The Universal Merchant Bank (UMB) was formed in 1972, as a policy bank to provide the first indigenous merchant banking capacity in Ghana. 2022 marks UMB’s Jubilee.

The Bank has evolved into a valuable universal banking franchise, focused on becoming a digital-first, SME-led solutions driver by leveraging its immense wholesale banking heritage. 

The Jubilee celebrations are focused on what UMB considers to be its key success variable – our People: Customers and Clients, Staff, Alumni. 

As part of engagements to mark the Jubilee, the Editorial Team was granted an exclusive sit-down interview with former CEO of the bank Nilla Selormey.

She lead the transformation of the brand in 2014, from Merchant Bank Ghana Limited to the present Universal Merchant Bank.

She walked us through the journey of rebranding the bank, expanding its product and service offering and the challenges associated with change management.

ED T: Please tell us about yourself and your association with UMB. 

My name is Nilla Selormey. I was the managing director of UMB from the period 2014 to 2015. During my tenure as CEO, I led the transformation and moved the brand from Merchant Bank to Universal Merchant Bank (UMB)

As the oldest indigenous merchant bank in Ghana, UMB has done tremendously well to hit this milestone. 50 years in the life of any institution is a long time and the bank has stood the test of time. I take it as a testament that the bank is still able to fulfil the critical needs of Ghanaians.

ED T: What Will You Attribute to The Success of The Bank Over the Years 

Merchant Bank has always been a needs-based banker. When I say needs-based bankers, what I mean is they provide services and products that meet a specific need. So, they are not just out there providing generic services that may not necessarily appeal to everybody. I think it is that ability to be bespoke, to meet specific needs that clients need that has guaranteed the bank’s survival. So, you will find that over the years, Merchant Bank when it was a merchant bank, has contributed tremendously to the success of a lot of SMEs who became local, large businesses. There are quite a few of them who were supported to grow by Merchant Bank.

Therefore, I think a lot of UMB’s success has come about because they provide solutions not necessarily just a tableau of generic banking products and services.

ED T: As then CEO of the bank, you lead the rebranding and transformation of the Bank and its value proposition. What was the reason behind this move?

When I started my career, which was 30-something years ago, The Merchant Bank Ghana was a merchant bank and therefore known for its success in the corporate field. So, there was not a single corporate client, government and private sector that did not have an account with Merchant Bank. 

Just before I took over, I did some research and some strategic thinking to see what the gaps in the market were and how Merchant Bank could bring itself into the current era. One of the things I realized was whilst they had chalked so much success in the corporate area, and the franchise was not tapping into the headroom for growth in the retail/ consumer space. My approach was thus to position ourselves to capture these markets.

Now that is what led to the rebranding of Merchant Bank to UMB. Anybody who remembers the old Merchant Bank will know the brand was synonymous with the large corporations et cetera. Now the question was, was that brand necessarily appealing to the demographic of today, where the growth in the market was coming from the younger generation; was this a brand that was going to be able to attract that sort of target market? After a lot of deliberations, questions, research and analysis, a decision was taken that we needed to refresh the brand to resonate with the core growth segments and to differentiate in the market. 

ED T: What was the meaning behind the rebrand and new logo?

From the start, there was no question that we wanted to keep “Merchant” as we have truly invested significantly in the financial sector and to shed the name entirely, meant we would have been walking away from a lot of history and brand recognition. But we knew it was important to pair the legacy name with “fresh energy” for our customer base and stakeholders to clearly understand our new and clear value proposition.

Now, bear in mind that the rebranding was not necessarily just changing the logo and the colours. Rebranding right from the start was to relook the culture, the ethos, the bank’s processes, the banking software, the products and services. All of that needed some retuning, redefining, and bringing it into the modern age to make ourselves attractive to the new target market we are looking to attract and retain. So, these were some of the initiatives we brought on board, which I think the bank has carried through as they have come forward.

Formerly the Bank’s logo was a cocoa tree and an elephant.  Grindlays Bank, one of the principal foreign shareholders of the Bank was well represented in Asia where elephants play a key role in their economic and social lives (i.e. hauling of logs, etc.).  

Grindlays therefore had the elephant as part of their logo. Merchant Bank too, in turn borrowed the elephant and added the cocoa, which we all know is the main source of the country’s economy.  The elephant stood for MIGHT. Therefore, the old logo used to stand for the might of the Bank in the financial sector. The new logo evolution took a minimalist approach, focusing on typography for the mater logo.  This was completed by a truly unique and distinct selection of mustard and black as primary colors for the brand.

As a female CEO who lead this transformation, what was it like for you?

Anything a man can do; a woman can do and that is why I don’t think along the lines of am I a woman or am I a man? I just think if you can do it as a man, I can do it as a woman. What does it take a man to succeed at this? Is that what it takes for a woman to succeed at it? Yes! Plus, maybe a little bit more. Maybe a man can do 9/10 in terms of perfection, but a woman will have to do 10/10 in terms of perfection to get there. But the route is the same. The investment is the same. The commitment is the same. The level of passion you’ll need to exhibit is the same. Where it comes from is the same. Yes, as a woman you’ll have to do a little bit more. But, if you want it, you can do it just as well as a man can do it and probably even better. This was my approach to this task so the transformation was as it was for anybody – hectic, exciting, frenetic, but in the end, one was greatly elated by the successes chalked, and the camaraderie of the team one worked with.

In your own words, how successful was the rebranding of Merchant Bank to Universal Merchant Bank

 I think that was quite successful if I might say so myself and I think it has stood the test of time. It was a huge job, but I think we did it because I had a formidable team, which was one of the highlights of my tenure there.  Bringing on board a few more professionals to support the delivery of what we set out to do was also something I was proud of because it was difficult to attract people to come and join at the time because no one really knew where we were going. Looking back now, I believe that a few people had confidence in what we were doing so they willing came.

So, having a great team to work with was good fun and is one of the things I cherish till this day. Launching some of the products and services we did. We changed the banking software to bring it up to the current banking standards at that time. Those were all things I was very excited to be a part of and hopefully, my name will continue to resound in people’s ears when they think of some of these things. But yes, those were interesting times.

UMB is marking its Jubilee celebration this year, what is your goodwill message to them.

50 years is a long time in the life of any institution. My age tracks that of the bank so that makes the celebration a bit more poignant. I wish the Bank the heartiest congratulations. The Bank has been through thick and thin. They have been through difficult times; they have been through good times, but they have survived. That is the most important thing.

My goodwill message for them is to continue to do things properly, work professionally, be relevant, be solution providers, be value-adding partners so that indeed, the next 50 will come and we will celebrate a 100-year-old institution. I think that will be a fantastic thing for Ghana because there are very few institutions that have even crossed the 25-year mark. Yes, you will find a few organisations that are over a century in this clime, but how many indigenous organizations do we find in Ghana who have reached that 50-year mark?

So, my goodwill message is very simple. All stakeholders of the great Bank should work with the knowledge that they are working for an institution they want to see thriving for the next 50 years so that indeed together as Ghanaians we can celebrate a 100-year-old institution.

I think that will be fantastic.

Nilla Selormey served as CEO of the Bank from 2014 -2015. She is reputed to have transformed the bank from Merchant Bank to the current Universal Merchant Bank franchise.

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