Taking on a leadership role at any given time is challenging but even more so during a pandemic or similar crisis. Bydon Longwe has, however, taken on the role of FNB Zambia CEO with enthusiasm and has led the bank through a number of successes in a short period.
Bydon Longwe’s rise from CFO to CEO of FNB Zambia is not only a tale of strategic talent management, but more fundamentally one of community and a sincere proclivity for service. Sitting in the breakroom of the FNB Zambia head office in Acacia Park, Bydon shares how he was raised on the Copperbelt. Being the last born in a family of seven, he often found himself entrusted with various responsibilities by his parents and siblings. Bydon recounts that growing up, his community embodied the principals of ubuntu (I am because we are) and people understood that ‘a person is a person because of other people). This sense of community allowed Bydon to benefit from a scholarship awarded by Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) scholarship that allowed him to study accounting in Chingola.
During his studies, Bydon was pursued by a large accounting firm that wanted him to join them as an auditor, necessitating a move from Chingola to Lusaka. As a newly minted auditor, Bydon soon came to realise that auditing and accounting is not just about number crunching but rather customer service and client satisfaction. “The profession is very customer-centric and service-oriented, as clients need to feel valued if they are going to re-engage you or make referrals for your services”.
Bydon’s move from Chingola to Lusaka resulted in a career that has taken him all over Africa. With a laugh he shares how he and his wife of 20 years had each of their four children in a different country: Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia. After years of work in auditing, Bydon made the switch into the financial sector which eventually led him to the position of CFO of FNB Zambia.
“As CFO you are a minister without portfolio, you have to take a balanced approach and act as catalyst, strategist, steward and operator within the organisation” states Bydon. He believes this outlook allowed him to pivot into the role of CEO as a champion of the strategy formulation and implementation. “It’s nice to see how numerous individuals in the CFO sphere have advanced to the echelons of CEO. It’s a testament to the diversity and comprehensiveness of the profession,” Bydon said with a big smile.
As our conversation progresses Bydon shares how making the transition from CFO to CEO in the middle of a global pandemic was initially challenging. “When you envision becoming CEO, you usually have cocktails and stakeholder meetings where you engage your clients and key stakeholders, but because of COVID-19 that didn’t happen. Thus, we needed to be innovative around creating rapport with our clients” he recounts. As a testament of FNB’s internal and external digital migration, technology helped fill that gap. “Thankfully, our customers have been very accepting and supportive of our efforts to engage them,” Bydon says.
Bydon additionally shares that leading FNB during the pandemic has been helped by the fact that digital technology is deeply entrenched in their culture. “This is a bold statement but I’ll make it. If you walk around here,” Bydon says, gesturing to the office space around us, “there is no paper. I make all my approvals on my phone or laptop. As FNB we’ve taken the stance to go paperless because we want to keep our impact on the environment to a minimum and maximise on efficiencies within our company.” Thus, in the face of the pandemic, it was easy to transition the bulk of FNB staff into remote working. Additionally, Bydon shares that FNB has also leveraged technology to ensure the health and safety of their customers. He further shared that FNB is already reaching milestones on its digital platform that were initially targeted for 2025. This was essentially to ensure that customers bank with peace of mind and not risk further exposure by coming into FNB branches when it can be avoided.
Bydon took on the position of FNB Zambia CEO in July 2020 and he is the bank’s first Zambian CEO. Despite the aforementioned challenges, Bydon describes being FNB’s first Zambian CEO, as a humbling experience. “It’s less about me and more about the vision our shareholders had to positively disrupt the market by providing world-class services, while capitalising on local talent who understand the opportunities within the market,” he says. True to form Bydon clarifies this point with an anecdote on local innovation: “One great local solution is the cash plus agency model that has allowed us to bring our banking services right into your neighbourhood. This has proven to be a significant value proposition in our communities, firstly for our agents most of whom are burgeoning entrepreneurs and for our customers who have better ease of service.” Given his penchant for personal and economic development it is no surprise that, Bydon sees the most gratifying part of his role as helping the various members of his team. He wants to “make a positive change to my team and help actualise their potential.”
As we moved on to discuss the role of the banking sector in the local and continental economy, Bydon was truly in his element. “Eleven years ago we came into Zambia on a complete greenfield and we’ve since grown the franchise to a place where we have over 200,000 customers in all ten provinces,” states Bydon. He shares how the FirstRand Group, of which FNB is a member, noticed the majority of the countries where they provided their services had intentions of diversifying their agriculture output, and are thus keen to provide funding to this sector. “In Zambia specifically, 30 percent of our balance sheet is anchored in agriculture and this is a source of pride as we are helping pivot economic growth towards agriculture.” FNB is also leading the Zambian banking sector’s digital transformation by creating platforms to ensure that even the ‘non-banked’ can enjoy banking services. FNB’s eWallet service plays a large part in this as anyone with a mobile phone can access bank services such as withdrawing money from an ATM or purchasing electricity units.
Bydon is enthusiastic about FNB’s future in Zambia, specifically around their digitisation journey. “We are constantly asking ourselves, what else can we transfer from our physical interactions onto our digital platforms? Thus, increasing our customer value proposition by reducing angst and increasing the services they access from the comfort of their homes.” Additionally, FNB Zambia has expanded their focus beyond retail, business and commercial banking, to more comprehensively include corporate and investment banking.
Bydon is also passionate about larger economic growth through local entrepreneurship. “One piece of advice I’d like to share with everyone reading this is to be more positive. Optimism allows you to exploit opportunities others can’t see. People spend so much time analysing the negative aspects of situations, but imagine if we looked at the positives. Basically, if we look for opportunities, they won’t pass us by.” In line with his company’s focus, Bydon encourages Zambians to look for opportunities in the agricultural sphere.
When he’s not leading Zambia’s digital banking transformation, Bydon enjoys spending time with his family. “I cook and bake with my wife and children and it just reminds me of what’s important to me. I also enjoy working out.” With more demands on his time, he has adopted what he calls “lazy reading” since his appointment as CEO. As our conversation drew to a close he told me, “I read shorter pieces of writing such as articles from Harvard Business Review to keep me up to date. I also recently got Napoleon Hill’s Greatest Speeches so I’m looking forward to reading that.”