UNDICTATED: Meet FirstRand’s new CEO, the quiet iconoclast Mary Vilakazi

When GT Ferreira, Laurie Dippenaar, and Paul Harris founded the FirstRand group in 1998, they were determined to disrupt South Africa’s then-stagnant banking industry. Now worth R350bn, their venture is now second only to Naspers among listed South African companies – and is comfortably the most valuable financial services group in Africa. FirstRand’s disruptive ways continued this week when chartered accountant Mary Vilakazi, an erstwhile gifted child from Alexandria township, was named CEO to succeed the retiring Alan Pullinger. Vilakazi, 46, who has served as the group’s COO for the past five years, will break new ground when she takes over in April by becoming the first black woman to lead a major financial services group in South Africa. In this episode of UNDICTATED, BizNews editor Alec Hogg hears the journey of this quiet iconoclast from poverty into becoming the occupant of one of the country’s most prestigious corner offices – and explores how FirstRand might evolve under her leadership. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:07 – Introductions
  • 01:18 – Mary Vilakazi on feeling the weight of responsibility of the being the first Black female CEO
  • 02:43 – On the culture within FirstRand – and if she have that entrepreneurial outlook on life within FirstRand
  • 04:34 – Coming over to FirstRand in 2018
  • 07:52 – Working closely with former CEO Alan Pullinger
  • 09:14 – If Jacques Celliers was the other candidate
  • 11:59 – The timing
  • 15:22 – The succession planning within FirstRand
  • 17:10 – In it for the long term
  • 18:35 – Family and business
  • 20:04 – Her journey in business
  • 23:23 – Speaking truth to power
  • 25:36 – Advice for the youth
  • 27:41 – Conclusions

Listen here

An edited transcript of Alec Hogg’s interview with FirstRand’s incoming CEO, Mary Vilakazi

Alec Hogg: In this episode of UUNDICTATED, we meet Mary Vilakazi, the new group chief executive of Africa’s most valuable financial services group. This appointment starkly contrasts the recent abrupt CEO change at Naspers. FirstRand has its unique way of doing things, and today we’ll learn why. Mary, the announcement of your appointment has been years in the making. You’re set to take over on April 1st, and you’re the first black female CEO of a major banking and financial institution in South Africa. Do you feel the weight of this responsibility?

Mary Vilakazi: I felt an immense sense of responsibility when I learned about my appointment. This is a prestigious institution that I hold in high regard. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a strong leadership team and board, which will be especially important as I assume my role after Alan leaves. My primary task is ensuring a smooth transition and maintaining the institution’s stability.

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Alec Hogg: Let’s explore some context about you and your journey. But first, can we talk about FirstRand’s unique culture? It was founded by G.T. Ferreira, Laurie Dippenaar, and Paul Harris, who were known for their entrepreneurial spirit. Does that culture still exist within FirstRand today?

Mary Vilakazi: Absolutely. The core business philosophy of owner management is still deeply ingrained in our culture. We believe in empowering exceptional people, giving them ownership and trusting them to deliver. This ethos continues to attract talent, which we’re very proud of. When I joined in 2018, a company-wide survey showed that this culture is still very much alive and valued across all our jurisdictions.

Alec Hogg: You joined FirstRand in 2018, leaving your position as deputy CEO at MMI. Did future leadership opportunities at FirstRand influence your move? Alan Pullinger told the board he would leave after six years – which he is now doing. Were any promises made to you?

Mary Vilakazi: I joined FirstRand for the opportunity to get into banking. I was also drawn to the opportunity to work closely with Alan Pullinger, whom I held in high regard. It was a compelling and exciting opportunity that leveraged my experience with risk and compliance. Alan’s sponsorship was also a factor, but I always operated with the mindset that I was there to learn. I’m grateful for the board’s decision.

Alec Hogg: Did you think you might succeed Alan Pullinger as CEO?

Mary Vilakazi: While it’s crucial to use every opportunity to learn, I was never complacent. I focused on doing my best rather than being preoccupied with leadership succession.

Alec Hogg: What can you say about Jacques Celliers and his new role?

Mary Vilakazi: Jacques has been leading FNB for 10 years successfully. He has now been given a new mandate to develop future business models. He is a builder. We are counting on his skills to build something new and exciting.

Alec Hogg: In the excitement around your appointment, it almost seems lost that Johan Burger, the former CEO before Alan Pullinger, who left when you arrived in 2018, will now be the person you’ll work closely with as FirstRand’s new chairman. That’s an interesting change.

Mary Vilakazi: Johan has been on the board for several years. I’ve observed his interactions with Alan over time. It’s always interesting to see someone transition from an executive to a non-executive director role. Johan has been quite mindful of this. I’ve worked with him in a different context before, and I believe having experienced bankers on the board is crucial. They challenge us constructively, and I look forward to working with them.

Alec Hogg: You’ve mentioned the importance of teamwork at FirstRand. This contrasts sharply with what happened at Naspers, where the CEO was abruptly replaced. Is this difference due to the nature of your industries?

Mary Vilakazi: I can’t speak for other companies, but at FirstRand, succession planning is a continuous discussion. The board understands the CEO’s tenure, which allows for active succession planning. This tradition provides a lot of stability within the organisation.

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Alec Hogg: Have you committed to a six-year term like Alan, or are you approaching your position differently?

Mary Vilakazi: At 46, I believe I have the energy and time for longevity in this role. However, there are checkpoints to consider: whether I remain relevant to the organisation and the maturity of my successors. My job is also to ensure the board has multiple options regarding future leadership. I’ll step aside when the time is right.

Alec Hogg: That provides valuable insights into the CEO role. Now, you and Prof Zeblon (vice chancellor of Wits University) are set to become South Africa’s power couple. Given your high-profile roles, how do you manage your personal life?

Mary Vilakazi: At home, we’re like any other family. Our children keep us grounded. We’ve been handling responsibilities from a young age and support each other well. We have a strong support system around us, which should help us remain grounded as we enter this new phase.

Alec Hogg: In some ways you followed a fairly traditional path for a bank CEO by becoming a chartered accountant. But you attended school in a rather challenging neighbourhood, Joubert Park in the Joburg CBD. How did your educational journey shape your career?

Mary Vilakazi: I primarily schooled in Alex, attending Kata Primary and East Bank High before moving to St. Enda’s College. The school initially started in Bramfontein, later relocating to Joubert Park. Despite being in a turbulent area, we had dedicated teachers who inspired us to make a difference. Originally, I wanted to be a lawyer, then a psychologist. However, I was guided toward accounting, and eventually, I found my sweet spot in leadership.

Alec Hogg: Your predecessor, Alan Pullinger, was vocal about national political and societal issues. Will your leadership at First Rand be different?

Mary Vilakazi: Alan is very direct and is passionate about South Africa. I may have a different communication style, but our aims for the country are similar. It’s our role as a major corporate player to offer constructive criticism and solutions for the country’s growth and development.

Alec Hogg:
Young people, especially those who aspire to leadership roles, will be looking to you for guidance. What advice would you offer them?

Mary Vilakazi:
Education is crucial, but passion is equally important. Use opportunities wisely, even if they’re not ideal. Consistency and ethics are key, and no one succeeds alone; surround yourself with supportive people. In my case, choosing a good spouse also helped.

Alec Hogg:
That reminds me of an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” Thank you, Mary Vilakazi, for your insights today.

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