Winning women: Queen of disruption

Making saving profitable: Magda Wierzycka
Making saving profitable: Magda Wierzycka

Magda Wierzycka, the only female CEO of a fintech company in Africa, recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of her founding of Sygnia. She runs a company with billions under asset management, writes Sue Grant-Marshall 

In a century where “disruption” has become the name of the game, actuary Magda Wierzycka is hard at it, churning up the financial services industry.

Sygnia, in a nutshell, charges its clients less for its products and services than do its competitors, according to its CEO.

“Our aim is to lower the costs of saving for all South Africans,” says Wierzycka, her Polish accent still discernable, even after three decades of living here.

“We want to ensure that investing clients are treated fairly.”

Her determination to upset the status quo of financial services is all the more surprising considering that she’s probably one of only a few women at her level in South Africa’s male-dominated industry.

Last year, the company that she founded with just a handful of staff launched the Sygnia Umbrella Retirement Fund – “the lowest-cost umbrella fund proposition in the country” she says.

“This is because it has no administration and consulting fees.”

WATCH: Sygnia's lower fees disrupted financial services market - CEO

In addition, Sygnia is targeting the emerging younger generation of savers with the help of its Sygnia RoboAdvisor financial planning tool. It charges no financial advisory fees and has the lowest management fees in the country.

The restless razor blade brain of Wierzycka never stops devising new ways to help people invest in a country noted through the decades for its lack of a savings ethos.

She wants to make saving sexy and profitable – no matter your age or status.

“When a company offers unit trusts to a client, it charges a 1.5% fee. We launched a retirement annuity linked to a passively managed unit trust for 0.4%,” explains Wierzycka.

Her family fled communist Poland, living in European refugee camps, sleeping on hard bunks in crowded conditions where men, women and children lived together.

They arrived in Pretoria in the 1980s where, “I had to learn English and Afrikaans quickly at Pretoria High School for Girls. I was a stranger and was teased and bullied; it was miserable.”

Wierzycka had one big advantage: maths and science, “because in Eastern Europe huge emphasis was placed on those subjects”.

Her family was really poor so, at a time when insurance companies were offering bursaries for students, she opted for actuarial science.

At the University of Cape Town, she traded her meal vouchers for cash, surviving on free bread and coffee, and ended up qualifying as a Fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (Edinburgh, UK) in 1994.

She paid back her bursary before joining Alexander Forbes where she started an asset consulting division for its retirement fund clients.

It still amazes her today that she was a consultant to the likes of BP and Shell pension funds, “and grown men were listening to a 25-year-old woman telling them how to invest their money”.

In time she became CEO of African Harvest and there, between 2003 and 2006, she grew the assets under management of the company from R10 billion to R35 billion.

In 2006, she led a management buyout of part of the African Harvest Group to form Sygnia.

“After the transaction, all we had were a couple of clients, a team of about seven and a great admin system.”

Sygnia analysed what was on offer in South Africa “and decided companies were all offering similar investment products”.

“We resolved to enter the space offering the same products at lower fees, costs and charges, customising investment strategies for pension funds.”

In 2012, Sygnia decided to enter the individual savings space by launching the lowest-cost savings and investment products in South Africa at a fee of just 0.4% per annum.

READ: South Africa’s top asset managers: Former boutiques now nation’s biggest, best

“This was a radical saving to the consumer and we thought that nobody in SA could match it.

“If they started launching unit trusts at 0.4% then they would cannibalise their existing client base that was happy paying 1.5% in fees and costs.”

The husband of this mother of teen sons used to lead tough adventure trips through Africa. Not surprisingly, he has taken his family on trips to the Galapagos, both poles and the Amazon.

Wierzycka relaxes “with two hours of gym first thing each morning” and once trained by running on a tiny airstrip in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

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