A Plucky David Banking On Beating Goliaths

Published 11 years ago
A Plucky David Banking  On Beating Goliaths

On March 1, 2001, a small bank opened in South Africa with the aim of providing easy and affordable banking services to its customers. Attracted by this alluring promise, in no time people were queuing up to open a Capitec account. Today, the bank has more than four million customers; clearly CEO Riaan Stassen’s move from the liquor industry to banking has been a fortuitous one.

Born in Cape Town, Stassen earned a Bachelor in Commerce Honors degree from the University of Stellenbosch. He then did his articles and CA qualification at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) before spending 14 years in the liquor industry.

The course of his career changed in 1995, when Stassen was asked to reengineer Boland Bank, a conservative regional bank established in 1900. After South African retail billionaire Christo Wiese bought Boland, it merged with Natal Building Society (NBS) and Board of Executors (BoE).


Stassen spent five years at BoE Bank, during which time he came up with a different banking concept: a retail bank for mid-to-lower income people. According to Stassen, the incumbent banks were failing in four areas: accessibility, affordability, simplicity and personal service. He left BoE with his management team and a goal to succeed where others had failed.

Stassen says that South Africa’s existing banks had never transformed to align with the cultural diversity of the country.

“So we saw that as quite a key opportunity for us to create that cement with our customer base,” he says.

Stassen and his team were approached by PSG Holdings, a company owned by South African millionaire investor Jannie Mouton, to manage PSG Specialized Lending, its micro-lending company focused on low-income customers. The name was changed to Capitec and the bank listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2002.


It was no easy road for Capitec. The start-up capital was R250 million ($28 million), it listed with net assets of just under R400 million ($45 million), at R2 (around 2 US cents) a share. Within three months its market capitalization dropped to just under R50 million ($5.6 million).

The first few years of Capitec’s life were dedicated to developing an application platform that could handle high-volume, low-value transactions, efficiently and at a lower cost.

The system is run from Bellville—a small town just outside of Cape Town. From there the bank runs the administration that usually takes place at branch level, shifting the branch focus to its customers. The last fundamental of the technology component is the ability to conduct all processes in real time.

The bank uses fingerprint biometrics to counter fraud and is currently testing new ATMs fitted with the system. Capitec is also the first bank in South Africa to allow coin deposits at ATMs, further evidence of its focus on low-income customers.


Stassen says other South African banks are rife with high costs, lack of transparency and confusing jargon.

“We believe what a person needs from a bank is to move money, to park money and to get money,” he says.

Capitec’s solution to this is its Global One account—a single account that can be used for transactions, including online purchases, as a savings vehicle and as a way to apply for credit. Customers can get up to R230,000 ($25,700) in cash within minutes of applying for a loan. This amount is determined by an affordability assessment based on their monthly cash flow and is repayable over one to 84 months, also based on personal ability. The interest paid, 17% to 28%, also depends on the individual’s credit profile.

A big bone of contention in South Africa has been unsecured lending. In the past, borrowers were required to secure a loan with collateral. With unsecured lending, clients do not need this security, “In South Africa nowadays unsecured lending has become a swearword, and that’s absolute nonsense,” says Stassen.


He points out that as far as Capitec is concerned, it’s not about the assets a person has, but their cash flow.

“There are 20 million active credit clients in South Africa. There are 1.8 million credit clients who have any form of home finance, a mortgage grant. Only 1.8 [million]. So what are the other 18 million people doing to improve their standard of living?” asks Charl Nel, the head of strategic communications at Capitec.

Few deny the fact that South Africa, like most of the world, is a consumption-driven society as opposed to a saving one, or that defaults are part of the territory, but as it currently stands, over 95% of Capitec’s book is current. Despite citizens’ household debt often being greater than disposable income, according to Capitec’s interim results from September, its number of arrears had decreased to 4.4%.

“The profile of our credit client is definitely changing as we are seeing new credit clients with higher income levels attracted to our offer,” the interim report says.


According to a report by South Africa’s National Credit Regulator, unsecured credit in the first quarter of 2012 grew by 49.4% year-on-year. This is a rate far higher than any of the other types of credit.

Capitec has millions of customers, and Stassen attributes the bank’s success to widespread discontent with the big four banks among their customer base, as well as its strong proposition to customers. His is the first bank in South Africa to be open on Sundays, a move that persuaded one of its large competitors, Nedbank, to follow suit.

“We had to think a lot on our feet. We change things a lot. What we thought was going to work had to be changed slightly. And often in a very old, stale, established organization you get resistance and that’s dangerous because people kind of trip up the process,” says Nel.

How does the bank manage to make money and a success out of low-cost banking, especially when they have kept their prices unchanged for the past three years? As most business minds know, you can only undercut your competitors for so long before it becomes costly. Stassen says Capitec could only be priced significantly lower than their opponents if they took smaller margins or lowered their cost structure. Their solution appears to be running the bank like a production line.


“Stassen is an exceptional CEO. One of the best that I’ve come across because since he joined Capitec we’re really focused. They developed a great computer system and it’s a great success,” says Mouton.

Stassen admits that they were initially ignored by the bigger banks because they started off as a micro lending organization. When they began to look beyond this; their competitors believed their primary focus would be on the unbanked and the lower income market. Then around two years ago the more established banks started to take notice.

Capitec now has around 9% of South Africa’s banking market share and their most important objective is to attract primary banking accounts, those into which salaries are directly deposited. The bank also plans to launch a credit card at the end of this year.

The interim results stated that Capitec’s transaction fee income for the first six months of the financial year grew by 61% to R583 million ($65 million) year-on-year. Headline earnings per share grew by 35% to R7.02 ($0.80). Income from credit was R3.6 million ($403,000), which the bank says is due to growth in the unsecured credit market.

The management team at Capitec had been part of a share incentive scheme, allowing them to buy into the company. Last year, there were numerous reports and speculation as to Capitec’s health and suggestions that its captain, Stassen, was abandoning ship, and that other executives were offloading their shares too. When asked about it Stassen says: “It was very bad reporting”.

The truth of the matter is that Stassen sold most of the shares in his own name but that 95% of his investment in the bank is held by a company in his family trust. The private investment company owns more than R400 million ($44.8 million) worth of shares.

“I believe it’s extremely dangerous for executives to be over-extended to the company they run,” says Stassen.

He says this is because, when executives become over-exposed, they start making short-term decisions and manipulate numbers to protect the share price.

Last year, Capitec sought to raise funds through a rights issue, which increased the bank’s capital base by R2.25 billion ($252 million). The funds were for the extension of the branch network, with 55 to 75 new branches proposed for this year, and to increase lending.

Earlier this year PSG sold off some off its stake in Capitec to repay debt incurred in the purchasing of approximately R724 million ($81 million) from the rights issue last year. PSG’s stake in Capitec has dropped from 32.2% to 28.5%, and the company says it will not be selling off any more of its shares.

Then in February, the South African Public Prosecutor confirmed that it will launch a formal investigation into a black economic empowerment deal, from 2011, resulting in a consortium with ties to the country’s ruling party acquiring nearly R1 billion ($122 million) worth of Capitec shares. Nel says they will cooperate fully with the investigation.

Capitec is currently focusing on South Africa but will start identifying opportunities in other countries on the continent. Its long-term goal has always been to internationalize its banking model. Infrastructure is however a concern as the bank is highly reliant on technology. As the fastest growing retail bank in South Africa for individuals, winner of Africa’s Top 100 JSE Companies for the second time, forging into an under-tapped market and making the big dogs follow suit, could mean Capitec will lose its underdog title.

Goliath may not be down and out yet, but he is certainly taking notes on David.