Fifteen years ago, a book about South Africa’s top 50 black “champions of change” described Fani Titi as “an intensely private man” who had “managed to remain out of the limelight”.
The limelight has certainly found him since. As chief executive of Investec, his private story has become public property, and almost as much part of the financial services company’s brand as its ubiquitous zebra logo. His journey from poverty in rural South Africa to a City boardroom is the subject of multiple corporate videos, in which he appears as the living epitome of Investec’s slogan “out of the ordinary”.
Pure marketing apart, Titi has a simple explanation for his earlier reticence and for his willingness now to talk about his early life and career. His childhood in South Africa was distorted by discrimination and “dehumanisation”, he says. “Coming out of that background, necessarily most people will be reserved and there will be a sense of inadequacy. And as I got more educated, got more exposed and achieved a bit more, you come out of your shell, naturally,” he says.
Now, he sees his tale of success as a way of inspiring young people from diverse and poor backgrounds: “So I tell my story because I think it can make a huge difference to a lot of youngsters who are sitting and feeling doubtful of their own capacities.”
There is another reason why his story is now better known — it is extraordinary. As the son of farm workers, one of the middle children in a family of 14, he might have aspired to be a tractor driver. But Titi seized every opportunity to change his destiny. After grasping the chance to attend high school and university, he won a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US, at Berkeley, before he returned to his home country as a maths lecturer. Restless for more, he demonstrated his appetite for calculated risk by cashing in his pension and savings in his early thirties and embarking on an MBA and a business career.
Titi saw it as a question of personal resource allocation: “If I wanted to really change things and make an impact, I would have to work with people and through people.”
With the end of apartheid in the 1990s, and a new emphasis on black economic empowerment, he was well placed to build a career as a private equity investor in the new South Africa. Reversing the usual trajectory from executive to non-executive, his portfolio career led him to the board of Investec, then co-chair of the group, and, in 2018, to co-chief executive, succeeding co-founders Stephen Koseff and Bernard Kantor.
At the time, Titi was considering a return to private equity “where I would have a lot more control in a smaller environment”. But in taking on the challenge of Investec, he saw another opportunity to make a bigger impact at the head of a more complex company, dual-listed in South Africa and the UK, with businesses, at the time, in fund management, specialist banking and wealth management.
Investec remains a small vehicle for change compared with many multinational banks, however, and an early decision by Titi and his co-chief executive Hendrik du Toit was to make the platform even smaller. In 2020, the asset management business (now called Ninety One after the year of its foundation) was spun off.
Investec South Africa’s $3.28bn of tier one capital makes it the fifth largest South African bank, according to The Banker’s latest ranking, though its best performer by other measures such as efficiency. Its UK bank is Britain’s 10th largest, with $2.94bn of tier one capital, but the group points out it is a relatively large wealth manager in both countries.
As chief executive, Titi was faced with a culture and structure that required painful surgery. Koseff had continued to run the company “in founder mode” as chief executive, Titi says, with Kantor as managing director. For all his talents, Koseff was “too entrenched in the belly of the beast and did not do some of the work [of] leadership, that of grooming people, giving them the room to develop, and literally making sure that the organisation can function without you on a day-to-day basis”.
By contrast, Titi, now sole chief executive of Investec Group, sees his priority as “leading people, influencing people, inspiring people, as opposed to being involved in the nitty gritty”. The culture now is one in which he tries to “enrol” colleagues in a shared strategy. The switch from a highly centralised model to more distributed leadership and a clearer strategy meant Investec was better placed to withstand the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, he says.
Still, the restructuring of the bank has required some difficult decisions. Since 2018, as well as demerging Ninety One, Investec has closed its UK “robo-adviser” service, Click & Invest, wound down its Australian operation, and laid off nearly 200, or about 12 per cent, of its London bank staff. Titi says all the decisions were communicated “openly, transparently, honestly” but Covid constraints meant he had to break the news to the Australia team via a 2.30am videocall from South Africa, rather than visiting Sydney in person. That decision “was probably the hardest because we couldn’t sit face to face with people to say, ‘These are the reasons why we are doing it. We think it’s in the best interests of the business as a whole.’”
But Titi fears the restructuring has also struck deep at the culture of trust that he believes underpins the company: “Investec has always acted like a family, so mass retrenchment was never something that we would countenance . . . Those were tough decisions and in essence also fractured this contract that we have with our people that we are a caring organisation.”
However justifiable the redundancies, and however humane their implementation, Titi says “anyone who does not worry about the impact of their decisions could be dangerous in terms of their impact on others and on society”.
But Titi says the group is still working to try to restore trust internally, “because once you’ve retrenched like we did, people wonder whether we have the commitment that we profess to have towards them”.
Titi has told colleagues that in the next three to five years there will be another leadership transition at the group. It is not an age thing. Even if there were some ceiling on his tenure, it would be hard to be sure when Titi would hit it. In the absence of a birth certificate, he invented a birthday — June 25, 1962 — by squaring his favourite number, five, and squaring it again.
One of his many optimistic maxims is that his most successful days lie in the future. So might he seek a larger platform for change — in politics, say, where his old business contact, Cyril Ramaphosa, is South African head of state?
Three questions for Fani Titi
Who is your leadership hero?
Naturally the answer is Nelson Mandela. He was a man of clear conviction, he had remarkable courage and commitment to go through with it. He also had a great realisation that the future is much more important than the past. He was focused on the possibilities that the future offered while he could have been preoccupied with the past.
What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?
Learn from the mistakes you make. If there is a piece of bad news, deal with it before the issue becomes bigger. Rather have a smaller problem upfront than a bigger problem later on.
What would you be if you were not running Investec?
I’d be in my private equity business working with management teams and supporting them to achieve their objectives. It would be the challenge of working with people that are bright, ambitious and being in a position to support their growth and achieve their objectives.
Titi is unsparing in his criticism of the president: “The presidency gives you a lot of resources that you can use to make a fundamental difference,” he says. “But it also requires a level of bold decision-making . . . where from time to time you can create enemies. I do not believe that he has had the courage to make the tough calls that would allow the country to move forward.”
Rather than politics, Titi sees his future as helping to promote new funding and development models for education, which was the key to all his subsequent success.
“The tragedy of a country like South Africa is that if you don’t start education early, by the time you make an intervention, it is literally too late.”
Titi has witnessed that tragedy first hand. He is the only one of his family to have risen as far, in education and in business. But he has played a leadership role within the family, paying forward the life chances he received by underwriting the schooling of his brothers’ and sisters’ children, as well as providing a good education for his own daughter.
The South African education system “continues to produce results that significantly harm the chances of the ordinary person to have a life that would be reasonable and decent,” he says. “With respect to my siblings, it was simply too late; with respect to their children, my nephews and nieces, they had a good shot at a decent life.”