And she thought Transnet was tough...

Finweek English Edition - - Cover -

RU­PERT PAR­DOE? He was the last se­nior ex­ec­u­tive ear­marked to run Absa from out­side the group. Raised at An­glo Amer­i­can, Par­doe was a square peg in a round hole and wasn’t ex­actly wel­comed with open arms. The deputy CEO left the group be­fore the re­la­tion­ship could be for­mally con­sum­mated, and Steve Booy­sen, a long-serv­ing in­sider, sub­se­quently took over stew­ard­ship of the bank from Nal­lie Bos­man. Booy­sen’s own four-and-a-half-year ten­ure ends this month.

Ranked by For­tune Mag­a­zine as one of the 20 most pow­er­ful women on earth, Booy­sen’s re­place­ment – Maria Ramos – takes over at Absa on 1 March. And she’s also an out­sider. Pop­u­lar con­sen­sus rates her chances of suc­cess con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than Par­doe’s. How­ever, she faces se­vere eco­nomic head­winds as well as a fiendishly com­plex ar­ray of in­ter­nal chal­lenges in an un­cer­tain do­mes­tic and global bank­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

Ramos has her work cut out. She’ll be fully cog­nisant of that fact and also painfully aware that she has no exe c u t ive level bank­ing sec­tor ex­pe­ri­ence. Se­nior bank­ing sec­tor ex­ec­u­tives are sur­prised by the ap­point­ment. They rate Ramos highly, but pri­vately ques­tion the tim­ing of her ap­point­ment amid con­sid­er­able global mar­ket sen­si­tiv­ity.

The an­nounce­ment of Ramos’s ap­point­ment in Novem­ber last year came as Ned­bank was also poised to re­veal its re­place­ment for Tom Board­man, who re­tires in Fe­bru­ary 2010. It de­cided, al­most at the last minute, to post­pone the ap­point­ment.

“It was my call,” says Ju­lian Roberts, the new CEO of Old Mu­tual, the com­pany that con­trols Ned­bank. “I’m new in the job and I looked at the is­sues we have to deal with glob­ally and felt it bet­ter to pause and come back to it in due course,” he says in a re­cent in­ter­view in Lon­don.

Ramos en­ters Absa with her eyes wide open. She ac­knowl­edged the state of the global econ­omy and its ram­i­fi­ca­tions at the re­cent World Eco­nomic Fo­rum gath­er­ing at Davos in Switzer­land. There she pointed to the im­pact that the eco­nomic cri­sis was hav­ing on her clients at Transnet. At Absa she will have 10m clients, a grow­ing num­ber be­ing in fi­nan­cial dis­tress – as re­flected by the sharply higher pro­vi­sion­ing lev­els in the group’s most re­cent fi­nan­cial re­sults.

“There are no sil­ver bul­lets,” Ramos said in Davos. “My sense is (we have) 18 to 24 months of a very tough eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment glob­ally.”

Ramos de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this re­port, and Fin­week un­der­stands Absa has agreed to give her 100 days to set­tle into her new po­si­tion be­fore it wheels her out for in­ter­ac­tions with the me­dia.

De­spite the fact she’s highly re­spected, con­cerns abound re­gard­ing her lack of op­er­a­tional bank­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at ex­ec­u­tive level. In­sid­ers sug­gest much will de­pend on her abil­ity to re­tain out­go­ing CEO Steve Booy­sen’s re­main­ing ex­ec­u­tive team – at least un­til she has her

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