It is often described as the final frontier. Africa, a continent of a billion people, and a land mass bigger than US, China, Mexico, India, and Western Europe combined, offers huge potential challenges and risks that are not for the faint-hearted.
Banking activity has been dominated by South Africa’s ‘Big Four’ – Standard Bank, Absa, FirstRand, and Nedbank, and more recently, emerging domestic banks and foreign players such as Barclays and Standard Chartered. Standard Bank, however, is the largest bank in Africa by far, with 532 branches employing 12,500 people outside of its core operations in South Africa.
Historically Standard Bank’s revenue was heavily skewed towards its South African operations. But, increasingly, it is generating business from an expanding footprint (18 countries and counting) in the rest of Africa, helped in no small part by its 20% shareholder, the world’s largest bank, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China.
We speak to Chris Newson, CEO of Standard Bank Africa about how and where the bank is staffing up to fuel its expansion:
What are key markets for Standard Bank and other banks in Africa?
The key markets are clearly the larger economies, such as South Africa, Angola, Nigeria, and Kenya, in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a big infrastructure requirement across Africa, particularly for power, while resources continues to be a strong story driving many economies as new discoveries are announced all over the continent. The resources sector is building, and we’ve seen a lot of activity in the telecoms and FMCG sectors. Within this framework, the investment opportunities are significant. We haven’t made any announcements on our future expansion plans beyond looking to open a new rep office in East Africa soon, but we’re giving West Africa and Francophone Africa plenty of air time. We’ve done some significant transactions around mining, oil and gas in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Over the next five to ten years, the focus for banking in Africa will be around infrastructure, resources and mining, as well as to cater for rapidly increasing middle class populations and rising disposable incomes. But there will be bumps in the road and challenges getting infrastructure problems fixed.
How are you staffing up to meet your expansion?
We’re finding it difficult in certain countries. In some countries, such as Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, domestic banking skills and experience are excellent, whereas in others they aren’t. We’re seeing a lot of expertise in certain areas, such as transactional banking and IT, but in others, especially risk, people with these attributes are hard to find. The principles and practice of risk management are less pervasive in some countries.
Where are these skills coming from?
Opportunities emerging in Africa combined what’s happening in the rest of the world are encouraging the African Diaspora to return, bringing skills and experience they’ve picked up in the major capital markets with them, so we are actively recruiting in the US and UK. We like nationals to work for us - they know the country, language, people, so we target them, then paint them blue (Standard Bank’s brand colour) to operate in our way and live our values. We generally operate on a matrix reporting system at senior levels with joint-reporting lines, and we send expats into countries where they’re needed, while also rotating people between our various offices across the continent.
What training do you offer?
We invest heavily in training and intervention activities, with most countries having centres and programmes providing technical training, and we have initiated talent engagement forums. We run development programmes from our leadership centre in Johannesburg, and send staff on external executive development training. A big part of what we do is the graduate programme, which we run in several countries. We take fresh university graduates straight into the bank, give them exposure across various operations and then after six to eight months, look at where they’d best fit into the bank. It’s a big investment – half our operating costs are absorbed by staff-related expenses
How do you retain this newly trained pool of staff, given the growing demand from other banks in Africa?
We try to focus on the employment brand beyond pure remuneration. And we accept that sometimes you have to be trainers of others (referring to trained staff being poached by competitors) but then we aren’t the only organisation in this position – so sometimes we’ll be the losers, and sometimes we’ll benefit. We’d rather be known as an organisation that trains people well and as an employer of choice.