Access Interview: Thomas Engelhardt, CEO of AccessHolding

Published by Aixa Alabi on

By Ivana Mitrovic

Thomas Engelhardt is AccessHolding’s Chief Executive Officer. He joined LFS Advisory GmbH in 1996 and became a partner in 2004. Since the foundation of AccessHolding in 2006, Thomas has served on the management board. He was also the first General Manager of AccessBank Azerbaijan and held other managerial positions in Berlin and abroad.

For me, this is the privilege of building a company and being high in the hierarchy: you don’t have to deform yourself, and you have the power to ensure that others also don’t have to.

Thomas, you joined LFS, the founder of AccessHolding, quite a time ago – last year you celebrated your 25th anniversary. Not long after, in December, you became our new CEO. That is imposing –congratulations! Tell me, please, how do you feel regarding those achievements?

Yes, 25 years in LFS and Access is a long time – half of my life and almost 100% of my professional life. We have achieved a lot during this time – from a 3- or 4-people start-up to a network of banks. But we have also seen ups and downs. What I feel strongest about is that we have always maintained a humane atmosphere – the dignity of each colleague, partner and client stands above any professional dispute, diverging interest or crisis. For me, this is the privilege of building a company and being high in the hierarchy: you don’t have to deform yourself, and you have the power to ensure that others also don’t have to.

What can we expect from you as a leader?

No top-down bullshit, an expectation of self-organised, determined work and no bottom-up bullshit. Doors (which physically don’t exist in our office anyway) are open – any colleague can come to me, and I will do my best to address any problem or take up a suggestion.

Let’s talk about the last year: according to current estimates, the AccessGroup reached a profit after tax of above EUR 10 million and a Return on Equity of above 10%. How do you see the last year’s results? Can you reflect on the reasons that contributed to those impressive results?

Many factors contributed to this: continued strong results of star performers like Credo, AB Madagascar, and AB Nigeria, solid development of emerging stars like AB Zambia, AB Liberia and Arvand, and stabilisation and turn-around of formerly loss-making banks like AB Rwanda and AB Tanzania. Also, the absence of currency or other unexpected crises – Covid, of course, remains a significant health and economic concern, but we have coped well.

But behind all this is the intense work of our six  thousand colleagues – multi-year initiatives like in digitisation start to pay off, Covid-crisis management was excellent, and the every-day determination and drive in our banks allowed us to make use of business opportunities – awaiting final figures it looks like our outstanding loan portfolio grew by more than 40% this year.

Another significant milestone happened last year –  AccessHolding’s investee Credo Bank acquired a 100% share in Finca Bank, Georgia. What can we expect from this merger in the future?

This was a beautiful transaction – superbly executed from start to finish: we onboarded a new very strong investor in Credo – Proparco acquired a 15% stake. We then co-operated very constructively with Finca Holding on the sale transaction itself, and the Credo and Holding teams did a fantastic job integrating operations, branches and staff. I recommend looking at Ani’s interview recently published here for some details. And finally, we used the opportunity and established an Employee Stock Ownership Program for Credo’s management team – welcome to Zaza & his team to the world of shareholders.

What will it bring for Credo? Georgia is a small country, and one of the most essential assets of a bank is the number of clients. Credo now has more than 350 thousand borrowers – this is close to 10% of the population! The acquisition gives us access to 70 thousand additional customers, who can now make use of Credo’s wide product range. Just three years after becoming a bank, Credo now has the fifth-largest loan portfolio.

Let us mention one of last year’s challenges: AccessHolding started closing its investment in Brazil. Can you tell us a story about AccessCredito?

A German footballer once said: first we had bad luck, and then misfortune came on top of that. This quite well describes the fate of our investment in Brazil. In the final stage, Covid hit Manaus in a terrible way, taking a high toll on our customers and staff. Given our overall constraints, it became impossible to continue trying to make the institution a success. We have now returned our license as a financial institution and expect to close the operation in the coming months.

Some of us hoped that the Covid story would slowly come to its end with the invented vaccine last year. At the beginning of the new year, the world is still fighting its battle against the same enemy. What are your predictions on Covid’s further implications on global economics, and more specifically, how do you see further economic development in the African countries AccessHolding has operations?

Yes, the fight is long and far from over. At the same time, a lot of progress has been made; vaccination is a big part of this. We see huge differences in staff vaccination rates across our banks. I hope that ever more of our colleagues – and clients – will see the benefits of a vaccination: in the first place Covid is and remains a health risk, and the most severe risk can be practically excluded by a few shots into the upper arm.

On the economic side, the world has become better at limiting the economic consequences of the pandemic. As of now, we do not expect that lockdowns and related payment difficulties for our customers will be a widespread phenomenon. But of course, (…)

(…) we will remain alert, and where necessary, we will be technically and financially equipped to react to any crisis development.

And, for the end, can you share some of the plans AccessHolding has for the future? How do you see the global trend, and what will AccessHolding’s focus be in 2022?

We will continue our successful work in each of our banks – all of them have submitted budgets looking at an enhanced performance compared to 2021. For the time being, the global trend remains favourable for us but shaky. Political, health, currency or economic crises may jeopardise the positive development. But for the time being, we are on a good way.

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