The fortunes of the once bubbling Heritage Bank have continued to sink deeper and deeper, gradually moving from a state of comatose to a complete death situation with customers’ deposits on the line if nothing is done immediately by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to salvage the situation, THE WITNESS reports.
Founded with a unique philosophy to create, preserve and transfer wealth to its customers, today, the reverse is the case as the lender has continued to create, preserve and transfer anguish, pain and poverty to its depositors nationwide.
The bank was established in 2012 and began operations with a sweet story of hard work and determination emerging from a business combination of Heritage Banking Company Limited (HBCL) and Enterprise Bank Limited (EBL) after the acquisition of Societe Generale of Nigeria’s (SGBN) license by IEI Investment Ltd from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). IEI Investment Limited is owned by Mr. Ifie Sekibo, the pioneer managing director cum chief executive officer of the bank.
The sweet story continued as Heritage Bank returned 100 per cent of existing SGBN account holders’ funds which were frozen at the closure of the SGBN. This move brought a lot of smiles to the faces of former account holders and inspired many of them to open new accounts with Heritage Bank. In October 2014, Heritage Banking Company Ltd successfully met the requirements of the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) and the CBN toward owning 100% shares in Enterprise Bank Ltd.
SGBN, which was incorporated in December 1976 and commenced full banking operations in August 1977, pioneered the introduction of e-banking services including its flagship, the 24/7 Cashpoint through the Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) in 1990. Heritage Bank, however, continued with this legacy as the bank invested heavily on technology and in a few years, the lender rose to become one of the leading financial service providers in the country.
Despite finding itself in a fiercely competitive banking environment, the bank remained resilient, navigating through and was steadily rising to compete with the bigger Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) in the country.
Heritage Bank, however, ran into troubled waters in 2016 when the anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) raised its hammer against the lender following a series of alleged fraud and money laundering cases.
For instance, in one of those major cases, a Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Lagos had ordered the final forfeiture of the sums of N1,260,000,000, $327,132.35, £167.85 and €157.90 which were allegedly hidden in the bank. The order came following an ex parte application filed by the EFCC, against Heritage Bank and Secure Electronics Technology Limited. The funds were discovered, following an intelligence report received by the commission, and investigations which revealed no owner to the funds. In an affidavit in support of the application, EFCC stated that Heritage Bank did not provide any legitimate explanation for the monies and “consequently returned the said money through 16 separate bank drafts issued in favour of the EFCC Recovered Funds Account.”
Just immediately after this, in 2019, the bank again found itself battling with corporate governance and operational stability/sustainability issues, prominent of which included, but not limited to the acquisition of Enterprise Bank – a transaction that turned out to be a major strategic error – and non-performing loans (NPLs) portfolio, which was at the time, amongst the most challenged in the industry.
At the acquisition of Enterprise Bank, Heritage bought some outstanding loans over. Some influential personalities who had secured loans from the defunct Enterprise Bank however refused to pay back the facilities.
These and other impending factors however placed the bank on a slow pace, making it navigate steadily while setting up approaches to surmount its many challenges and return to its old glory.
From a rising profile and astrological growth, Heritage Bank’s shining light has however begun to dim and dim almost crossing the redline except something drastic is done by the CBN to rescue it.
It is however shocking that at a time the bank is in dire need of capitalization, the current managing director and chief executive of the bank, Mr. Akinola George-Taylor and some board members are entangled a boardroom tussle for the soul of the lender, compounding the bank’s many challenges.
Recall, that THE WITNESS had exclusively reported that the tussle which had led to the sack of several officials of the bank by Mr. George-Taylor was allegedly in a bid by a top shareholder of the bank to solely take over the lender and get rid of the owners.
Another report by an online newspaper (not THE WITNESS) suggested that the bank’s head of IT had absconded with a whopping N49 billion of depositors’ funds without trace. Although the lender had in a statement dismissed the news as “wrong and defamatory,” our investigations revealed that the situation in the bank has degenerated as some of its customers informed THE WITNESSthat they have been unable to access their funds.
