Breaking down the banking barrier

The first black woman to head a South African bank is neither grey nor boring

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If your mental picture of a bank CEO is of a boring, middle-aged, grey-haired man in a suit, prepare to be pleasantly surprised by Basani Maluleke. The first black woman to head a South African bank is neither grey nor boring.

To mark Women’s Month in South Africa, Mwangi Githahu interviewed Basani Maluleke, the new CEO of African Bank, about her achievements and the imperative role that women play at all levels of leadership in South Africa.

According to a March 2018 survey carried out by the Africa CEO Forum—an organisation, which focuses on the development of Africa and its companies—women make up only 5% of chief executives of big corporations across the continent.

The survey revealed that there is a low representation of women in the top echelons of African companies, despite finding that businesses that had more women on their boards showed an operating profit over 20% higher than industry averages.

The survey further found that 18% of businesses on the continent have no women in senior roles and only 29% of those senior roles are held by women.

South Africa is among the countries with less than 25% female participation in ownership, while Angola, Botswana and the Central Africa Republic are the only countries with firms who have 50% female participation in ownership. Meanwhile, a recent British survey showed that women in that country occupy only 32% of the banking jobs with exactly 19% of them holding senior management positions.

These are fairly bleak figures to contend with and so, when in April this year, Basani Maluleke, aged just 40 at the time, shattered the proverbial glass ceiling by being appointed Chief Executive Officer of African Bank, it was a cause for celebration—not just in South Africa but across the continent and beyond.

Less than a year earlier, in July 2017, she had joined the bank’s executive team as Group Executive Head, Operations and was already being tipped for bigger and better things.

As well as famously becoming “the first black woman to lead a South African bank,” Basani Maluleke boasts an extensive résumé.

Born in Soshanguve, a township situated about 45km north of Pretoria, Maluleke grew up in Bedfordview, a wealthy town in western Ekurhuleni, sharing an administrative boundary with the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality. She attended the University of Cape Town where she was awarded a merit-based bursary by KPMG and she obtained her first degree in 1998—an Honours Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting.

In 2001, Maluleke received her Bachelor of Laws degree, again with Honours, and she also made the Dean’s merit list.

Maluleke qualified as an Attorney at Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs and, thereafter, joined the corporate finance team at FirstRand Bank, RMB, where she was a member of the team that pioneered the structuring and implementation of BEE ownership transactions for JSE-listed companies.

Maluleke subsequently joined the FNB division as the Head of Private Clients. She has accumulated over 15 years of financial services experience in the areas of corporate finance, banking and private equity. She has worked for Edward Nathan Friedland, FirstRand’s Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) division, where she and her team planned and executed a Sasol Limited transaction worth R25 billion, as well as its FNB division.

Maluleke is an Admitted Attorney of the High Court and she is also a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative and the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Before joining African Bank as an Executive in July 2017, Maluleke was an Executive Director at Transcend Capital, a corporate financial business specialising in B-BBEE ownership. As such, Maluleke’s legal and business acumen made her adequately qualified for the probable position of African Bank’s CEO.

Maluleke spoke a little about her journey to the top, with reference to both the high and low points.

“When it comes to the high points, the first that comes to mind was submitting a proposal to Edward Nathan management on behalf of my fellow articled clerks, to allow articled clerks to have lunch that was paid for by the company and having that proposal accepted,” she said.

Maluleke also listed being shortlisted for the dealmaker of the year in respect of the Sasol BEE transaction as a high point. Maluleke was part of the team that structured and implemented a R25-billion transaction for Sasol Limited, was involved in the unbundling of Kumba Iron Ore from Exxaro Resources, as well as the restructuring of Exxaro Resources—a transaction that amounted to R16 billion.

Her input as a member of a team that successfully negotiated the transfer of farmland worth R800 million to a sugar company earned her the title, ‘RMB Up and Coming Dealmaker of the Year’.

She also spoke of “receiving support from senior people, particularly at RMB and FirstRand, which provided me with exposure to blue-chip clients and complex transactions, which helped me to grow as a dealmaker”.

Other career high points for Maluleke include, “Meeting senior executives across different industries, which allowed me to build a formidable network. Also, being admitted to the Kellogg School of Management to study towards an MBA—this gave me international exposure and accelerated my development as a leader and finally, becoming a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative and the Aspen Global Leadership Network.”

