The firm that places worth above wealth

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Peter Body caught up with Investec’s chief executive, Fani Titi, to talk about the company’s ethos, which is based upon the Zulu concept of ‘ubuntu’, a word that roughly translates to ‘I am because you are’

THE Investec banking team not only knows how to throw a party, but it is also breaking new ground in Africa, the UK and the Channel Islands by emphasising worth not wealth in everything that it does.

The international bank and wealth manager, founded in Johannesburg in 1974, used the occasion of the opening of its new premises in St Helier to entertain clients in true South African style.

The charismatic South Africa-based chief executive of the group, Fani Titi, was there and explained to the JEP how the bank had created what it thinks is a winning ethos, which may not be entirely unique but is very, very rare.

It is based around the Zulu concept of ‘ubuntu’, or ‘I am because you are’ and relies on establishing as close a bond between the two as possible.

Investec, which has 8,500 staff in 40 cities, describes its purpose as ‘creating enduring worth – living in society, not off it’.

‘The idea is to service clients exceptionally because a bank can offer a mortgage, and a mortgage is a mortgage is a mortgage, but we have the aim of serving clients better, and more flexibly, and that’s why we talk about being out of the ordinary,’ Mr Titi said.

‘It is when you have dealt with a client and they feel “wow”, and it’s a good experience for them that really matters.’

This has become so embedded in the South African bank that staff have been known to leave their offices and go to clients who have lost their credit cards and were unable to pay to get out of the car park.

That’s a far cry from the norm of having to choose various options over the phone and not receiving immediate help.

Investec celebrated the opening of its new St Helier premises in style PICTURE: Andy Le Gresley (35335313)

This is all part of what Investec calls a high-tech/high-touch approach which aims to balance the use of technology with the personal touch. That brings a private banking commitment of care to every service it provides, and is intended to encourage a lifetime of engagement, not just an individual transaction.

‘Chief executives worry about return and costs, but the kind of mindset we want is to do right by our clients and do that long term, as well as doing right by your colleagues, live in society appropriately, reduce harm and do good if we can. If you do all that, the returns will be the consequence or perhaps the reward,’ Mr Titi said.

This means that difficult decisions about taking on business from some clients become much easier, as the bankers look beyond the profit that the deal can produce to what good it could do in creating enduring worth, which is not necessarily the same thing.

In support of this approach, Mr Titi references the Italian fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli, a shoe designer who donates 20% of his profits to a charitable foundation.

He talks about the concept of a fair profit and believes that if this exceeds a certain ratio then he is either underpaying his staff or polluting the environment or he is not paying the right taxes.

‘This is similar to our concept of purpose in that our role is not just to achieve the highest return, but to be impactful to our clients, impactful for our colleagues and make sure we don’t destroy the environment, but instead do good,’ Mr Titi commented.

‘We are an ethical operator in society and, of course, from time to time, we will fall short of those ideals, but we will learn from that. The model of aiming for long-term success is much better, and I think capitalism as a whole has more of a chance of progressing in that way. I mean, I come from Africa, so a number of governments already think that the business sector is an enemy but our business can provide a much better informed self-interest.’

Having a South African base opens up many opportunities for the bank on the African continent, which many see as a new powerhouse globally.

Mr Titi pointed out that the young population would expand and that would build on the significant progress in health and education.

‘Africa in the long term remains attractive and we are very well represented in South Africa and we support a number of our clients as they do business on the continent,’ he said. ‘Africa has much to promise but there are significant governance issues as well. Our strategy is to do most corporate and investment banking behind our clients but to put a lot of social infrastructure into countries like Ghana and the west coast, while Kenya and the east coast are also interesting. Therefore, it’s a long-term prospect but in today’s investing, we follow our clients, particularly with investment and project banking and infrastructure.’

PICTURE: Andy Le Gresley (35335325)

At the moment, 55% of the group’s profits come from African operations anchored in South Africa and include a business in Mauritius. The remainder comes from the UK with the islands contributing considerably to the firm’s profitability.

‘We are still small, relatively, from a northern business perspective, but we can grow and our culture is entrepreneurial,’ Mr Titi said.

‘That gives us a sense of ownership and accountability in how we work with clients and how we serve them.

By the very nature of being entrepreneurial, there’s a high degree of ownership and a high degree of commitment because, as an owner, if you act like an owner and you walk into your home and there is something amiss you act immediately while others walk by.

‘Accordingly, we approach what we do for a client with that level of care and commitment, and we are long term in how we see the relationship.’

How successful this approach has been financially will be revealed in the annual report and accounts of Investec due out in May. But all the signs are promising, with customer deposits topping £40.5bn and funds under management of £59.6bn.

The group has had a presence in the Channel Islands since 1996, but Investec Bank (CI) was established in 2007 alongside a trust business.

According to the company’s Channel Islands chief executive, Brendan Stewart, the bank has the biggest private-banking lending team in the islands, lending more than anyone else, amounting to about £1.1bn, as shown on the balance sheet for March 2022.

Mr Titi said that the group had even moved to larger premises in Liberation House in Jersey, a site which he said was ‘bigger than they currently need because they can see growth coming from the Channel Islands’.

‘Even for our African clients, the Channel Islands is really an important jurisdiction. Tax is not the only driver of the attractiveness of a jurisdiction; it’s the overall regulatory infrastructure that is important. There’s this ability here around the custody and management of money which has been around for a long period of time, so I hope that the authorities here continue to nurture this unique financial infrastructure that exists because it is competitive,’ he said.

Not surprisingly, Investec’s new premises in Jersey, adorned with the work of local artists, reflects the importance the group places on growth.

Mr Titi said: ‘Although there’s a crisis out there, we believe in putting investment on the ground, making sure that our colleagues have a space that they love to come to, and our clients can come here and feel that we are making commitments to them in the long term.’

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