From army officer to UT Bank CEO: Interview with Prince Kofi Amoabeng

From military lieutenant to general merchant and then bank manager, the path to entrepreneurship for Ghana’s UT Bank CEO Prince Kofi Amoabeng has not been an ordinary one.

UT Bank CEO Prince Kofi Amoabeng

UT Bank CEO Prince Kofi Amoabeng

When Amoabeng graduated from university in 1975 he was not sure in which direction to take his career. “I saw an advert for entrance into the military. And I thought, wait a minute, free accommodation, three square meals a day, uniforms and everything provided plus a salary.”

Although he was not sure at first it took just seven months in the army for Amoabeng to fall in love with it, wooed by the discipline and structure. When an opportunity arose to complete his professional accounting qualifications in the UK on a scholarship awarded by the Ministry of Defence, he took it, later returning to Ghana.

In 1982 Ghana fell into a state of turmoil following a coup d’état and Amoabeng decided it was time to leave the army. Inspired by his businessman neighbour he took to buying and selling a whole manner of products and commodities. Among many things he sold air conditioning units, floor and wall tiles, clothing, imported wine and was involved in saw milling.

At one stage Amoabeng was also the Ghana representative for the French petroleum company Elf Aquitaine before it was bought by Total.

Throughout many of his business ventures Amoabeng kept coming up against the same problem: getting a loan from a financial institution was an arduous process. The funding either never came or, by the time it did, the business was lost. He felt that “bankers don’t really understand business people”.

At the time, the majority of SMEs in Ghana operated in the informal sector so it could take some companies a few months to get a loan approved.

“Invariably by the time you get the money the business is gone, so it is structured to fail,” he says.

It was from this experience that Amoabeng decided to establish his own finance house. “When they [business people] tell you, ‘I need money’ what they mean is, ‘I need it now’.”

Thus in 1997 Unique Trust (UT) Financial Services was born with a team of just four people – including Amoabeng himself – and startup capital of $20,000.

At first, the company issued loans within a week. Once that was achieved the team decided they could cut the turnaround time down even further to 48 hours.

“I think we’re the only bank in the world that does that,” Amoabeng says proudly.

Business expansion

By 2007 Amoabeng decided it was time to expand. UT Financial Services was now worth $84m and had a balance sheet that was bigger than some small banks. He sold 30% of UT Financial Services and used the $27m proceeds to acquire Ghana’s BPI Bank. It was restructured, rebranded and merged with UT Financial Services to become UT Bank.

While building UT Financial Services a number of other offshoots developed. UT Logistics, UT Properties and UT Collections were spun out of existing services the company used and provided.

“We bought a life insurance company so we have UT Life. And we have UT Private [Security Services],” Amoabeng adds.

The five companies now operate under the umbrella of UT Holdings.

In addition to the already established subsidiaries in Nigeria and South Africa, Amoabeng plans to expand the financial services across the continent, eyeing Zambia, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone as potential markets.

Challenges to business

When it comes to doing business in Ghana, Amoabeng says a lack of infrastructure and systems are in place to facilitate the process. “Government must provide that kind of framework that will attract business.”

This forces Ghanaian companies to go above and beyond what would be expected of them on the global stage.

When UT Financial Services was still just a lender it used the practice of sketching a map of the borrower’s home and place of business before a loan was approved. With no formal residential or business addresses borrowers could vanish at the drop of a hat, taking the money they owe with them.

Other difficulties businesses face is long-winded judicial processes. When issues of debt collection or land disputes arise, as they often do in Ghana, it can take years for them to be resolved in court, putting off potential investors.

Amoabeng advises young entrepreneurs to acquire knowledge when getting into their trade. Humility is another key trait he believes entrepreneurs should have. “As human beings, we’re not really worth much,” he says, but we have a role to play in this world so look for that role and play it.

“When you run an institution everyone has to be respected for their role. It all comes together from the cleaner, the messenger, through the managers [and] to the CEO.”

Far reaching impact

The company’s ethos is about helping business owners and Amoabeng says its reach goes far beyond the 1,500 people it employs. There are also those businesses the company has helped to finance which in turn now provide jobs and support families.

When it comes to taking some downtime Amoabeng is a keen golfer, as seen by the mini putting green at the entrance to his office. Although he describes himself as a workaholic, he takes his “weekends very seriously”.

How does he know if he’s made it?

“What matters to me most is what my efforts do to other people’s lives,” he says. “For me that’s where the feeling of success comes from.”