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Banking Association South Africa – Bankable results

Headed by Managing Director Cas Coovadia, the Banking Association South Africa seeks to maintain stability by embracing change. As the mandated representative of the banking sector, theirs are the shoulders upon which the country’s banking stands – an industry that, in turn, supports the country as a whole. Whilst a small group in terms of staff, the Banking Association South Africa’s reach and influence is vast, as is the responsibility of their role: Endeavour caught up with the association to take a closer look at how they handle their calling.

The Banking Association South Africa (BASA) exists as a go-between for South Africa’s government and its banks. However, in reality, there is also a third essential voice that they bring to the conversation: South Africa itself. Between politicians and stakeholders, one might expect BASA to advise these two power-groups without much thought to the impact on the South African people, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. With a focus on accessibility, inclusiveness and change, MD Cas Coovadia has taken BASA against the grain of what we expect from the banking world. The result? Amazingly, more stable business for their members. That’s right – it seems that good banking pays.

In its own words, BASA is “an industry body that aims to build a positive banking environment for consumers and banks. It addresses industry issues through advocacy; guiding transformation in the sector; acting as a catalyst for constructive and sustainable change; and engaging with critical stakeholders.” It works closely with its members to advise on issues facing the sector, and to lobby the government to make them aware of the bank’s needs. It also stays aware of how banking can impact the country in a positive way, as Cas elaborated: “BASA manages various committees that advise our executive on issues pertinent to the sector. For instance, we have affordable housing, agriculture, SMME, debtor financing and property finance committees among many more.”

BASA is aware of the demands on its position and holds itself to the highest standards in order to meet them. This includes monitoring the quality of its staff, the efficiency of its communication systems and the way in which BASA represents itself and its members to South Africa as a whole. As it states on its website: “We are an organisation that exists to contribute to the enablement of a conducive banking environment. Part of this responsibility is to ensure that we participate at the highest-level of decision making in the country. To this end, The Banking Association South Africa has structured and organised itself to ensure effective participation in cabinet and its executive through the calibre of people and leadership that interact with Government at various levels.”

When it was initially established in 1992, BASA was a different animal. In fact, it was four animals: The Association of Mortgage Lenders, The Merchant Bankers Association, The Clearing Bankers Association and The Association of General Banks. These four separate associations worked cooperatively under the name ‘the Council of South African Banks’ (COSAB), but they did not become one official entity until 1998. When merged, the new association was named The Banking Council South Africa, until 2005 brought a complete re-structuring, re-naming and new leadership. That new MD was Cas Coovadia, and the entity was the beginning of BASA as it stands today.

With a pressing need for professionalism, BASA needed quality in every member of staff, and a clear head at the helm. Coovadia was a natural choice – having previously worked closely with his predecessor, he was able to bring a fresh approach to leadership whilst building organically from the foundation of BASA’s past. He seized the opportunity to re-invent how the association worked: as a sector, banking has a reputation for being resistant to change, but in order to keep up with South Africa’s evolving needs and best support its members in responding to them, the new MD ruled that stagnancy and complacency were not an option. Going further still, he made sure that BASA’s focus was not simply on its members, but on their customers, helping one by protecting the other:

“We work with government and other stakeholders to ensure inclusion in banking, so that as many people as possible in our country have access to some form of banking service.”

It seems a simple aim, but it is one that banks can, in honesty, overlook, but Coovadia is on a mission to prove that fair and successful banking can work hand in hand. He was no stranger to working towards change before his position as MD, either; “I have a lifelong commitment to civic issues, including as an activist within the United Democratic Front during the anti-apartheid struggle and as a founder member of the SA National Civics Organisation.” It is an attitude that has seen him through 12 successful years as BASA’s MD, and they have been successful for South Africa, too.

“With banks being so closely integrated into the economy, the interests of our members are aligned to the economic fortunes of the country,” Cas explains. “Following recent political developments, we are extremely positive about policy indications and appointments within state-owned enterprises. We look forward to working with government in helping to shape an exciting period of clear, growth-friendly policies that boosts confidence in South Africa even further and helps drive development in the interests of all South Africans, particularly the poorest of the poor. We see inclusive growth as the key to overcoming poverty, inequality and unemployment and we see a new political environment taking shape where that can accelerate.”

Globally, banking hit a crisis in 2008 and 2009. However, thanks in part to the support and advice of the association, a proactive and efficient regulator and relatively conservative banking practice, South Africa’s banks faired surprisingly well: “SA boasts the second most sound banking sector in the world. Our banks are well capitalised and amongst the best in the world. This is borne out by the fact that our banks weathered the 2008/9 financial crisis and not a single bank experienced any liquidity or capital problems.”

This statement in itself suggests a link between inclusive banking and stability. Whatever the cause, it’s inarguably an impressive boast! “The South African banking sector, despite being a concentrated sector, is still competitive and continues to diversify its products and broaden its services according to international best practice. Currently the South African banking sector is comprised of 17 registered banks, two mutual banks, 14 local branches of foreign banks, two co-operative banks and 43 foreign banks with approved local representative offices.” This isn’t to say that economics in South Africa are problem free. Like most of the world, the truth is far from it, and this is bound to have an impact on banks, however stable: “The current economic issues we have in South Africa don’t provide a conducive environment for banks, because the volumes of bank business are limited by the pedestrian economic growth and lack of investment, which in turn is constrained by a poor environment for investment. However, even in this difficult environment, our banks remain sound, stable and solid, and ensure the safety of depositor funds.”

Instigating change in an industry must happen on many fronts – as well as influencing his 35 – member banks and lobbying the government, Coovadia needed to create change at home. He knew that to keep ideas fresh, he could not ignore the potential of young employees: “Always try to encourage young talent and develop it. We take in interns every year and expose young people to the industry. We also try to promote from within wherever possible, bearing in mind that we have a relatively flat structure.” Offering their staff learning and promotion opportunities is essential to the MD; to encourage an attitude of offering inclusiveness and opportunity to the bankers of South Africa, he must offer the same to his staff. “BASA strives to be a caring organisation. We encourage staff development and, as far as our budget permits, we contribute towards training and studies of staff, provided this is of relevance to the position. Staff get a maximum of 10 days’ study leave per annum for graduate qualifications and 13 days for post-graduate qualifications. ”

Coovadia is no fool – by valuing the idea of brand and corporate vision, mingled with a personal and genuine investment in his staff, he has created an entity where employees can be proud to work, and will pass that positivity and zeal on to their members. When asked his philosophy regarding leadership, he responded with “Humility, morality, ethics and servant leadership” – it isn’t a common answer, but it one that has served him and South Africa well. As always, he has a slate of plans moving forwards to improve awareness and communication between the groups BASA interact with, and with every step, to continue the mission he began 12 years ago. It’s a breath of fresh air to see, and an attitude that we hope will catch on!