Maria Ramos cut a diminutive figure as she bravely took to the stage in Johannesburg. It was September 2014 and she was confronted with a global challenge like none she’d faced before.

Thankfully, as the only female CEO of one of Africa’s ‘big four’ banks, Ramos does not fight shy of challenges – nor the chance of turning them into opportunities.So it surprised no one when the 56-year-old boss o f Barclays Africa Group – dressed in bright blue hooded fleece and jeans – nominated her male banking rivals not only to emulate her Ice Bucket Challenge soaking, but also to match Barclays and her own personal R30,000 donation to charity.

It is six years since Ramos took the helm of Barclays Africa and despite a glittering career littered with accolades, having a non-banking background has caused some to question her credentials here.

Few remember, however, that it was working as a Barclays clerk to pay for her studies that the Portuguese-born student – whose family moved to Mozambique when she was a child – cut her teeth.

It was here, too, that she took on and won a ‘men-only’ Graduate Scholarship, gaining a diploma from the Institute of Bankers in 1983.

“As a bank we are passionate about diversity, particularly gender equality, because we are convinced that our success as a company depends on it. 

“In Barclays Africa Group, women make up 25 per cent of our senior leadership team across the continent and our target is to get to 35 per cent by 2018.”

One in four of the Bank’s board members is a woman and to support Ramos’s ambitions, the bank is sponsoring the United Nations campaign ‘HeforShe’, which aims to mobilise one billion men and boys worldwide to end inequalities faced by their female counterparts.

The bank has also created a Barclays Women in Leadership Index and is a partner in the creation of the South African Chapter of the 30 per cent Club, aiming for 30 per cent-plus representation of women on boards in the next five years.

“There is,” she is adamant, “a direct correlation between diversity and performance. As a bank, we are very focused on this issue.”

Twenty years after apartheid, South Africa presents Ramos with challenges and opportunities in equal measure. While unemployment has doubled to 25 per cent and half of the country’s 53 million people are said to live in poverty, less than a quarter of adults have a bank account.

So Ramos’s key business goal is to position Barclays “as the bank of choice when clients and customers across Africa think about their banking needs”.

“We want to become the ‘Go-To’ bank on the continent by helping our customers and clients achieve their ambitions in the right way.”

That includes, she says, “increasing access to financial markets through our Citizenship programme. We have supported the establishment of 27,600 village savings groups, linked 2,000 informal savings groups to our branches and reached 582,000 beneficiaries over the past five years.”

Ramos aims to reach the ‘unbanked’ of Africa with branchless banking through mobile technology and banking in retail stores, while new products include a Payment Pebble – a card reader that allows small businesses to accept payments through their smartphones – and Kenya’s first Kwacha (the local currency) Visa credit card.
While she says “South Africa is and will remain the largest part of our operations”, she concedes that she is looking elsewhere on the continent for real growth.

“We committed to our stakeholders  to be top three in five markets – South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Botswana and Zambia – by 2016.”

Some of these will be among the fastest-growing markets in the world with growth rates ranging from 5.1 per cent to 7.8 per cent this year. Overall, the IMF estimates real GDP growth in SSA to be 5.5 per cent.

There are also ambitious targets to reduce the bank’s cost/income ratio to the low 50s by next year and deliver a Return on Equity of between 18 and 20 per cent from this.

South Africa’s GDP may have risen by 30 per cent over the past 20 years, but that compares to an average 115 per cent in other emerging markets. So what, I ask Ramos, is the bank’s role in building the African economy?

“We are enabling economic growth on the continent by financing investments, facilitating access to financial markets, providing the infrastructure for economic activities (e.g. enabling payments) and funnelling savings and deposits into productive investments.”

In practical terms, she adds that this has meant helping more than 150,000 clients, ranging from large corporates to SMEs with their growth plans; taking the governments of Zambia, Kenya and South Africa to the financial markets; and supporting the development of the agricultural sector by helping create a partnership between one of Barclays’ global corporate clients, 600 local farmers and several NGOs.

Ramos regards Barclays Africa’s long-standing history as a great source of competitive advantage. “As a global bank with a well-established local presence and regional reach and expertise, we can bring benefits to our customers in a way only very few banks can, by combining our global network with a local presence,” she says.

And she accepts that “without doubt” Africa’s growing political stability has been a driver to the growth of banking across the continent.

“Africa has enjoyed the best ever decade of growth and economic development in its history; political stability and an improved culture of governance in African countries were important drivers of that growth.”
But she counters: “Political stability  is but one driver. Other factors include investment flows into infrastructure and technology, which will have to continue, investment in education, and creating jobs for the very young, ambitious and energetic population.”

Recruitment, she concedes, is a big issue. With 42,100 permanent employees across the continent, one of her biggest challenges is overcoming the restriction on movement of the bank’s talent pool due to various national rules and regulations.

“I believe that we need to create conditions across the continent that allow people and talent to move across borders with ease.”

“We are proud of our Pan Africa Graduate Development programme, which over the past six years has more than doubled our intake of graduate trainees.”

Education is something close to Ramos’s heart. After completing her own honours degree in Commerce at the University of Witwatersrand (1987) in Johannesburg and then a Masters in Economics from the University of London (1992), Ramos taught Economics (1989-1994) before serving as an Economist for the African National Congress’s Department of Economic Planning (1990-1994). Aged 35 she was then elevated to Director-General of the National Treasury.

It was here that she met her husband, Trevor Manuel, the then Minister of Finance, and it is said that the two of them (fondly referred to as South Africa’s Royal Finance Couple) effectively steered post-apartheid South Africa towards a free-market economy, while at the same time transforming the Treasury into one of the Government’s most efficient departments.

From the cosy confines of Parliament, from 2004 for five years Ramos proceeded to take on Transnet, one of the country’s most unwieldy, debt-ridden and inefficient freight transport and logistics companies, and was lauded for quickly restructuring it back to profitability through a programme of privatisation  of all but its core businesses.

She has amassed an impressive array of academic qualifications, honorary doctorates and management excellence awards, and her string of accolades takes some beating.

Fortune magazine voted her 10th in its Most Powerful Women of EMEA list (2014) and South Africa’s Most Influential Woman (2012). She was CNBC’s Africa Woman Leader (2011) and Fortune’s 9th Most Powerful Woman in International Business (2009).

She is currently a member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council and on the Board of Business Leadership South Africa.

I defy anyone to question whether Barclays Africa Group is in safe hands under her tenure. 

Photo by Absa Group

Di Rix

Di Rix is a freelance business journalist

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