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Big change at the top for diversified FS giant

22 June 2023 Gareth Stokes
Jeanette Marais

Jeanette Marais

A couple of weeks back, Momentum Metropolitan announced that Jeanette Marais would take over as its Group CEO, effective 1 August 2023, becoming the first female CEO of a large, listed life insurance and asset management group in South Africa. “Jeanette will succeed Hillie Meyer, who was appointed as Group CEO for a fixed term of five years in February 2018,” noted the official and unavoidably formal media release. Jeanette has overseen Momentum Investments, Momentum Distribution Services, Consult by Momentum and Momentum Money since her March 2018 appointment as Deputy CEO.

The right attitude ensures success…

Most of South Africa’s independent financial advisers (IFAs) will have interacted with Jeanette at some point during her career, which kicked off with a 10-year stretch at Momentum and then included executive management level roles at leading financial services brands like STANLIB, Old Mutual and Allan Gray; but you can read these statistics in the mainstream media. FAnews readers want to know more about the person who will soon take the helm at the diversified financial services brand. As Jeanette and I took our seats for a scheduled 45-minute interview, I jokingly asked whether she was tired of all the interview requests following the announcement. “Not at all,” she retorted, before offering some pointers on how having the right attitude makes all the difference. 

“I have worked so hard for this, especially through the gruelling [selection] process, that I have decided to stay in the moment and enjoy every part of the journey,” Jeanette said. And that includes making the best of every interview opportunity. What followed, dear reader, were some gems that each of us can apply in our personal and professional journeys: embrace your successes; live life in the moment; and, most importantly, love what you do. It is easy for the casual observer to dismiss Jeanette’s rise to the top as inevitable. And this writer was perhaps guilty of the same, having assumed that she was a ‘sure in’ to rise to the Group CEO position after having devoted five years to the Deputy CEO role. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

No such thing as a ‘sure in’ for CEO

“So, it was not like somebody called you up at your desk one day and said, oh, by the way, the position is yours?” the writer mused, going on a bit of fishing expedition. “The fact that I was Deputy CEO never signalled that I was the heir apparent; the Board made it abundantly clear from day one that Hillie’s replacement would go through a rigorous assessment and selection process”. How tough? we asked. So tough that Jeanette suggested it would be cruel to make anyone go through the process again after their first five years. 

Given South Africa’s context, it is inevitable that interviewees allow the gender and transformation narrative to dominate Jeanette’s appointment interviews. This writer pressed on the issue too, dear reader, but will cover these imperatives in more detail in a later piece. Until such time you will have to be content with Jeanette’s introductory remarks on the matter. “I did not get this job because I am a woman,” she said. “I have been appointed Group CEO of Momentum Metropolitan because I am the right candidate … it is a bonus that I am a woman”. The discussion quickly steered towards more business-centric criteria such as ambition, career progression, education and good old-fashioned hard work. 

Looking back at your first stint at Momentum back in 1990, did you ever think you would find yourself appointed as the CEO of one of the country’s largest life insurance and asset management groups? FAnews asked. And at what point in your career did you realise that you could go all the way? 

From Bloemfontein to financial services stardom

Jeanette said that in the early 1990s her main ambition was to make a career and life outside of Bloemfontein, and that she started working at Momentum out of necessity after her bursary linked employment at the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) fell through. The work environment was very different back then, and Jeanette pushed back against the occasional ‘note taking and tea making’ expectations that many women were subject to at that time with hard work and by grabbing any education or work opportunity that arose. “When an opportunity came up, I was ready for it and made the best of it,” Jeanette said. 

After leaving Momentum around 2000, she took a number of C-Suite appointments as MD, or director, or executive director  “The first time I realised that the role of CEO was a possibility for me was probably when I was the Executive General Manager at Old Mutual,” she said. “Later, at Allan Gray, I certainly had leadership ambitions but the opportunity to re-join Momentum presented itself and I happily accepted”. Five years later, in 2023, the decision to move back to her “spiritual home” has paid dividends. 

The Executive MBA opportunity of a lifetime

Education seems to be non-negotiable to make headway in today’s competitive corporate world. “The Executive MBA that I completed while at Allan Gray was the opportunity of a lifetime; I was in a room with 70 top global executives at one of the top business schools in the world,” Jeanette said, sharing that she had graduated top of the class. PS, the writer found it refreshing to chat with someone whose career and work ethic were custom-made for an executive level MBA programme; nowadays far too many employees struggle down the MBA route without the necessary career alignment. 

Cultural fit is important too, and the interview soon traversed some of the cultural differences at brands like Allan Gray, Old Mutual and Momentum. Jeanette was full of praise for her various employers; but never shied away from contrasting strengths with weaknesses. On Allan Gray: “An amazing place to work; a values-driven organisation that appoints employees based on values-alignment and expects them to self-govern”. On the flipside, decision-making processes at the asset manager were consensus-based and often time consuming. 

From an operational aspect, I asked Jeanette whether her Deputy CEO experience in distribution, financial planning and investments would prove adequate for the new oversight role over the product side of life and non-life insurance businesses, among other new operational areas. “The portfolio that I will look after from 1 August consists of various end-to-end businesses with their own Profit and Loss, distribution and CEOs; it is a very federal structure with clear reporting lines,” she said. “In essence, the role is to be a CEO of CEOs”. That said, it is clear that she takes the reins at a very difficult juncture in South Africa’s economic and political landscape. 

Running headlong into shed loads of trouble

The country is storming towards the 2024 national elections beset by a litany of crises including electricity supply constraints, lacklustre economic growth; runaway inflation and interest rates, and policy uncertainty (including the potential impact of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill and National Health Insurance Bill on the financial services sector). Jeanette acknowledged the challenging economic environment before advocating for an approach that focuses on critical factors within the business’ control. 

“The runway Momentum Metropolitan has and the opportunities we have for growth and for gaining market share are good enough for me not to lose sleep over; what worries me more is the economy and South Africans not being able to afford insurance,” Jeanette said. She added that she was unlikely to have the luxury of being a CEO that could sit back while the economy / market delivered growth. 

Given that FAnews was conducting the interview, there had to be some uplifting comment for South Africa’s hard-working financial and risk advisers; and Jeanette did not disappoint. “Our operational success hinges on our unwavering commitment to brilliant, sound financial advice and we remain committed to the survival of advice and the financial adviser,” Jeanette concluded. “The business is intricately linked to financial and risk advice as well as making sure that advice survives as a discipline; this is the optimal way to ensure that our clients achieve better financial outcomes”. 

Writer’s thoughts:

If you have concerns over whether Jeanette Marais will succeed in the tough Group CEO role, consider this: during her five-years as Deputy CEO, Momentum Investments grew normalised headline earnings from ZAR271 million to ZAR940 million, and value of new business from ZAR80 million to ZAR346 million. Please share your comment, congratulations or CEO-level tips below! Please comment below, interact with us on Twitter at @fanews_online or email us your thoughts editor@fanews.co.za.

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