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The Warren Buffett Of Africa And His Harrowing Ordeal

Multi-millionaire Tony Elumelu has enjoyed a remarkable career as banker and entrepreneur. All the money and success in the world could not have prepared him for the shock that came knocking in April.

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Tony Elumelu is in his office on the corner of a serene Ikoyi street, not far from the bustling Obalende taxi and bus park, in the heart of Lagos. Documents are strewn across a large desk and he looks busy.

“I was in a meeting in this office when I got the call. The first thing I did was to call one of my brothers, to mandate him to take charge. In crisis management, the first thing you do is get somebody to take charge,” he says.

It was a call that everyone dreads. Kidnappers had snatched his 84-year-old mother, Suzanne, from her farm in the Delta State. Elumelu, realizing the futility of panic, strove to deal with the situation calmly. By all accounts, there was nothing frenzied about his actions in the days following the kidnapping.

I ask if he expected something like that to happen. His answer is instant and forceful: “Not at all!”

Elumelu sums up the incident as “a symptom” of the prevailing despair in the country. Nigeria’s security agencies “were very supportive,” he says.

It all ended well, she was rescued four days later, and arrests were made. The message from the Elumelu family on Facebook says it all.

“The family wishes to thank Nigerians and friends from around the world for the unprecedented outpouring of concern, solidarity, love and prayers during the harrowing ordeal. We are most grateful to the Federal Government, the Delta State Government and the respective law enforcement agencies for their professionalism, diligence and bravery which led to her rescue. At this time the family requests for privacy to spend time with Mama, and recover from the emotional wounds and anguish of the last few days.”

Persuading Suzanne Elumelu to move to the relative safety of Lagos doesn’t appear likely. Elumelu says his mother insists on staying in her village. At that age, he adds, it is essential for her to be where she feels at home.

As Elumelu and his family recover from this trauma, the coming months promise to be hectic for him. There are three new hotels to be built: two in Lagos, and one in Port Harcourt. This will increase the number of hotels owned by his Transcorp Group to five, in which he acquired a controlling stake in 2011 through Heirs Holdings, his investment firm.

Then, there is the goal of taking over the entire import market for fruit juice concentrate by 2013. Elumelu says that until the opening of Transcorp’s manufacturing plant—the agri-business subsidiary run as Teragro Limited—in Benue last March, Nigeria imported all of its concentrate, costing the economy close to $1 billion every year. Teragro also plans to build fertilizer plants in Delta State.

There are also the two oil blocks, one owned by Transcorp, the other by Heirs Holdings. He expects that by 2013 both oil blocks would have gone into production. And then there is the power plant Transcorp is bidding for, under the Nigerian government’s privatization program. For this, the company has gone into partnership with US energy firm, Symbion Power. When the deal is done, Elumelu says the goal will be to increase the plant’s capacity from the current 300MW to 1,200MW.

Elumelu is a champion of the private sector and its role in redeeming Nigeria and Africa. Regarding the insecurity in Nigeria, he chooses to focus on how the private sector, by providing employment, can help create a less combustible environment.

“Where there’s hope people do not take to violence. Where there’s no hope people become vulnerable,” he says.

His story is by now a well-known one. In 1997, a group of investors acquired the distressed Crystal Bank Limited, and rebranded it Standard Trust Bank (STB). Thirty-three-year-old Tony Elumelu, who until then was executive director at Continental Trust Bank Limited, was appointed CEO of the new institution. Over the next few years he grew it into Nigeria’s fifth largest bank. In July 2004, the Nigerian Central Bank governor, Charles Soludo, announced a series of banking reforms, with the goal of creating larger, more robust banking institutions in Nigeria.

Elumelu led Standard Trust Bank into a merger (in Soludo’s words, “the first successful merger during the banking consolidation”) with the older and larger United Bank of Africa (UBA), and took over as CEO of the new entity, which adopted the UBA name.

