Saks Ntombela has his leg up on a couch at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg. An operation brought on by a nasty fall while running has left his right leg in a brace. "My colleagues who cycle are giving me a hard time because I always say cycling is dangerous," he chuckles.

Ntombela’s appointment this week as CEO of Hollard Insurance Group is a welcome development in an industry that has struggled to transform at the pace the country needs. He takes over from Nic Kohler, who has been at the helm for 10 years and with the company for 20.

Kohler plans to work with Yellowwoods, the investment company of Hollard’s majority shareholder, the Enthoven family.

Ntombela agrees that black representation at executive level in financial services is limited, but he believes transformation goes far beyond employment equity. For him, it’s more important to have difficult conversations and share experiences across racial barriers to build a company in which everyone feels they can contribute.

"You can make [employment equity] targets, but people still might not feel like they belong," he tells the Financial Mail.

And Hollard is big on belonging. As Ntombela puts it: "People don’t have to leave their personalities at the turnstiles."

Ntombela’s own interview experience with Hollard chairman Adrian Enthoven is indicative of the insurer’s relaxed and personable culture. Having spent the better part of a decade in banking before joining Hollard in September 2012, Ntombela arrived at the interview in true banker style: wearing a suit and tie.

Enthoven, on the other hand, was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved top. Needless to say, Ntombela lost the tie shortly afterwards.

A mechanical engineer by training, Ntombela (49) started his career at Unilever before cashing in his pension to pursue a full-time MBA at the University of Cape Town. "Back then, I was not married with two kids," he smiles.

He later secured a bursary with Old Mutual to finish his studies, and joined the insurance group, where he was part of the team that built Old Mutual Bank in a joint venture with Nedbank.

Nedbank eventually absorbed the bank and Ntombela joined Nedbank’s retail team. There he worked with Rob Shuter, now MTN CEO, and Old Mutual Plc FD Ingrid Johnson. He went on to become managing executive of Nedbank Retail.

Ntombela still carries a leadership lesson from then Nedbank CEO Tom Boardman: before leading teams and organisations, you need to understand and lead yourself.

After a stint in charge of retail products at Absa, Ntombela joined Hollard to head its life & investments division.

He takes over as CEO at an exciting time for the company, now SA’s second-largest short-term insurer. Having recently acquired the Regent Insurance Group from Imperial Holdings, Hollard has ambitions to become a full-service financial services provider to the mass market, offering credit, savings and transactional products.

As the family-owned firm transforms from a start-up to a midsized corporate, Ntombela hopes it won’t lose the down-to-earth authenticity that "makes Hollard special". With him leading the charge, it’s bound to retain it.

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