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Leadership Magazine’s Ralph Staniforth sat down for a chat with Coenraad Jonker, the CEO and co-founder of TymeBank, to find out more about how and why this relatively new kid on the block is making such big waves in the sector.

In February 2019, a digital bank was launched in South Africa with the goal of ‘keeping things easy, clear, and affordable’ for all who use it.

Many at the time were sceptical about a digital-first bank working in a country such as South Africa, given the obstacles of connectivity, accessibility, and coverage, and a general lack of understanding as far as the digital world is concerned.

However, co-founders Coenraad Jonker and Tjaart van der Walt believed fully in the idea and were determined to ensure its success.

Fast forward five years since launching and TymeBank is thriving, thanks to its hugely impressive 8.6 million customers. The Tyme Group, in partnership with the Gokongwei Group, also launched GoTyme in the Philippines in October 2022—which now has over 2.3 million customers. TymeBank reached its first month of profitability in December 2023, making it the first to do so in South Africa and the African continent.

Based in Rosebank, Johannesburg, TymeBank hosts its banking operations online through its App and Internet Banking site. To spread the word and allow for ease of access, the retail chains Pick n Pay and Boxer joined forces with the bank to host a national network of self-service kiosks and retail points, which allow customers to open their account in under fine minutes, with no paperwork. As of late 2022 TymeBank kiosks can now also be found in TFG (The Foschini Group) stores nationwide, while a strategic partnership with the Zion Christian Church (ZCC)—the largest African-initiated church in Southern Africa, with approximately 9 million members in South Africa – has helped with growth targets.

TymeBank’s anchor shareholder is the Dr Patrice Motsepe-founded African Rainbow Capital (ARC). Other investors include Apis Growth Fund II, Tencent, British International Investment, the Gokongwei Group, the Tyme Management Investment Vehicle, Norrsken22, and the Ethos AI Fund.

To find out more about the journey of this banking disruptor, Leadership sat down with Jonker to chat about the first five years, what comes next, and whether his impact as a disruptor will leave a lasting impact on the industry.

But first, we will start with the origins of this incredibly impressive entity; an origin story which not only shows the power of passion, but one which illustrates what determination and a desire to help others is able to achieve.

Jonker began his career as a lawyer with Edward Nathan Corporate Law Advisers (now ENS) in 1996 and four years later became the firm’s CEO.

“When I was doing my MBA at Gibs (Gordon Institute of Business Science)—I was in the first MBA class at Gibs in 2000 and 2001—I came across the work of a brilliant economist by the name of Hernando de Soto and his book, ‘The Mystery of Capital’. It dawned on me that the private sector, and banks in particular, can play a transformative role in society to actually democratise access to financial services, and that in itself can be a great driver of both helping people unleash their personal potential and also transforming an economy.

“So, I became really enamoured with this idea of democratising access to finance and it initially was just a hobby, but I got really interested and read a lot about it. Then I started teaching a subject around doing business at the base of the pyramid and capital formation. Soon I decided that I love this passion, this purpose enough to give up my career as a lawyer and do this full time. And that’s really what I have been doing and dedicating my life to since 2005,” Jonker explains.

In 2005, with the seed firmly sown, Jonker left the legal fraternity to join Standard Bank as Director of Community Banking, where he led a strategy to extend banking to underserved consumers, adding digital channels and more than a million additional customers to the bank. Then in 2011 he joined Deloitte as a Partner in the strategy and innovation practice and a year later a new venture, called Tyme, was spun out of Deloitte. For a time, the business was owned by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), but at the end of 2018 Jonker and his leadership team partnered with ARC to buy the Tyme business from CBA.

Celebrating five years of success

Whenever an entrepreneur decides to launch a new venture, there is very little you can tell them that will dissuade them from the idea that their ‘baby’ will be a success.

It’s the mentality that is required to overcome obstacles and power forward with the vision.

Some may call that thinking naive, but for Jonker, especially in the case of TymeBank, powering through situations which would likely cripple most other ventures has stood him and the entity very, very well.

“When you start something new, particularly when you are the founder of a new business, the only reason you started this was because you are not smart enough to figure out how hard it is going to be—and I would say that the last five years of my life have been brutal,” Jonker reveals.

“It has been extremely hard building a business through a pandemic, through multiple government failures; whether it is electricity, Home Affairs system outages, major problems with the South African Social Services Agency, and so on. It has been really hard, but at the same time I couldn’t really imagine the extent of the success that we’ve achieved either.

