Maria Ramos: Absa’s statement of intent in capturing Davos Promenade

DAVOS — We never chatted about it in this interview, but Absa CEO Maria Ramos is sure to allow herself a wry smile when reflecting on the latest rockets to hit her former bosses at Barclays. Because while Ramos was making a massive statement in Davos with the newly independent Absa, her previous bosses, including ex-Barclays CEO John Varley, were in a London court charged with fraud and corruption involving their direct involvement in bribes paid to the facilitator of a $3bn Qatari investment. By contrast, Ramos has an unblemished reputation in decades of running SA’s Treasury and Transnet en route to her directing of Africa’s largest retail bank. She is also a long-time Davos attendee, including having co-chaired the World Economic Forum‘s annual meeting. But this year was surely the highlight of her decades long participation as Absa became the first African business to take a major presence on the Davos high street (the Promenade) to celebrate its arrival as a major continental force. As Ramos explains in this interview, she believes if something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing properly. And Absa’s presence in Davos 2019, was proper indeed. – Alec Hogg

Davos 2019 – this coverage of the global conversation on change is brought to you by BrightRock, the first ever needs matched life insurance that changes as your life changes.

Maria Ramos, this has been quite a Davos for you. Just take us through the whole idea of branding yourself and being so heavily exposed here, in this centre of the world, for a week.

You know, Alec, we decided last year when we were doing the brand change and that we were going to do a brand change with substance. So, you would have seen us do a brand change in SA that included that phenomenal drone show over Johannesburg. Then we came to considering what we would do in Davos, and I’ve been here many-many years, as you well know and so have you. I know from experience that if you really want to have a presence here and you want to be noticed, you have to be on the Promenade. So, we made the decision we needed to be on the Promenade, and then the challenge becomes where on the Promenade because this is a busy Promenade? And all these spaces have been taken up for years by the big players, the international players and this place came up. So, we took a decision to take it, and if you’re going to do things, I’m a great believer if you do things then you do them well, and we wanted to have a presence. We wanted to have a presence for Absa but also, represent Africa and SA well.

I think we’ve done that. I think this has become a home for Absa and for our brand, which is pan-African and South African, which is new, and exciting, and digital, and it’s young and trendy. But we’ve also, I hope, been able to welcome SA and Africa into this space and we have everything here. We’ve got the South African and African sunshine downstairs, using technology.

How did that work?

It’s technology actually so, it’s light and reflection, using light. We’ve got Ugandan coffee, and Kenyan tea, and Ghanaian chocolate and fantastic food. But I think importantly, the work that’s been done here, the fact that we had the investment seminar with the president yesterday, and a fantastic panel, and lots of investors and actually, interestingly enough a lot of people that don’t normally attend the SA seminar, as there’s a lot of competing things. Some foreign investors and quite a few of those came through. Some new investors and sometimes investors that have been in SA, but have not been around, came through yesterday.

Actually, I should say that also to the SA dinner with Brand SA the night before, and Brand SA has been a fantastic partner to us as well. Today we launched the Financial Markets Index in Bali at the time of the IMF, but because there’s another opportunity to make that visible to another idea we launched it again. We did another launch of it here this morning so, there’s been lots of things happening and I’m just delighted. This is such a fantastic spot.

I don’t know if there’s anyone with better insights outside of Klaus Schwab, than yourself about this whole Davos story. Now, the South African story – if you were back at the Department of Finances, as the DG there many years ago, when you had to meet with international investors, given what we’ve heard this week. How would you be engaging with these guys?

Well, I think and I’ve thought a lot. I don’t know about the insights so, thanks for that, but I think there’s lots of people with very good insights, and you’ve been coming here for a long time. One of the things that has given me huge amounts of confidence and certainly has lifted my spirits a lot this year and it’s made me feel I can really go out there with confidence and talk to people. It’s just been the way the president has approached this and led the government team on this, because he’s gone out there, his message is clear and he’s open about the issues, and he’s open about saying that we’ve had nine lost years, nine horrible years. We have to admit that, and we’re dealing with that and we are going through these Commissions of Enquiry into State Capture. They’re wrenching but we have to get through it and we have to hear the truth so that we don’t repeat those mistakes so, we’re doing that.

