Turning hidden gems into gigantic profits
Mariam Cassim says her day starts ‘in much the same way as any other typical mom’ – a surprisingly down-to-earth revelation from a woman who transformed Vodacom Financial Services from a loss-making company of R88 million to a profit-making business of R1 billion within three years. But realising an opportunity takes both grit and guts – and Mariam Cassim, Chief Officer: Vodacom Financial Services, has both
But there’s no separating Cassim the hard-hitting executive from Cassim the wife and mother of two – and, indeed, she’s of the firm opinion that no woman should have to choose either side of life.
This is one of the reasons her job at Vodacom Financial Services is a perfect fit. Cassim firmly upholds the company’s commitment to ‘connect consumers to a better future’, whether that means providing unexpectedly sophisticated assistance to female farmers or addressing the challenges most commonly experienced by South African SMME owners. Underscoring the many facets of the company and its operations, she says, is a drive for empowerment that matches her own aspirations.
Her stance on this issue has been brought into sharp focus after three years at the company. Cassim joined Vodacom Financial Services in 2016, having previously held the position of Executive Head: Telesure Investment Holdings. ‘At the time, I found a small team who operated on the outskirts of the traditional Vodacom telco business,’ Cassim recalls. Her mandate was to oversee the insurance business in its entirety, but other products were added to her portfolio, too. ‘As I started to explore these new products, I discovered many little gems hidden in the business, which were not being utilised to their full potential. People at Vodacom were primarily focused on voice and data, and nobody was unlocking value from these assets by looking at them through a financial services lens.’ Consequently, Cassim dedicated her first months in office to creating a detailed financial services strategy for the business, focusing on specific products and services that were easy to tap into and which would deliver on the company’s broader purpose. ‘In our case, financial inclusion is the bridge between our consumers and their brighter future.’
No ordinary telco
Those outside the industry may at first be surprised to learn that Vodacom is the only telco in the world to own its own insurance licenses (both short-term and long-term) – but Cassim says that she ‘always knew that the mobile network operators were perfectly positioned to disrupt the financial services industry, thanks to their size and the variety of the assets – including an extensive distribution footprint and recognisable brand − they possess’.
Her confidence has proved well-founded. Cassim maintains that Vodacom’s insurance licenses give the company a major advantage over competitors because its understanding of its mobile telco customers cannot be beaten. Such insights form the foundation of personalised, tailored insurance and financial products (such as the company’s most recent innovation, a pre-paid funeral product), which can be directly marketed to the company’s 44,3 million subscribers. It’s a formidable customer base and an asset which has effectively removed the most significant barrier to entry into the financial services market, according to Cassim.
But Vodacom Financial Services’ offering goes well beyond insurance; it’s a suite of products aiming to foster financial inclusion and ‘create a world where access to affordable financial services is a right, not a privilege’, Cassim says. Thus, the company’s products range from Airtime Advance, which allows qualifying prepaid customers to take an advance on their airtime from their cell phone at any time, to VodaLend, which provides online applicants with business funding within four hours. This is available to all SMME owners (and not only Vodacom customers) and Cassim views it as a quick, easy solution to the issue of access to capital; one of the most stubborn obstacles facing entrepreneurs. Then there’s the soon-to-be-launched Point of Sales device, which will allow merchants to accept cashless payments, apply for funding, order inventory, and attract customers with additional value-added products and services.
Says Cassim: ‘We’re not stopping here. There’s still a wide range of consumer and SMME challenges specific to financial services that we are planning to solve in the South African market.’
Living a purpose
Her determination to address such impediments to business may stem from the early advice received from her late father. As the youngest in the family, she admits to being ‘daddy’s little girl’ and trying to make him proud any way that she could. ‘Often I would return home from school with my report card, which always recorded an 80% to 90% average. He always responded, “Well done, my girl − but always remember that to whom much is given, much is expected in the way of helping others. Your true purpose in life is achieved when you are using what you have been blessed with to improve the lives of those less fortunate.”’
This may explain the enormous value Cassim places on being part of a team that fights for financial inclusion. ‘I believe that financial literacy is a key weapon in fighting against the war of poverty,’ she affirms.
