Filling the cultural gap
‘We hear terrible stories about the runaround big banks put our clients through’
A MAN WILL GROVEL for very few things in life. The first is for the attention of a beautiful woman. The second, if that man happens to live in South Africa and is starting his own business, is bank credit. Entrepreneurship in SA is a unique animal. It’s a far cry from the reckless abandon funding and loving handholding of the United States enterprising mindset.
“There’s a cultural gap. Bank managers tend to be bureaucratic risk avoiders – the entrepreneur embraces risk,” says Roland Sassoon, co-founder of Sasfin Bank, who has dedicated a large portion of his career to the arduous task of modifying the lack of entrepreneur support and funding in this country. “I remain more convinced than ever that the big banks just don’t have what it takes to finance entrepreneurs.”
Over the past 20 years Sassoon has evolved Sasfin into a multi-product financial institution while never losing sight of its original vision of a bank for entrepreneurs. He’s largely self-taught, fiercely ambitious and systematic in pursuing his own personal entrepreneurial goals. The company was born in the early Fifties under a very different guise. Sassoon’s father Sydney, along with his six brothers, was running a textile merchandising business, with roots worldwide. Sydney was holding down the base in Johannesburg.
By the Sixties, selling fabric in SA had become a perilous pursuit. Draconian tariff and import control protection measures were imposed to ensure the growth of the country’s own young fabric industry. The remainder of the Sassoon clan fanned the flame by clamouring to disinvest from SA, partly due to jitters emanating from then Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain in 1965.
The Sassoon father and son duo – left with almost no capital following the break up of the family business – decided to pursue trade financing after identifying a gap for that service. The endeavour had mixed success, as the Sassoons had little experience in financing. Roland Sassoon embarked on various jobs at local banks, including Barclays, providing debtor, leasing and trade finance with the intention of gaining experience. He eventually rejoined his father in the mid-Seventies.
Sasfin, in its finance house incarnation, grew quickly and required more funding. It went public in 1987 and Sassoon was able to present the company in a different, more attractive light to SA’s big banks – which responded by increasing the group’s facilities and lowering their rates. The listing had the additional advantage of providing Sassoon’s father and brother an exit from the business. “They were less risk averse and had different aspirations to me,” he says. “The intention had always been I’d end up running the business.” Under Sassoon’s leadership Sasfin has grown into a significant player in SA’s financing sector, pioneering the country’s first securitisation deal in 1991, receiving a banking licence in 1999, acquiring control of private equity group MDM and the private client base of securities firm Frankel Pollak, which opened doors to stockbroking and financial planning.
Sassoon remains committed to Sasfin’s banking to fund entrepreneurs’ visions – a task he says SA’s Big Four are unsuited to perform. “We hear terrible stories from our clients about the runaround the big banks put them through to get a facility in place. While we understand the importance of due diligence, we have to be mindful of the fact that an entrepreneur needs a decisive bank to enable the client to ‘strike when the iron is hot’.”
The recent banking crisis will afford Sasfin (and its peers) more room to grow, says Sassoon. The “too big to fail” institutions are subject to stricter regulation, which will inevitably result in even more bureaucracy.
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