FirstRand has appointed its first female executive director, snapping up MMI’s deputy CEO, Mary Vilakazi in a move that puts her in the running for the banking group’s top job and adds to MMI’s leadership woes.
FirstRand said on Tuesday that group CEO Johan Burger would be retiring at the end of March, to be succeeded by his deputy, Allan Pullinger, who had been with the group since 1998.
Vilakazi has been appointed chief operating officer from July 1 and is the first female executive to join the bank’s board. She will also be the only female on the executive committee, which includes the heads of its major businesses and is mostly white. Barclays Africa is the only big-four bank with a female CEO, Maria Ramos, and although Wendy Lucas-Bull led FNB between 1999 and 2004 she was not an executive director.
Vilakazi had been appointed chief operating officer, rather than deputy CEO, to avoid signalling that “she will ultimately succeed Allan”, said FirstRand co-founder and departing chairman Laurie Dippenaar.
Not once did the fact that Vilakazi was “female and black” arise in board discussions. “All that was talked about was her competence and credentials for the position,” said Dippenaar, who, along with Burger, got to know Vilakazi while on the board of Momentum. Momentum and FirstRand grew out of the Rand Merchant fold.
Vilakazi will be responsible for internal audit, regulatory and enterprise risk management, as well as the group’s insurance and rest of Africa strategies.
The FirstRand offer was “too good to refuse”, said Adrian Cloete, a portfolio manager at PSG Wealth. One analyst likened the move to a second-division football player being selected to play in the English Premier League. “It’s a massive role; a real feather in her cap.”
Vilakazi, who joined MMI as CEO of balance-sheet management in 2014, later becoming chief financial officer, had also had a bright future at the insurer, Cloete said. “My sense was that [CEO] Hillie Meyer was there to get the growth in the business going and that she was earmarked to take over from him.”
A chartered accountant and former PwC partner, Vilakazi will become the seventh executive to leave MMI in nine months. The high-profile departures most recently included the resignation of group CEO Nicolaas Kruger. Meyer’s return on a three-year contract, after he headed Momentum between 1996 and 2005, was viewed as a rescue effort, following years of weak profit growth and disappointing shareholder returns.
Vilakazi’s departure was a “step backwards” for MMI, said Warwick Bam, an analyst at Avior Capital Markets. “Leadership stability is important to executing strategy. While MMI’s strategy is clear, a new management team will inevitably take time to resolve the challenges that I believe Mary and Nicolaas were beginning to understand.”
MMI was “disappointed to be losing Mary”, said Meyer, who will oversee the group’s retail businesses until it finalises its executive structure. “We are aware that the MMI retail segments have experienced significant turnover in leadership … and we will take a few weeks to finalise a new and enduring leadership for the business.”
Allan Gray’s Jeanette Marais joins the group in March as deputy CEO responsible for Momentum Investments. Peter Tshiguvho, head of channel at Metropolitan Retail, will also join MMI’s executive.