Monday, October 26, 2020

Becoming an eagle

The steady hand that has steered the ship at Barclays Bank of Botswana for the past 15 months belongs to a man who became a banker almost by default.

Aupa Monyatsi’s career began at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he used to intern while still at varsity. On graduation, the firm took him in as a trainee accountant.

“I was fortunate to audit large financial institutions, one of them being Barclays,” he recalls. “For two years, I audited Barclays Bank of Botswana. Because I was the guy auditing them they probably thought, ‘why don’t we bring in this guy to be part of the operations team?’.”

He was contacted by the bank’s recruiting agency, and officially became a banker in 2005 as Deputy Head of Operations under the Chief Operating Office. Three years later he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer, the post he held until he was made Interim Managing Director last year.

He calls the experience of the last 15 months a “mixed bag”. There have been challenging interactions with internal and external stakeholders, and tough calls to be made. The single most important lesson has been that behind every organisation or formation is a human person. This goes for customers, unions, colleagues as well as the regulator. Appreciation of the other person is what now informs how he navigates his way around the many interests and expectations that come with the job.

“I regard people as human beings, and I appeal to them as human beings,” he says. “It’s such a powerful thing. Take unions, for instance. They are a positive partner if you engage with them as partners and human beings. I respect them as human beings with fears and aspirations. I find it easier to partner with them now than before.”

At a time when the world economy is still going through what is perhaps the most difficult period since the Great Depression, Monyatsi remains the quintessential optimist, albeit a cautious one. He does not see the current phase as a difficult time to be a banker.

A man who chooses his words carefully, he calls it an “interesting time”. By this, he is not downplaying the magnitude of the problem. He acknowledges the uncertainty that still prevails in the major economies, and the knock-on effect it has on a global player such as Barclays. There is also an acceptance that Botswana is not immune from the crisis. He admits that Botswana still has some signs of a stressed economy, although the outlook is not very gloomy.

Talk in the market these days has been dominated by the effect of impending entrance of new players. Even without new entrants, competition has been quite stiff, which required banks to be even more innovative to develop new products. Monyatsi’s view on the growing competitiveness of the financial services sector is that though tough on the individual players, competition is necessary and good for the economy and consumers.

“As Barclays, we are cognizant that people will try to buy out our talent and customers. We have to be prepared for that,” he says.

Being innovative sometimes means conscious decisions that are costly on the business in the short-term to ensure long term sustainability. Monyatsi states that when the local economy experienced a very difficult time in 2011, the bank made a tough decision meant to alleviate pressure on the average customer who was feeling the burden of a recession. What Monyatsi calls a bold move entailed abolishing fees for ATM transactions, as well as reducing other service charges. The cost to the business was P40 million, and it ate into the bank’s profit.

“That came at a time when banks were under pressure to deliver, but we understood that we are a people’s bank,” Monyatsi says. “Fortunately, we have a supportive board and shareholders who share the view that we have to take care of our customers so that we are not fair weather friends.”

He believes that the decision paid off as Barclays has managed to retain its position as the leader in Botswana’s financial services centre. His promise is that having weathered the storms and thus far consolidated, the bank is poised for success as a transformed business that provides a good return on equity to its shareholders.

He talks about his pride at being part of an organisation that addresses something close to his heart ÔÇô financial inclusion.

“As banks we have responsibility to take Batswana to the next economic strata. As a bank, we have to stay true to principle of financial inclusion by taking services to previously unbanked communities,” he says.

Once again he makes reference to the need for innovation. In this case, it was in the realization that brick and mortar structures are not the only way to provide banking service. Over the past few years, the bank has commissioned hi-tech remote channels, which have the twin advantages of being convenient and cheaper than conventional banking.

As he casts his eyes beyond the horizon, Monyatsi believes the sector can still do more to compliment government’s economic diversification programme. He believes agriculture offers an opportunity to do just that.

The question that he believes decision-makers across the banking sector should exercise their minds on is how to assist farmers such that agriculture’s contribution to GDP increases significantly.
“Farmers are hardworking and honest people, and giving them an opportunity to contribute to the economy is something we need to strive for,” he says.

Being part of a global entity that has to adapt to local conditions presents challenges and opportunities. Monyatsi sees more advantages than drawbacks. He gives the example of security features for electronic banking.

“We are able to take world class security features developed by other franchises within the group and deploy them in Botswana. This differentiates us from other banks that are not as global as we are,” he says. “When smaller banks invent wheels all the time, we replicate wheels that have been invented within our global group. We have access to talent and expertise spread across the world. And unlike other banks, our colleagues at Barclays Bank of Botswana have access to 130 000 global jobs anywhere in the world where our brand operates in.”

So how often has the auditor in him come out over the past 15 months?

“That comes to play every day,” he replies. “It especially came in handy over the past 15 months. Being an auditor helps to unpack issues and understand root cause of certain shortcomings, and think of sustainable interventions. Being able to step back and make an objective and independent assessment of the business is a key competency I learnt from my auditing days.”

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