CEO, FirstRand Bank
Sizwe Nxasana has a personal philosophy that a CEO should lead an organisation for no longer than 10 years. “It’s important – not only for your own personal growth but for the development of the company. After 10 years, it’s time to create opportunities for others to take a firm forward and create new challenges for yourself.”
It’s a philosophy that partly explains his rich and varied career, which has taken him from being Managing Partner of his own auditing firm to CEO of South Africa’s leading privatised telecoms provider to CEO of FirstRand Group – one of the Big Four banks in South Africa. He has held true to his philosophy, recently announcing that he would step down from FirstRand on 30 September 2016, nine years after taking up the role of CEO.
But his career could have taken a very different direction. Studying at the prestigious University of Fort Hare in Alice on the Eastern Cape, his original intention was to go into marketing. But meeting visiting lecturer Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu – the first black African to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in South Africa – changed that. “I didn’t know anything about Chartered Accountancy but I was really curious about this person who had grown up in the Eastern Cape and I became fascinated by the profession,” he says. “Also, given there was only one black Chartered Accountant, I saw it could offer far greater opportunity than marketing, which was pretty crowded.”
Completing his Chartered Accountancy qualifications took determination, however. With his university not offering appropriate courses, he had to complete his studies by correspondence. Only after completing articles at a very small audit firm, was he able to broaden his experience by securing a position at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In 1989, he saw an opportunity to set up his own audit firm to service the growing numbers of black African medical and legal professionals and business owners working in the townships of KwaZulu-Natal.
As the first black-owned audit practice in the province, it grew rapidly. Mergers with other firms from Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape followed, creating Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba, the first black-owned national firm of accountants in South Africa.
Ideas into practice
As well as servicing a new and growing market, Sizwe and his partners viewed the firm as a platform to train other Chartered Accountants at a time when it was still very hard for black trainees to get articles at any of the global accountancy firms. By 1998, the firm had seven offices and about 300 staff, most of whom were professional Chartered Accountants or trainees.
After nine years as Managing Partner, Sizwe was keen to put many of the ideas around business that he had developed as an auditor and consultant into practice in the commercial world. The perfect opportunity arrived in the form of Telkom SA, the formerly state-owned telecoms entity which was readying itself for listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, requiring a CEO who could drive new efficiencies and reach out to underserviced markets.
Moving from accountancy to telecoms was, he says, a sharp learning curve: “It was an industry I really knew nothing about except as a user, so I spent the major part of 18 months really immersing myself in the technology and jargon. But as a Chartered Accountant, you do acquire a process for understanding how any company operates and identifying what its issues are.”
Becoming versed in the telecoms industry, however, proved invaluable when he moved into banking in 2006. As CEO of FirstRand’s banking business, he found himself taking the helm just as technology and banking were converging – a trend he was keen to capitalise on to serve customers and support revenue growth. FirstRand was the first bank to offer a smartphone banking app, was one of the first to acquire a telecoms licence, and continues to carry the biggest traffic in cell phone banking in South Africa by quite a wide margin.
“If you look at the absence of physical telecoms infrastructure across a lot of the African continent, we are going to have to leverage technology a lot – and that’s something we are keen to lead.”
He believes passionately, too, in the role that banks can play in social change: “In South Africa, the issue of financial inclusion has always been on the agenda. As banks, we are playing a role in facilitating economic growth in our continent. But at the same time we still have a long way to go to support all the unbanked people we have in our population.”
Sizwe describes his role as CEO primarily in terms of enabling the skills of other people to come to the fore. “Being a CEO is about articulating a vision, bringing talented people on board, and then empowering those people to work together to achieve that vision. So what I bring to any organisation is essentially that ability to work with people.”
He also continues to support opportunities to enable talented individuals to become Chartered Accountants. FirstRand is a donor to the Thuthuka Bursary Fund, an initiative of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), which is placing up to 400 fully bursared black African and coloured students each year on accountancy courses at SAICA-accredited universities.
“Chartered Accountancy has given me great benefits as a person but also, within the commercial world, it is still one of the best professional qualifications to have. It teaches you about discipline and how to work hard. But most of all it teaches you about business and the commercial world. Because of the way you learn how to read financial information and interact with industry, you can understand how any organisation works and contribute to making it work better. So it’s vital we give more people the opportunity to join the profession.”
Having been six years in a CEO role at FirstRand, Sizwe is still some time away from his self-imposed 10-year limit on tenure. Whatever he does in the future, he envisages he will stay heavily involved in telecoms or financial services – both key drivers of economic transformation in Africa.
But as a Chartered Accountant, he remains willing to keep testing himself: “Becoming a Chartered Accountant prepared me to challenge myself and learn about things that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about,” he says.
“It gives you the confidence to go into a completely new environment and know that you will be able to figure things out.”