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Hard work doesn’t kill anyone - Nomkhita Nqweni (1993)

Date Released: Wed, 30 March 2016 09:02 +0200

SIKI MGABADELI:  Good evening and welcome to this special edition of the SAfm Market Update with Moneyweb. My name is Siki Mgabadeli.

Today we are in conversation with Nomkhita Nqweni, who is head of Wealth Investment Management and Insurance at Barclays Africa. She took over this position last year from Willie Lategan, and previously she was head of Wealth and Investment Management at the bank, with R268 billion of assets under management. She joins us now.

Nomkhita, thank you so much for your time today. I don’t think I’ve had a chance to congratulate you on this position, but it has been a few months now. Was it just a tweak in what you were doing, or is it a massive job?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Firstly, thank you for having me here, Siki. I think the last time that we actually spent time together was in Davos, more than a year ago.

SIKI MGABADELI:  More than a year ago.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Things were very different. We are certainly living in interesting times. I don’t think that it was just a tweak in the sense that wealth and investment management and insurance constitutes about 10% of the headline earnings of the group. At the time when I was running wealth and investment management only, that’s only about 30% of the whole business. And so there is a lot that I’ve inherited in terms of the insurance aspects of the business as well. But I think it certainly has helped that I’ve been part of the organisation for about six years and I had been part of the wealth and investment management and insurance team for about 18 to 24 months before I took on this role.

SIKI MGABADELI:  And it’s a team. The thing about you that I’ve heard from a lot of people that we know in common is that you’re a great team player but also a leader. So you kind of know how to put people together.

This team, when you look at them today, having worked with them for six years – you have lots of confidence in them?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Of course I do. We’ve just printed a great set of results as part of the Barclays Africa Group results. We grew our headline earnings by 11%, so that could not have happened without having a great team. And you are right, my ethos and philosophy from where I’m from is about collective wisdom and about collective ownership. And I’m enjoying working with this team. Yes, we have made some tweaks in terms of the team. We’ve got new members of the team that have joined us recently. But also not external to the Barclays family.

SIKI MGABADELI:  How much of that philosophy of collective effort, collective wisdom, comes from the way you grew up and the people that you surround yourself with?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  I think it has a lot to do with it. I think we are who we are inherently from the experiences that we’ve had and how we’ve grown up, and the experiences that shape who we are. I always say that I’m a child of the village. You know the old adage: it takes a village to raise a child. I truly am a child of the village. And I think that influences a lot of my leadership ethos and philosophy and how I deal with colleagues and business matters. And it’s also about the fact that we can achieve greater things if we work together as a team. I think that has a lot of grounding in where I come from in Port Elizabeth, community-driven initiatives shaping a lot of what we see actually around us today.

SIKI MGABADELI:  How did your journey start? How did your educational journey start, how did you decide this was what you wanted to do? I understand you studied a BSc in Microbiology and Biochemistry.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  So Ciko Thomas and I are scientists, and we are now in the financial services industry, which is very interesting. So I think back then, when we were I guess going to school, there was not a lot of what you would call career guidance. And so really my decision to do a BSc was based on what my father as a lifelong educator in Biology – he basically decided that I would continue in the line of maths and science and so on.

SIKI MGABADELI:  I know this conversation and how it went.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  So there was really nothing scientific about it, to coin a phrase. As I was finishing my degree at Rhodes University, I was really contemplating this life of titrating in the lab for the rest of my life, and it didn’t quite resonate. And I always tell this story – it was in 1994, I think, I was reading [True Love], Khanyi Dhlomo was a very young editor of True Love magazine and she was really curating great content. And as young people we were reading ferociously about what was happening around us, and I remember reading this article about these four women that had started Wiphold. I think the first thing that attracted me was their hairstyles, really, because they looked really glamorous. But I think it sparked a thought – if that is what they can achieve, surely I can be a businesswoman too. I didn’t know what it meant to be a businesswoman. I think that’s really where the inspiration came from.

SIKI MGABADELI:  So what happened, because you then joined Alexander Forbes. How did that happen?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  I completed my degree and then I came to Johannesburg – the proverbial lights of Johannesburg – to come and look for a job. So you kind of find a friend, you stay with them, you camp on their couch, while you go the various recruitment agencies. And I got a call from a company called Alexander Forbes. I had never heard anything about them. These were the times when, I think as a people, we certainly are growing in terms of the things that we are exposed to. But this was at a time when we didn’t really have much to craft and frame our thinking.

