Winning Women – Wendy Lucas-Bull: Bullish??in the boardroom

2014-03-31 08:00

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Wendy Lucas-Bull is chair of the Barclays Africa Group, Absa Bank and Absa Financial Services. Despite her meteoric career, she remains as humble and as enthusiastic as ever, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

The words ‘return’ and ‘give back’ could have been invented for leading South African ­businesswoman Wendy Lucas-Bull. She has produced glowing results for her companies during her meteoric career and now, equally important to her, she’s helping to make South Africa a better place.

She co-founded investment and development group ­Peotona Group Holdings ­in 2005 using her considerable ­energy, expertise and vast network of high-worth contacts to improve the lives of South Africans, particularly focusing on women.

She chuckles when asked when and how she sleeps. ­“Extremely well,” she says firmly, ensuring there are cappuccinos waiting for us in the airy, extremely modern Absa Capital offices in the heart of the exploding Sandton CBD.

Her main office, however, is in downtown Joburg and the Peotona offices are in Rivonia, which gives some idea of the many demands made on her time.

Lucas-Bull was appointed Barclays Africa Group chair in April 2013 and as a nonexecutive director of Barclays plc in September last year. She also chairs one of the largest financial services groups in Africa.

She comes to the position extraordinarily well prepared for it’s nearly 20 years since she moved into banking in 1995, joining Rand Merchant Bank as an executive director.

Back then, the young woman who had shown leadership potential as both house and sports captains at school, ­needed every ounce of that when she was involved in ­facilitating restructuring, following a merger between RMB and First National Bank Holdings.

There is nearly always trauma involved in such a process, resulting in low staff morale. Lucas-Bull helped create a new workplace culture based on the concept of ubuntu and ­driven by what she called the “pillars of African leadership – humanity, collaboration, dignity, trust, respect and ­courage”.

This high-powered, dynamic and happily married mother of three sons, now all in their 20s, is in essence humble. A CEO who worked with Lucas-Bull described the day she put on tackies and sat on a paint tin to gather information in Soweto, “part of the people, but a leader too”.

The banking superstar took over as CEO of FirstRand ­Retail in 1999, leading FNB and its approximately 26?000 staff through a remarkable growth spurt.

But as she powered her way upwards, Lucas-Bull had her eye on the bigger picture of the needs of her country and community.

When former president Nelson Mandela asked the ­business sector to partner with the government to fight crime, Lucas-Bull became involved in Business Against Crime, ­becoming its founding chairperson in 1995.

But she was also working flat out at RMB and that, ­combined with her commitment to Business Against Crime, ­resulted in her overdoing it. She was hospitalised, suffering from a heart virus in 1997.

“Doing my best was hazardous to my health,” she recalls with a rueful grin.

Lucas-Bull’s dynamic energy has always come from ­knowing that she’s making a tangible difference.

In 2005, she and three other like-minded women founded Peotona Group Holdings. “We have similar values and have spent much of our business lives mentoring and helping to build the nation.”

Her co-directors are Cheryl Carolus, Dolly Mokgatle and Thandi Orleyn. “We all took a lifestyle decision to step out of full-time chief executive work and set out to create a model that built a development legacy at the same time as building a for-profit business.”

Back then, many people said it was impossible to work on the developmental aspect of things while simultaneously making a profit. “You need to build one thing, then the other,” they told Lucas-Bull and her fellow Peotona directors.

Yet the four have proved all the naysayers wrong.

“If we’d done it differently and put everything into ‘for profit’, we would individually be much better off financially, but we wouldn’t be as proud of what we’ve done,” she says.

“We’re building a sustainable, nonprofit development company that will outlast us all, a true legacy.”

Peotona works in the fields of education and has worked on the Bodibe Village school’s project in North West.

It is built on four pillars: infrastructure investment, ­teacher skills, school nutrition using food gardens and sports ­revival.

Lucas-Bull’s appointment as chair of Barclays Africa Group coincided with the finalisation of the combination of Absa and Barclays’ businesses in Africa.

The deal, which was led by the CEO of Absa, Maria Ramos, culminated in the name change and the listing of Barclays Africa Group Limited on the JSE, marking the start of a new and exciting journey for the ­organisation.

“The timing is right because Europe and the US have been slow economically and Africa is the exciting growth spot to be in now. Multinationals are pouring into the continent,” she says.

“So Barclays Africa has huge opportunities and as a combined Pan-African franchise is now poised to rock and roll under the leadership of Maria Ramos.”

As she helps lead in her differing business and developmental challenges, ­Lucas-Bull will continue with her personal philosophy, learnt from former safety and security minister Sydney Mufamadi: “Take time to understand before ­trying to make yourself understood.”

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