Maria Ramos led the Absa group through some of the most tumultuous milestones, including the meltdown of the South Africa economy. Photo: Reuters

JOHANNESBURG – Absa chief executive Maria Ramos is to retire from the banking group next month, leaving behind a legacy characterised by a successful separation from UK-based Barclays Plc.

Ramos led the group through some of the most tumultuous milestones, including the meltdown of the South Africa economy, which put enormous pressure on financial institutions amid the global financial crisis.

However, her 10-year tenure at the helm of one of South Africa's biggest banks also attracted controversy that saw some senior black executives leaving the group.

In a surprise move, Absa announced yesterday that Ramos would leave the lender at the end of February, after she had turned 60.

Absa shares rose 6.08 percent to close at R186.28 on the JSE on news of Ramos’ pending departure.

The group said René van Wyk, the group’s current independent non-executive director, would take over as the interim chief executive from March.

“She (Ramos) had indicated a desire to step down earlier, but agreed to see the group through the separation negotiations with Barclays Plc, the ensuing sell-down and key separation milestones, including (Barclays) Plc achieving regulatory deconsolidation and refreshing Absa’s brand identity,” Absa said. 

“With the separation on track and our new strategy as a standalone financial institution in place, Maria feels that this is the right time for her to retire.”

One of Ramos’ biggest casualties was Phakamani Hadebe, the current chief executive of ailing state-owned power utility Eskom. 

In 2017 Hadebe, who was then the head of client services at Absa Corporate and Investment Banking, and was touted as Ramos’ possible successor, left the banking group after he was allegedly overlooked for a promotion to the position of head of corporate and investment banking.

Hadebe cited personal reasons for his abrupt resignation but insiders pointed to cooled relations with Ramos. Other black executives and staffers also accused Ramos of favouritism, a claim she vehemently denied.

Ramos, a one-time Transnet chief executive and National Treasury director-general, also had to deal with thawed relations with the ANC when tensions escalated between supporters of former President Jacob Zuma and those who wanted him to go.

Among Zuma's fiercest critics was Ramos’s husband and former finance minister, Trevor Manuel.

Absa also lost a sizeable chunk of its market share to its rivals.

Graeme Korner, a portfolio manager at Korner Perspective, commended Ramos for managing the separation from Barclays Bank.

“She managed a large and unwieldy bank through a difficult economic and political environment in South Africa,” said Korner, adding that Ramos also had the difficult task (in the early years) of aligning Absa to their Barclays parents and more recently overseeing the separation from Barclays.

“While Absa lost ground in some key areas (eg retail banking) to their competitors over the past few years, Ramos oversaw the building of a more balanced bank (with significant improvements),” he said.

In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) singled out Ramos as the only female chief executive of the Top 40 JSE listed companies.

Her leadership has been recognised after being invited to be a member of the highly influential institution Group of Thirty (G30). The G30 aims to deepen understanding of international economic and financial issues. It was founded in 1978. Membership of the G30 is by invitation only.

Nesan Nair, a senior portfolio manager at Sasfin Securities, said the market had welcomed the news, given the jump in the share price.

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