Newsmaker: The Steve Jobs of banking

2012-10-13 16:36

FNB’s chief executive is redefining the future of the finance industry

If your idea of a banking executive is that of a dour, serious man with the demeanour of a monk, then you haven’t met Michael Jordaan.

The FNB chief executive is not a boss in a grey suit and thick, telescopic glasses. With his easy-going and cool demeanour, one could easily mistake him for someone involved in the creative arts.

Perhaps this is why his bank was named this week as the Most Innovative Bank of the Year for 2012, in the BAI-Finacle Global Banking Innovation Awards.

After all, the man has a love affair with social media and technology.

“I’m addicted to Twitter,” he admits, chuckling that he feels naked without his smartphone.

“My phone is never five metres from me,” he says, eyeing his iPhone lying on the table, in an orange cover designed to make it look like a cassette tape.

Sometimes he is tempted to tweet during meetings, but the discipline he learnt during a stint in the Navy in 1990 has taught him to focus.

His social media love affair sometimes gets him into trouble with his wife and three daughters, who feel he often gives his phone more attention than them.

The banking awards, held in Washington DC in the US, are designed to honour banks globally for game-changing products, services, practices and other achievements.

Jordaan says the FNB Innovators Programme that has been running since 2004 has implemented 5 585 innovations since then.

These include cellphone banking and cardless cash withdrawal, which have made banking easier, quicker and more accessible.

Their eWallet service, which enables consumers to send and receive money via cellphones, was also a finalist in the product/service innovation category.

The innovations have also seen FNB voted locally as the country’s “coolest” bank.

When we meet at his sixth-floor office at Bank City in central Joburg, Jordaan is dressed in jeans and a neatly pressed white shirt, sans tie.

It is clear he has no hang-ups about the authority his position carries. A receptionist refers to him simply as Michael when I mention we’ve come to see Mr Jordaan.



He doesn’t want to dwell too much on his achievements during his eight years as CEO, saying only he feels he’s “done okay”. His secret, however, lies in his leadership style and philosophy.

“I learnt very early on that success in life comes when you surround yourself with people that are better than you,” he says.

It’s a principle, he says, that could serve those in other sectors well, including in government and sport.

“If you don’t do that, if you somehow have confidence issues and you appoint weaker people, they are also going to appoint weaker people,” he says, “so my style is to try assemble around myself a team of people that are better than me and together with them decide on broad direction and strategy, and then empower them.

“I don’t micro-manage them because they don’t want to be micro-managed.”

He is not in favour of a hierarchical, autocratic approach to management that stifles growth and creativity.

“We don’t have day-to-day reports, what your clothing policy is, who comes into the office when, and so on. People want to be empowered.

If you operate in an empowered business you attract the best staff. The best people don’t want to work for autocratic business any more,” he says.

But the serious nature of banking does require a high level of professionalism which is why he’s very tight on governance and strategy frameworks.

Part of empowering his staff includes awarding a prize of R1 million to any employee who comes up with innovative ideas that can be executed.

Next week, the bank will host awards to recognise those who have come up with the 1 416 fully implemented ideas in the current financial year.

He wants his staff to work hard but have fun at the same time.

There’s always been concern in a country with such a high unemployment rate that the rapid introduction of technology could lead to job losses.

But Jordaan says that, instead, indications are that despite becoming increasingly hi-tech, the bank is growing and opening new branches across the country.

“Technology may in the short term actually take manual labour and replace it. But in the long run technology creates jobs. However, education levels need to change. Our education system must be improved to bring out the type of people who can operate into the future,” he says.

Jordaan confesses to being addicted to the job he professes to love deeply.

“It’s very difficult to have balance. I believe that if you really want to achieve something great then you have to focus and spend a lot of time working on it.”

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