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The true value of agility in the land of the giants

20 October 2020 Grant Field, CEO of Fedgroup

Fedgroup proves being small is a distinct advantage in an ever-changing world

2020 will go down in history as the year when businesses around the world, big and small, local and international, had to pivot from the status quo to ensure basic survival. The onset of COVID-19 forced the pace of business to change, whether it was welcomed or not. It’s also clear that those who were already in a position to make fast decisions, embrace innovation and harness creativity were able to adapt and even show growth and profit through globally recognised difficult times.

In a post-COVID-19 world, top-heavy management, poor employee communication as well as rigid structures and processes can cripple the decision-making structure within a business. Through 30 years of a history rich with not only changing the status quo but forging it, we have used our learnings to instil a culture of agility and implement changes with speed, as we, our clients and our industry evolved. As Fedgroup, we’ve seen the true value of creating vehicles that break traditional investment models by removing layers that create confusion for our clients.

Back in the day, Fedgroup was one of the first financial services providers to embrace modern information technology. When other companies were still sending cheques to their clients (that took weeks to process and clear), we were the first to make digital payments – and in doing so, we shortened the payment cycle and completely changed the way we did business.

Not being listed on a stock exchange fosters this flexibility of thinking and ideation. Without having to subscribe to a complex bureaucratic system, we can make the best decisions for our business, clients and the future growth of the company. The technology we employ to run our business gives us real-time data that enables us to make quick, informed decisions.

When Fedgroup’s founder, John Field, started the company 30 years ago, it was unheard of for a private company to operate in the financial services space. Only large and trusted companies received the relevant licences. To comply, he sold two-thirds of the company to Fedsure. When Investec took over Fedsure in 2000, John used his pre-emptive rights to buy the remaining healthy part of the business and so started Fedgroup’s journey to become a transparent, unpretentious financial services company run on strong values, such as responsibility, integrity, transparency, open communication and hard work.

Like the story of David and Goliath, in which Goliath was naturally the presumed winner, there is an unspoken expectation that big banks, insurers and financial players can never topple – they are simply ‘too big to fail’, as the saying goes. But, ironically in the case of Fedsure, the big, trustworthy company that was supposed to survive, collapsed – while a small part of the business that became privately owned in 2000, grew exponentially. This proved that being part of a big organisation is not necessarily a guarantee of success. Small businesses can always find new and better ways of doing things in a far shorter amount of time, as a result of the flexible mindset being a part of a smaller company allows.

That said, walking away from a big, listed company structure came with its own set of challenges for Fedgroup. I joined the company in 2002 to help revamp the IT infrastructure which, at that time, consisted of a few computers, a basic network and fax machines. My first point of action was to build a server, get everyone on email and create a website. This was a time when email wasn’t the default in financial services.

With an IT background, I knew that technology would allow better visibility into client needs and a view of how well employees are delivering on a product or service. After spending months analysing every aspect of the business and talking to every employee when I first started, I came to understand that Fedgroup needed a new approach that would grow our business and, even more importantly, find better ways to meet customer needs.

In particular, I saw the need for a bespoke IT platform that could provide constant measurements to arm employees with information and that would enable them to get things done. Fedgroup started developing our in-house system – Azurite – that today monitors and runs every aspect of the business from logging calls to managing pay-outs. As CEO, I’m able to get a brief overview of the services being levelled by Fedgroup by simply looking at one of the dashboards in our building, which measure metrics like missed phone calls or unresolved issues and queries. Through this system, we have been able to change the turnaround time of getting quotes to clients from ten days to just one hour.

This is the agility about which many companies talk, but which few achieve.

One of the biggest challenges large companies face is that of synergy: different managers and directors are usually only in charge of their specific areas, and communication between divisions is usually stilted. This inhibits growth and encourages people to stay and think inside the box. I can say with the utmost confidence that Fedgroup values innovation and communication in all aspects of the company. Some of our people call us the ‘engineers’ of the financial services industry because we constantly seek new ways to grow our customers’ investments and, in turn, our business.

Re-investing back into our business has always been central to the way we do things, and 30 years down the line, Fedgroup’s offering has grown from only Participation Bonds to now include pension and provident funds, a life company, trusts, commercial property finance, asset management, as well as other investment products like Impact Farming.

I believe that, through our agility and ability to question the norm, we represent the future of financial services, in a land of ever-growing giants. I look forward to Fedgroup’s next 30 years of bucking the traditional system.

Quick Polls

QUESTION

ASISA’s lobbying of the SARB to suspend Circular 15, which contained significant changes to foreign exchange controls. What is your take on this accusation?

ANSWER

[a] ASISA was right to seek clarity on Circular 15
[b] Large asset managers are conflicted & will suffer financially if Circular 15 stands
[c] Savers get enough exposure to offshore assets under existing Reg 28
[d] Who cares?
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