Maria Ramos, outgoing Absa CEO

  • Maria Ramos has announced she will retire from Absa in a month and there's no full-time successor in place.
  • This suggests President Cyril Ramaphosa has a serious job for the outgoing bank CEO: perhaps even as the new head of SARS.
  • Meanwhile, the next CEO of Absa may come from outside the group.

Maria Ramos’ successor at Absa will come from outside the group. Business Insider South Africa understands the person is yet to give notice to their current employer and may not be available to Absa for up to a year.

The announcement of Ramos’ retirement as she prepares for her 60th birthday, should have come as no surprise within the bank. She has been keen to step down from the demanding role since Barclays announced two years ago that it would be relinquishing control of the group. The board has up until now been able to convince her to stay.

It seems likely that she will return to government. Famously part of the team that chartered the course for the South African economy as director-general of National Treasury after the 1994 elections, she went on to run Transnet before joining Absa as its CEO a decade ago.

Ramos is ideally suited for a big fix-it job in government.

She has all the credentials, is used to working in hostile environments, and no matter which job she is asked to do, she is likely to take it on with gusto, regardless of how difficult it is. It’s the story of her career so far. There is no need to change the script.

It could not have been easy as the first woman DG of Treasury, a rank outsider and member of the ANC inner circle, to face down bureaucrats of the previous government when she arrived at Treasury.

Equally, the job at Transnet provided no soft landing and it was during that time that she managed to get the responsibility for SAA away from Transnet.

She also did not have an easy time as the first woman to become a Big Four bank CEO when she succeeded Steve Booysen as Absa CEO - much to the annoyance of insiders who believed they should have got the job.

At the time of her appointment I wrote a cover story for Finweek with the words: “Hospital Pass”, on the cover. It turned out to be precisely that. (At the time Ramos, not a rugby fan, was not familiar with the term and required it to be demonstrated by husband Trevor Manuel and his burly sons in the family home. She concurred later that it was an accurate descriptor of the environment she entered.)

She’s unlikely to return to Treasury or Transnet.

That would be regarded as a step back from her current role.

SARS, under the able leadership of long-time insider Mark Kingon as acting commissioner, is on the look out for a full-time head. Kingon has indicated his willingness to continue serving the revenue service regardless of whether he gets the top job, and would prove an invaluable ally to a reputable newcomer.

If I were a betting man, it is where I would put my money.

While Kingon is more than capable of taking on the job, President Cyril Ramaphosa may want to put an ANC stalwart with solid party credentials into a potentially fraught role. There is the added advantage that Ramos and Tito Mboweni have a long working relationship from his time at the Reserve Bank and he is likely to continue after the elections as Finance Minister with ultimate oversight of the revenue service.

In the meantime, former Nedbank executive René van Wyk will serve as the interim chief executive with effect from 1 March 2019. Van Wyk was seconded to the Reserve Bank as industry regulator about six years ago, and has been on the board of Absa as a non executive for two years.

Considering that the Banks Act requires a CEO of a large financial institution to have solid banking experience, you do have to wonder if the Absa board will be headed back to its interim CEO’s old stomping ground to find its new boss.

It’s a big possibility.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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