Access Interview: Zach Raymond, Chief Executive Officer at AB Bank Rwanda

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By Ivana Mitrovic

Zach joined Access Holding in 2020 as part of the leadership team at Access Bank Tanzania before moving to Rwanda in 2022 to work at AB Bank Rwanda.  Prior to joining Access Holding, Zach worked in South Africa (in the non-profit sector) and in the USA (in the financial services sector). 

I can acknowledge that our a high-level of cooperation amongst branch teams and head office drives our success.  From all angles we are working towards the same goals, we respect one another, and we share in the success together.

Zach, let us start by introducing the institution you took over in September last year. How would you describe AB Bank Rwanda? What were the main milestones and challenges for the bank in the past, as you see it?

ABR is a traditional microfinance bank that was launched in 2014.  The bank mainly serves micro-entrepreneurs and also small farmers throughout the country, with very small loans (averaging roughly €1,000 each).  Approximately half of ABR clients are in the capital city of Kigali, and the remainder are in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas.

Some historical challenges facing ABR included management of loan portfolio growth, loan repayment rates, and cost of fund.  On the positive side – the most critical milestone for ABR was realizing annual profitability in 2021, followed by true operational profitability in 2022.

For the last few years, the bank has shown improving results. What, in your opinion, were the main factors contributing to this?

Yes, indeed, results are consistently improving in the post-COVID era.  At the highest level, there are several factors which can be linked to this success. 

Firstly, ABR shifted focus to serve only micro-sized segments, and stopped working in the SME space.  This allowed the bank to place all attention and resources on a single segment of clients, ensuring that we can offer best-in-class financial services to meet their specific needs. As the portfolio rebalanced, the quality improved.

Secondly, ABR changed business models by launching its first credit outlet (rather than full branch) in 2018 (with a total of 14 credit outlets by 2020).  By 2021/22 all outlets reached maturity, and provided an efficient model for reaching clients in remote and rural areas.  This efficient operating model continues to be a pillar for ABR’s profitability and growth.

Thirdly, ABR embraced an approach driven by organic growth, systematic controls and continuous reflection and improvement.  The team spends significant time evaluating results, and collectively makes small adjustments to realize sustainable gains. 

What is the current focus of the bank? Can you tell us more about the strategy you and your team defined for the bank and how you plan to achieve your long-term goals?

This year our focus is on portfolio growth and quality improvement. Our strategy emphasizes alignment, simplicity, and system-driven processes. 

With that in mind, the Business team was recently restructured to separate credit and banking service teams to enable our team to maximize focus. Further changes were introduced to best align institutional and individual goals, which included revising key performance indicators, targets, and incentives et. al.

Our team also introduced specific new strategies to drive performance.  On the growth side, we are now delivering more loans in shorter times through seamless and centralized credit scoring. On the quality side, our improving repayment rate is a testament to our centralized underwriting unit (which protects us from high-risk lending) and our recovery unit (which ensures appropriate steps are quickly taken to prevent overdues). 

Importantly, it is with strong collaboration between our branch teams and supporting cast that we are able to find ourselves achieving our desired goals.

What enables AB Bank Rwanda’s teams to be successful while engaged in strategic projects?

At ABR we tend to see success when we follow a process which involves compartmentalizing goals, simplifying responsibilities, building a system-driven solution, ensuring alignment across all roles, providing deep training to our team, monitoring procedural compliance and performance results consistently, and evaluating and adapting as necessary.

Beyond this, I can acknowledge that our a high-level of cooperation amongst branch teams and head office drives our success.  From all angles we are working towards the same goals, we respect one another, and we share in the success together.

It is well known that the top management sets the culture in the institution. Tell us more about the values AB Bank Rwanda propagates and their alignment with the strategy and culture.

ABR launched new company values in 2022 through an inclusive collaboration between Access Holding’s People Partnership department, our local Human Resources department, and a selection of ABR staff representatives. 

Together seven key values were identified: Performance, People Development, Ethics, Innovation, Teamwork, Transparency, and Customer Delight. Work to promote and institutionalize these values across our team continued into 2023 through in-person trainings for all staff and through the dedication of key Values Ambassadors in our branches.

As we look forward, we are continuing to develop initiatives to recognize and highlight our teammates who embody these values, across all levels and locations, in order to continue to develop our unique culture.

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