Winds of change at FirstRand as Mary Vilakazi takes the top spot
COO will replace Alan Pullinger to become first black woman at helm
Incoming FirstRand CEO Mary Vilakazi, who will become the lender’s first female leader, says there is a strong pipeline of female leaders in the group and she will not be the last to head the group or its many divisions.
COO Vilakazi, who also becomes the group’s second black leader after Sizwe Nxasana, said a lot of progress has been made in the past 20 years to affirm female leaders.
“When Raj Makanjee left his role at FNB, Lytania Johnson came in as CEO of the personal segment. And you need that because that is where your pipeline is. You would have also seen the appointment of Emrie Brown as CEO of Rand Merchant Bank a year ago,” she told Business Day.
“Hopefully, we can have a series of top CEO appointments from our own ranks. The job is to make sure the succession pipeline is diverse. I am encouraged when I compare what I see today versus 20 years ago.”
The last woman to lead one of the country’s major banks is Maria Ramos, who was at the helm of Absa for a decade.
Momentum Metropolitan appointed Jeanette Marais as its first woman CEO in May.
Vilakazi’s appointment was announced on Wednesday as the group embarked on a leadership overhaul. She will replace Alan Pullinger, who will step down in April 2024.
Vilakazi’s appointment was well received, with Makwe Masilela of Makwe Fund Managers saying she had been groomed for the role, and her ascension was part of a well-thought-out succession plan.
“As a COO she understands all the operations, strategy, including their weaknesses as a group ... the COO gets his/her hands dirty much more than the CEO. I guess no-one can challenge her experience nor qualifications,” said Masilela.
“Equally, we cannot underplay the challenges that come with the job — let alone that the sector itself might be entering a challenging environment associated with struggling economy, high unemployment and high interest rates ... a perfect recipe for bad debts,” he said.
Asief Mohamed, chief investment officer of Aeon Investment Management, said Vilakazi is an “excellent” pick and commended the group’s track record in successfully transitioning CEOs into the role.
Vilakazi joined the JSE-listed financial services group in 2018. Before that she held several roles at Momentum Metropolitan Holdings, including CFO and deputy CEO.
Vilakazi said she is up to the task. “I am delighted to be entrusted to lead one of the largest and most profitable financial institutions in Africa.
“During his tenure, Alan has demonstrated inspirational leadership, and I have been privileged to work in partnership with him and the broader team. I take over at a time when the portfolio is in good shape in all of its jurisdictions.
“The things that set FirstRand apart from its peers and enable it to outperform remain firmly in place. Our portfolio of leading brands, our top-quality talent ... and our relentless focus on shareholder value creation will continue to underpin the group’s success on my watch,” she said.
Pullinger backed the group’s new leadership. “FirstRand’s business philosophy means that we behave and think like owners and the entire leadership is collectively and individually invested to deliver on the group’s commitments to its shareholders, customers, and employees,” he said.
“It has been a tremendous honour and privilege to be a part of, and to lead, FirstRand and I have full confidence in handing over the baton to Mary and her new leadership team.”
FirstRand’s portfolio of businesses comprises RMB, FNB, WesBank, Aldermore Bank and Ashburton Investments.
In other leadership changes announced, FNB CEO Jacques Celliers will be responsible for the group’s fintech strategy.
Celliers, who led FNB for a decade, will be succeeded by FirstRand CFO Harry Kellan.
Celliers said he is looking forward to the new role. “I am excited to now give dedicated focus to some of the really innovative offerings currently sitting in FNB.
“These offerings have resonated with customers but have the potential to materially scale, both within our own customer base and eventually the open market.”
Kellan said heading FNB is an “exciting prospect”.
“I feel energised at the prospect of leading a motivated, already high-performing team and work alongside them to shape the future of these famous brands, FNB and WesBank. I am inheriting a great business in great shape, with a brand recognised for excellence in innovation and exciting customer propositions.”
FNB CFO Markos Davias has been promoted to care for the finances of the group, replacing Kellan, while Gideon Joubert will replace Davias as FNB CFO.
FirstRand chair Roger Jardine will step down at the group’s AGM, scheduled for the end of November, and will be replaced by Johan Burger, who previously served as the group’s CEO.
“The ability to promote from within ensures the transition of responsibilities is seamless and collaborative, and that the individuals moving into these new roles have had the necessary experience, tenure and track records of delivery,” he said.
Update: October 4 2023
This story has been updated with new information.
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