And so I went to this company and I went for an interview. And interestingly they said we have this division, a negotiated-benefit consultant, that was led by the late Max Mayisela. And they thought that I would be a great candidate to work as an employee benefits consultant, as a trainee at that stage. But the most interesting thing was that I’d come to Joburg to look for a job and they said that I should go back to PE, to actually go and work in their PE office.

SIKI MGABADELI:  I want to take the conversation to the responsibility we have around consumer education, around financial inclusion and so on. When you read some of the surveys that are coming out, some of the reports that are coming out, and how dire the situation is, how people really don’t know what their rights are, and they don’t know how these things that we talk about on this programme affect them directly.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  That’s very true, Siki. But I guess having done what I’ve done for about 20 years now, I definitely do start seeing there is a change. There is progress, people are a lot more aware as consumers in terms of even some of their basic rights. I see this from all the emails that we get from our clients and all of the challenges that we have to deal with. But there is also a fundamental principle that I think you tough on, which is what is our role in continuing to ensure that there’s appropriate understanding, that there is financial inclusion, that people are aware of the basic things that they consume. And as financial institutions we’ve got a very, very important role to play in that.

SIKI MGABADELI:  I’m going to return to the conversation around financial inclusion and so on, but let’s come back to your career path. You are in PE, you are working there at Alexander Forbes. Then what happened?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  I guess I was always an upstart, as my old boss called me, because I think after 18 months of really learning about negotiating, the start-up of provident funds, working a lot with unions, a lot of the people you see in the newspapers, the likes of Irvin Jim who laughs all the time because they were shop stewards in the Firestones, in the tyre industry at the time. So I think I learnt a lot and a lot of skills about what it takes to be able to get things done. And I was certainly looking for more of a challenge and to also grow in terms of my scope and of course career opportunities. They can be limitations in terms of smaller…

SIKI MGABADELI:  One organisation…

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Or smaller regional towns. I spent a lot of my time, actually with the one organisation, Alexander Forbes. And so what happened is that I put my hand up for a bigger job and I was transferred to Johannesburg. I worked in Johannesburg as an employee benefits consultant, but I was always interested in the investment aspects of my job, because as an employee benefits consultant then you were basically the conductor of the orchestra of everything relating to a pension fund. So you deal with widows in terms of death benefits, you deal with insurance companies in making sure that there is proper cover, you deal with  the investment aspect, so you deal a lot with the asset managers because of how you need to ensure that the pool of assets is growing. So I was very much attracted to that asset management part of it.

And I branched out briefly, for 18 months, to go and work for SEMB, so I worked at SEMB. And the only reason I left SEMB, because I really quite enjoyed my time there, was that Rael Gordon, the former CEO of Alexander Forbes, at the time was just starting up Investment Solutions. So he gave me a call and said, look, come back home. Come back to Investment Solutions. So I was part of the original founding team of Investment Solutions. So I went back and I spent quite a number of years, about eight years, at Investment Solutions.

SIKI MGABADELI:  I’m just amazed at how the finance bug just bit and stuck. Did that surprise you?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  It surprised me. But also I do believe in the fact there is a higher being that kind of directs our lives. And so I do think that it’s part of my purpose to be in a role where through the extension of what it is that I do, I can unwittingly be providing services, sustainability, enhancing people’s growth through their financial assets. I really do believe that is part of my purpose. So I think that’s why the bug hit.

But I also think that there is never a dull moment in financial markets. Every day is different. Yesterday, today, it can be anything. It can be announcements about what’s happening with interest rates, it can be anything. So you constantly have to be navigating yourself and your clients to through a sustainable path. And I think that becomes quite addictive.

SIKI MGABADELI:  The one thing I’ve always said is everything has an economic component to it. It doesn’t matter. Just waking up you are impacting on productivity, for example. Brushing your teeth you are affecting a Colgate or an Aquafresh or some such.

It’s International Women’s Month, so we have to talk a little bit about being a young woman in this space, in business. It’s challenging, it’s exciting and can also be quite a frustrating time. How do you navigate?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Thank you for still thinking that I’m young, I appreciate that. But it has been an interesting journey. So the first thing about my philosophy is that I don’t enter a room wearing the I’m black or I’m woman kind of let’s call it hat. I enter a room with a sense that I’m a  professional, I’ve got something to learn, I’ve got something to add. And I think that that attitude certainly has helped me because there have been some choppy times, but it certainly has helped me have a buoy that I can basically ride on. And I think also an innate sense of just being enough, knowing that I’m confident in myself and that I’m affirmed – whether that comes from home or whatever, it certainly helps.

