Digitalisation is changing the banking sector. We talk to John Awuah, CEO of UMB, a recently rebranded Ghanaian bank at the forefront of banking digital innovation in the country.


Digitalisation is at the heart of the transformation of our economy and society. But has the banking sector been slow to catch on?


The banking sector no longer operates in a silo. Digitalisation means that customers both expect and need real-time services. Factors such as the introduction of third-party apps requiring payment mean that banks need to respond in an agile fashion while ensuring compliance with the regulation that protects customers.


Will banking start-ups embrace new technologies faster, putting themselves ahead of the competition? We talk to Mr. John Awuah, CEO of UMB; an indigenous Ghanaian bank that operated in Ghana for decades before rebranding itself as UMB in 2014. UMB recorded an impressive 151% year-on-year increase in profit before tax, a 46% year-on-year increase in operating income and a 39% year-on-year increase in customer deposits.


What would you say you’ve learned about building a successful financial enterprise?

I have been Senior Finance Officer in two multinational Banks in the Country and the Chief Finance Officer for three different banks, before assuming this role as the CEO of Universal Merchant Bank (UMB). Senior finance roles give you a bird’s eye view of an enterprise, so I dwell a lot on experiences from prior roles to guide my path.

I have also handled projects that took me into other territories and in unfamiliar career environments. For example, I have undertaken professional assignments in many African countries and beyond the continent, thereby broadening my horizon and strengthening my ability to function in cross-functional territories and in multinational teams.

As a finance professional, you have a broad view of the business. By virtue of my role, I was involved in strategic business decision-making and had the opportunity to interact with the right people at various levels. This experience has very much informed and built my competencies around how to extract the best from the environment of a financial institution.

The key is to understand and effectively manage how you organise and deploy your talent to provide a strong platform for organisational performance. You need to draw on the expertise and experiences of your team to enrich your decision making – having good people who believe in what the organisation stands for and want to achieve is a good starting point.

Communicating and propagating your vision and the institutional goals are critical to building a performance-driven and results-oriented financial institution. It should be such that everyone can rally around with ease. Similarly, you must walk the talk and ensure that whatever values you are espousing as part of your vision, you are the one to live it first.

What has been your strategy for developing UMB as a financial institution?

One aspect which I’ve already mentioned is, encouraging the imaginations of, and whipping up the energies of, your colleagues.

At UMB, we have a platform that encourages members of staff to send innovative and business changing ideas to a team tagged the ‘UMB Innovation Team’ – their job is to ensure that ideas that are shared are discussed dispassionately, and they endeavor to convert innovative suggestions into the way of life of the Bank.

Some brilliant ideas have come through there, and most of which we have, in one way or the other, implemented. But I am still waiting for that stellar idea that will completely change the way we do things at UMB. I know it will come soon.

More importantly, we are automating as much of our processes as possible as we seek to fully digitise our operations and service delivery. We are the digital bank of the future.

So, can you elaborate more on your digital strategy? How does that help to stabilise the banking institution in your view?

The world is changing. If you cast your mind back a few years, banking was so different. The way banking is practiced now, both from the practitioner side and from the client side is significantly different. In fact, the only constant in banking now is change, and we need to ensure that we are at the forefront of that change, and not overtaken by industry events.

We value every customer feedback and through our internal mechanisms we focus on translating meaningful customer feedback into enhanced product and service solutions that are relevant to our customers.

Our view has always been – and in all dialogues, I say this – not to become bankers, but ultimately to make the customers their own bankers. Consequently, we need to ensure that we have the right tailored bouquet of services so we do not decide products for our clients. We pick and design products from our interactions with the customers. That’s the sure way to guarantee business continuity.

We are a part of a vast banking ecosystem and we cannot afford to remain stagnant. UMB has been in banking for 46 years now and our goal is to become an industry leader. So what we do today matters a lot. That’s one more reason why we are investing heavily in banking technology to offer superior services to our customers in a secure, reliable, and inexpensive manner while sustaining competitive advantage.

Of all the projects we are implementing, we prioritise our digital technology projects to ensure we have the best platform to drive the process going forward.

You’ve launched the UMB SpeedApp, the mobile banking application for UMB, this year. How has that impacted the business?

To be honest, our UMB SpeedApp is the first product I sell when I interact with customers. I had a meeting recently where I got all four guests to download and self-register on the app. As a live demonstration, I was immediately able to effect a transaction with one of them. It was fast and seamless, and it makes me very proud that we have a product that works.

We are trying to have a similar product for our corporate customers in the very near future. We want to have a seamless transition from the mobile App to our internet and any surround service delivery. I can confidently say that we have one of the best mobile banking applications in the industry.

We want to have one of the best social media presences, so our interactions with the customer will not be on just TV and radio, but wherever the customer is. If they are in the classroom and they are checking something on the internet, they can have a chat with us. Live chat, log on, make a complaint or a request. It’s all about improving customer experience.

Now, do you foresee this strategy affecting the overall finances for the bank in the coming years?

Of course, and positively. If you make life easier for customers, then the decision to transact frequently with you is more likely and easier for the customer. At most times in the past few weeks, our mobile app was the most trending financial services app in the country, which we are happy to know.

And we are doing all this with the customer as the number one priority. If the customer is satisfied and we don’t profit, we are happy for the reason that the customer will do more business with us and cause a rippling effect. In the end, we will make the desired profit.

Our focus is not how we can profit or extract a lot of financial benefit from our investments now, but how can we make it more efficient, make it less cumbersome, and make it very seamless from platform to platform.

When our UMB SpeedApp was ready – that was October last year – we invited PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to conduct a penetration and vulnerability assessment for us to better understand the potential security threats we could face. Speed to market is important but speed with robust security profile around the digital infrastructure is critical. We can now conveniently say that the app is safe, and security-wise, we’ve done everything we have to do. There’s a bit of the security that is in the hands of the customer, access to PIN and how they guard their mobile devices. Once you can control your side, we can safely say that our app is one of the best on the market regarding security as well as resilience.

Where do you hope to take UMB in the next ten years?

We want to be one of the top five banks in Ghana. Once we conclude our capital raising programme (which I am happy to report is nearing conclusion), we can then focus our energies on strategic mergers and acquisitionsWe have a substantial agenda to deliver and we are on course to meet our set objectives.

We want to have the right size and most importantly, operate a lean and clean business which means using a lot of alternate channels. Similarly, we want to be able to transact country-wide and not necessarily have branches all over the country. That’s smart banking – being present without presence.