Between Afropunk and blue bloods, Absa boss must choose

03 February 2019 - 06:44 By ron derby


Most banks have a culture that one needs to adopt as soon as one enters its employ. From the teller right to the C-Suite, there's a manner they have to carry. The better you are at embracing it, the better your chances of rising through the ranks and - for the ambitious, the closer that corner office becomes.
For the big blue, as Standard Bank is commonly known, there's something that's been deeply entrenched at private school grounds such as St Andrews College in Grahamstown where some of its more prominent old guard received their education. It's a bank perceived as having the blue bloods of SA's small circle of bankers.
While Sim Tshabalala may not come from such a school of thought, I can imagine it being near impossible for him or anyone who follows in his stead to change that culture. As a brand, Standard will always be better suited to test cricket sponsors over that of a Twenty20 tournament or, God forbid, an Afropunk concert. As long as shareholders aren't baying for massive change in strategy, radically changing this culture would be subtlety discouraged. It would be unnatural.
FirstRand, which owns FNB, has its own culture, one largely in keeping with the established reputation of its founders as entrepreneurial - a bank that doesn't shy away from riskier bets. They bet on a young Adrian Gore, who had left the employ of Liberty Life, which is owned and controlled by Standard Bank. There are many ventures that the founders and Stellenbosch University alumni Laurie Dippenaar, Paul Harris and GT Ferreira have backed that proved winning bets, and I am sure many failures too.
From the dizzying heights of Richard Laubscher, where dreams of global dominance saw a daring and ultimately failed bid for Standard Bank at the end of the 1990s, Nedbank has had to undergo a cultural reset. Under Mike Brown, it has come to take the character of its leader and is seen by the market as the "safe bank", humbled by a history that nearly broke the bank. I am probably going to be lynched for saying this; the green bank is the "teacher's pet" of the banking houses.
This finally brings me to Absa, the bank that Maria Ramos leaves at the end of February after a decade at the helm. Of all the big lenders and even the upstart in Capitec, it's the institution that has struggled to settle on any sort of culture. It's understandable, given its beginning as an amalgamation of some six banks in the early '90s. In that concoction, there's a very Afrikaans legacy in Volkskas, founded in the 1930s, and on the other end of the spectrum there was Allied Bank, my first bank account as a toddler.
One of Ramos's jobs, as the bank's longest-serving CEO, was to establish some sort of common culture, moving it away from its Afrikaans base and making it British or rather international - given that for most of her time the bank was owned by Barclays Plc. When the troubled parent had to sell its control, she was faced with yet another cultural shift. And that was to now sell the lender as an African champion. No doubt inspired by the success of super-hero movie Black Panther, the "africanacity" campaign was launched last year. If anything, it has made it even more unclear what the bank is about.
Changing the colour of the walls doesn't make for a cultural shift - it has to come from within.
These attempts at a cultural shift occurred in a difficult decade when the country's third-largest bank had to contend with tough economic conditions, a troubled and risk-averse parent and very aggressive competition. Now, whoever comes in as its new CEO will need to transform the bank from within, with none of the big fanfare that comes with massive and expensive campaigns. They'll also have to be allowed to restructure the business, as the status quo can't continue.
Absa needs a transformational CEO, which will prove a difficult task given the influence of the executives that Ramos leaves behind - some hired a few months ago. The biggest consideration for anyone who moves into the big office is just how big an obstacle some of them will prove to be when the new chief rings in his/her changes that may just affect their future employment?

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