TWO months ago, Standard Lesotho Bank (SLB) appointed Anton Nicolaisen its new chief executive officer. Mr Nicolaisen came in to fill the void left by Kenrick Cockerill, who died on 20 October 2020. The Lesotho Times’(LT) this week sat down with Mr Nicolaisen to hear his thoughts on his appointment so far. In the interview, he shares his profound admiration for the transition that the Standard Bank Group is going through, the digitisation processes that SLB is going through as well as his dream for the bank in Lesotho. Below are the excerpts of the interview.
LT: It has been two months since your appointment as chief executive officer (CEO) of SLB. What are your impressions so far?
Mr Nicolaisen: Since taking over the SLB, my first impression is that we have world class customers who are deeply proud of the brand. The second thing that I also picked up quite quickly, in terms of my engagement with the staff, is that we have an immensely talented team of people. Thirdly, we have a good branch network and have a good IT infrastructure that we have invested heavily in the last three years. So, I get the impression that we’re actually sitting with an organisation that is well entrenched within the country with loyal customers, talented people and good infrastructure. It is an organisation that is well positioned for the future.
LT: You are an alumna of Greys College, tell us more about your background.
Mr Nicolaisen: I was born and bred in Bloemfontein, Free State. I was privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to attend Greys College. I learnt a lot from the school and they molded me into who I am today. I did my tertiary at Free State University where I studied Bachelor of Commerce in Economics. I did my internship with Standard Bank and my first job was as a switchboard operator. Soon after graduation, I joined the bank in August 1989. I then went on a development programme, and I was attached to various units through the 1990s. I got my first branch manager appointment in 1996. And in those days, branch managers had the mandate to take care of the customer. I was quite ambitious, I wanted to be the youngest appointee. I’m quite a competitive person, I must acknowledge. I stayed in Bloemfontein until 2003. In that period, I also did my Masters through the Business School of the Free State. In 2005 I was appointed area manager and then regional manager of the Northern Cape. Between late 2007 and early 2008, I moved to Gauteng where I took multiple roles. I was in the frontline looking after various regions. I also looked after the branch network around the country.
In 2013, I moved back to the Free State taking up the role of provincial aid. In 2016 Northern Cape was added to my portfolio and that’s until I came to Lesotho.
LT: So, you have been with Standard Bank your whole career, what have you learnt?
Mr Nicolaisen: I have been in the Standard Bank Group my whole career. There’s something fundamental for me that I always cherish within the Standard Bank Group. The values of the organisation align with me.
One thing I also learnt in this journey is that there are people who touched me and now I have a responsibility to touch other people. One of my previous executives introduced me to formal coaching. She is a qualified coach. After working with her, that’s when I realised my intense passion for coaching.
And I think it’s one of the things that I also would like to do. If you think about the bank, you have got rules and regulations that you must adhere to. It is more of a command and control environment. For youths and people who are starting their careers, it’s a different philosophy. Command and control will not work for them. You need coaching to ensure that you bring people with you and help them. You must also create an environment of independence for your workers. But coming from that culture of command and control to go to that new culture of coaching it’s a journey. You cannot just switch off the slides to say tomorrow we will be having a new culture.
I am married to Sornet, who is a professional nurse. We have two children, a son who is twenty-three and a daughter who is twenty.
LT: You came in at a critical time when there is a general recession and slow growth in the region and in Lesotho. What is your vision for the bank given this environment of Covid-19 pressures?
Mr Nicolaisen: With every crisis, there is always an opportunity. The first thing for me is our customers. It’s about offering excellent, consistent customer experience and being proactive in our engagement with our customers in solving problems for our customers. The second is our journey on technology and the digitisation of SLB.
I think over the last three years, the team did well in terms of setting up digitisation. I think technology will also create the ability to be more inclusive. It will ensure that we can serve customers in the rural areas in a cost-effective manner. Then the development of small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs) sector and putting solutions for small business as these are going to be key to the growth of our economy. We are working on solutions that we want to put in place to make funding accessible and safe. Imagine what a small vendor can do with a working capital of M30 000. They can double if not triple their stock holding and turnover and their ability to serve their customers. So, my vision is about customer experience and business that is at the fore-front of innovation and technology and supported by quality and a strong team.
LT: You are coming from a Standard Bank Group background, can you characterise the SLB culture?
