BRUCE WHITFIELD: Looking for calm, Absa appoints an insider as boss
The bank will be hoping for a period of peace and quiet after a few tumultuous years
Absa has appointed an insider as full-time CEO for the first time since 2006. Banking sector and Absa veteran Arrie Rautenbach will take over from interim CEO Jason Quinn. Quinn returns to the finance director role he held until the departure of former Reserve Bank deputy governor Daniel Mminele, who resigned in April 2021, 15 months into his tenure.
The bank will hope that Rautenbach’s appointment will bring some much-needed stability to the leadership of the group, which also had a boardroom bust-up late last year leading to the departure of Sipho Pityana, who had expected to succeed outgoing chair Wendy Lucas-Bull.
Mminele has moved on to new appointments including the chairpersonship of Alexander Forbes and head of the presidential climate finance task team, and has steadfastly declined to comment on the reasons for his departure beyond the official statement, which simply read: “The parties have not managed to achieve alignment in relation to the group’s strategy and the culture transformation journey.” Pityana has been far more vociferous about his exit and appears ready to slug it out in court.
Pityana, lauded for his role as president of Business Unity SA and standing up against the state capture of the Zuma administration, remains adamant he was unfairly denied the job as Absa chair and is challenging his board dismissal. The Absa board fired him in November 2021, months after he claimed the banking regulator had blocked his nomination as chair. This came after allegations that he’d resigned as AngloGold Ashanti chair following claims of sexual harassment against him.
He claimed that former Absa CEO Maria Ramos informed the Prudential Authority about the allegations when it was considering his suitability to chair the Absa board. Ramos succeeded Pityana as AngloGold Ashanti chair.
Things got messier when Pityana openly challenged the regulator’s decision, and after he gave a presentation to the Absa board in which he defended his right to challenge the Reserve Bank, it took the decision to remove him on the basis that he had failed to conduct himself “in the interests of Absa”.
She dutifully warned me that the banking sector was fragile and confidence was critical
Leadership at Absa has long been hotly contested.
It was a Friday morning in 2006. There had been a rumour that Absa was on the lookout for a new CEO. Its candidate, my well-placed source assured me, was Ramos, the Transnet CEO and former director-general of the National Treasury.
She was not the most obvious choice to replace dyed-in-the-wool banker Steve Booysen, just four years into his tenure at the helm of the bank. My source insisted the information was accurate. I called then chair Gill Marcus, who’d previously served as a deputy governor under Tito Mboweni at the Reserve Bank.
Could she confirm, I asked, whether Ramos was being appointed CEO of Absa?
“Who told you that?” she demanded. I declined to name my source and she refused to confirm or deny that my information was accurate. There was a brief to-and-fro and she dutifully warned me that the banking sector was fragile and confidence was critical, and any misreporting on this issue would be seen in a very serious light. I was not misreporting, I said, knowing my source to be impeccable — and I broke the story as Transnet announced that Ramos was leaving for an undisclosed new opportunity. It led to a flurry of activity as Absa broke with industry tradition, appointing not only an outsider but one with no executive experience in running a private sector financial institution.
Ramos ran Absa for a decade during the tumultuous ownership of the bank by Barclays, for which she’d worked after leaving school as a teller in the Vereeniging branch. She retired quite suddenly in 2019 with no obvious succession plan in place and it would be nearly a year before Mminele would (briefly) take over the job.
But long before all of this, there was another battle for supremacy at the bank when former Anglo American executive Rupert Pardoe was brought in as heir apparent to Nallie Bosman. That, too, led to a high-stakes contest, with Booysen’s eventual appointment and Pardoe’s departure.
The current Absa board, which is still contending with any action Pityana might take, will hope that the new era will be considerably less dramatic, giving new chair Sello Moloko a chance to settle in as he takes over from Lucas-Bull, who will turn her full attention to the board at Shoprite, where she has been serving for the past 18 months.
Whitfield is a contributing editor to the FM
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