Nuhu Ribadu, former chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, recalls it as being the “gutsiest news of the year”. The merger was completed in 2005, and a year later the Elumelu-led UBA became the first Nigerian bank to hit a N1 trillion ($6.3 billion) balance sheet mark. The ‘whizkid’ had come a long way from the modest beginnings at STB—which had a N5 billion ($31.7 million) balance sheet in 1998.

The UBA phase was destined to wind up as it had started—on the strength of a policy pronouncement by the Central Bank (CBN). In January 2010 the new Central Bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, introduced a new rule stipulating that bank CEOs would have to retire once they had clocked ten years in office. Elumelu was in his 13th year as CEO—eight years at STB, five at UBA—so, at the relatively young age of 47, Elumelu was going to have to step away from the business in which he had made his name and fortune; from a bank he’d grown into a pan-African brand, with more than 800 branches in 18 African countries, and $19 billion in assets.

Two days after the CBN policy announcement, UBA named Tony Elumelu’s successor, becoming the first of the banks to realign. He recalls people telling him he was too young to quit, wondering what he would do with his life. He was the youngest of that set of CEOs to retire.

“But looking back,” he tells me, “there couldn’t have been a better time to start a second journey.” And thus began the second life of Tony Elumelu.

It has been almost two years since Elumelu left banking. I ask him to assess the bank he left behind. I’m especially interested in what he thinks about its 2011 results—the bank posted dismal results: a pre-tax loss of N28.5 billion ($180.8 million); the result of debt write-offs.

“Last year UBA decided to clean up its balance sheet … This has been demonstrated on the first quarter results,” he says

UBA posted, for the first quarter of 2012, N16 billion ($101.5 million) pre-tax profits, a 233% increase from the corresponding period last year. And its share price has more than doubled over the last month.

“Africa is beginning to contribute to the [UBA] bottom line. Africa contributed over 20% of the [first quarter 2012] profit. The harvest period is here.” UBA Ghana, he adds, currently generates profits of “close to $3 million monthly”.

He sees a bright future; referring to a new Standard & Poor’s’ report that predicts a rise in GDP across several African countries.

“UBA operates in almost all the countries they mentioned,” he says.

There is an air of ruthless efficiency around Tony Elumelu—deducible, not merely from his rise in less than a decade from relative obscurity to a prominent place in the engine room of the Nigerian banking industry; but the sculpted jawline, and the flawless, understated cut of his suit. The credit for his fitness should go to the gym, not the golf course. He’s that rare type of CEO—the non-golfing one. And no doubt this is a man obsessed with getting things done—no fuss, no excuses. Just like Michael Jackson.

“If you saw Jackson’s last movie, This Is It, you saw a man who was so detailed and meticulous,” he says.

“He believed in hard work”—at this point his voice takes on greater forcefulness—“Look at the amount of practice, energy; everything he put into that show!”

In a country where all sorts of stories circulate about the personalities of corporate CEOs, the no-excuses-acceptable Elumelu would be lucky to escape unscathed. A hint of this may be gleaned from a tribute to him written when he was leaving UBA, and published in a hefty coffee-table book, The Power of Vision. “Sadly, he is misrepresented publicly as being an arrogant and hard person,” writes Owen Omogiafo, who worked as his executive assistant at UBA, and now works as director of resources at Elumelu’s Heirs Holdings.

One underlying theme in the tributes in The Power of Vision is the idea of Elumelu as a people-person.

“Talents I don’t have, I don’t regret; I surround myself with people who have them,” he says.

During the interviews he comes across as sober and soft-spoken, with tendencies  for much chuckling and laughter. A member of staff tells me one of the things she’s realized about him is how close he is to his family—his wife, Awele, and their five daughters. In the time I spend with him, sitting in on a meeting of senior management, and then interviewing him (twice), his mischievous, self-deprecating sense of humor shines through. When I ask him what talent he wishes he had, he says: “I think I’m very shy, but people don’t think so.”