Her outlook was further honed by Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub. She says that his exhortation to ‘grab whatever opportunity you have been given with both hands, and make it bigger and better than it ever was’ was the best advice she has ever received – and advice that she is proud to have realised during her past three years at Vodacom Financial Services.
The self-belief factor
Cassim reveals that her leadership style centres on helping her team members achieve the same kind of self-actualisation. She describes herself as a ‘personalised and inclusive’ leader who strives to identify smart talent and believe in them enough to help them stretch out of their comfort zones. She works hard to make sure that every team member feels that they have a voice and is given a fair opportunity to shine. This, she says, is how the best solutions and innovative ideas are formed.
Perhaps understandably, Cassim is focused on making sure that the women in her sphere of influence – who comprise as much as 50% of her executive team – are made to feel the strength of this support. ‘I think that the most compelling counsel I could give any woman trying to grow her career is believe in yourself. There are so many women out there who never get to live their dreams, for whatever reason – but perhaps most often because our instinct, as women, is to put others first, always. That’s why I think that self-belief is such an important part of success.’
Nor can the impact of a strong support network be underestimated. Cassim continues: ‘We are only as strong as the support around us.’ Her network includes her ‘awesome’ husband who has supported her through every decision she’s ever made, a mother who is ready to step in when she needs to travel, her brother (who is also her best friend and confidant) and her parents-in-law who, she says, are always on speed dial. ‘It also helps that my children understand that I still love them, even though I can’t be at every swimming gala,’ she says. She also credits her team at the office, ‘who are driven by success and always do me proud’.
The cohesion of this team becomes clear in the way decisions are handled: it’s dynamic, agile, instinctive and often made on the spot through consensus. Says Cassim, ‘Quicker, more frequent decision-making allows for more disruptive innovation and encourages a “fail fast, rapid recover” environment.’ Although big decisions are supported by high-level business cases, once a decision is made, the team rallies towards achieving the goal – always with the intention of placing the customer first and improving the customer experience.
Cassim has no doubt that her training as a CA(SA) has helped develop this quick-thinking ability. The qualification provides a guide to thinking about risk, cause and effect, she points out: ‘I believe that any business problem can be solved successfully only if you have the courage to delve into the detail,’ she says, citing the example of her entry into the company. ‘The first challenge I was given was to make a decision on Vodacom Life Assurance, which had been loss-making for several years and the shareholder was tired of constant capital calls. I had a 24-month mandate to decide either to continue with the division’s work or to shut it down. I inherently knew that there was an opportunity if it was just structured correctly. I had to be bold enough to make massive operating model changes which included huge system migrations and supplier/partnership changes to turn the business profitable, which I can proudly say the team and I have done this last year.’
She maintains that CAs have an advantage thanks to their understanding of financial statements and the various components within. This is important when running a business because a decision impacting one area of the business invariably affects other areas, too – and, ultimately, the bottom line. Being a CA has helped her consider the entire picture before making any big decisions.
Her advice to other aspirant CAs? ‘It’s been a long, tough journey to get where you are. Your efforts will not go unnoticed, as they will play out in various aspects of your life – both personal and professional. Never underestimate the power that this qualification will give you. Have big dreams, and work hard at achieving them.’
Not that it will always be easy. Cassim admits that life can be a juggle. She hits the ground running from the moment the alarm clock goes off, typing last-minute emails while getting the kids ready for school, and catching up on the latest economic and fintech news during her 30 minutes on the treadmill, and her first meeting takes place over the phone while she’s driving to work. ‘No two days at Vodacom Financial Services are the same – we work in a fast-paced environment which is constantly changing, so I have to keep up to date.’ Not that she would change a single aspect of it. ‘I am fortunate to work with a team of people who are super smart, yet also crazy and energetic. I love going to work every day.’
Outside the office
Away from her desk, Cassim says, she is ‘a wife, mum, daughter, sister, friend and mentor’. Weekends are spent with family and close friends and leisure time is for unwinding with activities she doesn’t have time for during the week – indulging her passion for cooking, training and fitness, and her newest hobby, sewing.