Morocco: Attijariwafa stakes claims south of the Sahara

It’s a steamy mid-September and l’atmosphere in downtown Casablanca could well be mistaken for a languid late summer in Marseilles.

In myriad chic eateries, Fashionable Young Things in oversized Jackie O sunglasses tap instant messages to each other into new iPhones over café au lait, while their male equivalents motor by in late-model Mercs and SUVs.

It’s a similar scene in the city’s southwestern beach suburbs at Africa’s biggest shopping centre, a complex that could have been transplanted from Singapore.

With its array of aspirational brands, the Morocco Mall has in the two years since its opening quickly become the weekend playground of Morocco’s expanding middle class.

And after Morocco’s weathering of both the European economic meltdown and the worst of the Arab Spring that has coursed through its Islamic fraternity, ‘Casa’ seems rather pleased with itself these days.

Although wounded by Europe’s protracted crisis – as many as 4 million Moroccans live in – and send remittances from – the continent – and so far dodging the sclerosis that came with the Arab Spring revolutions elsewhere in the region, the economy here has proved resilient. GDP grew 3.2% last year.

The biggest port and city in the Maghreb, and its commercial capital too, Casablanca has always been regarded as cosmopolitan, a city as much a draw for northern-bound Africans on the make as it is profoundly Moroccan with a distinct European vestige.

The lingua franca here is somewhere between the local Arabic-Berber tongues and the French of Morocco’s colonial masters, who provided Morocco with the basis of its financial and banking systems.

It all combines in a rising cultural and economic profile that suits just fine one Ismail Douiri, the polished chief executive of Morocco’s royal family-owned Bank Attijariwafa, as he pushes beyond the bank’s comfort zone at home into the challenging markets of sub-Saharan Africa.

In less than a decade, Attijariwafa – a product of a 2004 merger of Banque Commerciale du Maroc and Wafabank – has spent more than €400 million to establish a portfolio across 10 mostly francophone African nations.

But the big leap forward came in 2008, after taking out various French interests on the continent, notably Crédit Agricole’s west African network.

The deal-making Douiri now reaches as far south as Crédit du Congo in Brazzaville and east to Attijari Bank in Tunisia, and several leading local banks in between: Compagnie Bancaire de l’Afrique Occidentale of Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire’s Société Ivoirienne de Banque, Cameroon’s Société Commerciale de Banque, Mali’s Banque Internationale and Gabon’s Union Bank.

There are also Attijariwafa operations in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau. It’s a reach that complements both Attijariwafa’s strong domestic franchise in Morocco, where it edges the government-owned Banque Populaire for cross-sector market leadership, and an existing pan-European network that serves the remittances of the Moroccan diaspora, one of Europe’s largest.

Indeed, Attijariwafa likes to say it now boasts Africa’s second-biggest banking network outside the continental superpower South Africa. “It’s a good portfolio,” says EFG Hermes analyst Elena Sanchez. “None of them are small players in their respective markets.”

Douiri explains: “We had a maturing market in Morocco, excess capital and a lot of skills. And we had a will from the board to continue investment. We have a team of 200 people who were involved with consultants and investment banks during the merger that created Attijariwafa bank, so we have been perfectly placed to conduct and transform acquisitions.” Douiri himself is ex-McKinsey.

“We were already a large player in a concentrated market that was going to grow only by economy-plus-inflation,” he adds.

For Attijariwafa, that meant a near-guaranteed 7% annual growth, “which is OK compared to developed countries, but it was not enough for our shareholders and for the market.”

Although only 43, US- and French-educated Douiri has totted up almost a decade at Attijariwafa, now as the operational chief executive answering to the bank’s executive chairman, Mohammed El-Khattani.

Douiri is cementing Attijariwafa in Africa just as the continent is beginning to mature as a legitimate investment destination.

Emerging market strategist Samir Gadio of South Africa’s Standard Bank – the continent’s biggest bank – says the expansion has been impressive. “Attijariwafa would now have one of the top-five networks in Africa,” Gadio, an Ivorian, says.

Attijariwafa puts its Africa-wise branch network at more than 3,040, up from 2,882 in 2012, which Douiri says is Africa’s first or second largest outside South African banking.

Attijariwafa’s expansion into Africa also comes as profits have weakened slightly in the bank’s domestic Moroccan stronghold.

In September, it reported first-half net profits of Dh2.2 billion ($256 million), 4.8% down. Return on equity, which had regularly been pegged at 18% and better, was measured at 16.1%.

Sub-Saharan Africa is not ordinarily the natural commercial habitat of Corporate Morocco in a continent that tends to be grouped by geographic axes.

But to Douiri and Attijariwafa’s main shareholder, the Moroccan royal family’s holding company Société Nationale d’Investissement, it makes sense from a cultural, linguistic and even religious point of view, not to mention to trade into the long-overdue New Emerging Africa story now catching on in financial markets.

Still, Attijariwafa’s thrust into Africa has not been without its tricky moments.

