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FirstRand Bank: Sizwe Nxasana

Sizwe Nxasana, chief executive of FirstRand Bank and a leading business personality, speaks about his approach to leadership and some of the challenges he has overcome on his way to the top

Andrew Honey



Sizwe Nxasana of First Rand Bank

Describing himself as an introvert, Sizwe Nxasana says the ability to remain quiet and listen has enabled him to empower those around him. Nxasana became a chartered accountant (CA) by accident.

When he registered at the University of Fort Hare in 1976, his intention was to complete a marketing degree. But Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, the first black person to qualify as a chartered accountant in South Africa, had coincidentally started lecturing at Fort Hare that year.

“I was inspired by this man who had grown up in a village in the Transkei, and had survived the rural schooling system, even though I didn’t know much about what a chartered accountant actually does,” says Nxasana. “I believed that if he could do it there was no reason I couldn’t.”

Fort Hare did not offer the subjects required for the CA qualification at that time, so Nxasana completed a general BCom. He started his career at Unilever and Price Waterhouse and in 1989 established Sizwe & Co, the first black-owned audit practice.

In 1996 he became the founding partner of Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba, the first black-owned national firm of accountants, and was national managing partner until 1998 when he joined Telkom as chief executive officer.

His experience in the financial services industry includes non-executive directorships, since 2003, of FirstRand Bank and Rand Merchant Bank, of NBS Boland Bank (1995 to 1998), of the Development Bank of South Africa (1995 to 1998) and Chairperson of Msele-Hoskens Insurance Group (1994 to 1996).

Entrepreneur: Your tenure at Telkom was successful from both a financial and operational point of view. What were the key reasons for this success?

SN: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 completely overhauled the legislative and regulatory framework of the telecoms industry in South Africa, setting certain key objectives for Telkom in the process.

These included the mass rollout of telephone lines, appropriate training of employees, preparing the organisation for its listing on the stock exchange, and gearing it up to face competition. Our entire focus was on meeting these objectives within a five-year plan.

To be honest, because we were operating in a regulated environment it was quite easy to achieve some of them. The mandate was clear.

E: What were some of your goals?

SN: One of the major goals was to make the company more efficient, which required negotiation with the unions and employees.

That was the first step in setting the stage for Telkom’s transformation. We then created a set of values within the organisation, and ensured that everyone in the company contributed to them.

E: How did you involve Telkom’s people in the transformation?

SN: The people issue was really central to everything at the time. The values subscribed to included selection of the right people. We developed systems and processes to map the skills in the organisation and the ones we would need going forward. But execution is always challenging.

A huge effort was made to rally all stakeholders around the key objectives. We had to build a team of people who would make things happen, which meant changing the culture of the organisation. Telkom had gone from being a government department to becoming a fully owned parastatal.

Success depended on moving the company out of its monolithic mindset into a space where it could operate as a commercial entity.There were hardly any sales or marketing teams in place, so the concept of customer service had to be introduced from scratch. We ran ongoing campaigns, discussions and road shows about culture.

E: How did you convince Telkom’s people that you were moving the organisation in the right direction?

SN: We introduced performance management, incentivising people to carry out their duties. Because the organisation went from rewarding loyalty to rewarding performance, initially there was some resistance from the unions and people who thought we were trying to weed them out.

A fundamental shift was required. Consider that previously employees would start working for Telkom straight after school or university and stay there until they retired, often to be succeeded by their sons.

E: How did you move the company from a job-for-life to a performance-based mindset?

SN: First, the roles of human resources and HR development were defined. We then identified a number of key objectives and cascaded these into various service organisations within Telkom, such as sales, marketing, customer service, and finance.

These units had to develop objectives which informed the company’s overall business plan, and were then turned into measurable targets. To support the performance based philosophy, we also introduced development plans for all staff.

E: You made a vital contribution to bridging the gap between black and white staff members at Telkom. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs whose companies are going through some form of significant change?

SN: Make sure there is discussion and debate. Be an open and transparent leader. Tell people why the organisation needs to change.

Encourage buy-in. Don’t force your views on people – rather allow them to contribute to what you have all agreed you need to achieve. Leaders tend to believe they must make decisions; in truth, they are there to facilitate decision-making.

E: What role did communication play in the evolution of Telkom?

SN: It is vitally important for leaders to communicate important information, be it good or bad. Leaving sensitive issues to your marketing or PR department is a no-no.

One of the key things that happened at Telkom, for example, is that many businesses in the organisation were not core and had to be hived off. Also, the organisation invested heavily in new technology and had to retrench certain employees as a result.

These are events that impact people’s lives significantly and must be communicated directly by the CEO. Leaders sometimes tend to shy away from these difficult tasks, but openness is the bedrock upon which success is built.

E: How did your relationship begin with Laurie Dippenaar?

SN: I served on the board of NBS Bank, in which RMB had a stake, with Paul Harris and GT Ferreira from 1995, and I was a non-executive director of FirstRand Bank from 2003, while I was still at Telkom. I came to understand the bank’s strategy and some of the issues the banking sector faces.

My own philosophy is that it’s not good for a CEO to lead an organisation for more than ten years. It’s vital for a company to have access to new people and new ideas; otherwise, the whole organisation thinks just like you do.

