Jan S Marais: Flamboyant founder of Trust Bank
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