In Côte d’Ivoire, its 51%-owned subsidiary Société Ivoirienne de Banque was forced to close in early 2011 in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election that descended into civil war. Some 3,000 Ivorians were killed and many businesses were closed, virtually collapsing the economy.

That conflict ended a few months later with the forced ousting by French and UN troops of president Laurent Gbagbo, whose government owned the other half of the Attijariwafa unit. With a new government installed, a tentative peace has been restored and the Attijariwafa operation is back in operation and opening new branches.

Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, has also been a challenge. Attijariwafa beat 19 bidders to pay $93 million for a 51% stake in Banque Internationale Mali in 2008 in what was then Bamako’s largest privatization deal.

Then, last year, Islamist rebels took control of northern Mali, prompting a military coup and intervention by French troops. Branches in Timbuktu and Gao were closed, but Douiri insists the investment is a core holding.

In Tunisia, Attijariwafa reluctantly found itself in the midst of the Arab Spring that would sweep through the region. In 2005, it had partnered with Spain’s Grupo Santander to take control of Tunisia’s Banque du Sud and set about restoring the bank.

Another important shareholder was Mohamed Sakher El Materi, the son-in-law of then long-time dictator President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Then one of Tunisia’s richest men, El Materi was notorious in Tunis for his lavish lifestyle and the caged tiger, known as Pasha, that he kept at his villa, which came to symbolize the excesses of the Ben Ali regime.

Come the revolution, El Materi fled to the Seychelles as the new authorities picked through his assets. The authorities were worried about capital flight and investigated foreign collaboration in transactions with the Ben Alis. Douiri admits that Attijariwafa bank had loaned money to family members, but he insists only for “legitimate businesses with clients and real activities”.

Sakher El Materi was notorious but Attijariwafa has been left ‘unscathed’ from its association with Tunisia’s ancien regime, says Douiri.

The Tunisian central bank sent a team to check the books and ultimately issued Attijariwafa with a clean bill of health. “We didn’t compromise with the big issues. All post-revolutionary suspicions of corruption proved wrong; everything was legal and above board,” says Douiri.

Despite the association with the Ben Ali’s regime, Douiri says: “I consider we went through this revolution unscathed.” As for El Materi, now being sought by the Tunisian authorities for extradition as well as the return of his ill-gotten fortune, Douiri observes that “his personal situation is probably very difficult for him”.

Morocco too has had its moments. The political tremors emanating from Tunisia and Egypt through 2011/12 were also felt there, when thousands of Moroccans spilled onto the streets in protest.

Douiri says he “felt uncomfortable” in the face of these demonstrations, and was worried in early 2011 as political tension built and there were “two or three weeks of incredible silence from the authorities”.

“Things ground to a halt as everybody watched and waited. New consumer loan disbursements stopped and people postponed payment of their installments, but eveything went back to normal after the King’s speech on March 9, 2011,” he says.

As King Mohammed VI moved to defuse tensions with unprecedented political reforms and pledges to limit his involvement in business, Douiri notes that although Attijariwafa is owned by the king’s investment company, Société Nationale d’Investissement, its branches were not targeted by anti-royal protesters.

“We had a few broken windows and Wafacash suffered some isolated looting, but none of it was directed symbolically at the royals.”

But it has been Algeria, the biggest Maghrebi economy, that has proved most vexatious for Attijariwafa and Corporate Morocco generally. “Culturally it’s exactly the same as Morocco,” enthuses Douiri.

Attijariwafa has had a banking licence application before the central Banque d’Algérie since 2005, but it has gone nowhere, as Morocco and Algeria spar politically over the disputed Western Sahara region.

While Morocco has bilateral relations across the continent, Rabat is not a member of the African Union, leaving after its predecessor movement, the Organization of African Unity, failed to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

“We’ve been told time and again our application is very good, that nothing more needs to be done,” Douiri says. Since then, a frustrated Douiri has seen non-Moroccan banks, such as France’s BNP Paribas, get the footholds in Algeria that he had expected for his own bank.

He puts the snub down to politics and, years on, the opportunity has dimmed and Algeria scores lower than it once did on his acquisition metrics. “Had we started at the same time [as Paribas] we would have done better. It’s a little bit irrational.”

He acknowledges that Africa can be prone to volatility and economic nationalism, sometimes related to corruption, but he says that rarely impinges when it comes to “the rational interests of the market.”

Douiri doesn’t regard his bank’s presence across Europe as part of its internationalization but rather an extension of its domestic Moroccan market. That’s mainly because these outpost branches, which Attijariwafa has mostly gathered under its wholly owned French bank, Attijariwafa Bank Europe, cater to expatriate workers and emigrants for remittances to support families back home.

Of the almost 5 million Moroccans living outside Morocco, around three-quarters are gathered in France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and Italy. Remittance banking is one of the few sectors of Moroccan banking that Attijariwafa does not lead; that position is held by the government-owned Banque Populaire du Maroc, which often had branches inside Moroccan diplomatic missions (a positioning advantage for BPM that Douiri says he has lobbied its owners in the capital Rabat long and vigorously against).

“What we did instead is to open branches in front of consulates,” he says, with some satisfaction, “so that Moroccans could see our branch before they went in.”

