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‘A Terrible Time To List A Bank’

You could accuse Michiel le Roux of doing things simply but never easily. He saw money in serving the people at the far end of the banking counter but had the misfortune to launch in the eye of a banking storm.

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On this Thursday afternoon, in Stellenbosch, a small university town, east of Cape Town, the sky is blue and the air crisp. In the gentle light, dressed in khaki pants and a checkered blue shirt, he doesn’t look much like a multimillionaire but Michiel le Roux has done for banking what Bill Gates did for software and Muhammad Ali for boxing. He has created a bank that in 15 years has forced its way into the top five in South Africa. He wears his $530-million net worth lightly, but behind the smile and humility, is a hint of power with a firm handshake that means business.

“We said let’s build a bank and we were not going to experiment on a small scale, we always stayed very close to our clients and we knew what we wanted to bring to the industry,” says Le Roux.

About a decade ago, few deposited their salaries into Capitec, most had never heard of it. Today, Capitec has over 7.3 million active clients, 720 branches, 11,440 employees and holds R13.7 billion ($1 billion) in shareholders’ funds. For Capitec, simplicity is everything.

“When I was young, everyone was a Sir in the corporate industry and I hated it. There is a woman here who used to serve tea when we started and she couldn’t get herself to call me Michiel so she called me Mr Michiel,” he laughs.

“Here, there is no distinction between people. Nobody flies business class. How you fly, where you stay, the rental car you drive is the same whether you are the CEO or the junior in the company. Everyone gets the same treatment.”

There is a business reason for this.

“After the army, I worked at a company I thought was a very smart company but there was too much hierarchy. I found it very awkward and terrible. [Imagine] you have meetings out of town and you wait for your flight with your colleagues and you chat while you wait; then in the plane you sit in front and they all pass you to go sit at the back. I find it very stupid. The natural thing is to continue talking,” he says.

At Capitec, they take simple seriously. No suits, the CEO’s office is the same size as everyone else’s, the CEO shares a personal assistant, no personalized parking spots, even the guard at the gate calls him Michiel, while the receptionist jokes freely about his sense of style — or lack thereof.

This simplicity and business acumen has made Le Roux a rich man; the 38th richest in Africa to be exact, according to FORBES. In just 15 years, this fortune has grown rapidly. It has nearly doubled from around $290 million in 2011.

Capitec had big friends early on, on the other side of Stellenbosch. One of the earliest and biggest was PSG Group, an investment holding company, owned by former FORBES AFRICA cover, Jannie Mouton, who is worth $970 million. One day PSG called Le Roux to listen to what they had to say; he believes this was an attempt to lure him into its micro-lending business.

“I said I am not interested, this is not the type of business I want to be involved in because it’s a terrible business; they charge exorbitant interest rates. Those were the old pin and card days. When you wanted a cash loan, they would take your card and your pin number and they would withdraw whatever you owed and then give the card back to you. It sounded, and still sounds, terrible,” says Le Roux.

PSG convinced him to visit their branches and he was fascinated by how the micro-lending company treated its clients. According to Le Roux, in banking, the lower income consumers in South Africa were poorly treated, but not by PSG.

“A bank always determines the value of the client based on their net worth which to this stage in my mind doesn’t make sense because a guy with high net worth might be very frugal with the use of his credit card whereas a guy with a much lower net worth might be exorbitant with his credit card use. The guy that is exorbitant should be much higher in the rankings but banks don’t look at it that way.”

“If you are a factory worker and earn very little, they were not that interested in you and that to me was a failure on banks not accommodating the lower income people,” he says.

In this, Le Roux saw a gap. He was bored at work and he decided to build a bank that would right these wrongs. He joined forces with PSG Group.

Before the bank was called Capitec, it was called Daxacom.

“We had about three branches that we put up and put on the logos and when we looked at it, it didn’t work. We had many other names but I am ashamed to say them,” he chuckles.

Le Roux says it took a long time to find the right name because they didn’t want a name that reflected they specialized in servicing lower income groups.

