away from home and having some level of independence was an interesting part of being in the university.

My brothers had told me me that if one wanted to make a second class upper, one would have to start working towards it from the first year. So, I knew that even though I was excited about being on campus, it had to be a combination of work, academics and to some extent, fun. I was focused on my academics and I ensured I maintained good grades. Thankfully, I was able to achieve an upper-class credit because of the advice I received.

What were the highlights of your time at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom) for your Master’s degree in Business Administration?

That was another focal point of my career. My parents ensured that all their children earned master’s degrees. So, bagging a Master’s degree was not only for myself or my career but also to help my parents achieve what they considered a goal for their children. I got my Master’s degree about 20 years into my career, and that was about 10 years ago.

However, the choice of Manchester Business School was very specific. I wanted a programme that wouldn’t entail me leaving my job. It was a high-grade programme, so I could be on-site twice a year and still be doing my job. It was, indeed, an excellent programme for me at that time. Also, I enrolled for the programme when my youngest child was just a year old. It was a fine balance for me and I was able to go through that three-year programme. It helped my career as it was a significant aspect of moving on to the next level.

It was exciting and quite different from my experience in UNILAG. It was more of a combination of academia and real-life experiences. I liked the approach with case studies and learning from the experiences of people in the past. The class was very diverse, as there were people from different cultural backgrounds. Interactions with them made it a very enriching programme for me. I never experienced any racial prejudice while there.

BUKOLA SMITH - Chief Executive Officer of FSDH Merchant Bank - African Leaders Magazine

What inspired you to go into banking?

Watching my mum’s life was an inspiration. Seeing the way, she balanced work and family was an excellent motivation for me. I have a sibling who is also a banker, while another one is an economist. Our parents were major influences on our career choices, though they did not tell us what career path to follow.

How would you describe your time as a young banker at FSB International Bank (now part of Fidelity Bank)?

FSB was my first job in the banking industry. I remember when I just finished the mandatory National Youth Service Corps scheme and I was looking for a job. I got a couple of offers, including one from a leading Nigerian bank. However, when it was time to accept one (of the offers), I chose FSB even though one of the other banks offered me more money. My dad was surprised at my choice, so he decided to make enquiries about all the banks, and later told me he thought I had made the right decision. What struck me about FSB was the ambience. The environment was lovely and the people appeared to be fantastic, even during the interview process. From the way they embraced me during the interview, I felt welcomed and loved. That got me interested in working with them. I was not disappointed when I got into the organisation because they nurtured me and invested in me until I became the Managing Director. It was really a beautiful experience because I was allowed to move across different areas of banking, including funds transfer, cash and teller, customer service, letter of credit, and international trade, where I had a significant portion of my operational experience.

It was also at FSB that I moved to the treasury department where I spent a significant portion of my career. It was a springboard to where I am today, and indeed, it was a fantastic experience.

You once worked as a customer service agent. What can you recall of that experience?

My customer service experience was also during my time at FSB, and it was lovely because I interacted with customers. In those days, there were more physical interactions, unlike what we have now. Then, whenever people came into the bank, we would welcome them with smiles. It (stint in customer service) helped me to settle pretty well into the banking industry. If there is reincarnation and I come to his world again, I would start (my banking career) from the customer care section and gradually move to other more challenging areas.

What are your duties as a member of the subcommittee that handles the bankers’ annual retreat?

I became a member of the committee by virtue of the fact that I am the managing director of FSDH. We have an organising committee whose duty it is to make sure the annual retreat for bank CEOs goes well. I was part of that subcommittee last year, and we ensured that we held a successful event last December.

What challenges relating to the transfer of funds do you think should be eliminated?

Actually, Nigeria has made significant progress in that regard. Many years ago, things were done manually but now, the transfer of funds happens in a jiffy. We do everything on our phones, and it doesn’t take time for banks to effect high-valued transactions these days. Nigeria is miles ahead of other African countries in that area. We are also ahead of many countries when it comes to transfer of funds. We just need to continue working on the security of funds because as funds move quickly, there is also the risk of cyber fraud, which is an area where we need to work ahead of the fraudsters, so that customers would not lose their money.

BUKOLA SMITH - Chief Executive Officer of FSDH Merchant Bank - African Leaders Magazine

In your opinion, how well is Nigeria faring when it comes to international trade?

Nigeria is predominantly an import economy. We rely so much on imports, and we need to change that. We need to work towards ensuring a balanced trade system where we export more than we import in order to conserve our foreign reserves. Fortunately, the incumbent Governor of the Central Bank, Godwin Emefiele, talks a lot about our reserves and the management of our foreign exchange. We need to invest more in our foreign reserve than we currently do. We also need to stop spending too much on buying (things) from other countries. Rather, we should be selling more.

What basic investment advice do you think everyone needs?

That is one significant area of our operation. Growing up, I developed a saving culture from an early age, and my parents were instrumental to my learning that early in life. I can recall my father telling me not to spend money on buying a TV set because it is not an asset. He stated that it would lose value over time because newer versions are constantly being produced. He advised me to save and invest, and I began ‘putting’ my money in stocks and securities. My advice to people is that they should save and invest as much as they can. They should not spend on frivolous things. It is good to prioritise (one’s expenditure). I used to save 20 per cent of my salary and other earnings.

If you were not a banker, what would you have become?

I would definitely have become a teacher. I still teach whenever I am able to. If I had taken teaching as a career, I would have worked in a primary or secondary school because I love being with children.

Aside from banking, what are your other interests?

I am a member of a platform called Women in Successful Careers. It was set up 11 years ago and I have been a mentor since its inception.