“We are now in two countries. I didn’t imagine that we would be in two countries. That is something that sort of evolved afterwards and gained momentum after we launched TymeBank in South Africa. We now have 11 million customers, and we are growing at a million customers every two months. If you had told me that in 2019, I would probably have also been sceptical.”

While he may have felt sceptical then in this hypothetical situation, the reality is that TymeBank has far exceeded many expectations.

One of the most notable milestones involves the ability of customers to open a bank account in under five minutes—something that was unheard of in the industry until the advent of TymeBank.

Further to its success was the shift in thinking from focusing on transactional banking and sales to expanding the proposition to include the first really affordable health insurance product that sits between government provided healthcare and your typical medical aid—TymeHealth. This offering, launched in partnership with the National Healthcare Group, covers basic medical services with premiums of between R139 and R399, depending on the package that the customer signs up for.

“Another big breakthrough for us was when we got to a point where we could profitably serve the poorest of the poor. So, if you take a Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD Grant) recipient who only receives R350 a month, most banks don’t want to serve that customer. It’s not because they don’t like the customer, it’s just because it is very difficult for a traditional bank to make money off someone who only gets R350 into their account every month,” Jonker says.

“Our model has now proven that it is possible to profitably serve that customer and I think that is one of the big breakthroughs that we’ve had and that we will look back to as something that in banking worldwide, has the potential to change what banks can do to provide access to customers.

“Hopefully in the years to come we will have more of those kinds of unique propositions that serve customers more broadly.”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so when asked about what he might have done differently five years ago, knowing what he knows now, Jonker was quick to bring forward the idea that one must trust the actions of the customer, as the reality is that their behaviour is what has the power to make or break a business.

“The truth is that we’ve made many mistakes and as a general rule, I think I would hold less on to my ideas about what’s going to work and correct my mistakes faster. When you start a business, you think you know what you need to do to be successful and then when your customers tell you differently through their behaviour, we all have this little pit in ourselves where we think that we probably know better than the customers.

“The one thing that we’ve learnt is we do not know better than our customer. We have to listen to them and when they tell us that something doesn’t work for them, we need to become better at changing those things faster. I don’t think it is about making fewer mistakes, it is about correcting ourselves faster, learning faster, and just pushing forward and improving constantly on what we do,” he explains.

While the success is written in black and white, the emotional toll is unquantifiable, but thanks to the support of those around him and his burning desire to make this work, the rest, as they say, is history.

”I have felt that I was in over my head a few times. I think I had a few moments where, particularly in the middle of the pandemic, the only thing that got me out of bed and going again were the commitments I had made to my team, to my family, and to our shareholders to make this thing work.

“One has moments like that, and I would say after building a business these last five years, there are more days when you feel like you’re losing than days when you feel like you’re winning. One of the things that we as a team have learned to do is to really dig deep in our stores of resilience and perseverance,” Jonker reveals.

The next step for TymeBank

Armed with their 8.6 million-strong customer base and support for SMMEs, a key strategic move going forward is attracting the higher income earners in the markets they serve.

Jonker believes that what is coming will help to persuade those with more money at their disposal that TymeBank is the right bank to partner with, as the goal is to show that the entity ‘works for everyone’.

Jonker explains: “We have two target segments, the one is consumers and the other one is small and micro businesses. We already provide help and support to over 50 000 small and micro businesses, and we will over time provide more and more business services. On the consumer side, we really want to serve all consumers. I would say that in the last five years our strength has been with the middle and lower middle-class consumers as well as the mass market consumers. Our ambition is to continue to evolve and broaden our proposition to become more and more attractive to wealthier customers. We really want to serve all South African consumers once our propositions are fully developed and refined to work for everyone.

“For our poorer customers, we tend to be the primary account from day one, but wealthier customers tend to start off with us as a secondary account that they use for online shopping, sending money to the family or saving some money on the side. Over time our job is to convince people to use us more and more and eventually the most important moment is when somebody trusts us enough to put their salary or their pension into their TymeBank account. But that, for wealthier customers, tends to take time or for people who are used to banking in the old way it doesn’t happen overnight.”

To go along with attracting wealthier customers, for Tyme Group the goal is further international expansion.

With a footprint in South Africa and the Philippines, Tyme will be entering the Vietnamese market later in 2024.