BPM’s one-time 70% market share in remittance banking, measured by Morocco’s central Banque Al-Maghreb at between $6 billion and $7 billion annually, has fallen to under 50%, says Douiri.

Attijariwafa claims around a quarter of the remittance market via its 60 European branches, adding that 22% of the bank’s deposits are held by overseas Moroccans.

Indeed, it was partly the regulatory rigours that came by connecting its European presence to Morocco that has prompted Douiri and colleagues to push Attijariwafa to open a sub-Saharan frontier.

As Douiri explains, the 2008 Icelandic banking debacle, which snared foreign depositors from the Kent County Council to more than 100,000 average Dutch households in what proved an unsustainably high-interest grip, led to tighter pan-European control over transfers and remittances across the continent.

In operating a fully French bank, albeit one largely patronized by expatriate Moroccans, Attijariwafa faced extra costs from what Douiri now describes as “over-protecting”savings.

“It’s much more costly to operate like that than we used to do,” he says. Douiri says he supports appropriate regulation, but “we had to find additional revenue because of all those cost pressures you had as a bank in Europe. Now we are generating additional revenue by being a retail bank of the migrants.”

It is a model that he says is progressively being rolled out to feed into markets in Attijariwafa’s expanding African portfolio. The aim is to change Attijariwafa’s brand profile from -specific to incorporate and engage a new catchment market between Europe and new acquisitions in Tunisia, Mali, Congo and beyond.

“No bank in Tunis has been doing this efficiently,” he claims. “Even the French banks, well established in Morocco, have never been able to grab a good share of the migrants.”

He attributes this to “cultural discomfort” on the part of the French. “In our case we go to the mosque on Friday, we go visit the family when there is a death. There is a real sense of community.

“It’s additional synergies and mainstream business for the domestic operation, that channels into the mortgage market and so on – migrants buying second houses for vacation or their retirement. Immigrant banking is mainstream to the business of retail banking in Morocco.”

Getting the politics right is crucial in volatile Africa and part of Douiri’s due diligence was to assess the diplomatic relationship between Morocco and the target nation, and how close, for example, were the ties between government agencies, such as central banks and regulators.

Eventual EU-style regional integration is also hoped for. “The end result is that we are only in French- or Arabic-speaking countries,” he says. That doesn’t preclude expansion in other markets – Attijariwafa has been looking at anglophone Nigeria.

“Can we overlook Nigeria, with its 450 million people?” he asks. “It’s something we are looking at.”

Attijariwafa has also run a measure over a few Egyptian banks, notably Paribas’ offshoot there – although it’s not in the immediate timeline. “The aim is to be in the top three in each market, with full control over the affiliate, though that is not yet achieved everywhere,” he says.

“We need to capture economies of scale,” he says. “Each one of these markets is too small to support the fixed cost of a modern banking system.”

Right now, Attijariwafa is focused on introducing new services and products into its rebranded network. In Tunisia, it’s investing in corporate and institutional banking, advisory and risk management, while in Senegal it has rolled out a modern consumer credit operation based on its domestic Moroccan model.

In Côte d’Ivoire, it is extending a rapid cash-to-cash transfer system based on its Wafacash operation in Morocco, where it has 1,100 branches. Douiri notes that 53% of Moroccans have a bank account, while in its new African markets the figure is between 5% and 10%. “Everywhere else it’s a catch-up story. The size of the banking system will grow more than the economy.”

EFG Hermes’ Sanchez notes that in building its African portfolio Attijariwafa “hasn’t overpaid”, despite being quite aggressive in targeting acquisitions. She also likes the fact that though each of its acquisitions are among sector leaders in their respective national markets, none of them is big enough to unbalance the parent if things turn awry.

She notes that the biggest operation, in Senegal, comprises less than 3% of Attijariwafa’s overall asset base. “It’s not a big hit at the group level,” she says.

As Africa emerges and Morocco continues to reform, Sanchez believes Attijariwafa presents an attractive partnership opportunity for a big foreign bank light on African presence. Foreign partners are nothing new to Attijariwafa.

Santander owns 5.5% of the bank, after selling down from a 14.5% position in 2008 to confront the then emerging crisis in Europe. At various times, Italy’s UniCredit, Spain’s Caja Madrid and France’s Crédit Agricole boasted stakes in Attijariwafa.

Those interests have since been absorbed by the market as well as the king’s investment house, SNI. It owns 47% of Attijariwafa after it bought out the European minorities to support the bank.

As Europe smouldered, SNI and Attijariwafa were worried about an overhang in the market and SNI stood up as a buyer. Now SNI is regarded as a seller, expressing an interest in a more passive role at the bank, and its other holdings in Morocco – a recent example is Singapore’s Wilmar Group buying into SNI-owned sugar monopoly Cosumar.

Douiri says that SNI’s 47% stake in Attijariwafa “is not the natural long-term holding”.

EFG Hermes’ Sanchez agrees. “There’s a lot of scope here for a foreign player, so long as they bring something to the table,” she says.