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Simpiwe “Sim” Tshabalala

Standard Bank's Sim Tshabalala believes that Africa's banking industry must take on a more social role, channeling its power less towards profits and more towards helping its customers.

Once synonymous with hardship, racism and poverty, South Africa is now becoming a shining example of the transformational power of individuals. Simpiwe “Sim” Tshabalala, the joint-CEO of Standard Bank is one of them.

Showing a knack for banking and finance from early on, he now has four degrees under his belt, including one from Harvard Business School. Needless to say, just browsing through his achievements can be humbling. His career has taken him through both the legal and financial industries, working at Bowman Gilfillan as a candidate attorney and later as a professional assistant before moving on to Real Africa Durolink Investment Bank as executive director from 1998 to 2000.

He then shot up through the ranks of Standard Bank, quickly becoming the bank’s first black executive. After joining the finance division in 2000, he was appointed to the executive committee only a year later. His unrivaled professionalism and skills in managing tough situations were recognized by his nomination as deputy chief executive in 2009, and in 2013, he was named the co-chair of what is now Africa’s largest bank by market capitalization, with offices in 18 African countries. And he is only 46 years old.

Beyond the corporate world, the joint-CEO position he shares with Ben Kruger, has been cited as a testament to the improving status of racial relations in post-apartheid South Africa. According to the Chairman of the Black Business Executive Circle, Hlengani Mathebula, the ebony & ivory pair has helped, “restore confidence in big business for ordinary citizens,” and has crossed racial boundaries in a country plagued by its tumultuous past.

A more human-centric banking sector in Africa

At the head of Standard Bank’s African operations, he has nurtured his own philosophy on how the banking sector’s role should change and how it should become more human-centric. Like all socially conscious businessmen, he is led by a powerful vision of what the world should look like and how he can help bring about change. He contends that transformation is long overdue and that the old truisms that underpinned the financial system before the crisis no longer hold water.

Sim has identified four such ideas that have damaged the reputation and the stability of financial service providers, among which is the assumption that markets are always efficient and that the state should be left out of the economy. Such ideas have now become irrelevant, he thinks, especially for developing economies. The topsy-turvy roller-coaster ride that has marked the past years led to this paradigm change. The industry must take on a social role, channeling its power less towards profits and more towards helping its customers. The model, he says, can be just as profitable in the long-term.

Sensing the untapped potential Africa and embracing the challenges posed by the high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment, he has become a widely solicited thought leader in the emerging banking and finance sector. It is his firm belief that the banking sector can build a stronger and more equal Africa in the coming decade.

Where some see poverty, Sim sees hope for a better tomorrow: “[bankers] need to get the business [they] work in ever more deeply involved in the democratization of fina­­­­­­­nce.” Central to his philosophy is the conviction that low-income individuals must be given credit, whether to purchase a home or pursue their entrepreneurial ideas. More impressively, Sim has delivered on his philosophy. Under his watchful eye, Standard Bank has acquired more than one million customers in 2013, mostly in home loans, enabling it to grow more than its African competitors.

Sim’s admirable achievements have not changed his mild-mannered character. He is known to project a confident, cool-headed persona even in crisis situations. This is an example of a leader that has not forgotten the arduous road taken from his humble beginnings to the top of a very competitive industry, where there is little room for mistake.

What’s next in store for Sim? Given the challenges Africa faces, much is yet to be done and we can only assume that he has yet to reach the peak of his career.

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