End of an era for SA Afrikaner banking

2012-02-04 13:16

The shock announcement this week that Louis von Zeuner was relinquishing his role as Absa’s deputy chief executive signalled the decline of the influence of Afrikaners in the banking group.

Von Zeuner was the second most powerful man at the lender.

An industry observer with close links to the bank but who declined to be named, said the news that Von Zeuner was quitting his role to take on a non-executive role on Absa’s board implied that controlling shareholder and British lender Barclays was ridding the South African bank of its Afrikaner heritage.

“He is the last (powerful) ‘Afrikaner standing’ in the group. With him out of the way, it is clear that Afrikaners have been defeated,” the observer said.

Since Barclays acquired Absa in 2005 for $4.5 billion (R35 billion at the current exchange rate), a string of influential Afrikaner executives have exited, starting with former chief executive Steven Booysen, who left in 2009. He was replaced by Maria Ramos.

He was followed by financial director Jacques Schindehutte, who quit in 2010 following a shake-up that led to Von Zeuner being elevated to second-in-command behind Ramos, who was head-hunted from transport and logistics parastatal Transnet.

Last June, Absa also announced the departure of another highly rated Afrikaner executive, Gavin Opperman, who quit after the retail unit he headed merged with the business banking division to form Retail and Business Banking.

This division is run by Bobby Malabie, widely rumoured to be being groomed to replace Ramos in the future.

There are rumours that Von Zeuner, who was at Absa for more than three decades, clashed with Barclays over plans to rebrand Absa and change its colours from red to the blue of its British parent. Ramos is said to be not opposed to Barclays’ wishes.

“Maria is going with the flow, but Louis has always pushed back. You must remember that Barclays owns 56% of Absa, but Louis was able to mobilise the 44% to push back,” said an Absa insider.

“Under Bobby, Absa will surely be turned into Barclays.”

But Von Zeuner has dismissed any notion that the Afrikaner influence in the country’s largest retail lender has waned and that there are moves to rebrand it.

He pointed out that Absa still had Afrikaners in its executive committee, including Willie Lategan, chief executive of Absa Financial Services, risk head Jan Lubber and head of human resources Fergus Marupen – a coloured South African fluent in Afrikaans.

“The power of any group is in diversity,” said Von Zeuner. “In any event, we need to reflect all the races, cultures, religions and languages in South Africa. From a cultural perspective, I have never felt uncomfortable. I enjoy working with Maria and I believe in our African strategy.”

There is also speculation that Barclays is planning to increase its shareholding in Absa from the current 56% to more than 70% and rebrand it.

Von Zeuner dismissed the rebranding rumours.

“That speculation has little substance. A brand is something that you research regularly, but customers feel strongly about the Absa brand and they want it,” he said.

He also pleaded ignorance to the plans by Barclays to raise its stake in Absa in order to
increase its share of the local lender’s profits.

“I am not aware of any plans to do that, but if they want to do so, there are regulatory processes to follow,” he said.

Von Zeuner also dismissed rumours that Absa had been given a directive to cut staff by Barclays, a move that will be fiercely challenged by trade unions. Its British parent has already culled hundreds of jobs in the UK, its home market.

Last month, Barclays’ peer, Royal Bank of Scotland, said it was cutting 4?450 jobs in a bid to reduce costs.

Von Zeuner is quitting his role days after Absa announced that three other senior executives – chief operating officer Alfie Naidoo, head of unsecured lending Daphne Motsepe, and head of marketing and communications Happy Ntshingila – were leaving. These executives were not going to be replaced.

This raised concerns that Absa was quickly losing valuable institutional memory with the departure of the executives.

Von Zeuner said there was depth in the group and the young generation of executives – such as Nomkhita Nqweni, the chief executive of Absa Wealth, and Saks Ntombela, head of products in retail markets – were making a mark.

When approached for comment on the developments, the bank responded: “Our policy is to not comment on speculation.”

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