While Jonker is incredibly pleased to have seen the growth of the banking group into more than just one country, the reality is that the desire to keep on expanding never goes away.

“We’ve been very blessed in our international expansion so far. We launched in the Philippines just over a year back and we’re already in the top five banks there in terms of unique digital banking users. We’re actually growing faster in the Philippines than we are in South Africa. So, it’s gone really well there, and I think within the next three years our Asian business will be bigger than our South African business. We’ve made the decision to go into Vietnam and we will launch our first product in Vietnam in the second quarter of this year,” he reveals.

“We are always on the lookout for opportunities. Right now the South-East Asia markets are really more suited to our model, more attractive, but you know we love Africa, we love the continent, and I am sure in the years to come the opportunities will arise to also expand into other African countries.”

While the groundwork has started on expansion in terms of location and customer base, Jonker has more ambitious goals he is determined to see come to fruition.

In what he describes as a ”bit of a war statement”, Jonker is eyeing a top three position within the retail banking arena in South Africa, while simultaneously being number one from a customer satisfaction perspective.

“We want to be in the top three from a return on equity perspective, from a scale perspective, from an efficiency perspective, and from a pace of growth perspective. Then in five years we want to list on the New York Stock Exchange, that’s our goal,” he says with a sense of determination.

Coen Jonker: The leader

As mentioned above, Jonker was put through the ringer as a leader during the early days of TymeBank.

It is through this type of adversity where we are able to see the true colours of a leader, and it is easy to see that what has been achieved to date is in a large part down to Jonker’s staying power and ability to run a business.

In terms of his leadership style, Jonker says that the powers of persuasion play a major role in achieving any sort of success, as a strong leader is able to persuade those around them to come along for the journey ahead.

He explains: ”I would say that the first job of a leader is to define reality. We think of reality as having two aspects: subjective reality being my dreams and perspectives and objective reality being the couch, the desk, the weather. However, the most important aspect of reality for us as humans is what Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari calls ‘inter-subjective reality’, the stuff we agree on, like money. You know money is fiction, it is made up, but we all agree on it, and it plays a big role in our lives.

”So the one leadership skill that I think is a superpower is the ability to persuade people. For me persuasion is the ability to tell a story about something that does not yet exist with such clarity that we mobilise people and resources in service of that vision. That storytelling, I think, is at the heart of leadership. Particularly if we think about leadership as being transformative. Then, if we become good at storytelling, we are willing to take the responsibility of working until that story becomes true.”

In an interesting aside during the conversation, Jonker explains the role that love has to play in leadership—and it creates much food for thought.

“I believe there are two other factors that are absolutely key in leadership, and that is the two sides of love. The one side of love is generosity, and the other side of love is courage. Generosity is the soft side of love, while courage is the hard side of love. Being able to apply both generosity and courage appropriately within business involves using generosity with the weaker people in your ecosystem and courage with the more powerful where you have to sort of contain their power. Getting that right, I think, is then key to bringing your vision into reality in a way that is balanced and that is good for the world,” he avers.

When one starts a business that is transformative in nature, one always struggles with the question of whether it is going to work out.

For Jonker the leader, it required a level of courage and faith to take the leap, with the dilemma being that you’re never sure whether you’re just a ”crazy person who is taking people along for a ride that is going to fail” or whether it is all going to work out in the end.

He explains: “This is something which you can never be completely sure of, so it requires this interesting challenge where you have to hold the two thoughts in your head at the same time; the one is conviction that you’re going to win and the other, the sort of critical mindset that says maybe if I become too convinced in my own ‘rightness’ I am going to miss the lessons I need to learn to be successful.

“So there is a part that also has to think about my potential failure. I sometimes say to the team that you have to be the boxer and the bookmaker. You have to be the Muhammad Ali who goes, ‘I am the best, I am going to do it’, but you also have to have the mind of a bookie to say, what are the odds here and what do we need to do to stop ourselves from failing to manage our risks and so on.”

Keeping that balance is always hard and being honest with yourself as a leader is a challenge. It certainly requires a lot of learning, which is something which Jonker has never shied away from.

“I think another important aspect is keeping the right level of energy to maintain resilience through setbacks. I think most founders will tell you that a lot of things don’t work out the way you think they are going to work out. We launched personal loans a month before the COVID-19 hard lockdown and we just had to shut it down, we just couldn’t do that product in that market and there are dozens of examples like that. So, I think that’s the other challenge; being able to just maintain not only personal resilience but to also build resilience in the team to keep going,” he continues.