I’ve certainly encountered my fair [share] of challenges, and this is why I’ve always been very passionate about black securities and investment professionals in my work that I did with Absa, because I felt that it was our responsibility to continuously make things better for those that come behind us.

I’ve had experiences. In fact, going back to my Alexander Forbes days, I will never forget that day I walked into a client to go and do a presentation and report-back on how their portfolios had performed and so on. I guess maybe they didn’t make the connection that Nomkhita Nqweni, the name on the agenda, is a person of colour.

SIKI MGABADELI:  And how was that?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  And how the chairman actually responded. So I hadn’t even plugged in – in those days we carried what we called proximers and laptops – none of these fancy days with iPads. So I was still trying to connect everything, and literally he had the meeting stop. He was not interested in having the meeting continue if I was the representative from Investment Solutions.

I was quite heartened by the values of the company that I worked for at the time because when Rael Gordon, my boss at the time, heard about this, he firmly said “well, so sorry, then, it means that we can do business with you”.

So those are some of the things that you experience, and you feel hurt. I felt very hurt because he hadn’t even heard what I was about to say. He didn’t even know if I’m competent. So you get judged by what you look like and who you are and where you may come from. But I’ve always said that there is no substitute for hard work.  There is no substitute for professionalism. I always try and overcome those sort of prejudices by actually working very, very hard, and sometimes I put a lot of pressure on myself because I always want to showcase and prove that I’m worthy to be around the table. But I think as I’ve grown older, I’ve also realised that it’s okay, I’m enough. I can do what I do – hopefully I can also inspire others as well because I think the roles that we play are quite important in inspiring others to also know that it is possible.

SIKI MGABADELI:  And that’s where the role of mentorship comes in as well. Who are your mentors?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Mentees? I’ve got quite a few. So in the space of work I’ve got what I call a tribal council, and I go to them for different things. I’ve been fortunate to actually have had access to these wonderful, wonderful individuals through the course of my career. I would definitely count Gloria [Outlwile] and Wendy [Lucas-Bull] today to still be those continued people that are there, whether I’m going through difficult times as a professional woman, or as someone that just needs direction in the course of life. So I definitely count the two of them there.

I’ve had amazing sponsors in my career. Peter Omoyo was an amazing sponsor as my ex-boss and also as a continued mentor at the time when I was at Alexander Forbes. I really, really had the privilege of working with the current deputy president of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa. He was an amazing sponsor and motivator and also mentor. Now that he’s gone into politics I don’t see him a lot, but always a great well of wisdom and sounding board.

A lot of people ask me, but how do you get access to these people? You just ask. You just pick up the phone and ask, and talk to them about your story. And I’ve always been humbled by how people that don’t know you from a bar of soap create time and space in their calendars, in their diaries, to listen to a little girl that they don’t know from anywhere.

SIKI MGABADELI:  But it wouldn’t have happened, as you say, if you hadn’t asked.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  You have to ask. You have to be persistent, also, and you have to find a way to get through. That’s the challenge that I always put for myself as well in terms of the role that I play as mentor to mentees – to make time, make yourself available, because it’s quite important. The perspectives that you have through your exposure and your experiences are very different from the perspectives of someone who’s been in the industry for a much shorter time. And also the ability to influence decisions that you want to make from a short-term view, whereas you’ve had at least a longer road to be able to traverse, and have better perspectives.

SIKI MGABADELI:  And your mentees? Were they the persistent type?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Oh, no, definitely. I like the persistent types, the ones who take no for an answer and how many times my PA says no, she can’t make the time, they actually make sure that they come to me directly. I try to make as much space and time for that as possible.

SIKI MGABADELI:  We are talking about career, we are talking life, and we are going to talk a little bit now about the work, the landscape and all of that. I want to start with the conversation that started about financial inclusion. There have been so many changes in the banking landscape over the past 20 years.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  And there continues to be. The regulatory environment and the environment that we operate in as financial institutions, as banks, has certainly become tougher, especially post the global financial crisis in 2008, and also the need to make people more aware about other risk factors are inherent in participating in capital markets and being part of a global market ecosystem. So it certainly has been quite an interesting time.