Fresh findings by THE WITNESS show that the bank’s bankruptcy issues, and inability to meet obligations to depositors have worsened and grown from bad to worse since Mr. George-Taylor assumed office as the bank’s head honcho in September 2022.
A visit by our correspondents to most of the bank’s branches in Lagos, Abuja, Ogun, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Benin City, shows that the entire system and activities of the bank has been completely shut down.
“Do you know that it’s so bad that they could not pay me a paltry sum of N50, 000 at the counter. I have been to branches on Victoria Island, Marina, Idumota, they said they don’t have cash to pay. I even asked my staff who lives on the Mainland to check their branches on Allen Avenue and at Adeniyi Jones, it’s the same story of no cash. My business is crumbling because I couldn’t access my funds in the bank. Their ATM machines have been shut down for months. Is it not time for the CBN to take over the bank and give us our money?” a frustrated customer of the bank, identified as Dabiri Adekunle told our correspondent during a visit to the bank’s branch located at Plot 115, Adeola Odeku Street, Victoria Island Lagos.
Some of the affected customers have, however, taken their pains to the social media even as the CBN keeps mute over the situation.
The bank is now a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
Some depositors took the battle to the Facebook page of the bank, https://web.facebook.com/HeritageBankPlc to narrate their ordeal.
Experts accuse Emefiele of politics, ask new CBN chief take immediate action
Meanwhile, financial analysts and stakeholders have tackled the CBN under the suspended governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele for refusing to take action over the distressed state of the bank.
Some of the analysts who spoke to THE WITNESS accused Emefiele of playing politics at the expense of depositors’ sweat in the bank despite seeing the risk and not wielding its hammer on the bank despite its troubled and distressed state.
They however urged the new CBN chief to take immediate action by nationalizing the bank like others in the past to save it from complete collapse even as the lender crosses the redline.
Mr Henry Effiong, an economic analyst, told THE WITNESS that the CBN needed to take a closer look, considering that the bank is not listed on the capital market which would have enabled public scrutiny.
“I believe Heritage Bank is getting away with its underperformance because it is not listed on the capital market and not open to public scrutiny. The CBN needs to set up its oversight functions over these banks, especially those not listed on the exchange,” he asserted. But from what we can see, Heritage Bank is in dire need of re-capitalization and if the owners cannot step up on its task, the apex bank should rise to its responsibility by withdrawing its license and resurrecting the institution from complete collapse.
“I think the suspended governor of the CBN, Godwin Emefiele has some questions to answer about the state of Heritage Bank. He might have been involved in some kind of politics because why should he leave to degenerate to this state and pretend that all is well?
“The new Acting Governor of the CBN should immediately set up a committee to review the state of Heritage Bank and if necessary, revoke its license and restructure the bank to stay afloat,”
Making a similar case, Mr. Kayode Olorunfemi, a capital market expert noted that the quality of services Nigerian banks offer their customers are nothing to be desired, especially those not listed on the stock market.
“The major culprits are banks that are not listed on the stock exchange like Heritage Bank,” he said.
He explained further that, “when a bank’s leadership and corporate governance policies are zero, it will surely fail. This is the story of Heritage Bank.
“I think so many things are wrong with the bank and surprisingly, the CBN has feigned ignorance. The CBN needs to look into these banks to protect depositor’s funds, especially at this time that the economy is seriously challenged.
“It must take seriously the series of customers’ complaints against Heritage Bank and other banks that are not on the stock market.”
“We cannot afford to witness another drama in the banking sector like the 2009 crisis. It’s obvious Heritage Bank has failed the stress test,” he concluded.
Ozenna Utulu, the head of Corporate Communications of Heritage Bank did not respond to THE WITNESS calls placed to her mobile line for the bank’s position as at press time.