Interview: Commerzbank’s man in Abidjan

Published: February 12, 2015

Konrad Engber discusses the German bank’s new office in Côte d’Ivoire.

When a bank is expanding in Africa one quality trumps all, says Commerzbank’s Konrad Engber: patience. It’s a lesson Engber learned while setting up the German bank’s representative office in Ethiopia back in 2007, and one that was reinforced when he oversaw the launch of a Libyan office in 2011. Now, as he moves to Côte d’Ivoire, Engber has another chance to put his knowledge to good use.

Commerzbank’s new rep office in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire and considered its economic (although not political) capital, will give the bank its seventh such set-up in Africa; as well as Ethiopia and Libya it has offices in South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Angola. Francophone West Africa had been “the only missing piece of the puzzle”, Engber tells EMEA Finance by phone on a trip back to Frankfurt.

The team weighed up potential locations and settled on Côte d’Ivoire. The country has seen remarkable successes; analysts at the IMF think GDP grew by about 8% in 2014, which make it the fastest-growing economy in West Africa. That’s all the more impressive given the scale of its recent problems – a political crisis in 2010 saw the government default on bond payments the following year, and yet 2014’s debut US$750mn sovereign eurobond attracted orders of almost US$5bn. At 5.625%, that deal gave the government cheaper borrowing than any other issuance in Sub-Saharan Africa last year.

So it’s small wonder that Engber highlights debt capital markets as a potential source of work for Commerzbank, and “with the rep office on the ground we think we have better possibilities than before”, he says. In the nearer term, the five-strong team in the Côte d’Ivoire office will focus on supporting the bank’s clients, German and otherwise, doing business in the region. “We’ll be covering existing clients, daily correspondent relationship management for partners,” Engber adds. “Our approach has a strong relationship focus.”

The bank will also develop the office into what Engber calls a “research hub” – Commerzbank research teams elsewhere on the continent will now report into Abidjan, which will then channel reports and research notes back to Frankfurt.

That move underlines the team’s view that its new office is part of a long-term plan for the bank in Africa. And just as in the other offices that Engber has helped to establish, he’s confident that commitment will bring its own benefits.

“In Africa it takes a long time to build up trust and have a counterparty who will recognise you as a reliable and trusted adviser – once you have that status it’s relatively comfortable, but it’s not something you can set up in weeks or months,” he says. “It’s the same with the whole rep office. Once you’re there with your contacts, it gets better and smoother. You have to stay committed for a long time and try to build up good, solid relationships. Do your homework, be patient and it will be rewarded.”