I sit on the International Business Council, in fact I’ve chaired it for two-years, and when I talk to colleagues there and to senior CEOs and businesspeople, from all over the world and they ask me about SA. I can actually say, with confidence that it’s been nine tough, difficult, and horrible years but we’ve got a plan. We’re moving in the right direction. Even with these Commissions of Enquiry, they’re public. This is happening on television. There’s nothing that’s not being made visible to the public so that gives me confidence. There’s a lot of work to do, let’s not kid ourselves, but I think we have something to build on, and if I think back when we first started. It’s easy to romanticise about it but it was incredibly hard. We had such a lot to do.

We had huge deficits, we had a deeply divided, and unequal society. We had to actually, build from scratch. We didn’t have a Treasury. We had to build it. In fact, the governor this morning, here at the launch of the Financial Markets Index, reminded me of the fact that we had to actually separate out the funding that the Central Bank was doing, or the Reserve Bank was doing because the Central Bank did all the borrowing so, you didn’t know what it was doing on behalf of the government and on its own behalf, for monetary policy purposes. We had to build capital markets almost from scratch, and we did that. We’ve built a Treasury, we’ve built the Revenue Services. It was a huge amount of hard work. I think probably the sad thing is that we spent nine-years trying to destroy some of these institutions, and now we have to rebuild them.

You’re not talking after the fact. I remember being in a small dinner with you nine or 10-years ago, just at that time. I won’t say you forecasted it all but you did express disappointment at what was going to happen then.

Yes, absolutely, and I really did think, at the time, that we were heading into some very turbulent times. Actually, I remember when I first joined Absa, one of the analysts, it was at the beginning of the financial crisis as well, and one of the analysts asked, what do you think is going to happen and how long do you think it’s going to last, both in relation to the financial crisis and to what was going on in SA? I remember saying, ‘we are in for a very, tough decade.’ This individual turned around and said, ‘you’re just too pessimistic, I don’t think you understand the situation.’ I thought, you know, you clearly have more knowledge than I do.

Sometimes, if you’ve been around the block, you can see things happening. You know what it means to destroy institutions, and I think we haven’t completely destroyed them. We have some phenomenal institutions in our country. We have a phenomenal Central Bank or the Reserve Bank, which is a pillar in an institution that we absolutely have to preserve. Monetary policy is fundamental. We’ve got a Treasury that works. It needs to be held together. I think our judicial system, when I talk to people across the world, they look at us in awe and say, well the fact that your judicial system works as well as that is fantastic. And these are not just people in emerging markets. These are also people in developed countries.

So, we’ve got a lot of things going for us and that’s why I have confidence. When I sit here this year and I look at what we’ve achieved and I look at also, you know it’s easy to get gloomy but the president has set-out a work program, whether it was the Job Summit, the Investment Summit, these Commissions of Enquiry, the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and Eskom. This group of people he’s put together – the changes on the boards, the Advisory Committee made up of some of the most senior and savvy people. These are all things that are worthwhile thinking about and ticking the boxes on.

Maria, there are a lot of counterforces. In fact, Songezo and I were talking about it beforehand how Twitter has now been hijacked by people with their own agendas. But one of the really, strong stories that’s coming through is that the president is just playing nice and that after the election he’s going to change. Now, you’ve known him for a long time.

Politics is politics right, and I’ve never really played politics like that. I think and have always known President Ramaphosa as somebody of integrity, of his word. Somebody who does what needs to be done and holds to his word. I have to think about the commitments he made under some very touch circumstances in the course of last year, and how he’s delivered to those commitments. I think that’s what we must go on. I have never known him to do anything else. In all the years I’ve known him, and there are other people who know him even better, but I have always believed that he’s a person of his word and he’s a person of deep integrity. So, I think and feel like the country is in really good hands and, as I say, he went out at the State of the Nation Address last year, when he took over. He set out a program under some incredibly tough circumstances, and also the country had a very difficult growth trajectory.

In those circumstances, we know, that it’s easy to be tempted to change course, right. But he stuck to the commitments he made and I really think there’s always going to be countervailing forces, and of course, social media and if there’s an election coming up. But I really think that he’s delivered on what he said he was going to deliver on. I believe that his commitment is in the interests of the country and in the interests of South Africans, and a commitment to doing the best, by growth and sustainable growth, and jobs, and a deep commitment to young people. I’ve never heard him say anything else.

Talking about young people. Here you are in Davos, CEO of a bank that has a substantial presence. Now South African owned again and you started off as a bank clerk.

