Hard work and good luck: Mike Brown’s journey to the top

“Hard work is absolutely central, but alongside, you need a good deal of good luck.” That is how Nedbank CEO Mike Brown described his rise to the top of his profession.

Brown is South Africa’s longest-serving banking CEO, having held the position for 13 years.

For Brown, “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree”, as his grandfather, father, and uncle were bankers.

However, it did not start this way. After performing well in school, he went to the University of Natal to become a chartered accountant (CA).

Only during his three years as an article clerk at Deloitte was he put on a team that audited – amongst other companies – banks.

Brown was immediately drawn to the complex, fast-growing, and ever-changing nature of financial services. 

When the three years were up, Brown followed in his family’s footsteps and joined the Natal Building Society (NBS) – a small Durban bank that was among the companies Brown audited during his time at Deloitte.

He joined NBS in 1993 and has not left the company since. NBS later merged with Boland Bank to become NBS Boland, which then merged with the Bank of England (BoE).

Finally, in 2004, the group was acquired by Nedbank and fully integrated into the organisation. The same year, Brown took over as the bank’s chief financial officer (CFO).

Only a few years later, in 2010, Brown was appointed Nedbank CEO – a position he holds to this day.

What leadership looks like

Brown succeeded Tom Boardman, the former CEO to whom he was close and learned much from.

The two shared similar ideals for the company and a belief that “the best organisations in the world are vision-led and value-driven”.

Brown believes the key role of any leader is to choose the right team and, “once you have the right people on the bus”, to set the high-level vision strategy for the organisation.

He thinks carefully about what is needed for success in an organisation and believes it comes down to the correct combination of IQ and EQ.

A company’s leader should be accountable for the culture and values of an organisation.

Hard work and good luck

For Brown, “there is little substitute for an enormous amount of hard work” – something he has kept with him throughout his life and career.

Brown was a top performer in school and university. He was also the best final-year student in his postgraduate year.

To this day, Brown thoroughly prepares for meetings to set himself up for success.

However, he also acknowledges the role “a good deal of good luck” plays in success and says he tries to make the most of opportunities.

For example, Brown took over as CEO of Nedbank at a critical time in the banking industry – only two years after the global financial crisis of 2008.

This put capital, liquidity and “all of those things that were central to the financial crisis” top of mind for all company boards at the time.

Brown also says his “hugely supportive” wife and homelife helped him get to where he is now, allowing him to put in the hours required to succeed.

Today, Nedbank is one of South Africa’s largest banks, and Brown is South Africa’s longest-serving banking CEO.

He is also the deputy chairperson of Business Leadership South Africa and a director and former chairperson of the Banking Association South Africa.

In 2020, his peers voted him the Business Leader of the Year at the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies Awards.