Michael Jordaan still leading South African business

Sulaiman Philip

As a cadet officer at the Gordon’s Bay Naval Academy Dr Michael Jordaan, outgoing chief executive officer (CEO) at First National Bank (FNB) was trained in the art of pouring the perfect glass of port. He was also trained to time his departure from a party perfectly. A useful skill as it turns out for the 2013 Sunday Times Business Leader award winner.

Jordaan walks away from a bank that, under his leadership, has been crowned the most innovative bank globally, a pacesetter for using mobile technology in banking. He has also helped grow it into the second-largest retail bank in the country and the largest supplier of mobile devices – smartphone and tablets – in South Africa.

Tech-savvy Jordaan is not leaving FNB for a sedentary life on his Stellenbosch wine farm. He has accepted a non-executive position at South African social network and messaging service Mxit. He believes home-grown success stories like Mxit can show the way toward building a more diverse and stronger South African economy. Loathe to handpick industries that will grow in the future he argues, “The market will be the ultimate arbiter of how our economy will grow and diversify, but the kids growing up with companies like Mxit are comfortable with the devices and programming that will drive growth.”

Celebrate business achievements

Jordaan believes that government, with the assistance of business, needs to build the launch pad to improve South African competitiveness, especially in Africa. South African businesses are world class, as reflected by the recent World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report, and have the potential, he says, to lead Africa into an era of self-sufficiency. This is why he is a cheerleader for the country wherever he goes.

“For investors the risk-reward trade-off is good, governance is excellent and we have world-class skills in many industries. However we need to improve our education system to retain our place as the leading economy on the continent. Like every South African I love sport but there are times I wish we got as passionately excited about education as we do about sport.”

With more than 36 000 Twitter followers, Jordaan is comfortable sharing his opinion on a variety of subjects without the filter of a corporate communications team. Among his more contentious opinions is that Black Economic Empowerment needs to be amended and refreshed.

“Broad-based transformation and skills transfer has been a huge success but personally I am not a fan of those structures that benefitted a few well-connected individuals.”

“South Africa is in the unique position of having both high unemployment as well as a critical shortage of key skills so going forward I would like to see greater emphasis on job creation as a category of transformation.”

Jordaan served part of his banking apprenticeship under Paul Harris at Rand Merchant Bank where his role model tasked him with establishing an internet-based commercial bank. Without the infrastructure to make it viable the idea evolved into RMB Private Bank. Under Harris’s tutelage Jordaan learnt two valuable lessons; role models are important and business matters.

“We need to celebrate business achievement and accept that it can be a huge force for good. Business leaders need to give back by sharing insights and lessons, especially with entrepreneurs because small business is the driver of economic growth.”

His advice for entrepreneurs is to find a role model. They are, he says, the best tool for someone starting a business. They are a resource whose ability to help is built on experience. Business success however is built on passion.

“Be obsessive about your product or service. Don’t do it for the money. Surround yourself with great people and shower them with credit when they achieve. Leave your ego at home or better yet lose it altogether.”

Entrepreneurship and innovation breed success
FNB’s CEO describes himself as entrepreneurial at heart, and like all entrepreneurs his mind-set is: find a solution rather than fixating on the problem. This ethos has allowed FNB, in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry, to develop a model that allows a new business to open a bank account and complete the business registration within 24 hours as part of the same process. “Regulations are a way of life and many are well intended but I feel passionately that we should streamline the start-up process as much as possible. Small business can be the engine of growth but we need to remove obstacles, not set up hurdles.”

Innovation is at the heart of Jordaan’s success but it’s his management style that has allowed FNB staff to think beyond what is possible. Since 2004 the bank has run the FNB Innovators Programme to encourage lateral thinking. Accepting the BAI – Finacle award in 2012, Jordaan revealed that 8 166 innovative ideas were born as a result of the programme.

“The trick in life is to surround yourself with people who are better than you, agree the goal, then get out of their way. People are inherently good and want to achieve. Nine times out of ten they will surprise you with great outcomes as well as new ways of doing things.”

Jordaan finds it easier to not micromanage staff, believing that people who are allowed to find solutions without a manager looking over their shoulder helps build a stronger organisation. Interference, as he calls it, does not allow companies to use its employees’ skills.

“Mediocre people like being told what to do and exactly how to do it; great people want to work in an empowered environment.”          

As Jordaan steps away from his high-profile role toward new challenges he feels assured that he will find success. And if he does not, he believes there are lessons to be learnt in failure as well. A lack of success is just a different way of learning a lesson, he has explained in interviews.

Jordaan, who took over for one three-hour shift from Talk Radio 702 personality Redi Thlabi, while she was on maternity leave, embraces challenges that remove him from his comfort zone and would encourage every business leader to do the same.

“I enjoyed connecting with people who would not otherwise cross my path; things like Twitter break down all organisational boundaries. The most important lesson I have learnt is this: one learns nothing in the ivory tower and everything by connecting with South Africans from all walks of life.”