Friday, August 12, 2022

BIHL should not take Sikalesele-Vaka lightly

On Wednesday, 18th of June 2014 former Chief Executive of the country’s biggest insurance group, Botswana Insurance Holdings Limited (BIHL), Regina Sikalesele-Vaka made a dramatic return to the insurance industry. She now owns and runs a life insurance company ÔÇô BramerLife. Having been at the helm of Botswana Life for years, Vaka rose through the ranks until her appointment as a founding Chief Executive of BIHL ÔÇô a post she held for a shorter period than one would have expected.

What is quite clear though is that boardroom brawls led to her premature exit at this blue chip company whose majority shareholding is held in South Africa. What also is on record is the fact that immediately after her appointment she assembled her executive team, in a manner which showed a deliberate bias towards attracting high calibre women to fill senior positions of all key divisions of the BSE quoted entity. This was very impressive looking at the fact that a number of them remain on those key positions to date.

For a refresher of what transpired during her last day as head of BIHL, one is tempted to quote Vaka’s swan song speech made in 2011 in which she revealed that Sanlam, which owns 53 percent of the company she was leading then has embarked on a “systematic release of excess capital by declaring dividends” that are likely to affect the future growth of the company. This was an exit speech by Vaka and to all it seemed like she was lost to the insurance industry and corporate world.

A well known fact in our country is that there are too few women of substance in executive positions, particularly in the corporate sector, and as such losing a woman of Vaka’s substance was a source of pain for many.

Those engaged in mentoring will tell you that it is difficult to nurture and grow talent that ultimately runs such big corporations like BIHL. Before 2011, Vaka was applauded for being brave at a time when the company lost a lot of people at top management due to frustration. But she later left as well and fast forward to December 2013, Vaka sealed a deal that could change her entire life, possibly have a positive effect on the domestic economy. One is tempted to say, three years down the line; Vaka is back with a bang and as such BIHL should be worried. However, just like me, BIHL and by extension Sanlam must be wondering if Vaka has taken things personal, given the latest hire to her fledgling business.

The story of Vaka reminds me of Bob Diamond, former Barclays Chief Executive who quit in 2012 in the wake of the LIBOR-rigging scandal, although it’s fair to say he was pushed as much as he jumped.

Diamond returned to the public markets last year with a remit to build a pan-African banking giant through his company Atlas Mara. The British banker teamed up with African billionaire entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar of Uganda to hunt for takeover targets, and for the past few months he has swooped for not one but two banks ÔÇô BancABC, which has operations in Botswana and five other SADC countries as well as one bank in Nigeria.

As for Vaka, in looking around for someone to walk the talk with, she identified the British American Investment group, one of the most innovative and dynamic investment holding companies in Mauritius. One is tempted to state that by going into a joint venture with a global insurance giant, British American Investment group, Vaka has just like Bob Diamond directly launched war against her former employer. BIHL shareholders should feel entitled to ask whether their own company, a giant in the insurance industry has a plan to counter the emerging threat from Vaka and her BramerLife. Will she poach top staff and clients? Will she pip her old employer to the most lucrative new opportunities? This is one situation worth keeping an eye on… The Bottom-line though remains that at the moment, BIHL is the bigger and ostensibly safer bet, but at the same time it should not take the new kid on the bloc lightly. From the speech Vaka gave on Wednesday, it seems she is a very proud woman and we dare challenge her not to allow herself to be slighted or disrespected, not even by the majority shareholder in this new joint venture. Vaka and her new company should focus on stimulating domestic economic growth rather than using much of the funds from here to develop other countries.

Vaka and her BramerLife must commit to the principles of good corporate governance and building a sustainable business in our country that benefits all citizens, including staff, clients, shareholders and the communities that it will be serving. As a shareholder and top manager, Vaka should not look back but rather accumulate wealth for herself, her family while at the same time not forgetting about her countrymen who are certainly going to form part of her clientele.

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