South Africa’s Bank Chief on the Art of the Deal
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Maria Ramos led a bold spin-off from Barclays, involving 40,000 employees in 12 countries.
Maria Ramos is on the verge of tears as she recalls the leader who inspired her to handle the biggest challenge of her career: the sale of Absa, the South African bank, in 2017 by its former parent, Barclays. The move marked the end of the British bank’s centuries-long presence in Africa.
“I learned a long time ago, from none other than Nelson Mandela, that this is about inspiring people, and if you respect people enough, and you understand dignity, you can lead with purpose and with focus,” she says. “He was never pushed around. He was always very clear about what he wanted to achieve.”
It is a rare quiet moment from this irrepressible woman who started as a bank clerk and has risen through the South African establishment to lead one of the country’s biggest companies.
Ramos, 59, was born in Portugal before moving to South Africa with her mother and bricklayer father. “I am quite competitive,” she says. “I don’t like losing. So I can drive people quite crazy.”
That relentless will helped Ramos to negotiate a separation deal with her former colleagues at Barclays that ended up costing the British bank $1 billion in compensation, as well as contributing a 1.5 percent stake in the African lender to fund Black economic empowerment causes.
I am quite competitive. I don’t like losing. So I can drive people quite crazy.
She credits Cyril Ramaphosa, the current South African president, with teaching her negotiating tactics. She had worked for him as chairman of the body charged with drawing up a new constitution for the country after apartheid ended in the early 1990s.
“You need to have data. You need to know what you want to achieve, what the numbers look like, have a good team around you,” she says. “So that negotiation [with Barclays] got pretty heated at times, but we got a deal.”
A further complication of the Absa deal was that she was going up against her former colleagues at Barclays, including group chief executive Jes Staley and finance director Tushar Morzaria, who had decided to cut ties with the company she was running and reduce the U.K. group’s stake to just under 15 percent.
“It’s also about respect,” she says. “You’re sitting across the table from somebody like Tushar or Jes or the rest of the board, and these are people you’ve worked with. You know them, you respect them. You know where they’re coming from. Hopefully they respect you.”
Yet the challenge of spinning off Absa as an independent bank with more than 40,000 employees in 12 countries is still only partly met. Much of the technical and legal work of breaking away still needs to be completed by June 2020, and it only officially dropped the Barclays name two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the distraction of negotiating the split has allowed rivals to poach key clients and staff, eating into its market share.
Such adversity is nothing new for Ramos. She has had to fight for most things since arriving in South Africa, when her family were too poor to send her to university. To earn money she got a job as a “waste clerk,” picking up payment slips and checks from behind the tellers and processing them at a branch of Barclays in Vereeniging, an industrial town south of Johannesburg.
After finding out about a male-only scholarship, she shamed the bank into opening it to women and accepting her. “I just carried on fighting about it, and eventually … ,” she says with a grin.
Joining the anti-apartheid movement while studying commerce in Johannesburg made a lasting impact, and after Mandela’s election as president in 1994 Ramos joined the treasury. There she met Trevor Manuel, then-finance minister and senior member of the African National Congress. Together, they formed one of South Africa’s best-known “power couples.”
Ramos was blindsided by Staley’s move to sell most of its majority stake in Barclays’ African business, which came soon after he took charge in 2015. “We heard like everybody else, the day before the announcement — the night before, really,” she says. “Yes, it was a shock to colleagues, to customers, frankly a shock to regulators as well.”
She called in her senior managers, before addressing about 1,500 employees in the Johannesburg head office. With speculation swirling about potential bidders for the bank, Ramos told staff that, while she did not have all the answers, this was a unique opportunity to build an independent pan-African business.
Meetings with all 12 of the bank’s national regulators as well as major clients followed. The bank’s strategy was shaped by a year of consultations with staff across the group. “They’ve been through an intensely dramatic time, and so it really is a time for us to stop and ask people,” she says. She shows me a video on her cell phone of staff in a regional office dancing and singing after one such strategy meeting. “This is Africa,” she says. “It is what we do — we dance.”
She has a reputation as a ruthless boss, earned by firing most of the senior managers in her last job running state transport group Transnet. Yet Ramos believes she has been too slow to get rid of underperformers in the bank.
“When I think about the mistakes I make most often as a leader, they tend to be around how quickly I act, particularly on people,” she says, blaming “hesitation” driven by fear of “upsetting the apple cart with this person or with this regulator or with this process.”
What should it matter that I pitch up to do results wearing the same jacket this year that I wore last year?
One issue that really riles Ramos is sexism. “Going to a meeting, you have to say the same thing three times before you get heard,” she complains. “Some guy says the same thing, doesn’t articulate it as well, he’s heard the first time around.” Recalling how an analyst once attributed the bank’s underperformance to her gender, she says he “didn’t say it to my face because he would have been boxed.”
She also adds, “What should it matter that I pitch up to do results wearing the same jacket this year that I wore last year? No one knows whether a guy’s pitched up wearing the same flipping tie or the same bloody suit. Right?”
For once, Ramos sounds weary. “I don’t know how much longer I will do [this]. The board has to, obviously, deal with succession,” she says, adding that she has committed to see through the two-year separation from Barclays.
What would she do if she retired? She professes to having always wanted to write a novel. She may write a book about sexism in business instead.
Three questions to Maria Ramos
Who is your leadership hero? Nelson Mandela. Not a business leader, I know, but he has been my North Star as far as leadership is concerned.
If you were not a CEO, what would you be? I started out wanting to be a lawyer. But I probably would have been an engineer.
What was your first leadership lesson? Working in Mandela’s administration. We had to make tough calls. They were not always popular. But the way we landed them with key stakeholders made all the difference.
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