Describing himself as an introvert, Sizwe Nxasana says the ability to remain quiet and listen has enabled him to empower those around him. Nxasana became a chartered accountant (CA) by accident.
When he registered at the University of Fort Hare in 1976, his intention was to complete a marketing degree. But Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, the first black person to qualify as a chartered accountant in South Africa, had coincidentally started lecturing at Fort Hare that year.
“I was inspired by this man who had grown up in a village in the Transkei, and had survived the rural schooling system, even though I didn’t know much about what a chartered accountant actually does,” says Nxasana. “I believed that if he could do it there was no reason I couldn’t.”
Fort Hare did not offer the subjects required for the CA qualification at that time, so Nxasana completed a general BCom. He started his career at Unilever and Price Waterhouse and in 1989 established Sizwe & Co, the first black-owned audit practice.
In 1996 he became the founding partner of Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba, the first black-owned national firm of accountants, and was national managing partner until 1998 when he joined Telkom as chief executive officer.
His experience in the financial services industry includes non-executive directorships, since 2003, of FirstRand Bank and Rand Merchant Bank, of NBS Boland Bank (1995 to 1998), of the Development Bank of South Africa (1995 to 1998) and Chairperson of Msele-Hoskens Insurance Group (1994 to 1996).
Entrepreneur: Your tenure at Telkom was successful from both a financial and operational point of view. What were the key reasons for this success?
SN: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 completely overhauled the legislative and regulatory framework of the telecoms industry in South Africa, setting certain key objectives for Telkom in the process.
These included the mass rollout of telephone lines, appropriate training of employees, preparing the organisation for its listing on the stock exchange, and gearing it up to face competition. Our entire focus was on meeting these objectives within a five-year plan.
To be honest, because we were operating in a regulated environment it was quite easy to achieve some of them. The mandate was clear.
E: What were some of your goals?
SN: One of the major goals was to make the company more efficient, which required negotiation with the unions and employees.
That was the first step in setting the stage for Telkom’s transformation. We then created a set of values within the organisation, and ensured that everyone in the company contributed to them.
E: How did you involve Telkom’s people in the transformation?
SN: The people issue was really central to everything at the time. The values subscribed to included selection of the right people. We developed systems and processes to map the skills in the organisation and the ones we would need going forward. But execution is always challenging.
A huge effort was made to rally all stakeholders around the key objectives. We had to build a team of people who would make things happen, which meant changing the culture of the organisation. Telkom had gone from being a government department to becoming a fully owned parastatal.
Success depended on moving the company out of its monolithic mindset into a space where it could operate as a commercial entity.There were hardly any sales or marketing teams in place, so the concept of customer service had to be introduced from scratch. We ran ongoing campaigns, discussions and road shows about culture.
E: How did you convince Telkom’s people that you were moving the organisation in the right direction?
SN: We introduced performance management, incentivising people to carry out their duties. Because the organisation went from rewarding loyalty to rewarding performance, initially there was some resistance from the unions and people who thought we were trying to weed them out.
A fundamental shift was required. Consider that previously employees would start working for Telkom straight after school or university and stay there until they retired, often to be succeeded by their sons.
E: How did you move the company from a job-for-life to a performance-based mindset?
SN: First, the roles of human resources and HR development were defined. We then identified a number of key objectives and cascaded these into various service organisations within Telkom, such as sales, marketing, customer service, and finance.
These units had to develop objectives which informed the company’s overall business plan, and were then turned into measurable targets. To support the performance based philosophy, we also introduced development plans for all staff.
E: You made a vital contribution to bridging the gap between black and white staff members at Telkom. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs whose companies are going through some form of significant change?
SN: Make sure there is discussion and debate. Be an open and transparent leader. Tell people why the organisation needs to change.
Encourage buy-in. Don’t force your views on people – rather allow them to contribute to what you have all agreed you need to achieve. Leaders tend to believe they must make decisions; in truth, they are there to facilitate decision-making.
E: What role did communication play in the evolution of Telkom?
SN: It is vitally important for leaders to communicate important information, be it good or bad. Leaving sensitive issues to your marketing or PR department is a no-no.
One of the key things that happened at Telkom, for example, is that many businesses in the organisation were not core and had to be hived off. Also, the organisation invested heavily in new technology and had to retrench certain employees as a result.
These are events that impact people’s lives significantly and must be communicated directly by the CEO. Leaders sometimes tend to shy away from these difficult tasks, but openness is the bedrock upon which success is built.
E: How did your relationship begin with Laurie Dippenaar?
SN: I served on the board of NBS Bank, in which RMB had a stake, with Paul Harris and GT Ferreira from 1995, and I was a non-executive director of FirstRand Bank from 2003, while I was still at Telkom. I came to understand the bank’s strategy and some of the issues the banking sector faces.
