The woman running South Africa’s most valuable bank

Mary Vilakazi took the reigns as FirstRand CEO this April, completing her rise to the top of Africa’s most valuable banking group. 

FirstRand is the holding company of some of South Africa’s best-known financial institutions, such as FNB, Wesbank, and RMB. 

Vilakazi’s road to the top has been far from easy. She was born and raised in the Alexandra township in Gauteng – a stone’s throw away from the economic hub of Sandton. 

As with many financiers, it was not clear Vilakazi would pursue a career in banking or even in financial services, being inspired by her older brother to pursue human rights law. 

However, she won a Rotary scholarship to complete her education at a private school and subsequently received a bursary from the Coopers & Lybrand audit firm, now PwC, in South Africa. 

After completing a BCom at the University of the Witwatersrand, Vilakazi began work at PwC and trained to become a chartered accountant. 

Receiving her CA(SA) in 2002, she continued her career in auditing at the financial services firm and, at 27, became one of its youngest partners ever in 2008. 

She soon left PwC to become CFO of the Mineral Services Group, which fell upon hard times in the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Vilakazi remains a trustee of the company’s Zenzele Development Trust to this day. 

In 2009, Vilakazi joined the board of Momentum Metropolitan Holdings, one of South Africa’s largest insurers and financial services providers. 

At this time, she worked predominantly as a consultant and full-time board member, also serving on the boards of Kagiso Media, MS Group, Holdsport and the Development Bank of Southern Africa. 

Vilakazi was persuaded to give up her board positions and join Momentum full-time as the CEO of balance sheet management in 2014. 

She rapidly rose through the ranks at Momentum, becoming group finance director later that year and led a team of over 400 people. 

Within a year, Vilakazi joined the C-suite and became Momentum’s CFO. She soon became deputy CEO before her departure to FirstRand in 2018.

As CFO of FirstRand, Vilakazi has overseen the diversification of Africa’s most valuable banking group into insurance and asset management. 

She was also in charge of regulatory oversight and enterprise risk management across the group’s operations. 

In 2023, then-CEO Alan Pullinger decided to step down and retire. The bank appointed Vilakazi as his successor. 

FirstRand CEO Alan Pullinger

The future of FirstRand

FirstRand is in one of its strongest positions ever, with Sanlam Private Wealth’s Gary Davids saying it is markedly less sensitive to interest rate cuts than its peers. 

“In our view, the business offers stability, potential growth, and good returns at an attractive valuation,” he explained. 

While South Africa’s other large banks may have outperformed FirstRand during the period of rising rates, the current environment favours the group as interest rates are set to be cut later this year. 

Davids estimated that (all things being equal) a 1% cut in interest rates could see FirstRand’s headline earnings fall by only 2%, compared to 7% for Nedbank and 4.5% for Standard Bank.

The group also maintains a strong capital position, boasting a Common Equity Tier 1 ratio of 13.2%, comfortably above the 9% regulatory minimum set by the South African Reserve Bank. 

This surplus capital serves as a protective buffer against unforeseen losses or economic downturns.

Excess capital also offers the flexibility to seize growth opportunities, such as expanding into Africa, investing in innovative technologies and infrastructure or absorbing tighter regulation. 

Vilakazi has stated her intention to lead FirstRand’s African expansion efforts during her time leading the company. 

She told Bloomberg that FirstRand is considering numerous acquisition targets on the continent, some outside of traditional banking services. 

“Maybe there are other ways in which we can participate in financial services without necessarily setting up branches and having a banking license,” Vilakazi said.

The challenge is in finding possible targets at a reasonable price, she added. 

Both Standard Bank and Nedbank, which compete with FirstRand in their home market of South Africa, are moving to capitalise on the rapid economic growth that’s transforming many other countries on the continent.

While FirstRand already has units in the west and southern Africa, it is also looking at establishing itself in the east, including in Kenya.