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End of an era for banking leaders

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“One of Stephen and Bernard’s great contributions to South Africa’s business landscape was their chutzpah,” said Business Day editor Tim Cohen about Investec CEO Stephen Koseff and managing director Bernard Kantor, who announced this week that they were stepping down after 40 years at the helm.
by TALI FEINBERG | Feb 08, 2018

Koseff and Kantor said on Tuesday that they would retire from their leadership roles over the course of the next year, as part of a succession process which was first announced in November 2015.

Koseff – 2003 winner of the Absa Jewish Business Achiever Award (listed companies) – is one of South Africa’s most well-respected business leaders.

Hendrik du Toit, the founding CEO of Investec Asset Management, and Fani Titi, the non-executive chairperson of Investec Plc and Investec Ltd since November 2011, will assume the role of joint CEO from October 1. They will become CEO designates from April 1.

“They never let the comparatively small Johannesburg business community, or the very competitive banking sector nationally or internationally, become an overwhelming obstacle to their ambitions,” said Cohen. “Along the way, I think they demonstrated that great businesses are built on great ideas, not great circumstances.

“They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it’s to their enormous credit that almost every major South African bank now has a division which aims to ‘out-Investec’ Investec.

“More importantly, they have weathered some great storms, contributed to the wellbeing of a large number of employees, been active citizens of South Africa, and have left a prosperous business to a new generation. Hard to beat that. I’m sure they leave with a little sorrow, some notable scars, but overall with enormous and deserved satisfaction.”

Discovery CEO Adrian Gore, who is a close ally of Koseff in Business Leadership SA, agreed that the two Jewish businessmen “had a profound impact on South Africa”.

“To build a business of that scale is rare, and it is a unique beacon of innovation,” added Gore.

“Stephen, in particular, has had an effect on the country. With his honest and open ‘boykie’ style, he speaks truth to power. He is respected for it because he is always authentic, honest and calls it like it is.

“The two have also been an inspiration to the Jewish community and are proud Jews.”

Indeed, all of Investec’s founders “had a very strong sense of where they came from, and strongly identified with their Jewish roots”, Investec’s group development director Douglas Krikler told Jewish News Online in the UK earlier this year, discussing the bank’s humble beginnings.

Investec began in Johannesburg in 1974 as “a small group of people within the Jewish community who saw a gap in the market”, explained Krikler.

“The founders of the bank believed that professionals should be backed. It’s what we know today as leasing, but it was very new and innovative in South Africa then.’”

Krikler explained that one of the founders’ early decisions was not to deal with the apartheid regime, “something remembered by Nelson Mandela when he was eventually freed from prison and became South Africa’s first black president”.

“It was a very difficult and courageous thing for a young bank to do within that kind of society and environment. Investec became one of Mandela’s first banks for development and reconstruction in South Africa; he retained a very close relationship with the founders and leadership of the bank – and he saw Investec as partners.”

This ethos has continued right through until today, when Koseff spoke out against the firings of former finance ministers Nhlanhla Nene and Pravin Gordhan last year, and the subsequent economic downgrade. “We were on a good path, starting to come right and gain momentum. There was a positive mood starting… The ANC needs to take corrective action,” said Koseff at the time.

And, in an address delivered at the ANC policy conference in July last year, Koseff said: “We must root out the scourge of corruption and inefficiency. In light of this current malaise, there is an urgent need for a new social pact that transcends ideologies and backgrounds. Together, under the banner of a common purpose, there are no limits to what South Africa can achieve.”

The company has always been involved in assisting South Africa’s most needy citizens. Its programme called Pro Maths, for example, Pro Science that enables 4 000 to 5 000 children to take extra maths and science lessons. “They go from failing dismally to getting As and Bs. They can then go into a career in engineering, they can go into finance, go into actuarial science, and they can go into medicine,” Koseff told News24.

Koseff and Kantor remain deeply involved in the Jewish community and have contributed financial support, wise counsel and leadership when needed.

Said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein: “Stephen Koseff is a visionary and brilliant business leader, and a proud Jew. I remember chatting to him at a wedding in the early days of starting CAP [Community Active Protection, the anti-crime initiative that was the chief rabbi’s brainchild]. There and then he and Brian Joffe pledged the opening money to get it started. Investec is also a great supporter of communal endeavours and one of our valued partners of Sinai Indaba.”

SA Jewish Board of Deputies chairperson Shaun Zagnoev added: “The board pays tribute to Stephen Koseff and Bernard Kantor, two visionary businessmen who helped revolutionise the banking industry in South Africa. From our community’s point of view, they have been an inspiration to many young Jewish entrepreneurs who both seek counsel and are motivated by Investec.”

Indeed, the company remains a passionate supporter of young entrepreneurs, as Dan Brotman describes: “I arrived in South Africa in 2011 as a 24-year-old immigrant with one suitcase, and owe much of the success I have achieved in this country to Stephen Koseff. He backed the Black-Jewish Entrepreneurs Network, which brought together black and Jewish entrepreneurs to network and do business together; and the taking of South Africa’s most promising emerging entrepreneurs to Israel, which resulted in us taking hundreds of South African start-up companies to the Jewish state.

“He even backed a crazy idea of mine to take the #FeesMustFall leaders to Brazil to look at what free tertiary education actually looks like in a highly unequal developing country. Through the Entrepreneurship Development Trust, he supported my latest venture, En-novate, which encourages South African professionals to adopt best global practice by taking them to specific countries around the world to look at the future of their industry.

“Stephen is one of the few corporate leaders in South Africa who I can confidently say believes in young people, and I believe that this same ethos has become so entrenched within Investec that it will follow into the new era.”

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