She graduated from the Kellogg School of Management in the United States, with an MBA in Finance, International Business, Strategy and General Management. While at Kellogg, Maluleke was awarded the Dean’s Distinguished Service Award and also exercised her not inconsiderable leadership skills as Head of the Africa Business Club and Co-chair of Africa Business Conference.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, told us that into every life, a little rain must fall, and while Maluleke says there have been many low points in her life, she adds, “I’ve learned not to focus on these. I prefer to learn the lesson, dust myself off and move on to the next challenge.”

That said, she did feel the need to point out that the lowest point in her career was “the challenge of confronting gender and racial inequality”, which made her feel she was “being declined for jobs that I thought I was qualified for”.

This June, African Bank was ranked as the country’s seventh biggest bank out of 18 by the South African Reserve Bank. It has, hitherto, been known mainly as a micro-lender. However, Maluleke has been tasked with the turnaround of the bank into a fully-fledged transactional bank.

“The key to success in dealing with such a monumental task is to surround myself with the right people and create an environment where we can try new things, experiment with new technologies and continually request and use feedback from our staff and customers to foster continual evolution,” she said.

She added, “We now have about 80% of our staff using our transactional product, which is called ‘My World’. We are using feedback from our staff to improve our systems and processes to enable us to launch a compelling product to the market.

“We’ve also had success with our deposit product—our deposits almost doubled in the six months to March 2018 and are continuing to show good growth. About a third of our business every month is with customers who have never had a previous interaction with African Bank. We see these as the initial proof points that demonstrate our strategy of turning the bank from a monoline bank serving a narrow set of customers, into a business offering multiple products to a wide array of customers, is working.”

When it comes to competing with other banks in the same category, Maluleke is of the opinion that the banking landscape is very competitive, with more competitors preparing to enter the market. Furthermore, she said, “The growing fintech space and the growing appetite of non-traditional banks providing banking services make banking an exciting place to be. The intensifying competition will provide customers with more options and greater value while increasing the rate of innovation and change.”

She spoke of the measures African Bank have already put in place in an effort to compete head-on with the other banks saying, “African Bank already competes with the other banks in personal loans and now with deposits. The launch of ‘My World’ will heighten that competition. We also have a few more initiatives up our sleeves to create value for customers and to attract people who have not historically banked with us.”

Maluleke became the CEO of the bank at age 40. In terms of tips she has for others wanting to join the ranks of young achievers in banking or, indeed, any other sphere of life, her response was, “You can never read enough. You have to invest in continual education. Build strong relationships with people who support you. Never burn bridges. Take risks with your career—look for different opportunities, even those that seem obscure. You never know where these may lead.”

Away from banking, per se, Maluleke is the founder of Get Me to Graduation (GMTG) NPC, a non-profit organisation established to fund the subsistence needs of students in the tertiary education system in South Africa. She founded GMTG in partnership with Nedbank and Fundi. GMTG started operating in April 2016. GMTG funds the subsistence needs of tertiary students and will provide psychosocial support to see them through to graduation. She is responsible for fundraising, donor management, creating strategic partnerships, financial management and growing the organisation.

She is also, a trustee of the Click Foundation, a distributor of an online solution for teaching children to read,

Mentorship is an investment and many people, today, have mentors, both on a professional and personal level. Such mentorship helps the individual to reach certain goals and targets they have set for themselves. For Maluleke, her father, the veteran Lawyer and Judge, George Maluleke, was her first and most important mentor. She said, ”He was an extraordinary cheerleader, did not hesitate to get involved when I veered off track and was always available to comfort and console when this was required. He was a fantastic leader and entrepreneur, so I learnt a lot from him about business, leadership and ethics.”

Maluleke added, “I’ve had many mentors. Some opened doors for me to meet people who became instrumental in driving my career growth. Others spent long nights helping me to develop my technical skills. All of them saw something good in me that I did not see in myself.”

In the spirit of giving back, Maluleke, herself, is a mentor to others. She explained “The advice I give is specific to the circumstances of each person. Often, people need to be shown their own potential so that they can believe that their dreams are achievable.”

Asked whether she believes that as a person achieves success, they should leverage their power to bring about a change for others, Maluleke concluded, “We should all be looking to support each other, irrespective of our level of success. Our country has enormous social challenges that require all of us to consistently be looking for ways to improve the lives of the people around us.” 

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