Maree was a pillar of African banking

2013-03-10 10:00

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Jacko Maree’s determination to do the right thing in all circumstances always made me think of my grandmother’s admonitions to me.

MaMiya used to say, whenever I had done something she did not approve of: “When you do something wrong out there people will not ask what your name is, they will ask: ‘Whose child is that boy?’”

I came to understand Jacko’s humility, his roundedness, his unselfish character and his commitment to nurture others when I became aware of how his parents had approached his education.

At the height of apartheid, when misguided Afrikaner Nationalism was in its most triumphalist phase, the Marees did what would have been unthinkable in those days. They sent their son to St Andrews College in Grahamstown, the capital of English-settler culture. Then he was sent to Stellenbosch University. Then to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

The result was a uniquely South African youngster who was well-prepared for the world of business and the South Africa that was to be.

It was this young man that Div Geering and Eddie Theron hired at Standard Corporate Bank 32 years ago. By the time I first interacted with Jacko, when I joined the board in 1998, he had proved he was a rare talent in the second layer of management.

I was to come to appreciate his interpersonal skills when I joined the board of the Liberty Group in 1999 and observed how easily he was able to relate to all parties during that difficult corporate take-over.

Then came the frustrating time during the attempt by Nedcor to take over Standard Bank. Jacko was essential in mounting the commercial defence of the bank. He was part of the team that demonstrated that the bank’s strategy was superior to that of Nedcor’s and that it would, in due course, reward shareholders and the country handsomely.

When the board of Standard Bank decided it needed a leader who would inspire, motivate and involve managers and customers at the bank, it did not have to look far.

The bank had grown its own timber, as they say, and Jacko was the visionary. He had a simple message for the country. Standard Bank had to be simpler, better and faster in serving clients, communities and country. The Standard Bank share price has grown by 2?188% in the last 22 years.

Jacko’s contribution in that success is too obvious to belabour.

But there are two specific contributions I would like to point out: the first is the role Jacko played in the initiation and negotiation of the Financial Services Charter (FSC) when he was the chairperson of the Banking Council.

It was the first voluntarily initiated and negotiated industry charter. The negotiations were tough and bruising.

It is in keeping with the character of Jacko that all of the individuals he was negotiating with remain friends with him to this day and the FSC, having been gazetted late last year, stands as a tower of achievement in the history of transformation in South Africa.

The second contribution was in the area of recruiting and nurturing talent in Standard Bank and beyond. Under his leadership, Standard Corporate and Merchant Bank became the primary training ground for black professionals to gain investment-banking skills.

There are too many of them to name. The impact that these black professionals have had on the South African economic landscape is immeasurable.

He was not responding to an Employment Equity Act or a BEE Code of Good Practice.?He was doing the right thing as a South African of conscience.

Jacko was great at both strategy articulation and execution. I was always fascinated by one of his key performance indicators: “Not to make a big mistake.”

The simplicity of that statement belies its profundity. Jacko will always be remembered by his insight and timing in negotiating a deal between Standard Bank and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

He was a committed Afro-optimist at a time when the not-so-clever were writing this continent off. His strategy of refocusing the group on the African continent has been driven by an abiding belief in the people of Africa and their ability to rise above current adversities and create vibrant economies that meet the needs of the majority.

The payoff line: “They call it Africa, we call it home,” reflects Jacko’s inner sentiment.

Another leadership quality that Jacko had was his ability to work with the board at all times.

He showed a deep respect for the board over the years and never drifted towards showing disdain, as many larger-than-life CEOs have tended to do.

I watched him work with three different chairpersons in his 13 years as the chief executive. All of them enjoyed an open and transparent relationship with him.

Not only the bank has benefited from Jaco Maree. South Africa has too.

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