Steering Standard Bank’s continental strategy
Standard Bank, Africa’s largest bank by assets, continues its push out of its South African base and now has the fierce guidance of Nigeria’s Sola David-Borha to help it along the way. She left her post at Standard Bank’s Nigeria subsidiary in early 2017 to become the bank’s group chief executive for the rest of Africa. While other banks with pan-African horizons have had trouble in governance and management as they expanded their operations, Standard Bank is confident that David-Borha will run a tight ship overseeing the 19 other countries in which the financial institution operates on the African continent.
A few key points give critical insight into the way David-Borha operates. In 1984, she was a fresh university graduate at NAL Merchant Bank when, in the course of work in the credit and marketing department, a senior colleague was rude to her. Indignant at the way she was treated, she politely enquired from him what she had done to deserve such conduct. Startled by her audacity, the offender instantly apologised and went on to engage with her respectfully. This encounter taught the young banker a valuable lesson: “Always have the courage to challenge or condemn inappropriate behaviour, irrespective of who, how, or where that behaviour is coming from.”
In the more than 30 years since then, David-Borha picked up many other insights to chart a stellar career that has seen her rise to a position on the executive committee of Standard Bank. After working at NAL Merchant Bank, she went on to IBTC and told reporters that she enjoyed the start-up environment: “In the early years, you had to prove yourself. You had to fight for every kind of business you could get but it was an experience you wouldn’t exchange.”
Prior to her Standard Bank appointment, David-Borha had served as chief executive of Nigeria’s Stanbic IBTC since 2011. That appointment came amidst upheaval in the country’s banking sector, fuelled by the central bank’s move to sack and arrest the leaders of three banks for infractions that had threatened to plunge the sector into a crisis.
As the aftershocks of the regulatory action spread across the sector, David-Borha assumed the helm of Stanbic IBTC and set out to change the bank’s ownership structure to a holding company model, as had been mandated by the central bank. Her main task was to sustain the growth trajectory that had been set under the previous chief executive, Atedo Peterside. Despite the difficulties imposed by a volatile macroeconomic environment, David-Borha impressed as she implemented a retail banking strategy to facilitate long-term growth and diversify away from the competitive investment and corporate banking businesses. It also backed some deals for distribution companies in the country’s electricity privatisation. Amidst the debates on the exchange rate for the naira, David-Borha argued the need for clarity, telling local media: “We need to ensure the financial markets are transparent and liquid while prices of goods and services are at optimal. So, whether we are selling foreign exchange, or money or equity markets, it is at market rate.”
RIDING THE STORM
Over the next three years, Stanbic IBTC recorded a 238% growth in net profits until oil prices collapsed in late 2014, triggering a recession in Nigeria’s economy. In 2015, a handful of banks, including some of the market leaders, declared losses as a result of the downturn. Stanbic IBTC rode the storm, recording a decline in profits of more than 80%. But by 2016, the bank returned to a better growth trajectory and recorded a 50% increase in net profits.
Clearly impressed by her performance and managerial style, which is said to be calm and meticulous, the board of Standard Bank tapped David-Borha to drive the next growth phase of its Africa businesses, which is central to the group’s strategy.
Standard Bank joint chief executives Sim Tshabalala and Ben Kruger restated this in the bank’s 2016 annual report, noting that the group had become ’entirely focused on Africa” since 2015. As such, it is expected that non-South African Africa business will account for a higher share of revenue than the current 30% share. David-Borha’s job is to ensure that this goal is achieved and her experience as the head of the Nigeria unit means she comes to the job well-prepared.
Standard Bank is targeting major African markets that it sees as primed for banking growth. It opened a representative office in Ethiopia in 2015 in the hope that the government there will soften its regulations that bar foreign banks from owning Ethiopian financial institutions. David-Borha oversaw the appointment of a new chief executive, Amedeo Anniciello, for the bank’s operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in July. She told media: “The DRC represents a substantial opportunity for the Standard Bank Group. We are increasing our capital and investment locally, and introducing the latest versions of our Group information technology platforms to help reshape our 25-year-old business and drive growth.”
From the September 2017 print edition