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MMI's Mary Vilakazi: Change is natural, not radical

Feb 11 2018 06:36
Lesetja Malope

Johannesburg - Mary Vilakazi has come a long way, from being a young woman with ambitions of being a lawyer to being one of the most influential female leaders in corporate South Africa as deputy CEO of listed financial services group MMI Holdings.

City Press met up with the insurance guru, who was born and bred in Alexandra, Johannesburg, and who has made a name for herself as one of the best in the business.

“The reason I wanted to be a lawyer was because when my brother, who was a student activist, was arrested, I used to accompany my mother to the lawyers to bail him out and, on one occasion, I calculated from the number of clients what the lawyers were making in a day,” she said, pointing out that she had changed her mind when she was told of the amount of reading she would have to do to become an attorney.

Psychology became a good consideration for her later when she was a learner at St Enda’s Secondary School in Braamfontein, where she matriculated, but that was also ditched later.

“I was told by one of my teachers that black people would not be lining up to sit on a couch saying they need help. I was told I was watching too much TV, it was not foreseeable.

“Many years later, I think she was wrong,” she said.

Being good at numbers, she wanted to do a Bachelor of Commerce, and fate had her enrol at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – a decision she took after she decided against her initial ambition of going to the University of Cape Town (UCT), because she had fallen pregnant in her matric year.

“I actually had only Wits and UCT on my radar and nowhere else but, after having a child, I wanted to be home.”

Her initial exposure to business was at a very young age at primary school when she sold sweets and popcorn.

“My mother was very entrepreneurial; you could never ask her for money,” she said.

Having a close friend who wanted to graduate cum laude, she was convinced to eventually join the honours programme after graduating.

From varsity she went on to do articles at PwC, a period in which she learnt a lot about insurance, instead of banking as she had wanted.

“I was one of those articled clerks who was very busy; I learnt a lot. I was fortunate because I was always booked,” she said.

While at PwC, she said that although she was fortunate to work with a number of amazing female partners, she was also aware that, as in most big firms, the racial barriers remained very visible.

After finishing her articles, she moved to Cape Town to be with her family, before being made partner.

“I appreciated the learning when I made partner and I was most stressed because I was only 27 years old. For almost two years I felt I had to prove why I was there. I worked extremely hard to ensure I succeeded because I knew my success was important not only for me, but for those who would come after me,” she said.

For a three-year stint, she signed off audit accounts of a listed company client, a major milestone at the time, which she was not aware of until later.

In a bid to prioritise her family life more than her work, she joined an unorthodox geologist business.

“It was a great company, they didn’t even have business plans. So when someone wants money, as the CFO I would ask for a business plan and was told that’s not how they work, they are more personal,” she said of a job she seemed to have only praises for.

With the entrepreneurial venture availing her more time, she took on a number of board directorships before returning to Johannesburg.

“With change comes an opportunity to re-evaluate, so I joined MMI in 2014,” she said.

Read: MMI deputy chief executive: I was not overlooked

She was instrumental in ensuring the Momentum and Metropolitan merger ran into less turbulence, and that meant merging some roles when she was later promoted.

Asked if she thought corporate South Africa needed something radical to transform, Vilakazi said that the process could not be radical as it would take time.

“I think the word radical is one of those unnatural words. I learn most things from observing things in nature and in nature there is never anything radical, there’s evolution of things. Seasons come and go, it’s radical and you don’t get rain like in Cape Town,” she said with a slight tittering tone.

She also pointed out that it was very important for the economy to grow and create jobs.

“I don’t subscribe to destroying … if fees must fall for other things to happen. That doesn’t resonate with me,” she said.

Having recently seemingly been overlooked for the position of MMI CEO, Vilakazi does not share the view that she was overlooked, but says she does have ambitions of being a CEO.

“This retail business within MMI is my baby. I want to see that successful. If I am successful with doing that, I’ve got a good chance of being CEO at MMI. And I think I have got a good chance of being CEO somewhere else,” she said.

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mmi  |  mary vilakazi  |  winning women
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