With so much to think about and deal with as a leader, it can all become quite difficult to manage. We all know the dangers of stress in life, but that is little consolation for those leaders who have no other choice but to keep pushing.

While it is not easy to manage, it is vital to seek some form of downtime to just clear your mind and refresh. Doing this has proven to reduce stress levels and assists in helping leaders to maintain their top performance levels without the fear of burnout.

For Jonker, putting an emphasis on factors such as sleep and exercise is a solution to his stress management, while he admits that the support of those around him also plays a major role in keeping him grounded and focused on what is important.

He explains: “I will highlight two things when it comes to managing stress. The first I would say is always attending to the basics and I have learned this the hard way. By the basics I mean sleep, diet, and exercise. If you don’t do the basics right, at some point you just don’t have the energy to keep going. The second thing I would like to highlight is the importance of support from the people you love. You know, I couldn’t have done this without a wife that has the most amazing set of values. Money is not important; she really cares about the transformative power of what we’re trying to do and is just in every way supportive and there for you. I think having those sorts of personal relationships with the people closest to you, being on the same page and supporting that venture, is key.”

The legacy conversation

Regardless of where you are in your career, the conversation of ‘leaving a legacy’ is always a topical one. No one starts a business journey without wanting to leave a mark in some way or the other, that is the reality of business.

While that mark may look different from person to person, for Jonker, his desire is to create a TymeBank which no longer requires his guidance. While that may sound counterintuitive in some ways, what he wants to do is create an entity which is unbreakable and sustainable for generations to come.

“I think that preparing for stepping away and thinking about stepping away all the time is very important because we all have a role to play at a time in the history of a business and what success looks like. When you step away, the people left behind need to be strong people, healthy people, people that buy into the values, buy into the vision that can take the business into the next chapter. I don’t think about TymeBank as my thing at all, I very much think about it as a team project. Therefore, I believe that I have to be ready to step away whenever my shareholders or my team say to me now is the time to step away and for the succession to be there to carry on the business,” Jonker says.

“I think I try not to be too attached to legacy. I think it is better to be attached to the quality of inputs that you are making to the business. Eckhart Tolle said that ‘greatness does not lie in the achievement of great things, but in the quality of attention we give to every moment’, so I almost tell myself not to get obsessed with the legacy question and that by not being obsessed with the legacy question, maybe we can make more appropriate inputs and not get attached, not get our ego attached to the business.”

While he may not be keen on the ‘legacy’ tag right now, one thing Jonker will always be remembered for is being a ‘disruptor’.

What he and his team have managed to achieve in the South African banking landscape in such a short space of time, to the benefit of so many people, is truly remarkable.

In terms of what being a disruptor means in the current context, Jonker explains: ”I think we can say, hand on heart, we are a disruptor. We’ve changed a number of important things. We’ve changed how customers are acquired and serviced, we’ve changed what category of customers can be profitably served, we’ve changed the way that lending happens in the small business market, our ability to provide loans to businesses that would not otherwise have been able to have access to finance. So, I would say that in many ways we are a disruptor and we have forever disrupted the industry and redefined access to customers.

“74% of our customers say that what they receive from us as a service they cannot get anywhere else and that is indicative of the fact that we’ve pushed out the boundaries. Having said that, I am absolutely convinced that we will ourselves be disrupted, there will come a next player that will make us look like we’re an old institution. So, part of the excitement of this is not only to see the extent to which you yourself can bring transformation, but also to watch how the exciting fintechs out there are pushing the boundaries beyond what we imagined five years ago when we started.”

In closing, Jonker wanted to highlight once again what the future holds for TymeBank. It is currently a very exciting period for banking in South Africa and a major debt of gratitude is owed to Jonker and his team for creating an offering which allows participation in a country which requires a lot more opportunities and support like this for its people.

”I think the last point is to just reflect after five years on where we are in the business. At this very moment, TymeBank has broken even, we’re profitable now, which means that we’ve essentially proven the doubters wrong and that, for a business that does something new that hasn’t been done before, is absolutely incredible. It is a very important point in our history and we’re now ready to change gears and go full steam ahead. We’ve proven the model, we can be confident that what we do is sustainable, and now we can play to win; which is why we are saying we want to be a top three retail bank in South Africa in the next three years,” he concludes.

And we look forward to following your efforts in hitting that target. 

Ralph Staniforth

By Editor