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Mary Wamae: From legal practice to shaking up the banking industry

Equity Group Executive Director Mary Wamae. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Equity Group Executive Director Mary Wamae has for close to two decades now been a part of Kenya’s financial transformation journey, having joined the banking industry from the legal profession.

She shares her remarkable journey and the key financial lessons she has learnt along the way.

Describe your career journey, highlighting key milestones

I joined Equity in 2004, initially as a lawyer. My legal background led me to support Equity on various projects, including their transformation into a commercial bank. As my involvement deepened, I decided to join Equity full-time. I started by setting up their legal department and also served as the secretary to the board. This allowed me to understand the organisation’s strategy. Eventually, I took on the role of director for strategy as Equity expanded regionally. So, I’ve been on this exciting journey for about 19 years. 

Did your experience as a legal adviser and secretary to the board influence your decision to transition to banking in 2004?

 Yes, indeed. I practised law for about 10 years and enjoyed it immensely. However, I felt the need to have a more significant impact. I considered options like human rights or NGOs, particularly in women’s rights. That’s why I pursued a postgraduate diploma in Gender and Development. But when I learnt about Equity’s purpose-driven approach and focus on transforming lives and financial inclusion, I saw an institution aligned with my aspirations. So, I joined Equity, and looking back, it’s been a highly impactful journey, reaching numerous customers with empowering financial products and services. 

Over the past two decades, how has the banking industry changed in terms of customer preferences and technology? 

There have been significant changes. First, there’s a shift in the age and demographics of customers. We used to serve older, mature customers, but now it’s a younger crowd, averaging around 20 to 33 years old. Secondly, technology has transformed how customers engage with banks. We’ve moved from manual processes to digital channels, with tech-savvy customers preferring mobile apps and online banking. Lastly, customers are seeking more comprehensive financial solutions, including payments, e-commerce, and insurance, tailored to their lifestyles. 

Have you observed any notable shifts or trends in how people manage their personal finances?

Absolutely, these tech-savvy customers are more demanding and aware of financial trends. They want convenient services like cross-border transfers without visiting a branch. We’ve adapted to the “One Equity” approach to provide seamless solutions. Additionally, we use social media for timely communication on topics like cybersecurity and fraud prevention. 

Have there been challenges customers have faced over the years, and how have these challenges evolved?

With the rise of digital channels, we’ve had to address customer needs and concerns quickly. Social media has made information dissemination faster. We’ve focused on digital communication to protect customers from fraud and ensure cybersecurity. It’s a change from the slower communication methods of the past. 

As an executive, what advice would you give to individuals or families looking to improve their financial health and make wise investment choices?

Savings are the starting point. Cultivating a savings habit is crucial. The habit of saving regularly enables you to accumulate funds for investments or assets. Additionally, put emphasis on the importance of insurance to protect your health, life, and assets. Education plays a significant role in helping customers understand these financial strategies.

Many young professionals aspire to work in banking. What advice do you have for them to build and maintain strong customer relationships, considering Equity’s strong customer base?

The key is to provide excellent service and listen to customers’ needs. By understanding their requirements, you can innovate and tailor products accordingly. Customer loyalty is built through satisfaction. Happy customers become advocates who spread the word. Train your staff, including agents, to provide personalized, efficient service across all channels, fostering customer trust and loyalty. 

Given your experience, how do you perceive the current economic environment, especially considering recent global events?

It’s been a challenging period, not just in Kenya but globally. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted businesses and economies for about two years. Then came the Russia-Ukraine crisis. This led to high inflation, increased costs, and rising interest rates. Our advice to customers is to adapt to the situation. Review your cost structure, cut unnecessary expenses, explore diversification into new markets or businesses, and consider changing your business model if necessary.

Does this advice also apply to personal finance during such challenging periods?

Yes, indeed. The same advice applies to personal finances. It’s about making smart choices when dealing with uncertain times. For example, if you used to have an expensive breakfast with sausages and bread, consider more cost-effective alternatives. This extends to various aspects of your life, such as housing. If your income drops, it’s perfectly fine to move to a more affordable place rather than struggling to pay high rent. Don’t be embarrassed to make financial decisions that make sense for your current situation.

There have been mass loan defaults, especially among the middle class. Why is this?

Loans can be helpful, but it’s crucial to borrow responsibly. Banks encourage borrowing for income-generating projects or cash flow purposes rather than consumption. When you take out a loan, the bank will ask about the purpose of the funds and how you plan to repay. It’s important to borrow with a clear plan to ensure that the funds generate returns and cover the loan repayment.

Balancing helping customers grow with minimising risks is challenging. How do you strike that balance as a banker? 

Understanding the customer’s needs is key. When customers borrow for income-generating activities and repay promptly, it builds a strong partnership. For instance, our Easy Loans are often utilised by customers for morning market purchases. They borrow early, make sales during the day, and return the money in the evening. This helps build a positive credit history, and as customers repay responsibly, their credit limits increase. It’s a win-win partnership between the bank and customers. 

What is your personal philosophy when it comes to managing your personal finances and investments? 

 My personal philosophy revolves around finding a balance between liquidity and long-term investments. It’s crucial to have both. Liquidity allows you to have quick access to cash for emergencies or short-term needs, while long-term investments, such as land or buildings, provide stability and potential growth. Additionally, I believe in the importance of having insurance to protect against unforeseen events and to ensure that both myself and my investments are safeguarded.

Did any personal experiences lead you to adopt this approach? 

 Yes, my approach is influenced by observing friends and realising the need for proper retirement planning. Often, people get so busy with their lives that they forget to plan for the future. It’s essential to recognise that life events can significantly impact our income and expenses.

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