LUNCH WITH BUSINESS DAY
Nedbank's Ciko Thomas on the wisdom of mentors, and paying it forward
The man in charge of the retail and business banking unit that serves 8-million clients talks to Ruan Jooste about his surprising career path
The drag of the commute to Sandton, the preferred neighbourhood of Johannesburg’s bankers, lawyers and consultants, has me on edge. I then get horribly lost in the maze of blocks and parking lots of Nedbank’s head office and start to panic.
I can’t be late. Ciko Thomas, managing executive of retail and business banking, only has two hours available for lunch. It would have been less if our meeting wasn’t in the executive dining room around the corner from his office.
His division takes care of the infrastructure needed to service 8-million clients — through 600 branches, 3,500 ATMs and 21,000 employees — for their transactional banking, credit cards, loans and vehicle financing.
When I reach my destination I am met with a boisterous greeting from a sociable character, the opposite of what you’d expect from a banker, and my nerves are immediately put at ease. We connect over small, silly things: the buzz from our morning coffee binge to my lack of direction.
I was often surprised when a mentor would recommend that I try some new activity or take up a position that I hadn’t even considered. That has never been lost on meCiko Thomas
After we are shown to our seats, we decline the offer of wine and responsibly opt for water. While we are served smoked chicken, fennel, papaya and Asian salad with orange vinaigrette as a starter, Thomas takes me back to where his story begins.
He spent his formative years in the Eastern Cape attending township schools around Port Elizabeth. He was awarded a scholarship to St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown, where he finished high school.
He says he must have done something right because his parents would never have been able to afford to send him to that school. But he says he never considered himself a poor child, as he grew up in a big happy family.
Thomas says there was always a teacher or older family member who kept an eye on him or showed him the way forward. He quotes the old saying: "A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight."
He was the first person from his core family to qualify for university, but had no idea what he wanted to study, so he followed in the footsteps of an older cousin and obtained a BSc in chemistry from the University of Cape Town.
It was by chance he came into contact with his first employer, Unilever, on campus. He was dropping off forms for a fellow student at a career stand and the human resources director at Unilever was so impressed with how highly he spoke of his friend’s achievements that he was offered a job.
Ciko had a scholarship from Shell and thought he was destined to test oils and lubricants in a laboratory, but accepted the products and services group internship from Unilever and moved to Durban.
He says he found it remarkable that people mentored him without him realising it, and that his mentors always saw more in him than he saw in himself.
"I was often surprised when a mentor would recommend that I try some new activity or take up a position that I hadn’t even considered," he says. "That has never been lost on me."
Thomas developed an affinity for brand management at Unilever and when he was head-hunted by M-Net, he took up the offer with zeal and moved to Johannesburg. He worked on brands such as Movie Magic and was involved in the company’s first music offering, SoundCheck, a precursor to today’s Channel O.
But his move to South African Breweries (SAB) proved to be the turning point in his professional life and got him thinking about career development. He was involved in the reinvention of the Lion Lager brand and the launch of the Brutal Fruit range, but he yearned to learn about other parts of the business and later moved into channel management and distribution.
"Being involved with the financial and regional teams of the division is where I sharpened my business acumen. I was also doing my MBA part-time at Wits. I realised then that I wanted to run my own business," he says.
As he was completing his MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management in 2000, when the newly formed Eurozone was sprouting with possibility and black economic empowerment initiatives were taking shape in SA, the bug bit hard. "I was in a very comfortable position at SAB, so to get me into the entrepreneurial zone, I took up an 18-month stint at Absa as my bridgehead into that space," he says. Thomas was also getting married at the time.
His trip down memory lane is briefly interrupted with the serving of the main course — grilled salmon with lemon, dill and white-wine beurre blanc. Thomas eats between the storytelling and I keep an eye on the clock.
He says his corporate experience and network-building knowledge served him best when he became his own boss. He started an IT solutions company with partners, which they later sold to a JSE-listed entity; then bought an inner-city car dealership and established the first 100% black-owned BMW dealership in SA and turned that into a profit-making machine. He was also joint-owner of the first black-owned Volkswagen dealership in Johannesburg.
After selling the success stories to Barloworld and subsequently serving on the company’s board, Thomas was lured back into banking by former Nedbank chief operating officer Graham Dempster, to head up corporate communications, marketing and corporate affairs at the bank in 2010.
"I just loved the leadership of the place, Tom [Boardman] was the outgoing CEO at the time, a great change agent and inspiring human being who drew people into his style of management and his personality," he says.
"When I was interviewing for the job and met with the executive team I just resonated with the people, their headship ethos and the challenge that was set for me. I took on the position with relish."
Thomas did the job for a year but was longing to ramp up his entrepreneurial voice in an organisation he believes is client-centred and driven by innovation. Ingrid Johnson, who was head of retail banking and who initiated the formation of the business unit Thomas heads today, recognised his client-centric vision and his innovative spirit and pulled him into the business unit.
He took on the responsibility of a bigger retail and corporate business banking construct called consumer banking. He was looking after entry-level clients, mass-market banking and personal loans. "This was my baptism of fire into the business of banking," he says.
Thomas looks back at his years at Nedbank and says it was the strong leaders and their active mentorship that moulded him into the solid banker he is today.
"My interactions with the people I worked with, I looked up to and people who have actively mentored me were in many ways the most important part of my corporate learning experience," he says.
"To infuse and surround yourself with ecosystems of knowledgeable people, to my mind, is the only way you obtain the skills and know-how to be successful in business."
Being well aware of the value of mentorship programmes, he emphasises that he takes the role very seriously. While assorted cheeses, seasonal fruit and crackers are served for dessert, he states that he is actively finding ways to make himself more available to those eager to learn at the bank.
"I have youngsters knocking at my door asking for advice, wanting to share ideas and looking for guidance," he says. "I find that admirable and I’m pleased to see that the need for such conversations exist."
Thomas is about to launch an official mentoring programme in his division to open up the discussion floor for his team members around professional development and success in the work place.
"It is not a big-boss thing," he says. "It is about being more accessible to the contributing members of the organisation."
Thomas’s final words of wisdom as he leaves are: "The best mentors will help you learn and grow by sharing their knowledge and experience with you. In this way, you can benefit from their experience without having to suffer the consequences of gaining that experience first-hand."
Those words resonate as I try to figure out where I parked my car.