It’s not every day one meets a banking executive whose face lights up when they talk about their passion for communities instead of money.
It’s even more scarce when that executive’s award-winning idea changed the face of banking.
So when City Press met up with Philani Potwana, the chief executive of FNB Easy, one of the bank’s five customer segment units, it was an eye-opening insight into what the new breed of future banking executives might be.
At 31, Potwana is the youngest chief executive at FNB; one of the youngest in that sector and he is anything but the traditional corporate suit.
Born in Kwamnyana village near Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape, Potwana is one of three children of a single mother. He and his family moved to Maluti Township near Matatiele where he matriculated from Mariazel High School at just 15 years old.
“The life at Maluti shaped me because, coming from a deep rural village, I was exposed to fancy cars with Joburg registration plates and that made me want to be a ‘big person’ in Joburg too,” he says.
After matriculating, he headed to the University of KwaZulu-Natal to pursue a degree in information technology.
“I matriculated at 15 and wanted to study IT. I had no plan B, it was IT or nothing.
“I went with my mother to a bank to get a loan because although she worked, she fell into the gap market and I didn’t qualify for a government grant or National Student Financial Aid Scheme. We were declined for a loan,” he says, adding that being rejected made him want to work for the bank that did – that bank was FNB.
At university he enrolled for the extended four-year bachelor of commerce degree in information systems.
He completed the degree in three years and went on to do his honours.
While he was studying a towards his honours degree, he seized on an opportunity to apply for FNB’s graduate programme and a few interviews later was recruited as a 20-year-old trainee systems analyst.
“Four months after joining the bank I asked myself: Why can’t clients withdraw money without a card? So I came up with an idea. It’s not an eWallet, it’s just the ability to withdraw cashless without your bank card.
“The culture of the bank is that no matter how junior you are, you can walk into the CEO’s office and have a chat and that is exactly what I did,” he says of the idea that eventually earned the bank an innovation award in 2011.
In 2010 Potwana progressed to business analyst and a few more roles later he ended up as head of student and personal loans products, a move that seemed like a conclusion of a chapter in his life.
“When I was product head, it was surreal because I wanted to work for the bank because my loan application had been rejected.
“I was later asked to be acting CEO for the same business of loans and when the acting period ended an opportunity for chief executive of FNB Easy opened so I just grabbed it with both hands,” he says.
As chief executive of the segment, which is one of the more competitive ones and in charge of the income bracket of up to R120 000 a year, Potwana is charged with taking care of low-income earners and that, it seems, is exactly where he fits like a hand in a glove.
“I feel like there’s so much we can do for people from a banking perspective where they can trust banks.”
The biggest misconception most people have about banking is that it is expensive and it’s one of the myths he hopes to crush in his role.
“When I was head of product, I would have stopped for a while there but I was raised with the belief that I must never settle. You must never be happy with the little you have. You must always strive for a little bit more but, most importantly, strive to make a difference.
“So I felt that being CEO of the low-income segment I could make a little bit more difference,” he says.
Having blazed through the company, Potwana harbours ambitions of being more involved in the community and it’s that involvement which makes his face light up.
“In the next decade I see myself in banking but more involved in communities. I feel as if our communities need to be given more, not with money but with time. I think that’s what they need most,” Potwana says.
Staying humble, Potwana says, has been the ultimate lesson he has learnt on his journey to the top.
Like a true villager at heart, Potwana is still passionate about going to his Eastern Cape village and sitting with the elderly, bantering about what matters most to them.
“Leadership is about people, not the individual and that I learnt from my mother,” he says.
In his role as CEO, Potwana says he has to change the way people think about banks while also imparting financial knowledge.
“The biggest lesson we have to teach people is to spend less than they earn while also rewarding themselves by saving,” he says.
The husband and father of two is already involved in mentoring pupils from Alexandra and it’s an initiative that remains close to his heart.
He is a sport fanatic and a very keen Formula One supporter.