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Jeremy Awori often wonders if swapping ‘executive’ for ‘enablement’ in CEO would make for a more accurate representation of his role at Absa Bank Kenya. Much of his job, he explains, is to ensure that both focus and distribution of time and resources remain firmly in line with strategy.
“More often than not, I have to create an enabling environment where people can be at their best to deliver the best solutions for our customers,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
Even if it’s not his official job title, there’s no doubt that Awori has done a lot of enabling since he started in 2013 as Managing Director and CEO of what was then Barclay’s Bank Kenya; in fact, the opportunity to be the driver of significant change and transformation was what attracted him to the role.
“The business wasn’t going as well as it could have been, so part of my mandate was to change the trajectory of our performance,” he recalls. But there were other changes he was excited to oversee. “There was also the idea of change for the good of society, the community and the economy, because the bank is a significant player in the country.”
“We are going into new areas that we feel are relevant to our customers and providing solutions to them in the process.”
Awori knew he’d joined a strong retail and corporate bank, but he quickly noticed that what was lacking was a proper offering for the small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) in the market, which he describes as “the mainstay of an economy such as ours here in Kenya.”
With his team, he set to work establishing a whole new business segment with end-to-end product solutions and end-to-end digital capabilities to provide SMEs with solutions to run their businesses more effectively. “After all, if we support their growth, we will also grow,” he says. It’s a side of the business that has gone from strength to strength and is now one of the bank’s best-performing segments.
Expansion into the SME market has been the first step in what has become a multifaceted diversification strategy, Awori explains. “We were a relatively narrow business at that point,” he says. “Since then, we’ve put in place many new businesses to help drive our growth and position ourselves as one of the country’s top-performing banks.”
Risk management solutions, fixed income trading and insurance for both individual and business clients are among the new business propositions offered by the bank, as well as commercial property financing and investment banking.
“Our country is full of young people, so we’ve also really driven our digital offering,” he shares. But rather than focusing on the pure convenience offered by digital channels, Awori explains that the bank is harnessing the power of digital to deliver 24-hour access to its customers at a fraction of the cost – “all with a lot more reliability and consistency in performance.”
The launch of its app Timiza marked a high point of these efforts. “It’s a unique solution to make banking easy and accessible to the vast majority of the Kenyan population,” he enthuses, describing a fully holistic banking app where you can open an account in a matter of minutes. “You can make deposits, start savings, buy insurance and even immediately borrow small sums of money.”
Success has been immediate. “We’re very proud that, just 40 days after launch, we’d already had a million customers sign up,” he says. A period of controlled growth followed and, in less than two years, the app grew to five million users. “We are going into new areas that we feel are relevant to our customers and providing solutions to them in the process. That’s helping grow our customer base.”
In February 2020 the bank officially rebranded as Absa Bank Kenya, a consequence of Barclays’ decision to leave the African market. “That was a significant moment for us because Barclays had been here for 102 years,” he says. “It was a brand everyone knew, whereas people didn’t know the Absa name at all.”
As CEO, Awori was the face of the change. “I was personally out front, reassuring our customers that we were with them on this journey, and they could feel reassured their money was safe and that good times were ahead of us,” he explains.
Despite the new name, Awori has ensured the bank continues to keep true to its strategic purpose: to bring possibilities to life. “We are a purpose-led company and are strongly focused on the customer, so everything revolves around the customer and how we can solve their problems,” he says.
Along with continuing to drive growth across its core business – retail, corporate and business (including SME) banking – Awori still sees great opportunity to embed newer businesses “in areas where customers want to see us”, such as wealth management solutions and payments and remittances.
For example, the bank has recently launched unit trust investments – with a difference. “We want to make them accessible to all Kenyans, so we’ve brought the entry level down to less than €9.50 [US$9.98], so not just the wealthy can invest and save for good returns,” he points out.
“At the end of the day, it’s all predicated on the customer. We believe we need to be agile, innovative and quick. We need to find customer solutions, because if you’re not relevant to your customers, then you’re not moving forward with solutions that help them focus on their lives or their businesses, and they won’t bank with you.”
Innovation and transformation remain at the core of Awori’s strategy moving forward – as does sustainability. “We strongly believe in being a force for good across multiple aspects, whether that’s driving the Principles for Responsible Banking or signing up for the UN Global Compact Sustainable Development Goals,” he stresses. “These are now embedded in our day-to-day business practices, because we want to make sure what we do is right for our country, for our community and for the environment.”
“We strongly believe in being a force for good.”
Diversity is also playing a key role across all aspects of the business. Along with a clear policy to increase the percentage of suppliers that are female owned and operated businesses, and those run by younger members of the community, the bank has also launched a dedicated proposition for female business owners.
“The product has been created to provide banking services to women to empower and grow over one million female-led businesses in Kenya over the next five years,” Awori explains. Powered by a bank account called SHE, or See Her Empowered, it builds in key components such as mentoring and coaching in a marketplace-style platform to allow women to network for connections and find new opportunities to grow their businesses.
The bank has also partnered with the International Trade Centre to give Kenya’s female-led SMEs the opportunity to take their businesses international. For Awori, it’s one example of how Absa pulls together a whole ecosystem to develop capabilities “above and beyond what we are doing”.
“Evolution happens at a faster rate than we can necessarily keep up with,” he says. “We partner with subject matter experts to come up with unique propositions and packages.”
As a leader, Awori reflects that his primary motivators are creating impact and making a difference. “Now, more than ever, it’s also about achieving this at scale and in a positive way. After all, banking and financial services touch on everybody in one shape or form,” he says.
It’s little surprise, therefore, to learn he has no intention of slowing down as he looks to further enable positive impact within Absa’s customer base and the wider community. “We’re ever-evolving to keep relevant,” he adds. “But that also means we’ll never quite reach our destination.”