On July 31, 2010, at the farewell party organized in Lagos to mark his retirement, Elumelu said: “As I retire from UBA following the regulatory pronouncement, a question has come up in the minds of so many of you here; what’s next for Tony Elumelu? I would like to share that with you today. I have two passions—entrepreneurship and philanthropy.”

Thus, were born Heirs Holdings, his investment company, and The Tony Elumelu Foundation, a non-profit organization keen to redefine philanthropy in Nigeria and abroad. In Elumelu’s words they were intended to “develop business excellence and leadership in Africa.” He shares the vision behind the transition.

“Upon my retirement from UBA it was a question of ‘beyond business’. I tell people I was born in Africa, bred in Africa, schooled in Africa, worked in Africa, still work in Africa, and achieved some level of financial and economic comfort in Africa, from Africa to—so you ask yourself, what’s next? What’s next for me is: I’d like to create more Tony Elumelus. If, due to our entrepreneurial drive we’ve been able to create 25,000 jobs, if we had 10 or 100 people like me, multiply 25,000 jobs by 100, it’s more impact. To me those are more sustainable and impactful ways of helping society than just donating money.”

Embarking on such a journey, he looked to the example of Warren Buffett.

“I decided, okay, it’s time to build a holding company that will monitor our investments in companies we’ve invested in. What we do here at Heirs is slightly patterned after Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett is a very astute and serial investor. I like his business sense. When it’s time to give back to society he’ll give, but time for business is business; they are two different things.”

From the “lean” nature of Heirs Holdings to its “highly strategic” approach to investing, imprints of the Buffett DNA are evident.

Joining Michael Jackson and Buffett, in Elumelu’s personal pantheon, is the man who’s arguably the most famous contemporary second actor—stepping down from running one of the world’s most successful companies to devote his life to philanthropy: Bill Gates.

“He changed the world to a large extent, and upon retirement—he also knew when to leave—he decided to give back to society. The learning point, for me, from Bill Gates is that this is a world of infinite possibilities.”

Leaving UBA freed him up to expand his perspective.

“UBA’s life was extremely busy but industry-focused: just on UBA and banking. And I was at UBA, more like, at operational level.”  But now, it’s a different type of life—more of a strategic life, looking at bigger pictures and interests,” he says.

Now he has a lot more speaking engagements within and outside Nigeria. Most recently, in April, there were appearances and speeches in Washington, D.C.: at the International Finance Corporation headquarters; the Global Philanthropy Forum Annual Conference and a meeting of the World Bank Group Advisory Council of Global Foundation Leaders.

I’m curious to know how things would have worked out had he not left UBA when he did. From the readiness of his answer, it’s clear that it’s something he has thought about.

“If I didn’t leave UBA when I did, two things would have happened: one; I’d still have continued to see life from that micro-perspective, and think this is just everything about life—competition… But today one has transcended to a different level where you look at your business interests, you look at mankind, you look at society, you look at the interplay of societal forces that shape the system, the economy of the country, the continent. You’re looking at advocacy, trying to make sure there’s good governance because good governance brings economic prosperity and social wealth. You’re also trying to do good; to give back to society in a more impactful way, to mentor others…”

Again and again Elumelu sounds like a business professor addressing a class. Words and phrases like “sustainable”, “impacting”, “good/better society”, “good governance”, “full potential” crop up regularly.

When I ask him what he would title his autobiography, the motivational speaker within him takes over.

“I like to make people understand that there is no glass ceiling, that you are who you want to be; that if I can, you too can… I was not the most brilliant in school, and I also did not have all the resources growing up, to have everything I wanted. But I had a determination, I had a purpose, nothing in my life happened by chance… and I think people can become what they aspire to be.”

In the end we conclude that the phrase “glass ceiling” is likely to feature in the title of the book.