SIKI MGABADELI:  I can imagine. Barclays Wealth – where do you see that being positioned? I know one of the things when you came in and took over your current position was needing to do further expansion on the African continent.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Yes, and that still is very much on the cards. In fact, we are in the process of looking at onshore capabilities in two markets in the continent at the moment, on the back obviously of our broader strategy as Barclays Africa Group, where we’ve got presence in about 12 countries. So that’s still very much on the cards.

On the continent it also is much more let’s call it difficult to delineate between offshore and onshore propositions because a lot of the clients are actually looking to diversify and invest their assets externally. So what we are busy building is the capability to be able to leverage what assets they have onshore and actually help in redeploying those into the various economies where they are. And so that’s part of what we are busy working on now.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Does the Barclays brand association help, because it’s a well-known name, it’s been here for a century?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  The Barclays brand has been in the continent in many of the countries that we operate in for about 100 years. So it does have resonance. Lots of people associate with it for multiple generations. So it is a very, very strong brand, yes.

SIKI MGABADELI:  One thing that’s obviously very nice about Barclays Africa as a woman is that many of the leadership are women. You’ve got a woman chair, a woman CEO. Do you think that kind of has an impact on the way that things are done, how people think in the organisation?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  I think my male colleagues will have to close their ears for this one. But I certainly do think so. In fact, I do think that there is literature that proves that if you have women-led organisations your returns in terms of return on equity for shareholders do tend to be at least 4-5% higher. And it’s not just about women. It’s about embracing diversity in all of these aspects. I certainly do think that. And I look up to Maria Ramos and Wendy. And also to their ability to have a very broad view of the broad impact of what it is that we do, and not just the commercial sense of it. The importance of our corporate citizenry, the importance of the impact that we make on a day-to-day basis, the importance that we have on the people that work in the organisation, the 42 000 people. And I think that that comes from the inherent nurturing orientation and the fact that as women we tend we tend to have a broad view of what we consider has impact and things that are important.

SIKI MGABADELI:  As a country we are facing some terrible headwinds. We’ve got ratings agencies with a microscope on us at this point, and we’ve got to put our best foot forward. Consumers are under pressure because of various factors – unemployment, of course, interest rates, and all sorts of other factors. When you look at our current economic state, are you hopeful?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  I am hopeful because I think that these things always go in cycles. There will always be difficult times. And so the important thing for us as a country and as a citizen in South Africa is to focus on the fundamentals. So what are those fundamentals that are going to ensure that we are able to sustain the headwinds, and when the cycle turns we are able to be ahead? So yes, there is a lot of difficulty at the moment. But, having been part of South Africa – I’ve never lived anywhere else – I know that as a country and as a people we have a lot of resilience. There is a lot that we’ve overcome and I think that we’ve also had the opportunity and the window to see what we can become. And so for me focusing on those fundamentals and working together in really solidifying and cementing those is really what is going to sustain us in the future.

SIKI MGABADELI:  When you look at our young people, I’m sure you’ve got lots of young people coming into the bank, whether interns or first-timers in the work environment, are you hopeful?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  I’m very excited, because actually I find that they take less time in kind of getting to the point.

SIKI MGABADELI:  The poor millennials.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Exactly, the millennials. So they take less time to get to the point then to want to make an impact. So that definitely does give me hope. And they’ve got fantastic ideas. So the important thing for us as organisations is to make sure that we allow those ideas to filter through and to emerge, and to actually encourage them. And there’s that mentorship as well. So we’ve got this concept of reverse mentorship, where even us as the leaders in the …exco, we actually have younger people who are helping us navigate the world of how do you deal with all of these acronyms on social media, and just to basically be connected. So I think it’s definitely fantastic.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Is there a thing that you would say to your younger self? If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say?

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  I think I would say be kinder to yourself in the sense that, given the adversity that we grew up with. The old adage that my dad used to instil in us is that hard work doesn’t kill anyone is something that I certainly always carried through. And while that has been a very, very important part I think of who I am and what I have become today, I do think that you can be a little bit kinder to yourself. So that’s what I would say to my younger self.

SIKI MGABADELI:  It’s been such a pleasure talking to you today.

NOMKHITA NQWENI:  Thank you so much for having me, Siki.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Nomkhita Nqweni is head of Wealth Investment Management and Insurance at Barclays Africa.