My own philosophy is that it’s not good for a CEO to lead an organisation for more than ten years. It’s vital for a company to have access to new people and new ideas; otherwise, the whole organisation thinks just like you do.
When my contract at Telkom came up for renewal, I made it clear that I was going to move on. Then Laurie decided to retire, so the timing was opportune.
E: Since joining FirstRand Bank in January 2006, what have been the biggest challenges you have had to face?
SN: The first few months in any organisation are about learning the business. I have immersed myself in the three key operating divisions I am responsible for, all of which are large businesses in their own right.
I’m also looking at areas that FirstRand still needs to focus on to enable companies in the group to cross-sell and grow.
Key objectives are attracting and retaining the right people, pursuing growth opportunities, improving efficiencies, dealing with transformation issues around employment equity, and meeting and exceeding the requirements of the financial services charter.
E: FirstRand Bank became known for the entrepreneurial culture that existed within its business units – First National Bank, Wesbank, and Rand Merchant Bank. Does that culture still survive?
SN: It does. One of the defining elements in the organisation is the owner-manager culture. My role at the centre is to be a catalyst, to help make things happen, to offer guidance that empowers people, and to pave the way for ongoing discussion and debate.
I believe in letting people who run business units run them. RMB, for example, has a number of divisions that operate as discrete businesses, competing or collaborating as they see fit. The FirstRand Group has been broken into chunks of very nimble businesses that are able to execute quickly and efficiently.
We have far less bureaucracy than our peer group. It’s important to promote an entrepreneurial culture because that is what makes us able to speedily launch new products and services in the marketplace. Centrally controlled organisations are simply not able to act as quickly.
E: You have demonstrated great concern for customer care. How do you define it, and what are the most important components of good customer service?
SN: We have a twofold approach: customer service means understanding the needs of your customers, but it also means anticipating future needs.
There is one defining question: will the customer recommend First National Bank, Rand Merchant Bank or Wesbank to another person? Referral is the best indicator of customer satisfaction. You only reach that point if your customer is comfortable interacting with you and confident about the service you provide.
Short queues and phone calls answered in two seconds are all very well in the short term, but long-term customer retention derives from an emotional attachment to your brand. People must be able to relate to your culture, value system and products beyond their immediate needs.
Service providers must also remember that there is always room for improvement. We live in a state of constant change; to flourish, you have to be able to reinvent yourself.
E: Against a backdrop of commoditised financial services, how does FirstRand retain constant innovation?
SN: Take a product that may appear to be commoditised and look at customer needs. The Million a Month account, for example, is a 32-day notice account that is unique because it introduces excitement for the customer who stands the change of winning a million rand every month.
The One Account too fulfils all the functions of a cheque account, overdraft, personal loan and home loan. Differentiating your products with added features like these is what makes an impact on your customers. A company must think ahead and develop new products.
That is where innovation comes in. I mention our Million a Month account, our partnership model with the motor industry at Wesbank and the range of investment banking products offered by RMB as instances of business innovation – these organisations have come up with new and exciting solutions to customer needs. Innovation is all about designing products and services that meet those needs well into the future.
E: What are the next big goals you have set for FirstRand Bank?
SN: Attracting and retaining the right people is an ongoing objective. I’m also focusing on greater collaboration and communication across our business units, so as to improve efficiencies and aid them in finding growth opportunities for the group as a whole.
We are looking at growth opportunities within the country and outside our borders. This is not a new drive: RMB has been operating in Australia and the UK for a number of years already, and Wesbank is also represented in Australia.
Our strategy is not to export FirstRand as a brand, but rather to grow our business through niche units that offer an exportable proposition.
E: How is a day in your life typically structured?
SN: I go to gym for an hour six days a week. Gym is my personal time; that’s where I plan the day ahead and think about the issues I have to face. I get to the office by 7.00am and use this quiet time to send e-mails, and to read and draft documents.
By 8.30am everyone has arrived and the day revolves around meeting with people, talking about the business, and making decisions. When I’m not visiting our regions or travelling, I’m back home by 7.00pm and I start working again after dinner.
E: How do you develop your knowledge and skills?
SN: I read autobiographies, business magazines, and anything relevant to banking.
E: Is there anyone whom you look upon as an inspiration in your career?
SN: There is a wide range of people, locally and internationally, who do interesting things and have wonderful ideas.
E: What is your key advice to anyone seeking to start a business in this country?
SN: South Africa needs young, emerging entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Black people in particular cannot grow the economy just by looking for opportunities to buy equity stakes. When you are in a corporate environment it is easy to slip into a comfort zone.
Remember that you have nothing to lose by starting a business; it’s far better to take a chance than to spend the rest of your life regretting what you did not do.