Jan S Marais: Flam­boy­ant founder of Trust Bank

Sunday Times - - Obituaries -

JAN S Marais, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 90, was a flam­boy­ant, mav­er­ick busi­ness­man with an eye for the gap who changed the face of bank­ing in South Africa when he founded Trust Bank in 1954.

He was only 35 at the time but al­ready a well-known fig­ure in the lo­cal busi­ness com­mu­nity. He was gen­eral man­ager of Fed­erale Volks­be­leg­gings and on the boards of sev­eral big com­pa­nies.

But when he de­cided to ven­ture into com­mer­cial bank­ing he was told he did not stand a chance against ma­jor play­ers like Stan­dard Bank, Bar­clays, Ned­bank and Volk­skas.

He said he would beat them on cus­tomer ser­vice, a con­cept vir­tu­ally un­heard of, and cer­tainly never prac­tised, at the time.

“Have you ever found a busi­ness where peo­ple want to give you a mil­lion pounds but you close at 12.30 to go play golf?” he asked by way of il­lus­trat­ing his point that bank­ing was ripe for a shakeup.

Not only did he keep his branches open longer, he dressed them in gar­ish colours that were con­sid­ered al­most ob­scene by the stuffy bank­ing com­mu­nity, and hired young, mini-skirted front-of-of­fice staff to pull cus­tomers in.

“I want each cus­tomer to feel his ar­rival is the one event of the day we’ve all been wait­ing for,” he said.

It was the level of cus­tomer ser­vice he of­fered that per­suaded Ray­mond Ackerman to bank with Marais when he started Pick n Pay in 1967. Marais of­fered Ackerman ser­vices and terms he could not get from any of the other banks. He col­lected the earn­ings from Pick n Pay stores so that they did not have to use out­side se­cu­rity firms, a ser­vice no other bank was pre­pared to of­fer.

Marais also re­fused to have any­thing to do with the cosy col­lu­sive prac­tices com­mon among the ma­jor banks at the time. If they of­fered 3% in­ter­est, he would of­fer 3.5%.

His first year’s prof­its came to R28 412. Five years later they were more than R1-mil­lion, and group as­sets were R89-mil­lion. By 1977 they were R2-bil­lion.

But his im­pa­tience to be the big­gest and best in the short­est pos­si­ble time led to bad debts, which be­gan weigh­ing heav­ily on the bot­tom line, and he sold his bank to San­lam. Even­tu­ally it be­came part of the Absa group.

It was an ex­traor­di­nary ride, but he al­most never made it to the start­ing line. In the ’50s he was on his way to the US via Lon­don with his plans for Trust Bank, in­clud­ing draw­ings of the lit­tle Trust Bank man logo, in his brief­case. His plane crashed into the Ir­ish sea af­ter tak­ing off from Dublin air­port. Marais, clutch­ing his brief­case, was the last passenger to get out be­fore it sank with a num­ber of peo­ple still in­side.

He caught the next avail­able flight to the US, where he held suc­cess­ful meet­ings that paved the way for his ven­ture.

Marais was born on a sheep farm in Fraser­burg, North­ern Cape, on April 23 1919 and grad­u­ated with a BCom cum laude from Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity.

Be­cause of his pop­u­lar­ity and pro­gres­sive im­age, he was asked to stand for par­lia­ment by the Pro­gres­sive Party, United Party and Na­tional Party.

He chose the Nats as the only pos­si­ble ve­hi­cle for bring­ing about the change he be­lieved in, but af­ter a brief and dis­il­lu­sion­ing stint in par­lia­ment he re­signed in 1981.

He pushed for the scrap­ping of the Group Ar­eas Act and used ev­ery pub­lic plat­form he could to call on white South Africans to de­clare their “ab­hor­rence” of apartheid.

He was nonex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the cap­i­tal in­vest­ment in­sti­tu­tion Fund­strust when it col­lapsed in 1991. He was charged with fraud, but the court found he had been lied to and con­spired against by his ex­ec­u­tive direc­tors.

Marais, whose wife Peggy died in the early ’80s, lived alone in a con­verted barn out­side Dur­banville in the West­ern Cape. His home was cov­ered with pic­tures of him with in­ter­na­tional celebri­ties like for­mer US pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, heart sur­geon Chris Barnard, Is­raeli army chief Moshe Dayan and even nov­el­ist Bar­bara Cart­land.

He is sur­vived by his daugh­ter, Carla. — Chris Bar­ron

PRO­GRES­SIVE: Jan S Marais, who changed the way South African banks treated their clients

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