Finding the calm in the financial storm
Nomkhita Nqweni, the new CEO of wealth, investment management and insurance at Barclays Africa, is responsible for assets worth about R240bn. No wonder she routinely wakes up at 4am to begin work, writes
Nomkhita Nqweni gives little indication that she’s affected by the turbulent financial world in which she’s operating as she warmly welcomes me into her sparkling, nearly all-glass office, which has spectacular views over the exciting hub in which it is situated on Sandton’s Alice Lane.
On the other side of one of her floor-toceiling glass walls is a large room where some of the 3 000 people in the wealth, insurance and investment management division that she heads are working.
This sense of transparency continues into our interview as she points out pictures of herself with mentors and friends, including former Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus, Gloria Serobe, the founder of female-owned investment company Wiphold, and social entrepreneur Wendy Luhabe.
Alongside them is a photograph of Nqweni with her two young children.
This is a welcome change, for most interviews at this level are conducted in sterile boardrooms that offer little insight into a personality.
Nqweni operates in an arena into which many South Africans unfortunately have little insight – that of managing the money they earn during a lifetime so they can retire knowing it will take them to their graves.
The majority of South Africa’s population has, for historical reasons, grown up without a formal savings culture.
Now the government is busy reforming the retirement process so that employees not only save for their pensions, but also receive good value for their savings, which need to be diligently administered so that they can grow.
“We’re managing many of those assets on behalf of institutional clients, which are essentially pools of people’s assets in pension funds and unit trusts,” says Nqweni.
She started her career nearly 20 years ago at Alexander Forbes, working in a division there led by Max Maisela. He went on to establish NBC Holdings, the biggest black-owned and managed employee benefits company in South Africa.
Nqweni found she was in on the ground floor with the advent of provident funds, which Maisela and labour federation Cosatu spearheaded back in the mid-1990s.
“It was Cosatu that pioneered the responsibility of managing provident funds on a balanced basis between employers and employees, enabling employees to have visibility and empowering them to direct how their savings were managed,” says Nqweni.
“And now we are at the next stage in the process – one that sees the government formalising the preservation of these savings upon retirement, which improves long-term savings,” she adds.
Nqweni left Alexander Forbes to join Absa-Barclays in 2010 to head its wealth and investment management division. Now she also has Absa Life and Short Term Insurance to manage, which contributes about 10% of Barclays Africa Group’s headline earnings.
The challenge she’s been given by her company in her new high-profile role is to build its presence in the rest of Africa. There’s no indication that it makes her nervous, and she’s the epitome of calm serenity in a brilliant pink dress worn with an elegant, multihued jacket.
Nqweni, a single mother of two children aged six and 11, wakes at 4am to check the international markets and email her team, “but they don’t have to answer at that hour”.
She’s surprised at the number who do, though, “which is why the best time to have meetings is at 5am”, she says. She doesn’t organise early-morning meetings at the office though, because she enjoys taking her children to school.
The current global market volatility has, however, meant many nights of disturbed sleep, and she’s watching TV coverage of the World Economic Forum in Davos when I arrive.
She’s attended their meetings several times over the years.
She’s come a long way from the little girl born to a teacher and a nurse in Port Elizabeth’s Zwide township, and who grew up in the politically turbulent 1980s.
She graduated from Rhodes University with a BSc in biochemistry in 1996 but changed tack after reading about the four female founders of Wiphold.
“I wanted to be a businesswoman like them and now they, and others, make up the ‘tribal council’ I turn to for advice.”
Nqweni joined Alexander Forbes’ retirement funds division as a trainee in 1996, and was managing director of its financial services division when she moved to Absa-Barclays.
Along the way, she obtained a postgraduate diploma in investment management and completed a leadershipdevelopment programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. From the start of her career, she’s been passionate about the growth of black professionals in the financial services sector, serving a term as president of the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals.
She was also, until recently, on the board of the SA Mint and the SA Bank Note Company, and serves on the World Bank advisory council for financial inclusion in Africa. She’s a board member of the globally recognised Ubuntu Education Fund, a Bill Clinton initiative that helps children affected by HIV and Aids in Zwide township.
When Nqweni’s personal assistant organises her many travel plans, “she knows to call my father, a retired school principal, and my mother, now a psychologist, so they can come to Joburg from Port Elizabeth to care for my children”.
Nqweni goes to the seaside town for holidays, where she “unwinds by not being busy and reading ferociously”.
It’s her calm in a stormy financial world.
POWER PLAYER Nomkhita Nqweni of Barclays Africa