Mr Nicolaisen: Firstly, I have a deep respect for our current group CEO, Sim Tshabalala. I think he’s unbelievable banker. But more importantly an unbelievable person and leader. I think that ever since he became the group CEO, one thing that Sim has been trying to do is to say how do we move the culture of this organisation from a conservative organisation, to an innovative organisation that is at the forefront of its industry. It’s really a journey that we’ve been on as a group. And I think the one thing that has also happened is that the pandemic and the world tilting in terms of technology made us realise that we needed to accelerate.
How does that match to a country? I think, the group is deeply respectful towards the local boards, towards the local nuances and the group is very specific to say, yes, there are certain fundamentals within the group that will always be the same in terms of standardisation and principles but the importance is each country is different. And the nuances of that country must always stay. We must understand that we are operating in Lesotho, we are part of a bigger group but the culture that we have in-country must be respected. We must appreciate it and we must build that culture within with the support of the group.
LT: SLB is the biggest bank in Lesotho by balance-sheet and revenue. Is this added pressure or advantage to pick-up the leadership baton of such an organisation?
Mr Nicolaisen: No. I have to say, I am competitive. I take it as a challenge. I think the biggest threat for a financial institution like ours is this disintermediation. If you just think about it you’ve got Samsung Pay and Apple Pay, you have micro lenders that are chipping away from you. So, it’s a real challenge. Being the sizeable bank that we are comes with responsibility. And I accept the responsibility and importance of that. However, there are benefits. The question is how do we leverage of size for the benefit of our customers because we’ve got the ability to invest and do certain things that truly can make them stand up.
And how do we then adjust to mitigate the risk posed by disintermediation? We have the benefit of being part of a large group such as the Standard Bank Group that has global perspective and international network that we can leverage to protect ourselves.
Being part of a larger group, actually puts us on a good foundation to grow. Over the next couple of months, you will see a lot of new products coming through, once we get approval from the Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL), to help us counter all this new technology coming in from Fintechs. We are also embracing the big tech and Fintech environment. Standard Bank Group has actually bought some of these fintech companies and onboarded. So, you need to be an open system and not a closed system to onboard these systems with full understanding that there needs to be regulatory and compliance implications.
I therefore, think the biggest thing for me being the biggest bank is to protect what we have and look after our customers, to create value for our customers and to give consistency of customer experience.
LT: You are speaking of digitisation, is this a direct response to the disintermediation you are facing with the mobile money, Fintechs and low-cost banking?
Mr Nicolaisen: First we must acknowledge that competition not sitting, they are also innovating and moving ahead. The bank invested a lot of money in the core banking system that enabled flexibility, agility and stability. This also allowed us to build products that are innovative, cost effective and products that will make us competitive. One thing we must always recognise is that we always start with the customer in mind. We then solve for what the customer needs, then we will be competitive. We will not say what do we need to do to protect the bank.
LT: What timeframes are you looking at in transitioning the bank to digital?
Mr Nicolaisen: The important point to note is that we would like to be disruptors. We would like to be an agile organisation. For an organisation that is used to taking too long to bring products to market, we are adopting a test and learn culture to bring products quickly to market. We also need to ensure that our structures are aligned to that goal. And lastly, the group and Lesotho are deploying robotics to enable consistency and efficiencies. This is an ongoing process and there are no timeframes for that.
LT: How are you managing internal expectation so that staff are not afraid of the impact of digitisation.
Mr Nicolaisen: Firstly, we must position technology as an enabler not as a threat. Similar exercises in South Africa had tellers retrained as customer consultants because of the reduction of branch traffic. It took up to 18 months to upskill the staff. So, you have to be pro-active and start upskilling the staff now and continuously train them as the transition happens.
LT: How do you spend your free time; do you have any hobbies?
Mr Nicolaisen: I love spending time with my family. I used to be a middle-distance runner but now I run purely on social basis. I also love coaching and maybe one day I will coach a few athletes. I also love reading.
LT: What would you like to leave as your legacy?
Mr Nicolaisen: It is my dream to handover this great institution in better place than I got it. This is in respect of the people that gave it to me. Secondly, I would like to have a bank in Lesotho that the community and people of Lesotho would be proud of, modern, innovative, a bank of its time. And lastly something that is important and personal, I would like to hand the baton over to a Mosotho.