Capitec: onwards & upwards

The past year has, to put it mildly, been taxing for business leaders. But some, like Capitec’s Gerrie Fourie, have thrived on the challenge, as ELMARI RAUTENBACH discovers.

The face of Capitec’s CEO is framed on the laptop screen by a map of the world – a vintage poster covering almost the entire wall behind him – with a stack of craftwork boxes next to it. He laughs when he’s asked about his Microsoft Teams background. “Everyone wants to know about the map; ‘world domination’ and so on! But the study actually belongs to my wife, Reinie. I’d never needed one. I do my reading in our living room or in the car while my wife drives. So when Level 5 lockdown was announced, I kicked her out of her office,” he jokes. 

Capitec celebrates 20 years as a bank for all South African
Pictured here in front of the Capitec head office, CEO Gerrie Fourie says the bank’s adaptability enabled it to prosper in a pandemic year.

For a moment Gerrie Fourie’s face disappears as he rides backwards on his chair. It’s the weekend and he’s wearing a pinkish T-shirt and shorts – a throwback to the ‘leisure look’ introduced by working from home last year. He describes those few days at the office between President Ramaphosa’s announcement and the start of formal lockdown as intense. “We knew something was up. We met with BASA (the Banking Association South Africa), the National Treasury and the Reserve Bank. But nobody foresaw that it would happen so soon and at such short notice.” 

At home, the last day was one big rush. Gerrie asked his gym instructor at the last minute to organise an Assault Air Bike for him to buy – “I reckon it’s an investment” (he’s a keen mountain biker) – and his only child, Micke, now married but living close by, helped him stock up on basics at the local Spar.

Capitec celebrates 20 years as a bank for all South African
Mountain biking is his favourite way to relax. Here he’s with riding mates (from left) Poens Venter and Freddie Kirsten, and (right) Jaco van der Walt.

“We’re very protective of my wife’s health. She had a kidney transplant a few years ago and we didn’t want to expose her to the virus. The funny thing is that grocery shopping with my daughter became one of the highlights I looked forward to during that time. Me, who has always hated shopping!”

Talking to Gerrie, two things become clear: he’s surprisingly easy to deal with if one takes his position and workload into account. And he radiates a very clear and uncluttered sense of purpose. Maybe it’s thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit for which he credits his father. Or to do with the original meaning of the Dutch name he shares with his grandfather: Metselaar, which means ‘bricklayer’.

In the office environment, however, he’s known to be hands-on and not one to suffer fools. Often heard around the executive committee are his “If the same problem is flagged more than once, take action” or “Go ahead, make the call”. 

Marisa van der Merwe, the PA Gerrie shared with two other executives after he became Capitec’s CEO in 2014, remembers the healthy lunch his wife would pack him, needing only a minute or two in the microwave. “But time and again, I would find him standing in his office between meetings, eating his lunch right there, cold.”

Capitec celebrates 20 years as a bank for all South African
Gerrie speaking at the 2010 Capitec branch managers conference.

He’s also a man who firmly believes in the power of positive thinking, something else he learnt from his father. 

“In February last year, I was still having long debates with our business support centre (BSC) team about the call centres working from home. The Russian bank Tinkoff operates completely digitally. But the BSC’s feedback at the time was it could not be done. A few weeks later, there we were, everybody, working from home in a completely new work environment. If you’d told me a year ago that one could run a bank from the sidelines, quite frankly, I would have laughed at you.”

Recollecting the past financial year, Gerrie says he’d describe it as one of two halves: March to August, and September to February. “In March and April, our focus was Covid-19. We spent hours and hours trying to understand it. From July we asked how do we grow the business, and from September we focused on implementing the new strategy.

“The uncertainty of those first few weeks was for me the biggest issue. You don’t have a clue what you’re dealing with. You have a whole new set of rules and regulations to follow. You have to talk through them, understand them, communicate them to your staff. 

“My three rules for uncertain times are: communicate strongly and constantly; make decisions, don’t hesitate; if a decision is wrong, correct it. And as a CEO, don’t stress. If you do, keep it to yourself. If you explode, move on, we’re only human. It’s all about keeping the team together and keeping them focused.”

On the operations side, Capitec created flexibility by moving high-risk branch staff and staff from less busy areas to the support centre. “By July 2020, there were at least 380 to 390 employees with completely new positions,” Gerrie says. They communicated 24/7 with clients – “It cost a small fortune!” And when it was time to relook at strategy and rebudget, he told the managing team, “Go in and go hard – sny hard en sny klaar – so that we can finish this and focus on the business.”

Capitec celebrates 20 years as a bank for all South African
On site during construction of the new head office in Techno Park.

It was, he says, the right thing to do. “Our approach of being agile the whole time, adjusting the whole time, worked. We launched no fewer than six new products during a difficult time, expanded our digital offering and continued opening and reconfiguring our branches. What worked in our favour in 2020 is that our managers – and employees – are change-fit. If your staff understand the ‘why’ of what they need to do, change is not a problem.”

Gerrie has fond memories of how he and Carl Fischer, former executive: marketing and corporate affairs, in the early years used to crack open a bottle of white late on a Friday afternoon. “Then the two of us would debate client understanding, strategies, launching and closing brands and production sites at will, sometimes with the rest of the financial team. It kept us on our toes.”

What the pandemic highlighted for him more than anything is that when you’re focused and you rope in everyone else to focus, you execute extremely fast. “There’s a saying that if a plan is 80% there and executed with a vengeance, you’ll be more successful than with a plan that’s 100% thought-through but executed slowly. As a team, we had an enemy, but we had a goal too, and we wanted to reach that goal.”

Capitec is one of the brightest stars in the banking industry today. In a recent update, it announced that its profits for the six months to 31 August would surge by some 500% as it bounces back from the extraordinary hit to its performance from Covid-19 during the same period last year. Winning awards has become synonymous with the brand, like being rated Best Bank in the World in 2016 and repeating the achievement in 2017. 

That is what counts, says Gerrie. Not the awards themselves, but winning most of them repeatedly, such as the South African Customer Satisfaction Index in the banking category. “It shows consistency and vigilance, as opposed to becoming arrogant or complacent.”

In the next five years, the team is aiming to reach 200 000 business banking accounts, having acquired Mercantile Bank in 2019; and for the retail bank, 20 million clients. With this kind of growth, it’s vital not to lose sight of the fundamentals the bank was founded on and to maintain a culture of greatness.

And there the key word for Gerrie is ‘differentiation’. “In other words, how do you distinguish yourself from the next person? As Jim Collins wrote in his book, Good to Great, good is the enemy of great. 

It’s not good enough to say your service is better because it’s offered with a smile. Everyone does that. You need to be unique. And to be unique you need to specify or quantify why you’re better. Say that our service is five minutes faster per client than the next bank branch. It’s a mindset to challenge yourself to do that continuously. After all, Capitec is a performance-driven company.

“If you look at our product range, you may think ours is a simple business. But we understand the business in exacting detail. We know what happens in every division on a day-to-day basis. That is why we understand our 16 million clients’ details so well. That is why we keep coming up with unique solutions. We measure everything.” 

Capitec celebrates 20 years as a bank for all South African

Let’s Build a Bank

Published by Tip Africa Publishing

This year Capitec celebrates 20 years as a bank for all South Africans. To mark the milestone, the company asked Tip Africa, publisher of Stellenbosch Visio, to produce a commemorative book. In it, Elmari Rautenbach tells the story of Capitec’s journey from start-up to award-winning bank through the voices of those who experienced it. A keepsake and inspiration for the future.

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