At our second meeting he deflects my attempts to get him to declare his net worth. “It’s not how much we’re worth but the amount of impact we make. Why boast that one is worth a certain amount when there’s so much poverty around. I will assess my wealth based on the [number of jobs] I create through my economic investments,” he says.

As the curtains rise onstage for act two, Elumelu joins a set of Nigerian CEOs and billionaires who are redefining the rules of the retirement game. Gone, it seems, are those days when, after quitting the roles that brought them to national prominence, CEOs settled for a life of sitting passively on company boards; playing golf; attending social functions; chairing book launches—and handing out scholarships to indigent students. More retiring Nigerian CEOs, it seems, are carrying C-suite thinking along with them into the retirement zone.

“We’ve had a trend in the past where it was more of donating monies to society, but I personally believe that this is not the age and time for that. Donations are good, but to a large extent we should do it in a way and manner that is sustainable, we should make it have more meaning and impact,” he says.

Given a choice between giving out a million dollars in scholarships, and using the money to fund advocacy that could positively influence the government’s education policy and help expand citizens’ access to education, he insists he’d settle for the former.

“It might not sound too populist, and people might not even appreciate what you’re doing, but indeed it has the most significant impact for society,” he says.

After laughing at my questions about the possibilities of a third phase, Elumelu is ready with an answer. I realize that he’s assumed, rightly, that I’m hinting at full-time politics.

“I believe that everyone cannot be a king, and at times, you know, kingmakers are more powerful. I think that I’m very content with this second phase, more so that I’m able to combine business with advocacy, in a manner that is sustainable,” he says.

He proceeds to lecture me on “natural human progression”.

“There’s the age of acquisition, after that [there’s the] age of social order, social wealth, happiness for all—you need to think of how you want to be remembered and [helped] change the system. There could also be a third phase of, ‘you know what, let’s go and do it, let’s get things done’, but I think one has to know one’s limitations, strengths and capabilities. So instead of all of us being involved in government, we can be outside and support the government to achieve growth and prosperity.”

Around the world bankers are prime candidates for the backlash against the excesses of capitalism. I ask about what it means to be a member of the “1%” (and I’m interpreting this loosely; hinting at the fact that he belongs to the moneyed class). He laughs, and then sets out his thoughts on the state of the world. He draws from foundational economics philosophy—the work of Lenin and Marx—to make his point.

Elumelu thinks governments should take the bulk of the blame for the global economic crisis.

“To a large extent we are failing to hold those we should hold accountable for what’s happening—the governments that have failed to either create the right environment, or to block the loopholes… I do not think that the world should be negative towards successful businesspeople. What is important is the kind of governance framework we put in place to make sure that successful people do not exploit those who are not so privileged.”

He is standing up for his capitalist constituency, but in this new phase of his life, the larger society counts just as much.

“Why is it important to companies that a country has a huge population and huge purchasing power, that income per capita is high?” he asks. “Because those are predisposing factors to good business—it means it is in our collective interest that people who are at the bottom of the pyramid are also able to afford certain things.”

That task—of reconciling the hard-nosed demands of the bottom-line with the interests and well-being of the pyramid-bottom—it seems to me, is what the second act of Tony Elumelu is all about. And he is going about it with the same passion, and intelligence, with which he built one of the largest banking institutions in Africa.

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Cover Story

Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.


On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.

Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.

Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.  

This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.

In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.

And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.

Nonkululeko Gobodo. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing

 As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.

Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.

Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”

As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.

“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”  

Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.

“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.

It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.

“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”

Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.

While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.

The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).

“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.

She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).

Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on. 

“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”

Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.

In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.

Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.

“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.

She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”. 

So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.

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 At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”

The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”

She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.

“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”

Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.

“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.

This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.

“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.

“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”

She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.

She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.” 

Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.

Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.

The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.

She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.

From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.

Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.

The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.

She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.

Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?

There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together.  A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left. 

In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.

Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff. 

“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”

When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.

Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.

“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”

 She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.

“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”

Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.

“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”

Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.

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Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’

What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?

“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.

“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.

“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.

“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”

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