Absolutely, I always feel that if you’ve got aspiration and you’ve got commitment and hard work – those are essential. I do think though that we also need to understand that we have to create the opportunities for young people. Our country is replete with talent. Our job actually, is to create the space for that talent to flourish and to grow, and create those opportunities. I did have to work very hard but not everybody should have to do the same thing. I think that I can also say that you can’t get there without hard work. I think that’s important. You can’t walk into a place and expect somebody to do things for you but it has to be that combination between hard work and opportunity, and I had lots of those opportunities too. I shouldn’t pretend I didn’t because I did.

Image supplied by Absa Group.

I think we need to create the space for young people to feel that they have the opportunity that they can be the best that they can be. That they can fulfil their dreams. And you’ll see that as an organisation, how deep our commitment is in the field of education – we have put in 100s of millions of Rands into education. We have put thousands of young people through university and college. We are putting hundreds of people through programs on coding. We are taking kids from school and we’re teaching them coding. We’ve setup academies with universities so that we can train people with cyber skills because we know that’s kind of the cutting edge, if you know. We’re talking about the knowledge economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but with that comes a new set of risks around cyber and data protection. Actually, the world is short of those kinds of professionals so, we’ve partnered with UCT to develop a program on cyber. So, we’re putting through that.

Exciting times, in many ways, but for Absa in particular. Now that you are South African owned, now that you have made Africa your home, how’s it going to change on your strat sessions and the way you look at life?

So, we’re doing all of this, not just for South Africans. All our programs take in young people from across the Continent. So, our bursary programs take in young people from SA but from all the countries we have a presence in. Our cyber program, although it’s UCT based, and when we recruit, this is the second intake and we will be in this intake, and going forward increasingly so, looking for people from across the Continent. So, we’ve got a very specific approach where we don’t just look at SA, but we look at people across the Continent as well. So that’s really, primarily, the way we approach this. In the way we think about our business, we’ve launched Facebook Workplace so, all our colleagues are linked across the Continent on that.

And that being a cellphone?

That being a cellphone, exactly so, everybody is online and I suppose, on Facebook. When I post something from Davos everybody can see it simultaneously. If I do a townhall I can do it to everybody, and I’m talking to colleagues all over the Continent into each one of our businesses.

Has the divorce gone amicably?

Yes, I think we did a fantastic settlement with PLC. It was a very friendly settlement, but I think a very good settlement for us as well. You’ll know that PLC has paid or contributed and settled with us on $1bn, which we got at the time, to pay for the separation that we needed in order to do the separation of systems and the grand change across the Continent.

Looking back, and I know you didn’t really drive it this way but the timing was opportune.

Well, I think PLC had made the choice, at the time, in early 2016. Frankly, it took us by surprise. Separating from PLC wasn’t our choice but it was their choice. But, you know, when these things happen, they happen so, it wasn’t something we were anticipating but you’ve got a big organisation to run and with everything like this that happens, the thing that my mind immediately goes to is, ‘okay, so it’s happened let’s get on with it. What are the opportunities that emerge from it?’ I fundamentally believe that we are a better and stronger organisation with greater opportunities as a consequence of it.

I think, actually, probably as a subsidiary of PLC we lost that confidence. When you’re a subsidiary of a very large, global organisation you are a subsidiary of an organisation. Although we were always a big bank, I think you lose that sense of yourself and identity. I think what’s happened since we became a self-standing organisation and more so now, I think what we have is that confidence back. I think the Absa now, the Absa with a new identity, a new business model, a new strategy, the Absa on the High Street or on the Promenade of Davos. If I talk to colleagues across the length and the breadth of our business, all 42,000 of us, is a business that is very proud, and confident, not arrogant because I think arrogance is not the right thing, but a confident business.

I think actually, confidence is also what you saw in Team SA this year, it was a confident team. I think it was a confident team because between the government team led by the president, and the business team that was here from SA. There was that sense of, ‘we are here together to bat for SA Inc.’ I think confidence is the magic ingredient actually. There’s a lot of things that need to happen but if you don’t have the confidence and with confidence comes trust. If you don’t trust then you can’t build confidence. Lot’s of things you need to do, no doubt but you need to have confidence. I think, sometimes, we underestimate the importance of confidence.

Davos 2019 – this coverage of the global conversation on change is brought to you by BrightRock, the first ever needs matched life insurance that changes as your life changes.