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CityPress - - Business -

oney is, in a sense, the last thing on Maria Ramos’ mind. It’s the chal­lenge of dis­cov­er­ing, in­no­vat­ing and stretch­ing her­self – and ev­ery­one around her – that she finds the most ex­cit­ing as­pect of her life. Nat­u­rally, the Bar­clays Africa Group gains from the ex­tra­or­di­nary energy that spins off her, in­fect­ing her teams, spurring them on to greater heights. And yes, that’s bucks in the bank at the end of the day.

“But if we are just driven by one thing – mak­ing money – we would not sur­vive for long be­cause life is no longer like that,” says Ramos as we sip our cap­puc­ci­nos. Hers is a dou­ble be­cause cof­fee is one of her pas­sions.

We’re in the down­town Joburg heart of this fi­nan­cial em­pire that stretches across sev­eral high-rise city blocks.

The pres­sures on the slim shoul­ders of the el­e­gantly clad, se­ri­ously high-heeled dy­namo in to­day’s siz­zlingly com­pet­i­tive fi­nan­cial ser­vices world are huge – yet she’s warmly wel­com­ing, re­laxed and hu­mor­ous.

For the next hour, con­ver­sa­tion ranges from physics and science – help­ing client farm­ers by us­ing drones to un­der­stand weather pat­terns – to “sky branches” of the bank and “who out there is dis­rupt­ing our busi­ness”.

“It’s not just other banks; it’s cell­phone com­pa­nies; it’s small busi­ness start-ups that can do what we do cheaper and faster be­cause they don’t have the big in­fra­struc­ture and legacy that we have,” she says.

She talks about the ne­ces­sity for peo­ple to move to smart­phones “be­cause there’s no longer a need for a phys­i­cal bank. We’re al­ready putting wal­lets and forex on cell­phones and we can do it across this con­ti­nent.”

But she points out that Africa needs bet­ter and faster con­nec­tiv­ity to make such bank­ing af­ford­able for clients.

Ramos of­ten uses the phrase “across this con­ti­nent” dur­ing our in­ter­view. It is her hori­zon.

“The pace of change in Africa is prob­a­bly faster than any­where else in the world. The op­por­tu­ni­ties it cre­ates are phe­nom­e­nal, but it’s what we do with them that counts.” She never tires of chal­lenges – the big­ger the bet­ter. “I thrive on them, it’s part of my per­son­al­ity,” she says. And she wel­comes a good, hard slog.

“If I’m in a tight cor­ner, I can reach deep within my­self and out­work any­one. Know­ing that is a kind of se­cu­rity blan­ket,” she says in her mu­si­cal, mea­sured tone.

But in­trin­si­cally, what lights her fire is in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion and be­ing hum­ble enough to learn, “know­ing there’s some­thing out there we can do dif­fer­ently. Then, once done, you know you can set the bar higher.”

If that sounds un­bear­ably tough, then the only woman to head a JSE Top 40 com­pany off­sets it by can­didly ad­mit­ting that there are of­ten mo­ments when she’s ner­vous or anx­ious. “I’m not so self-as­sured that I never have doubts.” Ramos has been ranked by For­tune mag­a­zine as one of the most pow­er­ful women in in­ter­na­tional busi­ness for ev­ery year be­tween 2004 and 2014. Her list­ing be­gan in the years she led paras­tatal Transnet through a mas­sive fi­nan­cial, cul­tural and op­er­a­tional turn­around.

Prior to that, she suc­cess­fully served as di­rec­tor­gen­eral of Na­tional Trea­sury for seven years. There, she and then fi­nance min­is­ter Trevor Manuel were re­spon­si­ble for the broad macro-re­form of South Africa’s econ­omy, cut­ting debt, sub­si­dies and in­fla­tion, and boost­ing ex­ports.

Ramos could have had her pick of top jobs when she left Trea­sury, but she ac­cepted the chal­lenge of trans­form­ing the fail­ing, white-male-dom­i­nated Transnet.

There, she of­ten had what she calls the “tough con­ver­sa­tion” with col­leagues she re­garded as just not right for the job. She’s not the type to leave some­one with noth­ing to do “and no pur­pose. Then they go home feel­ing dis­en­gaged and dis­traught. I can’t imag­ine any­thing more dis­heart­en­ing than that.”

When she joined Absa Bank as group CEO in 2009, she once again stepped into white-male-dom­i­nated ter­ri­tory. “Fi­nan­cial ser­vices are male dom­i­nated. It’s been hard work chang­ing that and get­ting across the mes­sage that there are a lot of in­cred­i­bly smart women and black pro­fes­sion­als in this space.”

She has her crit­ics. One sug­gested she car­ried too heavy a work­load, and another was dis­parag­ing about her body lan­guage, say­ing it was “too pos­i­tive”.

She shrugs. “If some­one feels that I don’t fit some con­struct of what a CEO of a bank needs to look like, there’s noth­ing I can do about it. But if some­one raises an is­sue about the bank’s per­for­mance, then I take it in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ously.”

Ramos has spent two decades in the public eye in po­si­tions that have made her South Africa’s most recog­nis­able face on in­ter­na­tional mar­kets.

She worked closely with se­nior of­fi­cials at the World Bank and the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, and is to­day a mem­ber of the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s In­ter­na­tional Busi­ness Coun­cil.

She served on an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee of the World

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