Johannesburg - One of the first tasks Maria Ramos will have to complete in her new job as chief executive of banking group Absa is to finalise the process of appointing an operations chief and a head of corporate affairs.
The announcement of the resignation of two senior Absa executives this week has fuelled speculation that their exit was linked to the imminent arrival of the new chief executive.
Absa announced that its chief operating officer, Peter Mageza, would retire from the group to pursue personal business interests.
However, the planned departure of Riah Phiyega, the bank's head of corporate affairs, was kept hush-hush, immediately sparking rumours that her resignation had to do with her history with Ramos.
Phiyega was among a group of Transnet executives that were purged by Ramos after she took over as the transport parastatal's chief executive in 2004. Phiyega's five-year contract with Transnet was cut short by Ramos and she reportedly walked away with a golden handshake.
Absa spokesperson Patrick Wadula declined to comment on whether Phiyega's departure was in any way linked to Ramos's imminent arrival at the country's largest retail lender.
"She is leaving Absa to pursue career interests outside the group. Absa respects Riah's decision to step down at this time and will not comment on speculation," Wadula said.
Ramos, who is credited with stabilising the loss-making Transnet, will take full charge of Absa tomorrow. She will not meet her old colleague as Phiyega left on Friday. Mageza will leave in June.
Ramos will fill the shoes of Steven Booysen, who also cleared his desk on Friday after 20 years of unbroken service at the retail bank.
There is a view that Mageza decided to jump ship after seeing his chances of leading Absa evaporate with Ramos's appointment.
There were also rumours that Absa's group financial director, Jacques Schindehutte, wanted to leave but was persuaded to stay.
"Mageza was always touted as one of the executives who had a chance of succeeding Booysen. He could be leaving because he has been overlooked for the chief executive job. As for Riah, I think she is leaving because of her history with Ramos," said a former Absa employee.
Another source, who did not want to be named, said: "It is quite normal for people with chief executive ambitions to resign when they realise that those ambitions are not going to materialise."
'Always wanted to be my own employer'
But Mageza has dismissed speculation that he opted to bail out after realising he was not going to ascend to the top position.
"I made my intentions to leave known in September last year. The chief executive job and my leaving are not related. At the time I made this decision nobody knew the chief executive job was on the line and nobody knew Steve would leave or Maria would come in," Mageza said.
Mageza said he was exiting Absa to seek business opportunities outside of banking.
"I am retiring from Absa because I have always wanted to be my own employer. The current economic climate and the black economic empowerment policy provide plenty of opportunities for someone with the experience and skills-set I have," he said.
Mageza added he had no regrets about his decision and that he had enjoyed a successful career at Absa spanning nine years. He is credited with growing the bank's asset and vehicle finance division, and entrenching Absa's operations in Angola and Mozambique, among other successes.
"I was promoted into various positions because of the achievements in the businesses I ran at Absa. I want to be remembered as a guy who was always prepared to put his shoulder to the wheel," he said.
Nomkhita Nqweni, the president of the Association of Black Investment Professionals, the mouthpiece for black professionals in the financial services sector, said the departure of the two could reverse the gains made by black professionals in the sector, particularly in banking.
Mageza was one of three top black executives alongside Sim Tshabalala, who is chief executive of Standard Bank's South African operations, and Sizwe Nxasana, who is the chief executive of FirstRand Bank.
Mageza joins a growing list of black senior executives who climbed the corporate ladder in financial services and then parachuted to empowerment opportunities. Other high-profile inductees of that list include Sello Moloko, former head of Old Mutual's asset management business, and former Alexander Forbes chief executive Peter Moyo.
- City Press