What I do now at WISCA is to mentor young ladies in their careers. I find it interesting because it is my way of giving back to society. My desire is to replicate myself among a number of young ladies, and WISCA gives me that platform. I am the director in charge of finance and sustainability. I am also in charge of fundraising for the organisation’s annual events.

As an ICAN fellow, what changes would you like to see in the banking sector?

I would like to see more women at the top in the banking industry. Last year was a very encouraging year for females in the banking sector, given that we now have eight females as CEOs and MDs of banks. The pledge (female bank executives) we made was to encourage more women so that there would be more females at senior levels in the banking sector.

I would also like to see a decent balance between both genders in that regard. I would like to see policies that can improve the sector.

What were your major highlights while working at the First City Monument Bank?

There was a time I actually walked up to my boos and asked him to challenge me some more, considering the fact that I had spent so much time in the treasury department and I felt I needed to do more. So, he gave me more work even while I was still in the treasury department. I set up a trustee and a team that were in charge of project financing. He put me in charge of so many departments, and it was my first time representing any entity on the board. That exposed me to a lot of governance issues, and pivoted my career because it helped me understand board dynamics and how to craft a strategy for businesses.

My time at FCMB was positively challenging and interesting. I spent three years in the audit department, and that coincided with when I was doing my MBA. The audit (department) gave me a different flavour and a total overview of what being a banker is. My interface with the police and other law enforcement agencies was when I got into the audit department. It was an excellent combination for me before I moved back to the front office.

I like to travel and my role as an executive director of the bank at the time enabled me to explore Nigeria. I was able to see the South-Eastern region, some parts of the Northern region.

There were 270 branches of FCMB at the time and managing all those branches and people with the knowledge that I had some influence over people’s careers was a responsibility and a burden that I did not handle with levity. It was a privilege and I think I navigated that quite well.

How would you describe your experience as the MD/CEO of FSDH?

It has been a very humbling experience. The buck stops on my table, and it is a big privilege because the decisions I make impacts all stakeholders of the bank, including shareholders, regulator and employees. They are all looking up to my office to ensure that the boat does not sink. It is a huge burden, though one that I love because it makes me accountable. It makes me want to always thrive and do better. It’s a privilege to be in charge and direct things, and I appreciate working with amazing and fantastic people at FSDH.

What challenges do you face at this stage of your career?

Life is full of challenges and I regard them as stepping stones. Running an institution on a day-to-day basis has its challenges. However, the greatest challenge I have experienced here is from the regulatory bodies. There are some policies that, although are necessary, make my role more difficult. One of those things we face as a merchant bank is the policy of the Central Bank of Nigeria regarding cash reserve requirements. The CRR is where the CBN ‘sterilises’ some of the banks’ deposits, and they are not allowed to lend such funds out. In the past, the CRR of merchants banks used to be two per cent while that of commercial banks was 27 and a half per cent. But, a couple of years ago, the percentage was made equal and that became a big challenge for merchant banks. Aside from that, there are also arbitrary debits that cannot be fully explained. We understand why it is done because it is one of the tools the CBN uses to moderate liquidity in the system, and handle issues relating to foreign exchange. However, these policies affect merchant banks more because our mode of operation is different from that of commercial banks. Commercial banks can garner retail deposits, but merchant banks cannot do that. So, in competition, all these put merchant banks at a disadvantage, compared to commercial banks. However, we are constantly engaging our regulators, and we hope they would listen to us, and make policies that would enable us to serve our customers better and compete better than we can at the moment.

What major differences are there between heading a commercial bank and a merchant bank?

One of the greatest shocks I got when I first arrived at FSDH as MD, was the size of the bank. The decent size— two branches and a head office— is a major difference when compared to managing a commercial bank with over 200 branches.

However, the possibility of scaling is also different. Merchant banks deal with high-end and ‘midway corporate’, while commercial banks deal more with ‘retail corporate’. Merchant banks deal with high-level and mid-sized individuals, while commercial banks do all what merchant banks do. With the licence we have as a merchant bank, we can do a lot of financial advisories, while a commercial bank would need a different licence to do that.

What legacy do you want to leave behind as the managing director of the bank?

My major focus would be on strategy, people, governance and technology. The bank has always done well, and it has always made a decent return to shareholders, and we want to continue to make our stakeholders happy.

We have begun perfecting our strategies. We are ensuring that we would be the top five in every line of businesses we go into. We want to be known to be supportive of our customers, and ensure that they get whatever they desire, be it equity, debt advisory or product equity. Our customers are very key to our operation. Our people (staff) are also very important because they are knowledgeable and are experts in their fields who can give the best advice needed by our clients.

Concerning technology, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we can do great things with technology. With many people around the world now effectively working from home, we are investing a lot in technology to ensure support for businesses across the spectrum.

How have you been able to manage your family and career without hitches?

I am constantly joggling my activities to create a balance. I think I am one of those fortunate women that have very supportive husbands. I have an excellent support network that enables me to enjoy the best of both worlds. My husband is one of my greatest fans and supporters. I doff my hat for single mothers because they are doing a tremendous job. I cannot imagine how it would have been for me without the support of my husband. I am also glad I have a whole community that helps me focus on my work and career. I have three children, and the time I spend with them is not in the quantity but the quality. My job takes me around a lot. However, I manage whatever time I have effectively by investing in the lives of people who matter to me. I can distinguish between work and family, thanks to my support network.

What advice do you have for young women who aim to be successful in the banking sector?

My advice to everyone— females and males— is that they should remain focused and never give up no matter the situation of the country or their challenges. If others could succeed despite the challenges, then everyone else can succeed. It is better to be part of solution providers than to remain a grumbler.


What are your hobbies?

I love to swim, read and work. I do a lot of tutoring for young people as well. I love spending time talking with them.

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