When my contract at Telkom came up for renewal, I made it clear that I was going to move on. Then Laurie decided to retire, so the timing was opportune.

E: Since joining FirstRand Bank in January 2006, what have been the biggest challenges you have had to face?

SN: The first few months in any organisation are about learning the business. I have immersed myself in the three key operating divisions I am responsible for, all of which are large businesses in their own right.

I’m also looking at areas that FirstRand still needs to focus on to enable companies in the group to cross-sell and grow.

Key objectives are attracting and retaining the right people, pursuing growth opportunities, improving efficiencies, dealing with transformation issues around employment equity, and meeting and exceeding the requirements of the financial services charter.

E: FirstRand Bank became known for the entrepreneurial culture that existed within its business units – First National Bank, Wesbank, and Rand Merchant Bank. Does that culture still survive?

SN: It does. One of the defining elements in the organisation is the owner-manager culture. My role at the centre is to be a catalyst, to help make things happen, to offer guidance that empowers people, and to pave the way for ongoing discussion and debate.

I believe in letting people who run business units run them. RMB, for example, has a number of divisions that operate as discrete businesses, competing or collaborating as they see fit. The FirstRand Group has been broken into chunks of very nimble businesses that are able to execute quickly and efficiently.

We have far less bureaucracy than our peer group. It’s important to promote an entrepreneurial culture because that is what makes us able to speedily launch new products and services in the marketplace. Centrally controlled organisations are simply not able to act as quickly.

E: You have demonstrated great concern for customer care. How do you define it, and what are the most important components of good customer service?

SN: We have a twofold approach: customer service means understanding the needs of your customers, but it also means anticipating future needs.

There is one defining question: will the customer recommend First National Bank, Rand Merchant Bank or Wesbank to another person? Referral is the best indicator of customer satisfaction. You only reach that point if your customer is comfortable interacting with you and confident about the service you provide.

Short queues and phone calls answered in two seconds are all very well in the short term, but long-term customer retention derives from an emotional attachment to your brand. People must be able to relate to your culture, value system and products beyond their immediate needs.

Service providers must also remember that there is always room for improvement. We live in a state of constant change; to flourish, you have to be able to reinvent yourself.

E: Against a backdrop of commoditised financial services, how does FirstRand retain constant innovation?

SN: Take a product that may appear to be commoditised and look at customer needs. The Million a Month account, for example, is a 32-day notice account that is unique because it introduces excitement for the customer who stands the change of winning a million rand every month.

The One Account too fulfils all the functions of a cheque account, overdraft, personal loan and home loan. Differentiating your products with added features like these is what makes an impact on your customers. A company must think ahead and develop new products.

That is where innovation comes in. I mention our Million a Month account, our partnership model with the motor industry at Wesbank and the range of investment banking products offered by RMB as instances of business innovation – these organisations have come up with new and exciting solutions to customer needs. Innovation is all about designing products and services that meet those needs well into the future.

E: What are the next big goals you have set for FirstRand Bank?

SN: Attracting and retaining the right people is an ongoing objective. I’m also focusing on greater collaboration and communication across our business units, so as to improve efficiencies and aid them in finding growth opportunities for the group as a whole.

We are looking at growth opportunities within the country and outside our borders. This is not a new drive: RMB has been operating in Australia and the UK for a number of years already, and Wesbank is also represented in Australia.

Our strategy is not to export FirstRand as a brand, but rather to grow our business through niche units that offer an exportable proposition.

E: How is a day in your life typically structured?

SN: I go to gym for an hour six days a week. Gym is my personal time; that’s where I plan the day ahead and think about the issues I have to face. I get to the office by 7.00am and use this quiet time to send e-mails, and to read and draft documents.

By 8.30am everyone has arrived and the day revolves around meeting with people, talking about the business, and making decisions. When I’m not visiting our regions or travelling, I’m back home by 7.00pm and I start working again after dinner.

E: How do you develop your knowledge and skills?

SN: I read autobiographies, business magazines, and anything relevant to banking.

E: Is there anyone whom you look upon as an inspiration in your career?

SN: There is a wide range of people, locally and internationally, who do interesting things and have wonderful ideas.

E: What is your key advice to anyone seeking to start a business in this country?

SN: South Africa needs young, emerging entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Black people in particular cannot grow the economy just by looking for opportunities to buy equity stakes. When you are in a corporate environment it is easy to slip into a comfort zone.

Remember that you have nothing to lose by starting a business; it’s far better to take a chance than to spend the rest of your life regretting what you did not do.

Andrew Honey is the Group CEO of Entrepreneur Media SA, ThinkSales Corporation and SmartCompany Networks. He is passionate about sales and sales leadership. In 1999 he led Freewind Publications to display outstanding sales service and sales acumen at the annual Marketing Mix Magazine MOMA (Media Owners Marketing Awards) where the company defeated sales teams from large publishing houses such as Media24, Caxton, Associated, Ramsay Son & Parker and Oracle Airtime Sales (M-Net).

Entrepreneur Profiles

6 Lesson Gems From Appanna Ganapathy That Helped Him Launch A High-Growth Start-Up

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can


The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”

Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn



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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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Entrepreneur Profiles

30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton



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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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