“We didn’t want to call it people’s bank for example, if anything, we wanted something that sounds modern and as if it could have been an electronic bank only, although we are also a physical bank.”

Capitec won. The next problems were timing, licensing and money.

According to Le Roux, there was a small banks crisis just before they opened. Timing was not of the essence.

“In the late 90s, South Africa granted a number of new banking licenses and as far as I know, that was the last time they granted new banking licences. Most of those banks folded quickly. A bank called The Business Bank, which was about three to four years old, folded and PSG took them over and we sort of bought the license through taking over a failed bank. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know if we could ever have got a license,” he says.

As Capitec was about to launch, Saambou Bank, one of South Africa’s significant players in the industry, went bankrupt. It was a very public collapse that did the image of banking no good at all. Lines of people appeared on TV news desperate to get their money out.

“The Reserve Bank closed them on a Saturday to minimize the impact on the markets and we listed Capitec Bank Holdings Ltd on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on Monday, 18 February, 2002, the week later. That was a terrible time to list a bank and it also meant it was a terrible time to get finance whatsoever. I know I sound like an old man saying you learn from your mistakes but it’s true. Starting a business in good times is always very dangerous because you will think business is easy when the wind is blowing from behind and the sailing is smooth. When you start with wind blowing from ahead, then you know business is tough and you grow,” says Le Roux.

To survive when others failed wasn’t easy.

“It’s a hard slog to create the infrastructure, to network, to decide what you want to do. We take pride in the fact that at that stage, when we were also starting, Old Mutual had a retail banking license and they wanted to start a retail bank. They were looking for systems when we were looking for systems and the rumour mill had that they paid out R800 million ($60 million) for their system and that was when the rand was about R4 to the dollar but they never opened that bank because they couldn’t make it work.”

Capitec kept it cheap and simple.

“Other banks use systems that are designed for them which means that they have to maintain that; when the coders that wrote that leave, you are left with a gap. We made right calls because we had a good management team and we had a good management team because we hired the right people when we started. We don’t spend where there is no need,” he says.

Persistence and good planning helped them survive.

“We have been creating new branches but we try to be creative in the way we do that, we don’t over invest in a branch, we don’t build a branch, we don’t have specialized buildings and we don’t own a single branch, we lease all of them so we have the ability to cut back in future if things change.”

Although they want everything to be digital, they want to keep branches open for their clients.

“Our clients like the one-on-one interaction. In January, 6.7 million people came into the branches. It means, on average, our clients visit a branch at least once a month. Most importantly everything should be done on mobile. We suspect that is the future of banking but we are not quite sure what it’s going to be,” says Le Roux.

While other banks turn a blind eye to South Africa’s “unbanked” or “unbankable”, Capitec has made these customers their market. Over time, Capitec slowly transformed its micro-lending clients, who mainly relied on it for loans, into transactional banking clients who deposit their salaries and manage their transactions through their Capitec accounts.

International banking advisory group Lafferty has ranked Capitec Bank as the best bank in the world in its inaugural 2016 Bank Quality Rankings. According to the report’s findings, Capitec came out on top, with the only five-star rating out of the 100 banking groups listed. In South Africa, Barclays comes second with four stars, while Nedbank, Standard Bank and First Rand have three stars. Lafferty uses a combination of financial and non-financial disclosures in the latest annual reports to determine the quality of the organizations and their respective business models.

“South Africa’s Capitec was the only bank to achieve five stars. The bank has a level of focus, geographically and strategically, which boosted its scores across all of the metrics in the ratings process,” says the report.

Capitec is giving South Africa’s banking industry a run for its money. Michael Lafferty, Chairman at Lafferty Group, says it’s because its founders understand their customers’ needs and they developed an innovative strategy and business model aimed at addressing those needs better than the established players. He says the best quality banks in the world are found in South Africa.

“Capitec is doing well because of its focus on the consumer… We only found two or three banks in Europe that were near to the top quality rating we saw and only one in the United States. There is something remarkable about South African banks,” says Lafferty.

