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‘Judge me by my results’ - Hollard CEO

Aug 27 2017 06:00
Lesetja Malope

The second-biggest short-term insurer and biggest privately owned insurance firm in the country, Hollard, is about to get a new captain and he has his eyes set on sailing it all the way to the very top.

City Press met up with the newly appointed CEO of the insurance giant Sakhiwo Ntombela, popularly known as Saks, at the company’s high-perched head office in Parktown, Johannesburg, recently to pick his brain on a number of issues.

Still using a crutch because of a horrific injury while running, Ntombela’s determination and passion for his job oozes as he talks about his plans, challenges and views.

Ntombela was born in Durban and his family moved to Swaziland when he was five. He returned to South Africa to study mechanical engineering in the city of his birth.

He is no stranger to hard work. His first job was at a Unilever factory.

“I worked the night shift for two years,” he said, adding that the seven years he spent working at the factory in different roles taught him how to work with different people and prepared him well.

After his stint at Unilever, he headed to the University of Cape Town (UCT) to read for his MBA.

“I went to UCT to get a theoretical background of how business works, how different elements work and to developed an interest in financial services,” he said.

Upon finishing his MBA, Old Mutual snatched him up and his career in the financial services began with the company’s Old Mutual Bank, before he moved to Nedbank when it incorporated that unit.

At Nedbank, he got the opportunity to run two of the bank’s product services in a period of five years. During this time, he was sent to the US to attend a course at Harvard University.

“It was an amazing experience to be able to take time out in the middle of a career, develop yourself and focus on your studies for two months,” he said of a time in his career he still treasures.

He went on to join Absa for 20 months before finally moving on to Hollard five years ago.

“I have broad management experience. I can build teams that deliver.

“I also believe that you should always employ people that are better than you, smarter than you and more experienced than you, because my role is to make sure it all works together and to lead. I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, I don’t mind that,” he said.

“I see my role as helping people meet their objectives and, if they meet them, then I meet mine as the head of the team,” he said.

Ntombela points out that outgoing CEO Nic Kohler, who has been with the company for two decades, half of that as head, has set a good standard.

Taking ownership of the hot seat after two other major competing insurers were recently hit with racism-related scandals, and with transformation being a topical issue throughout the entire higher echelons of corporate South Africa, Ntombela reckons he is up to the challenge to play his part.

As the only black CEO at his level in the insurance sector, Ntombela is aware of the possible perceptions surrounding his appointment and the challenges and expectations ahead.

“I guess I would have to say, judge me by my results. I certainly don’t see myself as a ‘black face’ heading the Hollard Group,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t have taken on the role if he thought his appointment was mere tokenism, as he had other opportunities elsewhere.

“I want to be here – we have incredible shareholders,” Ntombela said.

Considering that the average stint of a black CEO in the country’s major companies is less than five years, Ntombela said seven years would be sufficient for him to make his mark in the company, taking it to the next level.

He said the company remained ahead of the rest of the industry, mainly because of three pillars.

Commercial and corporate business in short-term, especially since the Regent acquisition, has extended its capacity in that area of the business.

The second is in the mass-market offering, which is ideal, considering the company has around 3 million policyholders and is looking into extending its range of financial solutions such as credit.

The third is the partnership model the company has developed over the years.

He pointed out that the company, like its industry peers, would probably still see regulatory changes as a major challenge and with that came changing customer expectations.

“Customers want convenience when buying products,” he said.

Ntombela said the company had transformation targets that it set itself, but he did not only want to meet the targeted numbers – he wanted to truly transform.

“I think it’s important to make the numbers and tick the boxes, but you also need to transform as an organisation, otherwise the numbers are not sustainable.”

With perceptions that seem to align to the notion that simplicity is the best form of sophistication, Ntombela’s appointment might just be what the industry needs.

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