In a century where “disruption” has become the name of the game, actuary Magda Wierzycka is hard at it, churning up the financial services industry.
Sygnia, in a nutshell, charges its clients less for its products and services than do its competitors, according to its CEO.
“Our aim is to lower the costs of saving for all South Africans,” says Wierzycka, her Polish accent still discernable, even after three decades of living here.
“We want to ensure that investing clients are treated fairly.”
Her determination to upset the status quo of financial services is all the more surprising considering that she’s probably one of only a few women at her level in South Africa’s male-dominated industry.
Last year, the company that she founded with just a handful of staff launched the Sygnia Umbrella Retirement Fund – “the lowest-cost umbrella fund proposition in the country” she says.
“This is because it has no administration and consulting fees.”
In addition, Sygnia is targeting the emerging younger generation of savers with the help of its Sygnia RoboAdvisor financial planning tool. It charges no financial advisory fees and has the lowest management fees in the country.
The restless razor blade brain of Wierzycka never stops devising new ways to help people invest in a country noted through the decades for its lack of a savings ethos.
She wants to make saving sexy and profitable – no matter your age or status.
“When a company offers unit trusts to a client, it charges a 1.5% fee. We launched a retirement annuity linked to a passively managed unit trust for 0.4%,” explains Wierzycka.
Her family fled communist Poland, living in European refugee camps, sleeping on hard bunks in crowded conditions where men, women and children lived together.
They arrived in Pretoria in the 1980s where, “I had to learn English and Afrikaans quickly at Pretoria High School for Girls. I was a stranger and was teased and bullied; it was miserable.”
Wierzycka had one big advantage: maths and science, “because in Eastern Europe huge emphasis was placed on those subjects”.
Her family was really poor so, at a time when insurance companies were offering bursaries for students, she opted for actuarial science.
At the University of Cape Town, she traded her meal vouchers for cash, surviving on free bread and coffee, and ended up qualifying as a Fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (Edinburgh, UK) in 1994.
She paid back her bursary before joining Alexander Forbes where she started an asset consulting division for its retirement fund clients.