That focus on the consumer is also visible in Capitec’s decision to open on Sundays. In 2011, according to reports, Capitec’s marketing and corporate affairs executive, Carl Fischer, said the idea has always been to operate like a retailer as a lot of people went to malls over the weekends.

Many people sing the praises of Capitec. But, says Le Roux, you can ignore your competition in other industries, but not in banking.

“If you bank with Standard Bank and I convince your friend to open an account with Capitec and you want to pay money to your friend, your bank must be prepared to pay money to Capitec. If you use a Capitec card and you are in a restaurant and they have a Nedbank machine they must cooperate. We all have to be in agreement and work together.”

Banking is a tough industry. Capitec’s closest rival, African Bank, collapsed in August 2014 as bad debt soared and the lender failed to increase provisions.

“When African Bank went bankrupt, it was terrifying. We thought African Bank were over optimistic with their credit assessments but we thought they were a big strong company. When they closed their doors it practically felt like a funeral. If they can sink, anyone can sink,” says Le Roux.

Capitec however was much more conservative. They set aside cash to cover bad debts and stuck to strict budgets.

The globally-awarded retail bank increased its active client numbers by 1.03 million, to a total of 7.3 million for the year to 29 February, 2016. This bolstered headline earnings to R3.2 billion ($234 million) for the financial year ended February 2016, up 26% on the previous year. Net transaction fee income increased by 16% to R3 billion ($220 million), the value of credit advanced increased by 25% year on year to R24.2 billion ($1.7 billion) for the 2015/16 financial year.

Capitec Bank CEO, Gerrie Fourie, on its website, says the brand acceptance continues to grow substantially in the market and there has been a 26% growth in total retail deposits to R37.8 billion ($2.7 billion).

“We are excited about the continued growth in client numbers and in particular the higher income clients who are finding our offer the best value in the market, which is an important consideration for consumers in the current economic climate,” says Fourie.

As rivals hobbled through two banking crises, Capitec sailed through. The advantage, says Le Roux, is that they thought big from the beginning.

For Le Roux, confidence in yourself and the belief that you can achieve something is the starting point and not money. He says many young potential entrepreneurs see the lack of money as an excuse.

“Money is a valid problem but the bigger problem is management and getting the right people to do the job. We started, knowing it was going to be a difficult journey. At one stage during the founding phases, we reduced the rates we charged for loans by about 40 percent. That meant we had to do 40 percent more loans to break even. To do 40 percent more loans, you need 40 percent more capital and it took about four months before we came to that point where we had 40 percent. In the first month, we made a loss, and in the second, we ran out of money. We had to put our own cash into the company but we knew that if the boat doesn’t turn next month, we won’t have any more cash,” he says.

They also had Riaan Stassen; Capitec’s pioneering CEO from 2004 to 2013. Stassen has been friends with Le Roux for years and served as the Managing Director of Boland PKS from 1997 to 2000, a division of BoE Bank Limited.

“Riaan is a very smart guy. I believe he built Capitec Bank. If I may claim some role, I would claim that I had a dream of creating a bank and Riaan made that a reality. He actually made a different reality. My vision was that we should be a bank for low income people, for instance, to my shame, I must admit that at that stage I said we should have books. Riaan laughed and said ‘you are crazy; we are in the electronic age’. He said ‘we are going to build an electronic bank for the new age and not for low income people but for everyone’ and that’s what we have done.”

As a travel enthusiast, Le Roux wanted to take Capitec across Africa, but, he says the longer they are in business, the more the dream recedes. Emerging market countries such as Brazil, Chile, Turkey or Poland are preferred.

“We don’t think Africa is a natural habitat for Capitec Bank, we are based on a digital financial environment, our client base are more salaried people and if we go into [for example] Zambia only 10 percent of the population earn a decent salary  and most of the people are [in the informal sector]. Even Nigeria is a tough country, it’s not like they have a massive urban digital employed population. We could do business there but we will have to redesign our products,” says Le Roux.

As we leave, the fiery red ball is dipping towards the mountain. This sun may be setting but it seems Capitec is just rising.

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